Dear Mr. Mercer:
My parents taught me that when someone gives you something, it's unforgivable not to say thank you for it. So thank you for the drink, and for the song. I needed to smile last night, and you made that happen.
It was only a few minutes later when Meishel's email beeped, and she glanced back to see a new message.
The pleasure was mine. I don't mean to be rude, but how in the world did you get my email address? I'm not upset, just curious. I know the song was a bit corny, but you looked so sad, I felt like I had to do something.
Dear Joey (may I call you that?)
I have a brother-in-law who could probably get the email address of God if I wanted it. All I had to do was ask. He offered to hack our transporter and send me directly into your apartment to thank you in person, but I decided that might not be polite. He was very disappointed.
I was sad last night. A friend of the family, my brother-in-law's father actually, is dying. We're all trying to cope with it the best we can, but it's not easy. My brother-in-law is a real goofball; this is killing him too. I'm just not sure how to help. More than you wanted to hear, I know. Dancing is therapy for me.
It's never easy to say goodbye to someone you care about. I lost my own parents when I was young. It was very sudden, and I think that's the best way if it has to happen. I can't imagine I'd have done well having to watch them die slowly. Your brother-in-law is a character, by the way. He once spread a rumor that if everyone in the club started singing "Give Peace a Chance" at exactly midnight, drinks would be free the rest of the evening. Of course by then half the club was drunk anyway. I had to go along with it just to keep my bartenders from getting lynched. Give him my sympathies about his father, please.
Wait. How did you know who my brother-in-law was? How long have you been watching me, anyway?
Dear Paranoid Chinagirl
Okay, I confess. I've been watching you dance ever since the first night you came to Shadows. You don't realize just how much you stand out. I watch just about everything that happens in my club, but you just caught my eye. I'm sorry if I've made you uncomfortable.
Dear Embarrassed Joey
It's okay. I was just surprised, that's all. Usually when I'm out with the guys it's Gage who gets all the attention. Heck, I don't even get attention when my own boyfriend is with me. It's flattering to know at least someone is noticing me.
Your boyfriend would be the redhead who always looks like he's sucking lemons? I suppose he must be a charming person underneath all that; otherwise he wouldn't be your boyfriend.
He has his moments. Right now he's trying to start his own business and he gets upset if anyone distracts him from that. Asking him to go anywhere with me, or even talk to me these days he considers a distraction. But I've known him literally since the day I was born and we saw each other almost every day growing up. We've been dating for about three years now, if you really want to call it that.
Dear Exasperated Chinagirl
Sometimes people stay together simply because they're too afraid of venturing beyond the familiar. I've always thought it was better to be alone than be with someone just to be with them. Certainly a lot less stressful. Are you sure this man is right for you?
I don't even know you, and you're already playing relationship counselor? I'd be offended if I wasn't laughing so hard. Thanks. We'll work it out, I guess. I mean, I know he loves me. But I do appreciate the advice; I guess you've seen it all in your lifetime.
Yep. By crikey I've seen it all in my twenty years. I'd go dancing with you myself, but I might break a hip. Dawn it, my faase teef juss fell out.
Old Man Joey
Dear Old Man Joey
You're only 20? I'm sorry, everyone kept talking about the "old man" that runs the club. I thought you were in your 70's or something. Part of the reason we didn't transport me to your living room was because I was afraid you'd have a heart attack.
Dear Red Chinagirl
I probably would have. Or at least hit myself in the head really hard to make sure I wasn't still dreaming. Wait. If I was having that kind of dream I probably wouldn't want to wake up.
I let people think I'm older because it's better for business. People are more confident dealing with someone they think has been around the block a few times.
Is that why you never leave your apartment? Just so people will think you're old?
I'm sorry. That's none of my business.
It's okay. I'm just not sure I'm able to give you an honest answer right now. I haven't left this apartment in a long time; I transported directly there from the last place I lived. I've tried to leave more than once, actually, but I simply can't make myself do it. I get to the transporter and I freeze up. I know why I'm afraid; but knowing why doesn't always mean you're able to deal with it or get over it. I wasn't always like this; I grew up on Earth and my mother had her hands full trying to get me to stay inside. We moved to Seta when I was 10, and my parents died shortly afterwards. From that point on, I was afraid to leave my room. They tried everything, the Setan Childcare System. Finally they just gave up and let me be. The last time I was actually outside was when I left Seta and came to Dera. I took lot of sleeping pills and had a friend bring me here; by the time I woke up I was safe in my former apartment.
