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Is This One of Those Dates?

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Saturday, September 26th, 2015

5:49 PM

Joe stood across the street, looking at the restaurant, wondering if he was even doing this right.

It wasn't like he hadn't been on dates. He'd had a few - more than a few - relationships. It was just that things were... busy, for the most part. And he tended to throw himself into his work. And his hobbies. Especially his hobbies. Said hobbies including going out at night and dealing with assholes. This was not the kind of thing that contributed to long-lasting, solid relationships.

Erin had been the first to suggest looking for someone within the community. That had been a good idea, but it wasn't like they made Tinder for capes (or if they did, it wasn't like he trusted having such a thing on his phone). But, through some dark magic, Mark had managed to set up a blind date between him and another superhero. Being Mark, the details had either been thin or somewhat exaggerated, but he was still willing to give it a go.

There'd been the long debate about what to wear - be authentic, be classy, be "normal," whatever. In the end, he'd settled for going a bit more mod - a two-tone jacket and trousers over a long-sleeve Ben Sherman button-up. He still had the braces and boots, though. There were some things a man had to do. 

Taking a deep breath, he crossed the street for the restaurant, hoping he wasn't going to screw this one up.

Edited by trollthumper

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Asli told herself, for the seventh or eighth time that night, that she shouldn’t be so nervous. She had faced down muggers, bank robbers, supervillains, and unfathomable terrors from beyond reality. A simple dinner with some strangers shouldn’t make her stomach do flip-flops (unless they were eating barbeque, maybe…). Of course she did those sorts of things every week, and she hadn’t been on a proper date since high school.

She didn’t really have anything to wear to one. Her wardrobe was bereft of dresses and skirts; she was wearing her least-ripped pair of jeans and a Halestorm tee-shirt without any profanity on it, and she’d polished her boots for the occasion, but she still looked more ready for a mosh pit than a dinner out. She could claim it was because of short notice -- the bouncy guy with the cape and infections energy had only talked to her a couple of weeks ago -- but this was probably the nicest outfit she had owned in a decade.

The train slid into the station and Asli stood up, brushing imaginary dust off her pants and joining the crowd making its way to street level. She spotted the restaurant almost immediately and felt her stomach jump up into her throat. She had a sudden, irrational desire to run back up the stairs and get back on the train until it was in Greenbank again, but if she ran away from a date Samantha would never let her live it down. She took a breath and crossed the street, walking in behind a man with a long jacket on.

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"Hello, Joe! And Asli, nice to see you again." Outside of his costume, Mark Lucas was tall, blond, and tan - only his relatively slim frame keeping him from looking like an Aryan superman. The dark-skinned woman at his side, wearing a red dress that went well with Mark's black sport jacket and tie, also cut down that impression. "This is Nina al-Darsah, my girlfriend. She works in the refugee movement," added, as the pretty brunette shook Joe and Asli's hand. Though of course Joe already knew exactly who Monsoon was. 

"With Gulf refugees, yes," agreed Nina with a glance at Mark, her accent showing she hailed from a similar part of the world. "Asli, Mark tells me you're in music?" Asli was interrupted by the arrival of their waiter, who guided them past several tables before depositing them in a corner booth that Mark had specially picked out. Nina slid in first on her side, then Mark slid in next to her. 

 

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"Pleasure to meet you, Nina," said Joe, extending his hand. He was sure Nina had told Mark all about what had happened in Amsterdam - but then, if they'd acknowledged that, then he would need to explain to Asli what he was doing in Amsterdam, and why he knew the displaced daughter of a dictator. And those were not the kinds of questions someone wanted to answer on a first date. He then took Asli's hand. "Nice shirt," he said. He was starting to feel a little too dressed up - if he wanted to show his credentials, he would have brought a Business T-shirt. But... maybe dressed up was good in this case. "Metal's not exactly my thing, but Lzzy Hale does some damn fine work. What's your area of expertise? Producing, making, managing...?"

