Obsidian nodded his head as Hemitate’s voice came through the earbud. Normally, Sulphur, who sat at the next booth, wore it, to keep in touch with the bar. Today, it was Hemitate and Felicity, a young meta with the ability to harmonize to any frequency, manning the bar. They were legitimately employed by the bar, which was also a legitimate business. Just because Obsidian conducted some less-than-legal conversations at the very back booth, the one with the black and red tablecloth and the black seats, didn’t make the business any less real.
He looked down at the laptop screen in front of him, tapping through the camera feed until he landed on the newly positioned camera. He watched as the purple haired girl, who they had IDed as Hazel Beauvais, as she set up shop. Notebooks, a laptop with a wireless mouse, and colored pens all filled the table. He hummed and leaned back in his seat, his brain itching as he watched her.
She had been coming almost every single day for the last few weeks, usually with a young albino man, ever since they had fully opened. She always sat at the same table every day, one down, in the booth just past Sulphur. It was suspicious, but not unusual. Just suspicious enough that Obsidian was curious.
She had entered the building, and from his seat at his booth, he had seen her come in. He had watched her subtly, his eyes flicking up, but making no other movements. He had watched her walk to her usual seat and noticed that despite the obvious positioning of the new camera, she didn’t even look at it. He found that even more suspicious. All of his other regulars had asked about it already, and yet, this girl who was here almost every day, failed to even look up and notice it.
He picked up the small microphone and clipped it to the inside of his coat’s collar, making sure it wasn’t visible. He stood, taking the earpiece out and handing it back to Sulphur as he passed him. He straightened out his wool coat over his turtleneck and slacks before sliding into the booth, directly across from the young woman. He looked over her arrangement of work and tilted his head to the side.
He looked back up at her, taking in her colorful look. Purple hair, green eyes, and colorful clothing as though she wanted people to notice her. As if she wanted to hide in plain sight. With a polite smile on his face, Obsidian introduced himself. “Hello, Hazel. I’m Ethan. Do you have a moment to talk?”
Hazel and Isaiah had long since figured out that there was something going on at the Diamond, almost since the moment Hazel started using the space for study or work they had begun to notice patterns, overhear stuff. Hazel had gone into research, names had appeared in research or overheard from the members themselves. Slate, Obsidian, and others. Since then, instead of coming in normally, Isaiah would enter invisible alongside Hazel. She would look through and listen through the electronics in range, Isaiah would snoop around invisible among the first floor. They hadn't found out much, other than the fact that this place was probably a front for a metahuman mafia.
So Isaiah had entered today invisible and taken a position leaning against the booth, opposite from where Hazel sat. The last few weeks, he had gotten a good look at everywhere he wasn't supposed to be on the first floor. They had planned for him to check out the second floor eventually, but Isaiah hadn't been willing to leave Hazel unguarded in this place for any amount of time. So he had resigned himself to watching the bar, particularly, the one everyone called Obsidian, or boss, or sometimes Ethan. He was, by their estimations, the head of the whole operation. They had thought, or hoped, that their presence hadn't been noticed.
That was proven wrong when Obsidian got up and walked right over, sat down, and directly approached Hazel. He sat down, and introduced himself as Ethan. Isisah didn't move, he didn't make a sound, but he was tense as all hell. This was bad, this was very, very bad. A mob boss was talking to his girlfri- his partner. He watched him like a hawk, ready to move at the slightest indication of a threat
The booth at the back right from the front doors didn’t have a camera trained on it. Nor did the booth immediately behind it. Hazel’s booth usually got clipped at a corner by the camera at the front right of the bar, but today she could see herself clearly. New camera, center of the room, directed right at her. She didn’t even give it a second glance as she sat down at her usual table and started unpacking her backpack, humming idly to the Vanity Project, which meshed weirdly with the bar’s choice of music. Today was “Intro” by The XX.
In the span of a minute, three notebooks full of shorthand, her pencil bag of artistic pens, her sticker-laden laptop and light blue mouse (and pink mousepad, complete with wrist rest), a handful of half-edited printed documents (old essays and almost finished articles), and her glittery mint-green cell phone were all on the table. The phone itself was off, to avoid distractions. And because Isaiah was already right here, even if nobody could see him.
