by Birgit Staebler
The annual winter dance of the Foundation was one of the many events
of the year in society circles. Whoever had rank and name came to shake
hands, donate money, meet others, chat and generally overindulge in champagne
and expensive food from an exquisite buffet. Jennifer Knight moved through
the people, smiling brilliantly at the rich and famous, chatted with important
figures of the political world, and cast an aura of self-importance around
her that made Michael Knight choke. He was trying to keep out of the midst
of it all, leaning against an old marble pillar and sipping his drink.
He kept watching Jennifer like a fish would a shark, and he felt terribly
uneasy in these ancient halls. Not long ago, it had been sufferable to
come to these events, but ever since the incident a year back with the
Tarasine experiment, it was a horror he'd rather not go through.
But he had to. Kitt and he were the main attraction; mainly Kitt, though. Much to his partner's annoyance, who could do without the cooing and people talking to him like they would to a toy. Few had a real understanding of what it meant to have an artificial intelligence running the expensive exterior shell, the car.
Bonnie joined him, balancing a plate of food. "Having fun?" she teased.
"Loads," he muttered and emptied his glass.
He snatched a small meatball off Bonnie's plate. She gave him a mock glare. Michael grinned and then went back to watching people.
"According to Kitt, Karr pulled up about an hour ago."
Bonnie gave him a look of surprise and slight disbelief. It was well-known that Nick hated these events even more than Michael and he wasn't obligated to make an appearance, unlike Michael. He worked freelance and the Foundation wouldn't even confess to knowing he existed, let alone worked Foundation cases. That he had popped up just like that was a surprise.
An elbow in his ribs jarred Michael out of his thoughts. "That's Alex!" Bonnie whispered, staring.
He followed her gaze and blinked. Yes, that was Alex Christopher, Nick's supposed girl-friend. Supposed only because Nick had never confirmed it, but the bond between those two was more than just an occasional date. He loved her, despite what he tried to tell everyone, and they had been together since before Michael's implant had activated. Michael had met Alex only recently and she was a nice person to talk to and so completely different from Nick. It amazed him that those two were a couple.
Alex was dressed in a simple but stunning black dress and wore next to no jewelry. She was talking to a man Michael faintly remembered as someone associated with the Foundation through one company or another. He searched for Nick but found no trace of him.
//He's here, Michael. Karr won't tell me where, but he's here//
He sighed. A game of 'Spot the Mystery Guest'.
Alex Christopher was having a good time, though she rarely went to such
official dances. She usually felt more at home at small events with casual
clothing, not such high society events with expensive dress-ups. When Nick
had asked, she had been surprised but happy to come along. After rummaging
through her wardrobe, she had decided to ask a friend and her friend had
given her this simple, black dress. It suited her needs, it looked good
and there wasn't a frilly, lacy addition on it.
Nick had driven her to the mansion, then had told her he would join her later. Alex smiled to herself. That was Nick. She didn't take offence and she had had an entertaining time so far. She knew barely anyone here, aside from Michael and Bonnie who she hadn't found yet, but that didn't stop her from making small talk. Her current conversation partner was an elderly woman in a blue dress. Her hair was piled on her head and she was currently concentrating on reducing the food she had piled on her plate. It was interesting to watch her eat. Alex would have given up after one third of the amount of pastries, salad, appetizers and dessert. But Lady Eliza Perkins seemed to have saved up stomach space for tonight.
Alex shot the older woman a questioning look. "Excuse me?"
Lady Eliza looked past her and shook her head. "That girl gives the name Knight a terrible reputation."
Alex followed her gaze and saw a dark blonde woman in a stunning red dress that must have cost a fortune. She was wearing expensive jewelry that must have cost more than most people earned in a year. Jennifer Knight. She knew about the woman, mostly through Nick and Karr. She knew what she had done to Kitt, what she had tried to do, and she had felt nothing but contempt back then. She was past that point today, but Jennifer Knight was no one who held her respect in any way. She had tried to kill a sentient being; it was attempted murder in her eyes.
