Imagining Friendship


bella_icon.gif seren_icon.gif

Scene Title Imagining Friendship
Synopsis Bella drops by Seren's with a gift, getting a glimpse of their home life in the process.
Date July 27, 2019

Raytech Residences

It wasn’t difficult finding the place; company housing means a company directory that it’s too much trouble to pull up and peruse. The real question was whether or not to show up unannounced. It’s a careful calculation, a gambit based on intimacy and its presumption, and in the end Bella opts to imagine herself as a pleasant surprise. So it’s without heralding, and thus without an opportunity to as easily refuse, that she appears outside of Seren’s apartment.

The early evening drizzles, dreary for late summer, but at least the precipitation cuts the heat. It’s raining in such a way that one can’t but feel an umbrella may come in handy, yet one also feels like one is overreacting by actually using that umbrella, so Bella has split the difference, donning a mustard-colored raincoat and carrying a canvas book bag over one shoulder. She stands straight, posture composed and, with a press of index finger to door-buzzer, commences the gambit, presumption and all.

When the door swings open, it's indeed Seren on the other side, though they stand at a great contrast to what might be anticipated. In the hand not holding the door open they have a pair of twenties, arm offered out automatically. When it becomes abundantly, immediately clear that the person on the other side is not the takeout their grey eyes glaze over with confusion, expression going blank. Music that had been playing inside stops right at the moment of mental disconnect.

Compared to the smart but effortless design put into their work attire, their current outfit certainly reads more… comfortable. Seren drowns in a black tee at least two sizes larger than would actually fit them, coupled with pajama pants that drape over bare feet.

"You're not…" Seren murmurs to themself before shaking their head vigorously. "Bella," is a quick recovery, made with a small smile. "Come in, let's get you out of the rain." The bills are folded over, shoved into their pocket so they can wave their guest in with one hand. Only then do they consider asking the arguably important question of, "What brings you by?" without the slightest touch of concern in it.

That is to say, Bella's surprise appearance is not associated immediately with anything being wrong, thankfully. Instead, as they get their bearings, Seren's smile deepens.

From the doorway, down the hall the television can be seen turned on in the living room, some streaming service show set to a paused state.

The money is given a brief, blank regard before Bella redirects her gaze face-ward. The journey gives her time to take in Seren’s gestalt - the tee, the PJs, the uniform of one seeking ease - and immediately Bella’s attitude turns apologetic. Sure, she was angling for intimacy, but this is not quite what she had intended.

Still, here they are. And what was she to expect.

“I’m sorry for being so… impromptu,” she says, tone rueful but feet carrying her inside, “I just wanted to ask after you.” Her eyes make a sweep of the interior for as long as courtesy allows, curiosity given just enough rein before being reined in. “I also wanted to give you something,” she adds, before reaching into her bag and extracting a book, hard-covered and dust-jacketed. “A getting-to-know-you gift.”

The slim volume is not wrapped; she eschews such formality, along with the pretense of surprise. What she offers is visible in the offering, its cover depicting an oddly-proportioned creature with a human(ish) face, equine legs and avian wings. “The Book of Imaginary Beings” is the title.

"I was just having a night in," Seren reassures. "No major plans ruined. Was just having a movie night with friends." The door is shut gently behind them both, and Seren rubs one hand over the lengthening stubble around the crown of their head, savoring the feeling of fingers tangling through hair while they quietly assess the situation. "You're more than welcome to join us for a bit if you like," they venture, but should Bella look, no one is there at all down the hall. "The couch might be a bit crowded, but we'll make room." But again, no person peeks back to see about the company.

The book is a revelation, though, one that brings about an intake of breath, eyes glimmering with surprise regardless of the lack of paper. "Oh wow!" It's tenderly taken, flipping over to the back with both hands. "I had to leave a lot behind when I moved to New York — I have a copy of this in Spanish, believe it or not, all brilliantly illustrated and bound. The English copy I have is also really old, too." They let out a thoughtful tsk before looking back up to Bella, smile beamed her way. "This will really make it feel like home here. Thank you, Bella."

Then they turn. "Hey guys, we have a visitor!" Seren calls down the hall, padding in the direction of the living room. As they near the couch space, something fades rapidly into view. Colorful somethings. Namely, a purple-maned lion that turns back to look Bella's way with a flick of one ear.