While the booths behind her were invisible as her boyf- her partner, to the cameras, and while those booths were hidden from anyone staring, Hazel knew what happened back there. She had to assume the mic back there had to be for some form of blackmail or security purpose; the bluetooth earbud right behind her, only for security. That’s what most of the chatter seemed to be.
The chatter also gave her enough info to pay attention to what it said. That was why she kept coming back. Even after she was carded repeatedly to make sure she wasn’t an unsupervised minor in a bar, ordering her grenadine Italian cream soda every day to work through the day’s work, to make her little shorthand notes, and to hear out what this man had to say. The cream soda alone would’ve been worth it, honestly. The rest was just her bad habit of involving herself in problems that didn’t need to be problems.
This was the first time he approached her. She heard the comms, but didn’t respond. Her eyes unfocused as she watched through the new camera to see him stop beside her table– except, he didn’t stop. She was glad Isaiah was next to her when he slid into the booth across from her like he owned it.
Which, despite the name he used, he did.
Ethan. That was an uncommon name for this man. His employees – except the blond man behind her – were uncomfortable when they used it; it was an obvious alias. She thought he’d introduce himself as James Fielding, since everyone called him boss. Or Obsidian, if he was planning anything shy of a genuinely friendly chat. What with the new camera, Hazel had half-expected that. Instead, she got “Ethan,” and her first up close and personal look at the man who rumor had it could kill her with a single touch.
His hair was the orange side of red, with loose, big curls; clearly well maintained. His eyes were a startling yellow, not unpleasant, but certainly unusual, behind square glasses. He looked young, but tired; could’ve been in any of her college courses. Very pretty features. Irish, given that and the hair. Scottish features tended to be a little stronger. A pair of silver piercings in each ear, and one in his left brow, meant that despite the tasteful business of the double-breasted wool coat, slacks, and black turtleneck, he still had his own individual style.
She put on her best apologetic smile for him, warm red lips curving, brow furrowing just a touch over her moss-green eyes.
“Sure! Absolutely. Sorry about the mess!” She had a disarming laugh, and she used it liberally. “You know how sometimes the chaos outside helps the chaos upstairs make sense? Sorry again. Here, just let me…”
She closed her laptop, clicked something on her headphones, and reached across the table to pick up the notebook and half-written essay draft from right in front of Ethan and start scooping up pens. It looked like she was pausing her music, though she didn’t need to.
No. She was muting her microphone, so she didn’t hear him in stereo. She already knew he was bugged, and she had no doubt it was recording. She could still hear the speaker it was transmitting to. She didn’t move to remove the headphones. Instead, when her hands were empty and the table in front of Obsidian was clear, she pushed the hair over her left shoulder, giving just a moment’s glimpse of the simplified eye under her ear. Then she leaned forward on arms folded over the table, weaving her body together to tie up her hands and give him her full attention with just the right touch of intensity.
Then, her smile faded just a little, her round eyes betraying just enough of her worry.
Obsidian murmured a reassurance as she cleaned up the table. Honestly, that wasn’t needed, but he made no move to stop her. If this went well, then they wouldn’t have to be there for too long. He’d be able to move back to his table and leave the young thing alone. But as she moved, as she cleaned up the table, he caught a few things. The first, and most obvious, thing was that her headphones stayed on. His eyes stayed on the green device for a moment before flicking very quickly over her.
He caught the flash of the tattoo on her neck. It wasn’t big, nor as obvious and loud as the tattoos that decorated his arms and back. It was a simple eye, a flower in its iris, and it was just below and behind her ear. He tucked that away for later. It might have been entirely useless, but now he knew it was there. Obsidian was nothing if not meticulous and detail-oriented.
The third thing he noticed was that she was… off. He wasn’t sure what it was. She wasn’t being disingenuous, but something about her behavior, about those slightly wide eyes, and the not entirely there smile, rang of something that he couldn’t quite place. He was sure it would come to him the longer they spoke. Surely.
