Conflict Resolution

Part Fifteen: Honest Impatience

by Scalar7th

Tags: #another_day_at_the_office #any/all #multiple_partners #romance #superhero #urban_fantasy #bondage #comic_book #D/s #enchanting_voice #exhibitionism #scifi #socialism #villainy

Tanya has a late morning, and a busy day.

Port City, USA

Sterling Grey's apartment

Sterling Grey's bedroom

10:41 AM, Wednesday morning

Tanya wakes up slowly, in an unfamiliar bed. She's naked except for her panties, but that's not unusual for her when she sleeps. She rolls on her side, spotting herself in a full-sized mirror. She looks the same as she did the night before. She's a little surprised by this.

There's a polite knock at the door. The third such knock, she realizes, having been only barely conscious for the first two.

"Tanya?" Sterling's voice drifts through the door. She doesn't feel the same irritation hearing it that she might have a few days ago. Or a few hours ago.

"Is everything okay?" He's still talking. Tanya sits up on the side of the bed. She looks at the old radio-clock at the side of the bed. 10:42. That's not an unusual time for her to be getting up.

Another knock. That patience bothers her. Why does he have to be so nice all the goddamn time?

"I don't mean to rush you," came the voice through the door, "but I have an important meeting, and I'm not properly dressed."

"Not my problem," Tanya mutters, not expecting Sterling to have heard her, not caring if he did. She had locked the door, although she wasn't certain why, but it seemed to have paid off. He isn't about to break his own door to come barging in. She does wonder where the smell of lavender and... is it blueberries? She's not sure what exactly the scent is as she opens the door, then takes her place in front of the mirror to check herself. Perhaps she's hearing noises nearby, maybe seeing flashes of motion at the closet or in the glass, but there's something utterly fascinating about the way she looks, just in her underwear, just having got up. The mess of her hair gives her a certain wild quality that seems to play well with her "exotic" (well, for Port City) features. Her eyes seem to sparkle in the overhead light that she doesn't remember turning on. Maybe this is what's different about her now. Maybe a night with Sterling Grey left her mind so changed that the next morning she actually looks better.

She scoffs. That's insane. He doesn't have the power to make someone actually—

The bedroom door closes and she snaps out of it. "What the...?" she says, wondering at what just happened.

And then she realizes. "I'm in the bedroom of a mind controller. Jesus fuck!" Her voice rises as she moves towards the door. "Sterling Grey, if I find out you took pictures or had your gross creepy hands on me I will slice your belly open and yank your balls up through your fucking intestines!"

She thinks she hears him laugh, but his voice comes through the door calm and composed. "I need to have a shower, do you need the bathroom?"

She throws open the door. He's seen it all already, so whatever. Naturally, Sterling Grey is standing in the doorway of his own bedroom, in plain white boxer shorts and t-shirt. "You mind putting on some fucking coffee or something?" she asks him.

"Already brewing," he replies, stepping aside. "I can make you breakfast, if you like."

"Don't do me any favors," she says coldly as she walks to the bathroom. "Over-fucking-easy," she yells through the bathroom door.

"I don't actually have any eggs," comes the calm reply.

"Then what goddamn good are you?"

It's only as she's peeing that she realizes she's enjoying the banter between them. She's not sure how she feels about being stuck staring naked in the mirror while he grabbed a change of clothes (and probably got a good look at her ass in panties) but she's starting to think of Sterling Grey as a friend.

The thought doesn't completely disgust her. The thought that that thought doesn't completely disgust her does make her a little disguted, though.

Fuck me, I'm actually starting to like the guy.

That has to be the mind control talking.

Right?

She finishes up, washes her hands, and walks out into the hallway. Sterling's still there. "I didn't realize you were undressed," he offers.

"You thought I slept in my nice fake journalist clothes?" she asks, moving back towards the bedroom.

He shrugs. "I didn't expect that 'make yourself at home' would be taken quite so literally."

She doesn't close the door, and to his credit, if he's ogling her, she can't tell. "Don't know your own strength, huh," she says, picking up her discarded bra.

"If you need anything, I'll be in the shower for a bit."

"Need a little time to spank it after you got a good look?"

She doesn't catch what reply he gives, if any. She hears the bathroom door close as she puts yesterday's clothes back on, hears the water start running. She should probably have asked to shower, but he did say that he has an important meeting. She can get cleaned up when he's finished.

And then her new job, whatever that is, starts Friday. Fucking wild.

She wanders out to the living room where she'd spent entirely too much time the day before. The armchair she had, or hadn't, been tied to seems ... perfectly normal. It's strange to think that an armchair will be such a powerful influence on her life. She runs her hand over it. It had been very comfortable.

