As far as Franco was concerned, his mum was spending her precious time twiddling her thumbs. Whenever he brought up Seng’s predicament to her, she changed the subject. It continued as he got beamed back from his family trip again, and once more before he admitted defeat and stayed. And it continued for much longer than that.
Maybe Franco should have expected it. If Annette had any power to free someone from the Waverly’s bonds, she would have done it much earlier. For Bill during those sour first years in their marriage. Certainly, she could have bought Shark some time with freedom, or extended inpatient care. So when the school year proper started again for all three of them, he still had Seng.
It started out okay. Franco painted for his classes. Hannah practiced guitar and grumbled about the low-level courses she had to take. Couldn’t she have more private studies than a period’s worth, instead of Arranging I? Seng buried himself in the dirt of case law, though Franco couldn’t help but notice that he nodded off in the middle of studying most nights.
The situation did not help Franco and Seng deepen their friendship. Days could go by without them speaking, and Seng would treat Hannah the same way too. When they first met, she asked him about his trip. She always wanted to visit Motherland Thailand too. But all Seng gave her in return was a grumble. Franco’s interest in being chummy with someone who said that to his girlfriend was minimal.
And yet, unusually for Franco’s bleeding heart, he couldn’t see why Seng remained cold to the couple.
It continued into the rainy Clallam winter, when Franco almost tripped over a hung-over Seng. The night before, he was studying in his pajamas, but rewarded himself with beer. And more beers.
“How many nights this week?” Franco asked. He was counting two other nights, where he found a collection of empty beer bottles or an emptied bottle of wine in the recycling.
“Ugh, can you turn down the lights?” Seng mumbled.
“It’s dreary for nine. I’m keeping them on.”
A mention of the time kicked Seng into gear. “Shit, it’s nine already? He’s given me so much crap for this…fuck!” He scrambled into the bedroom to get dressed. It was Thursday, and therefore a day just for working for the Law Offices of Frederick Smith.
Seng stumbled out the door. His pants and his coat did not match. It was disgusting how common that kind of morning had become. He got a few citations from professors, though far fewer than Franco expected. And Fred, whatever kind of person he was, didn’t have anything to say about his apprentice. Seng still had the position, regardless of the hangovers or how he’d always grab the wrong papers. As much as Franco shouldn’t have read them, he left a whole folder full of court notes from one of their current cases.
“Is it bad that I want him out of the way?” Hannah asked.
Franco turned around to give her a strong hug. “You’ve asked that…many times, honey. You can feel however you want to.”
She gave him a fretful look in the eyes. “It’s just really hard to learn that at my age.”
He let out a small chuckle, and looked out the window. It still had not begun to rain, but on any winter day in Bridgeport, rain was a given. “It’s the perfect morning to stay inside and try.”
“I’m sorry, but I need that good karma with Professor Pratt. I won’t help him next Thursday.”
Hannah looked down at someone furry that brushed against her feet. “I guess the cats have something to teach me. And they’re the best study buddies.”
“Arranging II still a drag?”
“Not as much as I thought. I just want my private studies again!”
On a normal day, no matter how Seng was, Franco would not bother picking him up. The man had lived in Bridgeport for years, and never failed to find his way back home. But no matter what Franco was doing that day, he couldn’t stop thinking about Seng’s job. He even asked Professor Pratt if he would keep a studio hand who kept coming in hungover. All Franco got in response was a big, hearty laugh.
The Law Offices of Frederick Smith advertised well, so finding its address was easy for Franco. Yet still a bit of a doozy to locate in the real world, being in the hostile territory of the other side of the peninsula.
He remembered it all too well. The construction on the building hadn’t progressed one brick in that year and a half. The whole area was eerie and devoid of any human sounds, again. And while there was no mugger in sight, that’s what Franco thought before he was mugged.
He hoped that the coast was clear. At least the inside of that tower would be safer. There at least was someone checking him at the desk. The tower was mostly residential, but the basement and other odd floors were cheap office space.
In the basement, the only human voices were muffled by the wall. And the boiler room, right next door, was still louder. Franco called out for a receptionist, only to find an empty desk behind the glass.
“Alright, I guess I’ll just wait for my appointment then,” he said to no one.
