Port City, USA
A warm day in May
An unassuming three-story office building near the docks
A small business meeting on the main floor conference room had just ended, leaving two people behind.
One, a man in an ill-fitting grey suit. No longer young, his thirty-five years are etched on his pale face in the form of dark lines under his eyes, a wrinkled brow, and slightly sagging skin on his cheeks. He feels like his dark hair ought to be greying, though it isn't. His athletic body is almost at rest, his hands on the table on either side of a tablet screen. His brown eyes scan the document in front of him, momentarily, before he closes them and sighs, leaning back.
The other, a smartly-dressed, dark-skinned Hispanic woman, about his age, stands by the door, watching closely, a thin but genuine smile on her face. Her red dress accents her slim figure, as she had intended when she had chosen it. Today is a day to look good, a fact which has nothing to do with the concerned man sitting on the other side of the room and everything to do with the woman herself, her life, her work, her plans. Her brown hair hangs loosely, framing her face, a look as carefully considered as her choice of dress. Her focus is complete, her own dark eyes fixed on the man sitting across the room.
His eyes open. He sighs, one hand going to run through his hair. He looks over to the woman. "How the fuck did we get here?"
She chuckles, but doesn't reply except to take one step closer to the table.
"I just wanted to live a quiet life," he continues. "A few happy people, gathered together. Now..." He gestures at the tablet.
"It wasn't meant to be," she replies, her voice practiced, rehearsed. They've had this discussion before. "You could always retire, if you want to get away."
"And then what happens?" he asks, folding his hands over his chest, his thumbs on his chin. "This is my mess now."
"You didn't ask for this," she says, the next line in the rant. She puts her hands on the table, leaning over, her smile crooks a bit, mischievously. "But it's your responsibility. We're your responsibility."
There's a moment of silence. Finally, he smiles back. "All these people are my responsibility now." He points to the tablet. "Each and every one. I'm responsible for keeping the peace. I'm responsible for greasing the wheels of diplomacy."
She chuckles, finally taking a seat directly opposite from him. "You wanted your own happy little family."
"Oh, happy we've got." He throws up his arms in frustration. "Everyone's happy, happy, happy. The delegates that just left the room are happy. You're happy. The people working the docks are happy. The security guards are happy. There are..." He looks down at the tablet again. "one thousand, two hundred and fifty-seven happy people in the whole organization, apparently."
"So why," she says, leaning forward and looking him in the eye, "aren't you one of them?"
He rolls his eyes. "I wanted my own happy little family. We've got the happy part, and the family part. But it's... it's all so big." He sighs.
She shakes her head. "You don't have to take every one of the one thousand, two hundred whatever of us on your shoulders, you know. It's probably better if you don't." She raises a hand, as if displaying something by her shoulder. "Delegate, Sterling. And take a break. You need some time off."
He gives her a tired grin. "Is that an order?"
"Please," she says, her grin growing wides. "We all know who gives the orders around here, Mr. Grey."
He sighs again. "Guess I ought to change my name, huh. All those 'Mr. Grey' jokes are already getting old."
"It's not like calling you 'Sterling' sounds a whole lot less formal," she laughs. "And anyway, you could own it. Live like a billionaire. Build a playroom full of kinky sadistic dom toys."
He laughs. "The whole point of the way the organization runs is to divert attention away from me. We have enough trouble without newspaper headlines proclaiming a new rich eligible bachelor on the scene, let alone what happens if people start digging in to my past or the nature of the work we do."
She gets to her feet, the dress swirling. "And it's working, maybe too well." She walks around the table, slowly, giving him a feast for the eyes. "So what am I going to write about in tomorrow's article, if not Silver Tongue coming into his own?"
"Is what happens in the dock district really big news?" he asks, getting to his feet.
"Around here it is," she answers, putting a hand on his shoulder. "It doesn't just affect your thousand workers."
He puts his hand on her waist. "One thousand, two hundred and fifty-seven."
"How do you make just saying numbers sexy?"
"Practice," he mutters, kissing her neck. "My power makes a lot of things sexy."
She shivers, then chuckles. "Is that a quote I can print, Mr. Grey?"
