Ayna started humming a tune, an arrhythmic melody, but it seemed to help Xeffy calm down, get a hold of herself, recentring.
"Where were we...?" Trudi pondered. "Oh yes. Xeffy versus the original Sirens. She was holding her own in the song-battle - and when they realised that, they threw in the towel. Disappeared off again who knows where.
"Think about that for a moment.
"Xeffy managed to hold her own - against the original Sirens - even for a short while. That says a little something about what she might be capable of now, doesn't it...?"
"Yeah." Xeffy locked eyes with the hostess's. "It does.
"And I know what you're gonna bring up next.
"Well, since _you_ brought it up," Trudi said, "why don't I let you get on with it?"
"Xeffy?" Kwen said.
"...Anya," Xeffy said. "She was - she /used/ to be - a part of something bigger. Something more. Even she doesn't remember what.
"But when it moved on - when it gave itself up to make sure the Omniverse survived - she got left behind. A shadow of what it'd been.
"We went there - to the place where the Omniverse is maintained - went to heal the damage the Gods of Ragnarok had caused - and we found the shadows of all those who'd gone on, who'd sacrificed themselves.
"And we let them merge with us. Let them dissolve in our minds - let them finally know peace.
"Except, well..." Xeffy coughed. "Anya kind of didn't. I think that might have been kind of my fault, actually. Not sure /how/, but... ahm..."
She coughed again.
"And she's been there ever since," she finished. "She's plugged into my senses - everything /I/ sense, /she/ does. If she wants to talk to me, she manifests in my shadow, in my reflection - or in my dreams."
She shrugged. "That's pretty much everything."
"So why is it you didn't tell your friends about her?" Trudi inquired. "Mm?"
Xeffy blushed. "Um... well, you know how it is... it just never seemed like the right time - I mean, 'hi, guys, I've got an aeons-old entity in my head' doesn't exactly trip off the tongue..."
Nyssaias giggled - the giggle of someone who finds it all too easy to believe their friend could do exactly that.
Kwen, Molly and Ayna found themselves momentarily struggling to keep from giggling, too. Even Embericles seemed to be having some difficulty with her expression.
"Why don't you call her up?" Trudi suggested. "I'm sure we'd all like to meet her..."
Xeffy eyed Trudi cautiously, but did so.
"Anya? You in there?" she asked her shadow.
Xeffy frowned, puzzled. "Doesn't want to come out." She eyed Trudi. "Then again, with /you/ around, I'm not surprised."
Trudi smiled. "Oh, we'll see about that."
She called to someone offstage. "All right, guys, send her on!"
Xeffy and Ayna double-took.
A young woman in her midtwenties, brown hair cut into a neat bob, in a tan dress and matching jacket, came in from the darkness off-stage, staggering as she tried to regain her footing.
The MythMob /stared/.
"Stop /pushing/, will you?!" the woman protested to unseen hands.
"Ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for one of the Eldest, a girl who makes the Endless look young - Anya!"
The unseen audience applauded once more.
"Oh... shit." Anya said eloquently.
"...Anya?" Ayna whispered.
Anya went pink. "Um... yeah, it's me.
"Sorry about this."
Trudi whistled, and another seat came into being. "If you'd like to take a seat...?"
Anya did so, reluctantly.
"/Anya?!/" Xeffy gawked.
"Hiya, Xeph," Anya said, getting even redder.
"What the Hades are you _doing_ out here?!"
Anya glared at Trudi. "That's what _I'd_ like to know. The last thing I know, I'm sipping daiquiri by the beach, then *bam* I've got _her_ goons pushing me around."
"Goons?" Kwen said.
"Believe me, you don't want to meet them," Anya said, shuddering. "Ever."
"...Explanatory and utterly disbelieving query," Molly said. "She was in Xeffy's mind?"
"...Yes," Anya said. "That's where I live."
"Hold on a moment," Kwen said. "You mentioned a beach. What's that got to do with being in her mind?"
Anya shrugged. "It's my place in Xeffy's mindscape - where I live. It's a tropical island Xeffy remembers from off of one of those travel shows."
"Lucky for some," Embericles observed.
