It is 8:21AM in the morning and Wei Chen is drinking coffee in an office while he reviews paperwork. This will continue until 11:00AM when he will have an hour break for lunch. Upon returning, he will another hour to review his schedule and then check on the rest of the rangers, before meetings with first the Chief of Police and then the Mayor. After that, Chen will be on duty, patrolling the city as Marshal Steel just in case something goes wrong. And something will go wrong, because this is Los Diablos and today is a big day.
When the public dreams of being a Ranger, they don’t think about the paperwork, or the hours of boring, droning meetings, or the constant jockeying for funding and status amid a starved government system. But that’s okay, Chen, thinks. He was military. The military liked their paperwork too. Paperwork creates accountability. The Chief of Police can breath down his neck about how Lady Argent just caused $84,000 in property damage rampaging down a mall and Chen can pull out a file the thickness of a club sandwich and go over each and every crime, vandalism, and public disturbance Lady Argent has stopped and how much money in damages have been prevented.
The five seconds of silence after doing so are some of the most satisfying.
Of course, actually getting the other Rangers to file their paperwork is like pulling teeth. Ortega at least tries but as the previous Marshall really shouldn’t be making so many basic errors. Argent still refuses to see the value in it, even after it’s literally saved her job. Herald’s the only one to really approach the subject with any enthusiasm, perhaps… too much enthusiasm.
Hence, Wei Chen increasingly finds his days on the job eaten up, not by actively fighting crime and injustice, but in an office filing paperwork, bored to death by every second of it. Truly, Chen considers, heroism comes in many forms.
A manilla folder is shoved in front of his face, and Chen follows the silver hand grasping it up to Lady Argent’s metallic face. “It’s done, now stop bugging me about it.”
Chen takes the folder, flipping through it. When he finishes he puts the folder aside, on top of the ‘to-file’ pile. “This is a month late.”
Crossing her arms, Lady Argent leans back and stretches to her full height. “Are you going to give me a ‘F’, Chen? It’s done now. Every sordid little detail for your buddies in city hall.”
Chen sighs. It’s too early for the Argent Hour. He needs more coffee. “You know as well as I do that none of them actually read our reports.”
Lady Argent snorts and throws her hands up in the air, “Then it doesn’t matter, does it!” Before Chen can say anything, she storms off. “I’m going out on patrol now.” She says, not looking back.
Chen sighs into an empty coffee mug. Ever since the possession incident, Lady Argent has been on edge, irritable even for her standards. Not without justification of course, but this is one wound time does not seem to be healing. Ortega should have never brought in an outside consultant without discussing it with him first. Knowing that the alpha-level telepath, Locus, was behind the attack only opens up more questions.
Lady Argent is just as likely to kill the poor girl before the Rangers can get any meaningful answers out of her. And Chen needs those answers if he’s going to keep his team safe. And that’s to say nothing of just who Ortega brought in.
The woman with no paperwork. Who repeatedly refused to submit to a government background check. Presumably an assumed name, considering she looked more Irish than Greek if anything. No ties to anyone, be it friends or family. She seemed to be so obviously a spy of some kind it was almost insulting. And then Heartbreak happened, adding an entirely new category of questions.
Now she was back from seven years in the ‘grave’ with no explanation. Ortega just… found her in a diner like one finds a stray cat in an ally.
He was going to need more coffee.
Wei Chen is not ten feet from the break room when he realizes there’s a voice he doesn’t recognize, and he slows to a stop, running over every possibility in his head. A friend of Ortega’s? Someone from City Hall? Why hadn’t he been notified? Has the building been compromised?
Chen cocked an ear.
Was that singing?
It was. It has been hushed at first, but now had gotten louder. A little breathy and straining on the higher notes maybe, but..… Chen’s brow creased. It’s been a long time since he’s heard that voice sing.
“Oh yonder there's a ship on the ocean
And she does not know which way to steer
From the east and the west she's a-blowing
She reminds me of the charms of my dear.”
Chen briefly considers turning around and going back to his desk. Unfortunately, Wei Chen is Marshall, there’s no one else to pass the buck to. Handling two prickly mystery women in one day was a big ask. He doesn’t bother trying to be stealthy as he enters the break room. If it’s who he thinks it is, it wouldn’t make a difference.
And he’s right, it is who he thinks it is.
She stops signing before he can even turn at the doorway. The whole scene gives Chen an unsettling feeling. For a brief moment it’s almost like the last seven years haven’t happened. Then it fades, reality reasserts itself and there’s the ghost standing against the far window, staring back at him in the doorframe. Seven years older, and it shows; in the creases of the face. Dark circles under the eyes, no longer any effort put into her hair, clothes even shabbier then before.