He leans up and whispers in her ear, "Not if you ever want to hear my voice again."
"I'll keep that one under wraps, then." She steps closer into a gentle embrace, her arms folding around him, her hands hanging loosely from her wrists. "A pity I don't have time to listen more."
"You were saying something about taking a break, I think," he says, nibbling on her earlobe.
"I was saying something about you taking a break," she whispers back before stepping away and smoothing her dress. Her voice rises to a normal volume. "I have work to do. Because once upon a time, you delegated media management to me, and it's a job I take very seriously."
"I have work to do, too," he replies, watching her straighten up.
"You have work you want to do, and that's not the same thing." She leans back in and kisses his cheek. "Seriously, Sterling, the organization can run itself for one night, and that's mostly because of all the work you've already done for us. Enjoy the fruits of your labor for a bit. Maybe go to the club, do a little dancing, take a hottie home."
He lets out a breath. "With all the hotties around here?" He grins.
She tilts her head, hands on her hips. "Be honest with me, Sterling. When's the last time you used that silver tongue of yours and actually did something with one of us hotties? Two or three years ago, you'd have had your magical voice in my head and we'd both be naked and spread out on the conference table. But now?" She drops her arms, takes a controlled step towards him. "I'm about to walk out of—"
"You will be still, and be silent," he says, and his voice is changed. And she is still, and silent, but her teasing smile broadens. He walks up to his media manager, a smile to match hers on his face. "Insolence, Elena?" He realizes with a bit of a shock that that is the first time he has said her name.
But he has a part to play, and he will play it. He closes the remaining distance between them. "My sex life is none of your business, except where it involves you directly." He stood eye-to-eye with her, and his hand slipped around her side to squeeze her tight ass.
"Although," he continues, more thoughtfully, "you aren't wrong, not entirely. It has been a long time, and it feels a lot longer than it has been." His fingers play with the strap of her dress, sliding it off her shoulder, following the strap to the swell of her significant breast. "And I wonder how long it's been for you. How long, Elena?" The question is voiced differently, demanding an answer.
"Two days," she replies, barely moving.
His expression betrays surprise, before he regains his composure. "Two days, you say. How about that." His fingers slip under fabric and dance over her bra. "My co-workers are getting laid more than I am. A lot more, I'd think."
"Mhmm," she replies, although whether it's a response to his touch or a confirmation of his words is unclear.
"And you're right, it hardly seems fair when I'm the one with the mind-controlling voice, does it?" His hand slips into the bra, plays with the women's nipple. Her composure flags and she gasps, loudly, flushing as she does. "You're also right that a couple years ago, our commitments might have waited a few minutes as I tested the efficacy of that mind-controlling voice on one of its more frequent victims."
"My commitments," she moans, her knees trembling. "Your time off." She puts a hand on his wrist, stopping his ministrations. "Do you want me to write an appropriately excited news article about the new cafe, or don't you?"
He leaves his hand where it is. "I suppose it's getting close to press time, and the expansion of normal-sounding business into the docks is a PR victory."
"Nuh uh," she says, arching her back a little and pushing her breast a bit more firmly into his hand. "It's not a PR victory until it's public knowledge." She takes a sharp breath through her teeth. "God, I'd almost forgotten how good you are at that."
"Maybe I should remind you. So what if your writing assignment is a little late."
She shakes her head, but doesn't pull away. "I have a job to do. For you."
He reluctantly releases her, and she lets out a slow sigh. "We must do our duty, mustn't we."
"Indeed we must," she agrees. "And yours is to go out and have a good time tonight."
He nods. "I think I can handle that."
"Good." She flashes him a bright smile as she adjusts her bra and rearranges her dress. He's speaking as she does so, and she nods but doesn't seem to register the words. After she's got herself back in order, she slips out of her heels, sits on the edge of the conference table, hikes up the skirt of her dress to her waist, and pulls her panties down, giving Sterling a beautiful view as she does so. She leaves the undergarment on the conference table and puts her shoes back on, smoothing out the dress again.
"All ready for a good evening's work?" Sterling asks with a cryptic smile.
