Less Princess Than Expected
Roleplaying Log: Less Princess Than Expected
Participants
IC Details
Synopsis:

A pair of former Runaways learn that they're no longer separated by lightyears.

Other Characters Referenced: Red Robin, Harley Quinn, Groot, Rocket Raccoon, Raven
IC Date: September 10, 2019
IC Location: Cuisine by Claudette's, Brooklyn, New York
OOC Notes & Details
Posted On: 14 Dec 2019 22:56
Rating & Warnings: PG-13
Scene Soundtrack: [*\# None]
NPC & GM Credits:
Associated Plots

There are a lot of great little places in New York City. But there has been a sea of ink and about sixteen million miles of celluloid on how great it is. So instead, all these things can be skipped, and things can zoom in on Arverne-by-the-sea, one of the areas of Brooklyn that have not yet fully brooklyfied.

Nico Minoru had come out here to go to the beach.

It was selfish and kind of lonely. She had been okay with that. She didn't want anything particularly occult or crowded to deal with, having had a thirty-six hour period of furious work on a custom dress for some mail-order person followed by cranking out a half-dozen leather pleated skirts in several sizes in anticipation of a cosplay rush. The custom was refunded; the skirts sold. That's the way it goes. Nico is glad she doesn't have to pay rent.

She hasn't brought out the Staff of One in nearly two weeks. It feels good, in an obscure way. She had resolved, even, to try and make it so she leaned less on it, but instead— why; no severe disasters had come down the pike. Nothing, after the numerous horrible incidents. Perhaps things just happen arbitrarily without rhyme or reason.

Maybe the page has turned. Maybe things will get better, or at least, not worse in ways that are her problem. She's passed on the tales she's heard, and the calls to travel to the realms beyond. Perhaps she doesn't need to try to get Zatanna to teach her how to cast the real spells without leaning on the staff. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

On this sunny afternoon Nico is wearing a retro-style bathing suit. She really used it; it's still damp. (See the far right on this image https://data.whicdn.com/images/137562821/original.jpg true believers!)

She has a shoulder bag. And she is hungry. So she turns left

HEEDLESS OF WHAT AWAITS HER

INTO THE DREAD REALMS OF THE BEACHSIDE PIT OF DECADENCE THAT *IS*

Cuisine by Claudette, a local institution with robust vegan options.

(https://cuisinebyclaudette.nyc/menu, true believers. Excelsior!)

* * *

(> Hi, Nico. Sorry to just drop this on you, bu)

Karolina has to pay rent.

Recently, she was invited to a secret club with its very own mall. She has yet to follow up, however, because not only has she,

A.) been preoccupied with filling her drafts folder ever since searching for old friends turned out to be unexpectedly fruitful,

she

B.) has to pay rent, with a GED and an empty work history to back her.

Her phone's cheap, but it's more than enough to make her a fully-fledged cog in the gig economy. Running around the city keeps a roof over her head and the bills paid; long stretches spent squeezed into subway cars are a dubious bonus, giving her plenty of time for drafting.

(> Hey! It's :sparkle:! I know the transmissions kinda went silent for a while)

Keeping busy's nice. It isn't lucrative, but it's nice. The variety - dog-walking, plant-sitting, grocery-getting, shelf-building, and on, and on - keeps things— 'interesting' is way too big of a word, but 'stimulating' is close enough; it gives her plenty to think about that isn't drafting, or where she gets the money for food, phones, and clothes.

(> :rainbow: Guess who's baaa)

Frank and Leslie knew better than to invest too aggressively in an estate for their daughter: why bother, when they were planning a future for her in Paradise? The Pride had its enemies, though, and the Deans' personal ambitions earned them plenty more- exotic ones, to boot. There was always the chance that Karolina could be left tragically, abruptly alone with no way to fend for herself, so the Deans made sure to allocate a fraction of their resources towards giving her a cushion to land on in that unlikely event.

(> I know things were weird the last time we saw each other, but I'm in New York and)

It's not much, but until she found herself settling in an expensive new city with no real support system to lean on, she'd resolved herself not to use it; now, it's enough to keep her going for a while— just long enough, she hopes, to find something better.

(> I missed you so much, and I never thought I'd get to te)

She really should make time for the mall— for the Titans. For doing something worth doing…

… but right now, she's coming off of a long morning of bike deliveries, which means slumping in a corner table of Claudette's with a barely touched hummus plate in front of her and her phone clutched in hand. She's wearing a pale pink tank top with blue cutoffs, sandals, and a sheen of sweat. Her hair's pulled back in a loose bun, and thrift store shades rest over her brow.

Hey, Nico! It's Karolina

"No— c'mon…" she murmurs beneath her breath. Wrinkling her nose, she quickly taps open a fresh new message.

I've tried to write this a million different ways,

she types, flicking her eyes idly towards the door when the little bell above it rings,

There are, like, ten that start out with me telling you that I've tried to write

Wait.

//Wait— //

It's— her shop page said— — but it's such a big city—

One double-take later, Karolina's staring into her hummus, wide-eyed and tense. The bracelet's already in her pocket. She wore it all morning, but after a year without bothering, she's aware of it around her wrist in her way she never was prior. Taking breaks gives her some relief from the uncanny weight of it dangling from her, weighing her down, dimming her…

… but damned if it wouldn't be helpful right now. With the bracelet, she could've always hoped that maybe — maybe — Nico just didn't see her, leaving her to frantically compose while trying not to think too hard about the fact that she'd rather hide from and text at the other woman instead of just saying— something. Something; 'hi', at worst…

It's hard to miss a living rainbow, though, even one that's hunched in a corner, thinking invisible thoughts while she digs for that damn bracelet and sparkles.

* * *

Nico Minoru's eyes had been turning round the open space - the cozy place where a neighborhood can live and breathe, one of those social zones that is contextualized comfortably despite the burdens of the great devils that haunt humanity - and she had not taken great note of a blonde woman slouching over her phone and working on it.

But as her eyes turn towards the menu board, she is cast, abruptly, in rainbow light.

The radiance pours off of Karolina Dean, revealed in full as Nico takes a second, deeper, newer look at the person before her. In a moment she changes from a figure of approximate presence into -

Into -

For the space of a heartbeat there is silence. Fans tilt. Light reflects. The world continues to rotate around a single and unremarkable yellow star, evolving in myriad subtle ways for good and evil both. A single droplet of Atlantic sea water falls from the hem of Nico's bathing costume.

Then she speaks.

"oh my god" she says.

Because there is no denial here, no reservation, no concealment. There isn't even the approximate hope that perhaps somehow, somewhere, in some fashion there might possibly be another Majesdanian here on Earth, one who just happened to also be present here and who was startled by Nico — perhaps even knew her by reputation— no; this entire scientifiction tale dies on the birthing table in the face of this sheer, spectacular truth!

Nico marches across the dining room.

Nico puts her hands palm-down on the table from the other side of Karolina, and leans in. (Karolina may be surprised at the definition on Nico's arms. This is a new thing. Is it good, bad, indifferent? It does speak of something. But what?)

She leans inwards. She breathes in and out, quickly, twice.

Nico straightens upwards. Her hand goes up to her bag's strap. The other comes up as if to guard herself, though from what, she could not easily quantify even if you gave her an hour to figure it out.

"… sorry," she says. Then, a little more firmly, "Hi. Uh. Wow."

This is where I should smile and laugh, Nico thinks, even as she does neither thing.

"… It's really you?"

* * *

At this point, Karolina's just worried about drawing the kind of attention that spontaneously sparkling, glowing women surely must in the new New York. Being seen by Nico's obviously a lost cause,

(As hard as she's trying, she just can't seem to bend her light around herself and disappear— !)

but avoiding A Scene? She's still got a shot.

There's a sharp release of air once she manages to overcome shaky, too-swift fingers and secure the bracelet. Nico's closing in by then, giving her just enough time to sit up straighter before palms hit the table and send a ripple of tension through her body.

