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[personal profile] sunbaked_baker
The severe quiet of the Goddess of Pain's office swallowed Sunshine whole as she stepped in from the light and noise of Milliways. The office hadn't changed at all in the last two years. Still spartan, with no personal items or signs of decoration; still oppressively hot as though denying the existence of the early spring chill beyond the wide, proof-glass window and its dead, grey, filtered light. An empty office apart from the imposing figure sitting at the desk, upon whom the entire room focused. Rae looked at her, then; the older woman hadn't changed a bit.

Rae's breathing was loud in her ears, carefully, desperately even, as she saw the Goddess of Pain look up from some paperwork. Eye-contact caught and held before Rae could prevent it. It was almost as bad as looking into the eyes of a Master Vampire - though thankfully the sunlight-web set into Rae's skin was still quiescent, and did not ignite. She had been afraid, finding herself all alone, facing once again the Goddess' searing lack of shadows and cheerfully malevolent false smile, that she would lose her nerve. That she would lose everything, simply by not being able to stand in the face of the one who would take it away. But instead of cold panic flooding her, Rae felt her face flush with anger, as though reflecting the heat of the room. It had always been there, really, but seeing the Goddess, seeing her smile, sharpened it to a point.

SOF was meant to be on the side of right. Of humanity. Of Good. Of keeping people safe. That's the SOF Sunshine had agreed to aid in their fight, when Pat and Theo had all but begged for her help. But Rae would never be convinced that the woman before her had the good of the world at heart. Too much had happened. And Sunshine wasn't the same person as she had been two years ago. The Goddess might still be, but Rae wasn't.

Not looking away despite the shadowless features of the Goddess of Pain making her head hurt, Sunshine gripped her bag tighter with the hand not holding the cup of tea, and stepped closer to the desk. She could feel the edge of the recording device and the hard curve of the vial of Delete-laced tea through the cloth of her bag, like unorthodox wards offering unorthodox protection. She thinks she has me right where she wants me. That I'll like crumple and fall at the slightest suggestion of suspicion. No, I'm going to get through this. I know what information she has. I know what she wants to know. I know that Pat knows what the Goddess has been doing, and I have proof. Not just proof enough for me. Proof enough for people more powerful than her. I'm going to get through this. She will not stop me.

The underling - no, Rae shouldn't think of them like that - the agent who had escorted Rae to the office closed the door behind her as she left, leaving Sunshine at the Goddess' mercy.

"Miss Seddon," said the Goddess of Pain, standing with a saccharine smile, "do come in. Thank you for joining me today."

Rae would rather not come within the woman's reach, and would greatly prefer not to touch her, but there was no good way to avoid the handshake once the Goddess offered her hand. Her grip was a tad too tight, her hand cool and dry despite the heat of the room. Her skin felt paper-thin and fragile, but there was strength behind it. Sunshine let go first.

"...No problem," she answered, though both of them knew her friendly helpfulness was as false at the Goddess' sweetness. Rae focused on considering her words rather than letting her mind dwell on the imaginary tingling in her clammy hand. "Though, I admit I'm a little confused as to why I'm here. Is there something I can help you with? Agents Logan and Velasquez didn't tell me much beyond that you wanted to talk with me."

Theo and Pat didn't need the Goddess knowing that they were on a first-name basis with Suspect Number One.

"I do hope you'll be able to help clear some things up for us, yes," answered the Goddess, leaning against the front edge of her desk as though she were completely at ease, and motioning to one of the chairs. They looked to Rae like the same rough, brown-upholstered chairs she and Constantine had sat in, being interrogated after Bo's downfall. Though hopefully they had been cleaned thoroughly afterwards. "Why don't you take a seat?"

Afraid the Delete will kick in and someone will come investigating the thump as my body falls to the floor? Rae didn't say. She took a sip of the Delete-free tea, instead, before saying, "If it's okay, I'd rather stand. The ride over wasn't that great."

