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alderwitch

The Golden Chain (IC)

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AEON had come a long way from living in Alex's computer as a day-trading start up scheme. Construction was complete on AEON's flagship building in the City Center of Freedom City and although it hadn't yet had an official Grand Opening, it was already existing as a thriving business. The steel-and-glass skyscraper fit in well among Freedom City's futuristic skyline and the atrium that served as the grand entrance was open and surprisingly inviting, full of natural light. This particular morning, the lobby had the typical sort of activity as employees arrived to work, heading for elevators that required key-card access to upper floors. 

The center of the atrium lofted up multiple floors, showing some of the activity on a few higher levels as people moved along towards offices and administrative areas. The bulk of the lobby was seating space with the occasional computer kiosk and a small refreshment stand that currently held a small variety of pastries, juices and coffee which seemed to be open access as even the shabbier patron wasn't shoed away from either food or seating. Indeed, about half of the people currently curled up in the lobby's chairs and seats appeared to be settled in for an extended period of time. Security was discrete but present, especially to more practiced eyes. For the one uniformed guard moving through, there were another two in more casual attire circuiting through the space. 

The reception desk was located opposite the entrance and although there was a clear path through the seating area, the bulk of the atrium sat between the receptionists and the front doors of the building proper. Like the rest of the building, the desk and surroundings were of durable high quality materials and those seated at various stations along the reception desk seemed in, by and large, genuinely good moods as they helped visitors contact various floors or retrieve their visitor passes. 

 

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Erin wiped her palms discreetly on her slacks as she walked through the lobby, trying not to gawk like a tourist at the size and scope of the place. She'd been here before, of course, but between one thing and another, she hadn't really been into the AEON building since construction had finished and it had been opened for real. At first it had been a niggling resentment of the business that was taking up so much of her best friend's time, then it had just been plain busyness. Between Alex's job and her evangelistic mission to normalize T-babies to the public and Erin's job and her intensive work with the Liberty League, their relationship lately had consisted mostly of emails, texts, and the occasional lunch on the go at one of their old favorite restaurants. But it was ridiculous to keep going that way, Erin had decided, especially with both of them living in the same city. If her life had taught her anything, it was that life was short, and opportunities didn't always last as long as you thought they would. And she missed her friend. 

She approached the reception desk, wondering if she should've dressed up more, or made an appointment, or called and tried to get in touch away from the office. Alex was probably really busy, if she was even here. This was not one of Erin's best-laid plans. Still, she was too cussed to back down now, and it would look silly for her to turn around and walk out now anyway. She went up to the desk, tried a smile, and said, "Hi, my name is Erin White, and I'd like to see Alex Albright." 

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The receptionist looked up with a polite smile, clearly about to start in the spiel of whatever he canned response to someone asking to see the CEO was when the name caught her attention, "Ms. White did you say?" She repeated the name back even as she was turning away from her desk to head towards the small back room. She returned in short order with a small envelope. "I'm so sorry, Ms. White. We didn't know you'd be stopping in today or I'd have had your badge at the counter."

She set out a small tablet for Erin to initial and sign and a small plastic card with a slightly older picture of Erin on the badge. "I've let Ms. Albright know that you're on your way up. She's in her office on the twelfth floor. Would you like me to have someone escort you?"

The receptionist held out the tablet for its signature and thumbprint, "Or if you'd rather head up yourself, you've got full access via your key card. Just swipe it and select your floor."

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"Oh..." Erin blinked at the receptionist before accepting the badge and tablet. Had this been waiting for her at the desk all this time and she just hadn't known? At least since before she'd started growing out her hair, if the photo was any indication. She felt an uncomfortable little nudge of guilt. "Um, thank you. I think I can find my way." She signed her name and pressed her thumb against the pad, then clipped the badge to her blouse. She hesitated, thought about asking how long the badge had been unclaimed, then didn't. "Thanks," she said again instead, then headed for the elevators. As promised, the elevator accepted her keycard easily, sending her up to 12 with a quiet and efficient whir. 

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Alex was there waiting, her bright smile friendly and familiar. At some point, Alex had grown into the dresses and suits that she'd worn to give her position as CEO some additional gravitas. She now wore them as comfortably as she did her patched jeans. Her red hair was pulled back into a sleek bun and the slacks and flats she was wearing didn't look as absurd as they once had although it was still Alex. Her jacket had been discarded and the blouse she wore was almost too bright a pink to look at. Alex still ignored any adages about redheads not being able to wear pink.  