Alex had been introduced into the world of AIs the day she had met Karr. She had been surprised, amazed and slightly scared at first. Not because it was Karr she had met; because of the sheer possibilities. Both AIs were people to her and she treated them that way. That someone could see Kitt as property, as an object, was beyond her. Everyone who had ever met the warm, friendly persona inside the TransAm shell had to realize he was so much more. Karr could fool you, but Kitt wasn't that cold on the outside. He felt, he showed his feelings, and he was his own person.
"Ego-centric, power-hungry, no business sense. Inherited it all and good old Wilton would turn in his grave if doesn't do so already," Lady Eliza went on, gesturing with a chicken wing and pulling Alex back to the conversation. "Thinks she is the center of the world, everything revolves around her. Like a princess, but with as much royal blood as a glass of water. Wants to be treated like the high and mighty, but has manners to embarrass a rock!" Another wave. "Come more after her mother than anyone. Wilton should never have married that wanna-be. And she nearly killed poor little Kitt'n."
Alex tried not to laugh out loud. Kitt'n? Lady Eliza turned to her, smiling brightly.
"Have you ever met him?"
"Yes, several times."
"He is a beauty, a real gem. True personality, not like these stiffs around us." Disdain swung in her voice. "Mind you, if I were younger, I'd be chasing that driver of his across the room tonight."
Alex had to bite her lower lip. Lady Eliza had to be in her seventies, was about a head and a half smaller than Alex, and she was as far from the definition of little old lady as Alex could possibly think. In her younger days, she must have been a beauty. She still had delicate features, and the bright blue eyes stood in complete contrast to her white hair. She was so normal, Alex felt relaxed around her. If not for the dress and environment, Lady Eliza could be Nanny Perkins in a small town at the local annual dance, wolfing down food and critiquing the other guests. Alex had learned more about the high and mighty, mostly concerning her dirty little secrets and habits, from Lady Eliza than from any gossip page.
"Now there's a sight for sore eyes," the little old woman went on. "Haven't seen him here before."
Alex smiled as she discovered the object of Lady Eliza's attention. Nicholas MacKenzie had made a silent entrance from the terrace, keeping himself out of the center of attention and playing with a glass of orange juice.
"Hope he's not one of Jennifer's playboys. Such a dreadful girl," the old woman muttered and chewed on a pastry. "Boy doesn't look it though. Too intelligent. Nicely built, too. Not one of those body-builder beach boys either. Wouldn't have minded him at all when I was young. Not at all."
Alex had to quickly drink some of her water to keep from hiccupping with laughter.
"Ah, to be your age again, my dear," Lady Eliza sighed. "Are you married?"
"In a relationship?"
She smiled. "Yes."
"Go and get him to marry you. Had to hit mine over the head to get him to propose. Shy as a kitten, my Henry was."
Alex's smile widened. "He's not the marrying kind."
Lady Eliza gave her a squint. "That's what they all say. Just too scared of it. Shy and scared."
She didn't comment. Marriage had never been a discussion point in their relationship and in a way, they were kind of married, just not officially. No ring, no document. Alex found she didn't miss it. She had what she needed.
Jennifer swept toward them and Lady Eliza scowled. "Excuse me, but there is a dessert buffet that needs my evaluation." And she disappeared.
Alex stayed behind, calmly sipping her drink. Jennifer came her way, smiling brightly.
"I think we haven't met yet. Jennifer Knight," she introduced herself.
"Dr. Alexandra Christopher," Alex returned the honor, smoothly slipping in her degree. She rarely introduced herself like that, but to Jennifer, she did.
Jennifer's reaction was immediate. She gave Alex her full attention, apparently impressed by a simple title.
"It appears to be your first time at one of our events?"
"Yes, it is, Ms. Knight. I haven't had the chance to partake before," Alex answered smoothly.
"I assume work always interfered?"
"It's very taxing sometimes."