Or he had convinced her that it was.

She sits down in the chair, just as she'd been sitting the night before, her hands resting on the arms. She pretends that she's bound to it, struggling against imagined ropes.

She wonders how it looks, to an observer, to see someone who can't get out of a chair for no visible reason.

The smell of coffee eventually makes her move, and she finds the kitchen. She searches the cupboards for mugs, pulls one out at random, grabs the pot of coffee and in one smooth motion fills the vessel.

She notes that he has the same coffee maker that she does. She's not sure what to make of that.

In fact, this whole apartment seems so... normal in the light of day. Bigger than hers, of course, but she lives in a low-rent studio space. But the kitchen is just a kitchen, the living room (despite the modification to add a bar in place of the second bedroom) was just a living room, the bedroom and bathroom were, while nice, just normal.

"Well, what the fuck were you expecting?" she asks herself before adding a teaspoon of sugar to the coffee. "A complex deep inside a volcanic island?"

Well, yeah, kinda.

Silver Tongue has been hiding in plain sight, but he's still been hiding. An ostentatious lair could lead the Brights right to his doorstep. Or worse.

"Besides," she says, moving back out to the living room and sitting in the armchair again, carrying the coffee with her, "those kinds of construction projects are ridiculous. You need contractors, hired workers, gotta fill out forms, get permits..."

Sounds like a nightmare.

Unless you're going to build it up little by little over a long time, while hiding it in plain sight. Permits and plans for an office building, a warehouse, a new cafe, all simple enough. Slowly assembling an army not of mercenary soldiers, but of committed and loyal laborers motivated by an us-against-them narrative—a story helped along by it being demonstrably true—and smooth over the rough edges with a little applied mind control...

"Fucking Hell, Sterling is a goddamn supervillain," she whispers, half in awe.

A knock at the door makes her jump. She can still hear the shower running, so she puts her coffee down, walks to the door, and (getting on her tiptoes) checks through the peephole. The woman outside seems a bit nervous and agitated, looking around almost as if she's worried about being noticed. Tanya wonders who it might be, if this is the 'important meeting,' or just another conquest for Silver Tongue, or something else.

She unlocks the door, opens it up.

The young woman—maybe twenty—looks down at her in shock. "Oh! I must have, uh, the wrong—"

"Here for Sterling?"

She seems startled. "Uh, yes, I, um—"

"He's in the shower, come in."

She does, and she looks at Tanya again. "Hey, um. I think I recognize you." She cocks her head, as if thinking.

"You do?" Tanya replies. "I don't think I know you."

"I don't know you, but I've seen you. In a picture, I think. Like, with other people. Sorry, I'm being weird." She holds out a strong hand. "Crystal."

Tanya takes the offered handshake. Crystal's grip is strong and her hands are rough. "Tanya, nice to meet you."

"Are you part of Project Sunset too?" Crystal asks.

"Project what now?"

"Guess not."

Tanya shakes her head. Something else to ask about, or look up, or ask about and then look up. "What's that?"

"I have no idea," comes the reply. Crystal looks a little confused, it's a very cute look on her, on someone who Tanya wouldn't generally regard as 'cute.' She's tall, probably taller than Sterling, big across the shoulders and waist, angular features, short brown hair, but the look of confusion is simply adorable. "I'm just... I probably shouldn't talk about it," she continues defensively.

"Yeah, if it's business with Sterling, you probably shouldn't. You wanna coffee?"

Crystal flushes a bit. "Uh, no, thank you, I'm, uh, I had one already this morning. And I didn't... um, I didn't really sleep much last night."

"Bad dreams?"

The younger woman grins. "Only because you weren't in them."

Tanya's eyes widen in shock at the comment. "Sorry, what?"

Her blush goes a shade and a half deeper. "I was trying to flirt with you a bit, sorry."

"No, I caught that, I just wasn't fucking expecting it. And don't apologize, it was fun, just surprising."

Crystal shuffles her feet. "It's not something I'm good at. A-and I don't know what came over me, I'm here for a... a reason."

"Project Sunset." Tanya moves to retrieve her own coffee, not really sure how else to react.

Crystal nods.

"Maybe you should tell me about it."

Crystal shrugs. "I don't know anything about it to tell you, actually. I mean, I would if I knew anything. A-at least I think I'd tell you? I'm not sure. Whatever I know about it, I'm going to forget, anyway."

Tanya puts a hand to her head. "Whatever you know, you're going to forget?"

"Yeah, because of... Oh, you don't know?"

"That Sterling Grey is Silver Tongue?"

