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Bai was surrounded in a sea of books, wondering if he had enough wine at hand to make it through this task without flagging the monitors for rescue. The shelves lining three walls of the library were half-empty; sad collections of books sagged against each other across the bare spaces. The books he had removed from the shelves were in precarious piles around the room, thin spaces woven between them to get in and out. They were sorted, in a way - a few piles designated as books to donate to charity, a few earmarked for lending or gifting to specific people (Urti would enjoy the History of Monitors in Artwork), a vast majority were intended to go back on the shelves in a different order than they'd started, and there were a few piles that Bai simply wasn't sure about... titles he didn't particularly need, but wasn't quite ready to part with, mostly. The spaces on the floor not filled with books had baskets of paperwork - schoolwork going back to first form, scrawled letters from letter-friends that Bai had only the vaguest recollections of. The baskets had been overfilled, and the smallest breeze from walking past them threatened to spread their contents across the cluttered room.
Bai had a volume open, trying to decide if it mattered that it was signed. It wasn't a topic he cared much for (gardening in subtropical areas was of no use to him; he didn't garden at all, and even if he had, Affamarg was far from subtropical!), but he hated to lose a book that had touched the hands of its author. He put it into one of the piles, then looked at the other titles in the pile and reconsidered. He balanced the little volume on another unsteady stack, and was turning to inspect another questionable book when there was a knock at the distant outside door. He ignored it for a moment, then abruptly remembered that the housekeeper was out for the holiday and Rai was expected over. He staggered to his feet, nearly disrupting a nearby pile. The book was tossed to the couch, and he hollered "Coming!" even as the bell rang out in shrill demand.
The library barely navigated with toes intact, Bai tromped through the arched entry room and wrestled for a moment with the tricky latch. "Sorry for the delay. I promised the housekeeper I'd-" he began, and drew up short when Rai was not standing there. He looked down for a delivery automatically, and sucked in a surprised breath. A large figure was slumped down in the recessed entryway, sitting propped awkwardly against the arch that protected the door from the worst of the cool, late winter wind. A scarf obscured their face. Bai hesitantly left the shelter of the doorway and approached, expecting a drunk. He'd have to put up a flag for a monitor, but he couldn't just leave the man on his doorstep for that time. "Wake up, citizen," he said, frowning. "It's a touch cold for sleeping outside."
The figure stirred, and the scarf fell away from the face, to reveal a cascade of dark hair, and - familiar even in the faint light - Ressa's fine features.
"Ressa?" Bai nearly fell off the first step as she rolled her head and opened bleary eyes at him, blinking in confusion at the sound of her name.
"B-bai?" she asked distantly, blurry, in every way not her usual crisp self. She giggled, a hand rolled from her lap, and a flask clattered away. Bai chased it down automatically, scrambling to keep his balance on the slick steps.
"Frass, Ressa!" Bai said in astonishment, retrieving the flask. It smelled sickly sweet, with a tang that made his nostrils flinch. "Dreamers' liquor?" The substance, derived from the dreamskate sea monster, was highly euphoric, hallucinogenic and completely unlicensable.
Her expression vacillated between confusion and amusement. "Bai!" she said again, more clearly. "How in the world did I end up here?" After a moment, her head slumped again and lolled bonelessly above her shoulders. She giggled again - a high, unnatural sound.
Bai had to stare at her for several long moments before shaking himself. "I can't leave you out here," he said, practically.
Her limbs were longer than he expected, even of a woman of her height, and she offered little help as he tried to sit her upright, sling an arm over his shoulder and lift her to her feet. At first he was shy to touch her, but the effort of trying to get her inside before they both had frostbite overcame his reluctance to grapple her. He ended up half-dragging her over the threshold, while she vacillated between limp unconsciousness and dazed, unhelpful giggles.
At last, he was able to prop her up between a coatrack and the entrance table and close the door behind them with one foot. He sat across from her, panting at the exertion, and her eyes opened with unexpected lucidity.
"Bai," she said in surprise, as if she hadn't recognized him before. "Don't we have another day off?" She gave a little moan of dismay as she tried to move her arms, and the haze of the drug crept over her face again with a wave of laughter. "I can't remember," she said, and then, suddenly sober, "I'm going to be sick."
Bai scrambled for something to hand her. The closest thing at hand was an umbrella stand, which he upended without ceremony and held in her lap while she vomited; she didn't move her hands to help hold it. He had to juggle the stand in one hand and try to keep her scarf and hair out of the way while keeping her from toppling over entirely, wedged together in the space by the table. By the time she had finished with the contents of her stomach, whatever shreds of decorum had survived dragging her inside were long gone.