Just breathe, she tells herself. Like a person; like Nico— — maybe not exactly like Nico, right this moment— is she okay?

Karolina's eyes start to lift. Start to; it only takes a moment for her eyebrows to take over for them when her gaze gets snagged by newly defined cuts and swells. Her lips begin to part, but whatever's lurking beyond them remains unsaid by the time Nico's upright, pulling one of those arms up to protect herself—

"Sor— "

Nico's murmur wins out while Karolina drops her eyes with a tiny smile and a soft exhale through her nose.

"Hi," she echoes, grimacing deeply as she does it.

Thanks to Nico's surprising new definition, the 'Wow' came a few seconds ago, unspoken but no less clear.

All those drafts, and she could've done a dozen more— a hundred more— and it still might not've been enough. It's definitely not enough now: for one thing, she never once accounted for having to answer a question like … It's really you? because there would've been sparkles, or a rainbow, or even a diamond— maybe even her name— somewhere in the opening salvo. For another…

… well, what do you say to the woman you didn't exactly run across the galaxy to escape from, but also were not, arguably, as broken up about it at the time as you could have been because there were A LOT OF THINGS happening all at once and then things got confusing, because how are you supposed to know that at some point, it's gonna be a month later, and it's gonna start to sink in that, hey, it's great seeing space, and planning a princess wedding for peace, but it sure is weird that literally none of it's going to include your best friend who you probably could've had less of a meltdown at, and would give up, easily, any five other members of the wedding party just for a chance to see again— to laugh with, to hug, to be awed by…?

Her best attempt started with, 'I missed you so much…', but that'd be a strange way to answer the question, wouldn't it?

Not that what she goes with is that much better.

Wooden chair legs scrape the ground. A smooth step and sway brings her around the table so she can reach around Nico's shoulders and pull her in firmly. Her arms are slender and barely toned, but she's stronger than she looks; another little present from Frank and Leslie.

"Kinda seems like," she murmurs, tentative despite her sure-handed gesture, "I should be asking you that— look at you— ! Ms. Elysium vibes…"

Trailing leads to soft sniffling as a tear rolls down her cheek.

* * *

The ruthless forces of SHIELD and their dark commander, Captain Marvel, will not yet strike. It's not illegal to flash a rainbow sign - not in New York, anyway! Not yet.

Nico hears Karolina almost apologize in tune with her.

It feels like eating a fishhook. But in a good way. Sort of.

She accepts 'hi' silently. She takes a deep breath and she listens and she watches and she waits. And internally, inside of her mind, she tries to decide how she feels.

There's a lot of things here. One of them is the embarrassed flustering of a miscarried response, wanting to say: No, you were right, or at least semi-right; wanting to say, I missed you so much; wanting to say, Hold me, I missed you; wanting to say, Can we be — something again, or are you going to leave me, and that 'are you going to leave me' is when her mind finds a different track entirely.

Nico doesn't resist the hug, but she doesn't quite return it. She turns her eyes away, and she shifts a little.

I don't want to be cruel, Nico thinks. She settles into a chair, sitting diagonal to Karolina, at which point she does look up at her, directly. (Karolina can probably tell she's gotten three more piercings, including the one in the septum.) "Heh," she says, not quite 'laughs.' "Yeah. I kind of had to take care of myself for a while."

She puts the bag on the table. She leans an elbow there, and rests her chin on her curled-up knuckles.

"How come you're back?" Nico asks.

"Like," she continues, "you seem… less… princess then I would have expected."

I don't want to be cruel, Nico thinks.

"Did something happen?"

* * *

Nico doesn’t resist the hug, but she doesn’t quite return it.

Karolina doesn’t make the other woman endure her tearful embrace for long.

Kind of,” Karolina echoes, quickly brushing a couple fingers over her cheek as the two women return to their corners. The accompanying smile’s small, and tight, and if it does make it to her eyes, it might be hard to tell with the way they’ve fallen towards the hummus. Emotional adrenaline’s fading fast; this is so far removed from how she imagined reconnecting with Nico might work that it was easy to get swept up in the moment. She’s here, in front of Karolina, no texts necessary!

No explanations given…! I didn’t mean to be selfish, Karolina thinks, digging a shallow trench through the dip with a red bell wedge.

But I was, wasn’t I…?

She doesn’t look up until she’s questioned. She doesn’t stop idly digging, either.

She doesn’t look like she wants to answer. At least, most people don’t get tense and slide their eyes away from someone when they want to answer questions from them; they don’t gnaw on their bottom lips, either.

Usually - if it so happens that they’re eating a dip of some kind when questioned - they might hurry to finish the bite they’re in the middle of assembling, or just set their food aside instead of just— digging; slower, sure, but…

Maybe they do things differently on Majesdane?

There’s a draft for this. There are several drafts for this… but they’re drafts for a reason, aren’t they?

Eventually, she softly utters, “The wedding got called off,” as she sets her eyes fully on Nico’s. “It was— things got— it’s— it’s so complicated…” No sooner than she’s looking across the table, her gaze starts to fall again when she trails.

She’s not a princess. She doesn’t have to be diplomatic; she doesn’t have to find a bright face for dark truths.

“The wedding parties tried to kill each other,” she states, lower and flatter than before, “over the seating chart. One minute, we’re together, we’re almost at the hangar. The next, I can’t— I couldn’t— I lost her— literally, I— she was just gone— I felt her squeeze my hand,” lying on the table beside her plate, her left hand curls tight, “and then…”

Most of the overladen bell pepper goes *snp* and plops into the scored mass of hummus. Karolina’s eyes actually focus for a split-second before she just flicks what’s left of the red chunk into her mouth.

“So I found a ship I could start, and I just…” she murmurs after a quick chew and swallow. “And when it ran out…?” She sucks a little hummus from her index finger, then sticks out her thumb and firmly demonstrates her hitchhiking form.

“The last bunch thought I was some kinda dancer,” comes with a small, reflexive smile, “and I think I might’ve helped them do a space felony? But they brought me back to Earth - to here, of all places - and… that was… basically… that.” When her hand finally falls from thumb-pointing, she lets it rest over the phone screen and edges it a little closer to herself.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner, Nico.” Looking her in the eye hasn’t gotten any easier, but it feels much harder to avoid, now. “I wanted to, I— I was going to, I… … I’m sorry.” A heavy sigh puffs her cheeks while her eyes subtly jitter in restrained retreat.

* * *

Inside of Nico Minoru, there is a storm.

She sits on it for now. She relents, and she listens, and she looks at Karolina, and she thinks: Kind of. Why is it kind of. Why isn't it yes, why isn't it I-quit-to—— how does that sentence end? She doesn't let it finish as she listens, as she makes herself put on the listener's face. There is, at first, the attitude of old classroom practices, though she never shared those hallowed halls with Karolina herself. Different schools, different districts, different circles. But with one overlap.

A big overlap. A red one. A bloody —

Nico is sufficiently in her own little seething interior view that she has to mentally stop and blink and rewind what Karolina *said*. It is somewhere around the "its" that Nico visibly reacts; that she straightens up, that her lips purse, that she looks shocked, wounded, almost. She sees those eyes reach for her own gaze and then turn down.

"Oh," she says, and then, "I'm sorry," and then she folds her hands on the table and she hears the rest.

"… Oh, shit," Nico then says. "That's horrible. Are you… like…"

"You're not kidding or exaggerating even a little, huh," Nico says with a slow bleak realization. Space, she thinks; they're still having conflicts like that even in space, aren't they? She thinks momentarily of Koriand'r and she then shakes her head once, saying, "I'm sorry," again, before she listens to the rest.

A ship she could start. She opens her mouth and then closes it slowly, and her lips purse into a frown, a frown that is probably heartbreakingly familiar, before she asks, "What makes it a… space felony? You didn't, like… kill anybody, did you?"

Nico momentarily thinks of all the people who she, and perhaps by extension Karolina, have been complicit in killing, whether cultists who turned into snakes (that's on her), their collective parents (that one is kind of shared), and at that point Nico stops thinking about that because it is not happy to remember that your teenage bullshit has a literal and objective body count. Her teeth grit for a moment, but she makes herself relax.

