Goodbye To The Fishies


gwen_icon.gif skye_icon.gif

Scene Title Goodbye to the Fishies
Synopsis Gwen and Skye appreciate music.
Date May 4, 2019

Generic fucking work do.

Ten feet in diameter and as tall as the ceiling, the aquarium is an eye-catching centerpiece. A subtle light plan means that to stand near it and to peer through it feels a little like being at the bottom of the ocean and seeing the sunlight warp and bend and dazzle. Fish of many colours, glittering and no larger than a human hand, glide in circles, dart through the vertical bands of kelp that grow as tall as the aquarium itself.

It's a good place to go, if you find yourself disinterested in speaking to people.

Around the aquarium, people drift not so unlike the fish themselves. It might not behoove a philanthropist — and many are in attendance — to compare the wealthy elite to blank-eyed, cold-blooded creatures trapped in a tank, or anything, but sometimes comparisons have to be drawn.

There's a string quartet, filling the room with gentle music. Of them, there's a small, mousy brunette woman in possession of a violin who has her eyes closed rather than fixed on the sheet music. Although an untrained ear might have a difficult time picking out the individual instruments from classical harmony, conversation has listed to this woman's particular skill all night, when conversation deigns to acknowledge the entertainment.

Canapes on silver trays and champagne in flute glasses. It costs money to make money.

There's a figure by the aquarium, distinct. A newcomer, despite the fact that this event is well into itself, with all the speeches concluded. They are of an average height, although tall among the more feminine in the room. Long blonde hair is left in a loose, beachy mane, and their face is only a little painted, skin tone evened out, brightened in places. They dress all in white, a near space-age formal jacket, cigarette trousers, and white shoes with low heels.

They place their hand on the curved glass. Curious, if it's cold or warm.

Most of the time, Gwen is disinterested in speaking to most people.

Her work with her father's foundation was always behind the scenes, any light shone on her at his direction and finding her reluctant in its glow; this is where he excelled, and he is the reason that any of it took place at all. That a Vauquelin Foundation exists, to develop projects and amass funding and oblige its executive director to shake hands and smile for pictures. He was passionate about the work, where his daughter is passionlessly efficient because it's an affront to her ego to do something with anything less than excellence. The things he held important because he believed in doing the right thing she continues because she believes in doing things right, but it is increasingly difficult to see precisely why she is doing the things at all.

It all feels so fucking pointless. She doesn't care about these people. She doesn't give a damn in more than the abstract, yes that seems like a nice thought, about whether or not the children of the American war have funding for arts education. Obviously they should. Why does she have to do something about it. We aren't even American, she had said, and he had said: yes, my sweet, but we are human, and she'd stared at him for long enough he looked away.

In her distorted reflection in the aquarium, any one of the tall strangers behind her could be him. She stops beside someone who couldn't mostly because they couldn't, not tall enough, too blonde, too soft. No glasses. Not, her mind supplies helpfully, that he had needed those. She's becoming maudlin, she thinks, mostly for a lack of anything better to do with her time. She thought it would make her feel closer to him, to take up his work, but mostly it just makes her angrier that this is what he spent his last days on, that she was thousands of miles away when someone called to say she must come and identify his body because he wanted to stand around rooms with aquariums full of people without anything interesting to say in case little Timmy wants to draw a fucking picture.

Distantly, she sort of wants to smash the violin. She settles for saying, “I don't believe we've been introduced,” and bracing herself for more of the same.

"Because no one here knows me."

This stranger has a dream-like quality to them, and the same thing can be said about their voice, soft and serene. Just a moment, anyway, as if the ever-circling fish had hypnotised them ever so, before they turn to look aside at Gwen. Aside and down, the few scant inches of height difference between them. They smile, then, shifting to lean their white-clad shoulder against the glass to address her properly.

It's not a drastic shift in affect. Everyone here has a few going at any one time. "I'm sorry, long night. My name is Skye." They extend a hand, a hand that has been clean and manicured for the evening, nails buffed to a glossy, glassy sheen. "And I do know who you are."