Jennifer smiled the empty smile of someone who pretended to know all about taxing.
"May I ask about your profession?"
"I work for a government-funded agency up North," Alex replied, keeping a friendly facade. "Mostly evaluation and long office hours, but very rewarding. You get your own car and flights to wherever you are needed, so that is compensation for it."
"I understand." Jennifer gracefully exchanged her empty glass for a full one from a waiter's tray. "Are you here with someone?"
"Yes, but he hasn't arrived yet."
"Would you like me to show you around the mansion, Dr. Christopher?"
"That would be very nice, Ms. Knight."
Michael admired Alex for her ability to stand this crowd, make small-talk,
and remain polite. He had been to countless receptions, fundraisers and
balls, and he always fled when the first opportunity arose. This was the
first one after the incident with Jennifer and he wouldn't run. Instead,
he tried to keep close to Bonnie, greeted some well-known people from past
events, and kept his link with Kitt open. His partner was taking this better
than expected, but he also had two stabilizing, balancing minds: Michael's
and his older brother. Karr wasn't very far, either in mind or physically,
and Michael was grateful for Nick's presence.
"There you are, my boy!"
Michael felt his first real smile of the evening blossom as he saw Lady Eliza Perkins approach. The little woman was a ray of sunshine and good humor, and the only straight-forward lady he had ever met who could tell off anyone with well-placed, battering ram-like words only someone who had grown up in the toughest neighborhood should know. She knew everything about everyone and she wasn't shy about giving them a piece of her mind that included some nicely worded threats to shut up or she came down on them like a ton of bricks. Michael got on with her splendidly. Especially since Lady Eliza's opinion of Jennifer Knight ranged around the level as Michael's.
"No use hiding," she admonished. "Dashing young man like you shouldn't anyway."
He laughed. "I'm not hiding, Lady Eliza."
"Poppycock. You are hiding, Mike, I can see it. We both know this is as boring as always. You at least have brought along your lady." She smiled at Bonnie, who was talking to someone or other. "And I've told you numerous times before, the name is Liz. The whole Lady Eliza whatchamaycallit is for the others; not for friends."
Michael chuckled. The older woman was coming from a background not much unlike his own. She hadn't been born into these circles; she had married Sir Henry Walter Bartholomew Perkins III. She had learned how to wade through the daily swamp of deception and politics, and she had been the one to meet Wilton Knight and introduce her husband to him. She had an incredible mind for business, facts and figures, and she seemed to remember everything. The first time Michael had met her, he had been impressed and awed. He still was, but on a more personal basis.
"So, how's your wonderful partner?"
"Kitt? He's fine."
Lady Eliza gave him a narrow-eyed look. "I know what happened, Michael," she then said, voice soft. "John couldn't hide it from me and old Percy's a very close friend. So, how is he?"
Michael sighed and gazed around the room, then his eyes came to rest on the elderly woman once more. "He's fine, considering the circumstances. I'm not the only one who'd rather not be here, and I'm the one who has to wear the suit," he joked weakly.
She nodded as if to say 'that's better'. "Understandable. Tell the dear that I wish him the best and I'm happy you two finally cut your ties here. He's not property, Kitt'n's a person just like any of us. Some company excepted."
Michael gaped at her, then smiled. "Thank you, Liz."
She shrugged. "Some of those out there are too dense anyway. Let me give you one advise: ignore them. I have done for most my life. Serves you best. No ulcers, no trouble. You did the right thing. Kitt'n's too precious to lose to anyone or anything. Especially to her." She gave him another warm smile. "And now you have to excuse me, I have a few hands to shake and feet to step on."
//She's the most amazing woman// Kitt said softly as Michael watched her aim directly for Kevin Rathner, CEO of one of the companies working closely with the Foundation.
//She is... Kitt'n//
Kitt chuckled. Lady Eliza was the only one who called him that, had called him Kitt'n since they had first met.
//So, how are you?//
//Wishing I would be far away from here// Kitt answered honestly.