You're not pathetic. Someone I love dearly was afraid of fire until a few years ago. He'd totally panic if he saw even a glimpse of it. Phobias are like that; they're nothing to be ashamed of. It sounds like whatever happened to your parents was just too much for you to take at that age. It's just kind of sad though. You seem like a nice guy.
Are you afraid to talk to people face to face, or are you just afraid to leave?
Both, maybe? Staying inside solves both problems. You seem like a nice girl. I'm attaching a photograph of myself, knowing this may be the last time I get to email you once you see it.
The past is the past, and today is a gift. That's why it's called the present. I feel bad that someone as gorgeous as you (and you are hot!) feels the need to lock himself away because some morons can't let go of the past and see people for themselves.
Tell you what. I've got a big box of donuts here my brother sent me, and a six pack of Sugara in the minifridge (don't let my dorm mom know; she'll freak). What do you say I do zap myself into your living room, and we get insanely rushed on sugar and talk in person?
Didn't your parents warn you about meeting people you meet online in secluded places? What if I'm really an ax-murder?
How sexist! Why do you assume you'd be the maniac, huh? How do you know I don't have a dozen bodies buried behind your club?
I hope you don't! It took me forever just to get zoning approved as it was. Do you know how much it would cost me to get approval for body-storage as well? The code is 3488804008. See you in bits... I mean, in a bit.
His hair was darker than Luke's, more auburn, and it curled where it reached his shoulders. He was slender and tall, the typical Deran build that Meishel had always coveted, but in his face was that odd, indescribable beauty she'd seen here and there her whole life. He was dressed simply; black jeans and a loose white sweater, and his eyes were pale brown. No, golden she realized. He looked like no one she'd ever seen before, uniquely himself. The photo had been of very poor quality.
He stood there silently while she observed him, and then spread his arms. "No axes." He promised. "But if you're planning on hacking me up let's go in the kitchen. The stains will never come out of the carpet."
She glanced down at the thick white shag and burst out laughing. "You're right. It's too pretty to ruin." So was he, for that matter, but she didn't say that.
The apartment was huge, more of a loft really. One wall was nothing but monitors and computers. A big kitchen sat off to one side, and the furniture was soft blue suede. "Wow." Was all she could say.
"My world and welcome to it." Joey stepped forward and offered her his hand. She shook it firmly. "I'm Meishel. But you probably already know that."
"Actually no." He blushed a little. "I've just thought of you as 'her.'"
They both burst out laughing, and he took the Sugara and donuts out to the kitchen. This was insane, she thought. She'd only started emailing this guy an hour ago and now she was in his apartment. Her parents would freak; everyone would be horrified she was taking this kind of chance. But she'd always been taught to trust her gut instincts, and they told her that Joey was as harmless as a baby cotrefil.
He kept giving her very shy looks as he poured the Sugara into glasses, and she realized with some surprise that this was his first person-to-person contact in a very long time. He wasn't really sure how to act or what to say, and seemed to be waiting for her.
"Show me how that works." She pointed at the computers. "I'm dying to know."
His manner immediately changed from awkwardness to confidence. "Sure. This is just my basic home computer, emails and online stuff. This one lets me control the music at the club. Usually I let the managers pick the playlist, but every now and then I override their decisions. Okay, I've done it once." His lips twitched. "This is for lights, this is for security. I can lock down the whole place in under a second if I have to. I'm hands-off on most of the day-to-day stuff. My employees are good at what they do, but I step in when I have to. Like when I found out that one of my female managers was threatening to fire one of the bartenders for not putting out."
"She's blacklisted. No one will hire her now; she had to move back in with her parents, the last I heard. I take care of my own, even if they don't see me doing it."