Gwen's hand when she gives it over is cool and smooth, nails painted pale gold to match the jewelry that she's wearing (moonstones; not much less costly, for the quality of the setting), the loose pale gold blouse underneath her sleekly fitted suit—cream. The whole look has a little bit of the throwback to it, in contrast to Skye's one foot firmly in the future, and the cream would soften her, except for the severe black of her cat's eye and the way her hair hangs pin straight down her back, gold highlighting high cheekbones and lips wine-red instead of the peach her stylist had suggested; a few sharp edges.

“Dare I ask for what you know me?” —could be a flirt, almost, but it's equally probable that that is just sort of how she operates. And the list of things for which Gwen Baudin might be known is not all flattering, or even limited to the realm of things for which she is personally responsible. Mostly, people here know her because they're trying to work out why she has a different surname to the foundation with her father's that she now helms, but she anticipates being surprised the instant she starts taking that for granted.

"Not enough," Skye says, a shade of apology. "Not yet," …could be a shade of a flirt back.

If only because it's hard to assign any other kind of shade to it, really. When their hand withdraws from Gwen's, long fingers curl into smooth palm, hand hovered and folded back, as if Gwen had handed them something, and as if they took it. But then long fingers absently toy with the sleek satin lapel of their jacket, as they continue. "Just what everyone else knows. That your name is Gwenaëlle Baudin," good accent, "and you are the— chairman? Of your father's foundation, which arranges funding for scholarships and programmes in the arts.

"That you have to be here, to keep it alive," they add. "Like a little swimming fish."

“Executive director, and I don't.”

She says it smiling; in someone else's story this would be a moment of great realisation. The end of the film where the swamped businessman throws his cellphone into the sea and starts, you know, just being like, present, man. In his life. This is not that story, and it is not a new thought, not revelatory, not releasing. It is sour and familiar self-knowledge. Not content with the problems she already had, she must create for herself new ones entirely.

The Vauquelin Foundation of which she is the executive director is a European charity. It is France-based. Sufficient money passes through it directly and through Gwen's own pockets that she could, with relative ease, delegate the things that her father had done. Her smooth assumption of control is all the smoother for having meant little in immediate change—she had already been a fairly substantial amount of the brains behind the operation, while Emeric had pursued what made him love this work the way she still doesn't. There are a hundred passionate, interested people she could place here, and read their reports from her study in Paris, where she doesn't have to put up with shoddy infrastructure and being surprised when someone can pronounce her name correctly.

She is wallowing here by choice. If anything—

If she goes back to France, she has to be sad. She has to sit in her comfortable home with the things that she likes and not be any happier than she has been here because she is sad. She will have to go to his house and pack up his things and be sad. She will have to stop moving, and it won't be better, because she'll be fucking sad, instead of in New York, where she can just be lonely and annoyed.

“But,” brightly, lightly, dancing over her shaky logic, “it's more romantic your way.” Not a flirt, exactly. Skye's is just a better story. She likes it, and may retell it.

"No it's not," Skye says, a wider smile, a breathy near-laugh. There's something about their teeth, their protruding canines, that show when they do that — it's not even remotely sinister, either, more endearing and buck-toothed than vampiric. A small flaw in a conventionally pretty face. "Romantic, I mean. I'm glad you're choosing to be here, anyway. Most people never get to choose anything."

For all the smiling and the softness, the crow's feet and cute teeth and tousled hair, there's a flinty hardness hidden in blue eyes that says: they're not convinced. If not that a choice is being made, then by what constitutes choice.

But it's not Gwen's job to be convincing.

They ask, politely, "Did you want to talk about your foundation?" Skye is not someone who is obviously moneyed, in that they have offered no full name, and their first name is unfamiliar. But they are dressed well, and comfortably so, and they are here alone.

If it isn't a freely made choice motivated by will—fair assessment: it is not—then it simply remains not something that Gwen gets to hide behind imaginary obligation or necessity. Her wheels are spinning, but she could leave. Professional obligation doesn't hold her in place. It would feel like some kind of cowardice, to pretend that it does.

“Did you want to hear about it?” Somehow, it seems impolitic to just say no, not especially. “My late father was looking to support funding for the arts in education here.” She hasn't had quite enough of the free champagne to list directly into blah blah, children, you know, the usual but there's an edge of that indifference in her tone. People who had met him tend to find her slightly confronting, in contrast; she is not what they expect, without the established familiarity she has on the philanthropic circuit of the EU.

