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April 16, 2015

 

As the young woman bustled into the Black Petal Cafe, flustered and wringing her hands, she bounced up on the tips of her toes, straining to see past the line up and over the counter. Her sea green eyes weren't scanning the board for the current list of seasonal lattes or the featured roast but rather darting from face to face until she spotted the barista for whom she was searching. Actually hopping up and down she waved urgently to the dark haired man with the sleeve tattoos, her long chestnut hair hanging in the air a little too long as she kept her lips pressed tightly together as though refraining from shouting his name would somehow make her less conspicuous.

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Eric noticed Kimber from across the room. Part of that was the familiarity - you didn't get to fighting crime alongside someone for... how many years had it been now?... without recognizing them across a crowded room. Then again, part of that was the little flare she sent across his death senses. It wasn't a typical day that somebody dead wandered into the Black Petal - though there had been that one time with the very confused revenant. When there was a moment where the line wasn't coiled up, he slid as close to her as the bar would allow.

 

"Hey, Kimber," he said. "You look like you could use a cup. My manager's been trying to sell this cherry chocolate latte idea - apparently it's a big thing down in Mexico. Think it might help." He paused. "I mean, giving that there's something that's clearly pressing on ya..." 

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The incognito poltergeist vibrated with nervous energy as she moved to accept the drink, chewing on her bottom lip. Vibrated literally; anyone looking closely enough would have noticed the edges of her fuzzy sweater blurring out of view every few seconds or her fingers passing immaterially through the coffee cup as she did her best to mime holding it normally. "What? No, everything is normal!" she responded reflexively, a touch too loud and a tone too high before her shoulders sagged slightly and she immediately rescinded, "Okay, so maybe not really." Ducking her head between her shoulders she looked back and forth uncomfortably. "There's, um, there's sort of a thing and a person and um. It's... it's personal?" Her eyebrows threatened to lift right off of her face as she raised them significantly, eyes widening and lips stretching into a half-grimace as she gave the word special emphasis. She seemed caught between how badly she wanted to explain the situation and an acute sense of embarrassment. "I didn't know who else to talk to!"

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Well. It was clear that something was gnawing at Kimber - and not the kind of something simple coffee could resolve. Eric nodded. "I haven't taken my break yet," he said. "Give me a few minutes to transfer the register to someone else, and I'll be right there."

 

The back alley behind the Black Petal was a favorite for baristas who wished to grab their periodic nicotine fix without being bothered by the tide of foot traffic. Like much of Riverside, it attempted to maintain an air of street with a graffiti mural that stretched along its brick walls, painting a part of the city in touch with its roots and not entirely scrubbed but still not ready to paint itself as chaotic. Eric took a seat on a milk crate, a sweet roll in his hands. He split the bun in half and offered part to Kimber. "All right, we're about as private as we can get without me going back to the Parkhurst or both of us going into the bathroom. Tell me what's wrong." 

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The proffered pastry floated out of Eric's hand to rotate lazily in the air in front of Kimber, who picked at the ephemeral essence of the bun before letting it sink back into its physical shell over and over, fidgeting. "R-right, well, um," she started hesitatingly, avoiding looking at the barista directly. "So hey, you know how you, like, like-like girls and boys? That's totally a necromancy thing, eh?" The words came out in a rush with barely any break between words, undercutting the nonchalant tone she was struggling to affect. "Like, you get used to seeing people's spirits and thinking about big life slash death questions so the flesh and blood corporeal bodies don't really matter as much? That's just a normal thing that happens, right? Yeah." It was pretty clear from the way she was intently poking at the sweet roll with one hand and fiddling with the hair at the nape of her neck with the other that she already knew what his answer was going to be and was trying to convince herself more than anyone.

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That was... certainly an interesting way to interpret it. It would make a great deal of sense if all the necromancers Eric knew were bi for the same reasons - though, given a good chunk of the necromancers he knew, that wouldn't be any great shakes for bisexuality. Then again, given the tastes of some of them, bisexuality might be the preferable option...