"This is just for fun, this computer. It's a standard VR enviroment, but I've souped it up a little bit. Instead of you controlling it or following a set enviroment, it has access to a database full of millions of them. You do an assessment of yourself first, and it picks a scenario at random and tailors that to whoever is running it. I mean, it wouldn't put some little old lady into the middle of a mud-wrestling pit, unless of course she wanted to go mud-wrestling. Once you see a scenario you can keep playing on that one, or let it bring you up a different one. If you let it go random, you'll probably never get the same one twice."
"Sweet! You could sell that for a fortune." She was amazed. People had been trying to make a good random VR for years now, but there had always been problems and glitches.
"I have a fortune." He shrugged. "More than I'll ever spend. Right now it's just my own little toy. I've used it hundreds of times and only once did I ever recognize what story it was throwing me into. Which makes me think this thing is sentient and has a really warped sense of humor."
"What book was it?"
"Phantom of the Opera."
She gave him a skeptical look. "It's true, I swear." He reached down and pulled a sheet of paper off the table and held it up over one eye. "Chrisssttinnnee."
"That's a fax confirming an order of sixty cases of Glothal Supreme." She pointed out. "I guess Erik figured if he got her drunk enough, he had a chance."
He glanced down at the fax. "Well, being tragic and romantic failed. He had to try other means." He refilled Meishel's glass.
"Shan and I got chicken pox when we were 10. Duo would read to us from that book to take our minds off the itching. It worked too. I couldn't wait for Erik and Christine to live happily ever after. I started cheering when Erik was torturing Raoul. Duo blamed the fever."
"My boyfriend's father. Our family tree has more branches than you would believe. I'm surprised you don't know who he is though. His maclen was the first Irnao person to find Dera; they're famous."
He frowned. "Oh yeah, they made me read a book about when I was in school. I didn't remember the names though, sorry."
"Don't be. It's nice to meet someone who doesn't know my whole family history before I even open my mouth. It makes some people think that they know me." She had to look away from those piercing gold eyes. "And they don't."
"What about your brother?"
"Oh, he knows me better than anyone. But it's different now that we're adults. We're not really growing apart... it's more like we're growing complete without each other. It was like I was half of him, and now Gage is that half."
"And the other half of you is your boyfriend?"
"Luke." She drained her drink, feeling the sugar buzz. "Yeah... no. It's not like that. We're not like Gage and Shan are, believe me. Those guys are just plain scary. I don't think I want kind of relationship; where you never have any privacy or any time to yourself. It doesn't bother them, but it would bother me a lot. But then again, it would be nice if my boyfriend would actually notice that I exist now and then. Why am I telling you all this?"
"Because you need to tell someone. It's okay; it's been so long since I've talked to someone I don't mind listening." He sat down on the couch and motioned for her to join him.
"So it's Gage's father who is dying."
"Yeah. Milliardo. You know I hated him at first. I had a lot of reasons, but he and Gage have become really close in the last few years. Maybe this is making me realize that my own parents aren't going to be around forever. I don't know what I'd do if I lost either of them."
"You survive. But you're never the same. No one will ever love you or understand you quite the same way again, that unconditional love we take for granted. I've never stopped missing my mother and father."
"Tell me about your parents." She urged. "If you don't mind."
"I don't mind." He poured himself another drink but only held it, staring through the glass refraction. "My mother was Setan, my father was a Wronith elite guard. They were both young, younger than you are, but they fell in love. He made an offer for her; to protect her from the Seeders and take her to Wroni with him. They refused him, so he stole a ship, and my mother, and took off. This wasn't very long after negotiations between the Irnaos and Derans had truly begun. Instead of going to Wroni or one of the Sister planets, they decided to head to Earth. My mother still had family on Seta and she wanted to see them, but it wasn't safe.
"I was born on Earth. My father was an artist, and people paid a small fortune for his paintings. People will buy anything they find unique. So before I was very old we had a lot of money.
"You were two when the Invasion happened, right Meishel?"
"Yeah. I was two."
"I was four and far away, but I remember hearing about, and my mother saying that now it was safe for her to go home. I was confused; Earth was my home. My father refused as well, and she didn't mention it again, but she would look sad sometimes, like she was somewhere else.
"Finally, my father caved in. He knew that Wronith weren't exactly welcomed on Dera and Seta. This was before the Deran Pure was formed, but it's ever been easy for us on either of those worlds. But he loved my mother enough to try and make her happy so we all packed up and headed for Seta."
