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Vibora Bay: Absent Friends (IC)

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Vibora Bay 

January 2020 


Lavelle, WInifred's Uber driver took her as far as her GPS allowed, deep into the San Sebastian Swamp just to the north of Vibora Bay. It was hard to believe how close they were to a major city here, with even the skyscrapers of Vibora's highest points lost amid bare mangrove trees and pine forests that seemed to go on forever once you'd been inside them more than a few minutes. It was colder than Florida had been described to Fred; not quite a London spring outside but certainly nothing she'd have wanted to spend very much time in. "Welp, here we are!"


The road had converted to gravel some time back, and the tires of the old black van rumbled slightly as they parked. GROCERIES declared the sign on the store that Fred's knowledge of architecture told her was built in the "Carpenter Gothic" style. There were only a few cars in the lot, and the odd dirtbikle which made sense given what she'd heard from Smith of the local travel conditions. 


"They don't get many folks here in the off-season, but you should be able to get some lunch if'n ya want it," said Lavelle, a cheerful woman in overalls and cap who looked old enough to be Fred's grandmother. Well, looked, anyway. "Ah'm sure yer friend'll be here, we just ran a little early on account of the bridge being open sooner than Ah thought." She cleared her throat meaningfully at that.

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Winifred reflexively reached for the money clip tucked inside her light grey blazer before remembering herself and retrieving her smartphone instead. "Fortuitously my friend is the sort to arrive early to minimize any risk of ambush." The petite Englishwoman gave her driver a faint smile to assure her she hadn't meant that literally, perhaps a beat later than would have been best. An exemplary rating and generous tip hopefully smoothed over any eccentricities. She lifted her satchel off of her lap as she exited the van, brown leather riding boot crunching into the gravel. "Thank you again for your timely service and dining recommendations." With a final cordial nod she squared her shoulders against the stiffness from the bumpy ride and strode purposefully toward the grocer.

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The doors swung open, and Fred found herself in a quiet establishment that looked calculatingly old-fashioned. Tile floors underfoot supported floor-mounted refrigerators that sold ice cream and frozen foods, while lined white shelves held detergent, candy and salted snacks, canned food, sliced bread, the odd spice, and other amenities of a small rural grocery store. The Coke was in glass bottles here, the old worn bottle opener by the door suggesting it had been that way for a long time. The place did indeed smell of food; her early lunch-time arrival had gotten her there in time to see the frying chicken sizzling in its Dutch oven. It looked like they cooked in small batches here, the eatery side of the store looking more like a glorified home kitchen than a commercial establishment. The older man behind the counter was in bib overalls and a red plaid shirt, a John Deere hat perched on his head. "Hello, young lady! How can Ah help you today?" He shot a glance at the couple of tables and chairs in the restaurant, close by the window where Fred could see the swampy forest outside, and what had to be a boat dock out there. 

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The nostalgia being evoked by the shop's decor was lost on Winifred but the clearly deliberate aesthetic was not. It was odd to see mass produced items yellowed and weathered with age. She was examining the slogan on a box of 'instant' pancake mix when the proprietor spoke up and she straightened immediately, clasping her hands behind the small of her back. "Ah, hullo!  I'm a touch early to be meeting a friend who has a cabin in the area." She briefly considered asking after Smith directly but unless he'd had time to work on his rough hewn social skills during his self-imposed exile there seemed a non-zero chance of a negative reaction. "My driver recommended the 'house special' in the meantime...?"

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"Comin' right up, young lady!" The house special turned out to be a paper plate almost but not quite overburdened with fried chicken (the proprietor warned Fred that 'most first-timers like the mild chicken better', mashed potatoes, and freshly-made buttered biscuits) and an impressively-sized styrofoam cup full of sweet tea. The chicken was indeed flavorful; with a bite to it that suggested the 'spicy' chicken must be overpowering, and the portions generous. "Are y'all meeting Wang? He's a fine man. We could use some new money being spent around these parts..." 

The door to the establishment swung open again, the bell jingling, and in stepped Riley Smith, unable to stop a quick frown upwards at the bell as he went. "Hey Fred!" he called, or at least spoke with enough projection for her to hear him. A few quick strides into the building, and he was giving Fred a quick embrace. It had been several months - Riley seemed taller and bulkier by a few inches, his post-top surgery torso hard like iron in her hug. His goatee was dark and closely-cropped, his head still shaved, and his leather jacket creaked slightly as he sat down on the patched vinyl seats. 


"Hey Lem," he said with a half-smile the proprietor's way as he sat down opposite Fred. He ordered the house special too - with the spicy chicken. 