Michael hugged him tightly. //Not much longer//
//I'll be okay, Michael. I have good company//
He laughed softly. Karr probably hated this even more than Kitt, though for different reasons.
In the parking lot, Kitt enjoyed the absence of throngs of guests coming
by and crooning over him. As was always when it came to these events, it
had been tiresome and rather annoying. Just like Michael didn't look forward
to wearing his 'monkey suit', Kitt didn't look forward to being treated
like a child or worse, an expensive computer. Now that the buffet raid
was under full steam and the music had started, the guests had drifted
back into the mansion. An occasional stroller passed by, but no one wanted
him to talk or was giddily explaining to his wife how extraordinary he
Karr sat next to him in the parking lot and had closed the considerable distance now that everyone was gone. Through the link he had been close all the time.
_I'm fine, Kitt replied, regarding his brother curiously.
Karr held no fond memories of the mansion and the Foundation. This was where he had been born and where he had been deactivated. Those emotions were clearly visible, as well as palpable, through the private bond between the two AIs. The unease in Karr's presence was only overridden by his protective feelings towards Kitt. He would stay here as long as it took. The few guests who had been here and knew of Karr, had kept their distance. All of them had been Board members.
Karr gave him an annoyed glare. _I can manage, Kitt.
Of course he could. Tough as a brick and never inclined to let his emotions show if he could help it. Kitt smiled fondly. He knew Karr; he knew what made him tick now. The fear and unease from years before had been transformed into complete acceptance and a love Kitt was hard pressed to put into words a human being could understand. They were brothers and the differences fused them together now, instead of tearing them apart. The Karr who had tried to kill him and Michael was still there, but now he understood. It had been survival back then. Now Karr had found Nick, he had accepted what he had been created to be, and he was content.
Someone approached and Kitt fixed his scanners on the person. Delight and joy coursed through him.
"Good evening, lovely."
"Good evening, Liz." The elderly woman smiled and Kitt clicked his door open. "How nice to meet you again."
"Likewise, my dear. I hope they haven't groped and cooed too much this time?" Lady Eliza sat down on the plush seats.
"It wasn't any worse than usual," Kitt confessed.
_Who is she? Karr demanded.
_Lady Elizabeth Margaret Perkins. A close friend of mine. She rarely misses a Foundation event and is most likely the only down-to-earth person in this crowd. I've known her since my birth.
Karr regarded the small woman critically, judging and categorizing the threat factor. Kitt gave his brother a mildly exasperated look.
_She is no danger, Karr.
_How do you know? he demanded.
_Call it instinct and a long-standing, warm friendship.
A snort answered him.
"So, how are you doing, Kitt?" Lady Eliza asked.
"I'm doing fine."
"Considering what has happened throughout the last year, I doubt that statement, dear."
_She knows?! Karr exclaimed.
_There is little she doesn't know, Karr.
"There have been better times," Kitt said out loud. "But everything is slowly getting back to normal."
"I wish the Board hadn't been that rigid and slow in their decisions. I'm sorry for your pain." Suddenly her gaze swiveled over to the silent black car at Kitt's side. "Hello, Karr."
Karr was speechless. Kitt sent a smile through the link. _I told you she knows a lot.
_Eliza is the best-informed person aside from maybe Devon, Michael and even Nick about Foundation matters. Don't worry.
Karr glared. _Let me worry what I want to worry about!
"He's not very talkative," Lady Eliza now remarked. "I expected nothing else. How are you two getting along?"
"Perfectly." Kitt gave his brother a smile.
"Good to hear." Music drifted down from the mansion. "Well, I won't bother you any longer, my dear. I know there are some more people to annoy."
Kitt suppressed a little chuckle. "It was nice seeing you again, Liz."
She ran a hand over the finish. "Same here, Kitt'n."
_Kitt'n? Karr almost laughed and there was an evil gleam sparking through the darkness.
"And it was nice seeing your brother. That driver of his is not too bad to look at either."