"Look what Bella brought!" Seren enthuses, and what is unmistakably a winged pixie takes flight from somewhere out of sight, coming to lay hands on top of the dusty, proud cover. It yoinks on the cover hard enough Seren's arms move before they pull it back to themselves. "Hey, it's rude to steal," they chastise with a furrowed brow. A many-tailed fox, its tails tipped with flames, curls up and resettles in on the other end of the couch.

It's a whole menagerie in here.

Bella takes the empty-house party in stride, preferring not to contradict. This could, after all, be a telecommunications-assisted engagement. It could also be something particular to Seren themself, a guess that seems pretty darn plausible considering what she knows, however little it may be, about her coworker.

“It’s a humble replacement,” Bella says, as the book leaves her hands, “but if it’s not the cover that counts, then it should do the trick.” Pursed lips betray the passing ambivalence of the gift-giver: is it good? Right? Enough? Seren seems to indicate as much, but may just be skillfully performing politeness. Then again, she doesn’t get a strong sense of their being deceptive or ingenuine. Any such impression would be first and foremost a projection.

“I’m in luck, too, since I don’t have to wait to get your thoughts. I do sincerely wonder, as someone with practical experience of imaginary beings, what you think of Borges’ take.” Her pursed mouth quirks, breaking into an uneven smile. “He can be a little arch.”

Following Seren into their house proves even more a disclosure than she’d initially hoped. When the mythical begins phase into her perception her steps slow as she takes stock. Pixies she’s familiar with thanks to pop culture, and the multi-tailed fox she’s sure she’s seen represented somewhere. The lavender-tinted lion isn’t from any cultural tradition she’s heard of, but then again she isn’t an anthropologist.

“Care to introduce me?” she asks, still hanging at the threshold of the living room, self-conscious in a way she hadn’t expected.

"Borges did with words what I can do with my ability," Seren supposes, conversational about it. "He helped others to dream and imagine, and this," the book hefted, "encouraged others to look more deeply into their reality by examining the mythological creatures a part of other cultures. All he did with this was open eyes to the world of possibilities that already existed out there." They smile, shoulders lifting in a tiny shrug. "I didn't really know about him 'til my last year of university, but I really appreciated this work of his in particular."

Looking back to their group of friends, Seren gestures with their free hand to the roguish pixie who wiggles her small fingers in hello at Bella. "This is Orchid, that's Kit," A nod at the curled fox, "This is Dandy," Courteously said of the lion…

"And of course, you know Baird."” Nestled in a corner, a gray blob of a creature lifts what counts for its head, darker gray nubs perking up off the top of its … head in interest. Beady black eyes are rimmed with only the slightest bit of white, its long mouth opening wiiiiide to create a void of blackness on its body. The blob unfurls slowly, revealing itself to be shaped somewhat like a stingray with nubby, curved corners instead of harsh edges. Its soft belly is a lighter tinge of gray, near its throat, growing darker further down its body.

But, tiny stubs of legs without defined feet or toes peek visible as Baird circles and resettles back down as a blob on the couch. What they lack in definition and size, they make up for in color, each one a different rainbow hue. Settled in, he looks toward Bella. Hi, again.

“We’re just having a lazy day,” Seren explains, nodding toward the paused show on the television. Orchid the pixie takes a particular interest in involving herself in human business, flitting on gossamer wings in Bella’s direction, hands clasped behind her back as she peers the doctor over in deep thought, lavender eyes narrowing thoughtfully. It’s the last calm before the pix is engaging in an excitable flurry of activity around Bella, pulling at the edges of her raincoat with the ghost of tugs— sticking her face into the side of the canvas bag to see if Bella carries any other goodies— flying around behind her next with what feels like a sharp tug at a strand of hair…

“Well,” is said a touch tiredly, rueful eyes on the cackling pixie as she takes off to hide behind the curled Kit, who tosses her head back, mouth opened to chatter noisily at the disturbance to her area. Seren glances back to Bella with one lift of their shoulder in silent apology. “Some of us are.” At that, the lion lets out a chuff, remaining poised and patient while waiting for calm to return to the room. He looks back toward Seren and Bella both, translucence in his being revealing itself as transparency with how the scenery around him can be seen through him.