She achieves what she sets out to do, which is useful and begrudgingly respected, but the begrudging part tends to come hand in glove with the fact that she's also kind of a cunt, and at best ambivalent about what someone else might consider her greater achievements.

It's just things she's doing. When she was younger, she thought she'd be dead by now or have her shit together. She didn't imagine this third option, where the people she spends the most time with are bodyguards in her employ and she gets up out of habit instead of because there's something particular to get up for.

"Your father sounds kind," Skye says, which could likewise be the politic thing, but somehow doesn't come across as such — nor warmly earnest, either. It's a kind thing to do, to commit money and time and feeling towards any number of charitable causes jockeying for position. Maybe if kindness could be harnessed, it could actually change the world.

Too bad. They lift their shoulder off the aquarium, like they're about to abandon Gwen to the rest of her evening. Instead, they kind of tip their head in invitation. Shall we walk? Skye always prefers to be in motion, when talking.
Her father was kind. He was also kind of a trainwreck, but now that he's dead it seems suddenly easy for people to overlook the difficult parts of him; to deify the best of him. She's spent so long defending him that she doesn't know what to do when she doesn't need to, now that it's impolite to speak ill of the dead. So there's something about the matter of fact way that Skye sets him and his kindness to one side that she likes, in spite of herself—enough that when the invitation is issued, Gwen falls easy enough in step beside them, prepared to leave kindness behind.

“You wouldn't happen to be prepared to tell anyone who asks that I gave you the very earnest hustle, would you.” It doesn't lilt because it isn't really a question; she is more curious about what it is that Skye wants to talk about instead, since it doesn't seem like it was actually Gwen's foundation.

Skye smiles wider in a brief laugh, fangs on display, looking ahead of them both as they direct an ambling, wide arc around the room, slipping hands into trouser pockets, thumbs hooked. "I'll trade you," they say. "I have an earnest hustle of my own."

There's a vaguely leonine affect to the way they size up those that deign to drift into their path — not hostile, but passively unfriendly, unapproachable in some unfathomable way that Gwen had not sensed upon her approach. Maybe Skye had just been exuding a little less icy fuck off than they are now, although the chill never touches the smaller woman keeping pace.

"Those musicians," they say, now nodding towards the quartet. "And the little one. She has a gift that they don't. She probably picked up that violin and never looked back. Never doubted herself." Skye comes to a slow halt as they watch the four of them playing, allowing a moment's listening — and there is no denying it, the sweetness of the notes being drawn from the instrument. Skye says, "There will never be a single child in any music programme your foundation could fund that could hope to match her skill. Which doesn't mean there should never be another musician."

They look aside to Gwen, offering a small smile. Butter wouldn't melt. "But it's a fact of reality."

Despite her better judgment—the voice that says don't leap, or don't look, or don't be like that, not the one that would have said don't approach that person because she doesn't have that one—Gwen laughs, which from a distance makes this exchange look like something that makes sense here, in (what appears to be) its context. She feels, momentarily, rather unusually seen. Of a piece with all her sullen apathy toward her own glossy pretenses. She's always been too comfortable in the company of people who clear a path by expecting that it will.

(Does it not mean that? Wouldn't it be nice if it meant that.)

“Well, of all the pointless things money can be spent on, I'm given to understand most people find children some of the least disagreeable.” And something something artistic expression is meaningful, or something. (No, she cares about that, actually; the value of art for art's sake, of finding meaning in expression or experience, of not allowing tiresome pretension and gatekeeping for the sake of feeling clever instead of feeling something. But she's wallowing, and she doesn't feel like it.)

She's still looking at the musician, smiling. It's a hard to pin down expression. Turning over that phrase, a gift that they don't. “A lot of things have been considered facts of reality. I'm fascinated to know which one next we'll upturn.”

"I think this one's deserving of being faced down, first," Skye suggests, folding their long arms comfortably across their torso as they both watch and listen to the music. Almost no one else is, really, which is the point — the chamber music is for atmosphere, to speak near, not to appreciate at ready length, but Skye is unselfconscious about standing at a polite distance and doing just that.