"Oh, you do know." Crystal laughs in relief, a warm, deep sound. "Well, I don't know that, or at least I don't know that when I'm not in this room. I don't even know Sterling Grey, actually. Met him maybe once or twice in my job, certainly I know who he is and I've seen him around the docks."

"Wait, wait, slow down," Tanya says, holding up her free hand. "You're here in Sterling Grey's apartment, Sterling being someone you don't know, because Sterling is Silver Tongue, which is something you also don't know?" She blinks as Crystal nods. "Christ, he'd better finish up that shower soon and tell me what the fuck's going on."

Crystal smiles at her. "We're dealing in mind control, here, and everything's weird. I think either I just learned to go along with it—"

"Or he made you."

Crystal nods.

"That doesn't bug the shit out of you?"

"Nope."

"Me neither." It was true. It shouldn't have been, though. "I'm ... I'm new to all this fuckin'..." She waves her hand aimlessly.

Crystal pauses before answering. "I thought I was, too," she says slowly. "But apparently I'm not. Which is why I'm here."

Tanya frowns. "Apparently I'm not, either? I don't know, it's been a fucking week of this or something."

"Oh wow, haha." Crystal looks around a little nervously. "I think I might have been under control for like three years. But not by him!" she adds quickly. "There's... I think that Silver Tongue has a way for me to get out of some stuff I've got myself into."

Tanya's about to ask for more information when they hear the shower stop. "Mind if I sit in on the discussion?"

Crystal chuckles again. "I don't think that's really up to me, but I don't think I mind."

Tanya flops down into the armchair. "I hate all this... not knowing what is and isn't my own mind," she complains, her volume dropping to not be overheard by the villain in the bathroom.

"It's like a double life," Crystal says with a nod, leaning casually against the wall where Sterling had been the night before.

"If anyone would know something about a double life, it'd be a supervillain hiding from the Brights."

Crystal nods. "Yeah, that's definitely one sort."

Tanya's about to ask what she means when the bathroom door opens, causing them both to turn. Sterling's standing there in the hall, dressed in grey slacks and a white t-shirt, carrying a grey shirt over one shoulder. "Crystal, you're early."

"Sorry, Silver Tongue," she replies, "I'm just so fired up, I got here quick as I could."

"And I've been slowed up a little this morning," he apologizes, approaching them.

Crystal looks at Tanya, and Tanya can see her making the obvious assmption. She raises her hands. "Not me, sister, he's not my type. Even with the whole fuckin' brain worm thing."

She has the pleasure of seeing Silver Tongue wince. "I wish you wouldn't."

"Wouldn't what?" Tanya asks innocently, standing up and moving to stand beside Crystal. "Accurately describe you fucking with our heads through metaphor?"

Crystal laughs. Tanya's a bit flustered at the sound, not sure how to feel about amusing this newcomer. She's definitely happy about it. But like her other emotions that morning, she's not clear on how she ought to interpret that happiness.

Fucking villain's got me messed up about my own goddamn thoughts now!

But she can't deny how nice it is to hear Crystal laugh.

"Yes," Sterling says, brushing off the mocking comment and laughter. Maybe it was the friendly presence beside her, but Tanya was warming up to Sterling's unflappable nature. Still, it's fun to crack the façade. "Crystal, you contacted me this morning, why?"

"Because I no longer want to be part of Project Sunset."

Sterling nods. Tanya, though, is still curious. "So what's Project Sunset?"

"Nothing I can remember," Crystal replies before Sterling can.

Sterling pauses, clearly thinking about his answer. "Tanya, there is too much to get into about that at the moment, but if you're patient, I will answer your questions later."

Tanya runs her tongue along the inside of her lower teeth. That lavender scent is back again. "You're doing it now," she says calmly.

"I am," Sterling confirms. "And you're alright with that." Tanya nods. "You're about to go enjoy your coffee in the kitchen while I discuss Crystal's decision to leave the project with her. And later I'll tell you about Project Sunset."

Tanya nods and turns to Crystal. "You see what I have to put up with?" she says airily.

Crystal snickers. "It's been fun meeting you. I'm kind of sorry I won't remember it."

"Yeah, that's a shame." Tanya turns towards the kitchen, then pauses, then turns back. "You wanna grab a bite sometime?"

"Yeah, please. That'd be great." Crystal gives Tanya a smile that makes her heart flutter a little. She's a bit disgusted at herself and at the sickly smile she feels herself giving in return.