Karr sputtered something, completely caught off guard. Kitt laughed. "Liz," he admonished her.
The elderly woman came him a sweet smile. "Sometimes, I wish I were a few years younger, you know."
"Then no man would be safe from you," he teased.
She chuckled. "Who says they are now?"
Lady Eliza walked toward the mansion once more, leaving an amused Kitt and a baffled Karr behind. Kitt turned to his speechless brother.
_She's a very nice woman. The first one to acknowledge me as a person, aside from Michael, Bonnie and Devon. Her husband was head of R&D for years, but he died a few months after I went online. Eliza always visited me, we talked.... I like her a lot.
_I can tell, came the grumbled reply.
Kitt smiled again, then turned to have a peek at Michael, checking how his driver was doing. Currently, he was talking with some company head and not enjoying it much. Karr stayed close by, though silent, watching his own driver and the general area, all scanners on full. Kitt settled back, feeling incredibly safe, knowing he had friends and allies here.
The tour of the mansion had been brief and more or less a show-off of
different expensive collections. Alex remained polite, though her opinion
of the woman was simply confirmed. She was a self-important child who had
never grown up, who loved to show off, and who was full of hot air. Apparently,
Jennifer was more interested in hearing herself talk than anything else.
As they walked back into the main hall, she suddenly discovered something
that made her frown.
"I wish we had a way to get rid of people like him," she muttered.
The object of her displeasure was Nick. Who else? Alex thought, hiding her smile. Nick was chewing something or other, surveying the room. He briefly turned to look their way, his eyes brushed over Alex and then came to rest on Jennifer. The other woman stiffened and her face became a mask.
"A problem, Ms. Knight?"
Jennifer pasted another smile on her features. "A minor one. This man is a real troublemaker."
"But you invited him anyway?"
"Of course not."
"But he is here."
Jennifer rallied to come up with an explanation. "Someone has," she then managed.
Alex turned and discovered John Landes. The older man was smiling broadly at her and she gave him a smile herself. Jennifer suddenly and quite quickly disappeared.
"Thanks for saving me," she said softly.
"No trouble. How's your better half?" John asked, watching Jennifer latch herself onto the next victim.
"As well as always."
"Any trouble with Jennifer?"
"None at all, Mr. Landes. She quite plainly believes me to be someone worth of showing the sights and trying to get on her side. All I did was tell her my name, along with my degree." Alex grinned. "She is easily impressed."
John chuckled. "Sounds like her. So where is Nick?"
"Actually, he's right behind you."
Landes turned and his eyes widened briefly. "You had to sneak up on me, right?"
Nick gave him a brief, humorless smile. "I never sneak."
"Good one, Nick. Enjoying the dance?"
"As much as I can."
Landes' eyes narrowed briefly. "You came to annoy her, right?"
"I came because I have a job to do, John."
The older man was silent for a moment, then nodded. Understanding.
"And you aren't doing it unarmed, I suppose?"
Nick just gave him another smile. John grimaced. He left them and Alex accompanied Nick out to the terrace. It was nice out here and the air was rather warm for winter. She had to remind herself she was in California, not Vancouver, and that winter meant just less temperature but still sun. Some guests were lingering out here, talking, but most of them were inside.
"How are they?" Alex asked as Nick leaned against the stone parapet.
He knew exactly what she was talking about. "Kitt's tense and Michael's no better off. Karr's keeping an eye on Kitt."
She nodded. "Completely normal behavior."
Nick watched the people inside the mansion's main hall move, chat and eat. He followed the red-clad figure for a while until she disappeared out of his line of sight. Alex watched him in turn, waiting.
"There's no danger now," she said after a while. "She wouldn't do anything while friends are watching."
Nick frowned slightly. "She will try and win back the Board. She is always trying to win anyone with money and power for her cause. She is a dangerous woman, Alex."
Music drifted through the open doors. People started to dance, one couple after another, and the ball room floor was cleared of lingering people with food plates. Jennifer had apparently found a dance partner because she was smiling animatedly as he led her to the dance floor. Nick watched her like a hawk, his features unreadable. Finally turned away.