"Of course," she replies cheerfully. "And you'd better go relax." She heads to the door, then stops and turns back. "Steling, I'm not the only one to notice. I'm just the only one who's said something, so far. But people are talking."
He nods back. "I'll keep that in mind."
It will be two hours before she notices her missing underwear, and when she does, she will just chuckle and shake her head in disbelief. At least, she'll think to herself, he hasn't entirely lost his sense of fun.
Our scene shifts now to an ordinary three-story walkup apartment building on the edge of the dock district.
A man we've met before sits in his apartment on the top floor, resting in a comfortable recliner, a glass of fine scotch whiskey in his right hand. The television he's facing is turned off, and anyway, the remote is across the room on the dining table, and he doesn't feel like moving. He had poured the whiskey some time ago, and has only had a sip of it. His grey suit is gone, neatly hung in the closet; in its place is a pair of comfortable boxer shorts and a light dressing gown. The apartment is too chilly, presently, to sit without clothing, and indeed his bare legs are mildly uncomfortable, but he's more concerned with mulling over the words his colleague spoke to him two hours prior.
Sterling Grey, for that is who is sitting in that chair, thinks about Elena, and smirks. Surely she must have noticed his last suggestion to her, by now. She wouldn't comment on it, though; he knows her too well, knows that she would consider acknowledging his prank to be a form of admitting defeat. It had been a childish prank, anyway, but the sort he knows that she enjoys.
And, he admits to himself, swirling the scotch in his glass, watching her mindlessly slip her panties off for him had been quite a thrill. She was right about his lack of company, and it does bother him. It's just that there's so much to do.
His left hand, the hand not clutching the measure of whiskey, rests on a smartphone on the arm of the chair. It had been silent since he'd got home, thankfully, but still he keeps it handy, just in case. It is the nature of his work that while he isn't required to keep normal hours, he is required to be available all day, every day. The varying businesses on the docks do not close just because it's after five, and his skills of might be needed at any time.
He chuckles to himself. The Great Compromise. When the organization was first being created, his friends (and his thralls, and at the time there had been significant overlap in the small groups) wanted him to be at the helm, and when he refused, it was decided that he could officially be the social lubricant between various factions within a cooperative structure. Initially chief union negotiator, his power necessary for breaking the hold that the corporate (and often criminal) overlords had held on the docks, he is now head of internal communications and director of conflict resolution, a job for which a knack for mind control is a valuable asset.
Still, he isn't the central wheel around which all other gears would spin; he is just a part of the machine, part which keeps it moving, part which keeps it active. It would hopefully not grind to a halt if he was ever removed from it; he tries to see to that constantly. In fact, the greater part of his job, beyond keeping varied groups within the federation at peace, is making sure that if he's ever arrested or, heaven forbid, killed, that his very big, very happy family continues to be both big and happy. He is not some messianic leader of a cult of personality which would fall apart the instant he is no longer in place. He is simply a master of negotiations, a skill which isn't uncommon. He is replaceable. His power makes his skill better, but doesn't make him unique, at least within the PCDC.
He again fails to drink as he thinks about his day, about Elena's words, about himself. There was a time when not having a pretty young woman to share his bed for the night was a rarity. Slowly sex had become less and less a priority, though, and now, getting laid is terribly rare. Still, the idea of going to the club, finding a pretty young woman and bringing her home for a night of fun is extremely appealing. Club Argent isn't far, after all, and it was actually closer to the docks than his apartment block, so if something does come up, he'll be able to respond even faster to it. A flimsy excuse, but one that encourages him to finally have a sip from his glass and get up from his recliner.
It will not do to go dancing in boxers and a bathrobe. He puts the glass down on a small table beside the chair; over the course of his preparations, he will finish it, little by little. The apartment is not overly large, although the living room is quite spacious; being the owner of the building (although not on paper) means that he could have this apartment modified to his liking, giving him a suitable space for entertaining in place of a second bedroom. He heads first to the bathroom, to hang up his robe and check his condition, and decides that his five o'clock shadow is a good look for the moment. A rapid face-washing helps to wake him up some, and to focus his attention on the task at hand instead of on Elena's words.