She tipped her head back against the wall behind them, and her throaty laugh seemed less inane and wild. "Oh, Bai," she confessed, when the chuckles had died. "I'm scared. What's happening?"
"Ressa, your hands!" he exclaimed, when she twitched them in her lap. They were burnt, he could see in the light, with raw stripes oozing blood across each palm. She looked down at them curiously as Bai took the chance to move the umbrella stand from her lap and shove it, with its vile contents, to an armslength away.
Ressa stared at her hands for a long moment, then laughed again, a fading laugh this time. "This is all very odd," she said before leaning her head back against the wall again. She closed her eyes and Bai realized that his arm, still around her, was going to sleep.
"Very odd is an understatement," Bai agreed. "Well, we can't stay here on the floor forever."
"I can't move my legs," Ressa mumbled.
Bai extricated himself from her carefully, smoothing her loose hair back over her shoulder and unwrapping the scarf from her neck gently. "Hold here for just a moment," he told her gently, and was rewarded by a giggle that was not reassuring. Her head remained upright after he let go of it. He nudged the umbrella stand back into her reach, and after a moment, went ahead and put it into her lap. "Try to hit this if you get sick again," he told her.
"My hands tingle," she answered helpfully, not moving them.
Bai got to his feet, nearly slipping on the snow that was melting on the floor all around them. "Just a moment," he promised.
He cleared the couch in the library, and a generous swath through the books leading into it, with brutal disregard for the order he had been so carefully making. He went back to find Ressa's eyes closed again, head tipped back against the wall.
He went to the wall by the door before returning to her, pulling open the alert flag door. He bypassed the delivery and service choices, waffled over the medical choice versus monitor call, and finally selected the general emergency color. Pulling down the lever, a colored flag would rise by the door outside, an alert to the next public servant who passed by to call for help. Most homes and apartment complexes were equipped with this, though the indoor, mechanically-driven interface was not as common as having to walk outside to hang the flag manually.
"Come on then," Bai said. "Let's get you to the couch." He worked an arm underneath hers, and, with her groggy help, hauled her to her feet. Step by wobbling step, they made it to the library door. Her loose hair tickled at his face, but he couldn't let go of her to brush it away. He tried to lower her to the couch gracefully, but failed, and she collapsed onto it with a muffled giggle, face-first into a cushion, limbs askew.
Carefully, kneeling beside the couch, Bai managed to get her damp coat off of her, rolled her over, and arranged her arms and legs in some semblance of order, propping a cushion under her head and pulling a crocheted blanket over her once she looked bonelessly comfortable. She smiled dreamily at him, a sultry little bow to her perfect lips and a hooded, languid look under dark, thick eyelashes. Bai reminded himself that she was clearly under the influence of a drug.
Her look was replaced by confusion. "I was walking," she said hesitantly. "There was someone..."
When she trailed off, Bai prompted, "You were walking with someone? Yeff, perhaps?" Maybe the railcar driver could shed some light on this strange evening.
Ressa shook her head the barest amount. "No... I broke things off with Yeff. I was walking alone."
Bai squashed the ridiculous wave of hope and happiness that her slurred statement caused. "You broke things off with Yeff?" he couldn't quite keep himself from repeating.
"It wasn't fair," Ressa said, sounding almost sulky. "I... I..." she stumbled to a stop, looking up at Bai's face with a confused intensity.
The doorbell jarred the moment out of it's intimacy, and Bai heard the latch at the door work; he hadn't bothered locking it behind them. He remembered Rai just in time to call out, "Rai, be careful! There's stuff all over the floor! Hang on!"
Legally blind, Rai's hazy vision would not be able to make out the disaster of the umbrella stand contents strewn across the entrance floor like a trap, or the unpleasant contents of the stand itself, or more than the faintest hint of the haphazard piles of books that Bai had cleared away at the last moment. He scrambled to his feet to see to his brother's safe passage into the house. Ressa's eyes closed as he turned away.
Rai was standing in the open doorway, obediently frozen. "Your housekeeper's been gone for how many days?" his brother demanded. "You couldn't keep from turning your house into a circus pen in that amount of time?"
Bai scooped up the scattered umbrella stand tools - mostly walking sticks for Rai, plus a carved dusting extension and several ornate umbrellas - and said in a low voice, "I had an unexpected visitor. It's safe to come in now..."
Rai stepped into the entry, shut the door behind him, and went to put his walking cane in the umbrella stand where it usually waited.
"Er, wait," Bai stopped him, and took the stick from him instead. "Don't use the stand." He leaned his armload of the tools in a corner, cursing when several of them clattered immediately to the floor.