She'd left her office as soon as she'd gotten word that Erin was on her way up and was waiting at the elevators (and making the administrative staff that worked on the executive floor nervous if their expressions were any indication). Alex beamed at Erin and flung her arms open, inviting a hug. 

"Erin! I didn't have any idea you were coming to visit. How are you?" Alex asked, the words almost tripping over each other as if the telepath found talking a clumsy metric to get all of her thoughts out. Erin wasn't the only one that had been regretting the absence, "How've you been?"

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"Hi!" Erin moved in for the hug, far more easily than she would have a few years ago. She squeezed with meticulously controlled strength before letting go to take in Alex's whole look. "Wow, you look like a magazine cover for young business moguls," she told her old roommate. "Which is good," she added hastily. "I wanted to stop by and see you, it's been such a long time, you know?" She ran a hand through her hair, a brief sparkle from her finger catching the light. "I've been pretty good, I mean, I'm sure you heard about Trevor's grandpa, and that was hard." Erin suspected that a lot of the reason they hadn't had any trouble or paparazzi at the funeral or memorial was due to the subtle influence of their friends. "But it's getting better. What about you?" 

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Alex nodded gravely, her gaze flicking briefly to the ring but if Erin's best friend was practiced at anything, it was allowing people to offer news in their own time. "I heard. I thought about sending flowers but that seemed like such an empty gesture." Alex said, her tone gentle as she stepped back, letting Erin have the personal space she was comfortable with. Alex's glasses were new but behind the clear lenses, her hazel eyes were almost too intent on Erin's face and features. 

"I'm so sorry. If there's anything I can do," Alex gestured towards the elevator once more, leading Erin back onto it, "We can go up to my rooms. I'm making the staff nervous by hovering." Her smile was brief, almost sad, but it faded quickly as she stepped onto the elevator and swiped her key without pressing a button. Without direction, the elevator went up towards the penthouse. 

"It's been too long. I'm sorry. I should have come to see you," Alex apologized as she leaned back against the polished hand rail of the elevator. "How is Trevor holding up?"

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"Pretty well now, I think," Erin said, leaning against the opposite rail and watching the numbers ascend. "Travis was his dad in pretty much every way that matters, so losing him and taking on the full weight of the legacy all at once was rough. And there was only so much I could do to help him." The shift of Erin's shoulders disclosed her feelings about that perceived failure. "It took awhile to get things straight in his head. But he still graduated with highest distinction," she added with more enthusiasm, "and he's starting up his custom cars business. It's like seventy percent cover identity, but it could be cool too, working on fancy cars." 

She grinned suddenly, just as the elevator doors started to open. "Plus we're getting married." 

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Alex's answering grin was broad, "I know. I saw the ring. Congratulations! You must be excited. Well, and nervous, I imagine. When's the wedding?" Alex commented as the doors opened to the penthouse. She gave a little wave of her hand, encouraging Erin in stepping into the space. It was awfully large for one person and the penthouse had large windows for incredible views but the furnishings broke from the rest of the modernity of the AEON building to be more comfortable. Half of the furniture had come from their old headquarters, in fact. Alex promptly kicked off her shoes, a small flick of telekinetic energy sending them to the small rack that she used to hold her favorite shoes near the entrance. 

"I'm so happy for you! Are you helping with the cars at all? Trevor's always been very gifted mechanically. I think he'll enjoy that a lot." Alex walked towards the kitchen on bare feet, "What would you like to drink?"

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Erin slipped off her shoes as well before stepping onto the polished hardwood floor of the penthouse and following Alex. "Any kind of soda if you've got it," she replied, just slightly distracted by her habitual check of entrances, exits and ambush points. "We haven't really set a date yet, we're not in a hurry. It was more something we've been moving towards for a long time, and it'll be good to make it all official." She grinned, somewhat rueful. "And we had to wait till the weirdness of all our adult children showing up last Valentines Day wore off a little. You know how it is. I don't want to do anything big or fancy, it's just like asking for trouble. Just something little and nice." She looked down at the impervium ring with its black diamonds. "Anything big we did, it wouldn't be for us, you know? It would just be for other people." 

She looked around the kitchen as they went inside, admiring the fixtures and the lighting design in a way she hadn't before she'd wound up in a house with five outdated kitchens. "Trev's doing most of the work, but I help out sometimes when I'm off work. We both like it, but he doesn't entirely trust me with the fine work. Strong fingers, not too much patience with stuck bolts," she admitted with a quick grin. "What have you been up to? Are you and Mike still... you know, with the thing?" 

