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The second act left no more impression on Bai than the first had; he spent the time looking fixedly forward as if mesmerized, trying not to notice every time that Ressa shifted in her seat or brushed a lock of hair back from her face.Author's Notes
The second intermission came too soon, and Bai had to politely take her on his arm again, appreciating her rueful smile as they exited the balcony and mingled with the enthusiastic crowd.
"What a show," Ressa said in awe, and Bai thought she might have wiped a discrete tear from the corner of her eye as they walked out into the lobby, leaving their empty glasses on a dish table.
"That good?" Bai rumbled, casting about for safe conversation.
"Don't deny that you were as rapt as I was," she teased him. "You didn't look away from the stage for a tick the whole time."
Begging whatever purist deities might be listening that she wouldn't quiz him about plot or any details at all, Bai made a noise that might have been embarrassed agreement. Rai was nowhere to be seen in the mob of people, though Bai recognized several others he had even less desire to stop and converse with than avoid Ressa.
"Do you think she'll live?" Ressa asked with a sigh.
Bai just kept himself from asking, "Who?" and guessed, "Of course, or there wouldn't be a third act."
"I suppose you're right," Ressa agreed. "But I don't see how she could survive the poison."
"Urti!" Bai exclaimed in relief.
The big monitor was chatting with a young woman who looked happy to have his attention diverted and made some quiet apology and escape before Bai and Ressa arrived where he was standing. He did an obvious doubletake to see them together, and Ressa released Bai's elbow as soon as it was socially proper, so that they were only standing politely together in the crowded room. "You look gorgeous," Urti told Ressa, once greetings were past.
Ressa blushed and tipped her head, smiling at Urti under darkened lashes in a manner that Bai recognized with some surprise as flirtatious. "You clean up nicely yourself, Monitor," she returned warmly. "It's lovely to see you here, Urti," she added.
"Tickets were as hard as time crystals to get," Urti said with a chuckle. "I've got wretched neck-craning side-seats, and feel lucky to have them at all. We lesser mortals have to take what we can get!"
Ressa laughed, and flicked her feathered fan at him, just touching the shoulder of his formal uniform.
Seeing an out, Bai immediately asked, "Would you like to come sit with us? We've been stood up and have extra seats." He could very politely put Urti between himself and the bewitching Head of Files without a shred of suspicion.
He was almost miffed when Ressa quickly agreed. "Yes, come sit with us, Urti! It's a shame to let those wonderful seats go to waste!"
"You are an answer to a purist prayer," Urti said expansively, smiling at Ressa rather than Bai. "Maybe I can figure out what that head contraption that blue fellow is wearing in the background is supposed to be."
"I think it's supposed to be a blinkbird," Ressa surmised. "It has to tie in to the title, I think."
Bai let them launch into a discussion of the performance and plot, trying to pick up names and details to drop with people later. He noticed with some irritation that Urti looked elegant and impressive in his formalwear, making Bai feel more dumpy and unpolished than ever. He hadn't wished so keenly for his brother Rai's effortless, golden good looks since they had graduated second form. 'You don't need to be trying to impress your Head of Files,' he reminded himself. Besides, Ressa liked him just fine the way he was, as a friend and associate, the way they ought to like each other. He just found it grating the way her 'professional' demeanor turned to a whole new meaning of professional with Urti, moving from the perfectly polite and slightly cool mannerisms she had with Bai to an inviting, saccharine sweet front, matching her stunning gown and glittering jewelry with a smooth, clearly carnal guild-trained facade.
"Silky," he muttered, startled, when Ressa included him in the conversation with a question.
Luck was with him; apparently the word sounded close enough to a name or place that Urti and Ressa both accepted it without question, nodding sagely. "Not my favorite," Urti said with a shrug.
Ressa gave him a brief puzzled look, making Bai wonder if she suspected his drift of thought and he could have kicked himself for being a stupid jealous fool for no reason. He ought to be happy one of his oldest friends and most valued assistants hit it off so well. There was no social reason they couldn't pursue something more; if anything he ought to encourage a relationship between them - they were a handsome match. Then Bai remembered that Ressa already had a boyfriend, and the mix of jealousy and relief that caused left him even more confused.