She turns to Sterling, who's leaning casually against the armchair. She points an accusing finger, recognizing the fluidity of her movements and her words. It makes her feel a bit high, like she's been drugged. "You. Fucker. You better make sure that happens. I haven't had a good fucking date in two years and I'm not gonna pass this up. If you screw this up for me, I'll... I'll..." She can't come up with a violent threat, and her new friend's endearing half-embarrassed laugh doesn't help. "I'm going to the kitchen now."

"Thank you, Tanya, I promise you'll be enlightened before long."

"That's just fucking great, thank you." She's not sure if she being sarcastic or not.

She sits at the small table in the kitchen. The coffee tastes strange—not bad, just unusual. Rather pleasant, actually.

She hears Crystal asking a question. "How do you do this without being a monster?"

Before she can hear Sterling's answer, there's a knock on the door.

The coffee is good.


11:12 AM Wednesday

Sterling Grey's living room.

"What's going on out there?" comes the irritated growl from the kitchen. "No one's saying anything."

Crystal smiles. "I'm sitting here in the armchair, waiting, like I was told to do. Sterling's in the hallway talking with Thomas Holfers from the communications department."

"Well," Tanya says, "Since I have to stay in here, and you have to wait there, what say we talk about ourselves a bit?"

"Yeah, okay." Crystal pauses a moment. "Bit of a weird first date."

"Yeah well, I'm a bit of a weird fuckin' girl."

"Me too."

"Saw that you were pretty buff. And you probably jogged over here, huh?"

Crystal nods, aware that Tanya can't actually see her. "Yeah, high school hockey champ until I, uh..." she takes a breath. "Ran away from home. I try to stay in shape."

"Well you're doin' a good job at that."

No indication in Tanya's voice that she knew the reason for running away. "Thanks. Uh, I like your look, too."

"Got a thing for smaller girls, huh?"

Crystal flushed. "No!" she says, too quickly and too loudly. "Uh, I mean, yes? I do, but—"

"Jesus, hockey girl, just tell me you think I'm fuckin' adorbs and you wanna jump my bones, alright? I don't bite."

It takes Crystal a moment to realize that Tanya is laughing. "S-sorry," she stammers, "I'm just, uh—"

"Yeah I come on a bit strong, but I mellow with age, and booze. Am I bothering you?"

"What? uh, no, actually, um I have to admit, I kinda like it," Crystal says. "Most people are a little intimidated by me, but you, and—oh that's where I know you from!" she exclaims as it dawns on her. "I've seen you in a picture in Sharon's apartment!"

There's a momentary silence. "Sharon Marrol? What are you doing in Sharon's apartment?"

"She and I are becoming friends, I hope, we met at the rallies." Crystal carefully does not talk about the bug she placed in Sharon's apartment, or the subsonic inducer she used on Sharon the night before. "I jogged home with her after Sunday's protest, she let me in for a glass of water, and I saw the picture of you and Sharon and another girl on the beach, I think?"

Another pause. "It's hanging by her door, isn't it."

"Yeah, that's right. You're wearing a black-and-blue striped one-piece suit that looks really good on your figure."

"That's fuckin' amazing."

"What is?"

"That you can remember all that."

Crystal's physical shrug matches her tone. "I pay attention to little things I guess. Sharon looks like Sharon in the picture, and she's definitely showing off that awesome body, and the other girl, uh, long black hair that doesn't look quite natural and... wearing white, I think? You fit right in with them."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm trying to call you a hottie, is it working?" There's an odd mote of color on the right side of her vision, almost like visual aura signalling the start of a migraine, a little bloom of light.

Tanya's sharp laugh is a bit harsh. "Yeah, I wish. I've always been the tag-along for those two, and I got no fuckin' idea why they let me do that."

"Maybe because they like you," Crystal suggests. Hearing Tanya laugh again, she continues, "No, really! You're fun, you're cute, it's obvious you stand up for them, I bet you're a great friend to have. Who cares if you're rough on the edges, or not as tall or as buff as they are? You're cute as heck, you're fun to talk to, and I'm looking forward to meeting you for dinner sometime." The light's there if she concentrates on it, but she's too busy thinking about what to say to worry about it too much.

"You're gonna forget all about it though."

Crystal nods. "Yeah, but don't you trust Sterling?"

There's a pause. The spot of light dances a little. She takes a deep breath and relaxes into the chair.

"Fuck me sideways, I do. He'll find a way to put us together."

"He will." Crystal takes a breath and screws up her courage. "Since I'm not gonna remember this, I don't have to worry about rejection, I guess, so—"

"Why would you worry about being rejected?"

Crystal hesitates.

"Is it 'cause you're trans?"

Her heart drops. "You can tell?" The colors are muted, and just covering the tiniest corner of her vision.