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With Mark in his almost-suit and Nina in her slim dress, it was official -- Asli was way underdressed for the occasion. She exchanged quick hand-shakes with Mark and Nina, greeting them both quickly. She followed at the end of the group as the waiter led them through the press of tables. It gave her time to take a look at Joe, and realize that even the damn wait staff was more dressed up than she was. This was already getting off to a swimming start...

Once they were all seated she finally had a chance to answer. "Yes, I'm a writer and a singer. Hip-hop, mostly, but I'm under contract to the Stone Soup group so I've done a little bit of everything." She glanced down at her own shirt briefly. "Halestorm's not my usual style, but it's, uh, sort of laundry day I guess. So Nina," she added, "is your family from Socotra? If you don't mind talking about it, when did you get out?"

Edited by Raveled

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"My family is Socotra," replied Nina, her eyes flashing. Al-Darsah was a common enough name given what Typhoon had meant for the cause of Arab independence since the 1960s; albeit not a common one among Americans and those affiliated with the West - given what Typhoon had meant to the world; and his own people since the beginning of his rule. "I earned my name by birth." There was a challenge in her voice as she looked at Asli. 

"Nina came to the US to go to college," finished Mark, resting his hand on hers in reassurance. "I actually met her as her official UN bodyguard for her first trip to the States."

"Five years ago," continued the princess with a sharp smile. "I moved permanently to the States last year." 

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Asli sat up a little straighter, stopping herself from reacting to the look from Nina by shooting a look at Joe. She had never dined with actual royalty before, even if the head of the family was someone she'd like to -- well, she'd like to do a lot more than just slap Typhoon, but she'd start there. She certainty hadn't considered that she'd be eating at the same table as her daughter on some blind date! "It must be hard to find yourself opposing your father so often," she said, unsure of what else to say. "Do you... still get to see the rest of your family?" Asli had her own family problems, but they mostly were about guilt and debt, not state treason. She couldn't imagine abandoning them and then standing up against what they stood for, but if Nina had then the woman was truly remarkable. Even if she seemed full of herself.

Edited by Raveled

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"From time to time," replied Nina dryly, shooting a glance at Mark and Joe. When the waiter came to ask about wine, Mark and Nina ordered a merlot. That particular decision led to a spirited discussion between the two of them about the first time they'd tried wine together; it was a long humorous story that involved Mark's old apartment, a bottle of shiraz, and a Duke Ellington LP. The two of them had the chemistry of a long-term couple, sharing laughs and common stories, even finishing each other's sentences - they'd obviously been together a very long time.  In the middle of the story, Joe caught Mark looking at him, and then back at Asli, encouragingly. 

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Ah. Well, if it was laundry day, she was making it work. "Not bad in any case," he said. "You got a particular style of hip-hop? Any specific set of influences?" 

As the drink orders came in, Joe decided to see if he could get away with ordering a beer. When it turned out he could, he breathed a sigh of relief. As the conversation turned to family and relocation, he raised the beer to Nina. "Glad to see we haven't driven you nuts yet," he said. He looked to Asli. "How about you? You look like you've got the city under your feet. You Freedom City born and raised? 'Cause, if you're a transplant, you've really taken to the place well." 

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Asli glanced at the menu before setting it down. She waved off the waiter; she would make do with water. "I was born in LA, matter of fact," she said. "I managed to snag a scholarship to FreeSA and moved out here when I was just a kid. After that..." She sipped her water, trying to decide how to summarize a decade of bad behavior in a way that wouldn't send Joe fleeing into the night. "There was some bad stuff. I didn't go home, and I guess Freedom City's home, now.

