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May 4 2012

After all the exhaustion of the last few months, it had been a welcome relief for Mark to get invited to the get-together at the Socotran Consulate for Nina's brother Morakot. Or be informed by Nina over breakfast that they'd be attending, anyway. "Personally, I never thought Morrie was going to get married," she told Mark breezily as she sat back in her chair and drank her dark, strong-smelling Arabian coffee with a thoughtful expression. "But he's nearly forty now and he's not getting any younger. Father does value family, and he does control the purse strings. You can't be a gentleman bachelor forever, not and enjoy the lifestyle of a prince of Socotra."

Morakot al-Darsah, Mark knew, had been something of a playboy in years past, his dark skin, good looks, and well-groomed mustache making the wealthy prince a star of the tabloids of a previous generation: he'd even once squired Princess Diana around. He'd made it a point to be up to date on Nina's family after they'd started dating. "So he's announcing his engagement here in Freedom City? He must be marrying somebody local." He put his mind to the thought of all the eligible women in town interested in marrying a handsome prince, but there were too many possibilities. "And you don't know who, or you'd have told me already."

That got him one of Nina's more predatory smiles. Mark had the idea Nina didn't always appreciate it when he was clever, but she seemed to find it interesting all the same. "You seem to have my number, Mr. Lucas. Anyway, yes, it is a mystery! He's been out of the public eye lately, you see, going to all those clubs of his and spending Father's money like it's made of water. So Father has used his influence with the consulate to make sure you and I both have tickets to the soiree next week. The better to keep an eye on my errant brother, and to make sure he's not about to disgrace the family."

"A courtly evening with you? I'd be honored," said Mark with a wink. "You should wear that black dress of yours, the one that shows..." He demonstrated with his hands, and Nina laughed. "I can get my good suit." Sobering a little, he added, "We should bring Trevor and Erin too. They're smart and they're observant, and they're good in a crisis." Very good, as it happened, but there was no need to dwell on the fine details in front of someone who wasn't in their circle of trust, even if she was in his. Kind of. It was complicated.

"Your schoolmates. Yes, hmm, I remember them." Nina and Mark had never actually discussed where those superheroes had come from when the Nazi transdimensional assassin had come to kill her for her father's defiance. "All right, I'll make sure there are two tickets..."

That evening, with Nina off at her late-night class, Mark called Trevor's 'workphone', figuring that if he got lucky, he'd catch Erin and Trevor together. And as it happened, he did!

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There was no answer right away, in fact Mark counted five rings before the click that signaled a connection. It wasn't Trevor on the other end, though. It was Erin, and she sounded like she was in the middle of a fight. That wasn't terribly unusual, a lot of Mark's friends spent a lot of time in fights, but they aleways had time to talk to him. "Mark?" Erin was breathing faster than usual, and she sounded distracted by whatever was going on around her. "Swear to god, Mark, this had better be important," she said tersely.

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"Erin!" said Mark, concerned for his friend's welfare as anyone would be under the circumstances. "Are you guys all right?" He glanced out the window despite himself, wondering for a moment if he'd missed some tremendous crisis. He still felt guilty about spending that night away from heroing when the Gorgon was closing in, but it had been a rough week that week..."I was calling to invite you and Trevor out to a state dinner at the Socotran consulate, but if you need help I can get over there in a second," he promised in a flash, his costume already snapping into place around him. "Where are you?"

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"No!" Erin shouted into the phone, loud enough to make static pop and crackle on the line, and Mark's ear ring a little. "No, we're fine, just stay where you are" And indeed, there didn't seem to be any noise of fighting from around her, so perhaps things were calming down. "You want to invite us to dinner?" she asked then, sounding incredulous. "With your girlfriend?" That was the obvious leap, seeing as how his girlfriend was part of the Socotran royal family. "Listen, I'll call you back. Little bit. Promise." She hung up the phone then, every bit as terse as Trevor would've been.

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Mark hung up the phone, worrying for a little while about what Trevor and Erin were up to, then decided not to think about it. If something bad had been happening, Erin would have found a way to tell him. She and Trevor were good together, they could handle any situation. I shouldn't have called this late anyway; I know how they go out looking for action this late most nights. Instead he busied himself with looking over his suits to try and figure out what he'd wear to the ball; his black suit had been mostly fixed up after their last trip to the Terminus, but he was superstitious enough not to push his luck. Maybe the white one, I could do the Southern thing...