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Alex nodded understandingly, smiling briefly at the mention of adult children, although that was a little sad. Zoe's appearance in Alex's own life had certainly disrupted the course of it. "It's important that you do it for you and no one else. That's really what matters." Alex would have tempered her advice if either Trevor or Erin had family that were close but with the death of Trevor's grandfather, family was going to be touchy at that particular wedding ceremony. 

Alex's kitchen was brand new although like the rest of the suite, it was more wood than metal, with the cabinets matching the floor and the countertop a white granite with stainless appliances and fixtures. She crossed to the fridge and opened it, by hand. Apparently the days of sodas come flying at Erin's head telekinetically were thankfully at an end. She pulled out a can of soda and a bottle of water from the fridge and came back over. It was the sort of kitchen that was clearly not just for show as it had all the hallmarks of someone who actually used it. Her smile flickered briefly at the mention of the bolts before fading a bit at the mention of Mike.

"Still getting married?" Alex asked with a wry smile. They'd been engaged since their senior year and it was a fair question, "Eventually. Mike is still working towards a normal life. He's finished in the Police Academy and is starting on the job any day now." Alex didn't look happy, rather, she looked troubled. It didn't take a genius to predict a problematic end to her partner's efforts. "But he can hardly be seen with me. We were both registered at the camps and everyone knows who I am now. What I am. It's not like we don't talk every day." Telepathically, sure, but she missed the big lug. 

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Erin resisted rolling her eyes, but it was a close-run thing. "How long do you think he plans to keep that up?" she asked. "The pretending to be normal stuff. I mean, I get it, he doesn't want the public hero life, but there's got to be some middle ground, doesn't there? The whole T-Baby thing, people are listening, they're thinking differently than they used to. Plus it's been almost a quarter-century since the Terminus came here, at least as far as they remember. There have been so many other terrifying things since then!"

She opened her Coke and took a drink of it, indignant on her friend's behalf. "All I'm saying is, he's gone through the police academy, he's saved the world a couple times, he's lived through his mom's cooking, he should have the balls to be seen in public with you even if people are gonna talk." 

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Alex sighed, shaking her head slightly, but not so much in disagreement as in dismay, "He used a false identity to get into the academy in the first place. They wouldn't have taken him otherwise," she said, her voice dropping like someone might hear that their straight-arrow friend was committing serious identity fraud, among other things. "So its less judgement, more potential criminal activity."

Alex gave a slight lift of her shoulders, "You're right, though. It won't last. It can't. The first time he's got to make the choice between saving someone or being outed, we all know what path he'll pick and then it'll be all those years of work down the tubes. We all know that but I can't just tell him that. It's one of those things that you have to learn for yourself, I'm afraid," There was frustration there, in Alex's tone. She was awfully tired of waiting for people to learn things on their own that she already knew. Alex gave a little wave of her fingertips, "It's fine."

"And honestly, for Mike, I don't think there's a middle ground. He just has to realize on his own that saving people IS what he does best and the fact that that doesn't fit easily into typical expectations is fine. We were never going to be normal." Alex shrugged and opened her bottle of water, resting against the counter with her arms folded across her middle, "What about you? How's the hero-ing going?"

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"At least going through the police academy will have taught him all kinds of useful stuff about evidence and investigating crimes and things like that," Erin observed. "That will probably help him if he does decide to get back into full-fledged hero work, there's been lots of times when I wished I were a little better at looking at clues, reading crime scenes and stuff. It just seems like there has to be a better way to learn all that, one with less hassle and ditching all your friends. I miss him too. I haven't seen him in, god, has it been four years now? Gotta be close to that." 

She walked over to the window with can in her hand, looking down over the frankly impressive view of the city. "The hero gig's pretty much the same as always," she told Alex. "At the beginning of the year, during the whole thing with the Communion, you know, I went off to space with Redbird to help beat back the Communion on the other planets they'd taken control of. It was interesting, working with a bunch of people who only knew about Earthlings by rumor. Then when I got back, there was the funeral and all that, and we took some time off. But these days it's pretty much typical summer crimes. You know you're always welcome to ride along if you find yourself missing it." She turned to Alex, studied her for a moment. "Do you ever miss it?" 

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"Yes. And no." Alex said, her fingers around her water bottle almost too tight. "I miss our friends. I miss saving the world together. I don't miss people being afraid of what I could do. Or be. I don't miss being afraid of myself but maybe it's better than lying to myself. I don't honestly know."