He proceeds to the bedroom to change his boxers for a fresh pair, then goes back to his armchair for a sip of his scotch, thinking about how to dress. He is not a fashion magnate; his tendency is to dress down, not up, to try and become part of the crowd, not to stand out from it. He returns to the bedroom and chooses a pair of loose khaki pants, a white t-shirt and a soft blue button-up shirt to go over it, which he will leave undone. Another sip, and then back to the bathroom to comb his hair, a check in the mirror to assess himself (he looks, he decides, like a corporate drone aiming to relax after a long day, which is a fairly although not entirely accurate depiction of his condition). Dark socks and black running shoes complete the image.
A final pull on his scotch empties the glass, which he rinses and leaves in the otherwise-empty sink. On his way out the door, he grabs a light windbreaker and throws it on. The walk to the club is only fifteen minutes, but it could be an uncomfortable fifteen minute walk back if the evening got colder, as it usually does. He walks down to street level and out onto the lane, whistling a cheerful tune, looking like an ordinary man out for a stroll and not at all like a mind-controlling supervillain prowling for a damsel in distress.
Club Argent is not the sort of place that anyone would reasonably expect an encounter with a mind-controlling supervillain. A two-story building with a dance floor at ground level and a quieter lounge on the upper floor, with a fairly simple kitchen in the basement. The sign over the door is simple in design, gaudy in bright blue with silver lettering, and the building itself is a fairly standard brick affair, a former multi-purpose office space converted to a more interesting use.
Sterling reaches the top of the stairs, walks in to the open space and glances around at the various booths around the perimeter. In one corner, three women are conversing loudly and laughing around a nearly-full plate of nachos; nearly opposite them, an older couple are enjoying drinks together. Not an unusual level of activity, given that it is the middle of the week, a little bit late for the dinner crowd, and a little early for the dancers.
A south-Asian woman in her mid-20s wearing a black tank-top and skinny jeans stands behind the bar, smiling and waving as Sterling walks towards her. "Well how's my favorite customer? Haven't seen you in a while."
"Busy at work," Sterling explains. "How have you been, Monica?"
"Oh, you know, same old. Nothing changes up here." She shrugs. "Still waiting for Prince Charming to sweep me off my feet, starting to wonder if he's ever gonna get here."
Sterling raises an eyebrow. "Surely a beautiful woman such as yourself..."
Monica snickers. "You dockies are just too damn polite. Y'all know better than to hit on a server when she's serving."
He sits on a stool at the bar. "What's good tonight?"
"Everything, you know that." Monica grabs a beer glass. "But the chef's telling me to push fish 'n' chips, we just got a fresh batch in this morning. I can't stand the stuff of course, give me the butter chicken any day. Just like dad used to microwave, straight from the grocery freezer."
"You can't stand it, but it sounds great to me. And how about a beer, since you've got the glass all ready? Got anything from the brewery down the road on tap?"
"The pale," she replies. "Got the dark in bottles if you like, it's much nicer."
Sterling shakes his head. "Nah, I'll have the pale."
"Jesus, Sterling, wish you'd listen to me like other people listen to you!" Monica laughs, taking the glass to the taps.
"I... don't know what you mean," he says, somewhat on his guard.
"What you think we don't notice or something?"
"Notice... what, exactly?"
She pours a pint of translucent amber draft. "That you have people hanging off every word, Mr. Grey."
He winces. "Just... just Sterling is fine, thanks."
"Worried people will think you wanna tie 'em up?" she laughs, putting the glass down in front of him. "But yeah, we all know, you know. We've all seen it happen, you start talking to some cutie and she's just sitting there all starry eyes and smiles like she's hypnotized or something."
Sterling stops himself just before taking a drink and manages not to spit beer all over the bar. "I never noticed," he says, carefully composed.
"Well we have! D'you know we take bets when we see you come in?"
"Bets?" He still hasn't moved, the glass still poised at his lips.
"Yep." Monica nods. "The minute you come through the door, we divide our tips 50/50, put half in the pool, and whoever is closest to your conquest gets the pot." She grabs her tea towel from her shoulder and mops up a bit of condensation on the glass top. "If you're in when it's a busy night the winner can walk out with a few hundred."