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Some time later, Erin lifted her head from Trevor's arm, blinking in the soft light coming from his bedroom lamp. She sat up and stretched lazily, then noticed the phone she'd tossed against the wall earlier. "Oh yeah," she told Trevor, "Mark called. He wants us to go to dinner with him at the Socotran embassy or something. I told him we'd call him back." She rested her elbows on her knees in a contemplative posture. "If he's a luck controller, do you think it's really a coincidence that he always calls or visits at really inconvenient times?" she mused.

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"That way lies madness," Trevor advised philosophically, his eyes still closed and one hand between his head and a pillow. Trying to parse the internal logic of Mark's abilities and behaviour could end only in some combination of migraine and existential dread and he honestly could not be bothered with either just then. It was nice to have a little context for Erin's irritated shouting of their friend's name earlier, though. "Socotra... Hnn. Should go," the dark haired young man mused, opening one onyx and ruby eye to watch the muted light play across Erin's back. "High profile appearance for Hunter heir and lovely companion, likely followed by high profile appearance for Liberty League if al-Darsah is true to form."

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"Mmm, I guess so," Erin allowed, swiveling her upper body far enough to look back at him. "If nothing else, we should probably make sure that Mark doesn't go sneaking into any coat closets and cause an international incident or something. And I still haven't gotten a chance to wear that blue dress Frank put together for me. He promises it'll withstand anything up to and including tank bombardment without ripping, and I think it might also double as a floatation device or something. It's pretty." She reached down and scooped up the phone, handing it to him. "You talk to him this time. You know all that fancy party stuff." That settled, she snuggled back down against his shoulder, looking like she was ready to stay there awhile.

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With a sigh that didn't manage to sound overly put-upon given the head of auburn hair tucked in beside him, Trevor accepted the phone and dialed Mark's number. Privately the heir to the Midnight name had to admit he was a little surprised that his friend's relationship with the Princess of Socotra was evidently still going well. From his brief dealings with Nina al-Darsah, he'd assumed she fell into the category of women happy to make use of Mark's All-American charms and move on amicably. From the length of time and the increasingly frequency with which the name of Typhoon's daughter worked its way into conversation with the probability controller, however, it seemed to be developing into something altogether different.

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Mark answered the phone on the first ring, as he almost always did: though not especially fleet-of-foot, Mark had a natural (or maybe very unnatural) talent for being there when he was needed. "Hey, Trevor!" He was alone in his own Midtown apartment by now; Nina'd opted to go back to her own place. "Sorry about earlier, I didn't mean to interrupt you guys when you were, you know, taking care of things." He coughed. "Anyway, Nina's brother Morakot is getting engaged to some mysterious person from Freedom City, and they're announcing it after a big party at the Consulate next week. It sounds like something that might need Midnight and Wander...and if not, well, Trevor and Erin will surely enjoy the party! Nina's people put on a really big spread."

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"Mark. Alright; getting used to it. Called ahead this time, at least." Trevor's eyebrows lowered slightly as Mark's explanation got his attention, sloughing off the last vestiges of doziness. "Hnn. Remind me, Moarkot is where in line for the throne?" While keeping the engagement a secret until the formal announcement was certainly dramatic enough to be in keeping with the Socotran royal family's modus operandi, the burgeoning detective in Trevor couldn't help but feel that there wouldn't be a secret in the first place if the truth wasn't somehow surprising. If nothing else, holding the engagement party in Freedom City raised questions.

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"Second-in-line, Nina's brother Durian is the oldest and so he's technically the heir." As twelfth of twelve legitimate children of Typhoon, Nina al-Darsah herself was fairly far down the list. "But Nina tells me it's an open secret Durian's been disenfranchised. He's a drug addict, he's got no kids, and he and his primary wife are both in their late 40s. Nina's father isn't a tolerant man, and he wants his dynasty to survive. If Morakot gets married and fathers a child, Typhoon might let him keep his place in the family." Typhoon himself had recently turned 70 years old, and though in the prime of health his succession was something UNISON (and many other agencies) were making plans for.

"I, uh, made sure to look that stuff up," he added with a little cough. "I don't really get this royalty stuff," he confessed, "but I understand family. Most of the older siblings have been in competition with each other all their lives, and their dad likes to egg it on. All of them are a little...odd, in one way or another."

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"So I hear," Trevor agreed in his habitual, barely inflected deadpan. "Youngest has actually taken up with some absurd Western type, if you can believe." There was a momentary, vaguely awkward pause. The Hunter heir wasn't overly communicative in the first place and even less so when it came to feelings. It was also always a little difficult for him to properly parse Mark's unrelenting optimism. "That's... going well, I take it?" he attempted, not entirely sure if this fell under the obligations of 'guy talk' or not.