There was a row of chairs near the elevator, wrapping around the wall to the right of it. Franco took a seat, and was surprised with the clean scent of the chairs. Perhaps it was easier than replacing a room’s worth of peeling orange wallpaper. And much easier than re-plastering the ceiling. There was a fallen chunk in the corner.
“I get it, it’s pretty sucky defending a kiddy-diddler, but now we have a 50% chance of the ‘pedos are born that way’ argument working on this lot of judges. Ugh, you know what I need after this?”
“Fine. Just…fuck, why do you make me wear a suit? It takes forever to unbutton this.”
Franco then realized that the walls were not thick enough to cover what he was about to hear.
Oh, they were not thick enough at all.
He feared opening the door, or it opening at all. Franco touched it, and then gave a light knock. Then the knob turned, and he took a big gulp.
Seng covered his face as soon as he answered. While he had his pants on, his jacket was draped over the corner of Smith’s desk. His white collared shirt was open, and his tie hung limp and untied. “You’re not Erin,” he whispered.
“I thought I was picking you up from work-”
“Look, this is work,” said Seng. “I’m advising him on three clients and doing doc-review…can I at least get my jacket back on?”
“You know, I heard it all. Do it.”
Franco propped himself up against the wall as he waited. In a few minutes, Seng was out, adjusting his red tie. “I’ll explain everything when we’re out of here,” he said, in a low voice.
“Thao, don’t forget Ali’s folder next time, m’kay?” Smith was leaned against his desk, with a perverted smirk on his doughy, white face.
“I’ll try to be sober.”
They exited to a still dark, overcast day. The humid, sticky air was paired with a cool temperature, perfect for walking in.
“Look, there’s this one place I always wanted to go to, up in the hills,” said Seng. “Maybe we can take a walk and-”
“After hearing that?” Franco said, snapping at him. “Why should I have to listen to you?”
“At least we can talk then! And do you really want to sleep tonight, assuming the worst about innocent little Seng Thao?”
“If we’re gonna fulfill a purpose…you know Hannah would rather I be there to greet her.”
“Well, she’s just gonna have to grow a pair and wait like those fucking cats do,” said Seng. “She loves them, why not aspire to be them?”
“We all want to be furry and lazy,” Franco said. “But I’d rather just have the Hannah I know.”
“Suit yourself. I guess you’re as stuck with her as you are with me.”
They started over the bridge. Neither of them visited that side of the bay that much, so Franco wondered what Seng had to show the both of them. Maybe he wanted to get drunk again, and knew of a wine cellar. And Franco could use a good, dry wine after what he heard.
“Look, I try hard with everything I do,” said Seng. “But I always fall short. So…getting fucked in the ass makes up for the weak spots. Well, at least for Fred. He’s such a closet case.”
“Like you’re one to talk,” said Franco, grumbling.
“Okay, thanks for forgetting how honest I was with you about being bi,” said Seng. “I mean, of course I don’t tell my parents about this stuff, but they don’t need another failure of a kid. And this…it beats stripping to pay for your undergrad.”
“Lovely, tell me more.”
“Well, it started with the cheesy Blazin’ Asians night at Triangles-”
“No! I…just…can you please just take me to where you want to go? I’m only here in Bridgeport to escape stuff like hearing sex next door.”
“Brave words to your beloved third wheel,” Seng said. “It’s gonna be a bit of a hike.”
They hiked up the winding road called Thurston Street. It was then that Franco realized that Seng had nothing new to show him at all. He was instead coaxed into visiting that strange alien tower again.
They both took a seat on the dewey grass. Seng crossed his ankles and sighed. “Isn’t it great? No sex for money, just two men with a common goal-”
“Why?” Franco asked. He rested his face in his hand, and hurriedly tapped his fingers along his jawline. “What else is there to gain from this? You know you’re stuck here, I know you’re stuck here, and neither of us like this.”
“Well, I thought that if your mum isn’t being helpful, then we just have to take matters into our own hands.”
“Then I’m not listening. You’re acting like a child.”
Franco crossed his arms, and watched the angry grey skies. God help him, if Seng was enough of a petulant lawyer-child to get two well-dressed men stuck in the rain.
“You really don’t care, do you?” Seng asked him.
“You know that it’s more complicated-”
“I had a lot of dreams, you know! I could have been a lawyer anywhere. I could have a wife and two kids and a vacation cabin in Bangor. Or I could meet a leather daddy and live in the gentrified remnants of The Castro! At least I could have, until I signed a lease to live with you.”