He smiles, finally taking a sip from his glass. It's largely tasteless. "I'm not sure how I feel about that."
She laughs again. "Flattered, I hope!" She tosses the towel back over her shoulder. "You disappointed a lot of us last time when you bolted."
"Emergency at work," he explains. He remembers that night. It was over a month ago; the police had raided one of the homeless shelters near the docks for drugs, which meant having to corral the security teams to make sure the cops stayed in their lane, the legal department to deal with the fallout, and additional support workers and counselors to help the residents. It had been a mess, and he was still cleaning it up, part of the reason he hasn't been back to the club since.
"Had to be, considering how that sweet redhead was pretty much all over you." Monica gives him a wink. "She was my pick, too, you cost me a few bucks."
"I'm legitimately sorry about that." He takes a quick drink. "Not for you, of course."
Monica snorts. "No, of course not." She leans down on her elbows, giving Sterling a good view of her cleavage. "So," she says conspiratorially, "got your eye on someone tonight?"
He shakes his head, smiling. "Haven't even really assessed the options just yet."
"But you are planning on taking a turn," she says with a grin, standing back up. "Other than last time, I never seen you walk outta here alone." She drums her fingers on the bar and seems to be considering saying something more.
Sterling puts his half-full glass on the counter. "What's on your mind, Monica?"
She shrugs. "Oh, nothing. I'll put in your dinner order, just a sec."
He takes another drink as she punches his requested fish special into the computer. Once she's done, he beckons her over. "Monica? Something's bothering you." The character of his voice is changed, somehow. He finds the difference impossible to describe, but the effect is quite deliberate.
She laughs, moving back to talk to him, but there's no joy in her voice. "It's... really not important..."
"You can tell me," he says.
And he's right, she can. "It's just that... last time... no, really, it's dumb." Even in the dim light, Sterling can see her already-dark complexion deepening. "But last time, when you ran off, Chas, one of the line cooks... he put my name as his bet."
He shakes his head. "You said it earlier, I'm not going to hit on a server while she's working. You're already being paid to be nice to me."
"Yeah, well, you tip enough to get my best, y'know." The moment of openness has passed and the joking atmosphere is back. "Otherwise you'd get the same cold shoulder as the drunk assholes come down from the college."
"Then I'd better keep my wallet open," he says.
"Fuckin' right." She smacks her towel on the countertop and laughs before turning away again.
But if I ever meet you in a different context... he thinks, admiring the way her jeans hug her hips and ass. He looks around the room again. The older pair, Sterling guessed that they were each nearing sixty, has finished their drinks, and are talking in low tones and gazing into each others' eyes. In the other corner, the plate of nachos is half gone, but the laughter and cheer still seems to be high.
"Goin' over there?" Monica asks, startling him.
"I was starting to wonder if you were going to," Sterling replies. "It looks like their drinks are empty."
"Not like any of them're calling for me just yet, but I'll take care."
"Instead of doing that, Monica, how about you let me buy them their next round?"
Monica shrugs. "Hey, it's your money, and it narrows my betting options down some." She grins. "Tall blonde is driving, so she's just having strawberry slush. The black-hair Japanese girl's drinking rum'n'Coke, and the bald one's having gin and lemonade."
"Send them all another one and put it on my bill."
Monica gives him a wink. "You got it, Mr. Grey!" She turns away to fill his order.
He replies with a good-natured sigh and another pull from his glass. It's a dangerous drink; almost nonexistent on the palate, but stronger in alcohol content than he's used to. Still, it's just a beer, it'll take more than that to put him under the table. He never allows himself to get truly drunk, he's far too wary about what might happen when he's not watching his language or containing his power. He doesn't need to wake up with a hangover and an apartment full of naked slaves.
Not again, anyway. Once was enough, and he could forgive himself the indiscretion of youth. And his power has more than one use; most of those women had forgotten about that night entirely. The three others work in the docks. Portia in particular, working with him in conflict resolution, still teases him about it once in a while, even with it having been over a decade.