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Mark actually had to think about that one for a minute before responding. "It's going well," he finally said, "she's happy I'm living in Freedom City again, so we don't have to commute across the Atlantic when we want to go out. She's very...intense," he went on, "in a lot of ways that I'm not, so we sort of mesh together there. I'm the first guy she's ever dated who isn't Soqutri, and I think she likes that. She told me I'm the first boy who wasn't afraid of her or her father, and she takes that as a challenge. She has a lot more freedom here than she does back home." Mark considered how that sounded, then added, "My mom likes her a lot. She came over and they baked cupcakes the other day, it was...it was nice. I don't date a lot of girls I can bring home to Mother. She said we deserved a better house, but she meant it in a nice way."

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While Trevor seemed to be trying to formulate a reply to that mental image, Erin reached up and plucked the phone from his hand. "Dinner, right," she said crisply. "We're in. Email Trevor the details, we'll meet up with you, see if anything crazy is going to happen. Now get some sleep or something. Bye now." She hung up the phone and tossed it back against the wall. "I believe the plan was that I get you to myself all night tonight, barring emergencies," she reminded Trevor with a grin. "For once, Mark's social life doesn't count as an emergency, yet. He can wait." She leaned up to lay kisses along his jawline up to his ear. "Unless you really want to call him back," she murmured, laughing.

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A brief moment of muted surprise as the phone was plucked from his fingers turned to amusement at Erin's efficient ending of the conversation and then to something best expressed by a low rumbling sound in the back of his throat. "Do prefer to stick to plan," he conceded, tilting his chin to catch her trailing lips on his own in a slow, lingering kiss. Although generally excellent at splitting his attention between several things at once, Trevor found he simply didn't have any to spare on either Mark's social life or Socotran politics and didn't expect to for some time.

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Sure enough, Mark did email Trevor and Erin with the details of the get-together later that night: this was a royal function, one of the grander ones the Consulate had put on since Typhoon's state visit after the '93 Terminus Invasion, and so rules for a fancy dress ball were in place. Traditional Socotran cooking involved lots of dates and fish, and with the royals in attendance there'd be a heavy emphasis on tradition. Typhoon might be a modernizer, a man who'd famously soloed against a team of superpowered Islamic terrorists on more than one occasion, but by God he was a Socotran and his people knew it. Mark would be wearing his black suit and blue tie, repaired now after the trip to the Terminus.

There'd be Western-style dancing as a concession to their location, and non-Socotrans were fine enough in Western dress, but the Socotrans would all be in traditional garb: in Nina's case, that meant a brightly-colored long red dress over pants, covered in flowery yellow petal designs, only a close look would reveal the gems sewn in around each and every bud. It was a peasant's outfit, if the peasant's father was the king. They'd be expected to arrive at nine and party into the wee small hours; the heavy Ethiopian-style coffee served in lieu of alcohol at Socotran functions meant the crowd could enjoy the cool desert night until it was quite late indeed. Nina passed on a warning that the Consul _would_ try and solicit them while they were there; he'd been aggressive about cultivating Freedom City businessmen as investors in the booming economy of the islands,

A quick investigation by Midnight, meanwhile, revealed that sure enough Morakot al-Darsah was something of a sybarite and drunk: he was still handsome, but the burst veins in his nose in the most recent tabloid photographs showed what drinking could do to a man. His abstemious father had not been amused. There was no word about anyone he'd been seeing seriously, indeed, not much from him at all in the last few months. Trevor was able to find that "Morrie's" special vice was actually gambling more than drinking; he had a tab in every casino on the Boardwalk, and had been ticketed for attending various underground fight clubs over the years.

Betting on everything from boxing to dogfights, he seemed to have a particular taste for bloodsports.

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No matter how many times she rode in the antique limousine with Trevor, Erin was pretty sure she'd never quite get used to the fuss and spectacle of going to these black tie events. On the other hand, riding in the limo was fun in itself, and (though she was loathe to admit it) she enjoyed dressing up every once in awhile and showing off her handsome boyfriend and his tremendous dancing skills. Even if nothing happened tonight, they'd have a good time. It was a little weird to have Redbird "sitting" in the front seat and driving, but she'd been so pleased at the idea of controlling the car that Erin wouldn't have had the heart to say no. And despite the crazy maneuvers the AI pulled off in combat, she proved perfectly capable of driving in a sedate fashion on the roads and getting them to the party on time.