"I couldn't, but I can guess. High school star athlete, ran away from home, beautiful deep voice, big and tall and broad... the only question is why you think I should give a fuck."

Crystal blinks. "You... think my voice is beautiful?"

Tanya laughs, but it's not mean-spirited. "I say all that and that's the only goddamn thing you come away with? Yeah, I wanna—you're not gonna remember this, so I can say it, I wanna listen to that voice talking me to sleep as I lie curled up naked against your big strong body, alright?"

"Wow, uh... wow. I wasn't expecting that." The colorful fleuret spins lazily, almost impossible to notice at this point.

"I'll go you one more," Tanya teases. "If I wasn't trapped here in the kitchen, and you weren't stuck there in the chair, I would drag your tight ass back to Grey's bedroom and—fucking Christ in Hell when the fuck did you get here?" Tanya's playful tone drops in an instant, and her voice is full of fire. Crystal wonders if the neighbors heard the blasphemous exclamation.

"I've been eavesdropping since Crystal called you a hottie, if you want to know," Sterling Grey says from the door to the kitchen. "I figured I'd step in before things got too heated."

Crystal isn't surprised to see him. He was whispering to her for a while, standing next to the chair, and only just moved to the kitchen. She just hadn't realized that she knew that until this moment.

"The unfortunate thing," Sterling continues, "is that there's a deeper emergency that requires my attention, so I'm afraid I'm going to have work quickly."

"That 'working quickly' include working up a head of jerking material?"

Crystal feels like she should interject. "You did let us go on a while."

"When I see an opportunity," Stelring replies, "I take it. Besides, Tanya, didn't you want me to see that the two of you got together? 'You better make sure this happens,' I believe you said. And it can be easier for me to work my suggestions when there's something else on the mind of the target."

Crystal's heart races. If Silver Tongue is going to help them get together, then the blaze of light in the corner of her eye grows, filling her vision, filling her thoughts, her sense of time, of space, her emotions, her memories, and feeling giddy as a schoolgirl, she turns to Tanya, who's sitting across from her in a red booth similar to the one she's sitting in. "I love the '50s diner aesthetic, I'm glad you suggested this place."

"Uh, yeah." Tanya looks around, seemingly confused. "Do you... does the food taste odd to you?"

They haven't ordered yet. Crystal chooses not to mention it.


12:32 PM

A quiet corner upland

A rented second-story apartment in a large character house

The house's only inhabitant paces her living room for the hundredth time since she left work early and arrived home at about half past two that morning.

Marie is not about to sleep.

When she had finally managed to settle herself around eleven, assured herself that Thomas hadn't heard, or hadn't noticed, or hadn't cared, suddenly her phone rang.

Sterling Grey was calling her.

She didn't answer. He called again. She didn't answer. She couldn't.

He never calls her in the morning. Or at least so rarely that it stands out when he does. It couldn't be a coincidence that this was the morning he decided he needed a nooner.

He didn't leave a voicemail. What would he say, if he did? "Hi, I know you know who I am, I need to wipe your memory, come by at your earliest convenience"?

For the twentieth time since she got home, and the tenth time since those two ignored phone calls, she wonders just how far she can get on the gas in her car. Can she get away? Where would she go? How far does his reach extend?

If she were to flee the country, head to Brazil or something, is she going to hear his voice in her ear in two years, feel a compulsion to get on a plane with him, and wind up trapped back in Port City, never to leave?

Why does that sound so goddamn appealingshe thinks to herself. Oh Marie, what the Hell is wrong with you?

One of the things that has kept her awake was this terrible sense of arousal. She refuses to let herself masturbate to those fantasies, not now that some part of them might come true; she doesn't really want to be thinking in those terms when whatever confrontation is going to happen comes to pass.

But she's still horny, and those fantasies have long been a part of her sex life. It's an impossible situation. So she's awake. Not just because of the arousal—nerves born of legitimate fear and uncertainty make up the majority of her restlessness—but it sure does not help.

"So what do I do? Do I run? Do I hide? Do I call him back, give myself up?" The television provides no useful insight to this question. It might if it was turned on, but Marie doubts it. "What good are you if you have a bazillion channels but can't answer my questions?"

The television doesn't have a bazillion channels. Marie's landlord only pays for basic cable.

Her phone gives the blip of a text message arriving. She runs over and grabs it from the kitchen table.

It's from him.

She can't help herself.

SG: Marie, we're coming to your apartment to see 

There's more to the message, but she can't make it out. She knows it was a mistake to read it. There has to be some magic word, some kind of a trigger there that's messing with her head. Mind control is hot as hell but it's also deeply confusing.