Alex placed her glass on the parapet and gave her partner slow, rather seductive smile. "Want to dance, Mr. MacKenzie?"
Nick gave her a surprised look. Alex slipped her arms around his waist, letting her hands wander briefly over his lower back.
"I hope you can dance," she said softly and stole a kiss.
Nick smiled and she repositioned her arms around his neck while his were around her waist. They moved to the slow music, mostly hidden in the shadow of the massive house, alone on the terrace.
"Enjoying yourself?" Nick asked.
"It's enjoyable, as long as I don't need to fit in," she answered honestly. "You meet a lot of interesting people, but it's not my turf. Lady Eliza thinks you are a sight for sore eyes," she added with a sly smile.
Nick grinned. "Oh?"
"Well, she was ready to make you an offer anyway."
He chuckled. "So, staked your claim?"
Alex tightened her hold on him. "Do I have to?"
He kissed her, long and slow. "What do you think?"
"Hm, I think we need to discuss this in private when we are home."
A slow smile crept over his lips and she shivered. "Definitely."
Alex rested her head against his shoulder, enjoying the rare, public display of affection as they danced.
Karr kept an eye on his driver, slightly surprised when content radiated through the link. For a brief moment, Nick was simply himself, enjoying a close moment with Alex, outside time. Karr watched him, feeling the same content spread through him.
The dance ended around midnight. Many guests had already left and the
last few were now migrating toward the parking lot. Michael had managed
to survive the evening and he felt proud of himself. Nick had stayed as
well, his silent but well-visible bodyguard and colleague. They stood next
to their cars, enjoying the now cooler night air, listening to the sounds
of the last people leaving. Alex had joined them, leaning comfortably against
Karr's side, Nick's jacket hanging around her shoulders. She was one of
the few people Karr let that close, even perch on his hood. Michael rotated
his shoulders, trying to work a slight kink out of them.
"Ready?" Nick asked.
Michael nodded. "In a moment. I'm waiting for my passenger." He grinned.
Nick raised an inquisitive eyebrow. The question was answered when a few minutes later, Lady Eliza Perkins walked toward the little group. She smiled at everyone, running an appreciative eye over Nick, then turned to Alex.
"So that's him? Mind my words, my girl. Get him now. He's a good bargain."
Nick blinked and felt Karr snicker in the back of his mind.
Alex smiled brilliantly. "I know, Lady Eliza."
She wagged a finger. "Don't let him run off. I know them, deary. You won't find anyone like him again."
Alex was only too aware of that.
Michael chuckled and Kitt opened the passenger door. "Ready?"
"I was born ready, my boy. Let's hit the road!" The elderly woman seemed to burst with energy.
He grinned and shot an amused look at Nick. Michael had agreed to drive Lady Eliza home, which was almost a regular occasion at these events. Bonnie was staying at the mansion for the night. She had an early day tomorrow because of required tests on something or other. Kitt left the mansion a minute later, and Nick and Alex were alone. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.
"Bargain, hm? I feel like you found me in a sale," Nick teased.
"Would you like me to tell her that I found you in the middle of the woods? Looking like something the cat brought in and then brought up?"
"I don't think it would actually matter to her."
"True. So it's just the three of us?" she asked.
"Looks like it."
"I can think of a few things to do....."
"If it involves breaking into buildings, dangling from a rope or stake-outs, you can forget it, MacKenzie."
Nick chuckled. "So much for fun."
Alex played with the short hair at his neck, aware of where his hands were. "I think there's some other fun we could have."
"Not on my hood!" a cold voice grumbled all of a sudden.
Both grinned and Alex ran a hand over the smooth roof. "Who said anything about the hood?" she asked sensuously.
"You are bad," Nick whispered into her ear as he opened the door.
"Then I'm in good company." Alex slid into the car.
The Stealth left FLAG property, pulling out onto the street and towards home.