WHY DID SHE HAVE TO BE HERE, Nico thinks, feeling her face warm a little. The flush doesn't quite begin, but she has to breathe in and then breathe out before she says, "It's alright. I… I just hope you aren't, like… in trouble. I don't know, like, what's going on, obviously, but if the space police or whatever are after you I'm not going to… snitch or anything."

After a moment, she says without thinking (for once), "it's good to see you," and then she looks away as she regains overt control over her thought, as if to study the menu. "… Was it, like… a difficult trip? Other than the… space felonies."

why did they think you were a dancer, Nico thinks.

Then, why did I think that.

wtf.

* * *

Not even a little.

“It’s like the regular kind,” Karolina replies, “but with, just, a lot more lasers.”

(— a little. maybe just a little, now that the bad part’s over— )

“They were like… I dunno, like,”

Nico’s looking at the menu— of course she’s looking at the menu! She didn’t come here for an awkward reunion— !

There’s plenty of hummus and its assorted accompaniments, vegetables and pita wedges ringing the scored lump of chile-kissed dip. Karolina twists the pita towards Nico and nudges the plate forward to make an offering of it. She keeps her fingers poised against the edge afterwards, because what else is there to do with them right now, really?

She hardly had an appetite before taking a trip back through the recent past,

Nico and she aren’t exactly on hand-holding, or even -touching terms just now,

and god forbid she sit here fidgeting like some kind of nervy, giddy, guilty…

“a bunch of Robin Hoods? Kind of? And there were, just— there were way more swords and knives than you’d, y’know— and not even laser swords and knives, just really, really sharp metal,” Karolina explains—

— tries, a bit too quickly, to explain while lightly drumming her fingers along ceramic—

“Mostly, it was property damage, and breaking and entering, and, like, theft— that kind of thing— mostly, I played lookout, or covered their backs, or… … like, I don’t have any space warrants, or anything, no! No, I’m…”

It’s Nico. Don’t lie
It’s Nico. Don’t make her feel sorry for

“That last group, they were, y’know, kinda rough around the edges, or whatever, but I liked them— I liked // that// part of it… … and I liked not having to hide… I mean, the big hiding, the…” She lifts her wrist to give the simple bracelet dangling from it a shake, then draws her hands back and balls them tightly in front of herself. Her voice is still low; Nico can probably hear the effort made to keep it sounding controlled and roughly casual. There’s a small, warm smile despite the ugliness, another valuable and dubious gift from Frank and Leslie: smile enough and it doesn’t matter what the critics say, what the tabloids say, what the kid lashed to a bloody altar says—

Just smile, and positivity will flow. At a minimum, she’ll have a decent shot at not absolutely blowing the meeting she could never quite prepare for.

“It wasn’t all bad,” she quietly concludes, “but I’m real glad to be home, it’s— it’s good to see you too, Nico, I missed you.”

— damnit!

shit!

too positive!

“What, uh,” comes out a bit quieter as she glances at the hummus, “about you? How’ve you been? You’ve got a store now— I know you know that,” her eyes lift again, and suddenly it’s easy to find a broad grin for the coolest girl she knows, “but you’ve got a store now, and everything looks so…” She relents from gushing further with a soft sigh as the grin settles into a more modest intensity.

“I’m, just,” she murmurs, “I’m glad you’re… I mean, you seem like you’re doing good for yourself, and I’m glad for that. You deserve that.”

* * *

"heh" Nico says, at the joke. The joke about the felonies. That's pretty funny, right? CRIME? No; it was a legitimate laugh. Nico then looks back towards the proffered plate.

Hummus, she thinks. It's not like I dislike hummus.

Do I want to eat with her?

"I don't want to like… deprive you or anything," Nico says, or begins to say, but then she's reaching forwards to carefully and precisely separate a small piece of the pita to pick out some of the dip. She goes on the far end from where Karolina ate, but perhaps that's hopeful. "You can have a bit of whatever I get. They have falafel or something, right?"

Nico then eats the bite while listening about the tale of the nature of space. Its terrible secret revealed, she says; "Oh. That's kind of sad," about the knives, and she watches Karolina.

"I guess it was probably," Nico begins to say, before she begins to smile, and then when 'I MISSED you' comes up, she looks away again. She takes in a deep breath, lets it out, and says in a sort of let-the-words-pour-out kind of thing, "Ohwellasforallathattttttttttt, I kind of was in a squat in Gotham for a while after I like saw off Molly, like, at this school? But I think she got back to California because it was like a school for mutants and you have prrrrobably heard plenty about this whole registration thing with the big evil robots?"

Nico has decided that Sentinels are intrinsically evil, and hey, that's probably not a bad heuristic.

"Which is kind of funny, but, she's doing fine," Nico says, "which, like, why wouldn't she be, I guess, but anyway, SO: I was in this squat, and it kind of sucked, but I was able to furnish it, until the weird… like…"

Nico reaches for words. Her eyes turn around. "Goat? Demon? Showed… up? Fortunately I met this guy, Red Robin, who used to work with Batman? Along with some other people. Like I hang out with Spider-Man, who is by the way pretty cool even if he's also sort of a giant dork."

A beat passes.

"But yeah, the shop! I actually do it from the place… I can't really… TALK about it a lot because it's sort of semi hemi secret? But there's a lot of space and it's like, oh yeah, sure, do some fabrication stuff. I've really been able to do a lot with leather stuff, lately, which I guess is what you probably saw on… Wait, you found my shop?"

Nico frowns.

BACK IN THE DAY, the year before

'That's gonna be my band name.'
'wasn't your band name gonna be CatCat93?'
'that was then. this is NOW, Chase. Mad Mistress is ME.'
'those look like Zs'
'I didn't want it to look like Nazi letters.'
'They're runes, Nico. The Nazis stole them from Asgard. You can use them, it doesn't -'

HERE, NOW

She doesn't quite figure it out. "Were you looking for EGA?" Karolina has heard exactly what that is: the grown-up version of 'lolita the fashion style', or at least, kind of. It's been years. No doubt there have been evolutions.

'You deserve that.'

Nico looks at the tabletop now. "That's nice of you to say," she says.

Then she doesn't say anything else.

* * *

It isn’t much to look at, that hummus: an off-white mound scored several times over with Karolina’s anxiety, studded with flecks of garlic (more white) and the odd chunk of smashed chickpea (a little closer to reddish-brown). At least there’s the drizzle to give it a pop, visually and otherwise: bright red threaded with yellow, swirled over and throughout the mound. The little sprig long since cast to the table offered a somewhat more conscious, if indifferent concession to aesthetic appeal— especially considering that the oil is almost certainly there at Karolina’s request.

Aesthetic appeal was, if not the last thing on the cook’s mind, floating somewhere in the bottom quarter.

The spice level’s moderate, bolstered slightly by a healthy dose of black pepper; mostly, it’s there to add another dimension to the hummus’ rich, nutty baseline. The garlic’s every bit as present as the flecks suggest, a pungent addendum to a lovingly concocted meal that was in no way intended to be shared with Nico Minoru, of all the millions of people in New York City.

That Karolina’s barely touched it is certainly not a commentary on it.

“Oh, you wouldn’t,” Karolina quietly begins to say, only for Nico to stop saying and start— what, humoring her?

Just— let it go, and smile, and talk about space, Karolina.

Just— go ahead and make this whole thing more awkward, Karolina.

She clasps her hands in her lap when Nico graciously slides right past that to talk about— squatting— in Gotham. Blonde brows arch as she leans towards the other corner of the table. Squatting! Her lips begin to part—

The question that nearly knee-jerked free gets swallowed after a moment so she can just murmur, “God, Nico, I’m so sorry,” with an extra helping of penitence. “That sounds… I mean— I bet you had it /looking/ nice…”

‘Goat?’ and ‘Demon?’ were not the words she expected Nico to find. Her jaw hangs open for a beat after she trails off…

… oh. Neither was ‘Red Robin’—

— is— is Nico saying—

— did she accidentally join some kind of chain superhero team? Is Batman in charge of overseeing them all?? Are she and Nico working for rival franchises???