The experience is not so unlike being introduced to a brood of children, though blessedly Bella does not have to feign interest the way she would if surrounded by pupal humans. Seren’s collection of friends is fascinating, if a little overwhelming, and so Bella’s smile is genuine but also ever-so-slightly defensive. Tension tinges the corners of her eyes, the slant of her shoulders, the placement of her feet. There’s no real fear at work, but she does feel a little outnumbered.

To each and for each she echoes the name, doing her best to commit them to memory. “Orchid-” is a pixie-ish enough name, and “Kit-” the fox echoes ‘kitfox’ in her mind, so that’s easy to remember; “Dandy-” the lion is even easier. And “Baird-” benefits from being the first one she’s met, and so far the most strikingly strange. The operation of memory is made a little more difficult in the face of Orchid’s fae inquisitiveness, and Bella’s reactive stillness is probably a more suitable to being buzzed by a big yellowjacket than a manifest humanoid imagining. A picture of graciousness she is most certainly not right now, but at least she’s trying. She doesn’t even yelp or swat when her hair is tugged, a restraint that is, in the end, the sort she’d have to summon if an infant took similar liberties. Bella doesn’t need baby-slapping on her rap sheet.

“A pleasure to meet all of you,” is a bit too expansive a response to seem much more than formal; no gig as a children’s television host in her near future, not based on this particular audition. But Seren’s sympathy does ground her a little bit, and helps let a little indulgence filter into her expression. “I’m glad to see the gang’s all here. Is this pretty much a full house?” Putting a fairly fine point upon it, for she knows that Seren has had manifest troubles of late. It would be fair to say this informs her interest, though she’d be hesitant to admit it outright.

“It’s…” Seren takes a moment, making eye contact with the lion, who flicks an ear. They interpret it as a shrug and respond in kind before looking back to Bella with a small smile. “It’s a full house. I’ve got more friends than this, and Dandy’s new, actually—” and growing more visibly dim the longer the conversation goes on. “He’s been very patient and proper with this whole process. He might even bloom, soon, but we’ll have to wait and see for that.”

Meanwhile, Kit is turned back, mouth opened with a long string of protest emitting while she looks back at Orchid, demanding to know why her spot’s been infringed upon. It’s her spot, after all. Seren makes a gesture at them with one hand, the two creatures coming to a halt. Finger lifted to their lips, they shush the two quietly, and disgruntled, Orchid makes herself comfortable in the nook between Kit and the couch back, and the fox herself waggles her head, unusually long ears flapping while she settles back in. The lion is who ends up ceding space for the houseguest, clambering over the side of the couch to head down the hall into one of the rooms. He pauses to look up at Bella, head dipping graciously before he pads off regally.

The door isn’t open, and yet he passes through it as if it isn’t there at all.

Leaning over the coffee table, Seren lets the book slide gently from their hand to its surface before plopping down into the couch, partly displacing Baird who pops up when the cushion shifts. They reach around to scoop him into their lap, arms wrapped around his plush form like one might settle in with a throw pillow. “Though—” Seren is forced to admit, keeping up with the conversation. “As of lately, this is a pretty full house. We didn’t have any plans tonight, so I figured we’d make up some of our own. This, though …” They look to the fox and fairy, the latter resting her chin on her fists while she peers at the humans. “It wasn’t the way I was expecting to spend my night, but here we are. We’ve made a pretty good time of it.”

With a chuckle, they look back to Bella. “Sorry if it’s all a bit much. Let’s—” For a moment they look thoughtful, the Baird blob in their lap tilting his head back to peer up at them curiously. Penny for your thoughts, Seren? Yet no sound comes from the tired-out figment.

“How have you been?” they ask warmly, flashing a smile. “Have you made any progress with the project you’ve been working on?”

It’s a lot to keep track of, and hard to manage without seeming jumpy. She is, at least, not genuinely nervous. Seren has struck her as nothing short of serene - melancholy at the most dire - and though the manifestations can evidently affect senses beyond sight and sound, the impression is still one of softness, sweetness, even cuteness. Any anxiety is strictly social. And she ameliorates that by focusing on the person she judges most pertinent: Seren themself.

