The Secular Missionary shook out her hair. It had been perfect, once, before the Fall. Long competent fingers smoothed the fabric on her Stained Red Velvet Dress; her arm hooked through her companion's. Turning to the Revolutionary Firebrand, she smiled graciously and nodded. Words that did not match her pleasant demeanor issued from between perfect lips.
"I hate you."
The Revolutionary Firebrand dipped his head politely at an inelegant figure lumbering by. What little light there was glinted off the top of the Clay Man's head. Overhead, bats whirled in noiseless lazy ellipses. The Firebrand made no attempt to free his arm from the Missionary's steely grip. Taking a step forward, he simply turned toward her, his grin somewhat less than convincing.
"I know. Shall we?"
The Secular Missionary let out a deeply held sigh. "I don't know that we have any choice."
"I know that as well, my dear. Fighting the inevitable is fruitless."
"Then we should go," she murmured, standing straight and tall, as always. The door before her bore no sign, no marker, but she knew what it was and where it would lead. They both did.
The Revolutionary Firebrand gestured broadly toward the latch with his free hand. "Ladies first."
"Do you always have to be so polite?" The words hissed out from between the Missionary's teeth.
Her companion nodded. "It's in my blood." He was only a half step behind her as they plunged through the door, almost but not quite together.
"Hush," hissed the Missionary, clearly taking note of the shrouded figure approaching. "One of the Masters is here."
"Oh," thought the Firebrand, "a Master. One must always behave around them. As if they really run this operation. We all know their God-like status is a pile of lies." Still, he held his tongue--for once, if only to smooth things over from the latest quarrel with the Missionary--and pretended to ease into the situation. He'd been here countless times before. They both had. There might have been a great deal wrong with him, but his memory didn't suffer in the least. It had never been damaged, as evidenced by his depth of knowledge and despite his eagerness to change the way the world worked. He knew he was brilliant, even if the rest of humanity so often begged to differ. On chance he glanced over at the Missionary to see if the telling expression that had once resided on her features was back, but she stood still and stony, bright blue eyes facing straight ahead, soft curls of hair framing her arched cheekbones. How many times had they been through this? How many more times would this same sort of thing come to pass?
He stopped wondering as the Master, its features hidden by a cowl, its body obscured, stepped forward. For a long uncomfortable moment it simply stood there, seeming to grow in stature as if it gained all its power from the discomfort, the confusion, the anticipation, or the very darkness itself. At long last it breathed in, a deep rattling almost-but-not-quite-dead sound. It should have coughed, consumed by some ancient dryness, but instead it stood tall and began to glow.
The Revolutionary Firebrand felt the Missionary shiver slightly at the sight, but she recovered beautifully to stay strong at his side. He slipped his arm around her waist and felt her stiffen, but she didn't brush him away. She still took some comfort in him after all, he reasoned.
"Welcome," echoed the Master's voice, indistinct but understandable. From their vantage point it was impossible to tell which Master stood before them this time, and both knew that this was entirely intentional. Mr. Cups? Mr. Sacks? The fabled Mr. Eaten? Although mysteries made the Firebrand uncomfortable--he'd dedicated his very existence to unraveling them--he acknowledged as a man of science and methodology that some secrets were necessary. The identities of the Masters fell into that category, for the good of all mankind. To know them, to gaze upon their faces, led to a path of madness far worse than anyone might know from a simple honey-dream, although all were invited and expected to provide for the Masters from time to time. Wine for the revels, they said. Proscribed materials too dangerous to be out floating on the streets, they said. Things of that nature. Small seemingly insignificant things any Master was more than capable of providing for itself.
After a long and entirely discomfiting silence, the Master (Mr. Veils? Mr. Wines?) launched into speech. "As you know"--the voice was an oily high-pitched whisper with a distinct undertone of menace--"the world continues to evolve, as does your place in it." It nodded toward the Secular Missionary. "Humanity will always have need of one like you, with your fervent belief system and innate clarity of purpose. We also greatly appreciate your ruthless streak and unquestioning dedication to the task at hand."
Next, the Master turned to the Revolutionary Firebrand. "And you, with your exuberance, your intelligence, and your sharp wit. You also have much to offer. True, there are times when your methodology suffers from a lack of thoughtful thoroughness"--the Master held up its hand to ward off any anticipated grumbling or disagreement--"but your brilliance and sheer slipperiness in getting the necessary things done has always proved invaluable."
The Master (Mr. Spices? Mr. Pages? it was impossible to tell) stopped. Silence took the room more strongly than one might feel if they were drowning. The anticipation was brutal, but there was nothing to be done other than wait it out. The Revolutionary Firebrand tightened his grip around the Secular Missionary's waist on general principle. It was less about staking a claim to what was--or had once been--his than it was to show that despite all that had happened, she still had his support when it was needed.
"You will find," the Master offered at last, "that things may at first seem somewhat different this time around. Go. Be. Prosper. Do us proud." With a wave of one long arm, the darkness lifted. The Firebrand blinked back the harshness of sudden sunlight, something he had not seen in countless decades in the 'Neath. He felt warmth touch his face. Torn between soaking in the deliciousness of it and checking on his partner (after all this time and all these adventures, the Missionary was still and would always be his partner, in crime if in no other way), he turned to face her.
"This is different," he said, letting his eyes adjust to their surroundings.
"Time marches on." It was simple observation on the Missionary's part, with nothing dismissive in her tone. Still, the way she took the enormity of the change in stride was admirable.
"It's like a game. We have to start from the beginning every time." The Firebrand tugged down on the lapel of his Sumptuous Dandy's Outfit and smoothed back his hair. It had grown long and shaggy over the years spent in the caves and on the docks by the Unterzee.
"Survival of the fittest, at least that's what you say." She grinned a small tight smile. "The hair suits you." There was little about her that shouted Missionary! in this particular setting. Light blond hair curled around her face, and her dress was little short of... well, it was what the Stained Red Velvet Gown should always have been, at least in the Firebrand's deepest and wildest fantasies.
In that moment, he fell in love with her all over again. "You look shockingly gorgeous."
Ignoring the compliment as if it were simply a foregone conclusion, the Missionary linked her arm with his. "Look at this city! The buildings. The trees. The people. The sunlight! Is that really sunlight? I'd forgotten what it looked and felt like. This is truly God's will."
With a laugh, the Firebrand shook his head. "It's science. Science and evolution. You know what believers in the Correspondence say: all this has happened before, and all this will happen again."
"Shut up, Gaius," she said softly, but not without a modicum of true affection. "Besides, you mean Pythia." The Missionary wrapped her fingers around the Revolutionary Firebrand's chin a bit more roughly than her looks might suggest was feasible, pulled him toward her, and kissed him on the mouth. When she stepped back, her eyes were alight with the mischief that goes hand in hand with a new opportunity. Together, they peered over the shoulder of a man reading a publication, something about the discovery of the mother of them all. The Firebrand leaned companionably against the Missionary and felt his heart swell.
This was quite probably destined to be the most spectacular expedition they'd ever undertaken.