He kept the polite smile and shook his head. “Nothing, to my knowledge. Tell me, you’ve been in here almost every day without fail since the week we opened. Why?”
He watched her closely, but he didn’t know why she was here, which meant that he watched everyone closely. That was good to know, and easy to ignore. She let herself relax at his reassurance. Relax enough to laugh lightly and quirk an eyebrow. “Given you know that, I might ask you the same question.”
She might’ve pushed it further, actually – an accusation of flirting or at least interest usually served to soften the blow of Oh, so you’ve been watching me? Even if she didn’t know who he was or why he was here already, Hazel would’ve refrained. His appearance, his face, the expressions and the few sentences he’d offered her already; the tilt of his speech and the way he interspersed it with hand gestures that showed hints of black ink on his pale wrists under the coat sleeve. Hazel could tell.
Obsidian was gay. She’d know the signs anywhere. She’d definitely been in the music biz long enough.
That note aside, she knew her reply would make a good deflection. She wasn’t going to push her luck, though. Instead, she gestured with her right hand to the main body of the room, her eyes and face following the motion without ever acknowledging the new camera. Also not ignoring it, not deliberately avoiding it. There was an in-between, one her unique awareness allowed her to master.
“I just really like the vibes here. There’s a couple spots out on campus that’re close but – I’ve always preferred public spaces for homework. Almost keeps me responsible.”
She folded her arm back into her casual pretzel posture, and grinned, showing off big, white, straight teeth that only helped her soft, too-young face, even if she’d never needed braces.
“Plus! The big guy behind the counter” – Hematite – “makes the best Italian cream sodas. They’re kinda meh at my other usual spots.”
Her smile both faded a little, and quirked up at the corner. She gave him a more obvious once-over, the type that most people needed to get information from other people’s appearances. “I guess I can retract my earlier question. You look like a regular to this kinda place. Let me guess – Pitt U, right up the road… business major. Am I close?”
Obsidian’s smile was slow to start but spread wide by the time Hazel had finished speaking. She was being very casual. A little too casual. And she was playing it far too stupid for someone who had been there every day for several weeks. He sighed softly and hmmed. Then, he knocked his knuckles on the top of the table, rapping them several times before he said, in a light tone, “Hazel. Listen.”
He leaned in toward her, the smile on his face never leaving as he folded his arms on the table and leaned on them, his hands folded in together. Despite that, there was something sharp in his eyes. Something that said he wasn’t taking her answers.
“I know you aren’t stupid. A girl like you, coming here almost every day for several weeks, looking around the way you do and pay attention enough, well. You know who I am. You know I own this bar. You know I always sit in that back booth just past my associate in the next booth over. Stop pretending you don’t know that. Alright?”
His smile, although never changing, became sharper. An edge to it, to his eyes, to the tilt of his head, that all spoke to Obsidian’s current state of being. He was clearly and empathetically not pleased by Hazel’s performance, or at least, what he thought was a performance. There was always the off chance this was just a normal patron that he was harassing, but something had seemed off about her by the second time she had shown.
Sure, the bar was generally quiet and his patrons were well-behaved. They served more than just alcohol, and there was plenty of space at the booths for a girl like Hazel to spread out. But that didn’t matter. No one, not any of his patrons, was around so often. She was an anomaly, and in Obsidian’s understanding, that usually meant trouble. Trouble, or an opportunity.
Hazel’s smile faded just a touch as he called her out. Dang. He had been watching her. That wasn’t so much a miscalculation on her part as a new piece of information to learn from. The idea that he knew what she could do crossed her mind, but she wrote that off right away. She didn’t have visibly obvious powers, and her quirks didn’t reveal anything about her being a meta. Both distractible and attentive, a little odd when it came to her use of headphones and regular visits, but suspicious and human.
So, he didn’t know. Why was he smiling at her like that, then? It was the same as when Kosuke went a little too quiet, or Hazel herself became a little too friendly. She wasn’t making him uncomfortable. She was pretty sure that wasn’t possible, given their positions. But there was something sharp in his eyes and his smile that made her heartbeat go up and her head spin just a little.