Bella takes the vacated spot, thought not before first slipping free of her raincoat and offering it to Seren with the expression of appeal that says ‘I know you’re not a valet, but I don’t know where to put this’. Beneath the waterproof mustard fabric Bella wears a navy blouse with white polka dots and black jeans. Assuming her seat, she crosses her legs and folds her hands in her lap, projecting primness as she turns to face Seren now that they sit side by side.

“Be honest,” she says, “are you really interested? Because we don’t have to talk about work if you don’t want to. Not that I can’t, or wouldn’t if you were, but, well… I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m trying to be marginally more forthcoming than I’d be at a meeting or by the proverbial water cooler.”

Baird, with his tiny rainbow legs, is clinging to Seren's shirt when they lean long to one side, draping the raincoat along the couch's back. Orchid lifts her small head, interest piqued, and wriggles herself free to walk along Kit's back and take flight to examine the jacket. A frown from Seren at her behavior earns her conjurer a stuck-out tongue for the reprimand, and the pix opts to hide from further scrutiny by taking shelter in one of the raincoat's pockets.

Settling back into a seat, one leg pulled onto the couch with them, Seren only chuckles at Bella's comment. Openness noted. "Well," they muse. "Legitimate curiosity aside, there's little else I know about you." Tilting their sheared head to one side, they ask with an air of thought to their earnest nature, "Do you have any family nearby? Or did you move here for work like I did?"

Bella’s reaction is immediate, her hesitation impossible to hide. Her family- a subject that should by all rights be easy enough to discuss. Her upbringing wasn’t bad. Indeed, it was the acme of comfort and privilege. It’s just that, with the way her life and the world have gone this past decade, she’s done what she can to keep her contact with them brief and benign. Discussing them feels like giving away some secret, like exposing them to danger.

“I grew up in Westchester,” Bella answers, after wrestling down this misgiving; obscurity breeds curiosity after all. “And went to med school at Columbia. My parents- they moved upstate.” Just enough to not have to say much more. “I tried my best to see them clear of the worst of it all.” Quite the euphemism, this. She pivots from the point, trying to leave as little room as possible for follow up. “Where are you from? New York used to be a beacon for the best and brightest in the nation but… well, it’s not the 20th century any more, is it?”

When Bella displays hesitation, Seren exudes understanding. (They might have had a feeling personal questions could lead to such a response. The good doctor seemed the type to get others to open up while playing her cards flush to chest.) They try to remain attentive while not pushing for a response, leaving the question to be answered as vaguely as she might like. Westchester is met with a nod. Columbia with the beginnings of a small smile, polite. The apparent reference to the war; left untouched. Soon, it's their turn.

"I'm from up north, actually," they offer up easily. "From Halifax." One hand pets along Baird-blob's back, their fingertips leaving ripples across his plushy form. They think for only a moment before remarking, "Quite a different upbringing, I think." A short breath is exhaled in lieu of a chuckle, their eyes dropping to Baird while they pat him. "I manifested early; in primary," sounds so easily said, save for the tick of their brow. Even now, it still feels taboo to discuss. Stowing the feeling, they look back up with a reassuring smile. "And I studied out at UBC — British Columbia. My best friend got a degree in art, went for it with all his heart. I was pretty strongly encouraged to get something more sensible, so here I am as a junior architect."

Their shoulders perk up in a small shrug, smile tinged with self-deprecation for a moment. "Between you, me, and Baird, though— I'd love to take what I can do and apply it to making magical experiences for others. Doing… you know, theme parks or something. Maybe help design new Orlando parks. That…" They hm quietly at it, the corner of their mouth tugging back just a bit more. "That might be nice, I think."

Settling in, they look back toward Bella with an attempt to look confident in that statement despite sheepishly sinking away from it.

"Do you also live here on campus?" is an easier-made follow-up.

“I’d share some Victor Hugoism about the nobility and historical importance of architecture,” Bella says, “but I’m sure you got enough of that in congratulatory card form by the time you’d graduated. I’ll just say this- no art shapes and contains our life quite like architecture. I’d much rather you design a building I lived or went to work in than some Brutalist.” A quirk of a smile as she imagines a parodically Soviet theme park, weighing it against the tight-smiled whimsy of Disney’s legacy. “I’d actually like to see the theme park you’d design, Seren. I might be able to imagine enjoying myself.” You know, without the heapings of irony she’d need to stomach so much as a Six Flags.