She sits down on her couch, reading and rereading, unable to make sense of more than just the first eight words. She lies down, still reading the message, over and over.

She types a reply,

Marie: just lying down for nap come around four

and she's finally able to get some sleep.


3:20 PM

The door to Sterling Grey's apartment

Tanya knocks politely.

Then knocks again.

Then opens the door.

All in the space of five seconds.

Sterling is standing in the doorway of his kitchen, moving towards the entrance to the apartment. "You couldn't wait?"

"You know who you're talking to?" Tanya walks in. "Don't you lock your door?"

"Only when I'm expecting guests," Sterling replies sardonically. "What are you doing here? Where's Crystal?"

"I walked her to work for some reason and then came back here. Do you know how easy it is to get lost in these streets when you don't have a fucking map?"

He blinks. "Your phone?"

"Under a shitty pile of rubble you used to call a café."

He nods. "What are you doing here?"

She throws herself into the armchair. "My question is what the fuck are you doing here?"

"I live here."

"Don't you work?"

"I work here sometimes, too. Don't you work?"

Tanya sighs. "I'm a fucking freelancer without a fucking phone and with a fucking court date, thank you very fucking much for fucking reminding me."

"Maybe I should do something about your language," Sterling says casually, with a little grin. "Wouldn't be that hard."

"Don't you fucking dare mess with my language." She shoots him an angry glare. "The whole fucking walk I didn't want a cigarette. You know how goddamn weird that is?"

"You know you asked me to do that while you were—"

"I know I fucking asked you, I was there goddamn it!" Tanya yells. She grunts. "Sorry, I'm just... everything's strange and I don't like it and that's not an invitation, mindfucker."

Sterling raises his hands to his shoulders, palms open, as if to show he's not armed. Tanya doesn't buy it. "So, can I ask, what are you doing here?"

She ignores him. "If you're going to be playing around in my brain, can I get some ground rules down? And also is there any chance I can get a new phone? My previous employer won't help me out."

"You're here to talk to me about ground rules? And we can get you a phone when you start."

"If I start tonight can you get me a fucking phone? And yeah, I want some ground rules."

Sterling shakes his head. "I'll introduce you to Thomas in a few minutes, he's my ride. What makes you think you get ground rules?"

"Because you don't want me to tell Chelsea and Sharon that you're Silver Tongue."

"You assume I haven't."

"You're damn right I assume you haven't, because you're a fucking coward about it."

Sterling nods. "Because I don't particularly want the Brights to tear me limb from limb, yes. Or Warren Donovan to have the ability to do what I do."

She stares at him. "Does anything get under your skin?"

He smiles and doesn't answer.

"That's so fucking annoying, you know?"

"Why do you think I don't let anything get to me?" He moves back towards the kitchen. "You want a drink?"

"No wonder Flamehammer fucked you up. Nah, I'm fine." She watches him open the fridge. "So. No screwing around with my love life."

"What?" Sterling asks, opening a can of lemon-lime soda.

"Ground rules. You got me together with Crystal. You don't fuck with that."

"'Got you together' with her?" He seems confused.

"Are you gonna make me say it?" Tanya sighs. "Look, prick. I'm crushing harder than I've ever crushed before, and I think you've got something to do with that, and fine, whatever, I don't care, you just don't do it more, you get it?"

"I think you're confused," he replies. "Maybe you and Crystal were a little wrapped up in the atmosphere, which can happen, but I didn't push you into anything. If I remember correctly, you said you wanted to drag her tight ass back to my bed and—"

Tanya went red. "Not another fucking word."

Sterling said nothing, hiding his smile behind a sip of his soda.

Tanya startles. "Wait, you didn't push me into anything? Did you push her into—"

"No," he interrupts. "Not much, anyway. All I did was use your growing interest in one another to hide what I had to from you both."

She frowns. "What are you hiding from us?"

There's a knock at the door. "I told you earlier," Sterling says, crossing the floor. "I promise, you'll be enlightened."

"Yeah, I'm not sure that enlightenment is all it's cracked up to be," Tanya mutters to herself.

Sterling opens the door, and another Sterling is standing there, as far as Tanya can tell. Different stance, different face, different—nicer—dress, but about the same height, same body type, probably the same age. She recognizes him from her research on Sterling, although she can't remember his name. She briefly wishes for Crystal's astonishing memory for details.

"Thank you for taking the time, Thomas," Sterling says, showing his guest in. "I'm afraid I have an unexpected visitor. Who is just leaving."

"You wish," Tanya says without thinking about it. "We're not done here."

"You might not be, but I am. I have another appointment to keep."

Tanya hops to her feet. "I can go with you," she offers impulsively. "We have ground rules to discuss."

