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Tzetanya fancies herself a cultured lady.

She knows histories, languages, religions, customs, and traditions of most countries, from travelling the world over the years. Still, the best part of it all is the food, she thinks. History can’t be enjoyed the way food can.

The one continent she has yet to explore is Asia, and Asia’s fast becoming a hotspot in the world. She keeps meaning to book a tour of the continent–nothing teaches better than complete immersion–but it always gets pushed down on her priority list. She sighs mentally: life’s like that.

She whistles as she enters the restaurant–Korean BBQ, and crowded, as usual. It’s not just Asians, either. There’s diversity, which is good; she likes diversity.

She slips through the crowd, through the lineup of people waiting for a seat. Noise assaults her from all sides–cheesy pop music, foreign yammering, the dull clack of plastic dishes.

Soon, a waiter comes up to her, holding a tray of empty dishes, and jabbers a succession of Korean syllables, the meaning of which is lost on her. Pity it isn’t anything like the Romantic or Slavic languages; she’s more than passably fluent in those.

She shakes her head at the waiter, and he repeats, impatiently, in heavily accented English: “How many?”

“Just one,” she tells him, and adds, “I have a reservation.” She’s never liked waiting in line for her food. Once upon a time she felt awkward going to restaurants alone, but she’s used to it now. Besides, going to a crowded restaurant alone is the best way to find company.

The waiter leads her to a small table in the corner, and she permits herself a small smile at the inevitable turn of heads–even in the darkness and the crowd of the restaurant–as she makes her way to the table, stiletto heels clicking on the tiled floor.

The waiter leaves her an unkempt pile of menus and dashes off. She opens one and studies it methodically, eliminating dishes she’s already tried–why do things twice?

A waitress arrives with hot tea, a teacup, and her appetizers. She hesitates, then leans towards her client. “Excuse me, miss, but the man over there is inviting you to sit with him,” she says nervously in perfect English.

Tzetanya picks him out easily–he’s alone, like her, and utterly handsome. Green eyes flash from under dark locks of hair; he’s sipping an iced Coke and eyeing her appreciatively.

She smiles.

“Thank you,” she informs the waitress. “I don’t think I’ll need this table anymore.”

The waitress bobs her head nervously and Tzetanya uncrosses her legs, picks up her water (it’s no martini, but it’ll do) and sways her hips as she makes her way over to his table.

“So, to whom do I owe the pleasure of such company?” she asks, taking her seat and smoothing down her skirt, tight and black. Black is the in thing nowadays, and Tzetanya likes to be in style.

His smile is coy, and his green eyes never leave hers. “I might ask the same.”

She frowns, but it’s a playful one. “They call me Tzetanya.” She splits her made-in-China chopsticks and waits for a name; to ask would be forward, and even in this postmodern age, one has to observe correct etiquette.

“Tzetanya,” he repeats, his eyes flashing (or is it a trick of the light?). “Ever tried the kimchee here? It’s delicious, but very spicy.”

“I like it hot,” she says, and names are forgotten in the haze of the crowded restaurant.

*

Marien’s at the local beach, the closest one to her summer cottage. She’s sitting shoulder-deep in the water, soaking up the sunlight and letting the waves splash on her. The water’s pretty where the sunlight bounces off; it’s sparkly. She likes sparkles.

A shadow falls from behind her and the sparkles fade, almost disappearing. Marien doesn’t bother turning around. She says, “You’re scaring the sparkles.”

The water shifts as the stranger moves, taking his shadow with him. “Pardon me,” he says, and sits down. The water only goes up to his chest.

Marien ignores him, trying to follow the sparkles with her eyes. It hurts after a while and she shuts them tightly, watching the lights play against her eyelids.

“Isn’t the lake beautiful?”

Her eyes snap open and she brings up her arms almost to the surface, letting only the barest amount of water flow over top. “Look,” she tells him. “The water’s dancing.”

He smiles at her, and if she’d turned to look she would have seen something like condescension in his bright green eyes. But she doesn’t, and instead brings her arms out of the water and inspects them for sparkles.

“How long are you in town?” the man asks.

But Marien is silent, preoccupied. “Do you ever wonder what kind of dance they’re dancing?”

“Maybe it’s a waltz,” he suggests.

“Waltzes are old-fashioned,” she scoffs. “I think it’s a tango. Or the Charleston.”