Karolina’s eyes are only a little bit wide as Nico backtracks, and then with a brisk shake of her head, she’s back from considering whether franchise-based superheroing requires selling out. She frowns too, but it’s short-lived, morphing into bemusement as Nico studies the table. “I— “

Karolina’s familiar, indeed; she might not be quite as bemused, if not.

“Nico, I thought… I mean…”

Nico knows she’s familiar, and Nico knows her, with her simple-next-to-gowns-and-corsets-and-cute-little-hats wardrobe, so there’s a brief moment of recoil before she reminds herself that, duh, it was an honest question, and for all Nico knows, maybe she changed somehow, Up There.

“… I figured— y’know, I thought ‘Mad Mistress’ was maybe a longshot, Twitter or ‘gram-wise, but I didn’t have a whole lotta shots to take…“

Damnit— damnit! Why, Karolina wonders, am I still sitting here, stammering around like— the bad thing already happened! It’s happening right now! It’s everywhere!

Be brave! You can be brave— you’re allowed to be brave—

“I was looking for you, Nico,” she quietly admits, wringing her hands in her lap..

“Of course I was looking for you,” she quietly adds, lifting her eyes just enough to look across the table.

“I’m glad Molly’s okay,” she quietly remarks, now that she has a chance. “I’m sure you took great care of her while you could.”

* * *

Nico, silently, decides to order this hummus.

Her eyes turn back to Karolina.

She takes a deep breath and seems to be on the verge of sliding in words, her breath catching in a chained deferrement, until finally — "Yeah, it looked pretty — "

She falters and her face colors a notch when the fact that, yes, Karolina did look up her shop, and yes, she did find out it was her, or at least made a reasonable inference, and that she did it in order to find her, that she was in fact searching HER, in particular, out - all these things land on Nico like a shawl with a lead lining.

It feels familiar to her, though it is not actually so. She slouches a little; her forehead rests in her hand, her black-painted nails tapping at her forehead for a moment or six as Karolina rises, fades, sputters out a little, speaks of Molly.

Molly, the other one who lived. Well, Nico thinks, the other one who lived and then *got out*.

This stance probably wasn't encouraging. "… heh; well," she says, "I guess you found me. Just… hold on a moment, though, I seriously need to eat something."

And then she gets up and she leaves. … for like a minute. This is probably a very long minute, a minute that stretches into the middle distance.

Nico returns at the end of that minute.

She has hummus. And a slip of paper indicating she's getting something else. She may not have been kidding.

"I wonder, sometimes," Nico says, looking at the tabletop, "if that would've been like, my supervillain name if I'd stayed in Gotham. That place has pretty bad vibes. I don't mean that like, because of a wizard, thing; I just mean it was really oppressive. Like out here, right," she says, gesturing towards the door and beyond it the Atlantic. "The ocean's totally different here, but it's even more different between here and Gotham. I don't know if that makes any sense?"

Her lips purse for a moment.

Her hand moves - as if to reach out - but it's a slight motion and she doesn't follow through. So you found me, she thinks: Now what?

* * *

That probably wasn’t the good kind of face-reddening, forehead-drumming, ‘flatly acknowledge the stalkeresque move then immediately go somewhere else’ reaction, Karolina decides five seconds in.

This leaves fifty-five more to grapple with. Fifty-five seconds, just her and her hummus and her negative appetite.. At least Nico made sure she’ll have plenty to take home for later, by ‘not wanting to deprive Karolina’. ‘Eat with Karolina’; ‘share more than uncomfortable breaks and awkward silences with Karolina’…

Fifty seconds. All those scores and furrows from picking at the hummus while she unwound, drafted, and revealed the terrible secrets of space. It was nice and smooth (apart from all the garlic studs and semi-mashed beans meant to drive up its homespun, rustic metrics) before she started picking; even just committing to scooping out bits of dip might’ve made for a better presentation than the scarified mess she presented to her…

Forty-three seconds. Missing Nico was much easier. With lightyears to separate them, it was so much simpler: Nico was her best friend regardless of the way they left things, and there’d always be a phantom ache in Karolina’s chest. It’s the kind of pain a girl could learn to live with, especially when a girl has princess duties and spacefaring to distract her— the kind she was certain she could trust not to get any worse than it already was. Thirty-four.

The woman she wrote all those drafts to was more of an idea, an abruptly abandoned companion who, for all of Karolina’s worrying, would probably be shocked, then kind of confused, then relieved once she got the perfectly constructed apolog-hey. Reality - no matter how toned - and fantasy rarely align, though; she really should have known better by now, shouldn’t she have?

At least she was 2/3rds of the way right.

Twenty-two.

She could just— go

Nico seems— she really did land well. She’s got new friends; she’s got a purpose beyond sticking it to their parents or surviving; she has a job— a real one, brand and online storefront and secret manufacturing space and all; she’s still just so cool, so composed

It just— it figures that not only was missing Karolina easy on her, Nico was able to survive— to flourish in her absence.

She could just go. She could just spare the other woman from even having to consider handling the gnarled mess of their shared history; it’d hurt, maybe, but she knows that Nico would survive.

What, after all, does Karolina have to offer if she stays…?

Her eyes snap from staring some distance past the door, down towards the plate hitting the table.

“The news always makes it sound so…”

Drop your shoulders, Karolina. Stop wringing your hands under the table, Karolina. You were definitely not just thinking about doing another selfish thing, Karolina.

“… your supervillain name, huh?” she murmurs a beat or so after trailing into wincing and headshaking. A blonde brow arches as she mindfully spreads her hands out atop the table and makes herself look up at—

Movement starts and stops in the space of a moment. Karolina’s eye subtly, dubiously twitches.

“How’d you end up there? Of all the places, you kinda… you picked a hard one to settle down in, didn’t you?” she wonders while looking up at— well, Nico’s face if perhaps not her eyes, depending on how much interest the table’s able to hang onto. Her right hand edges an inch — perhaps two — closer to Nico as she draws her fingers together in a bid to look at least a bit more natural.

“I mean, I guess the important thing here is that you got out, and you didn’t even have to do some kinda cleavagey, leathery— “ Her left hand comes up for a few quick gestures. “— thing to be able to do it…” Half a smile forms for the thought of Nico chewing scenery like some of the assholes they bumped into back West.

“God, Nico, I— “

It’s short-lived, that smile.

“I should’ve… I should’ve never left, I— god,” her eyes tilt down as she brings her left hand in to rub her forehead, “if I had just— if I hadn’t been so— god, I don’t know, needy? In the park that night— if I hadn’t been so, just— just, desperate to find some way to make my life mean something…”

“Maybe w— y— “ now her gaze starts to slip, towards the fresh plate of hummus, “maybe there could’ve been a squat somewhere else, is all, I dunno,” she quietly concludes.

* * *
Time stands still for a while. Seconds pass like hours. Hours pass like years. Years pass like millenia. For a few moments, Karolina Dean may experience the true solitude of the cosmos again…

But then Nico is back, and she says, with a little laugh, "Well, like, it's kind of near to where Molly was, but not… too close? I didn't want to be too close, and it felt like a good compromise. Kind of different. Not just New York."

Nico dips a bit of pita. Her other hand stays on the table. It's not so different from what Karolina used to know. Perhaps the slightest bit older; the flesh a little more defined, a little bit of babyfat shed and converted into life. Her nails are fine, at least.

"Sometimes I worry something there was like… calling me. I wasn't really kidding about the bad vibes. But they do mean you can get a place at pretty reasonable rates, even if you, like, make sure those rates are zero because you are totally squatting." Then she pops a bite into her mouth. Her lips purse into a small quirk of a smile at the mention of a possible piece of supervillainous attire.