Trudi coughed with faux-politeness (easy to distinguish, as Nyssaias exemplified the real thing). "There is /one/ thing you haven't mentioned about Anya, isn't there, Xeffy?"
"...What?" Xeffy said.
"All the boys after her," Trudi said, smirking. "There's that nice Ned boy - the Colour Out Of Space - the two of them really seem to /enjoy/ those arguments of theirs..."
"I refuse to comment on the grounds that it may be taken as denial," Anya said sweetly.
"And those WANKER boys." Trudi went on. "Seem to have got /entirely/ the wrong end of the stick - they seem to think Anya's actually a physical girl." She shook her head. "Boy, are /they/ in for a surprise."
"...Did you say WANKER boys?" Kwen said.
Trudi faked a double-take, and re-examined her index card. "Oh, sorry, that should be the Wondrous and Adorable Nyssa's Knight-Errant Regiment. A Nyssa fanclub of sorts, I understand."
"They're dorks," Xeffy said.
"That too," Trudi agreed.
"...Hold on there." Embericles said. "What was that about a Colour Out Of Space?"
Trudi beamed. "Ah, my favourite part. This was about the time of the /next/ Pro-Fun Hoedown, sometime after Ayna showed up Outside. Nyssaias, do you remember what happened /this/ time?"
Nyssaias nodded. "Everyone does."
"Not everyone," Embericles said darkly.
Nyssaias winced. "Sorry, Embericles. What happened was this: Nyarlathotep launched an attack on the Hoedown, because without their knowing, they had possession of an artifact of incredible power - the myth-engine. With its power, he could tear open a hole to Beyond, plunge everything into chaos unending.
"But he wasn't the only one who'd been drawn by the engine. It'd also drawn Electra, the Firstborn Goddess-Muse of Gallifrey. She'd been cast out from her homeworld aeons before, and she wanted to get back into the Universe with the myth-engine's help. With the Hoedowners' help, she managed to get a body of her own - and that's when they discovered Nyarlathotep was attacking.
"It wasn't just any of his forms, either. It was Typhon, the avatar he'd used when he lay siege to the Olympians, trying to get the zaqqum-fruit. /That/ time, Zeus had had to drop a /mountain/ on him before he was driven back.
"The Hoedowners managed to get their hands on some zaqqum-fruit of their own, and with Electra's help, they used it to annihilate Typhon. But the power of the spell they used opened a pinhole Beyond, letting in the Things - and the Divinities."
Embericles raised a cool eyebrow. "Talk about your plotholes."
Nyssaias coughed, as much from embarrassment as anything else. "And it was during this that Aballon came through."
"/Ah./" Embericles said.
Nyssaias nodded. "This is the incursion I was telling you about. Anyway, what happened was that while the Hoedowners held off the incursion - using the zaqqum-fruit - Electra got to the myth-engine, and used it to drive off the attackers, seal off the gates Beyond. Unfortunately, she was unaware there were /Divinities/ Beyond too, at the time - so they're still stuck out there. There are several ongoing projects to try and bring them back without letting the Things in as well.
"Anyway, for what Electra had done, Gaia pronounced her Amber, her Tenth Goddess-Muse, Power of Folklore and Metafiction, and she set up base in Nameless.
"The rest of that story, at least with regards to Kari, you already know."
"That's not the /whole/ of the story, of course," Trudi observed. "Not as far as Ayna, Xeffy, and Anya are concerned..."
"Let me take this, Xeph," Anya said quietly.
"No, it's not," Anya said. "You see, Electra wasn't /quite/ as benign as the official account says. When she found the Hoedown, she first took form by possessing someone else - Xeffy and me."
"She wanted the myth-engine so she could recreate the world she'd lost - and she needed a body to go find it.
"It took the other Hoedowners to pull her out of us, and give her a body of her own." Anya leaned forward, hands together. "It /also/ needed the others to change her heart, convince her to help us - at least, up until she regenerated. After /that/, she became the Amber everyone knows."
Nyssaias frowned. "Can the Powers do that? Regenerate? I know some of them can manage avatars..."
"/Electra/ could," Anya said. "But she needed help to do it." She shrugged. "And it might have been a one-time thing... but her body /is/ a Gallifreyan simulacrum, so who knows?