As Trevor came around and opened the door, something Redbird couldn't manage with holographic hands, Erin stepped out and took a look at their surroundings. As promised, she'd put on her new dress for the occasion, a closely cut dark blue sheath with a matching half-jacket and sparkling white stones scattered across it like stars in the evening sky. She wore earrings and a band in her short hair to match, eschewing a necklace that would only get in her way if there was a fight. She and Trevor were nearly eye to eye tonight, thanks to strappy icepick heels that could be easily kicked off if necessary. Frank really understood superhero costuming, as well he might after all these years. Despite her badgering, had refused to disclose how much the outfit cost. She suspected it was worlds away from what she'd be comfortable with, but for tonight, she could push that aside and just enjoy it. She scanned the area and the people around them, then looked to Trevor. "Nice night for a party. Do you see Mark anywhere?"

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Thought Trevor's outfit was less eye-catching than that of his date, it too was new. The extent to which his tall frame had filled out over the past year had necessitated more than a few new outfits and eventually a complete overhaul of his wardrobe. Frank had been more than happy for the chance to insert a little variety into the selection of predominantly dark clothing along with demonstrating some avuncular pride at seeing the dark haired youth mature into an adult.

Still, the occasion called for a black suit, albeit one with a daring cut that showed the mark of a master tailor. Below that, however, he'd more a fine silk shirt of the same colour as Erin's dress, a deep blue that had just enough colour to set it apart from the bottomless black of his jacket and tie. The oval shaped sunglasses he wore stood out a bit, but a few carefully placed rumors about the eye condition the Hunter heir had been diagnosed with had resolved that concern. Offering Erin, his arm, he noted, "Tends to make his presence known."

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Mark had promised a busy party, and sure enough he provided. The Socotran Consulate was a red brick building some two stories high, an old North Bay Federal-style mansion that the Socotran government had bought out and converted years earlier. If you ignored the giant bronze statue in the front yard (Typhoon holding the world between his hands) and the Socotran flags flying in the evening breeze (a dragon's blood tree in white on a blue field, with the clearly recognizable armored face of Typhoon growing out out of the roots), it might have looked like any other mansion in the wealthy neighborhood. As it was, though, Redbird had had to work to find a place to park (since she couldn't jostle her way in among these limos) on the crowded street: there were going to be a lot of people there tonight!

It wasn't long at all before Mark and Nina made their appearance; just as Trevor and Erin approached the iron gates of the Consulate, the princess and her handsome escort arrived riding a column of water to the gasps and exclamations of the crowd. There was no need for them to wait in the line that was mostly a security formality, they were waved on through, and were waiting for Trevor and Erin outside the building when they came through the gates as well.

In his actually fairly plain black suit and blue tie, Mark might have looked handsome-albeit-ordinary with his all-American blonde, blue-eyed looks, at least until he made eye contact and the intense personality within erupted forth in a winning smile. He was getting almost as much attention from the crowd as Nina herself was; the princess proudly holding court in her sparking red and gold dress and pants, silk and diamonds glittering together against her dark skin. They were a complementary pair, at least, looking at the crowd like a best friend and a shark respectively.

"Hey guys! Some party, huh? And we're not even in the front door yet." Mark exclaimed as his friends approached. "Wow, you look great! I like the suit, Trevor, and the dress, Erin." he complimented his friends then turned to Nina with a "See, I told you they could pick out their own outfits. You've got to trust people more."

"Yes, your couture is well-chosen," the princess conceded, casually bypassing the line of well-dressed people heading into the building and pulling Mark along with her. "But you are resourceful people." For all the sharp practicality she projected, she hadn't let go of Mark's hand since they'd arrived. "I've been told that my brother is already here and that he and his, ah, bride-to-be will be making their appearances at the start of the evening meal. His suite is on the second floor if you want to investigate once he's below."

"But first, the party!" offered Mark, and at Nina's command the doors swung open for them and the princess and her escort entered.

To the growing crowd inside a front hall furnished in Socotran hardwoods and dark stone, the liveried servant announced, "Hail Nina al-Darsah, Daughter of Typhoon and Princess of the Sea! And Mark Lucas, her escort!" The front hall was mostly mingling now, people talking and socializing beneath the huge oil paintings of Typhoon and his family, the open doors at one end showing the dining and dancing hall to come. There were quite a few Socotrans there, easy to recognize in their brightly colored clothes and dark skin, as well as many local Freedomites of the right sort: the kind of rich society types who had an interest in a moment like ths.