She's about to say something -

'I should've never left'

A cloud crosses Nico's face.

She breathes in deep through her nose and she seems to keep breathing in forever as if she can drink the sky in and Nico tries to avoid closing her eyes because she knows if she closes her eyes she'll seem mad, and she's not mad; right? She's not upset, not angry. The only kind of mad she might be is cRaZy and that's not the actual way they should make use of things.

She speaks without really thinking. It's a little toneless, and dispassionate. "Yeah," she says; "You shouldn't have."

But it's okay, Nico thinks. It doesn't reach her mouth.

But you're here now, she thinks, and she feels a prickle of heat in her cheeks.

She lets her eyes close.

"Anyway," Nico says, rather than try to smooth the jagged line there, "we probably could have found a better place or something, but we might not have had to at all. The really big reason I came out HERE, instead of, I don't know, Hawaii or something," Nico says - and she looks up as she moves away from her own feelings, which makes everything easier, "IS, in fact, Molly, because she went to this like residential school for mutants."

A couple of seconds passes, before she says, "They took all the young kids back West. That's what's, like, up with that."

Nico's eyes turn back down.

"Don't… talk like… that; okay? Like… I don't want to lie to you or anything. But it's bad for you, to think like that. Like, on a bunch of levels. Life is worth living even if it ing sucks in the Luthor economy."

A second later, she says, "You have somewhere to stay, right? Like. If you need help, just say. I mean it. Even if it's embarrassing. I owe you a lot," despite everything, she doesn't finish.

* * *

Peering into the hummus, Karolina thinks: I deserve that.

I deserve all of that, she reckons, but I’m

Life is worth living even if…

Wrinkles crease her brow as she looks up.

“Nico…” she murmurs a second later, too quiet to interrupt.

“I’m… uh, like— this’— I’m, uh, kinda— like, I’ve been…”

Her features contort with each break, each turn as she strains for the right words and tries to ignore the heat creeping through her face.

“… but, uh— I’m— uh— not— thinking about— y’know— y’know? Like,” her pace spikes up on a dime, “all that— all that losing, and missing, and, well, the not really knowing if I’d ever see Earth again, that all,” and reassurance tumbles from her lips, piling between them in short order, “sucked, bad, but I promise I’m— okay? I guess ‘okay’ is… like, that’s— that’s fair. I’m okay.”

Her gaze dips from Nico’s face once she’s done and needs to steal a quick breath.

“I do,” comes a beat later, softer than before, “have a place to stay. Not a— like, a good place, or a squatted place, but a place.” It’s punctuated with a small, fleeting smile.
‘Thanks for asking’ lingers on her tongue.

Also,” she says while her palm gently descends towards Nico’s hand, “you’re way too strong to get swayed by— a vibe??” The little hitch followed by widening eyes and a briskly shaking head speak to her belief in her friend more than any lack of it for the premise of breaking bad for real estate reasons. “I bet you could’a made the villain look work, but…”

She squeezes firmly if her hand makes its destination.

(‘It’s nice to know that you care.’)

“How does Molly like being back home?” she lowly wonders, arching a brow. “Or— close to back home?” she allows after taking a beat to think about it.

“In, like, in her home time zone?” comes after another.

* * *

Nico looks up, and there is an unveiled moment of relief as one particular black dog is chased off from the proverbial melon patch. (Is that an actual metaphor? Nico doesn't know. Most of what she knows about farming involves video game words, from Alex originally.)

So she is on a more even keel when she says, "Awesome," and then she has another bite of her hummus, and then she smiles, with rue in her eyes, and says: "Thanks. I appreciate it, like, a ton. And I think you would be mostly right, too, like, not to puff myself up, but…"

She trails off, and she looks towards the sea, and that means Karolina is able to grasp her hand without any resistance — or attention, at all!

Nico starts at the touch. Her hand lingers there, still, for a moment, before she curls her fingers; before she squeezes, and looks up, and laughs. "I dunno," she says. "She's pretty busy. I kind of don't want to jinx it because you know, like, she would totally -"

Nico gestures towards the sea side she was examining. "She'd like come in surfing on some Latverian fighter jet or something and be like," her voice shifts pitch for a moment, "WERE YOU TALKING ABOUT ME KAROLINA???"

"I guess you'd normally say 'i heard u talkin shit,'" Nico then says, "But I am really gonna have trouble the, first time I hear her swear?"

There's another period of silence, then, as Nico trails off.

Her hand squeezes, once, and then draws back.

"So… uh… hm. I guess I owe you a story or something, huh," Nico continues (please take the story, Nico thinks, I want to tell you about something so I don't have to talk about us or see that big goopy hopeful smile or worry I'm gonna break you into tiny shards of sparkling glass) "since you gave me that interplanetary one. Do you want a scary one or a funny one?"

* * *

If Karolina’s laughter is a little louder, a bit shakier than Nico’s, it’s only because there’s a touch of catharsis folded in

After holding the back of her free hand over her mouth and finding a little composure, the blonde murmurs, “Like, I miss her,” while rolling briefly joined hands, “a lot— you just, you didn’t wanna let her down, and she’d make sure you kept moving, doing something…” until her thumb’s slowly massaging the other woman’s knuckles.

“Thank god she’s out of trouble,” Karolina quietly decides a moment after trailing. “Around less of it, maybe… … not here.” Her eyes fall, but at least they’ve got a nice, gentle gesture to land on.

If her smile is a bit large, a little pearly, it’s only because she’s somewhere she never thought she’d be again.

“Thank god,” she echoes. A little laugh rattles from her nose, then, and she adds, “God, I don’t know how, after all that time around Chase…”

Trailing flows into squeezing, then Karolina’s eyes follow Nico’s hand along the table for a couple of inches.

“Funny,” she exhales, bringing her eyes back to Nico’s, bringing the smile down to a more polite wattage—

Only for, “— hey,” to abruptly break through the beginnings of the tale. A wince flashes over her features as soon as it comes out, but here she is, so:

“Do… you maybe wanna trade numbers, here?” she wonders, arching a brow. “Like,” her pace begins to spike, “sorry! I wanna hear your story! But I don’t wanna forget, either, I don’t— I just, I wanna make sure we won’t have to wait ‘til the next time we accidentally see each other to— see— each other.”

* * *
"Yeah, I mean, I am sure she's getting up to something," Nico says -

SAN FRANCISCO, MAYBE

A Bitcoin ATM flies out through a window and a thin but defiant and extremely correct voice shouts from a perch atop a table in the center of a vegan tapas bar, "STOP BEING RACIST!!!"

One tech expert vapes anxiously. Another stammers, "I'm n-not saying there's anything wrong with —"

BUT THAT'S SAN FRANCISCO. THIS IS NEW YORK CITY, ISN'T IT?

"But…"

Nico's eyes rest on Karolina's. They're the same color they ever were. Her face is a little - just a little - different. Perhaps it's just growing up. It's difficult to tell exactly what it is; perhaps it's weight, perhaps it's a little bit of strain, perhaps it's just the light in here. Everyone grows up, eventually.

A number is offered. "Sure," Nico says.

I hope I don't regret it, she thinks, even as she gets out her phone.

"OK," she says then, "funny story. So I've been doing this fashion design stuff, right, on the side, and since this is New York I can get around pretty easily and look at stuff even if it is like 'I cannot ever afford this in my life unless I find the giant cache of stupid gold or something that our parents left in Switzerland'-"

Nico falters for two panels, as if considering this topic.

"— Anyway: So I see a lot of cool stuff and I examine a lot of materials. How familiar with New York stuff are you, now? Because I was in Williamsburg which is sort of this hipster area even if it's fading a little bit, now, barely. So I'm wandering around and I go through this back alley right, and there's a boutique there. Like I'm making it sound fancy but it's actually really basic. I think it was like a bodega, originally. You know, a bodega? Anyway, so I go inside."