The noise of the blender brings Sterling out of his reverie, as Monica grinds up ice for slush. He watches her smooth, practiced moves as she prepares drinks. Elena had his number, he has to admit, as he imagines that shapely body without the tank top. Had it been six weeks? Eight? A remarkable dry spell for a mind-controller with access to any number of willing women.
But like Elena, they were busy, too. He isn't about to pull them out of their work or their lives just to get his rocks off.
He sips at his beer, wanting to leave a little for the toast he knew would be coming. Monica takes a tray of drinks over to the corner, and Sterling pretends not to follow her with interest. He hears the pleased exclamation from the women, and only then looked over, raising his quarter-full glass to them in reply. The tall blonde woman, the one drinking strawberry slush, raises her hand and waves him over. He nods and gets to his feet, casually walking over to sit at the open side of the table.
"Nice to meet you all," he says by way of greeting. "Might I join you?"
"Please!" the tall blonde replies. The green silk choker around her neck matches her eyes, and draws Sterling's gaze down to her spaghetti-strapped baby-blue top and the soft curves beneath. "I'm Sharon, this is Tanya and Chelsea," she indicates the Asian woman on her right and the bald woman on her left respectively. Closer up now, Sterling can see Tanya's short black hair is streaked with dark red, and notices several bar piercings in her left eyebrow. Her red long-sleeve shirt doesn't quite completely cover the tattoo or tattoos running up to the edges of her neck. Chelsea, meanwhile, was dressed rather conservatively; she had nothing of the glamor of Sharon or the punk-like aesthetic of Tanya, and really the only thing that made her stand out was her completely shaved head.
"Sterling," he introduces himself, sitting down. "And I don't like the name any more than you do." It is a practiced line, but it generally serves him nicely.
"Awww," Chelsea says, drawing his attention. "I dunno, I kinda like it."
Sharon nods. "It's dignified."
"Then it really doesn't fit me," he chuckles.
Tanya rolls her eyes. "Thanks for the drink, before I forget," she says, and Sterling can tell that there's genuine appreciation behind the somewhat flat affect, as though she was trying to be both grateful and distant.
"Yeah!" Chelsea exclaims. "That was real nice of you."
"It's my pleasure," Sterling replies. "I'm here for the music later, but I decided to grab a bite first."
"You like dancing?" Sharon asks.
Sterling nods. "Great way to unwind after a long day."
"What do you do?"
He shrugs. "It's not really that exciting. I'm in conflict resolution in the docks."
Sharon's hands hit the table loudly, causing the few remaining nachos to bounce around on their plate. "I knew it!" she proclaims. "I knew I recognized you! I see you walking around there all the time! You did my entrance interview! Uh... Grey, right? Sterling Grey?"
Sterling laughs. "So much for getting away from work! I'm sorry I didn't remember you."
She shakes her head. "It's no big deal, it was like two years ago, I bet you've done a lot of interviews since then."
"I have, yes." He takes a quick sip of his drink. "So, what do you do for PCDC?"
She shrugs. "I came on as a clerk in one of the warehouses, then got my diploma and now I'm a carpenter. Part of the maintenance and repair team."
"Hey, that's great, congratulations!"
"Thanks, I'm enjoying the work." Sharon smiles. "I'm trying to convince Tanya here to join."
"What do you do, Tanya?"
Tanya looks a bit distressed that the conversation has come to her. "I'm in theater. I don't think I'm much use in the docks."
"Oh, you'd be surprised," Sterling says. "There's lots of use for the arts down there." Sensing that Tanya really doesn't want to talk about herself, he turns to Chelsea. "And—"
"Nurse," she cuts off the question, enthused. "Just started at Gerald Bright General last week."
"So we're celebrating," Sharon says. "Finally."
"Yep! I was in the mood for nachos and dancing!"
"And a bunch of us from maintenace come here every Friday, so I recommended it..."
Tanya reaches for some of the remaining nachos. "So here we are," she deadpans.
"Here we are!" Chelsea exclaims. "The nachos were great, the drinks have been good, the dancing will be fun, and a cute guy just bought me a gin. It's a party!"