"As for Ned - he was one of Nyarlathotep's old servants who wanted out, but his old boss pushed him into his fucked-up little plan. We finally managed to break him free and make him a being of reality." Anya shrugged. "After that, he decided to hang out with his friends - the various Hoedowners." She cracked a smile. "And yeah, we hang out together. Why not?"
"Oh dear oh dear," Trudi tutted. "And here you've gone and left out the most important part! Because it seems that Electra had a mad-on for Dominic - she seemed to find his very /existence/ affronting. Now why was that...? Oh yes. Because through one of those quirks of chance, he looked like her long-lost lover. And he was in the vanguard of those who stood in oppostition to her." She frowned. "You know, if there's something in that, even /I/ don't know.
"/Amber/, however, has quite /different/ feelings for your father... doesn't she, Xeffy?"
"Yeah," Xeffy muttered.
"Want to fill us in?"
"Gods know," Xeffy muttered. "/Dad/ certainly doesn't. I don't know what the _Hades_ he thinks he's doing, but-"
She choked off.
"I don't know _what_ he thinks he's doing," she murmured. "He /says/ they're trying to be friends.
"The Hades they are.
"He thinks he's falling in love with her. That's what it's about. He's trying to see if she feels the same way.
"And. It. Makes. Me. Sick.
"He /knows/ what she did to me. He knows.
"And he's /still/ going ahead with it."
"Ooh, poor Xeph..." Trudi awwed.
"If he /really/ cared, he'd drop it /now/. On the spot." Xeffy's expression was a mask of rage. "But he couldn't give a shit what I think."
"Interesting, that," Trudi said. "You're willing to give /Kari/ the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Ayna, but you're not willing to do the same for Amber and Dominic. Why is that?"
"It's not the same," Xeffy hissed.
"No?" Trudi wondered. "Aballon was a Demon Lord. He almost certainly did things viler than Electra contemplated - after all, it was his /mandate/, what he was supposed to do. Electra was a Muse - and not even a Muse of the Dark at that.
"You might /almost/ think you're taking your father's little dalliance rather too personally. Part of that is the possession, of course, but what else could there be...?" Trudi snapped her fingers. "Oh yes. Dear sweet Mom.
"Now unlike little Nyss, you knew /your/ mother... or at least you /thought/ you did..."
Xeffy flinched as if she'd been slapped.
"And you watched her die." Trudi continued. "Now that sort of thing leaves its mark on a girl, especially one as young as you were. You miss her. You want her back.
"And anything that gets in the way of it... well, who /knows/ what you'd do, huh, Xeph? It doesn't /matter/ if your father might finally be finding his way to happiness again. It doesn't /matter/ you can see him hurting, torn between you and Amber and your mother. No, as far as you're concerned, there's only one woman for him - for you - and Amber isn't it."
"I don't... I don't..." Xeffy whispered.
"Oh, but you /do/," Trudi said, twisting the knife. "Even if the thing with Amber fell through, would you be happy if your father took up with someone else? Or would you resent her as much as Amber?"
"Now, with Amber, you already have good reason to hate her - even though she asked you if the two of you could make it quits. You /use/ it, to further your anger and resentment. To stoke the flames of your hatred.
"You want your father to find a woman not for himself - but for you. And the only woman who'll /ever/ make you happy on that account is your mother.
"And you'll never forgive him for choosing anyone else."
"...I don't... I don't..." Xeffy stammered.
She rallied, and got a hold of herself deep inside.
"It's not like that." she said, venom dripping from her words. "I /do/ want him to be happy. But I think he should find someone we'd /all/ be happy with. Not /her/. And he can't /see/ that."
"Are you sure of that?" Trudi inquired.
Xeffy stuck out her jaw. "Yeah."
"Tell me, if she'd /never/ possessed you, would you have been at /all/ happy with your father's choice? Or would you have continued to simmer in resentment?"
"How the Hades am I supposed to know /that/?" Xeffy shot back. "All /I/ know is what she did to me."
"Even /despite/ the fact that Amber does everything in her power to try and make peace with you," Trudi said. "Not gifts and trinkets - oh no, she knows better than to /buy/ your affection. No, she struggles to find some common ground you can meet on - but will you let her? Doesn't look like it from where /I'm/ standing.