"And there's this Italian guy behind the counter, he says hi, but then he goes back to reading a newspaper, and I look around. And there are all these racks, right, and they're these… dresses. And not like, boring ones either, or even second hand ones. They were these like…"

Nico purses her lips. "It's hard to describe. It's like, rubber, but it had fluid in it? It would have been a little heavy to wear but it was like it would move when you were touching it. Not a lot, but a little. It was REALLY GREAT! So I go up after I look at a lot of them and I ask, first, how much, cuz I don't see any prices."

Nico gestures with a falafel. "So he sort of shrugs and says they're sort of priced by size, that I look like a medium to him, those are two-fifty each - that's two hundred and fifty - which is, like, shockingly good for some kind of fancy material. So I ask the obvious next question of, WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM?"

Nico pauses here. There may be a sense of a punchline being imminent.

* * *

Karolina's eyes are just as blue, but they're just - a bit - harder, now. Sharper; wearier, for having learned that hope is delicate and the world is cruel no matter which world it is.

Just - a little - brighter for now, while she remembers all over again why all those drafts were worth it.

Speaking of: Karolina does a little hesitating, then a lot of rapid swiping and cradling her phone nice and close to her face before punching Nico's number in. The corner of one of her lips is gently rolled between her teeth until she's done and ready to slip the phone into her pocket.

"I still think they'd go property," a lightly smiling Karolina inserts into one of those panels. She slowly drags bread along her hummus as she listens intently. "But gold would be so much easier to handle…"

Trailing naturally leads her to Williamsburg, down a back alley, into a boutique that used to be a bodega, all of which she can imagine just fine without the explanations she's happy to let pile up around them. It's hard to get impatient with someone she's waited more than a year to talk to; her smile widens with each turn as the story builds—

— as she leans ever nearer, unwilling to miss a word of the climax, the punchline—

— as she pictures her coolest friend marveling over fancy rubber—

— as she thinks, I'm being too interested, right?

but stands her ground regardless instead of showing more instability.

"I kinda wanna," she starts to muse before—

"— oh, but, well," comes with quick headshakes. Her arms fold across the table, leaving her pita wedge standing in hummus while she arches an eyebrow.

"I mean— where ARE they coming from??!"

* * *

The question comes with playfully widened eyes as she drops her voice to the biggest stage whisper she can find for the conclusion of the story.

It's not the same number it was before. It's a New York City number, for better or worse.

"heh" she says about Property. She takes a moment to breathe in deep and breathe out, before her lips purse for a moment and she leans back in her seat as if to get back on the course, in order to say, with a seasoning of a faux new york accent:

"Oh," he says, "from me."

"So I ask him, hey, like, you mean you make them yourself? I ask him about the tailoring, right, because it looks like they got heat sealed or something, which doesn't really make a lot of sense? But it does kind of make sense that he'd make weird one-offs and sell them and he could probably have like a boutique thing, BUT," and here Nico taps her nose, "BUT, I also am thinking, right, this dude doesn't look like a fashion person at all."

"Like this is the kind of guy who you'd see in some kind of old show and he'd be named like Mr. Pocatelli or something. He's got a cop mustache but he looks out of shape. And he says, No, no, I hire a guy who does the shaping. The material comes from me."

Nico pauses dramatically.

"From you? I asked him."

"Yeah, he said, and then he said: WANNA SEE?"

Nico's eyes widen and she raises one hand. "And he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal—"

Nico raises one arm and runs a finger down the line of her forearm, a gesture that if it were photographed and taken out of context would be, like, so sick and advocating going DOWN THE ROAD. But she explains: "He's a mutant. His power is he can like… make this stuff. He can get out like five yards in an hour, but he got arm cramps if he does more than three or four rounds… he can imagine patterns. Like, a loom."

There is a moment of silence, as Nico says, "So, that is really cool, but I did not end up buying the dress, and he absolutely wasn't gonna sell the fabric either…? Like I asked but it was definitely, you know…? You can hear how I'm trailing off…?"

"He was afraid Tony Stark would like, copy it and then he'd be out of work."
* * *

Blonde brows lift until Karolina pictures sausage fingers working frosting-kissed buttons—

"… oh," she says. The wince is fleeting, but this is the kind of information that has a way of sticking and tumbling in the brain; at least his products are cruelty free. "So he— … huh—"

A brief, incredulous laugh ripples through her chest and shoulders, soon to be followed by more as she slowly shakes her head and settles back in her chair.

"So what's the moral?" she wonders a few seconds later, once rising laughter ebbs back down. "'Don't judge a Pocatelli by his cover'?" the grinning blonde suggests.

"'Sometimes, beauty IS skin deep'?" she posits, tilting forward to rest folded arms again.

"'All you really need is the clothes from your back'?" comes as she nudges a couple stray locks behind her ear.

She snags the pita and pops it into her mouth. "It's kinda sad," she mumbles after curling her hand in front of her lips, "too, though, right? It sounds so— just, special— different. And he's in that little boutique," she swallows, "and— YOU were lucky enough to find him, but think about all the people that never will… and even if they could… it'd just mean that eventually, some of them would have to leave disappointed."

* * *

"I don't think there… is a moral," Nico says. "I guess this is where you could say it's capitalism, but I guess it's also one of those weird things. Like, it was breathable rubber fabric? There's some kind of use for that." Maybe you could make a mask out of it. A mask for weirdo vigilantes.

"I dunno," Nico says.

"Do you think stories ought to have morals?"

Ugh, she thinks, that was way too deep. She picks up the fork, digs into her food for a moment, several bites into it before she replies again. "I did tell him he ought to sell online. So, like, good deed for the day, I guess. I'd worry if someone got an allergy, but like, that's how the world gets to be stupid, right? This big wonderful thing, like dozens and dozens of them coming out of M-town, out of everywhere, BUT, oh no, what if."

"What if they get sued," Nico says. "Or if they really hurt someone. Like I didn't get into it with the guy, because I admit I was sort of creeped out at the arm dress thing, but — like, you get the shape of that, right? Like that's just how the world is, sometimes."

Her chin rests in her hand.

"I guess it wasn't that funny," she says, "but neither was the clown cabaret."

"I dunno," Karolina replies.

It takes a couple seconds of slight recoil, of studying mostly familiar features, of lowering her lids in thought, but, she says,

"It's nice to think they might help someone, some how, though, right?" eventually. "Like, maybe they don't have to, but it'd be nice, y'know?"

Now that it isn't just her - eating, sitting here, engaging - she's a little quicker to move from pita back to pepper chips, eating a couple in quick succession as Nico lists off dread WHAT IFs.

"Maybe if he warns people…"

"… i don't know what you warn people with, like, 'caution: mutant superskin may cause allergic reaction', i guess?"

Karolina grimaces once the murmur dies off, and there'd be more peppers in her future if not for—

"… no, hey," she exhales, "it was pretty funny." She reaches out to brush the other woman's arm with the backs of her fingers, and then there's another piece of pepper.

"And weird," she notes with a smile, "and surprising, and— I mean— still kinda sad? Because the world's all, just… it's really fucked up, on top of all the, just, the toiling in obscurity stuff, it's— it was a story, Nico," one easily worth several lesser tales if the weight the blonde lends the word is anything to go by.

"A story doesn't have to just be one thing, does it?"

* * *

"I hope I'm not being too depressing or anything here," Nico says.

She looks at the face of the other woman for a moment and she smiles, though it is small.

They did become women, didn't they? Nico thinks for a moment. They grew up. Sort of. In alien ways. Her eyes flick away from Karolina's again for a moment, and she raises her hands to lace fingers together rather than try to brush it off. Her hips shift in her chair. She breathes out with some force.

It's like going home again, Nico thinks, but I did go home again, didn't I, and it was pretty fucking miserable and we didn't learn a single thing other than that I guess there are monsters around, and — she looks back to Karolina. At the touch.

I don't want her to touch me, Nico thinks.
I want her to touch me, Nico thinks.

What Nico also thinks is that she would have been shouting three years ago at this point, and acting like a huge idiot. She takes another deep breath and says, "So do you have any good stories from… space?"

