Author: blackberet PM
An all-expenses-paid voyage on a luxury ocean liner--it's an experience outside anything Meche could possibly have imagined. If only she weren't being held prisoner...Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Drama/Romance - Words: 5,220 - Reviews: 1 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 1 - Published: 05-27-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4283808
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's note: I don't own 'em. I also used to go by "flame mage" and have updated my handle a little, so if the writing style looks familiar, that might just be why (unless you recognize it from the half-dozen or so novels of mine currently topping the New York Times Bestsellers List, of course. XD).
The other day Rei Nokato asked me how I thought Meche's time with Domino aboard the S.S. Lambada played out. I spent several minutes banging out a TL;DR response, which later mutated into this 4500+ word monstrosity. There's a great tradition of Meche/Domino fics on ffnet, and I hope I've done it a little justice.
He was knocking again.
Meche sunk heavily onto the edge of the bed, desperate for any excuse not to go to dinner. It wasn't that she wasn't hungry. Souls didn't need to eat, but your mind could play tricks on you here, and tonight her mind was telling her that she was ravenous. Anxiety, maybe. And she wasn't agonizing over what to wear—her wardrobe was the least of her worries these days, and anyway, he'd taken care of all that. The walk-in closet was brimming with suitable options for dinnerwear. More than suitable, actually. Suits that looked like they cost more money than she'd made in a year when she was alive, not that that was saying much.
The real problem—and it sounded so childish, put like this, but it really, really wasn't—was that she detested her date.
She thought it a couple more times, because it was worth a little emphasis. Detested.
To say that Domino had saved her life would be inaccurate and something of an understatement. He'd done more than that: he'd saved her from something worse than dying itself, from the worst possible part of death.
And Meche was getting less grateful by the day.
"Mercedes!" He burst into the cabin (why did he even pretend to knock in the first place? They both knew he had the only key) with a joviality that was all genuine. Domino wasn't quite as imposing as he seemed to think he was, but he could still suck all the air out of a room just by walking in. "Chop chop, sweetheart, the captain's waiting!" he ordered in that pseudo-cajoling tone of his. "You're not going to dinner in that."
She'd been wearing the same simple skirt and top since yesterday—no point in getting all dressed up with nowhere to go, let alone any way to get there. He hadn't let her out in two days. "Business," he'd said. "Too busy."
Calmly, she stood up and decked him.
The punch connected with his jaw with an immensely satisfying CRACK. Domino sprawled backwards, bringing a lamp down with him and landing flat on his ass on the floor. That it was plush carpet dampened her triumph only a little.
Domino hadn't been expecting it, but he bounced back quickly. In an instant he was on his feet and pulling her toward the closet, one hand firmly clamped on the bones of her wrist. He slammed hangers down the rack one by one until he hit on a ruby-red sheath. "Get changed," he said.
"I don't know, Domino; it's really not my color," she shot back. "Maybe I'll just hit the buffet later."
"Now, Mercedes, you know what an honor it is to sit at the captain's table. We don't want to look rude."
"We don't want to look badly-dressed either. Although I guess it's a little late for you."
"Meche." He shot her a warning glance, the kind that said someone-is-going-to-get-hurt-if-you-don't-hop-to. "Now." The last time she'd refused to go to dinner with him, he'd ordered room service, and the waiter had mysteriously slipped and broken his leg. She could never prove that Domino had actually caused it, of course, but she wasn't going to test any further to find out.
"You could at least turn around," she snapped petulantly. Not that she had any bones he didn't have, but it was the little victories that kept her going. He obligingly spun his back to her, suddenly all gentleman again. Meche sighed, pulling the shirt up over her skull and smoothing the red dress down in its place. It was all wrong for the season, of course, but you couldn't expect Domino to know that. Stockings, matching pumps and hat, and a small black handbag, and she was ready to go.
As ready as she was ever going to get, anyway.