You could always count on honest answers to personal questions with Alex, at least. She tapped the water bottle to her lip, her gaze thoughtful, "I have a lot to do here. And I like working here, helping people. It doesn't get dull and we're starting to get people trusting us, turning to AEON when their powers have gone wildly out of control. It's a different sort of saving the world. It's not the same though."

She smiled then, shaking off the melancholy that seemed too close to the surface. "Mike misses you too. He's proud, you know, of all of what you guys are doing. You know if you ever need us, I'm just a thought away. Seems like you've got things well in hand, though."

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"We do okay," Erin agreed, "but I miss you being around. You know I'm so proud of everything you're doing here, and I can tell people how I knew you when, but I miss doing hero work with you like we used to.You'd come up with a plan, and I'd hit the things that needed to be hit, we'd save the day, then we'd go home and stay up half the night talking or playing board games." She smiled a little. "Maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic for high school. I know things can't ever be how they used to be again. We've all grown up." Erin paused a moment. "I'm sorry I never picked up my badge till now." 

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"Don't be," Alex said with a smile of genuine warmth. Her body relaxed enough that her posture was a bit more normal Alex and a bit less unhappy, drowned cat Alex. Her smile was bright, crinkling the corners of her eyes. "I know that you don't feel that what you did in founding this place was all that important but you're a part of it and you always will be - even if you never need it."

"Besides, there are key steps you missed, like me convincing Mark of the plan and him telling everyone what the plan WAS..." she laughed and relaxed further, setting her bottle of water down. "Just because they aren't the way they used to be, doesn't mean it can't be good now. If you ever need a plan, I'm happy to come up with one and my door is always open for boardgames night. Or just to talk."

"I missed you too, Erin. It's lonely here." Alex said as she set the water bottle down to walk towards the window and its view, where Erin stood in front of it. "I like my employees but they're not my friends. Not in the same way. I could have come to visit too so its just as much my fault, if not more so. It's not like I can't find you if I'm really looking."

 

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"Hey, I did use some of that money you gave me," Erin told Alex, lifting a hand in mock protest. "A pretty good chunk of it, actually. I gave it to Trevor's dad the investment guru, and he did stuff with it and made more of it, and now it's funding Jessie's first apartment and her tuition at FCU. She needs it a lot more than I ever did, and who knows, maybe she'll take after Erin in Seattle and be a good student. But she definitely needed to get out of Project Freedom." 

She watched Alex as the small psychic crossed the room, cocking her head to one side. "You don't seem really happy here," she observed quietly. "Or not totally comfortable, anyway. You could do anything you wanted, anywhere you wanted. Is this still all about trying to fix things for Mike and Zoe?" 

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Alex glanced down and then towards the distant skyline, "It's hard without anyone else. I don't... balance well on my own. I just, you know, work." She admitted, rocking slightly on her toes. "And its about more than Mike and Zoe. Its about all of us that didn't know about Claremont. It's about Jessie. It's about the prison. I want AEON to be a place you know you can come if you end up with abilities you don't understand, that you can't explain. And we're getting there."

She smiled, "Its not like a golden cage, not really. But I'm not as happy as I could be, I imagine."

Alex turned her gaze up towards Wander and admitted, "But Zoe warped reality. There's a good chance that if she ever exists in THIS timeline, we'll need to understand what she can do better. AEON's a way towards that too. I probably need to get out more."

Her gaze slid up towards Erin, her smile turning teasing, "But there's all the wedding stuff to add to my plate now. Even small intimate weddings need a bit of pizzazz, right?"

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Erin grinned back, let the subject pass for now. Alex needed to work things through in her own time, and she would do so, with a few seeds planted. "You may be right about that," she allowed. "But we still haven't told Mark a thing, because I'm terrified what he would come up with. I don't think "small" would be one of the adjectives we'd be able to use. But we'll have to tell him something soon, or it'll hurt his feelings when the truth comes out." She drummed her fingers lightly on the windowframe. "I was thinking maybe outside at the Manor. With lots of flowers and stuff. You'll help me, right?" 

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"Of course," Alex said loyally, "I'll even help managing Mark's expectations if you'd like." She added with a brief flash of a smile. "He just wants you two to have the best of weddings. It's just that his idea of 'best' and yours are fairly divergent. Still, he can be brought around given time and effort. We'll all be there to make sure its the day that you want. That's what friends are for."

She tapped one finger to her lips, "I think an outdoor wedding would be lovely. We can do a small celebration after too! A little bit of catering, a decorated tent. Ohhhh... sparkly lights. We should wrap sparkly lights around all the trees... do the wedding at sunset and then dinner and dancing after!"