"Ah, certainly. Whatever is most comfortable for you," Deputy Executive Jain assured her in her best conciliatory tone, though her eyes were sharp. Was it Rae's imagination, or did the other woman's gaze slip towards the cup in Rae's hand for a split second? The baker almost smiled, then let herself do so, standing in front of the credenza by the window. Even proof glass-filtered sunlight was still sunlight, comforting upon her shoulders. "Thanks. I'll admit I'm a bit tense, at the moment. Not to mention that kneading bread and lifting heavy trays all the time can really do a number on your back, you know."

"I imagine it can," replied the Goddess, watching her closely. Probably looking for signs that the Delete is kicking in, Rae figured, that toxic kali blanker. Sunshine could vividly remember her own nervous fidgeting as the symptoms of Delete had gradually set in, sitting across the table from Dr. Lecter. "Though why are you tense?"

"A bit intimidating, isn't it? Being called in 'specially by the Deputy Executive of SOF, out of the blue?" Rae said with a helpless little smile and shrug, remembering Elrond's advice.

With the Goddess's gratified smile, Rae knew she'd made the right choice. Rae’s intimidation was probably the only point in this interview Deputy Executive Jain would believe wholeheartedly.

"Well, you shouldn't be nervous," assured the Goddess, in an infuriatingly mollifying tone. "We're all on the same side, here."

Sunshine smiled back, hoping that BULLSHIT wasn't written too boldly across her face. She didn’t want to lose what little ground she had gained. Some of it likely got through, though, because the Goddess's words took on a crisper, more businesslike tone directly afterward. "Miss Seddon, you know as well as anyone, possibly better than some, that Special Other Forces is here to keep the population safe from the threat of Others."

Ah, coming to the point. Rae blinked at the Goddess, ignoring how the woman's strange, shadowless features caused her head to throb. After a moment of apparent mild bemusement at the seemingly self-evident statement of SOF's worth, Rae nodded earnestly. "Of course. Everyone knows what an important job SOF does - we're always glad to see any of the local agents at the coffeehouse."

Rae knew this sentiment was really only hers - in poorer parts of the city like Old Town, even law-abiding Part Blood Others had reason to be wary of SOF, where 'demon' could mean whatever the law-enforcement official on the other side of the line wanted it to mean. Sunshine’s less mitigated gladness at seeing her SOFs was only really true since the Goddess had started poking after her, also, as it put Pat and Theo and Jesse firmly on Sunshine's side, less as her exploiters and more as her allies. She could thank Jain for that.

"Then you'll understand why we sometimes have to inconvenience individual members of the populace, like asking you here today. For the good of everyone."

Sunshine just barely managed not to snort. Asking was not the word she would have used for it.

"Of course," she answered, stepping forward. She had to remember that - Delete or not - the Goddess could still troll the top layer of her thoughts if she stayed too still. "But how can I help? I'm just a baker."

"Indeed." Rae had to give the Goddess all due respect for keeping most of the rancor out of her voice, but she couldn't keep the sharp suspicion and growing frustration out of her eyes. "Miss Seddon, there have been reports recently that may indicate otherwise - are you sure you wouldn't like to sit down?"

Even before she finished speaking, Sunshine sought to keep her face from giving her away. She quickly made herself concentrate on the recipe for banana-chocolate croissants, and how difficult it was to keep the butter from melting and leaving one with sad, flat pastries, rather than focus on the Goddess' insinuation. "Oh, I'm fine, thank you," she replied, figuring taking another sip of her tea would be too pointed, so she didn't. "But I'm not sure I follow what you're saying."

The Goddess of Pain gazed sharply at her for a long moment. Rae simply waited, watching the Goddess realize her plan had gone awry. Yet another failure without adequate explanation, when she had gone so far to make sure this would work. The older woman's eyes narrowed.

"Reports... of someone matching your description, Miss Seddon, beyond the barriers in No Town, and fraternizing with vampires."

Rae’s mild surprise at someone actually using the word 'fraternizing' in conversation helped give her replying incredulous look some measure of legitimacy. "Fraternizing? With vampires. Ma'am, I'm... not sure what to say." This was true. "I'm… I’m not suicidal, and I'm not some stupid teen who goes out looking to spot vampires on a dare. Especially not after what happened two years ago. Is this... about that?"