Domino was just knotting a fresh tie (the wrong shade of red). He turned around at her cough; a broad grin spread across his skull. It gratified her to imagine she saw a tiny crack just to one side of his jaw.
"Well, Ms. Colomar," he said, offering his arm to her, "shall we?"
The S.S. Lambada: Meche didn't have the words. The ship was massive—like a small town in and of itself, practically big enough to get its name on a map. And the furnishings! Opulent, lavish and extravagant couldn't quite cut it. She couldn't even imagine how much their passage must have cost. Every time Domino led her through the maze of crystal chandeliers and hardwood floors, she couldn't help but gasp.
Domino, who had an arm tightened around her waist now, was careful to shuttle her past the other passengers as quickly as possible. He handled any necessary pleasantries himself, giving her the occasional pinch to remind her to smile graciously. Meche made a point of trying to overhear whatever she could of the conversations around them, but tonight all she was getting were the whispers in their wake: "How romantic." "He always seems to be holding her." "So nice to see two people so in love."
Hah, Meche thought, gritting her teeth in a lean half-smile.
They didn't dine at the captain's table every night, but they did so often enough to make her think that something was going on there. Money had changed hands somewhere. It always seemed to, with Domino. And surely someone must be wondering occasionally about Mr. Hurley's lady companion, whose seasickness sometimes kept her inside her stateroom for days at a time, who never went to drinks in the cocktail lounge with the other ladies or even for an afternoon stroll abovedecks. She wouldn't be surprised if someone—maybe more than one someone—was getting paid not to ask questions.
"Smile, sweetcheeks," Domino muttered to her as they approached the door of the formal dining room. "You probably looked happier at your funeral." His hand wandered down to punctuate the statement with a quick pinch of her skirt.
"Try that one more time and I'll knock your lights out so hard I'll be able to use the hole in your face for a planter," she hissed back.
He laughed out loud. "Of course you will, dollface! Don't doubt it for a second." Chuckling to himself, he pushed the door open and ushered her through.
Under different circumstances, it might have been the perfect evening. The soft glow of candlelight lent an extra air of elegance to the exquisitely-dressed souls all around them. Most of the passengers attending formal dinner that evening were already seated, and tuxedoes waiters whisked around with so much finesse they were almost invisible. The gentle clink of champagne glasses and the murmured conversations of diners were wrapped in the tones of the piano, which was playing languid, sensuous jazz standards.
Captain Naves stood as they got close. "Evenin', Miss Colomar, Domino." The latter pulled Meche's chair out for her and both men waited to sit until she'd settled herself at the table. "How's things?"
"I'm afraid the little lady's still feeling under the weather," Domino chortled. He and Naves exchanged looks that just screamed You know how women are. Meche sighed, amended her scowl to an indulgent smile as Domino's shoe connected hard with her ankle under the table, and looked around. Two couples she didn't recognize, but then, there must be thousands of souls aboard this ship. That the captain's table was so small made it all the more fishy that they kept getting invited back.
"Well, I'm real sorry to hear that," Naves drawled. "But sometimes a good meal can be just the ticket to perkin' you right up, don't'cha think, Miss Colomar?" The words hadn't even finished coming out of his mouth before the table was surrounded by seven—seven!—waiters, laying a plate of fresh salad at each place. They must grow the vegetables right on board, Meche reflected dazedly.
Naves snapped his fingers. "I'm being awful rude, though. Y'all haven't met. Everyone, I'd like to present Miss Mercedes Colomar and Mr. Domino Hurley. This is Juan and Anamaría Clavel—" gesturing to the younger couple, dressed chicly in matching black evening gown and tuxedo, "—and Richard and Stephanie Jenkins." This was directed at the other couple, whom Meche might have pegged as being in their sixties if they'd had skin. The woman had on some kind of hideous hat in a magenta floral; her husband looked vaguely embarrassed. Ugh. She felt a little bad about pegging people by their clothing, but there wasn't much else to go on here. It wasn't like being alive, when she'd tried to prevent her from judging people she met prematurely—the Land of the Dead was a lot more dangerous, and you had to do what you could to protect yourself.
