By: Lena (Airelle Vilka)
Author's Note: It must be the fact that I cosplay Terra at every convention I attend. That's why all these stories come into my head. Right. Nothing to do with Slade whatsoever. Right. And whatever I write about the NYPL is true! I've frequented 42nd and 5th quite often. Oh, the wondrous memories.
"It's up to you, New York, New—"
"I hate that song," muttered the cab driver, flicking off the radio a bit more viciously than he'd intended. It resulted in the accidental push of the volume button, blasting Sinatra's voice into the back of the cab.
"Sorry 'bout that," he told his passengers as the radio finally switched off. He'd turned it on, initially, to avoid the very silence he was experiencing now. Usually, his customers chattered away on their cell phones, discussed the contents of their shopping bags, or drunkenly bewailed their fortune. All that he could deal with. But this time, an eerie sort of calm had enveloped the cab, ever since he'd picked up these two tourists.
Or, at least, they looked like tourists. The man held a map under one arm, but didn't seem inclined to use it. The blonde girl next to him, however, had her face plastered to the window, and occasionally uttered exclamations of astonishment. She had no accent; neither did the man. They were both wrapped to the teeth, as expected for a New York winter; the man in a dark coat and a scarf he hadn't loosened, and the girl in a white parka, a pink hat lopsided over her blonde hair. They could have been father and daughter; but they didn't look related. Besides, in this town, you got all sorts.
"Here we go," he announced, switching his wipers to medium frequency. Snow was falling thickly across the city, covering the icy roads; and so, even cabbies did not speed to their destinations. Which helped the fare-counter, anyway.
"Twenty-six, seventy-four," he said, shifting around in his seat. Behind the glass separator, a pair of sunglasses stared at him. He couldn't see the eyes behind them, but he got the distinct impression that the man was… studying him. The effect was a bit unsettling. Okay, very unsettling.
Finally, a pair of bills were placed into his hand. Thirty dollars. For some reason, he knew that the wisest thing he'd do all day would be to give back the change. But before he could, the man said, "Keep it."
Cold air swept into the cab as the door opened, and for the first time, the driver welcomed it. The girl flashed a thankful grin in his direction, and got out first. Then, she extended a small hand and helped her companion out of the cab. As she did so, the cabbie noticed that the man held something tall and silver-tipped. A cane.
Well, that explained the sunglasses. Still, thought the driver as he pulled away from the curb, blind men shouldn't really stare like that.
Her parents had named her Aletheia, Greek for "truth." Poor things didn't know, in their blissful ignorance, that it was as clear an invitation to teasing as if they'd plastered a 'Kick Me' sign on her. However, that was all in the past. Right. In the past. And heck, it had probably contributed to her current position in life.
Not that she didn't like being a librarian. But if there were any 'truth' to be found in all these books, she damn sure wouldn't go looking for it. She knew too much, anyway. That knowledge, particularly the one that concerned obscure subjects, had gotten her into enough trouble to last several reincarnated lifetimes. It was bad enough for her personal life; most of her first dates ended as soon as greetings were exchanged.
She removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose, brushing her pen off the desk accidentally. She hated doing desk duty when her underlings called in sick. Everyone says Allie. Even my dates. New Yorkers, who can pronounce tongue-tying names. Allie this, Allie that. I swear, I'll marry the first man who can pronounce my name correctly…
A face loomed in front of her; one she couldn't see too clearly. Another lost soul in the throng, probably looking for some magazine. Aletheia began to speak even as she bent down to retrieve her pen.
"Welcome to the New York Public Library, how may I help—"
"Miss Aletheia," said the face. It was a voice she'd not heard for some time, but nothing on earth could make her forget it. A deadpan, hard voice from the depths of Tartarus.
She straightened up, replacing her glasses so fast they ended up upside down. "Ah… welcome." Okay, scratch that. I'll marry the second man who can pronounce my name correctly.
"I need some books," said her visitor.
"Unsurprising," she blurted out before realizing whom it was, exactly, she was speaking with. Behind his sunglasses, the man's eyebrows did not rise. So she was safe. Relatively. Deciding not to chance any more stupid comments, Aletheia straightened her glasses.