Sterling's eyebrows rise. "Cute?" He turns to Tanya, who seems similarly incredulous.
"Don't ask me, I don't know what she sees in you either," Tanya says. "You're not my type, anyway."
Sharon chuckles. "Don't know about 'cute,' but you're not unattractive," she hedges.
He raises his glass. "A small victory. I'll drink to that." He drains the remainder of his beer.
The women all raise their glasses in a toast and take a drink.
Sterling smiles. "I should probably head back to the bar, I've got dinner coming."
"They can bring it here, can't they?" Chelsea says, a touch of a whine in her voice.
Tanya gets up. "I need the little girls' room. Don't do anything ridiculous, you two."
"Yes, Mom," Sharon says to her retreating friend. Tanya, without looking back, lifts her hand over her left shoulder, middle finger raised.
Sterling chuckles. "What sort of trouble would you two get into, anyway?" His voice sounds different somehow, almost like it's echoing in the small space.
"Tanya's just worried that I'm gonna overdo it and go home with a stranger," Chelsea answers.
Sharon nods. "She's kept us both outta problem situations more than once."
"Well, then, why not get to know me, and we won't be strangers?" His words sounded entirely reasonable. "I'm sure I'm not a problem."
Both women smile. "Sounds like a plan," Chelsea says, her voice airy.
"Good plan, yeah," Sharon agrees.
Chelsea leans a little closer. "What do you do in conflict resolution, Sterling?"
"Well," he says with a shrug, "the job is pretty self-explanatory. Port City Dockworks is actually a bunch of little self-contained co-operative groups and sometimes there are... conflicts."
"And you resolve them." Chelsea grins.
"And you do entrance interviews, apparently," Sharon adds.
Sterling nods. "Hazard of the job. I just have a talent for negotiation, for making people see reason."
Chelsea giggles. "Maybe you can negotiate with Tanya."
"Just put a little more rum in her," Sharon suggests sarcastically.
"No more for me after this one." Chelsea taps her half-empty glass with her finger. "I'm on water for the rest of the night."
Sterling smirks. "Think that'll save you?"
"Ooh, scary." Chelsea laughs. "Where's Tanya when I need a rescue?"
Sterling and Sharon laugh along with her. "Do I look like a villain to you?" Sterling asks.
Chelsea shakes her head, all smiles. "No, Sterling, you sure don't."
"Ooh, be careful," Sharon jokingly warns, "they say that Silver Tongue runs the whole operation in the docks."
Chelsea rolls her eyes and looks at her friend. "Silver Tongue? Seriously? Share, if he ever existed, he's long gone now. And he'd probably go around in like a big stupid cape or something, not a dress shirt. And I don't think he was real anyway."
It is an interesting experience, Sterling reflects, to be spoken of as if you don't exist. "So he's just a campfire story heroes tell to scare each other? 'Be careful, or Silver Tongue will warp your thoughts'?"
Chelsea sticks out her tongue and wiggles her fingers. "All the heroes telling their little hero kids to be good or Silver Tongue will hide under the bed and whisper into their dreams." She starts to get up. "I need the girl's room too, I'll be right back." She turns to Sharon. "Don't steal him. You're still my ride home."
Sharon puts a hand to her collar in mock-offense. "Me?"
Chelsea just shoots her a look, half joke, half disbelief. "Yes, you. I'll be back."
Sterling offers Sharon an arch expression. "Are you in the habit of stealing people?"
"Me? No, no. You know the old joke about building a thousand bridges?"
"So it happened once—and no matter what Chelsea tells you, once—that a guy she had her eyes on picked me up instead. And that was like six years ago in high school. And since then," she rolls her eyes with a playful smile and puts on a teasing mockery of her friend's voice, "'Don't steal him.'"
Sterling nods in false wisdom, and chooses his next words carefully. One thing he's learned about the use of his power is that phrasing can make a lot of difference. "All that being said, I'm not exactly hers to begin with. And not exactly yours."
He watches as Sharon's expression changes subtly. That must have been what Monica was talking about, that shift. Her eyes narrow a touch, her cheeks get a bit flushed, her smile turns a little brighter, and she looks like she's considering what he just said very closely.