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Riley recognized the tightness of the hug Winifred gave him in return, the tightness of someone reassuring themselves that the person in front of them was really there. He stepped back before she did but her expression remained typically composed, a faint smile as she pressed against his chest with two fingers and made an approving sound. "Smith. You look suspiciously as though you've actually been taking care of yourself." The alchemist wasn't subtle about giving her friend an analytical once-over, looking for any new visible scars or signs of injury. She slung her saddlebag over the back of her own chair and leaned her cane against the table before taking a seat, as straight-backed as ever. "It's good to see you."

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"Here and there," said Riley, reaching back to scratch the back of his head, a gesture Fred knew only too well. "Gotta look good for the man in the mirror, anyway. But...yeah, yeah. It's good." Riley actually smiled, a rare look on his face at the best of times. "So, uh, how's the company? You still making girls pretty?" He'd have ordered something for a girlfriend; but of course it had been a long time since he'd had anything like that. He folded his hands on the table in front of them and didn't lead off by asking about Robin, which he felt was a sign of some kind of emotional health, anyway. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

“One cannot and need not make a lady pretty, Smith. That is her own inalienable prerogative,” Winifred chided with a small upturn of her chin. A pleased smile spread across her face before her friend could backpedal into defending himself. “That said, a great number have found that prerogative markedly easier to exercise with the aid of Chrysopoeia Cosmetics. The core product line has done well enough to support the rollout of a wider array of niche formulas for metahumans and nonhumans. If you have any acquaintances in the spectrum of green skin tones, give them my card; I have some very promising experiments ready for practical testing.” She was still far more the chemist than the saleswoman and she made no apologies for it.


There was a brief pause in conversation as their food arrived and Winifred stopped to give her plate a look of muted apprehension. Clearing her throat she nonchalantly tossed out, “Knight Errant Ltd. has been doing quite famously as well.” Their circle of friends had never been much for emotional health anyhow.

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Riley took the card, smiling slightly as he thought of Persephone and what she would make of Fred. "Looked us up, did you?" He put the card in his pocket. "I'll see if I know anybody who could use this." He stroked his chin as Fred talked, running his fingers through his dark goatee. When news came about Robin's work, Fred caught Riley's brief hesitation before his tense shoulders slumped ever-so-slightly - whether relaxation, defeat, or both, it was hard to tell at first. "...good. She's good at that. How's everybody else doing?" He flicked his gaze levelly at Fred for a moment, then said, "I hear from Matt sometimes."


When their meals arrived, Riley made a point to take out his wallet before Fred could reach hers; eager to pay for his own if not for Fred's meal. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

"'Hear from Matthew sometimes' is unfortunately an apt summation," Winifred sighed, momentarily distracted enough with the logistics of picking up her chicken with a minimum of mess that she allowed Riley to beat her to cheque. She shot him a pointed glare but didn't press the point; she never managed to win that particular argument with Robin, either. "He checks in frequently enough to keep any of us from worrying too badly but you know how he behaves, as if talking about himself were some great imposition." She set to work with her plastic cutlery with all the case of a vivisectionist. "I did have a video call with Cathy and Phaedra recently. I believe they may have actually achieved a greater level of adorableness, which seems as though it might present a health risk." 

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"Geez, Fred," said Riley, a quick smile crossing his lips before he picked up his drumstick and took a bite off the sides, heedless of the spicy grease that soon coated his fingers. "I'm doin' okay," he said, his voice soft. "I work as a mechanic part-time in the city. I've got some places on the west side that need a guy sometimes." He picked up his fries and smeared them in the grease left on his plate, then started eating those too. "Couple of jobs here and there since the big guy." He'd called Fred after the fight with the undead kaiju, mostly to let her know he was still alive, and yes he had taken down a giant monster in the middle of a hurricane with the local metahumans. "Locals are nice." He thought for a minute about all that was going unsaid, then did what was always the best defense. Actually smirking, he admitted, "Everybody here's black except one I'm pretty sure, so that's a thing. You see any...action since we last talked?" 

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"No, I haven't gotten laid any time in recent memory," Winifred replied without hesitation, expression perfectly neutral as she took a dainty bite of the meat she'd carved off of her drumstick. The expatriate pronounced 'gotten laid' with the hint of Jersey accent that coloured the modern vernacular she'd picked up since waking in the present day. Her deadpan was broken by a cough as the sauce hit her tongue and Riley thought he might have seen a line of phosphorescent green creeping up from her collar for a brief instant before she swallowed. She took a long sip of water and exhaled, immediately recomposed. "You?"

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Riley responded by doing something that would have left any of Woodsman's Vibora Bay allies astounded. He laughed so hard Coke came out his nose. "Ha! Ha, Jesus Christ, Fred..." He had a napkin in his hand and was wiping his shirtfront off before he'd finished swallowing. "Oh my god..." He snorted, wiped his eyes, and blew his nose. "You are something else." He smiled. "Guess some of us have come further than others." His smile tightened, but didn't quite fade. "I don't know if you know this, but most girls don't go for guys who live in the woods with their hatchet collection." 

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