Although when she put it that way, she was zero for two at the moment—Manny had seemed like such a nice guy, before Domino had told her what he was really like. And then there was Domino himself.
"Mercedes," Mrs. Jenkins said thoughtfully. "What an interesting name. I thought that was only for cars."
Ugh. Then again, maybe her judgment wasn't that far off.
She slipped into wondering why Manny had seemed so desperate to get on the ship. Probably just wanted to drag her back to the DoD and try to get his fat commission out of her. Then again, that might be better than…wherever they were headed. Domino—who'd told her he was personally going to take her to the gates of the Ninth Underworld himself, the lying, good-for-nothing snake—had only said something about his "branch office." Whatever that was a euphemism for, it couldn't be good.
"—so nice to finally meet you." Mrs. Jenkins was still going. "We've never spoken, but I've seen you around before. A good-looking young couple like you two causes quite a splash on a ship like this where there's not much to do."
Meche knew for a fact that at any given hour of the day or night, the S.S. Lambada was running three casinos, two swimming pools, at least one lounge show, pool tables, an exercise room, a full library, a spa, an entire shopping arcade, two different dining rooms and room service, and an endless array of changing daily activities to entertain the passengers, all of which she read about in the flyers slipped under her door every morning and none of which she got to go to. But something about Mrs. Jenkins' interest in them interested Meche in her turn. She'd never gotten that from the other people they'd dined with. If she could get these people to like her, to be interested in her welfare, maybe one of them could help her. She'd have to try to get on their good side during dinner and see if she could drop some hints.
"The pleasure is all mine," she heard herself saying cordially. Out of the corner of her eye socket, she caught Domino's stunned glance. "I'm afraid I'm not able to get out of my room much, so it's always nice to meet other people," she added pointedly.
At that one, he looked like he was about to jump in, but just then the waiters came around to fill the wine glasses. Domino had had a couple of glasses of champagne for dinner, too. If he got drunk, it might make her plan a little easier to pull off. Meche resolved to try to keep him putting 'em away.
"Qué lástima. So you probably haven't had much of a chance to explore the ship yet," Mr. Clavel said. She shook her head, expecting him to question her further. But they were only a month into the voyage, so maybe her inexperience didn't seem too out of the ordinary yet. "You should check out the lido deck casino once you get your sea legs. It's even better than Rubacava!"
"I don't know, Juan; that one little place was nice," Mrs. Clavel replied. Glancing around the table, she added, "It was only a handful of roulette tables and a piano lounge, but still, there was something elegant about it. I wish I could remember its name."
"The Calavera Café?" Meche jumped in, ignoring the warning look from Domino. She was rewarded with a pinch to the thigh so hard she almost cried out, but she saw looks of recognition across the table and barreled on. "You wouldn't happen to know the owner, would you?"
Mrs. Jenkins snapped her fingers. "No, but funny thing. Now that you mention the name—oh, you'll never believe this—I heard a rumor that it got raided and closed down the exact same night we sailed."
"Do you have any idea—" Meche began, but this time Domino wasn't going to let it slide.
"Yeah, that was a damn shame. Heard they arrested the owner for running crooked tables. They don't take kindly to that kind of thing in Rubacava; he's gonna be locked up for a long time to come. Assuming some of the customers he bilked don't come and sprout him first." He took a swig of wine, looking satisfied with himself.
Was it true? She had no way of knowing. The Manny Calavera she'd met didn't seem like the type of person who would do that, but then, he'd already proven that he was willing to cheat to get good clients. Maybe any way of beating the system was fair game to him as long as he could get something out of it.
"Oh, that is just too awful!" Mrs. Jenkins was instantly on board. "Don't you think so, Richard? I wonder how many innocent people he managed to scam."
"Including us," Mr. Jenkins replied shortly. It was the first thing he'd said all night.