"Now my music, that's just influenced by life. If you don't know Stone Soup, they encourage their artists to mix their sound up. I've played alongside county bands, punk bands, speed metal, even a marching band once. Mostly though, I just go for a strong beat and lay down truth on top of it." She leaned in, her hands reaching out as she tried to shape abstract concepts in the air. "I'm not doing gangster rap. I hate that stuff, wasting words and time on singing about drugs and rape and violence. I'm a hip-hop artist, and that means I put poetry to rhythm and rhyme. I try to make something so infectious and catchy that you can't every forget it, and I fill the words with what people need to hear. Wonder and beauty and kindness -- that's my style."

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"Glad to see you made it out to our coast," said Joe. "You miss the West Coast much? I always said I'd make it out there one day. I imagine they've gotta have better winters." Joe left off the bit - and seriously, it was starting to surprise him as well - that despite going to Amsterdam, Russia, Tian, space, the past, and the future, he had yet to go to California. "You get back out there often? Or is it one of those things that's in the past?"

Joe nodded as he heard Asli discuss what she was in to, leaning in as he heard the vast list of genres she covered. "I know what you mean," he said. "I mean, I understand the need to capture the rougher aspects of street life, and I wouldn't say they're celebrated all the time. But we do need something that drives people to more. They see enough crap on the streets as it is." 

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"Your government should do more about the problems of poverty," agreed Nina, sipping her wine. "The problem with American politics is that so many of your leaders avoid hard choices because they don't want to be seen as dictators." She gestured forcefully as she spoke. "But if you took all the poor people in this country, gave them work, gave them an education, then you could have an army. Of liberation, of liberation," she added after Mark raised an eyebrow at her. 

"I don't really listen to a lot of modern music," Mark commented, "but Asli's stuff is pretty great. Joe's got a foot in the music world too," he added with a wink his friend's way. "And sometimes his whole head." 

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"Winters here are insane, yeah. First year I was here it kept getting colder and colder. Every day there was a new low I was like, 'yep, that's as cold as it can get,' and then the weatherman would talk about the unseasonable warm spell the season was." She rolled her eyes. "I don't get why everyone didn't abandon this place years ago, migrate somewhere with sane temperatures.

"LA is... I'd like to go to Seattle or some place, maybe, and it'd be fun to say that I partied in Baja or whatever. But it's... It's just a place, you know?" She flashed a smile, trying to cover her unease at talking about where she came from. "Places aren't important. People are."

Asli sipped at her water, frowning at Nina's comment. "You can't force greatness on people," she said. "You can't make someone get a college degree at gunpoint and then expect them to be a million-dollar CEO or something. Yeah, the country's really messed up in some fundamental ways, but you can't force everyone to be da Vinci or whatever. Some people just don't have it in them. What you need to do," she added, speaking more forcefully, "is provide a safety net. Make it so when people do take a fall, they don't fall right out of society. Make a safety net and then make sure there are some ways for people to climb up society. More and more things seem way too stratified, with the people at the top staying at the top and stamping down on anyone who tries to climb up."

Edited by Raveled

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"Oh, you can," Nina parried back, smiling as she enjoyed the conversational play with the other woman. "You just have to start early, with an intensive education for each and every child that lets them grow into the future ruler of their own destiny. No one need be left behind by inferior ability when a strong enough state can make sure everyone is raised the same." 

"But some people are never going to be as smart as other people," Mark pointed out gently. "You can't have a government that leaves behind the people who just can't keep up. And you know that's true," he added with a grin. "Remember the crossword puzzle, when you said I was lucky I was so pretty?" 

"True," admitted Nina. "And you are very pretty." She hmmed. "With any luck genetic technology will keep advancing and future generations of children will all be dealt the same hand. When everyone is superior, no one will be," she added with a sage nod. 

"You know," Mark was offering the others, "when we're done here, I could take you guys somewhere outside the city...?" 

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Asli ignored Mark's attempt to change the conversation, leaning forward and speaking directly at Nina. "And who decides who gets what job, hm? Who decides what a kid is 'supposed' to be? What happens when you have someone who is engineered and molded and guided like a missile at computers and programming -- and one day he picks up a brush and discovers that the only way he's going to be happy is if he can paint all day?" She sat back and folded her arms. "What you're talking about sounds like some Brave New World bulls---. Trust the government that it has your best interests in mind, 'cause that never goes wrong."