“I don’t want this conversation…again.” It was a word-for-word repeat of one from September. “I didn’t ask for anything I’m bound to either.”
He turned his head to find Seng standing up, towering over a Franco that otherwise dwarfed him.
“So why don’t you want to spend one night doing something nice for me? All you do it tell me to sit down, and shut up, and take this like I take Frederick Smith’s giant veiny cock!”
Franco rolled his eyes. “Fine, we’ll stay up all night, ignoring our studies, to see what you want to see. But you’ll act like a man when nothing happens.”
“Sure, I’ll act as man as I can,” said Seng. “I’ll drink the dark beers when we get home.”
It felt like hours. The sky and day grew darker, and Franco started to shiver a bit, even under his thick wool sweater. And as much as even he hoped for something dazzling to placate Seng with, dreary Clallam remained dreary Clallam. What they thought was a UFO turned out to be a small plane from Rose City circling before descent.
A huge drop of water landed right on Franco’s glasses.
They both stood up to confirm it. Seng held out a hand to feel the raindrops. “Maybe it’s a sign,” he said. “I guess we’re out here for even longer.”
“Please don’t…half this outfit is dry clean-only,” muttered Franco. “We’re on the coast. It rains here all the time, we really should go.”
“Maybe I’d agree, but who is that across the street?”
They both knew the answer. It was the same heathen man they saw that last summer, and he still didn’t wear shoes. The cold, wet ground did not phase him, as he gave them a sweeping, friendly wave.
“Remember me?” he yelled, over the growing storm. “I’m here to find answers too!”
“I know you’re stuck on that theory that I have all those answers, but you’re wrong,” Franco said. “Can’t we just all go home?”
“On such a blessed night? Nonsense. This is the 40th anniversary of my first visions here. They said it was LSD, but-”
Seng gave a toothy smile, and clasped his hands together. “What I was going to say, is that we’d love to have a third guy here.”
“Wonderful! And…I didn’t introduce myself at all last time. Nico Bramato, tenured mathematician and…religious leader!” He laughed in a strained way, as if he couldn’t believe his own job.
Nico sat with his arms crossed over his knees, and with a smug grin on his craggy face. “Isn’t it great? Just three bright men with a common goal.”
“Oh, Youa! Thanks for being AWOL.” Franco could still hear her tittering laugh. It as the same one she had when gushing about Benji.
He put his hands to his face, to rub his eyes and massage his temples. Maybe Nico was having fun, but Franco bemoaned what might happen to his beloved sweater.
“He should take that call. It’s usually pretty boring here,” said Nico. “I get that this world might seem mundane to you, but it’s a real treat for us normies! You’re…that was your mum, right?” Franco nodded. “Are her friends thankful for what she might show them?”
“No, they’re not. She ruins everyone’s lives. And she’d do that without magic.”
“Oh…sorry.” Nico began to scratch his beard in thought. “Well, no matter how you’re related to this, there’s just so much that’s beyond us. Stuff your mum probably hasn’t touched…unless she’s hiding a lot more.”
Franco leaned over, scratching the side of his face. “Look, I had way more to be glum about last time, but…I know you’ve spent your whole life invested in this, but we might be the last of our kind. And all we have is stuff to disappoint you with. It’s…it’s what my family does. We disappoint people.”
Nico smiled. “I’m having a great time here. I love these rainy Bridgeport nights. I grew up near Tourmaline City, so rain was always a treat.”
“Will my sweater survive?”
“There are a lot of sheep and synthetics in the world.”
Franco laughed. He laughed in defeat, but he still laughed. “Anything but the latter.”
Seng leaned over, almost resting his head on Nico’s shoulder. “Psst, Franco? What are the abortion laws in Terrebonne?”
“What?” he answered, sharply. “Please tell me this is just for a school assignment.”
“Can I lie to you after you caught me getting buggered by my boss?”
Franco dug his fingers into his soft, chubby cheek. “Twenty-two weeks,” he mumbled.
“Yeah, you have plenty of time,” said Seng. “Sorry to hear that happened to you two.”
He then walked away, leaving Seng to deal with Youa’s unprotected sex drama, and Nico to marinate in rainwater. He could get a taxi or an Uber from there, as long as the city wasn’t flooding beneath them.