Of course it would be. It was what put Sunshine and Constantine on the Goddess' radar in the first place.

"In a way, we think it might be."

You don't think it might be. You're pretty damn sure it is. Else you wouldn't have gone to such great lengths to get me here, you old bat, Rae thought to herself, taking a steadying sip of the tea. It wasn't the bitter swill she had been given in the waiting room, but some of the best black tea one could get at Milliways. It helped her center herself, a slight comfort in the midst of the tension singing through her.

"That was..." Rae shook her head, looking away towards the window. "It was just an awful nightmare, the whole thing. But that mess has been over for two years now, and really... even if working in a family-run restaurant left any time for a social life - which it really doesn't - there's no way I'd spend it in No Town, and no way in hell it'd be spent... fraternizing. Not after what happened." Rae gave a little shudder, though that was mostly real.

When Rae looked back at at her, she was met with the Goddess’ level, calculating stare. Cold, unyielding. Rae met her gaze as steadily as she could, feeling uncomfortably aware of the sweat trickling slowly down her back. It wasn’t just the heat getting to her. Rae already knew the Goddess wouldn't believe her. Convincing her wasn't the issue - not being caught in a lie was the issue. Surely there was nothing she could catch her in, from that explanation... Rae watched as Deputy Executive Jain took a slow breath.

"Miss Seddon, have you seen Mr. Malcolm Conner recently?" The unexpected question caught Rae off-guard. She hoped her surprised look translated as a look one gives when asked a seemingly random question without a segue, not as a look of guilt.

"Um... No," she said, frowning slightly. Rae took another sip of tea - she was going to have to start rationing it soon, at this rate. "I haven't seen or heard from Malcolm Conner since that morning... that morning here, two years ago."

And again, Rae rationalized. This was true. He had only ever been her Constantine, since. Malcolm Conner was a construct, a stranger she met only once.

"Funny, because that was the last time we saw or heard anything from him, too," pressed the Goddess. "I don't suppose you would have been aware of his disappearance."

"No," Rae replied, her answer genuine. "No, I hadn't."

"Malcolm Conner, it turns out, seems not to exist, Miss Seddon. Despite our best efforts-" Rae's mouth thinned a little, hearing this. She knew about some of the Goddess' best efforts. She would need to talk with Con sometime soon. He would need to be warned, if he didn't already know SOF was looking for him. "-we have been unable to locate him. Only a small handful of the residences near the lake are inhabited, and none of the inhabitants have heard of a Malcolm Conner. We believe it was an alias. Though... we can't help but wonder why someone would feel the need to use an alias in their report."

Sunshine worked to keep her face carefully blank, and said nothing, waiting until the Goddess went on.

"Is there anything... possibly something you might have forgotten to mention," the Goddess' eyes narrowed, "that might help us find him? He never did file a proper report regarding what happened to the two of you, which is terribly suspicious, you'll admit."

I'll admit nothing, Rae bit back. "I honestly have no idea where he might be. We just met the once. Twice," she corrected herself quickly, and made herself go on, "Neither of us could recall that first time well at all, though. Even now my memory of that weekend is just... one big, awful blur, for the most part. What I do remember, I've already told to SOF in my own reports at the time. Which you've read."

"Which I've read," the Goddess echoed, thinly, her nearly reptilian gaze cold upon the baker.

"Then you know everything I know about it," Rae said, stepping away and sipping her tea rather than meeting the woman's gaze. The last drops of the tea went to wet her parched mouth. She hoped the back of her blouse wasn't sticking to her. "And about Malcolm Conner. Probably more, by now - I wasn't exactly up to taking notes at the time, and it's been two years."

The wry remark got no reaction, so Rae pressed on, really wanting to end this quickly and get out of the oppressively hot office with its terrifying occupant. "But again, to your original question, ma'am, my nights are not nearly so interesting. When I get off after closing shift, I head straight home, and -"

"Can anyone verify that?" the Goddess cut in, sharp. Rae could see the Goddess' frustration, shadows or not - it would have been so much easier for her if the Delete had worked - because her tones were becoming increasingly aggressive, and the professional kindness was long gone.