"Are you sure there's not some kind of mistake?" Meche asked. To the others, she explained, "I met Mr. Calavera once; he didn't seem like the kind of guy to—"
"Nope, heard it on the news wire myself," Domino said firmly. He downed the last of his glass. "Well, take it from me, Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins, the good people of Rubacava won't have to worry about him anymore."
If they were picking up on the smirk on his face, Meche thought, they weren't commenting.
"In my opinion, it just goes to show you—the Eighth Underworld is really going to hell these days," Mrs. Jenkins announced. "That's why we decided to get out when we did."
"I know what you mean," Mrs. Clavel said. "We finally left El Marrow after we started hearing rumors that some sort of revolutionary army was forming."
Meche's jaw dropped. "What?"
"Oh, no one even knows what they're supposed to be fighting against. They're just whispers, that's all, of a group of people stockpiling weapons. Es todo. They just sound like stories to me. You know, people need something to talk about," Mr. Clavel said.
"Boy, the Land of the Dead gets scarier every day, doesn't it?" Domino asked sympathetically. Then he chuckled. "But you don't have to worry about a thing. Even if there was some kind of wacko terrorist group in El Marrow, the D.O.D. would be more than equipped to handle it."
"How do you know?" Mrs. Jenkins demanded.
"Oh, I had a few friends who worked there back in the day. You wouldn't believe the caliber of weaponry they issue these people. The Department of Death is the most heavily-armed organization in the Land of the Dead. Anyone tried to pull anything in that town, they'd all be sprouted and law and order would be restored in five minutes, tops. So tell your friends in El Marrow they can rest easy."
Meche was a little skeptical. For some reason, she just couldn't picture Manny waving a heater around like some kind of…criminal. And she definitely hadn't seen any weapons in the D.O.D. building. But what would Domino gain from lying about that? She couldn't figure. Maybe it was true after all.
"Well, that's all water under the bridge anyway, as us old sea salts say, ain't it?" Captain Naves broke in. "Y'all should be thinking of what's ahead of you. We've got smooth sailing all the way to Puerto Zapato to look forward to, Christmas is comin' up, and the all-ship poker tournament starts this weekend!"
"I've been looking forward to it ever since we saw the brochures!" Mrs. Jenkins enthused. "Do you play poker, Domino?"
"Well, I am the kind of man who's used to getting lucky," Domino replied, snaking one arm around Meche and giving her a suggestive squeeze. If she'd had skin—or hair—Meche would have been blushing straight up to her hairline. He just had to embarrass her, didn't he?
He let the joke hang just long enough, then pretended to redeem it: "I've never had a bad hand with Lady Luck here at my side."
Meche felt the conversation slipping out of her grasp. The second course—a rich gazpacho—was already out, and no one was looking any more preoccupied with her welfare than they had when she sat down. "I'm afraid I don't know how to play, myself," she threw in, reaching for the wine bottle to pour Domino a fresh glass. "One of you pros will have to show me how it's done sometime."
"I tried to teach her once, back when we first started seeing each other," Domino said, topping her off. "Meche's got all the right instincts. I think her problem is that she's just too honest to keep up a good poker face. Or maybe just too good to do anyone wrong." He chuckled. "And it's one of the things I love about her."
Her poker face was a lot better than he thought, but it was still taking every ounce of her self-control not to gape at him. He'd pulled this act before, but this was really over the top.
"Oh, you've gotta tell us how the two of you met," Mrs. Jenkins said.
Involuntarily, Meche flashed back to it: the headlights of the car almost blinding in the pitch-black of a night in the Petrified Forest. His hand reaching out for hers, with that illusion of warmth about it even though it was just as bony as her own. That grin. She'd passed out almost as soon as she got in the car. For a whole year she'd never felt really safe sleeping, and all of a sudden there was soft upholstery and a heater to block out the November chill.
