Midmorning in the Garden of Seelie and Unseelie

Midmorning in the Garden of Seelie and Unseelie

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Where: UCLA Hannah Carter Japanese Garden
When: June 16, 2020
What: Two very different people with one big thing in common meet. It's not so much a "meet cute" as a "meet awkward."

"I'm not a banker and bankers don't wear sharkskin. No self-respecting gentleman should. A suit shouldn't reflect light. Leave the sharkskin for the New York mafiosos."

"I'd rather leave it to the sharks."

The Hannah Carter Japanese Gardens are the sort of place that's popular among tourists and locals, but at different times and for different reasons. The tourists think they'll come during the noonday summer sun to get the best view of the plants. The locals know that's a recipe for heat exhaustion. The proper time to enjoy the garden is in the early-morning hours, just after the Starbucks in the heart of the garden has opened. A small collection of locals gather there each morning for their caffeine fix: runners who have finished their jog, soccer moms who have dropped the kids off for the day, even businessmen who want a little beauty before they go off to make money with lead-pipe sensibilities and mercenary ruthlessness.

It would be easy to think of John as a banker. He's got the expensive suit, the three hundred dollar haircut, the body that's just a little too perfect. (Oh, to hell with anyone who says they just like being fit. There's being in fit and there's making sure people *know* you're fit. The former is a health choice, the latter is the kind of narcissism endemic to Los Angeles.)

He's seated at a table by himself, with a riot of deep purple flowers framing him. A half-finished venti of black coffee sits by his side as he surveys the headline of the morning paper. He's a _LA Times_ fellow, apparently.

Not just here for a jog or the breathtaking views, and certainly not dressed as immaculately as John, Max heads to the Starbucks kiosk for something cold and icy instead of hot and invigorating. What amounts to a posh sort of Arnold Palmer is ordered — green tea and strawberry lemonade — and five dollars handed over. She moves to the pickup end of the counter to await her drink's arrival.

The green embroidery on her white polo shirt marking her as an employee of the garden isn't necessary; her hands are smudged with dirt, and at some place she must have had an itch, for there's a bit on her cheek as well. Luckily, she's been toiling since dawn and it's now time to go home.

Waiting's boring, so she turns with her back to the counter to lean and turns a green-eyed gaze over the caffeinated throng; eventually that gaze is pulled toward John.

Perhaps he notices her attention immediately and doesn't react; perhaps it takes him a while. He doesn't give any indicator of which is true: all that the outside world can tell is that he's still reading his newspaper. Eventually, though, he does look up her way, for reasons that will likely remain forever his own.

Blue-gray eyes, wet and liquid, pools, portals, passages—

The eyes, it's said, are the gateway to the soul. As Max is undoubtedly discovering this really, really sucks.

The verdant beauty of the Japanese Garden is obliterated in a moment as a wave of the coldest, bitterest hoarfrost sweeps over the world. The sun is blotted from the sky, the stars become visible, and a cold wind howls throughout. The location is the same and yet completely different: green plants become ice sculptures of those same plants, perfect in every detail. The Starbucks becomes a frost-encrusted gazebo, one of the few places that might withstand the wind. The Japanese Gardens have become a topiary of ice, and —

— and the man is still there, purple flowers surrounding him. Except that this time, the purple comes from the light radiated from him refracted through the transparent petals of ice.

He sits here, unmoved, unaffected, unconcerned with the severity of the cold or the cutting of the wind. There's a feeling of … perhaps he was *sentenced* here? He's not a prisoner, per se, but neither can he really leave. He's a knight of some sort, the Keeper of the Topiary, and the task he must fulfill is —

He's not here to guard it, no. Nor is he here to keep anyone safe from it. He is here only to ensure that Good Form is upheld. There are rules to this place. Following them may not keep you safe, but violating them will result in destruction.

A moment later and that vista vanishes, leaving Max looking at the man, who is looking back at her with an expression that can best be called 'friendly, affable calm.'

"Come here," he says after a moment. "Sit."

Most people would call that an invitation. It may actually be a command.

Despite the relative warmth of the outdoors — sure, California is sunny, but there's this thing called "June Gloom" that doesn't burn off 'til midday — Max can't help but shiver, visibly. She turns her back to the man as the Starbucks barrista calls hr name. The drink is taken and the barrista thanked, before the woman turns back to her fellow Sidhe…who is certainly not a fellow in the grand scheme of Faerie.

Of course, there is no such place as Faerie anymore.

There's hesitation, and for a moment it looks like Max might turn the other way, but finally she makes up her mind and moves to the seat across from John.

"I feel underdressed," she says dryly, given his suit and her polo-and-khaki-shorts uniform.

"Max." He doesn't need to say her name, of course. He says it mostly so that she can realize he picked it up from the barista. He knows her name and judging from her clothing he can figure out she works here.

He knows her name and where she works.

Let's not think about that one for a while.

"Max, something about me seems to have caught your eye," he says in a quiet, cheerfully friendly tone. "Tell me what, please."

Max glances down, fiddling with the straw wrapper to unsheathe the straw and slide it into the lid of her drink. "Well. You're the only one here that's like me," she says with a shrug, lifting the cup to take a sip before meeting his eyes again. It's not a lie — it was what drew her gaze to him in the first place.

"I like to people watch," is another truth, though probably not the one he's looking for. She waves her free hand vaguely in the direction of the garden beyond. "It's a good place for it."

Her green eyes slide back to his and she lifts her brows. "And you are?"

"A sharp-dressed man," he answers with that same good cheer. He says it without a hint of self-doubt or fear: his self-confidence is sharp enough to shave with. "You've heard the difference between bankers and sharks, yes? — Bankers wear sharkskin, but sharks don't wear bankerskin. It's a neat joke but don't believe it. I'm not a banker and bankers don't wear sharkskin. No self-respecting gentleman should. A suit shouldn't reflect light. Leave the sharkskin for the New York mafiosos."