 

"Honestly?" he said. "I knew I was bi long before I could see the dead. There was this... teaching assistant, when I was 13. He was the 'cool' teacher - you know the type. I spent a lot of time trying to impress him, show we were on the similar wavelength. At the end of the school year, we were lined up for a trip to the water park. The afternoon before, I realized I'd see him in swim trunks, and... it clicked." He shook his head. "I didn't really have the words for it - and I knew I liked girls, so it wasn't like I had to worry about being gay. I just... put it aside. It wasn't really until I hit 16 that I could deal with it." He paused, figuring out how best to proceed. "Sometimes it's just... there. You don't really realize it or grasp it until it comes your way. It's not a fault of yours if you don't realize it. It's just naturally a part of you."

 

Unless, of course, it's not naturally a part of you. Eric didn't want to say that, though. Kimber was fretting enough that he didn't want to introduce the possibilities of mental manipulation or necromancy. Besides... if she was being mind-whammied into this, the last thing she'd do would be to come her to unburden herself about it. 

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KImber made a plaintive but resigned sort of moan, stuffing her face with spectral essence of sweet bun partly by way of comfort but mostly just to buy herself a few moments before speaking. "I... guess that's kinda what I figured. Um, thanks for, you know, telling me that." It was a little hard for her to imagine a version of Eric who wasn't completely sure of himself and in possession of all the answers. Even with the passage of time and the perspective of the present, if it was half as difficult to talk about as what she'd been agonizingly working toward it struck her as quite the gesture. "So, I guess you probably already figured but, ah, th-there's this girl. Um. Woman," she corrected herself, the glum lines of her face subtly changing until she looked less like she was in her late teens and more like her early twenties. It was about how she might have looked had she been able to physically age in the time since they'd met, Eric realized. "Only it's complicated. Truly, outrageously complicated."

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There usually was a woman. Or a guy, in Eric's case. Only... it was the "complicated" that made Eric hesitate. Usually, when somebody "complicated" wandered into the lives of those attuned to the supernatural, odds were they had some sort of charm or glamour turned up for maximum gain. There were so many cases - succubi bathed in mixtures of pheromones and sulfur, fairy lords with enchantments that could make priests drop their vestments, vampires with eyes and blood that could ensnare you in equal measures, or sorcerers who could enchant the living and the dead alike.

 

There was a term for that, of course. A term that made Eric want to smash the stores of every two-bit alchemist peddling love potions. 

 

He tried to hold his thoughts in reserve, though. Kimber's thoughts were more important right now. "Well, that sounds like a great degree of complication. What's going on there?"

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"It's, um, it's sort of really long story," the specter admitted in an apologetic tone, putting most of her attention into keeping her feet on the ground and appearing corporeal for a few moments less because she thought anyone might be watching and more because it let her delay a little longer. It had suddenly struck her how much she was imposing on Eric and she was second guessing herself - or third or forth or eighteenth guessing, as the case might have been. "It's just that I couldn't talk to Renarde about it, 'cause she's like for-reals, truly gay, like all 'boys smell and leave the seat up' only way more clever and cutting, I'd feel like such a poseur and Wraith never ever complains about not being able to date anybody here and her people don't even totally have genders, like I'm pretty sure she doesn't even get that her human form is super hot!" She balled her hands into fist and knocked them against her forehead a few times. "See, and I'm around them all the time and they're both super pretty so I'd have totally known if I was into girls like that like forever ago, right? It's just really confusing and I don't want to waste your time being neurotic like a crazy person!"

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From one landmine to the next. Eric nodded. "I highly doubt Renarde would really give you guff about the matter," he said - and hoped. He knew there were some gay guys who could get really crappy towards bisexuals, viewing them either as tourists or people who just couldn't get off the fence. He didn't know how it was for lesbians, but he guessed it wasn't a far leap to find similar sentiments in the same kinds of corners. The whole "I didn't notice other girls" thing was also tripping his internal switches - he didn't want to assume the worst, but boy, sometimes it kept leading there.

 

No. Don't freak her out. Don't assume the worst. So, he directed himself down the more innocent road. "Sometimes that's how it happens. You don't really have the feeling until you find someone who really connects with you in some way. It doesn't make you neurotic, it doesn't make you crazy, and it doesn't make you weird. It just... gets realized at different times by different people for different reasons." 