Franco was almost around the bend, when the rapid pat-pat of running and loafers caught up behind him. “She’ll be fine! We need to talk.”
He pointed a finger at Seng. “I’ve had enough of you today. I just want to go home, and live my life pretending I don’t have to share it with slimy, vengeful you!”
“So says the guy who followed me to work! Maybe you’re not pretending I don’t exist.”
Franco turned around and sighed. “You’re right…I did. And now we’re stuck in the rain, and Hannah’s all alone, and it’ll take forever for a taxi to get here…”
Something sounded out, like a high screech.
He peered out just a tiny bit from the corner. It sounded like it came from near the tower.
Franco never wanted to see their indigo face again. Diamanda, as he came to know them, was back. Her long hair was free from its braid, and the sword that Annette stole had not been replaced. The only new thing was her companion. She stood beside her Diamanda, taller and more lithe in build. She had more demonic markings, like grey horns and claw-like nails protruding from her fingers.
The horned one spoke. “This is one of the biggest observatories, on any body orbiting Solaris.”
“Of all places, we just had to go here again.”
Seng tapped Franco on the shoulder. “Are they saying anything? Because it’s all garbled nonsense to me.”
“I…there was a bit of a delay, but I understood it just fine.” For every garbled word, a clear one followed in Franco’s mind, spoken in perfect English. “Let’s…let’s stay.”
“It looks different. Is something wrong?”
“I went here, and then she blasted me to that oval planet they call Haumea.” Diamanda let out a low growl. “The rogue servant did that.”
“So you speak of a rogue on this planet,” said the horned one. “Do you think she will come back here?”
“We have a bigger problem.”
Nico had not left his spot, and had the best possible view of the two beings. He cheered, clenching his fists in unbridled excitement.
“The answers! I am right after all!”
The Diamanda grabbed Nico by the neck and lifted him with some struggle. “You saw nothing.”
Nico smiled his way through the assault, and the grip was not enough to close his windpipe entirely. “Wow,” he said, choking out his words. “I wish I knew what you were saying. This whole thing is beautiful.”
“Ty-mar, how long does it take for these flesh ones to die? And I do not understand this one’s language.”
“I am getting a different read on him…he is harmless. Just a bystander. We should let him go, and keep searching.”
She let go of Nico, dropping him to the ground like he was a sturdy burlap sack of potatoes. “Keep searching…that is why I am in this mess! Because you and Dii’aaih-ni and the others would not approve of any backup. I know this planet was mostly abandoned, but the last one here is a killer. She took out three of Ka-ma’s Diamandas.”
Ty-mar pouted. “I know, but…please…do not make me go through an application.”
“We need a better fleet.”
“But that will take days, many long Vega-5 days…”
“What if we see what they have on this…killer,” Ty-mar said. The smooth stone in her choker started to light up. “Maybe you are right, and then we can file for backup.”
“Can I at least get my sword back?” Diamanda asked.
“Oh…but that application is even worse.”
If either of them said anything else, it was drowned out by them stepping into a wormhole again.
Franco had a better time playing as their babelfish, as opposed to that unruly Diamanda dragging him on a joy ride through Bridgeport. But his heart still raced. And his mind ached from all that surprise translating. It was so much easier with just one Diamanda almost speaking in his ear.
“Now you have to tell me everything,” Seng said.
Franco saw Nico again in the distance, still sitting on the ground dazed. “Oh…shoot.”
He started to run. “Come on, Seng!” Franco said. “You’re gonna be guilty if he’s hurt and you don’t help.”
They were surprised to see him still smiling, and looking at the grassy hills with a glazed expression.
“Franco told me that I should help you, so I don’t feel guilty,” Seng said. “So…uh…”
“Sorry boys, I feel better than ever,” Nico said. “I didn’t understand a word they said…did you?”
A/N: By what was probably a great coincidence, neither Amy in Chapter 50 nor Julienne in Chapter 58 was able to understand a Diamanda…or at least they never acknowledged what they said and never engaged in a dialogue with them. Annette and Franco could with ease. This so beats my bullshit excuse of “it takes true love” to explain it if they could. 😛
Obvious reference, but the Babel fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a creature that could translate for you (it’s been years since I read the books, don’t crucify me for omitting details). It’s two words in the book, but the one-word approach (used by dubious online translation service Babelfish) was more aesthetically pleasing for me.