What to say, what to say? But Domino had stepped in. "Well, it all started when we were in El Marrow, about two years ago," he said. "It was around Christmastime, and my company—I used to work for a contracting company that handled the construction of a lot of the skyscrapers in El Marrow—was hosting a charity ball to raise money for the, ah, Little Angels Foundation, which raises money for troubled youth who weren't able to book passage through the Land of the Dead by themselves."
Meche lifted her wine glass to her lips, trying to hide her shock. How did he think of this stuff? Between that, and flipping so effortlessly from tormentor to sweettalker…he must have been an incredible salesman in his day. She probably would have bought anything he had to sell.
"What a great idea," Mr. Clavel said. "It's such good work."
"Tell that to the little lady here," Domino replied. He took Meche's hand, tenderly rubbing the bones of his fingers over her own smaller ones. "She was the head of the foundation for years, delaying her own passage to the next life by serving others."
The two couples around the table buzzed with praise and eagerness. They were eating it up.
"Anyway, of course we invited the foundation's head honchos, and that was where I first saw her. She was wearing this gorgeous long blue dress—you still got that dress?" Meche nodded; he was pulling the description out of the clothes he'd bought her. "She just looked like a queen. And that was when I knew it; right then and there I said to myself: that's the woman I want to spend the rest of my afterlife with."
Oh, God. Meche poured herself another glass of wine with her free hand.
"And you, Miss Colomar? How did you know he was the one?" Mrs. Clavel asked.
She took a long drink to give herself time to think. No point in trying to incriminate him now, she decided—get them on her side first. "Well, his company had obviously been very generous in supporting our cause," she said. "And my volunteers had told me that Domino was the one who always pushed for giving us a bigger donation at the end of the year. Once, when his boss said he thought their contribution was already too generous, Domino added his whole paycheck to the pile."
"Yeah, I ate a lot of ramen that month," Domino supplied with a chuckle.
"Oh, but you were able to help so many children! It was so refreshing to meet someone who really supported our work. You know, so many people are just concerned with getting out of the Land of the Dead, but Domino…he was different. He really wanted to help other people. So when one of our volunteers pointed him out to me at the ball, I went over to thank him."
She was letting her imagination run wild, and it had come up with her ideal man.
"We hit it off right away. I offered to take her out to dinner to discuss possibly hosting another fundraising event for the Foundation. And the rest, as they say, was history."
Meche looked up at him. Looking deep into her eyesockets, still playing his fingers around hers in a way that hit her all the way down her spine, he radiated sincerity. Even though she knew everything they'd just said was a total lie, part of her almost wanted to believe it herself.
"What was the name of that foundation again?" Mr. Clavel asked. "I'd like to send them a check before I leave this world."
"Oh, they're not operating anymore," Domino said quickly. "Meche was really the glue that held the foundation together, and it was just too tough to keep it running without her when she left."
"Damned shame, Miss Colomar—pardon my French," Captain Naves cut in. "But you know, all that business about a fancy party….Reminds me of a real good story…"
The waiters reappeared with the main course. Meche settled back in her chair and resigned herself to the temporary misdirection; the captain was a fascinating storyteller, and she could always redirect the conversation where she needed it later. Now that she'd started to get somewhere with them, these people didn't seem so bad after all. This evening might just end up in the "plus" column.
At the edge of her line of sight, Domino emptied the last of the wine bottle into her glass.
Three a.m., and the night was only getting longer.
She'd been tossing and turning for an hour already. She wasn't tired, or even weary the way you get when you wish you could fall asleep but just can't. What she was—was angry.
All those grand designs about finding a way to let those people know something was wrong, and she had nothing to show for it. Domino and Captain Naves had been deflecting her at every turn, and eventually it…it had slipped her mind. She'd been enjoying herself so much just being out of her room that she hadn't been as focused as she should have been. And then, too, she'd been hoping to get Domino drunk, but he'd been pouring for her as fast as she'd been pouring for him, and he was a lot more used to drinking than she was.