"I will show you to… er, your rooms."
She glanced around before vacating her place. No upper-tier workers were nearby, but a random shelver was cross-legged on the floor, engrossed in a book he was supposed to be putting away. Aletheia shook her head, recognizing the symptoms of her own obsessions. At least when she was a bit younger.
She slapped the 'Closed' sign onto her desk, and nodded for the man to follow her. This time, he wasn't alone, but accompanied by a blonde teenage girl, whose eyes were currently focused on the staggeringly high walls and the vaulted arches of the library. She was clearly amazed by the sight, and practically drooling. But as they moved away, she followed them immediately, her blue eyes now only on her companion. Perhaps Aletheia had been wrong about her attention span.
She walked in the lead, past the long shining tables filled with lamps, computers, and leftover books. The central library was enormous, but was not frequented to its full capacity; often, it was a shame to see two or three people at a table that could fit thirty. Well, at least it was less work and headache for her.
They followed her at a respectful distance, the sharp tap-tap of the man's cane on the marble mingling with the long, slapping strides of the girl. Aletheia grinned; she knew he wasn't blind, but supposed it was a necessity to conceal his identity. Besides, there were rumors he was missing an eye. And a one-eyed face was sure to be remembered.
As for the identity of the girl, she couldn't even hazard a guess. He never mentioned children before; but then again, why would he? He was only a customer of hers, albeit a special one.
In any case, they looked nothing alike. So, a girlfriend, perhaps? A lover? But wasn't she, what, seventeen? And even if his tastes fell into that category, why bring her here, with him?
She led them through corridors and huge, columned halls. Art lined some of the walls, and soon, it began to become clear that this part of the library was only for exclusive visitors. Thankfully, no one was around at this hour; the catering crew had gone to lunch. Finally, she reached the Trustees Room, and ushered them inside. Round tables filled the entire space; Aletheia knew the scheduled reception would not take place for some time. The white marble fireplace was dark; Flemish tapestries stared at them from the walnut walls. She left the lights off, and nudged the door, leaving a small crack of light to see by.
"Now then, Mr. Slade," she said, "what can I do for you?"
He seemed to be comfortable in the darkness, even with the sunglasses. And if Aletheia didn't know any better, she would have thought the girl's blue eyes were shining with flecks of gold.
"I need some books," he repeated. His voice sounded much the same as last time; a bit older, perhaps, but still menacing. He was the single library patron she knew who could make books sound menacing. "On geomancy."
"Geomancy?" Aletheia asked, her eyebrows furrowing. "As in… geokinesis?" Her dark eyes darted toward the girl, who seemed unsurprised. Okay, weirdness factor multiplying, she thought. Slade usually asked for obscure technology, or mythological lore, but…
"I'll… see what I can do," she rallied. She'd known Slade since her teenage volunteering years, and his visits to the library always taxed her knowledge. Anyway, he never joked. He didn't seem like the type.
He nodded once, and Aletheia left the room at a respectably dignified pace. But once she turned the corner and made sure she was out of sight, she began to run. Men like Slade did not like to be kept waiting.
When Aletheia returned to the Trustees Room an hour later, she found the door closed tightly. Underneath it, however, a thin slice of light illuminated the floor. Had someone discovered the uninvited guests? And more importantly, were the remains of that someone fueling the fireplace?
Balancing a pile of books on one arm, she pushed the door open. The light immediately vanished, but not before she'd registered its origin.
Slade was nowhere to be seen. But the girl was sitting at one of the cocktail tables, a book open in front of her. The light had been coming from her eyes.
Slowly, very slowly, Aletheia shut the door. She hadn't been good at logic for nothing.
"You're his student," she hazarded her best guess. "Aren't you?"
In the gloom, the girl gave a nod.
Ah. So she was right; the teenager possessed superpowers. From what she knew of Slade, Aletheia suspected that he'd wanted, for a long time, to pass on his skill to someone. An apprentice, as it were. She'd even heard ridiculous rumors that the superhero Robin, of Jump City, had once been under Slade's tutelage. Fat chance.