At the question about the place she calls home, she shakes her head. A commuter, then. “Have you considered urban housing refurbishment and repurposing?” she asks. “There really should be some affordable and interesting alternatives to Yamagato and the rest of the corporate glitz. There’s a reason I do not live in an enclave.” A beat, as she decides to either apologize for the implicit jab, or to let it linger as a well-meaning tease. In the end she settles, instead, on self-deprecation: “My living spaces need all the prior personality they can get.”

For to see the inside of Bella’s office would be to have Seren’s suspicion confirmed; almost no hint of personality is displayed on those plain and polished surfaces. And to see the interior of her home would be to accentuate that suspicion to the point of potential dread; even in her most private spaces there is next to nothing to give the psychiatrist’s interiority away. Not that there isn’t activity behind her eyes; she doesn’t seem soulless. Maybe she is simply the inverse of Seren themself- her mind and soul almost without exterior manifestation.

Bella’s wit and her earnest, unexpected compliments ground Seren. It’s Baird that moves first, turning his oblong head away from his imagineer to Bella directly. Despite his shape, there’s a distinctly canine sense of surprise in the snap of his head, the sense there is a craning of his posture. Belatedly, Seren lifts one hand away from cradling the imaginary creature to their side and runs their hand back through the short length of their hair, finally remembering to respire. “Wow,” comes on that breath. “That’s praise I won’t take lightly. Certainly gives me something to aspire to.”

With a slight shake of their head, their hand drops back to brush Baird’s back again, a soft blue glow trailing where they draw their fingers down his velvet-seeming form. “As for living someplace with character— had I a better idea of where I could find any place like that before I’d moved down here, I’d have likely done the same. I like living here at Raytech, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a little stifling sometimes. If I didn’t make the effort, I’d see the same faces at work and home every single day, you know?”

If they catch on to that Bella decorates in a “boring” way, they don’t make a show of it. Everybody’s got their own sense of style. And for some, it doesn’t manifest in their home interior quite the same as it does in other aspects of their life— such as their humor; such as their interests, or the interest they take in others. Seren reflects on that for a moment before emitting a soft hm. They opt to segue away from it. “As for the work architecture here,” they aside, “I really have enjoyed seeing the touches Ms. Valerie put into the Raytech compound. The headquarters is extremely accessible, thought given to lighting, height staging, sloping … all while keeping away from any cookie-cutter sensations to each floor.” With a wistful tinge, Seren admits, “It’d be great if there were more new buildings or redesigns that had half that breath in them. Unfortunately, good design normally doesn’t come cheap, neither in planning nor execution.”

Voice lightening a touch, they add, “But we’re trying to develop better prefab units. More homelike, more eco-friendly. Hopefully some good comes of it.”

“The mantra of the weary modern soul: ‘Hopefully some good comes of it’.” Bella’s reply is wry, a little bitterness to counteract the sweet. “Are we already settling this soon after re-settling? You’d think we could try and radically remake this place. I mean, isn’t that the promise of apocalypse? A fresh start?” This, granted, premised on the idea that what happened was genuinely apocalyptic, an event to which there are varying degrees and severities. But Bella has, blessedly, been spared most of those insights.

“If you ever want to scout some locations,” Bella suggests, “I have this monstrous SUV from which you can safely survey the streets. New York isn’t precisely the world-city it used to be, but there are still novel faces to be found in the bricks and stone.” It’s hard to say how serious she’s being, the degree to which this is a proposal or an idle fancy. She seems noncommittal on that front; it’s something she sets before Seren to see what they will do, to gauge their restlessness. “If we find a hidden gem, something really inspiring, we could always take an action plan up the ladder. It’d be a bit of extra work, but I could help. You’d be surprised the ways psychological expertise can be tweaked to apply to every situation. The literature on spaces and inhabitation alone could fill a library annex.“

It might

just be Seren imagining it

but the offer Bella makes sounds very kind.

Something behind it brings them to smile, hand settling into Baird's plush form again. "I might take you up on that," they're sure to say, rather than do something like let bashful appreciation make them an abrupt mute. "It can get a little tiresome, sticking only to where our feet can take us. The new perspective might be welcome."