“Can’t say I’m familiar with that one.” Chen offers in a neutral tone, diplomatic. No need to set her off, yet anyway.
He catches the briefest flash of surprise on Ariadne’s face before her expression hardens. “Come off it Chen.”
“For the record, I don’t think anyone actually minded your singing, back then.” Chen shrugs, then adds as an afterthought, “You were never very good at hiding it anyway. It was a pretty open secret.”
Ariadne’s glower darkens into a full on glare. “Just want do you want, Steel?”
Chen sighs, let the record show he tried. “Why are you here, Becker.”
Ariadne crosses her arms, leaning back against the glass. “Was seven years not enough for you, Steel? Were we shooting for a world record here?”
Chen’s mouth turns into a tight frown. “You know what I mean.”
It’s too early for this. Chen closes his eyes for a moment, then makes his way for the coffee machine. Hopefully there’s something still left in the pot. “I thought we had a mutual understanding that upon the conclusion of your consultation you would stay away from the Rangers.” He pauses, then adds, “considering your retirement.” The coffee pot is empty. Of course.
As Chen goes through the motions of setting up the machine for a fresh cup, he hears a snort from behind him. “Tell that to Julia.”
Chen glances back at Ariadne. “What was that?”
“I said tell that to Ortega, she’s the one that wanted to meet me here.”
“I’ll have a talk with Ortega about this, she–“
“No! I mean, um-” Ariadne’s voice trails off as Chen pours out a cup of ground beans into the filter. “Actually, I had something I needed to ask her too.”
Chen turns away from the coffee machine as it whirrs to life, sifting his focus back on the mystery woman. “You need advice. From Ortega.”
There’s a hint of color in her face as she scowls, “I never said it was advice.”
“Well you’re out of luck. Ortega won’t be in the office all day.”
The only sound cutting through the tense atmosphere is the coffee pot filling. Finally, Ariadne says, slowly, carefully, “did… did she say… why?”
“I told her to.” Chen states.
“That’s Ranger business.” Chen watches her face, Ariadne isn’t nearly the poker player she imagines herself to be, and Chen can tell her mind is running to twenty different places.
Finally she says, “It’s because of the Gala tonight, isn’t it.”
Chen doesn’t say anything. Tries not to think of anything. Instead focusing on the feeling of having a warm cup of coffee to hold.
“I thought so.” Ariadne taps her fingers along her arm. Did she pull it from his mind after all? Chen was never sure what to believe about the extant of her ability. The Nanosurge especially had suggested there was more going on there. “She tried to invite me, you know.”
Chen arcs an eyebrow. Underline that mental note to talk to Ortega tomorrow.
“You’ll be happy to know I turned her down. I’m done with this stuff.”
“And yet, you’re here.”
Ariadne doesn’t have anything to say to that.
Chen picks up his coffee mug, the steam pouring out the top. Without waiting for it to cool, he takes a drink, letting the hot liquid scald on its way down. Well. might as well make one last effort at an olive branch. “Do you need help?” Chen offers.
The response comes back a little too quickly. “No.” Ariadne makes a face. “Absolutely not.” Chen waits her out, silent. Then, finally, “Do you ever…” Ariadne purses her lips, searching for the right word, “do you ever feel like you’re making the wrong choice?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
Chen watches Ariadne stare down at her hands, a finger tracing patterns in her pant leg. “About like… what if one day you turned left down a street instead of a right and like, suddenly your whole life was different. Better, even.
Chen takes the time to refill his mug before responding. When he does speak his words come slowly, advice and words of wisdom aren’t his strong suit. “At some point… if you want to survive, you have to give up on those hypotheticals. It’s one thing to learn from the past but-” Chen pauses to take a sip from his mug. “It’s the present moment that matters. That’s where change is actually possible.”
Ariadne’s expression darkens, and not for the first time Chen wonders what Los Diablos most infamous recluse is doing for a living these days.
“If you want to retire, then retire. There’s no shame in that.” Chen presses on. “Commit to a thing. Don’t let Ortega drag you into a half-life.”
Ariadne stares at the floor in front of her for a while, tracing patterns in her pant leg, a pensive expression on her face. Finally she drops her hands to her side and straightens up. “I think that helps actually. Not what I came here for but… thanks Chen.”
It won’t be until much later Chen will think back to this incident and file it under ’S’ for Suspicious.