She switched on the lights, and dropped her books on the table. "What's your name?"
The girl brightened, apparently satisfied that Aletheia wasn't petrified of her powers. "Terra. Oh, and my… teacher… wanted you to have these." She reached into her backpack and produced several small books. In one of them, a white envelope was serving as a bookmark.
"Oh, it's about time," said Aletheia, smiling. Slade had taken these over a year ago, in this very room. Their arrangement was discreet, so that no transactions of his dealings would ever be recorded in the library's archives. The books had simply been labeled as missing, and were miraculously found a few months later. It added a nice bonus to her salary, she admitted as she stuffed the envelope into her pocket.
"My name is… Allie, by the way," she added. No need to butcher a name when it wasn't necessary.
The girl nodded. "Are you a friend of his?"
Slade having friends. That was a new one. "I'm a… business associate. Of the non-superhero type." Aletheia paused for a bit; she was never much of a conversationalist. "…So, how long have you two been together?"
Terra looked up at that comment, a slight confusion (and was that apprehension?) in her blue eyes, but then recovered. "Oh… uh… he's been training me for a few months now. He's very good at it."
"I imagine so," said Aletheia, moving the newly acquired books closer to the girl. "What did he want all these for, if I may ask?"
"Oh, those." Terra sighed in the manner of most teenagers who'd entered the library, doomed to research topics for term papers. "He's got some business in the city, so he brought me with him. He said I needed to read them, and then give him brief summaries of what I learned."
"What is he, an English professor?" asked Aletheia, which earned her a smile from Terra. "Heh… I assume you're the geomancer, then, huh?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I am."
"These books…" Aletheia leafed through the cracked pages. Some of the volumes only had a paragraph on the subject, others a page… but no book was entirely devoted to it. She'd been hard-pressed to even find them, but she knew that Slade could not be disappointed. And now, he wasn't even here to look at the results.
"They're very old," Terra remarked, edging closer to an enormous, leather-bound tome.
"That's what I mean," said Aletheia, taking a seat beside her after making sure that all the doors were locked. "Some of the information in there may be outdated, or just plain wrong."
"It doesn't matter. I need to learn as much as I can about my powers. Slade says physical training isn't enough. Besides…" Terra grinned sheepishly. "I think he already knows most of what's in here, anyway."
Aletheia nodded. It was shrewd thinking on the girl's part; perhaps she knew her master better than she seemed to. Slade probably wouldn't have taken in a powerful geomancer without knowing the full extent of what power he'd harbored. This was mostly an exercise in patience, and allowed his student to glean information from sources other than himself. Clever man, that Slade.
Anyway, the girl seemed to have no compunction about telling him everything she'd learned, whether it was new information or not. Aletheia sensed devotion in her; Terra would never think of hiding anything from her master, good or bad. From what Aletheia knew of Slade, that was probably a faulty strategy. But then again, why should she interfere? The less she dealt with Slade himself and the more with his money, the better.
Nevertheless, the intellectual in her couldn't help but probe a bit more.
"It seems like he treats you well."
To her surprise, the girl snorted. "He's the only one who does these days."
Interesting. So perhaps he'd brought her into his service through this.
"Family didn't do it for you, eh?" she risked. The teen looked up defensively, and Aletheia quickly added, "Because I know how that feels. My parents divorced, and I moved out soon after."
Terra's mental walls seemed to stop in mid-construction. "Oh, sorry to hear that. My folks died when I was thirteen, and I've been on my own ever since."
"Slade took you in?"
"Yeah. Right after…" Here, she paused for a second, and stared at the floor as if collecting words from it. "Right after I visited a few friends of mine."
Was it Aletheia's imagination, or did the word 'friends' sound bitter? "And you want to stay with him for some time?"
"Yeah. He teaches me, and I work for him," said Terra, turning an illustrated page. "It's the fairest deal I've had in a while."
Slade. Fair. Uh-huh, Aletheia thought wryly. There must be a catch. I wonder what kind of work she does for him…
"Interesting. So have you learned much?"