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"I guess," Kimber allowed, although that seemed to be a little more vague than she'd really been hoping for. Sighing again, she placed her palms on either side of her face. "Alright, then. This, um, this gets a little weird at parts, like a different 'weird' than the stuff you and Siobhan let me help with. I'll try not to miss anything important."

 

She took a deep breath; she might not have needed it physically but it still helped her to get her thoughts in a row. "So there's these guys called the Furions who are sort of like future-alien-knight-fighters who live in the Terminus like those guys who tried to invade Earth only they're good and they fight the Annihilists and they know Renarde 'cause I guess she's just super kick-butt and this one time one of them showed up who's sort of like their version of the Raven and said he needed help so Renarde and Wraith and me went with him and they had this giant tree where they lived like that movie with the elves and Scavros brought up to their jail and introduced us to Tarva who was supposed to be a really bad Annihilist but wanted to warn the Furions about a really bad thing that the Annihilists were planning even though they were for sure going to kill her for it 'cause she figured that was still better than letting them do the thing they wanted to do which had to do with these really really really tiny robots that were going to turn people into Omegadrones who are kind of like robot zombies only a lot worse than that sound even but we figured that Wraith and me were probably mostly immune to that so we took Tarva with us to stop the plan and they almost got us but we got to the control center of the base which was actually a giant lady who was really sad and she asked up to just blow her up and we did but then we had to get away in time and I can't fly as fast as Wraith can run so we asked Tarva to use a spell to make me sort of solid for a bit because she's this shadow sorceress which I guess I forgot to mention before and then she kissed me!" Hands in the air she looked at Eric expectantly.

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That was... somewhat less hard to follow than he'd expected. There was a part of Eric's mind that tried to pause the conversation for just long enough to extract key features from the speech and recontextualize them. But when he started putting the pieces together, he wasn't entirely happy with what he heard.

 

So. Magic was involved. Not just magic, but magic that had been steeped in the energies of the Terminus. He wasn't the greatest expert in what he understood be the great entropic S-bend of the universe, but he had had more than enough glimpses. A movie theater possessed by a destroyer angel claiming to represent the death of all that is and will be. A church bedecked with loving images of children being led smiling into oblivion by a woman cloaked in red. People like Harrier showed him that not everyone who came out of the Terminus was irreversibly tainted... but he wasn't exactly quick to trust someone who had been part of the group leading the change for sucking everything into the great eternal garbage disposal.

 

Especially if one of them had gotten their claws into Kimber.

 

Still. This was not the time. That may come later. But... "I... got a good deal of that," he said. "Are you afraid she... might have done something?"

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"Cha, like used too much tongue, maybe," Kimber retorted glibly, rolling her eyes and making a frustrated huffing sound that puffed out her cheeks. "Why does nobody get the important part? She kissed me." Impatient, the ghost slid smoothly forward in the air, letting colour and illusory solidity fade from her left arm before unceremoniously thrusting her hand through the barista's chest halfway up to the elbow, her wiggling fingers sticking out of his back. "Eh? Eh? She kissed me on my totally incorporeal, very much previously unkissed lips, okay? You know how people get phantom limbs? I have phantom everything, Eric." She retracted her hand as she floated a little higher into the air, still disregarding the necromancer's personal space, looming over him slightly. "Every. Thing. Euuunnngh..."

 

Dropping back down to the alley floor she retreated to a less confrontational distance, hands covering her face as she paced. "Sorry, this is just a... frustrating topic, you know? Like, frustrating? Yeah." Sighing heavily, she elaborated, "Anyway, no, Tarva didn't mind-whammy me, that was just how the spell worked. All her magic is kinda melodramatic like that, I think she's mostly overcompensating 'cause shadow magic is pretty much diet cola compared to the stuff most of the Annihilists use. Plus our landlord's a telepath so it'd be tough to pull a fast one." Kimber snorted flatly, ducking her head in between her shoulders and looking embarrassed for a new reason. "Woulda been a pretty lousy plan, anyway, since after that I maybe spent a whole year turning invisible and hiding whenever she was around to avoid talking to her."