"The clown cabaret is also a pretty funny story," Nico adds, "now that it's over."

* * *

All the best ones include the person I left you for, Karolina thinks.

“Uh,” the Majesdanian exhales as her eyes flick from Nico’s.

I don’t want to remind you of why you should hate me, Karolina thinks.

“A… clown cabaret?” she wonders after a moment. “Like,” she murmurs as her brow furrows, “a cabaret,” she suggests, pace quickening as gears whirl, “with sequins, and, like, and smoky voices, and cocktails. And clowns, and— there had to be jokes, right? Because, y’know…”

Her eyes flash towards Nico’s again so she can share a quick, crooked smile before focusing on her hummus.

“It, like, it wasn’t someone’s birthday, or something, was it?”

oh my god, Karolina thinks, please just shut up and tell a

“Hhuh, anyway,” the blonde briskly sighs, easing the cabaret aside with the wave of a carrot stick, “Soooo, okay. Well,” the carrot’s quickly swiped through hummus and tossed into her mouth.

“So,” she exhales once it’s swallowed, “like— you remember how it was with the cops, back then, right? Once we knew our parents, just, had ‘em— once we were all truant, and half of us were supposed to be in foster home… right? You see a badge, and it’s probably not good.”

Not that Karolina had to adjust all that much to giving badges the side-eye, between her budding social consciousness and her otherwise sunny parents’ intermittent rants about what crude, overbearing wastes of taxpayer money they were.

“So, I’m wandering around this city built around this huge space port— it’s something like ‘Blood Sand Bay’ if you go Interlac to English, but the, like, the REAL name, in the REAL language, the native language, people say it’s prettier? But I don’t have the, you know, the mouth. So— anyway, I’m, like, I’m there; my ship that I stole, it’s sitting in a hangar, and— it’s not like I can pay for gas, right? So I know I’m not going back there…

“And I’m wandering,” tumbles out, “I’m walking around, and a badge sees ME, and WAVES at me.”

She pauses for a moment and lifts her eyes to Nico. Today’s grimace is - probably - a pale reflection of that day’s.

“And I don’t know, if— it’s Skrull space, so maybe there’s a law against being a runaway arranged bride, or…” This time, she just uses her hand to wave away the thought she’d rather not dwell on, then folds her arms across the table, shoulders slightly hunched. “… not to mention the ship, and the— like, NOW I know that, war or not, he wasn’t gonna care if I got all shimmery, because it’s not his JOB to, but at the TIME, I thought, well, god, I’m gonna, just, I’m gonna get nervous and SNEEZE and I’m gonna turn every color and he’s gonna throw me in space jail and I’m gonna get shot out of an air lock, or, like, get sent off to mine asteroids, or…

“… and he’s coming right for me,” she breathes out after a beat, “and I can’t run, and I can’t FLY, so I’m just. FROZEN there, and— “

Karolina’s lips tightly curve up as her eyes fall.

“I go, ‘I KNOW MY RIGHTS,’” the blonde leans in so she can drop her volume and share a hushed roar with Nico alone, “‘AND I AM HEREBY EXERCISING MY RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT, OFFICER. I DEMAND TO KNOW IF I’M ABOUT TO BE DETAINED.’”

The smile widens a touch. After a beat, lidded eyes just barely find Nico’s again so she can check in as the story rounds a corner.

* * *
"Yeah, the joke was that I was stupid enough to pay fourteen bucks to go to a clown cabaret," Nico says, frowning.

She has no idea, even now, that Harley Quinn was behind it, despite having met the Jammin' Juggalette's frigging hyenas repeatedly. She then says, with a mutter, "Yeah, *Satan's* birthday," before she takes a deep breath, regards Karolina, and -

Listens!

And eats, which is easy to do and is also a great way to make sure you aren't a giant buttinsky. Because when your mouth is full you Don't Talk, if you have Manners, and Nico Minoru has Manners, because she was probably hit until she did. (Grim! Perhaps even Grimm.)

"Right, f the p p," Nico agrees.

Interlac, she thinks. Is that what they call it? I wonder, she thinks, if that's like Swahili or Esparanto for space; is that what Kori grew up speaking? "Right," she says, about the ship. Skrull space.

Focus, she tells herself. Focus on Karolina.

You're good at that, aren't you, she thinks, before -

She suddenly flinches backwards as that phrase comes up. SHE KNOWS HER RIGHTS. Nico giggles, hard enough to dribble a tiny iota of hummus, and then she reaches for a napkin as she says—

"So is that how you got sent to the dilithium mine?" But her tone is laughing as she says it. It is probably intensely familiar - a laughter echoing, in slightly deeper and more resonant tones, better days and times — if ones laying over something much darker.

* * *

A warm, “God, you’ve gotten so much gothier,” slipped out amidst quiet giggling. Satan’s birthday! Imagine.

But then it was time for stories, and remembered panic, and—

And talking, and talking, and explaining, and detailing, and seizing a chance to be the center of Nico’s attention without having to second guess why, and—

One of Karolina’s hands is covering her mouth to muffle her share of mirth while the other fumbles to shove napkins towards Nico’s reaching. “Yeah,” she breathes after the other woman’s conclusion, lowering her hand and curling her arm to show— relative to when she left, there are hints of developed muscle, of time spent bonding with someone devoted to rigorous training, but it’s nothing like the Robin-forged definition Nico’s sporting.

“I just got screwed on the muscles, is all; you’d think all that hard labor would do me some kinda good, but… … — But, no— ” Relaxing into brisk waves to dismiss her joke, the grinning blonde sets her eyes fully on Nico’s.

“— it was his first day on the planet — maybe even on the job — and he needed directions to some housing complex, because— like, there’s gotta be a LEGION Academy somewhere? But I guess they don’t get too detailed on, like, ‘how do I use my LEGION housing vouchers and not be a homeless cop’, and since I was — just, still dressed up for wedding planning, I looked like I belonged, so…”

Karolina scoops a heaping bite of hummus onto a pita wedge while she trails off.

“There are these fabrics,” she softly muses after most of the pita’s gone, “that sync to your biology, and then they can react to changes in your body— like, they’re mostly meant to make it easy to, you know, to change sizes and shapes, and not need a huge wardrobe, but given a little extra— I guess, tailoring? They can do more; if I lit up in that dress, it’d suddenly develop these patterns,”

Undulating down the length of her body, judging from the gestures she’s drawing towards herself,

“and they’d kinda shift around, and complement whatever was going on with me— it was, just, it was interesting, is all.”

Her mouth quirks around the end of that sudden dose of nostalgia, then she pops the rest of the pita in.

“— oh, so, anyway— I mean, he didn’t arrest me, or anything, obviously— I do think he was suspicious of me after that, because he, just, hurried away once he knew I couldn’t help him. They’ve, I guess they have translators? But even then, I’m just some weirdo tourist who just got done yelling at him about my rights, so it’s not like I blame him.”

With a quick shrug and airy laughter, she shakes a little lingering melancholy free, then concludes, “Sorry, I know I got kinda rambly— I haven’t really had a chance to share space stories with someone who isn’t from space.”

* * *

"A, aha," Nico says at the news that she's gotten gothier. Do I like that? That's another thing to debate.

She can debate inside of her own head, Nico decides.

She keeps eating. This trick won't last forever - well it could if she wanted to get more food, but at a certain point you can only eat so many falafels before some combination of

a. death
b. obesity
c. both
d. falafelization

set in. The presentation of Karolina's definition is thus helpfully covered up by a mouthful of food, though if she's watching (let's be real: probably is) she can see Nico glance towards that arm. But then there is more Story, and Nico makes herself listen.

LEGION, she thinks. She can kind of hear the capital letters. What is up with that. Isn't that a Latin word? Maybe it's like autotranslated and it's actually Splrghlr, Nico thinks. I have never been to space. I don't know. But she gets the outlines. Space cops.

And then Karolina reveals a wonder.