And after dinner Mrs. Jenkins had insisted that they all go play cards, and there were more drinks there, and after that, Domino had taken her dancing. He'd been surprisingly good—Meche wondered where he'd learned to tango like that. By the time he was finally ready to let her go back to her stateroom, he didn't even have to force her to lean on his arm. She was having trouble walking straight without it.
And now everything was just so—still. The red silk of the sheath she'd tossed over the back of the chair shimmered slightly in the darkness. The door leading out was still locked (wasn't that a fire hazard, anyway?), and her inside stateroom didn't even have a porthole. There was nothing to occupy her mind except thoughts of how furious she was with herself.
Fool. You wasted the whole evening.
How had she let herself get so caught up? Domino might be charming, and he might be feeding her bites of his pasta in front of other guests and keeping her in good clothes and silk stockings and salsaing her around the dance floor, but at the end of the day he was still keeping her locked up and taking her to God-knew-where. She couldn't trust him. She wasn't going to trust him. She detested Domino Hurley.
She was starting to come down, but she was definitely still sloshed, and she wondered what Manny would say if he could see her like this. He probably wouldn't recognize her.
But hell, maybe he'd like her better this way. Guys liked a girl who knew how to have a good time, right? Maybe that was why she'd never gotten married. Where the hell had being a good girl and saving the world ever gotten her anyway? If she'd lived it up a little while she was alive, none of this ever would have happened. She would never have had to see that disappointed look on Manny's skull, and she would have walked out of the D.O.D. just like she was supposed to. And then maybe she would have started that damn imaginary charity of Domino's after all—
…because when she came down to it, Meche wondered if Domino was right about her after all. Maybe she really was too good to change. Maybe she was going to be stuck appeasing Domino Hurley until Judgment Day. Maybe she was never going to see Manny again.
Not that she should care whether she did or not. But for some reason, the thought still made her feel so desolate her bones ached.
Unsteadily, she stood and tiptoed to the door that connected her room with Domino's. Meche hesitated a moment, then pushed it open and stepped through.
Domino's room had a balcony, and he'd left the curtains open along the long glass wall. Moonlight filtered into the room, turning everything in it a paler shade of the deep blue-green of the waves out here. The Sea of Lament was aptly named, but even it could be beautiful at times.
Domino was sprawled facedown on the king-sized bed, asleep. A half-smile curved his jaw, and Meche wondered what he was dreaming about. He looked almost…tolerable like this.
Her silk nightdress rustled softly against her bones as she came closer. "Domino," she whispered. "Domino? Are you awake?"
Of course he hadn't been, but at the sound of her voice, his eye sockets "opened." He didn't look overjoyed to see her. "Ah, what the hell, Mercedes, it's three in the morning. Did this piece of junk hit an iceberg or something?"
"No. I just—" She was struggling to put words to it, and she couldn't quite get there. What the hell was she even doing here? "—felt lonely, I guess," she finished limply.
"Oh, for crying out loud, kid," Domino snapped. "Look, I'm flattered. But if that was what you wanted, you should've piped up two hours ago. Maybe then we could've worked something out. But now I'm tired, and I've got a lot of work to do tomorrow, and I'm just not in the mood to give you a glass of warm milk and tuck you in, all right?"
"I wasn't—" She tried again. "I didn't—"
His eye sockets shut. He hadn't even looked at her.
She wanted to hit him again, maybe put a matching crack on the other side of his jaw, but she didn't. Instead, she got up and moved slowly back to her own room, too defeated even to slam the door behind her. Months and months of this voyage left to go, and after that…after that…?
Nobody was coming. Manny wasn't suddenly going to appear, the other passengers weren't going to pick up on her coded pleas and smuggle her to safety, and Domino was never going to be the man in her lies. Whatever was going to happen next, she was going to be there for it, and there wasn't a damn thing she or anyone else could do about it. She sank back onto the bed and turned her face to the wall.
Meche thought the sun might be rising by the time she finally collapsed into sleep, but it didn't really matter to her. She couldn't have seen it anyway.