"'Ground rules'?" Other Sterling says from the doorway, sounding amused.

Sterling stands aside and lets the other man in. "Thomas Holfers, meet Tanya Nomura, your new team member."

"Nice to meet you," Thomas greets her, offering a hand.

Tanya hops to her feet. "Yeah, same. I'm sure I'll fit right in." She rolls her eyes as she shakes his hand.

He looks to Sterling. "This is the hacker?"

"This is the hacker," he replies.

"Well it's good to have you on board," Thomas says, sounding genuine. He has a firm handshake. "It's not often we get someone who will try to dictate terms to Sterling."

Tanya scoffs. "Yeah, I bet he's just deadly in negotiations." She looks over to Sterling. "He knows?"

Sterling nods. "One of a handful. You're in a very select group."

"How'd he figure it out?"

"Sterling told me," Thomas replies. "We've been good friends since high school."

"You just tell people?" Tanya says, wide-eyed and incredulous. "Fuck me, why did I have to dig through the daycare?"

Thomas tilts his head. "The daycare? Amelia?"

That does it for Tanya. She explodes. "What the fuck, Sterling? How does everyone know everything before me? That's absolutely fucking it, I am coming with you to see just what the Hell is going on. I've been working myself to the fucking bone trying to figure you out and now I find out that I could have just asked this dickhead? No offense."

Thomas continues to seem amused. "None taken."

"I am sticking to you like we're goddamn glued together, you hear me?" Tanya takes a step towards Sterling, pointing at his chest. "I want to know every fucking thing about your stupid confederation. I want to know everything about everybody who knows who you are and what you do. If I'm going to be on your team, I need to know every. Goddamn. Fucking. Thing. That you or anyone else can tell me about this whole shitty organization. Because you know I'll figure it the fuck out, and doing anything else is going to be a fucking waste of my time and effort."

Sterling looks past her at Thomas. "You're sure you want her on the team?"

"I think she just gave you the best possible reasons that we want her on the team," Thomas replies.

He nods. "I was thinking the same thing."

"Oh fuck you both," Tanya says, grumply stomping back to the armchair and flopping down into it.

"Are you planning to stick to me like glue on my dinner with Chelsea tonight?"

Tanya sighs. "No. Fuck you again for asking."

"I can bring you in after our meeting today," Thomas offers. "Show you the ropes."

She puts a hand to her head. "Yeah, fine, I guess that sounds good." She looks up. "Where are we going, anyway?"

Sterling gives her a little half-smile. "You aren't the only one to figure me out, it seems."

"Oh yeah?" Tanya perks up a bit. "Someone else got your number? Who?"

"The girl who delivered our pizza last night," Thomas explains, "when she was leaving, she said that I should say 'hi' to Silver Tongue. When my partner went to bed, I sent Sterling a message about it."

"I was busy with you, at that point," Sterling adds. "My phone was off, I didn't want interruptions."

"And it remained off all morning, it seems."

"No, I turned it on when I woke up at ten, that's when I heard from Crystal."

"But you didn't answer your other texts."

"Project Sunset has priority."

Thomas sighs and rolls his eyes. "Yeah, okay. Anyway, since the boss here wasn't in his office, and wasn't answering his phone or his messages, I had to come over here and knock on his door while he was busy with Project Sunset matters to tell him the news. This is, by the way, what you're gettting into; we're expected to keep the empire running while he's pissing around with his personal projects."

Tanya snickers at that.

Sterling takes over the explanation at that point. "I tried to call her—the delivery girl—a couple times, and finally got a text message to her."

"You know her?" Tanya asks.

"She's a," he pauses, "a regular visitor."

"You're fucking her," Tanya translates.

She's rewarded with the wince Sterling makes whenever she cuts through his euphemisms. "Yes. And she's been very useful in other ways, too."

"So what are you going to do to her?" Tanya asks. "Erase her memory like you threatened me with?"

Sterling shrugs. "Maybe. I need to find out what she knows, what she wants, what she needs. I'll decide what to do after that."

"You'll notice that the boss isn't great at long-term planning," Thomas says.

"Never needed to be," Sterling agrees. "Why spend a week writing a term paper when I could get an 'A' on one I wrote in a few hours?"

Tanya nods. "I'm guessing that's part of my job now?"

"It's everyone's job." Thomas answers her. "Everyone's but his."

"That's what the co-op pays you for, Thomas," Sterling retorts.

"And now me," Tanya adds. "Not sure I like that."

"You'll learn," Thomas replies. "Besides which, you're in a very special group. Not many people know the boss's secret."