"Tell me, Xeffy, could you /ever/ forgive Amber? Ever?"
"...might do." Xeffy muttered. "If she got away from Dad."
"And would you ever forgive her for hurting /him/?"
"No." Xeffy said.
"What about your mother? Can you ever forgive /her/ for leaving you? For hurting you? For hurting your father?"
Xeffy flinched again. "I don't... I just..."
"You can forgive your mother, but not your father. Or Amber. Yet it was your father who faced off against Electra when she'd hurt you, who went into the Carnival to rescue Ayna. One wonders what he'd have to do to earn /your/ forgiveness... or is it that there are some things you'll /never/ forgive?"
"...No," Xeffy muttered. "I just... I need some time, all right? Just some time..."
"So you /would/ accept your father's relationship with Amber? Is that what you're saying?"
"...It's not Dad," Xeffy got out. "It's /her/."
"Amber?" Trudi said. "But /you're/ the one who won't accept her search for peace. One might almost think /you/ were the problem here, Xeffy."
"Nothing new," Embericles observed.
"Piss off." Xeffy said. "It's what she /did/, alright? Everything else I can live with - just about. But it's what she did to /me/."
"And yet /you're/ the one hanging onto it," Trudi observed. "Who's not willing to make peace. Is that because if you /didn't/, you might actually find you /liked/ Amber? That you could watch her and Dominic together and know your father might find happiness?
"That it might be /you/ who ended up betraying Mom?"
"Go to Hades." Xeffy said dully.
"Touched a nerve, have I? /So/ sorry." Trudi said, without the faintest hint of sincerity. "Let's leave your parents for the moment, then, and move onto the curious matter of your relationship with Ayna.
"After all, you had no good reason to trust anyone who looked like one of the /original/ Sirens - not after your first meeting with them. Yet - if you'll pardon the phrase - you took her under your wing from the minute you met. Mind explaining where /that/ came from?"
"...she was scared," Xeffy's eyes were unfocused, looking at something beyond the studio. "She was alone, she was afraid, she was /scared/...
"I had to do /something/."
"Aw..." Trudi wiped away a fake-tear. "How touching. And the two of you have been the best of friends ever since, sharing everything you can - although you're not the Potterhead Ayna is, admittedly. You're more a Snicket girl... did you know Embericles enjoys those too?"
The expression on both Xeffy and Embericles's faces was a picture.
"Mm. Guess this means one of you'll have to give them up. Knowing your bitter rival likes something as well can really put a /damper/ on a fandom..."
Xeffy and Embericles looked at each other.
"/You/ do it." they chorused.
"Now now, you two can sort it out later." Trudi said. "Back to Ayna. You two /do/ share a lot, don't you? The same room, the same bed-"
Staring from the others.
"It's a /bunk/-bed, all right?" Xeffy snorted. "Perverts."
"How about the boyfriend?"
Xeffy stared back at Trudi coolly. "Nope. Too pervy."
"Really?" Trudi said. "You /are/ different versions of the same girl, after all. One might expect that /you/ have a latent attraction... especially given /your/ willingness to stick with him..."
"That's not-" Xeffy got a hold of herself. "That's not what it's about, all right?
"He's in trouble. Big trouble. I can't just /leave/ him - that's not me."
"And yet, one could argue Kari brought it all on himself," Trudi observed. "Being who and what he was. So why not leave him to it? Let him clear up his own mess?"
"He's my /friend/." Xeffy said, tight-lipped. "He needs our help.
"And I don't walk out on my friends."
"No matter what they do? Or who they hang out with?"
"Depends." Xeffy said.
"So does that mean you'd walk out on Nyss for hanging out with Embericles?"
"/No/." Xeffy said. "It's /Embericles/ I don't like, not Nyssaias. Nyss wants to hang with her, fine - that doesn't mean I have to like her."
"And yet that's a trait you share with Embericles herself," Trudi said. "She doesn't like /you/, either. Curious, though. /You/ actually have good reason for your dislike. Embericles doesn't. What is it she doesn't like, I wonder?"
All eyes turned to Embericles.