Before she can reply, he decides to continue, using a more normal tone. "I don't think Tanya likes me very much, though."
Sharon nods, still a bit dazed. "Tanya doesn't like men very much."
He tilts his head. "I suppose I hadn't considered that."
"My best friend is a lesbian. Sounds like a horror movie from the '50s or something," Sharon giggles.
"Or a late-night cable show from the '80s."
"Good point." Sharon runs her finger around the rim of her glass. "And I bet it's one you'd watch."
Sterling shrugs. "Nothing wrong with an appreciation of the female form." And he looks.
Sharon's eyes closed as she took a deep breath. She lets it out slowly. "I could have sworn I was drinking non-alcoholic slushes." She looks straight at Sterling. "Maybe you're just that intoxicating."
They hear a laugh from Chelsea as she walks up to the table. "Talk about cheesy pick-up lines." She sits back down in her place. "I thought I told you not to steal him."
"Who said anything about stealing him?" Sharon asks, meeting her friend's eyes.
"Huh? Oh!" Realization dawns as Chelsea flushes. "I... well... wow..." She looks around for a moment. "Where's Tanya?"
Sharon looks about, too. "Huh. No idea. She wasn't in the bathroom?"
Chelsea sakes her head. "Didn't see her there, she didn't come back here?"
"I'll go check downstairs," Sharon says, getting to her feet. "Don't want to lose her." She heads quickly for the door.
A moment of silence passes between Chelsea and Sterling, broken only by Monica bringing a glass of water.
"So, uh," Chelsea begins. "You, and Sharon..."
Sterling swallows a bite of fish. "We seem to be getting along pretty well."
She nods. After another long moment, she continues. "Sorry, I'm a bit... confused, maybe? Nervous, for sure."
Sterling smiles at her. "You wanted to dance?" he asks.
"Then why don't we go have a dance or two when I'm done my dinner, and we can sort everything out after?" He feels his words echoing through the space, although he knows that's just his imagination. His mind often invents ways to make some sense of something which he knows is real but simply can't reconcile with reality.
Her expression relaxes. "That... sounds surprisingly reasonable. You sound surprisingly reasonable."
"I hope it's not too surprising," Sterling jokes, popping a French fry into his mouth.
"What? No! Haha, no, no, it's not you I'm surprised at." Chelsea frowns. "It's me. And, y'know, Sharon. She... I mean it never..." She shrugs. "I know she and Tanya did... stuff... once... but all I know is that it wasn't right, you know? Not that I have a problem with... Oh God I'm just making a mess of this!" She laughs and drops her head into her hands. "Just let me die of embarrassment now and save you both the trouble later."
Sterling smiles and gives her a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Don't worry," he says, very reasonably. "Everything will work out."
Head still in her hands, Chelsea nods. "Yeah. I'm here for a fun time."
"And I know how to show you a fun time."
Her head pops up and she gives him a bright, almost child-like grin. "Oh, I'm looking forward to that."
Sharon walks back into the lounge and strolls over to the table. "Tanya's outside, smoking and doom-scrolling. She got some sort of notice and..." Sharon shrugs, taking her seat again. "Almost done your dinner, Sterling?"
"Just about." Sterling nods. "Is that normal for her?" he asks.
"Yep," Chelsea says, "Tanya's kinda glued to her phone a lot of the time."
"She does some kinda tech support on the side of things to make ends meet, but she's really a theater kid at heart," Sharon explains. "Likes costuming. Likes helping out. Has a knack for making things and doing computer... stuff."
"People are interesting," Sterling says. "I keep finding that, over and over, time and again." He puts his utensils on the plate and pushes it away. "That's enough of that, I think."
Chelsea downs the rest of her gin, and Sharon her slush. "Time to dance?" Chelsea asks, her voice hopeful.
Sharon gets to her feet. "It was pretty quiet down there when I went looking for Tanya. Probably have a lot of room to ourselves."
"Sounds like a good time to me," Sterling says, also standing. "I'll take care of my tab and meet you downstairs?"
"Meet you there," Chelsea agrees.