The man with the cello darts a glance over, as Skye is saying, "You'd almost wish she was playing on her own, except the harmonies have their place too. I promise, I don't know a lot about music," they add, with a subtle shrug of one shoulder. "But what I know is that the world isn't made for exceptional people. This kind, anyway. It's going to take beyond her life time for anyone to decide whether it's even fair that she succeed where her peers can't.

"I guess my pitch is, I think she should. I think she should soar. And people like her, everywhere." That ease has become a little solemn. And earnest, as promised.

As much as Gwen might like to willfully miss the point, she just doesn't have the wherewithal to play sufficiently vapid to continue any further in obliviousness. It would have been easier to extricate herself before the conversation drifted somewhere that she might not like to be found if not for how easy it was to ignore the angle, initially; to focus instead on how interested she doesn't want to be in the music, in the use of the money changing hands, in almost anything taking place around her. If she had seen it coming, if she had allowed herself to, then she might not have stayed long enough to hear it.

She can't quite decide whether that would have been better or not. The number of people she's discussed this sort of thing with can be counted on one hand; one dead, one in prison, one holding down the fort in France. Those conversations never sounded like this.

For a while, she just watches the musicians play. It's the most attention she's paid them all evening.

“Icarus wanted to fly, too.”

Skye gives a huff of a laugh. "With wings of wax and feathers," they say, now turning their back to the musicians. Shifting a step back on a heel, still watching the crowd as if to guard them both against intruders, and they let their voice lower in mock conspiracy. "Maybe if he had a genetic predisposition towards high atmospheric self-propelled flight, that story would have ended a little differently."

Their smile is small, schoolyard levels of joke-sharing. Can't seem like they're having too much fun, now, can they. "She's holding herself back," Skye adds, more seriously. "If you want to see what she can really do, outside of— this," a nose wrankle, and it's completely genuine, "then I can buy you a drink this weekend where she performs, normally.

"Or you can just come for the drink," Skye adds, cavalier. "I don't want money, just some of your time."

God, she thinks. (In French.)

God, I'd be so much more comfortable if I thought she were just hitting on me.

The thing is, though, that this is the single most interesting thing that's happened since she stepped off onto American soil. Her good sense says: don't. The rest of her says, are you fucking kidding, how are you going to not know how where this goes?

Not: how it ends. She can imagine a lot of different ways that this could end. She doesn't need to think about endings, more.

“Time is infinitely more valuable,” is the sort of thing that only someone who has never had to worry about not having enough money can say. Money doesn't cushion every blow, but more than enough become glancing in its wake. She says, “What about a night she's not performing.”

It's not that she isn't moved by the music. It's sort of that she is, and there are too many things entangled with it that she doesn't want to try to untangle in a bar, somewhere, with alcohol and a natural, inherited inclination to becoming maudlin and unruly. She has a feeling she would like to be focused, and not thinking every fourth note that someone who could better appreciate this has died for nothing much at all.

Interesting, says Skye's expression — although what is interesting is only up for guesswork. Moves and countermoves. It's not that it didn't work. It's that it did — in reverse.

They are not remotely displeased, if the way the lines at their eyes crinkle just slightly more. "Cat's Cradle," they say. "Phoenix Heights, the place with the fortune teller upstairs. Don't worry," they add, "she won't be on the clock." Maybe because they have an intimate relationship with Eve Mas's schedule, or they just have a very good sense of timing. Only Skye Archer can know!

"Come when you want to. I'll be there."

Behind them, the music plays, and the violinist hits a note as though she is drawing her bow across raw nerves — in the best way. Not everyone notices, but some of the very sensitive seem to glance, and variously shift away or towards.

A breath out through her nose a little harsher than seems necessary—

No. She doesn't want to see what the violinist can do, unchecked. Or at least, she doesn't want to see it from that close.

“Cat's Cradle,” she repeats, committing it to memory. Phoenix Heights. A fortune teller.

This seems like it might as well happen.

Skye, on their part, could probably listen all night — but they are choosing not to. They nod, once, a goodbye made implicit in instructions given, before taking a step that carries them out of Gwen's space, slipping into another of those invisible currents that course through the ballroom space.

As they go, they touch the aquarium on their way out. Goodbye to the fishies, too.

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