Leaning back into the couch, their smile fades but the overall lift to their mood that Bella's presence has provided remains. The fox on the other end of the couch opens one eye to peer at them both, a wreath of flowers and stem cradled upon its head where one certainly hadn't been before. The tiny fairy, Orchid, reappears in that blink, weaving in the stem of yet another wildflower. She holds the bloom of it in her hands when she's done, face pressing into fragrant petals.

"Would you want to go looking for any hidden gems sometime soon?" Seren asks, brow lifting. "Not for me— but for you. Something to add to your living space. There's this place I've heard of called the Vault, they're supposed to have some really interesting finds. It might have something with the kind of character you'd be looking for."

Kind enough to be suspicious if you happen to one of Bella’s none-too-scarce detractors. But this budding familiarity is not yet burdened by Dr. Sheridan’s less flattering aspects. She projects a warmth that has been her boon since youth, a benevolence that has often made up for a lack of actual intimacy.

“Better sooner than later,” she says, “since who knows when a project will swallow one of us up. At the very least I’d like to window shop a little, maybe fall in unrequited love with a couple places, and you - architectural expert that you are - can point out all the warts I’m overlooking.”

She notes, in glancing passing, the visibility of the mood shift. If only everyone she interacted with made their heart manifest. She wonders, idly, whether emotional manifestations would make them easier to date, or harder. It’s situational, probably, and based on whether or not someone likes poker, obscurity, reticence.

“The Vault?” she echoes, and in that echo she repeats the intonation of the proper noun-ness; it’s a therapeutic habit, a skill in verbal replication, a means of prompting. “Tell me about it.”

Seren seems very pleased to. "I hear," they confide in a sudden hush, leaning forward in their enthusiasm. Their grey eyes gleam, but not with the silver of their ability. Baird lets out a displeased note as he's partly squished in the sudden lack of space between lap and belly. "That they have secret poker nights. Like something straight out of the movies. The owner is a mysterious man, and who knows exactly where all his stock comes from."

John Logan is less a mystery to certain others, but it's all very far removed for Seren and Baird. Mysterious, fantastic— likely to be harmless. After all, what chance would they stand to have such an encounter?

They'll stick to their imaginings only.

"But anyway," they say, sitting upright again, much to plushy Baird's relief. He sprawls, pancaked, with an audible sigh. "They sell all sorts of things with character. Older, like an antique shop— but from what I understand everything there has a touch more charm to it. Care given to each piece put on display." A beat passes before Seren done a faint smile, regarding Bella. "We can see if any of it suits your interest."

“Are you suggesting I use others’ pasts as a character supplement?” Bella says, leaning forward into a marginally more conspiratorial posture. “That’s a little more sly than I’d expected of you.” She doesn’t sound unhappy about it. Hidden depths, like lost corners of the city, appear to intrigue her. Her life has become routine enough that she is ready to court mystery, at ease enough to imagine them innocuous.

For her own part, she doesn’t so much as imagine a meeting with this mysterious man, his mystery persisting doubly to Bella. After all, her own encounters with John Logan form part of a past she has tucked away so thoroughly she’s nearly succeeded in forgetting it. If she knew more, suspected more, she might dance back from the proposal. But all that seems worlds and lives away. She didn’t know Seren back then. Part of what makes them so appealing, with nothing to link them to the shapes beyond the veil.

“If this turns into a backdoor way for you to plan a heist against some underworld figure, just- please let me know before the bullets start flying. Preferably well before. I don’t do well in those kinds of high-pressure situations.” This is a joke, but one which - after a similarly joking comment about Seren’s surprising her - is not without its meager dram of seriousness.

They do, after all, contain multitudes.

The nature of Bella's question and the conspiratorial lean that follows leads to Seren sitting up a little straighter. No, that hadn't been their intention, but phrased like that… At least Bella seemed to think it wasn't a bad thing. That she follows it with a joke seems to lend to that.

It brings Seren to grin in reply.

"You've got my word," they swear with one hand raised to sanctify it. "At the first sight of any underworld shenanigans, I'll be sure to warn you."

Though that might be pretty exciting, too. Just as long as nobody really got shot.

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