At a fancy pants party…
The "Wit of Lupin" was a fake. But that did not stop the well-to-do of Paris from fawning over it and glutting themselves on canapés and champagne. The woman in blue lost count of how many times she heard some self-appointed expert on gemology proclaim the 'diamond' was unsurpassed in quality and size, but it never failed to make her smile.
As far as the public was concerned, tonight was a gala event in which a generous benefactor was selflessly donating a diamond the size of an orange to a museum from his private collection. A few articles had been published in the local papers, a number of television appearances had occurred, and invites had been issued to the "right people."
It was a beautifully cut hunk of glass, to be sure, and did a truly marvelous job of catching the light. A few of the gala attendees were looking at it as if they wanted to put it in their mouths. The fact that such "stone" existed not three months prior to this did not stop people from spinning yarns about its history. Some of them were actually quite entertaining - the woman in blue was particularly fond of one that involved pirates and acts of derring-do on the high seas.
Then again, perhaps the nature of the gala was contributing to the general air of duplicity.
The woman in blue adjusted her mask and straightened her gown. She had chosen a glittering sheath of navy blue so dark it looked black until she shifted and the light caught it just so. It clung to her every curve, her body a midnight-colored hourglass that glided to and fro, weaving in and out of the assembled upper crust. The garment had been selected with care, but perhaps not quite so much as her mask. What it would be had been a foregone conclusion, but finding just the right black cat mask had proven more challenging. Finally, she had settled on one made of leather. A bit larger than a typical domino mask, its impishly shaped upper lip, which covered the area just above her own mouth, suggested a perpetual, mischievous grin. Silver rimmed its eyes, edged its ears and a few delicately placed whorls and spirals gave the impression of whiskers and fur.
The rest of the gala was a galaxy of colors, shapes and styles. Some wore plain but very tasteful suits, gowns and masks - they seemed more concerned with clean lines and designer brands. Others were more preoccupied with flash. They were whimsical and jewel-like - nymphs, kings, seasons, stars and flowers; enough animals to fill a zoo. Still, even among all of the attendees, the woman had not yet found her target.
While she had no idea what he would be wearing, the woman in blue knew there would be no mistaking her target when he arrived. That was how it was; how he was. If he wanted to be seen, no one would be able to take their eyes off him. if he wanted to disappear, he was as good as a ghost.
She plucked a flute of champagne from a passing server and closed her eyes, turning it in her gloved hand. The chill of the drink was enough to be felt through the gloves' fabric and provided a welcome juxtaposition to the heat that flushed across her skin.
This would be dangerous. On his own, the Frenchman would be formidable, but she had the rotten luck of being in love with the bastard on top of everything else. It wasn't as if she was alone in this, however. He was, to be fair, good about not boasting of his conquests. She never heard the name of another woman uttered in her presence, but she was not so naive as to believe a man such as he would be lacking in companionship. Even knowing this, however, she felt no jealousy; it seemed so pointless. She might as well be upset for a wolf hunting or a bird flying - it was simply the man's nature.
"I can always tell when you're thinking of me, ma petite chou-fleur. It's like the tug of a pole star."
"Or an article in a newspaper."
The voice had come from over her shoulder, the words tickling the lobe of her ear. Every nerve came to life, her skin prickling from head to toe in waves as her mouth watered.
He was wearing cologne - something with sandalwood and clove in it. Not strong, but just enough to be noticeable if he stood close; something to put her at ease and invoke exoticism at the same time. Turning her head, she look to the man straightening himself and smiled beneath her mask's Cheshire grin. She couldn't help herself.
His suit was a deep, earthy crimson with impeccable lines, tailored so well it seemed less like a suit and more like his very skin. His mask, too, was not so much a separate thing as it was an extension of himself; something which made up the natural contours of his face.
He was a fox. His mask was also of leather and was obviously molded with care; it fit cleanly to his facial features and was colored a few shades brighter than his suit. It covered roughly half of his face, cheeks feathered with cunningly cut and curled leather, snout going only a bit further than the end of his own nose, ears and eye holes trimmed with gold. At present, his hair was dark and combed back neatly. The woman didn't know if she'd ever seen it in its natural color. It all did a truly stunning job of making his blue eyes stand out by contrast.
"Yes, well," he said, grinning back, "thank you so kindly for throwing the party for me, ma belle. Before we get down to why you've gone to the trouble, shall we enjoy a dance or two? It's been too long and it would be so dull and such a waste to have our business without a measure of pleasure to go with it."