“Aren’t those old-fashioned, too?”

“Tangos are kind of tricky, though,” she goes on. “Maybe it’s a jazzy kind of ballet.”

“Or a tap dance.”

*

Abel lies in his bed (it’s clean and white and pure and perfect) and pretends to sleep, training his ears on the conversation just outside the door.

“… infection in his lungs… only eleven… looking no better… no parents… other family?”

The door of his room opens, but he doesn’t move. It’s only the nurse, part of the daily routine he’s memorised since his first day in the hospital. He listens as she bustles around, performing the necessary duties–noting his vital signs and monitoring his condition. Then she’s on her way out.

But someone stops her. That’s not part of the schedule.

“Who are you?” The nurse isn’t rude, just irritated.

“A visitor,” the stranger says. His voice is light, a musically lilting tenor. Abel hears a smile. “I’m a family friend.”

There’s a brief, hushed discussion between the nurse and one of the doctors, and then the door closes with a soft whoosh, and he’s alone with the stranger.

Abel’s eyes fly open, depthless and bright, and see a man whose dark skin is a sharp contrast to his own whiteness.

“I’m not gonna die, you know,” he says. He doesn’t even know who the man is, but he doesn’t care, either. He never gets any visitors, so he’s not picky about who comes in through the sterile white door of his room. “They say I will, but I won’t.”

The man only smiles and sits on the edge of Abel’s bed (it was perfect before he sat on it no no no don’t). “How do you know?”

Abel blinks. “Because.” He takes a moment to think, and then he opens his mouth again. “If I was gonna die, there’d be all sorts o’ smoky stuff in here and the priest’d come in and do some last writing or something.” His brow furrows; he’s not sure what it all means.

“Are you Catholic?”

Abel shrugs. “I been in the hospital so long I never go to church,” he says cheerfully. “But people keep saying the priest’ll come when you’re gonna die, an’ he’s never come in here, so I figure I ain’t gonna die.”

“But you’re in the hospital.” His dark-skinned hand brushes the thin white hospital sheet (he’s touching it touching it the germs are going to get him).

“Yeah,” Abel says. “They say I got cancer in my lungs. That’s where I breathe, you know.”

“I know.”

*

Sometime near midnight, Tzetanya stirs and finds herself alone. Unperturbed, she rises and wraps the thin sheet around her body.

She finds him in the foyer of her flat, half-dressed, picking up the clothes he was so eager to discard earlier.

“Leaving so soon?”

He glances at her–the red sheet loosely draped over the curve of her hips, tanned skin gleaming in the artificial lamplight. His scrutiny is intense, and she feels small beads of sweat start to form under her arms, down her spine–but it’s not embarrassment, or humiliation.

“I could stay,” he offers. He looks away, dons his shirt; deft fingers button it up, and he looks her way again, but it’s not as intense as before. “I could give you anything you want.” He quirks a smile, green eyes smouldering in the dim light.

She scowls, disgusted. “I’m not some cheap whore,” she spits out at him.

His smile widens. “Pardon me–my mistake. You were very… convincing.”

She stares at him. “Get out of my house.”

He finishes tying his shoes, and gets up. “Your wish is my command.” He bows mockingly, still smirking.

The next day, she sells all her possessions and leaves for China. She doesn’t look back.

*

Marien drops her arms back into the water. Goosebumps start to appear, but she ignores the cold. Or perhaps she doesn’t feel it; she’s not entirely sure.

“Are you cold?” He’s noticed. “Maybe you should get out of the water. How long have you been here?”

She doesn’t answer him. Without moving she knows that her fingers and toes are wrinkly. It’s called osmosis; she learned it somewhere.

“Sparkles,” she says blandly.

He touches her shoulder, as if he were about to bodily haul her out of the water, but then his hand falls, sinks through the waves to the sandy bottom.

There’s a kind of restless silence. Then:

“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to get anything you wanted?” He sounds like he’s talking to himself.

“I think that would be pretty boring,” she says unexpectedly. “Imagine–if you had everything you ever wanted, then what would you do with the rest of your life?”

“What are you doing with your life?”

She goes back to ignoring him.

*

Abel likes this man. He doesn’t seem to ask too many questions and he doesn’t want anything from him (but he’s touching the blanket and now it’s going to be all dirty dirty dirty).