Sunshine blinked at her, hesitating. "I live alone, but-"

"So there's no one to corroborate your story."

"My landlady lives just downstairs from me," Rae returned, feeling her ire rising again, her face flushing. The empty styrofoam cup of tea cracked slightly in her grip. "She can hear it when I get home in the evenings, and would be able to hear every last step creak if I were to leave again before my normal time in the mornings. I don't like your insinuation, ma'am, and I don't like being treated like a criminal when I've done nothing wrong."

"And your landlady's name?" inquired the Goddess flatly, completely ignoring Rae's righteous indignation. The great weight of her attention remained upon the baker.

Rae hesitated, feeling that pressure. A shudder wanted to make its way up her spine, but she absolutely refused to let it. The Goddess would see, and the last thing she wanted was for Yolande to be mixed up in all this mess. One more person put in danger because of her. She racked her brain for a way to deflect the question, any way at all, but she couldn't see a way out of it. It would just make things worse to try and hide her.

"Yolande," Rae answered, eventually, feeling the word was being dragged from her mouth against her will.

"Last name?" demanded the Goddess, stepping around to the far side of her desk to make a note.

Rae bit her lip, feeling sick. When the Goddess' searing gaze left her, it felt like coming up for air after being held under water too long. "I don't know it."

"You don't know your landlady's last name?" Asked with a mocking hint of incredulity, made sharper by anger, the Goddess didn’t even glance up from her notepad.

"No, I don't," Rae says, resolutely.

"Hmmm,” the Goddess answered. Sunshine wouldn't have thought that so much foreboding could have been condensed in one syllable, but apparently it was possible, especially when accentuated by the uneven scratch of the pen against the notepad. It only boded ill. She didn't want to find out what the Goddess would think to ask next, once she finished writing.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help," Rae said, as sincerely as she could manage, her chest tight. "Is there anything else you needed me for?"

Note unfinished, pen’s nib bent slightly from its pressure against the page, the Goddess looked up at her. Just looked, as the seconds stretched in silence. Rae's jaw tightened - she refused to break the eye-contact first, though every fiber of her being wanted her to look away. Wanted her to run away. She felt the sweat upon her brow, upon her hands, upon her side where her bag was pressed against her ribs, and along the small of her back. The sweat was not just because of the heat. She could feel the throbbing of her headache from the Goddess' shadowless radiance, the rising urge to be anywhere but here. With great effort, Rae swallowed, and stepped forward.

"Ma'am?"

With a smooth motion, the Goddess straightened, and capped her fountain pen with a sharp snap.

"Oh, I think you've been more than helpful, today," she said, with a shadow of her former false brightness and pleasant smile. The kind of smile that greased the wheels of bureaucracy.

Rae's jaw clenched - the Goddess was just saying that to frighten and unsettle her. She wasn't pleased - Rae could clearly see the tension in her shoulders and the restrained fury in her eyes. This is not the Goddess' victory, however caught and frightened Rae felt. And it was nearly over. She was nearly free. Sunshine reminded herself that today had been much better than it could have been - she could remember the helpless, spreading numbness, the deadness of limbs, the panic of being a prisoner in her own body, months ago and earlier today. That is what the Goddess had had planned for her. Hours of panic and interrogation, not this farce masquerading as conversation. And had the Goddess' plan worked, she would have found out everything. About Constantine and Sunshine's abilities, about her and Con, their work, Pat and Theo and Jesse's part in it, and likely their secrets as well. Rae had to tell herself that today had been a victory for her. Not for the Goddess.

"I'm glad," Rae replied, belated and unconvincing. But she was unable to manage anything more, desperately wanting this to be over. She had reached her limit, and it was all she could do to keep from shaking.