"Yeah, you, me, and the pizza girl. Do I get to watch?"

"What?" Sterling asks.

"While you brain-fuck the pizza girl, do I get to watch? I don't remember anything about the whole Project Sunset thing with Crystal, or much about last night, I kinda wanna see the process."

He blushes and stammers. "Uh. It... may be better if you wait in the car, this time."

"Yeah, no, fucker, I'm even more interested now."

"Thomas, can you—"

The IT specialist shakes his head "No can do, boss, I'm not bailing you out of this one." He seems to be enjoying Sterling's discomfort. "This is your mess. I'm not the mind controller."

Tanya laughs. "Well that's about it, isn't it? I get to watch, or you're gonna have to convince me not to."

Thomas looks at his wrist. "We're going to have to go soon. Do we take her with us?"

Sterling sighs. "Yes, I think we have to. Or she'll never let it go. Do you really want to see this, Tanya?"

"Yeah, Sterling, I really wanna see it." She moves to the door. "Are you gonna let me?"

"We'll see."

"Good enough, let's go."


3:59 PM

Thomas Holfers' car

Sitting on the street in front of a large character house in a quiet corner upland

"How long does this normally take?" Tanya asks from the back seat.

"How long did it take with you?" Thomas asks in reply.

Tanya nods, understanding the point of the question. "Hours."

"Then let him do his work, he'll let me know when it's time for you to come in."

"Heh. Work. Think they're fucking in there?"

Thomas shrugs. "Could be. I don't know how he does what he does."

"You've been working with him for twenty years."

"Sure, but I don't do... the things he does. No one does. So it's hard to tell how he does it."

"Right." Tanya pauses. "Why is it that no one wants to find out?"

Thomas thinks about that for a moment. "Could be his influence, I guess? Maybe sometime in school he said, 'You don't want to know,' and I still don't."

"Doesn't that bug you?"

"Nah. You know, sometimes it's best just to leave these things alone. Especially things you benefit from."

"Huh, yeah. I guess I can see how that works." Tanya frowns. "Why do you think I still want to know?"

Thomas thinks again before answering. "Maybe it's something in your personality? Maybe it's just who you are? Maybe you just haven't spent enough time with the rest of us yet?"

"Yeah, who are 'the rest of us,' anyway? I mean, you know his secret and so does the pizza girl apparently..."

"Uh, well, you said you met Amelia and Natali, but they're not part of the organization. Your lawyer, Oleksandr—"

Tanya growls. "He's not my lawyer!"

"Okay, fine, Sandy Kolesnyk knows, Elena Reyes from the Crier, security head John Malcolm, Letitia Connor in construction. Basically," he holds up a hand and counts off on his fingers, "someone from IT—that's me—communications, legal, security, maintenance, all the corners he needs covered for his own safety. You looked into us, you probably know that Elena and I were classmates of Sterling's going back to high school."

"Yeah, yeah, I know that. And we talked about Elena last night. What about John, and Letitia?"

"John was a security consultant for the dockworker's union before the co-op was formed, basically a great guy everyone loves, and he made the perfect security co-ordinator for the new operation. Project Sunset is really his work. And—"

"There's that name again!" Tanya exclaims. "Project Sunset keeps coming up today! What is it?"

Thomas hesitates. "I'll let Sterling or John explain it. When it comes to tactical things, John's the real planner, and Sterling's the one who can execute, or improvise when things go sideways."

"Right, okay. And Letitia?"

He gets a little flushed. "A friend of mine, actually. I, uh, introduced the two of them. A blind date sort of thing."

Tanya stares at the side of his head. "Knowing who he is, and what he does, you..."

"Yes, knowing who he is, and what he does, I introduced him to the girl who had a helpless crush on me."

"Shit, seriously? So, wait, is he like your general problem-solver? You got someone you don't like, he just mind-warps them for you?"

Thomas clears his throat. "You... really don't like what he can do, do you."

"And you fucking do?" Tanya's voice is getting shrill, even to her own ears, in the small space. "How is everyone just... okay with this? How can he live with himself? I just... I don't get it, I really don't." She undoes her seatbelt. "I'm going in, I don't care. I need to see how he does what he does, and if he wipes my memory after, then fucking fine, okay?" She walks out into the street, slamming the car door behind her hard enough that if she cared, she might worry about breaking the window.

Thomas pulls out his phone and checks the time, then quickly sends a text message to Sterling.

Thomas H: She couldn't even hold out five minutes. I win.

What will Sterling be doing with Marie when Tanya gets there? Will Crystal leave Project Sunset? How will Crystal and Tanya get along after their first lunch together?

Find out more in Part Sixteen!

x6

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