He was quiet for a long time. "My mother kept telling me stories about how beautiful it all was, how perfect, how I'd be so happy there and I believed her. I couldn't wait to meet my grandparents. My father kept looking like he just wanted to turn around and go back to Earth as fast as we could.
"When we got off the shuttle, everyone kept staring at us and I was so stupid back then I didn't know why. My father was holding on to my hand so tightly it hurt, and he told me that if I went anywhere without him he'd spank me so hard my eyes would cross. I started to get afraid, but my mother wasn't even noticing; she was just so happy to be back home.
"It was too late at night when we arrived, so we were going to go visit my grandparents the next day. In the meantime, we checked into a motel and we were sitting there, playing Snap Dragon.
"Then all of a sudden there was this noise. The window glass shattered, and I could hear these explosions. My parents were both on top of me, pinning me down and I couldn't breathe, and I could feel them jerking... " his hand trembled on the glass.
"It's okay. You don't have to talk about it."
"When I could move, they were both covered in blood, and they were so still. I knew they were gone. I started to cry, and that's how the police found me a few minutes later. The cops were horrible. They made jokes about the entire thing, about me, about my mother." He took a long breath. "For the first time I understood why everyone had been staring at us and why my father had been so afraid. I knew that he'd been different from what my mother was, and that I was different, and that everyone would always hate me for it."
"I wanted to go back to Earth, but they wouldn't let me. They tracked down my mother's parents. Her father killed himself not long after she vanished; her mother a few years later. I grew up, and here I am."
Stranger or not, Meishel leaned over and hugged him. "Sometimes I hate people. Duo and Heero always talk about how wonderfully tolerant the Derans and Setans are compared to Earth, but I think that's a crock. They just have something different to be idiots about, that's all."
"Not you, though." He drew back to look at her. "You didn't even flinch when you saw my picture."
"Luke's sister is married to a half-Wronith. They live on Earth, but they're visiting Dera right now. Poor Rylan is afraid to leave the house unless one of us is with him. And then on Seta we have Pell and Adyn, kind of foster sons to my father. They're both pure Wronith. When I was about 8 I had the biggest crush on Pell." She snickered. "He was really sweet about the whole thing, though. I still email them for advice all the time, and Adyn ends every single reply with "And don't touch my maclen." She stroked his fingers. "I get so angry sometimes; I miss Rosie and Rylan but as long as this world is the way it is, they'll never be safe here."
"Your Rylan would be, probably. There are a lot of Wronith on Dera that no one bothers. Dirty looks and comments, but usually no one resorts to violence. It's when the Wronith start Pledging the Derans that people get upset. They don't want us contaminating the blood line. That's why they call themselves the Deran Pure."
She nodded. "You know I think that's why Rosie has never brought up the subject of having a child with Rylan. She knows that Rylan might risk himself to come here and visit her family, but he'd refuse to put their child in danger. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply... "
"No, no, it's okay. My parents both decided to go to Seta. They didn't realize just what a chance they were taking, that our family would anger people so much. If they had, I'd still be on Earth. Do you want another drink."
"It's okay. I won't sleep tonight as it is." She looked at her watch. "I'm supposed to meet my brother and Gage for lunch in a few minutes. I'll have to remember to thank Gage for getting your email address for me."
"Please do." He took the glasses back to the kitchen and his shyness was back. "I had a really nice time, Meishel. I hadn't realized just how much I'd missed being around other people."
"Does this mean I can come back?"
"You're welcome any time. I'm always here."
"You don't have to be here alone, though. I'm not going to press, but you'd like my family. None of them would think any less of you because your father was Wronith. You should at least meet Gage."
"Maybe in a while." He shook his head. "A few days, let me get used to the idea a little."
"Got ya. You can have the rest of those donuts." She waved. "It was really great to meet you."
"You too, Chinagirl." He watched until she closed the door of the transporter, and took the life in the apartment away with her.
When she'd only been a fantasy, a girl dancing on his monitor, she'd blown him away, but that was no comparison to what it was like to actually meet her and talk to her, to find out that her heart was just as beautiful as she was. But ironically enough, having her in his arms was just tantalizing proof of just how far beyond his reach she really was.