Not just her body, of course, a space about which Nico is feeling really fucking complicated things in a low key way that she deals with by crunching into some grated cucumber, but the description of the fabric. "Where do you get that?" Nico asks. "The cloth I mean." Please let it not be extinct, Nico thinks.

TRANSLATORS there they are.

As she finishes off her bowl, Nico says, "I had been wondering about the translation thing. Like, I know… a lot of people in space are kind of close to humans. I mean like I don't want to, erase anything, but I mean like, they look a lot like humans. I know one person who if you didn't look at her skin color it would be like, oh, are you Chilean or something? She is just not that weird physically."

Nico clasps her hands. "BUT," she says, "I also met a talking tree and like a raccoon with a gun once so I am like: How DO they do the translation thing. Computers? I remember Alex made some kind of fish joke once?"

"And it is totally cool," Nico says. "I -"

if I stay here I'm gonna end up spending all day with her and then I'm gonna have a crush on her.

"I want to hear all this stuff but I -"

do I still have a crush on her

oh ffs, nico minoru

Nico waves a hand in the air. "can't stay like the whole time. I wanna hear how this wraps up tho, like I'm good for that, but you may have to text me."

"If it's, like… safe to text this," Nico concludes, thinking of Carol Danvers, involuntarily and unfortunately. "I don't want you to have… y'know?"

* * *

(is.)

Save for a quick trip for hummus and some slithering gestures, Karolina tells the rest of the story with her hands in her lap and her arms tucked closely to her body. She can’t hide them, of course, but there’s no reason to go showing them off to the woman who’s been channeling hard times into big lifts.

(don’t just look at her arms, she tells herself, she’s trying hard!! don’t make it weird for her!!!!)

A question gives her something to think about besides making eye contact, and she exhales, “Oh,” with an apologetic twist of her lips. “It’s pretty exclusive to Skrull space, like, that’s really who it’s for, y’know? I’ve— got some scraps, still, but they’d be tuned for me…”

… i’d love it if you could make something out of them for me, stays put while she scoops hummus onto her pita.

“If you ever — still — wanna see them, or anything, though,” she quickly murmurs, “just lemme know.”

Soon enough, there’s another question. Just when she’s about to give it a shrug, her hands go,

*SMAK!* against the edge of the table while bright blue eyes get saucer wide.

“I know those guys!” she exclaims.

A thoughtful beat passes.

A more muted, “I mean,” sounds as she scratches at her chin, “I— probably know those guys? Like — okay, there’ve gotta be some talking trees— oh! Is one of them Groot? You’d know if one of them was Groot.”

And then she settles back in her seat with a puff of air.

“They were the ones who brought me back home,” she explains with a quick wave. “And the rest of their crew…”

Maybe there are a few good space stories that won’t invoke the X card after all. Maybe there are even enough to keep Nico’s eyes on her until Claudette’s closes and they’re left to wander the beach in to find another medium for reconnecting. Maybe—

— oh

maybe she can’t stay.

of course she can’t stay— she’s a superhero fashion designer who’s friends with the devil!!

Karolina waves right along with Nico while, “No, no, yeah— you’ve got a lot going on, yeah? It’s okay; that story’s all done, anyway, so… … but I’ll, like, I’ll definitely text you, anyway, sometime,” spills out of her.

“… soon,” she promises half a second later.

“It’s been— so good seeing you again, Nico.” A broad and beaming smile shines through her quiet sentiment.

“Thank you,” she softly says, leaning and reaching across the table in a deliberate bid to cover Nico’s clasped hands with hers, “for being here.”

* * *

SMAK!

Striking
My
Ass
Kwickly?

No!

Nico straightens up. "You do?" she says. Asks, really, but it's more of a say, let's be real here. "Uh," she continues. "Yeah. That whole thing was messed up. This uh, person I know who's like me kind of except a lot whiter and with a better - life, referred me to this guy, John Constantine -"

"I have to tell you this one," she interrupts, with intrinsic gravity. "This guy is John Constantine, right? He's English. He sort of looks like a young Sting, or like, what's his name, the guy who did Rebel Yell. Billy Idol? Like imagine that guy but he looks tired and annoyed and needs a shave, and like, he's appealing? Anyway, if he asks you for help, do not take him up on it. Okay? Like, promise me that. Do not trust John Constantine, ever. In your life. Promise me."

And after that -

Hands reach for hers and take them. Warm hands. Familiar hands. Nico's skin is a little cold, which probably always played into her goth image - some things just might be fate, but maybe that's reading a little too much into one of the little quirks of how your body works.

Nico doesn't pull her hands away.

She smiles, crookedly. Hesitantly.

"Totally," she says.

And then she does something without thinking. What might be a big surprise. "Tell them - if they helped you out like that, like, I'll do them a favor. Even magic, stuff. You know." Her eyes cut to the side. "You know I can't do everything," she continues, some of the smile fading, or at least dimming.

"But if they helped you get, here, safe, instead of being - being out there, stuck…"

"Well I owe them," she concludes. "Even if that guy is literally a raccoon."

Nico feels a faint urge to lean across the table. To kiss Karolina on the cheek. Perhaps just to kiss her in general. It's a clear feeling. A psychic could see it, though it doesn't reach her muscles.

But it fades.

for now

And after that there is a momentary shuffling round as she gets out her phone. Some things are never fluid and easy.
“Thank you,” Nico says after they get swapped, “for - coming back.”

* * *

Karolina doesn’t really get cold, a quirk of her biology that made winter nights in an underground manor more bearable. The bracelet prevents her from breaking out in liquid color, but it can’t stop the natural processes that convert light into energy, and energy into warmth suffusing her palms.

A terrible urgency underlined Nico’s warning, drawing Karolina a few inches nearer to receive it— to hang on every word like a Silk Cut between devious lips. Still trapped in the orbit of her coolest friend afterwards, the danger of sketchy British men isn’t enough to distract from how familiar this is, sharing one of her few remaining resources with someone who needs it more than she does. There are fewer shared blankets than on the worst of those Hostel nights and the dubious adult they’re discussing isn’t related to either of them; nonetheless, the pattern resonates.

She won’t trust John Constantine, ever; she won’t stop trying to massage some of her warmth into Nico’s hands, either.

They’re equally important if you stop to think about it, and also happen to be across the table from a dream.

“You can do plenty,” she assures with warm squeezes, “and I will. … when I see them again— I don’t know when that’ll be, but… I promise.” The last two syllables carry the weight of years lost to fear and confusion. They burn through the silence that follows them, as Karolina’s lids sink just enough to focus flashing determination into precision-targeted beams. The pressure against Nico’s hands intensifies further; the blonde shifts forward, but—

But—

But just saying, “They’ll appreciate that,” is enough, even if it’s quiet; a kiss on the cheek might send a weird message, no matter how much gratitude is behind it.

Her hands are briskly drawn back to rest beneath the table once they separate. “I’m not going anywhere,” she states, lacing unseen fingers tightly as her gaze drifts hummuswards. “So— maybe next time, sometime, you could show me around the city, a little…? That boutique hidden away… there must be all kinds of cool little places you’ve found out here, right?”

A beat after that’s out, she plucks her phone from her pocket as her eyes return to Nico.

A beat after that, she’s pushing away from the table with her eyes still set on the witchiest Runaway.

Nico’s got weights to lift, or lace to fashion, or black candles to burn; Karolina has apps to satisfy and rent to make. They’ve got places to be, but nothing’s going to stop Karolina from savoring her first real glimpse of home for as long as she can.

The lonely, soul-deep cold of drifting endlessly without her favorite person in the galaxy to keep her moored lingers just before the tip of her tongue, a viper coiling up from the back alleys of her mind, but—

But—

But just saying that she’ll be there if Nico ever needs someone to help her keep the chill away — that she never slept better, warmer than when she did it after they vented parental angst and terror — would be a great way to cut this moment even shorter, wouldn’t it?

“See you soon, either way,” is much less less dangerous, even if a quieter, “hopefully,” slips in from the depths right afterwards.

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