"You seem a tad disorganized today," Rai said wryly, clearly amused. "What smells so funny?"
"It's... it's Ressa," Bai said quietly, glancing towards the library door. She was still, lying on the couch, and in the silence that followed, he could make out the steady rhythm of her breath, just shy of a snore. The racket of the falling sticks and canes had not disturbed her.
"Bai," Rai hissed disapprovingly. "You said that nothing was -"
"It's not what you think," Bai said swiftly. "It's not... license me, I have no idea what's going on." He rubbed a hand over his face as he thought over the bizarre events of the evening. "Come into the dining room," he said. "I'll tell you what I know."
Without asking Rai's preference, Bai poured him a glass of dark Glifai wine, putting a second glass for himself on the table across from him, but not filling it. He wanted a clear head for this story. After a moment of considering, he put the empty flask from his pocket down by Rai's hand, knowing the sound of the action would clue his brother into it.
Rai took it, running it through his hands and sniffing it curiously before flinching from the over-sweet scent. "Dreamers' liquor?" he said incredulously. "Where did this come from?"
"Ressa," Bai said, reluctantly.
Rai spluttered into his wine. "Ressa's taking dreamers' liquor?!"
Bai hushed him, looking through the open arch through the foyer to the library. No sound of stirring came from within. "No," he said firmly. "I'd have put a year's credits on it..."
"How well do you really know this woman?" Rai asked pointedly, voice lower. He took a solid gulp of the wine. "You've only worked together for a handful of years..."
"Something decidedly odd is going on here," Bai said, toying with his own empty glass. "Let me start at the beginning..."
He did, after a few false starts, laying out all the strange coincidences and times that the two of them had been thrown together - being trapped in the elevator before the earthquake struck, the tickets together at the theatre, Olarali's perfume, even some strangely lost paperwork that Bai wasn't sure related, all the way back to Ressa's near-miraculous discovery of the justification forms that meant citizenship for an orphaned boy. He described Ressa's odd arrival at his door, and her drugged state, while Rai's brow knit further than further together in confusion. His brother interjected pointed questions occasionally, but largely just listened.
As Bai wound down, silence settled over the table. Rai's wine was long gone, Bai still played with an empty glass.
"It sounds like it started harmlessly enough - like someone wanted to see the two of you get together and didn't have a lot of compunction about how to make it happen," Rai mused.
"Who would care?" Bai scoffed. "And why go to so much work and expense for it?" He rubbed at his face in consternation. "Rai, I promise, I've never been so much as an inch out of line with her."
Rai laughed and spread his hands in innocence. "I believe you," he said. "But I also believe you aren't as good at hiding your feelings as you think. I'm blind, and I could tell..."
"You're my brother," Bai said desperately. "My twin brother. You're supposed to be more in tune with me, right? I don't think it's that obvious to everyone..."
Rai was already distracted. "I didn't think that dreamers' liquor interfered with motor function so badly as you described," he said thoughtfully.
Bai frowned. "It doesn't," he said. "Maybe mixed with alcohol?"
"Or other drugs? Or maybe it was a bad batch of dreamers' liquor."
"If someone wanted to see that something improper occurred between us, leaving her drugged on my doorstep is hardly the way to make that happen." Bai wondered if he should be insulted, if the mysterious puppetmaster of this crazed sequence of events thought he was the kind of deviant to take advantage of an incapacitated woman.
"You seem very sure she wouldn't have taken it herself?" Rai sounded less convinced. "She's trained with the Carnal Guild," Rai reminded him, to his irritation. "Drug use in the guild isn't that uncommon."
"Minor drugs, like hazeleaf, not that she'd even take that," Bai said confidently. "I watched her tear ears off a new clerk who came to work with a mild hazeleaf buzz; she doesn't approve of any recreational drugs, and it's one of the few things she usually encourages me to deny licenses for. She once said his hazeleaf habit was one of the things she disliked the most about the previous License Master... and she had a lot of things on that list." Hazeleaf was a licensed substance, it mellowed the mind and, though inappropriate for a work setting, was considered socially acceptable in most other cases. "And besides, she couldn't even walk, I don't think she could have made it to my doorstep without help. This is definitely not just a case of an accidental overdose. I don't think anything about this entire matter is 'accidental.'"
"I'm thinking it's not," Rai agreed. "So, what would you be expected to do? Your Head of Files, drugged to the gills on your doorstep. What do you do?"
"What else could I do?" Bai asked. "I dragged her inside and raised an emergency flag."
As if on cue, the doorbell jangled demandingly, followed by vigorous pounding on the heavy door and the sound of a monitor's identification whistle.