"Naturally." The cat-masked woman finished her champagne and gave the flute to a passing attendant. "Cordial rim for a bitter cup."
"Ah, so bitter, ma petite?" he said softly, taking her gloved hand into his.
"More than I'd care to admit most of the time," she replied, still smiling as he led her to the dance floor.
A string quartet and piano were just beginning a waltz, and the fox-masked man led the woman into the music with ease.
"You've lost your accent," he said, a note of disappointment in his voice.
"I'm just not speaking in it at present," she said simply. "I didn't want to draw any more attention to myself."
"You couldn't help that if you tried. You're singular. There's not a man in the room that does not envy me."
"Laying it on pretty thick, aren't you Mister Fox?" she said with a chuckle.
"Ah, it's only because it's been so long, Ms. Cat." There was a meaningful pause before he continued, "Or is it Mrs. Cat?"
She shook her head. "No Mr. Cat at present. I haven't really been looking. A few gentlemen here and there, but nothing serious." After a beat she smirked. "Oh, wipe that look off your face - it's not because of you, you Narcissist."
"Then why?" The man continued to smile, a certain smug satisfaction in it he did not bother to try and hide. "I wouldn't think someone like you would have a hard time finding companionship."
"No one's seemed worth the trouble," she answered with a shrug. "I tried a few years ago, but things just never worked out. Some were jealous of the boys, others resented my independence…it just seems like no one can keep up."
"Now who's the Narcissist?"
"Just telling the truth. People have such a hard time, it seems, with having a love life that is part of a larger life. I don't want anyone to be my whole world any more than I want to be someone else's. It's too much pressure and it isn't enough for me. I've had people say I'll change my mind, but it hasn't happened after this long; I don't think it will any time soon."
"Most people don't like to share, petite. Even with a concept or idea."
"Well, an Irish Setter will sit for hours with its head in it's master's lap, staring up at them with undivided adoration. Maybe those people should invest in one."
Her partner laughed and spun her beneath his arm.
"Oh, ma belle femme sans pitié! I've missed you terribly." Drawing her close again, one hand settled on the small of her back and the other interlaced with her fingers, he smiled his knife-like smile and purred beneath his mask. "I should have followed you home."
He gave her a sheepish look from his foxish features.
"I don't know who you thought you were fooling," she sniffed, although there was affection beneath her words. "You didn't kill that milkman, did you? I never asked."
"Better that you didn't," he said without elaborating. "In any case, I needed information. In the end…I couldn't sacrifice other parts of my life for Boston and I knew you couldn't leave your life in Boston for Brittany."
Her features softened. "Is that where you ended up?"
"At first. I needed it. For many reasons, really. It helped even me out a bit after the War; reminded me of who I was and where I'd begun. Everyone was rather surprised to see me return. I can never fool anyone back home."
For a few beats they danced in silence, the woman in blue watching him before an amused smile stretched her lips. "I still don't know if that's genuine or a complete load of horse shit."
Grinning back, he shrugged. "The nature of the game, I'm afraid," the man said with an exaggerated sigh. "Really, though, I do miss your accent. Won't you say, 'Parked the car in Harvard Yard' for me?"
Arching a brow beneath her mask, the woman in blue gave him a lopsided smile, speaking out of the side of her mouth. "What ah ya? Wicked retahded?"
The waltz ended to a smattering of applause. A few of the dancers began to wander off back into the crowd and the cat-masked woman was about to follow them with her partner took a firmer grip on her hand. She gave him a quizzical look and was about to ask a question when the band began a new tune that made her heart leap and her body go cold.
"Special request I put in for," he said, opening his arms to invite her to dance.
She returned to him, closing her eyes and allowing their bodies to press against each other as they swayed and spun gracefully across the parquet.
"D'où viens-tu ? Quel est ton nom ?
Le navire est ma maison…"
"Please don't do this to me."
"La mer mon village…"
"Do what?" he murmured, not even bothering to feign innocence. It sounded less like an inquiry and more like a challenge. Pressing his cheek to hers, the leather of their masks scraped together; the cleverly cut curls of the fox's whiskers tickling her cheek and his voice buzzing warmly in the curve of her ear as he hummed along to the music.