He continues to smile as he reaches for his cup of coffee, taking a swallow and returning the conversational football back to her. He's answered her question, sort of, without answering it.

"I'd rather leave it to the sharks," Max tosses back, though there's a slight narrowing of her eyes as he dances around what she obviously was asking, but turnabout is fair play.

Her eyes drift away toward the picturesque landscape, and she takes a long pull of her drink. It's a little too long of a delay, and she looks back again, head tipping with a curiosity known to kill cats and likely to be her own undoing.

"I'm not really a gardener," she contributes at last. It might make sense to be more direct with the questions (who are you? what do you do for a living?), but given that she knows he can't lie directly, it seems rude.

"Of course you're not." He permits silence to fill the space for a handful of seconds before his smile shifts somewhat. He doesn't have just one well-practiced smile, but he has an entire wardrobe of them, and he changes his appearance often. "Do you know what we're doing here, Max?"

He waits a few seconds for her to answer, but when no answer is forthcoming he offers one. "You're learning something, something very important. You're learning the totem pole. Who is on it where, who is above whom. That's very useful, Max, truly. Too often people get in terrible trouble by thinking that we're all equal. That's the sort of thinking that one only ever sees in people who are completely and thoroughly unexceptional. The moment you become exceptional you realize that we are not all equal. We can't be. If we were equal there would be nothing exceptional. And the instant you realize we are not all equal, you realize there must be some sort of hierarchy."

He offers another, different, smile and reaches into his coat pocket for a small moleskin notebook. He opens it to a blank page, then slides it and a fountain pen over towards Max. "Write down your phone number, please."

Her brows lift again, and then she smiles the sort of smile that belongs to that class of people who think themselves above or beyond such things as hierarchies and totem poles. "Maybe that's why you're here. Not my gig," she says with a lift of her shoulder before taking another long sip of the tea concoction.

She glances at the moleskin, setting her cup down in order to pick up the fountain pen; her fingers curl around it, but again she pauses.

"What's your name?" she finally asks.

"You'll find out as soon as you write down your phone number," he answers matter-of-factly. It's an answer, yes, and an honest one, but no one will ever be able to accuse him of giving away things for free. At her egalitarian smile he gives a slightly different one of his own, one that says, oh yes, child, I've seen many like you before.

Is it possible for that a moment, Max wonders if writing down an incorrect phone number would count as a lie and mark her as an oath breaker? Perhaps. In the end, it's not an experiment she chooses to test. She sighs a little, the puff of air blowing her bangs up from her face, but the pen is put to paper and the number written down.

She sets the pen down on the open notebook and pushes both back across the table until they nudge the set aside newspaper. "And your name is?" she prompts again.

He accepts the number, then fishes out a cell phone from his pocket — one of the cheap pay-as-you-go types, not a high-end iPhone or anything. He taps out a few numbers on it, and in short order Max's own cell phone is going off. He taps the END button, then smiles politely and throws the telephone over into a trashbin. "Burner phones. Fabulously useful things. It seems you don't carry one, though, which is good for me. Max, whose phone number is—"

He looks down at the moleskine. He recites the number not just once but three times, as if it were her True Name and he was exploring different pronunciations of it. And who knows, really? Ever since the Breach, maybe cell numbers are our True Names.

The moleskine is closed and returned to his pocket. He smiles benevolently at her and finally gives her an answer. "I am Black John."

"Ah, the infamous Jack Black," Max quips, only after glancing down at her own pocket and staring a little incredulously at the phone going into the bin.

She shakes her head. "Do you really carry a burner phone around just so you can test out women's phone numbers? And no, I have no need for…" she pauses, retracing her words a little to avoid the flat-out lie. "I usually don't need one," she amends, cheeks coloring slightly at the need for correction.

"John. Jack Black is a comedian." There's a hint of bristling at that, but it soon passes. "And no, I don't carry around a burner phone to test out women's phone numbers. I carry around a burner phone so I can call numbers I don't trust. There's a difference." At the slight blush, he cocks his head to the side. "No need for what?" he inquires. "I somehow doubt you were about to say 'for testing women's phone numbers'. Although the day is still young, and everyone becomes a whole different person with two shots of tequila in them."

No apology comes for the deliberate play on his name. "A burner phone, but I do. Sometimes. Need one. Don't ask for what, because it's truly not a case where I want to see yours if I show you mine, all right?"

Max takes another slow draught of the beverage, emptying it of anything but ice, and the cup gets tossed in the direction of the trash can, following the arc of the cell phone a moment before.

"Well. It's been a pleasure to meet you." It must be the truth, or at least most of the truth. Max offers her hand to shake — it's still a little soiled with dried mud. Perhaps it's a test.

Perhaps she's thinking he'll avoid it for fear of getting mud on the cuff of his suitcoat. If so, she's in for a surprise: he accepts the hand without so much as a heartbeat of hesitation. He owns the suit: the suit does not own him. He takes her hand by her fingers, holding her hand on the horizontal as he does so. It's an old-fashioned form of handshake, one that dates from an era where men grabbed each other's palms and kept the shake vertical, while men took women by the fingers and kept her hand horizontal. "We'll be encountering another soon, I'm certain. Look for me some dark and stormy night. You won't see me, of course. But I'll be there, and I'll see you, and I'll be flattered that you're looking for Black John and hoping I'll come in through your window."

The gesture earns a small smile, for all its quaintness; but his words have Max pulling her hand away and standing up, the smile turning into something more of a smirk. "I live in a crappy neighborhood," she says, moving away from his table and toward the path that will lead her to the exit of the gardens.

"All the windows have bars on them," she tosses over her shoulder.

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