Her eyes came slightly out of focus. She clicked into the feed of the camera on them, watching both of them. She took a slow, deep breath, and watched herself do so in a moment of forced dissociation.
It was less than a second before her attention was fully on Obsidian again from her own eyes. As he folded his arms on the table, almost to reflect her, Hazel unfolded her own arms. With her elbows still on the table, she placed one hand over the other, and her chin on the back of both. She had a decision to make, and she needed her head to be clear to make it.
Doubling down on the act was flat out stupid. It worked sometimes on teachers and strangers, people who could be convinced she was just a ditzy teenager, but Obsidian didn’t fall into that category anymore. The jig was up on that end, and pushing it would be very, very bad. But she couldn’t fold, either. That was even stupider. He didn’t know what she knew. That was what made her interesting, and a potential threat, not a definite one. He didn’t know what he was looking at, and she wouldn’t give him that information for free.
Meet him halfway, then. Keep some information, but share enough not to look suspicious. Stay polite, respectful. But don’t take crap.
“Alright, James,” she said, quietly, her eyes focused on him, big, round, and unmoved by his almost threats. She didn’t lose the slightly faded smile. He could kill her with a touch, but he wasn’t going to, any more than a human would pull a gun on her in an open bar. “If you knew I knew that, why the alias?”
Trouble. The answer was trouble. He looked her over and sighed. She knew that name, which meant she had looked into the owner of the bar, which meant she was there for some reason she didn’t want to admit to. He bit the inside of his cheek as he smiled, his teeth hidden. How could he play this without revealing anything? That was the question. But just before he responded, he looked up at her eyes and noticed how unfocused they were. Almost like she wasn’t there. Then, they were back on him, sharp as ever.
“Ethan is my middle name. Not public knowledge, and I prefer to go by it when I’m not looking to be recognized. I say my name is James Fielding and people know who that is. My company isn’t small, after all. But I say my name is Ethan Fielding, and no one bats an eye. Tell me why you’ve looked into me. To know my name isn’t Ethan, you would have to know what my name is and also have seen a photo of me. I want to know what the hell you’re doing here.”
He leaned back and clasped his hands in front of him on the table. It was an easy assumption and a normal train of thought. He knew he was sounding suspicious, but he also knew she was being suspicious. Maybe she would be so nervous by the accusations that she wouldn’t notice how suspicious he was being.
She lifted a finger, her chin now resting on the back of only one hand. “Counterpoint, you just told me you’re the bar’s owner. If I knew the bar’s owner was named James Fielding, I wouldn’t need a photo of you.”
It was pedantic, but important. Just that small degree of control kept her breath from getting tighter. Focusing on that let her sift through the rest of what he’d said. James Ethan Fielding was a name that’d go in her shorthand notes later for verification. Just to be sure. But Obsidian wouldn’t like it if she reached for one of her notebooks or a pen right now, so she wasn’t going to push her luck with more than words.
She needed an excuse, and she needed one fast. She huffed a little and rested her arms back at the table.
“Fine. It’s a weird habit I’ve got. I’m going into investigative journalism, and one of my classes made me do it for an assignment and I never stopped. If I go somewhere more than twice, I look into it. I did the same thing at VULTURE Records, up in the Strip. Did you know the owner there doesn’t have a legal last name? I do.”
Strategic pause. The tone she’d used had started to grow into someone rambling, and she picked that moment to relax her face a little and tuck her hair back again. Go through the motions. Listen to what was around her. She didn’t click into the camera again – she couldn’t risk looking too distracted.
It would’ve been stupid to admit she was going into investigation, except she was doing something even more suspicious, and heck, he was being suspicious, too. They were playing a game of social chess, and while Hazel wasn’t an expert by any but the most generous standards, she could hold her own until the endgame. She was prepared for a negative reaction to that, so her anxiety was building but wouldn’t reach the same peak as before. At least it wouldn’t show in her voice as she picked up again.
“Look, I really do just like it here. Someone in my class was talking about it, I checked it out, one thing led to another, I’m here. If you just want me to go, I can go. I’m sorry for any trouble I’ve caused.”