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Erin bit her lip to hold back a soft comment about "chicken of the sea," but smiled anyway as she and Trevor followed behind Mark and Nina with much less fanfare. With one hand lightly on Trevor's arm, she paused just inside the door long enough to take in the tactical situation and assess potential trouble zones and points of attack and egress. The fact that she could do that these days without seeming all weird about it was a point of personal pride. "Lot of movers and shakers here tonight," she observed quietly to Trevor. "Tight security, too. Think it's going to be a seafood buffet?" A waiter passed by, presenting them with a tray of champagne flutes. Erin took one, figuring that they were on Socotran turf now, but only sipped politely. "If I knew half these people, I'd try to guess who the bride-to-be is."

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Lacking Erin's more robust tolerances, Trevor forewent the proffered drinks. Even as he put on the mask of the wealthy socialite he had an increasingly bad feeling about the event; the laws surrounding embassies meant that any number of things might be attempted there that would otherwise be untenable in the city proper and the sheer number of people in the room had his eyes flicking back and forth subtly behind his sunglasses. Fortunately the Hunter men had cultivated something of a reputation as fitness and heath enthusiasts in the vaguely pretentious way that was perfectly in keeping with their status and so his lack of champagne went unremarked upon. "Hard to say," he considered. "Fiancee may not be out in the open."

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"If she's anything like Morrie's previous girlfriends, they're up there in the royal suite drinking and smoking marijuana cigarettes," said Nina, who had spurned the alcohol as well for the steaming-hot Socotran coffee provided. "Say, maybe he's gotten someone pregnant," she added, her eyes widening in surmise as she smiled. "That would be interesting, at least, especially after what happened with Murjana and that Dakanan nobody. Far more likely he's found some pretty American girl of no particular background who likes the idea of having a royal station." She wrinkled her royal nose at the thought.

"Nina's sister hooked up with Man-Hyena, that Dakanan supervillain who tried to overthrow the White Lion about ten years ago. Typhoon took it pretty badly," murmured Mark. And to his date, he added, "Don't judge your brother too harshly for that. It was you who called me a peasant in the limo when-" Nina elbowed him in the ribs, her dark skin not quite letting her blush, and he went on smoothly, "Anyway, why don't we circulate, see who's here, and maybe eat some of that fish pie before the guests of honor arrive?" he suggested to the others. "Assuming she's not some kind of vampire or something," he added to Nina, "maybe I can show you how _I_ dance." He was evidently referring to something, because that got a smile and nod out of Nina.

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"She wouldn't be out in the open, but you'd think that if they're announcing their engagement, more of the family than usual might be around or something," Erin suggested with a slight shrug. Mysteries were fun, but this one was less compelling because she knew none of the people involved. "The food does look good though. If something happens later, at least we'll have eaten." There wasn't a formal dinner spread, but the tables of appetizers were abundant and varied. Erin, as usual, gravitated towards the fresh fruit trays, picking out her favorites as well as a few strange exotic fruits to try. "So, see anybody you know?" she asked Trevor.

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Trevor didn't answer for a moment while they continued to circulate and surreptitiously scan the crowd. From overheard conversations it seemed that guests and embassy staff alike were in the dark about Morakot's bride-to-be, even including Ahmed al-Khalif, the Socotran Consul, who was too busy glad-handing with locals and nationals alike to be overly bothered by the mystery. With more than a handful of known criminals, metahuman or otherwise, in the crowd, al-Khalif certain had his work cut out for him. Trevor subtly pointed out Saturnalia Roman and Jonathan Grant in conversation to Erin along with a few other notables. It was an exercise in his considerably stoicism to do nothing more than set his jaw; the Manor's computers had extensive files on several of the guests here and while always at a legally insulating remove, there was considerable blood on their hands.

Keeping the 'important' people in the dark is one thing, the young detective reflected as he refocused his attentions, but what about the people no one is paying attention to...? Sure enough, getting closer to a pair of the catering staff under the guise of taking a closer look at the buffet table - which, admittedly, was rather impressively stocked - proved fruitful. The younger of the two men, not much older than Trevor himself, noted to his senior that he hoped to be able to attract such young and beautiful American women when he reached Morakot's age himself and though the more experienced waited quickly silenced his coworker with a significant look about the room he too couldn't help but make a gesture of keen appreciation.

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