"It's Bai and Ressa again," a lovely soft voice said from behind, and Bai turned to find that Rai and his two ladies were approaching again. They guided his brother into their little knot, and Urti was introduced around. Bai wondered if he imagined the cool greeting his brother gave the monitor; they'd all been friends since the early forms, but Rai had never been as close to Urti as Bai had, citing some vague mistrust of the man.
Circumstance insulated him from Ressa, and Bai's head cleared enough that he managed some light flirtation with one of Rai's escorts, managing to stay afloat in the discussion of the play with some luck and a memory of one of the advertising posters.
He must have done a better job at his attentiveness with the woman he was conversing with than he had guessed, because as the intermission lights flickered in warning, she said in a loud, appreciative aside to Ressa, "If you decide not to take this charming man's card, let me know. That's one I would keep on file!"
She was expecting amusement, perhaps, or at least appreciation, and received only a discrete cough of surprise from Ressa, along with a chagrined look, and an awkward mumble from Bai; clearly she was not aware of Ressa's other employment.
Urti stepped in to save the moment, joking, "I'm hoping to steal all of her cards and replace them with my own as soon as her back is turned." Bai thought his leer was a little more than the moment required, but laughed with the others as they dispersed back to their seats. He trailed behind Ressa, now on Urti's arm, and tried not to look too sulky as they combated the crush of theatre attendees.
The third act was worst of all. He put Urti between himself and Ressa, but the monitor insisted on adding commentary to the humorous parts, in a quiet voice near her ear, so that Bai could just hear snatches of it, with Ressa's answering laughter, like low sunlight, interspersed with soft words that he strained to hear. He wasn't safe from her perfume, either, despite the swirl of other scents from the crowded audience. Now that he knew what he was smelling, it explained why he kept imagining her in his arms, but it didn't prevent it.
They collected their coats in a crush of other audience-members, conversation kept to a necessary minimum by the press of other people and the din of the crowd.
By sheer will and judicious use of elbows, Bai stayed close to Urti and Ressa, and they made it out into the winter night. The sudden quiet of the darkness was startling after the music and lights, and they walked close to half a block towards the cablecar landing in near silence.
"My street is here," Urti said, as they arrived at the street that led off to the housing reserved for monitors and military. "Citizen, you were a companion beyond compare." He touched gloved fingertips with Ressa, giving an archaic little bow over her hand, and Bai thought the man winked at him but couldn't be sure in the dim streetlight.
As the monitor sauntered off into the night, Ressa took Bai's elbow, and they moved off again towards the cablecar landing. "Do you wish me to chaperone you to your housing?" Bai offered stiffly, as they waited for the car to arrive. It ran late the entire extra fiveday, to serve the patrons of the late theatre shows and special events.
Ressa shook her head, muffled in the fur hood of her coat. "Thank you," she added. "But I thought I'd swing by the railyard and see if I could meet Yeff's in-coming train."
It was a warning, Bai thought achingly. Exactly the kind of delicate reminder that an observant, sensitive woman might give a friend who was tempted beyond the bounds of polite affection. He accepted the choice without comment, nodding in acceptance. "There are twice the monitors as usual out tonight," he agreed. "You'll be safe enough." After a moment, he added, "I had a lovely time tonight." He refrained from adding the flowery compliment he might have given any other companion.
"I did, too," Ressa said warmly, with a sideways smile. "I'm glad that things worked out so neatly, being able to keep each other company after our respective arrangements fell through." The cablecar whistle warned of its approach, and the little knot of waiting passengers filed into order to meet it. Bai nodded politely, and left her as she boarded the car to walk the two blocks to his own housing alone.
He pondered those respective arrangements, frowning over the puzzle of the perfume and the theatre seating, and found himself wondering if the parts had been played out only on the stage, or also in the seats. He wasn't sure what role he was meant to play, or why, but he felt as if he'd been forced into a part as surely as if a script had been put into his hands.
It wasn't a feeling that sat well with him.
I LOVED writing this last bit. The rest of the story gets even stickier, as we find out what's up and who is involved...