Except she hadn’t caused any yet, which was the catch. No matter how apologetic she looked, they’d both know that. He could save himself a lot of future trouble by just saying the word, but couldn’t do it without looking like a prick who’d judged her at a glance. Really, it was a lose-lose situation unless he took the time to weasel a confession out of her. Not that she had anything to confess, but if she did, that’d be what it took for Obsidian to actually get a victory out of this.
“Do you feel like you’ve done something wrong, Hazel?” Obsidian smiled politely. He kept his hands clasped on the table, his eyes unwavering. She was giving him good answers, real-sounding answers, that would leave him looking bad if he kicked her out. Already, people were looking in their direction, or trying not to. That was why he kept his voice soft while he talked to her. There was no sense in blowing this out of proportion.
“If you feel like you’ve done something wrong, something that would have caused trouble, please, go ahead and share, and we can decide from there if you’ve caused… trouble.”
It wasn’t necessarily a trap. Not unless she let it become one. Then, he would know that she felt like she was caught. She would have no reason to be nervous or to give him anything other than a confused look unless she was hiding something. But even then, she could still be hiding something, and just be very good at lying. At acting. Acting.
Acting felt like a more accurate word for what he was doing than lying did. With lying you simply told a lie, one spoken from your lips and nothing more. Acting, however, was inherently lying, and doing so with one’s whole body until believable. Hazel was acting. What for, he wasn’t sure. But he wanted to find out.
Hazel’s smile flickered back to life as James tried to back her into a corner. Relieved, both genuinely so and to try to hide the flicker of mischief that came with knowing she hadn’t been caught doing – well, nothing, but potentially doing something. If she had been doing something, he was proving he wouldn’t really be able to do anything about it. Not without proof.
“No, I… I mean I did for a second, that’s why I asked. I guess I kinda assumed since you sat down here I’d done something wrong. It’s silly, now that I’m thinking about it.”
Her green eyes were bright, though, as she watched him, his reactions and responses. This was progress. More progress than she’d really made in the last week or two. While she might not be able to actively write her notes down, her mile-a-minute brain was picking up the different traits in the way he was handling it. And, as a bonus, a bit of background chatter.
[Soft tone, public space. Intense eyes but careful not to be too intense. Could also be color. Comms: client incoming [Hematite]. Distract [Sulphur]].
Her eyes unfocused for just a second, trying to pick out the individual in question, just for her notes – looking for the person Hematite was about to engage with. A quick skim of the camera, and then her eyes would be back on Obsidian like nothing had happened at all.
Her eyes were unfocused again. He caught her doing it that time. It was strange, the timing. Almost exactly when his next appointment had walked in, had glanced at him before walking right up to Hematite. Blue-grey eyes, brown hair, a scruffy face, and a slightly thicker build. Tony Malcolm, Stonewall business. He’d be patient and not cause a scene while waiting for him. And as he had been instructed to do, Hematite gestured to Sulphur as the tall man approached the counter. Sulphur led the man back to Obsidian’s private booth.
Obsidian paid it no mind. Instead, he watched as Hazel’s eyes unfocused and then returned to him. That was interesting. That was very interesting. That seemed too well-timed to be a coincidence. Something was definitely up with her. He tilted his head to the side and smiled, his eyes closing in a friendly way. But when his eyes reopened, there was a sharpness to them despite the mockery of friendliness on his face.
“You’re right. That is silly. I just came to have a friendly chat. I see you almost every day, so it’s only reasonable I would be interested in why someone under the drinking age likes to hang out in my bar. Don’t you think so? Now then, you haven’t done anything wrong, and you’re not causing any trouble. I’m not going to kick you out. I just wanted some answers, and you’ve given them to me.”
Something about his tone, about his eyes, said he’d gathered more answers than just the verbal ones she’d given him. He rapped his knuckles on the table a few times and then gave that friendly, eyes-closed smile again. The ring in his eyebrow glinted as he did so, the expression making it catch the light. He brushed his hair back with his fingers, pushing it off his face.
“Now then, unless I can do something for you, I do believe I have a guest I need to speak to.”