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"We can't have a society where everyone's a superman," said Joe. "I suppose you could try - make a country where every janitor could do double duty as a brain surgeon. But that leaves the question of why they're a janitor in the first place." He ran his finger around the edge of his drink. "I mean, that in turn is a turn around of the old stereotype about Communism - but there's some truth to it. I'm with Asli on this one. This country does everything it can to devalue people who work essential jobs that aren't glamorous. And if they have some sort of benefit that makes those jobs worthwhile, people try to use that as a wedge to keep others from asking for the same - it's not, 'Look at you, with your uncompensated job,' it's 'Look at them, with their cushy union job.' Give people a chance at greatness - give them aid, give them time to pursue an education, give them the opportunity to reach for something greater. But some of 'em can't climb that ladder. And there's not really a need to make 'em feel like crap because of it, when the world's already done a good enough job there." 

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Mark and Nina exchanged a quick, significant glance.

"Huxley was such an Englishman, don't you think? The worst he could imagine is a future of people doing drugs and fornicating. We don't need to be tied down to his inferior vision. And what do the people know of their interests?" said Nina, waving her hand dismissively at the very idea. "The clever ones might, and the lucky ones - but some are simply fatted sheep, waiting to be devoured by the nearest wolf. The wise leader knows to act as a shepard, using her sheer strength of will to unite the common people behind one goal, the betterment of all the humanities." She nodded in satisfaction, taking another sip of wine. "Picture it, my friends. There need be no inferior job, no inferior class, no inferior man, when all are united, when all are one." 

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Asli narrowed her eyes. "Sure, why not? Let's all be one. The only question is, which one is that? Your one, sipping wine and chatting casually about inferior races? My one, where  pop music is punishable by jail time? Mark's one, where crossword puzzles are the secret Mensa tests?" She held out both hands, moving them up and down as she weighed the options. After a moment she folded her arms again and fixed Nina with another hard look. "I don't know a lot, but I know this much -- there is no one world where everyone is happy. Just look at me." She gestured down at her body. "I'm never going to be in a Hollywood movie, unless I'm the sassy best friend of a skinny, blonde twig. But you know what? I'm fine with that. I don't want to be an actress and I don't want to starve to look like Kate Moss or Natalie Portman. I don't want a 'one' life -- I want my life."

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"Yes, and I'm sure you live it well," said Nina warmly. "But what about the people who aren't so fortunate? Do you want to leave them to wallow in the filth of a society that will never truly care about them? Look at Europe. Those so-called social democracies that American liberals love so well? They would spit on girls like you and I in the street if we covered our hair or went to mosque - perhaps even because we make some color amid all the Arctic paleness." She sneered, her feelings about bigotry and racism completely unfeigned. "Democracies always fall to the level of the lowest common denominator. The only solution, if you accept the premise of a democratic society, is to better the quality of that lowest common denominator - who by definition cannot understand its own best interests." 

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"But who decides what those best interests are?" Asli leaned forward again, stabbing her finger at Nina. "What do you do when your great societal calculations decide that war is inevitable and you need a generation of soldiers? Spike the genetics to produce strong, tough brutes and not worry that they all have IQs in the 70s? What do you do when you think the best future for a child is as a garbage collector and his parents want to put him in AP classes? Tell them that their child is too stupid to hang with the future doctors and lawyers? If this if how you build a future society," Asli felt like she wanted to spit those words out, but settled for sneering over them, "then you still have way too much of your father in you."

Edited by Raveled

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Oh. Crap. Well, there were ways this could have gone worse, but they involved rabid wolves or a sudden earthquake. Joe could feel the pressure building around him; he'd thought there might be more pairing off, less of a full volley of words. It was almost like Nina...