The Goddess smiled at the baker, though there was no real effort to be believable. It was more a baring of teeth. Without looking away, she pressed a button on her desk's phone. "Mueller? Have Agent Velasquez report to my office." The second press of the button cut off the affirmative answer before it could finish.

Pre-emptive relief flooding her, Rae couldn't help but take a pre-emptive step towards the door. But only one. The Goddess' high heels clicked sharply against the floor as she came round her desk towards Sunshine. In a sudden movement, the cool, dry hand closed tightly on Rae's arm. Instinctively, Rae tried to jerk herself away, but the Goddess' grip was like a vice holding her still.

"You listen here, you little bitch," the deputy executive hissed at the baker, voice low and menacing, her face twisted by anger into an ugly caricature of itself. "You listen to me. You're not fooling anyone. You may think you're clever, playing your little game and pretending to be nobody, but don't think for a second that I don't know what you're up to. Your father may not have mentioned you but there's no doubt whose whelp you are."

The Goddess' sneer turned into a nasty grin when she registered Sunshine's shock. "Oh yes, I know who you are, Rae Seddon. Your background is well-known here, so don't try that ignorant innocence act with me. I know who you are, and I know what you've been up to, and I will-"

The knock on the door that interrupted her was measured and polite: The knock of someone wanting to interrupt while giving the impression of not wanting to interrupt.

Without missing a beat, the Goddess flung Sunshine's arm away from her, as Pat cautiously opened the door. Deputy Executive Jain, the Goddess of Pain, didn't even look at him. Which was good, because he was staring at Sunshine, who was shaking where she stood, crumpled styrofoam cup at her feet, her arms crossed tight against her stomach as though she were ill.

"Take her home," said the Goddess with a dismissive gesture, turning to return to her seat at the desk. Sunshine didn't need a second urging, and went out through the door nearly before Pat could open it wide enough for her to pass

~*~*~*~

Rae stayed silent in the back seat of the SOF vehicle the entire way back to the coffeehouse, despite Pat trying to start conversation once or twice. She knew he needed to know what had happened – rightly so - and maybe he wanted to know if his baker were going to be all right, too.

But the baker couldn't quite manage to bring herself fully back to the present, the Goddess' words - the crushing heat of her anger - still echoing inside her head. Rae hadn't gone into the Goddess' office believing that she would convince the Goddess of her innocence. Rae wasn't that naive. But some part of her had convinced itself that if she could play her part well enough, if she could but get through this ordeal, that everything would be okay. It may not be a return to a normal life, but it at least wouldn't get worse. But already it felt worse. Not just to be proven wrong, but to hear it flung back at her like that, and to see the... she naturally shied away from labeling it this way... but to see the malice in the Goddess' eyes, focused on her. It wasn't the colorless, cold oblivion of evil in the way Rae had seen it in the eyes of Master Vampires, but the bright heat of human evil, still flush with color. The fire of human cruelty.

In an effort to put some distance in between her and the memory of the Goddess' words, Rae left her eyes closed and leaned her head towards the cool stream of fresh air from the rolled-down car window. She had it open far as it would go, which wasn't far. No escapes from the back of a SOF vehicle, even if the driver called himself your friend.

They were lucky to find a parking space on a side street near the edges of the Old Town Pedestrian Precinct, just a few blocks away from the coffeehouse. Rae numbly emerged from the car and stood on the sidewalk, watching Pat's worried face and his deeply blue-edged shadows as he waited for her.

"C'mon, Sunshine," he said, holding out his arm. "It's just me." Oddly touched but still not quite ready to talk yet, Rae went over to him and let Pat put his arm around her shoulders as they walked. The gesture would comfort him, at least, even if it didn't comfort her.

It had been a beautiful day, earlier, but now it looked as though it might rain.

Rae's spirits lifted slightly as they returned to her part of the city, the familiar used bookstores and tumbledown junk shops. When the coffeehouse came in sight, Pat slowed them down to a halt, releasing her to stand by herself. "I know you probably wouldn't like all the fuss it would cause, coming in with an official SOF escort and all."