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Well. That took a burden off Eric's shoulders. Though... he kicked himself for not thinking of it that way. How long had he dealt with the dead? How long had he learned the ways of burnt offerings, of hell money and sugar skulls? Ghosts were often cut off from the quick of the world, from tasting, from savoring, from... well, experiencing. And not only had this Tarva been able to touch, she'd brought... well, everything that came with that kind of touch. No wonder she was feeling confused. Tarva didn't need to screw with her head. She just gave her the sensations that came with a kiss. And that was a hell of a lot for someone like Kimber.

 

"Trust me, I understand," he said. "Now, at least. You're trying to figure out if it's you or the kiss." Yeah, this might be tricky. Then again, he'd talked to a number of ghosts who'd had "never been kissed" tethering them to this mortal coil... "Way I see it, there are two ways you could do this. One, you could keep your distance from Tarva and see how do around other girls. Not your friends, and not... diving in, you know? Just seeing if it's something you feel with someone else. The other route - and keep in mind, this is probably the rockier one - talking to Tarva directly about it. Tell her what happened and how it shook out for you. There's a good chance she did it as a ritual component - I've got no idea what style she uses, but if she was in the Terminus, it's got to have some weird requirements - and if she lived there for a while, then processing the idea of 'love' is probably going to be outside her current social skills. But she's the one who set this whole thing off. Talking to her might, on some off chance, dig something out of her - or at least, serve as a sounding board for you."

 

He shook his head. "Honestly, between those two, I think I'd choose Ladies' Night at Machine. But it's your choice." 

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Kimber laughed nervously and shuffled her feet as best she could without any actual friction against the ground. "Um. Well, two problems with that option, really. One, even if I decided I liked somebody else it's not like I could do anything about it anyway. And two, I may have already talked to her about it?" The poltergeist glanced over at Eric before looking away again quickly, tapping her index fingers together. "See, 'cause I found out that she could actually still tell I was there when I was invisible and I had maybe been occasionally behaving in a not-un-creepy way under the assumption that she couldn't? N-nothing really bad, just like following her around a couple times or reading over her shoulder when she was writing poetry? Which still-- I needed to apologize, obviously." Her cheeks reddened with embarrassment but she pressed on. "Only, see, that's when it got complicated."

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"Yeah, you really should do that," Eric said. Even given the heap of strangeness that likely colored this woman's life due to spending formative years in the Terminus, he didn't want a friend of his to get the idea that stalking someone in their private moments was any kind of innocent or romantic. Those damn movies had already done enough damage for the state of healthy relationships among the undead. "I don't know the full details of what happened, but for somebody who lived in those conditions for so long... being followed around by someone, no matter how innocent the intentions, is probably gonna put them off. But once that's done..." He frowned; this was definitely getting into tricky areas. "Okay, you feel like you can't do anything because... well, incorporeal. So, instead, you've got the whole... 'is this me?' thing. So, first of all, how would you want to try and work it out? I wasn't kidding about Machine; we could see if there's someone else who's your type. And after that... well, what do you think you should do with it? I'm not asking for a concrete answer, just... possibilities you think would have to be pursued on this whole thing."

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"Marmalade, Eric, don't make me say it!" Kimber admonished, covering her reddening face with both palms and giving the barista an accusatory look between her fingers. The look slowly cooled then turned oddly hollow before she looked away. "And I meant I already talked to Tarva about it. See, she-- it's worse than you're thinking. They have this thing in the Terminus, called the Doom Coil? It's like that poem about the abyss, you look at it and it makes you just give up and become a monster because nothing matters anyway. She used her magic, okay, to protect her mind but if they knew they'd have killed her and so she did... she did a lot of horrible things. I saw." The phantom tapped an index finger to her temple. She knew Eric would understand, he was after all the one who'd taught her to pick up and 'read' moments of death. "I'm not saying it's okay, only... they wouldn't have just killed her. Her old boss, he..."
 