...had wanted to prompt this conflict. Oh. Oh damnit she's good. He'd seen how Nina had played the neo-Nazis like a fiddle in Amsterdam. She wanted to create a target - a mutual target. Well, she got it. 

"You can offer people the chance at greatness," he said. "You can educate them. But you can't just lead them on a leash - they need to accept, and pursue, of their own accord. Otherwise... hell, I can't believe I'm breaking out this cliche, but we go from Huxley to Orwell. The proles get led to the bigger picture; they don't know what the hell they're doing, but at least they're happy about doing it. Just because they can't necessarily reach for greatness doesn't mean they've gotta be kept blind and happy."

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Nina smiled, her lovely red lips parting to show perfect white teeth. "Just so. You know, it's interesting what people prioritize." She stopped talking when the waiter arrived to order their food - she opted for the veal, while Mark took the gourmet grilled cheese with the imported cheese and Canadian bacon. "In Orwell's book," she said while Mark topped off her wine, "all the world was like the Soviet Union of, what was it, 1948? As rich and inclusive as Stalin." That got a nod from Mark, who'd read that book back in school. "So a disaster for Western Europe, the Americas, for Australia, of course. But how many people in Africa, Asia, and South America were living better in Orwell's hellhole than they did in the world outside his window. Economic security for personal freedom is an interesting trade." 

"Hmm," said Mark, shooting Nina a significant glance. "_You_ wouldn't want to live there, though." 

"Well no, Oceania had all the boring repression of your typical Stalinist state, no room for street artists like, ah, Asli here." That was the only sign that she'd heard Asli's remark about her father. "But I wonder how many people, in 1948, have picked Oceania, where the old distinctions of class and race are gone, over a foreigner's boot. I wonder how many would do so now. What then?" she asked Joe and Asli. "What if that's what the people wanted?" 

Edited by Avenger Assembled

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Asli was forced to hold her tongue when the waiter reappeared. He was brave for stepping into the conversation, but it meant she didn't have much time to pick her meal. Fortunately, everyone else went ahead of her and she was able to find a noodle dish with grilled chicken, and no part of it sounded haram. Asli waited for the waiter to disappear, then leaned forward again. "The world you're talking about doesn't exist," she said. "There's no country on the planet where economic and judicial security for one part of the population didn't come at the expense of another part. And okay, maybe mine doesn't either. I do think some of the social democracies in Europe are doing a heck of a better job than America is, even if they might edge too far into secularism. But I will not accept any system with a tyrant over one where the common man or woman can make changes."

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Joe felt like he'd been talked into a corner. He was the kind of person to hash out his points over a few beers - and he felt like he could use more than a few right now. But he really didn't want Asli to think of him as "the guy who got hammered and ran on about Marxism while Typhoon's daughter went on about the kinder, gentler despotism." And speaking of Marxism...

"Well, that depends on how they get to where they want it," he said. "Then you get into the concept of false consciousness, where people get sold a bill of goods that convinces them that the hegemony's interests are their own. But... people have the right to their own choices. Assuming they do it clear headed and not because someone sells them on ganging up on the latest scapegoat or how patriotism means giving more money to those who already have all of it... they have the right to choose the world they get." Joe took a sip of his drink. "Course, that means others have the right to point out that this world is bull****, if they see it as such." 

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"You're so dashing when you talk Marxism, Joe," teased Nina with a grin his way. "You're like a Communist Errol Flynn. I half-expect you to brandish a hammer and sickle and declare all power to the collective." 

"Now there's a mental image," commented Mark with a smile as he laid his hand on his girlfriend's. "I've traveled a lot in the last few years and no country's a utopia. But things are a lot better than they were in my dad's generation." He talked about Rick Lucas's travels in the late 1970s and early 1980s, how his father had toured through East Africa and South Asia, living through various civil wars and one major supervillain attack. "Dad always said there was no place like home. But even Freedom City's not perfect." He grinned winningly at the others. "At least, not until we make it perfect." 

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