Someone may have been planning weddings in spiral bound notebooks for much of her life. Of course, Erin had SEEN those notebooks so at least this was scaled down. Right?

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Erin considered that. "A wedding at midnight might be more thematic, but I can see there being a lot of logistical problems," she allowed. 
"And you're practically begging for a supervillain attack. But sunset might be good. A little light, a little dark. And Trevor would probably be able to come up with something really offbeat and cool for the lights. He loves that kinda stuff. We'd need to have like, some kind of fancy coffee bar for the reception. Is that a thing? Are there like coffee shops that do event catering?"

She rubbed a hand over her face. "I think I'm geting ahead of myself. I really love him, you know, and I want to marry him, but the idea of actually _gettting_ married is still so surreal. Like I'm the last person who should ever be marrying somebody, especially somebody I really care about." 

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"I'm sure that we can get coffee catered," Alex replied with a confidence born from running a major business. If there wasn't a place that did that, there would be someone willing to by the time Erin had her wedding. It wasn't like Alex had been willing to acknowledge that the world had limitations before she had a multibillion dollar empire at her disposal. "Get some high end pastries and deserts to go with it if you'd like rather than a proper dinner..."

As Erin's concern bubbled up, Alex let her plans and thoughts fade away and her grin softened to a gentle smile, "Erin, getting married is just a celebration of a relationship that already exists. It's no more than that and no less than that. All it means is that you're standing up in front of friends and saying 'this person loves me at my best and my worst, and I'm going to keep putting the time and effort in to support them in all that they do'. And we're just there to cheer you on because its that's a wonderful thing, that you've found someone you want to walk with for the foreseeable future. And then there's cake."

Alex's smile brightened then, her hands spreading wide with a quick gesture, "Cake and dancing. Which are awesome."

Her laugh was quick and light, very much 'old Alex'. She sobered then and added, "But if you want to wait - if you feel like that's what you should do, then of course you should wait. But only if you feel that's what you want to do for you. There's nothing wrong with never getting married, or staying engaged for a long time. It doesn't matter what everyone else in the world thinks about could and should and ought. What matters is what's right for you and what's right for Trevor and those are the only things that matter - because it really isn't about anyone else."

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Erin ran a hand through her hair again, more sheepish this time. "I almost wish we could just run down to Vegas and get married by Elvis, have it done in a day and then boom, we're married and I don't have to think about it, you know? Because I want to be married to him, I want to be with him. I don't want to put it off for a long time, cause who knows how long any of us have, right? It's a dangerous world. We do dangerous work. I like to think that someday when we do go, we'll go together, but there's no guarantees, and I don't ever want to have to feel like we missed our chance. But if we're gonna do it, and we're damn well only gonna do it once, we ought to have a party and celebrate it. We've got like the sixth biggest house in the city or something like that, it would be stupid not to use it and have people over. And cake, and dancing," she added with a quick smile. 

She took a thoughtful sip of her soda and looked out the window, towards the distinctive castle topper of the DuTemps Building. "Jessie's living over there now," she commented, nodding towards the building. "Eve gave me a great price on the rent, and it's a very secure building. She's doing pretty well there, I guess. I get, you know, updates and stuff. I should go visit more, but we don't exactly get along. I look at her and remember how I used to be when I got to Prime, and it makes me wonder what I'm doing thinking about being in a relationship at all. Lotta crazy buried under the surface." 

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"Everyone has a lot of crazy under the surface," Alex pointed out phlegmatically as only a telepath really could. She glanced towards the DuTemps building and smiled. The castle had always appealed to Alex's own sense of whimsy. "Especially in our line of work."

She'd said 'our' despite her ostensible retirement. Deep down, Alex still considered herself a hero. She probably always would even when hiding from the world in her glass tower. "You don't really want to get married in Vegas, you're just not sure you're comfortable with traditional because it feels too normal, I think. And you know you're not normal. I'm not normal either but that doesn't mean you can't have a little bit of normal every now and again."

Alex chuckled, "Its just going to be the people you care about. We're not going to care if you do it full nine yards with a floaty white princess dress or if you ask everyone to come armed for the inevitable party crashing of aliens or extra dimensional entities. We're just going to be there to be happy for you. Well, and bring you presents."

"Jessie is going to be just fine, too. It'll be easier for you and Jessie to be close once she's not dependent on you. She's no more well suited towards needing someone than you were. Worse, in some ways."

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