"Come on, Ember," Trudi goaded. "Tell us. /Why/ don't you like Nyssaias's friends? Could it be something they've done to you - but no, you've managed to push them away. The girls have been as revolted by /you/ as everyone /else/. Maybe it's something about /them/ - but you've never got close enough to see beyond appearances. Making the same judgements about /them/ you let others make about /you/. What could it be, I wonder?"
Embericles stared back at Trudi. "You're mistaking indifference for active dislike. If I hated them, believe me, they would know it. As it is, I don't give any more or less of a damn about them than I do the rest of this sorry world."
"That may well be," Trudi retorted, "but in your case, that point becomes rather academic, since your default attitude toward the world seems to be a sort of general disgust. _Your_ version of indifference isn't much different from hostility, in any practical sense.
"Perhaps it has something to do with your standard of respect," she went on. "You'll only respect those who're willing to be straight and direct with you. Yet you never let anyone get close enough to /do/ that.
"Hm. Maybe /that's/ it. After all, your two major formative relationships - your parents - both hurt you, didn't they? Your father disappointed you, your mother rejected you. Let anyone /else/ in, and they might hurt you too - might treat you as badly as your parents. Keep up the cold, hard face, don't let anyone in, don't risk getting hurt... yet you let Nyssaias in. Well, more correctly, she had to /fight/ her way in. Those shields of yours are /tough/. Lucky Nyss was immune to your power... that was what the little scene with Kali was all about, wasn't it?"
Horrified looks from the others.
"Pop psychology." Embericles said. "A disc-jockey could be as insightful."
"Doesn't mean it's not /true/," Trudi said. "Come on, Ember. Why /do/ you have such tough shields? What do you want to keep out? What could be so threatening?"
Embericles remained silent.
"And how was it Nyssaias managed to get through, I wonder?" Trudi added, with a sly glance at the Light Muse.
"...Because..." Nyssaias swallowed, seemingly surprised at the sound of her own voice. "Because I showed her what the world was like. What /I/ knew of the world.
"Her world was nothing. She thought she /was/ nothing. That she /had/ nothing. That her /fate/ was nothing.
"So I offered her something.
"My friendship. My presence. My support.
"And she accepted it.
"I want her to accept the /others/, as well. To see what /I/ see in them, to see why they're my friends - and then maybe /they/ can move towards being friends.
"But it's not just one-way. I want the others to accept /her/ - to see what /I/ saw in her, her vision, her strength, her fear.
"Kari sees something of it, I know /that/. And Embericles sees something in /him/ - even if it is amusement.
"But I want all of them to see it. To see each other. Past the defences they've thrown up. To reach out a hand, offer another way - another way of seeing the world. Molly's curiosity and openness, Kwen's practicality and inventiveness, Xeffy's energy and focus, Ayna's empathy and compassion - they /all/ have something to offer each other. Together... we could be something so much more then we are now.
"Friends. /True/ friends. Seeing the best the others have to offer - not just the worst, but the /best/." Nyssaias looked at Trudi. "I've seen what the Mob are like with Kari, I've seen what Embericles is like with me - and if I could just bring them /together/, show them they're really /not/ so different as they think - help them see the support, the loyalty, the courage, and yes, the care they all have to offer - then I think they could be friends.
"Because they /are/ good people, I know that. I just wish /they/ could, too."
Nyssaias stopped, catching her breath, calming herself down.
Xeffy was the first to break the silence.
"I can try, Nyss," she said quietly. "I can try. For you."
"That's all I ask," Nyssaias said. "Thank you."
"And me," Ayna said.
"Statement: I will attempt this." Molly said.
"And me," Kwen said.
"Ahem," Anya said.
Nyssaias blushed prettily. "Sorry, Anya. Of course I'm including you."
Anya folded her arms, grinning.
Embericles was quiet a moment.
"For you," she said finally. "Because it's important to _you_, I will try. But I'm not going to make any promises that will only end up broken."
"We all have to start /somewhere/," Nyssaias said. "Thank you."
"Aww, isn't that touching, audience?" Trudi said.
A great 'aww' went up from the unseen watchers.
Embericles gave them the finger.
Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Five
Copyright 2005 Imran Inayat.