There was a long, heavy silence as her sentence faded. Kimber's lips faded to a pale frostbite blue while her eye filled into dark pools and the shadows of the alley seemed to cling more closely to her face. As she wrapped her arms around herself protectively the loose litter behind the coffee shop began to stir as it caught in a breeze, swept up in a wide circle around them. "...people think if they only imply things I won't understand," she started in a voice a cool and brittle as icicles. "He liked that she was pretty."

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Eric turned the possibilities over in his head, and none of them were good. He knew that, despite the stereotypes being mostly crap, there were some sources of power that got their hooks in and would drag you down into their loving embrace. The Doom Coil... that screwed-up thing in the movie theater had said something about a Coil, hadn't it? Spoken very fondly about it. If something that honked up saw it as an item of devotion, then that meant it was something he never wanted to touch. And this Tarva had been there, in its presence, And then there had been the other horrors...

 

He'd come into this thinking that this woman had done something to Kimber. Now he felt sorry for her on a deep, terrible level. 

 

"...I'm sorry," he said. "I... had no idea. Christ, that place really is a hellhole..." He turned to Kimber. "I... if there's anything I can do to help there, let me know. But... if it helps... be there for her. As a friend. She'll need somebody who cares. Somebody who can show her it's not just assholes all the way down." 

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"Isn't it? Kimber shot back, hoarse as the icicles in her voice snapped into shards. Shoulders visibly shaking, she wrapped her arms more tightly around herself as the cold clarity of her eyes melted to a liquid sea green. "I was in her room, and I d-didn't mean-- I wasn't--" Her mouth worked soundlessly for a moment, spectral tears tracing trails down her cheeks. "She knew I was there and it didn't even occur to her to complain, she just tried to write a poem I'd like? It was... sweet. When I apologized she wasn't even mad a-and I needed her to be mad but-- She keeps saying things where I can't tell if she's flirting or if she's just trying to stay on my good side so we don't send her away and-- and-- and--" Breaking down into ashamed sobbing, the poltergeist curled in around herself and Eric had to strain to understand what she was saying. "H-how can I kn-now that and s-st-still want... W-want to.. I'm a maugh-augh-aughnsterrrrr...!"

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Eric willed just enough ectoplasm into his hands that he could place his hand on Kimber's shoulder - not for subduing her, but for comfort. At least, that was the intent. "You are not a monster," he said. "You are one of the least screwed-up ghosts I've ever met. The fact that you've recognized that this might be an issue puts you leaps and bounds above the people who did this to Tarva. You're concerned for her, and don't know how to express it. She cares about you, but her way of expressing it is probably going to be screwed up on some level or another. Do you know what the best thing to do right now is? Be there. As a friend would be. If it turns into something else, then... good. Until then, however, you know enough to know that something is screwed up, how you may have screwed up, and that things aren't good in their current state. So see if you can make them good. As a friend, if not as a lover. Because that's what it sounds like Tarva needs right now. And I know you can be that person." 

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"Th-thanks..." Kimber sniffled quietly, voiced muffled by her sleeve as she rubbed it over her face trying to dry her tears. Leaning slightly into Eric's hand she sagged slightly. She had literally no weight to speak of but the ectoplasm let the barista maintain the illusion of hand against shoulder well enough. "For the advice and just for listening. Sorry for being such a mess. I just have... so many feelings." She poured more than a few of them into those two syllables, making it more of a groan than a word. Straightening back up and making sure her feet were convincingly on the ground she carefully went about tugging her outfit back into order. "Sorry to drop all of that on you, Eric. I didn't mean to use up your whole break like that. At least with the crazy ghosts you can just send them on their way and be done with it, eh?"

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"Sometimes," Eric said. "Sometimes, their issues require a lot more work. It's not always a simple matter of cutting one tie or untangling one knot and letting them drift off to the final reward. There's often a lot of business that needs to be helped with before the spirit can move on." He smiled. "Of course... that would assume you want the ghost to go away. Sometimes, you like the company of the spirits. And you want to help them with their issues while making sure they stick around." 

 

He got up from his milk crate, tossing his coffee cup in the dumpster. "Never feel bad about coming around to 'waste' my break. It's always great to talk to you, Kimber. And you can always talk to me." 

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