"Oh, plenty. More than I ever knew." The girl gave her a dazzling smile, making her wonder how someone so sweet could be connected to someone so shady. Then again, Aletheia had underestimated her already. Perhaps she was more evil than she looked.
Some time passed in silence. Aletheia watched Terra as she skimmed through the books and jotted down notes on a small black pad. She certainly didn't look very evil. Of course, there was a limit to how evil someone could look while wearing pink, but still…
"Hey, um… Allie," said Terra suddenly, jolting her out of her reverie. "How'd you meet Slade?"
"Painfully," she replied with a smile. "I ran into him."
The girl's eyes were wide. "Like in a car?"
"Heh, no. Although believe me, the world would have been a lot safer if I had. I physically walked into him in the library. It was a long time ago; I was a volunteer in one of the smaller branches in the city." Aletheia smiled again. "He looked pretty good for a blind man, but what I never forgot was the way he seemed to stare … into me… through his glasses."
Terra's lips wrinkled. "Er… he isn't really blind—"
"Oh, I know that. Just a cover. But he does stare, doesn't he?"
The girl giggled. "He can't help it. You should see it when he's got the—" She paused, biting her lip. "Um, I mean…"
"Yeah," said Aletheia. "When he's got the mask on. Then I bet it's creepy."
Terra seemed torn between wonder and hesitation. "You know a lot about him."
"Probably more than you do," Aletheia agreed. "But you'll beat me, eventually. I don't spend every day with him." And thank God for that.
More silence. And then--
"Is it true? What people say about him? That he does… bad things?"
Aletheia crossed her arms, and leaned back in her chair. So he hadn't told her much. But where had she been living before meeting him? Under a rock? Well, in her case, that possibility couldn't be ruled out…
"Let me put it this way, Terra," she said, phrasing her words carefully. She really hoped this wouldn't get back to Slade, but the girl probably wasn't that stupid. "Slade's done many things in his life. As far as I know, he's also been many people. A soldier, a mercenary, an assassin. Some of the things he's done have been terrible. I hope you understand that he is capable of great evil. As we all are."
Terra looked down; the last words, for some reason, really seemed to hit home. Perhaps her geomancy wasn't such a great gift, after all.
"But," Aletheia continued, "often, we don't know exactly where we stand in relation to people like Slade. I abhor his deeds. I do. But… on a winter night, years ago, he saved my life. He killed a man to do it. He might not have had to. But he did. And I am alive because of his actions. Point is… and maybe this is wrong… but whatever else he may be, I owe him."
Terra looked up, her fingers kneading her pink winter hat. "I do, too," she said, and it was the most sincere sentence Aletheia had heard in her entire life. "I owe him, too."
Aletheia opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a soft beeping noise. Apologizing, Terra took a silvery device from her pocket, and spoke into it. It seemed that her master's business had concluded, and he wanted her outside in two minutes.
"I better go," Terra said, rising and tugging on her parka and hat. Whatever pain that had slid past her eyes was gone. "He's serious when it comes to lateness. But I got all the info I need on my powers, so thanks!"
The girl was almost out the door when Aletheia's voice made her pause.
"Terra," she said. "Listen… I'm not sure what got you to the place you are now, but you seem like a decent kid. You might or might not see me again, so I'll give you something to think about."
The teen tilted her head in confusion, and Aletheia had the odd feeling that, indeed, she would not see her again. But she decided to speak her mind, anyway. For some reason, she didn't want the thoughts to stay with her.
"It's true that I owe Slade," she said. "But my services… the repayment I give him... is equal to my debt. Just make sure that it's the same in your case. Because if it isn't… then you're more lost than you were when he met you. Trust me on this."
Terra's eyes met her own. Then, she smiled, and nodded. Whether she believed the words was another matter.
"Thanks, Allie," she said, and disappeared into the hall.
As her footsteps faded into silence, Aletheia sighed and picked up the discarded books. At least in them, the truth was easier to find.
Author's Note 2: Yet another of my late-night Slade/Terra compositions. Although Slade didn't make much of an appearance here, I don't really think it took away anything from the story. Er… right? Well, regardless, if you want more Slade goodness (or badness, more precisely), read my other stories. Toodles! ;)