They lapse into silence, and the only sound in the room is Abel’s breathing, harsh and ugly. He coughs–a wheezing, wracking cough that shudders through his entire body, and the man offers to call a nurse.

“S’okay,” Abel assures him hoarsely. “I’m used to it. ‘Sides, them doctors an’ nurses got plenty other stuff to do.” He gingerly runs his tongue over chapped lips, and tastes iron.

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” the man tells him.

“Nah. They just get really mad if I call ’em in and they got to be somewhere else,” he says. “An’ they’ll only put up with me for a couple more months, anyway.”

“Why’s that?”

“That’s ’cause I keep getting moved around. No one wants me.” Abel looks at him in the eye, daring him to argue (they’re green; it’s so weird).

Instead, the man hunches down beside him, leaning closer over the bed. He drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Abel, if you could have anything in the world right now, what would you wish for?”

Abel’s eyes grow huge. “Anything?”

The man smiles. “Anything.”

Abel’s eyes go out of focus and he frowns, thinking. “I think I’d want… a friend. A real friend. You know, someone I can talk to ’bout anything.”

“What about your cancer?”

There are layers of tone in his voice (it’s not so conspiratorial anymore), but Abel doesn’t stop to think. “Nah. It’s not that bad, here. At least I don’t hafta go to school.” He grins.

The man makes a noncommittal grunt, and Abel looks up at the ceiling (anything away from the man’s dirty dirty hands). Then he remembers something, the first thing he heard the stranger say.

“Did you say you know my family?”

But the green-eyed man is gone, and he’s alone in the room with nothing but the harsh sound of his breathing to keep him company.

*

Keb’s alone when he comes, alone and unamused (he’s got a massive headache, like all days, but today seems worse than others). The African desert is hot and unrelenting, but it’s the headache that bothers him the most.

“Why are you here?” he says, and his voice is deep and accusing.

The man looks into his eyes and seems satisfied with what he sees. Then he shrugs. “Call it a whim,” he says. “I haven’t dropped by for a visit in a long while. Times have changed since.”

They lapse into a companionable silence. It looks odd, from far away–one large figure sitting solidly in the sand, and another dressed completely in black, his hands slouched in his pockets, his immaculate hair blowing slightly in the desert winds and his green eyes alert and sober.

“You’ve visited the others, I suppose,” Keb says finally. He’s drawing sigils in the sand, immune to the sweeping winds. The other man only nods. “They’re turning.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“You have to tell them.” His green eyes are hard and unrelenting. “It’s not my place.”

Keb bows his head, acknowledging him. “I will. Eventually. Let them have their fun for now–they’re young.”

“Their ‘fun’ is what’s causing it,” he shoots back. “Tzetanya got the message, I think.” Then he shakes his head. “Marien–that woman’s crazy. She knows, but she won’t do anything about it. And what about Abel? Keb, the boy thinks he’s dying.”

Keb sighs, and doesn’t respond.

“What will happen, if he turns mortal, and dies?”

“The theory says that the world will die soon after,” Keb says after a moment. “It won’t survive without us, and it won’t survive an imbalance.”

“I’d rather not stick around and wait for the theory to be tested,” he says. “Actually, I’d feel a whole lot better if you told them sooner rather than later. Same with the rest of the mortals on this planet. I’ve no idea what I’d do, if I were in your place–which is why I’m happy where I am,” he adds with a grin. “It’s tough being head honcho.”

“Soon, then,” Keb says finally. “I’ll speak to them personally.”

“I don’t see why you bother,” he says. “You are their leader.”

“I do not control them; they are their own persons,” Keb says, with infinite patience.

“You know, I’ve always questioned that whole concept of free will,” the dark-clad man says conversationally.

Keb doesn’t bother responding; it’s an age-old argument that they’ve debated over the years, and he’s not about to go into it now. Instead, he looks at him squarely, in the vast expanse of the desert with the sun beating down on them both, and says, “Do stop by again, won’t you? It helps the years pass.”

“I thought you were Timeless,” his companion says expressionlessly.

Keb shrugs, and goes back to tracing his sigils. “I pick up bad habits.”

The man barks out in a laugh that grates on Keb’s ears. “First time I’ve ever heard you admit to a failing. We’re getting old, aren’t we?”

“Infinitely so,” Keb tells him.

 


Francesca Leung enjoys reading webcomics, is a fan of Queen, and finds knitting to be rather therapeutic.

© 2007, Francesca Leung

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