In spite of herself, the woman felt a euphoric languor moving through her. He felt right; familiar. She felt safe with him. It wasn't the kind of white picket fence, chicken-in-every-pot, mythological American Dream variety of safety, though. It was the safety in that, even if they never knew each others' real names, they would understand the instinct behind their actions. Their natures, as duplicitous and merciless as they could be, were something that each could recognize and appreciate instead of merely tolerate. Perhaps the trappings surrounding what they did would be a mystery, but the core of who and what they were would always be something within the grasp of their comprehension.
"…Mon nom, nul ne le saura."
"Something the matter?"
His lips brushed against her earlobe with every syllable and the woman in blue drew in a quavering breath.
"This is hard enough already."
"Is it?" Briefly, he pressed his hips against her suggestively, a puckish note in his voice. He waited just long enough to feel her blush against his cheek before resuming their dance. "I suppose it must be - your heart is beating so very quickly." He closed his eyes and a tremble entered his words.
"So is yours," she hissed, straightening to look him in the eyes.
"And I would never deny it," he replied, opening his eyes to watch her. "But you? You are so beautiful and so cruel; so cold that you burn." He reached up a gloved hand and ran a fingertip along her jawline, eyelids lowering halfway over his glasz-colored eyes.
A dreamy heat originating in the pit of the woman's belly began to grow; tendrils of it creeping up through her torso and suffusing her limbs.
"Ma belle femme sans pitié."
The woman in blue watched her target, scrutinizing him through the eyes of her mask, reading between the lines around his mouth and beneath the glint of his eyes. At length she spoke, her worlds slow and edged with a cautious surety. "My God. You actually love me."
Sadness shaded his face for a split second before he cleared his throat. "You know, I've heard the most incredible story about that diamond there." He inclined his chin toward it. "Don't tell anyone, " he murmured, leaning in close, "but it's actually a fake! It's really a cleverly cut hunk of glass. Still, it's lovely for what it is. All the same, it's only a prop in a rather elaborate hoax. It's quite amusing, actually, to see so many of the city's elite come to make fools of themselves. I've heard and told some whoppers in my time, but that one about the pirates was really too much."
He pulled her close as he spoke, his voice low and dangerous; a velvet-wrapped knife. Whatever sorrow had been in him only a few seconds before was replaced by a low but intense heat, glowing like an ember under his words.
"Anyway, the whole thing was set up by a quite remarkable woman who has spent the past few months going around the world talking to a number of men with extraordinary pasts and skill sets. Shortly after visiting with them, all of these men have left their homes for some God forsaken spot out in the middle of the Badlands in the United States. So far as anyone can determine, these men have no previous meaningful associations - in fact, they have never met one another before. Their selection has been rather a mystery, although they seem to fulfill various roles which a combat unit might utilize."
Setting her teeth, the woman made a motion to pull away from her target, but he held her close and swept along with her movements to keep her from making an easy escape.
"It's also known that, historically, this land has been at the center of a dispute between the Mann Brothers of Mann Co. One might surmise, then, that the twins are looking to launch a new offensive to gain supremacy over this, and likely other, pieces of land whose ownership is something which has never been conclusively settled between them. One could conclude, then, that the woman behind this diamond hoax is recruiting talent on behalf of one, or perhaps both, of these twins. In actuality, this whole gala was orchestrated to catch the attention of a man possessed of yet another skill set that might compliment those of the others previously collected."
His eyes locked with hers, and any gentle, sea-colored affection had drained from them, leaving them hard and icy. A sardonic smile stretched beneath his mask; the romance of his vulpine disguise discarded for a more honest and feral aspect.
"It was quite successful in that respect, actually. He could not help himself, even knowing it to be a trap. And the truth of that matter was because the man could not understand why the woman was doing all of this in the first place. She had everything she could ever need to be happy - a home, a family she loved, a community she had an active role in, money and benefits from her previous employment that would easily last her for the rest of her life. What could compel her to embark on such a strange and arduous endeavor?"
The cat-masked woman's heart thundered within her and her mouth tightened into a hard line as her body seemed to go hollow.
The man in the red suit closed his eyes and let out a sigh, his features losing their ferocity as the intensity evaporated from him. When he opened his eyes again and met hers, a weary sadness bordered his words. "Why, petite? Why?"
The band began to wind down, the dancers stopping and dispersing. Squeezing his hand, the woman in blue led the man in red to a table, sat down, ordered some more champagne, and answered his question.
If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to
And if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner, take my hand
Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I'm your man.
- Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man