Even in the midst of adrenaline-exhaustion, she almost smiled; it was true, Pat knew her well enough. But she wasn't quite ready to be on her own just yet, even on her own turf, so she stood with him for a long moment in the mouth of one of Old Town's many alleyways, trying to gather herself.

"Sunshine," Pat said, gently, and she could tell he hated to ask, but had to. It was his and his cohorts’ lives at stake, too. "What happened?"

Rae shook her head, as though trying to clear it. Pat continued, "I could hear her talking to you, at the end when I came by, but I couldn't make out what she was saying. What did she say?"

"It doesn't matter," Rae shook her head again, swallowing. "She was just... angry, that the meeting hadn't gone the way she wanted." From Pat's look, he knew how terrifying the Goddess of Pain could be when she was angry. "Pat, she didn't find out anything. But... she really wanted to, and had expected to."

Her hands fumbled with the snap on her bag, and she pulled out the small container holding the Delete-laced tea to hand over to him. Her voice seemed not to want to form sentences easily at the moment. "She had... Delete put into the tea I was given in the waiting room, Pat. No notice, no waiver, or anything. She wasn't going to take any chances this time. I was just... lucky I found out before I drank it, or else she would've found out... everything, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop her. She wanted it all."

Pat took the small vial and gazed at it, struck silent by the implications, the could-have-beens, for a long moment. She let him process it for as long as he needed – she had had months to do so, after all. When he did speak, Pat's voice was quiet. "Sunshine, this is damning. I don't have to tell you about the ethical and legal trespasses involved in the unauthorized use of Delete. And on a free human civilian, as well, not being held or under arrest. This by itself would likely be enough to remove her from her position. And I don't see how you could provide any more proof than the Delete itself. I may be able to find security footage of whoever mixed it, too. This would be enough, even without the harassment, the unauthorized bugging of private property, and the planting of an illegal fetch. Theo was able to find the serial number of that fetch, by the way, and the one that went missing two years ago – both were signed out and authorized with the Goddess' signature."

Rae nodded. This was good news, she told herself, but she couldn't manage to be glad. The mention of the Goddess having her car and bakery bugged, though, reminded her. Taking the small recording device from her bag, she handed it over, as well. "I don't know how much help it will be, but I also... um... recorded my meeting with the Goddess. In case she said something incriminating. Which... I don't know if it's incriminating, but it may be significant." It had certainly felt significant. Feeling overwhelmed and sick to her stomach, Rae added, "We're trying to show that she has been harassing a citizen past the point of professional inquiry, and, well, it certainly does that."

('There's no doubt whose whelp you are.')

Pat gazed down at the recording device, then looked at Sunshine as though he had never quite seen her before. "I'm getting the feeling we should hire you full-time, Sunshine," he said, at a loss. "What made you think of recording what she said? How on earth did you get it past the bag-check?"

Rae shrugged, trying to sound light, and not exactly succeeding. "If she feels she can listen in on me, it's only fair that I can listen in on her. And you can't hire me full-time, Pat. You can't hire me at all. Not really. That's half the reason I'm in this mess." She tried to keep the faint bitterness out of her tone, but doesn't fully succeed.

"That's fair enough," sighed Pat. Then he offered a slight smile. "Maybe we can fix that, too, some day."

Her answering sigh was faintly wry, a shade of her former humor. "Yeah, file that wish alongside winning the lottery and cinnamon-rolls growing on trees.

"Even organic, they'd not be as good as yours," he answered, loyally.

"You know it."

Pat smiled at her, slightly, and opened his arms to offer a hug, if she wanted one. "We'll see this through, Sunshine. You’ve done more than we could’ve hoped for, and you've had our backs through all of this. We've got yours, too."

She hesitated. Normally, her relationship with her SOFs was a complicated mess of protection, coercion, exploitation, and strained friendship, and she would raely consider hugging one of them. But now, with this unequivocal affirmation of support, and with everything that had happened since this day began, Rae found she could really use that hug.

The mouth of the alleyway shielded them from view, so when the tears began, Pat could hold her as long as she needed.

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Rae "Sunshine" Seddon

May 2016

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