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12 – snake eyes

The Staff of Ra. A few thousand years ago, it was held by Egyptian rulers as a symbol of ultimate trust, and now David Bateson is retrieving it from a hermatically-sealed glass chamber for this evening, up in his private chambers.

He's just finished checking on the hotel's finance records, certain that tomorrow's gigantic event with the Black Rose will give his shareholders the huge boost they've been waiting for – over ten millions in ticket profits (not including the other income sources).

/

When he goes to check on the Black Rose's rehearsal backstage – they've already gotten the gist of their acts, with Renton now being able to fish out yin-yang (Baoding) balls from an unsuspecting audience member – having practiced on a waitress who has free time to spare.

Good.. if everything runs smoothly, along with the auction, I'll be sure to go down in the hotel's history as its best owner. Not to mention a suave retirement.

"For my next trick," LeBlanc twirls with her staff, smirking, "I'll make your 5G reception bars disappear."

Satisfied with the proceedings, David sips a small brandy from his pocket bottle. The Black Rose's itinerary of magic seems solid:

1. Opening act – Lulu and Heimerdinger are French chefs, serving ratatouille (real). LeBlanc is a demanding food critic. Involves one or two audience members.
2. 2nd act – Swain and LeBlanc have a tango ("Roxanne"), involving the dizzying heights of the ceiling.
3. 30 Minute Intermission
4. 3rd act
– Twisted Fate and Renton try to outfox one another in games involving cards, chess, etc. leading to heated duel of words and tricks.
5. Finale – A ballad involving all cast members, leaving everyone with the promise of finding magic in their own lives (metaphorically speaking).

Swain calls everyone over for a group huddle.

"Remember what we need to do.." he goes, once he's sure David has gone away. "While our show is on, the auction will be occuring during the intermissions and afterward. I just found out David will be giving away his staff the first thing."

He nods at Heimerdinger. "Heimer's come up with a duplicate, based off observations. It'll look like the real thing, more or less, just that it will feel a bit off to a familiar hand. We'll be swapping the staffs, so no one will be alerted. By the time they find out, we'll already be stepping foot in Italy."

Renton gulps at the mention of Italy. It's only been around three days since dropping through the rabbit hole to this alternate reality, and he's just getting used to the idea of grandeur – the feeling that you could do anything you wished for, the stuff you'd see in TV, movies and comics, and now being in another country?

He'd never even contemplated that possibility, except as a young child when his father was still alive, promising him someday he'd get to see those beautiful gardens his father's seen in Belgium, where the white water lilies seem to sift on the ponds.

And now, it's as much in his reach as Evaine's billowing cape before him.

She smells like.. a bizarre mixture of oranges and plums that hit the nose in such a manner as to bring your senses to an allured stillness..

"Renton..? Renton!" Swain is calling out his name. "Can I trust you with the actual swapping of the staff? Nobody knows your face yet, and your innoceous looks can prove disarming."

Renton feels like being the lead role of a spy movie, so of course he says "Yes!"

"This is what you'll be doing before the 3rd act.."

/

Being canned is an uncomfortable fit. Singed, in a waiter's outfit, is lugging a cart of canned fruit – along with Zac (in a can).

They are part of backstage catering, and will be checking in on the Black Rose, hoping to glean any info out of their doings. In short, they're just like villains-for-hire in a Saturday morning cartoon.

So far, what they've found out is that there's an auction they're really concentrating on, and a staff of Ra they want to acquire.

"A staff of Ra?"

Yes. Those artefacts which are fabled to ascend anyone to a higher plane of existence. Viktor has searched through his data files and discovered the thread which the Black Rose has been chasing after. A fascinating thread – that would seek to quench that underlying question about magic. He isn't sure what they've already acquired, so he is hoping to forge a temporary alliance with them, despite their long-standing rivalry.

It is a bit of a long-shot, but Swain is enough of a reasonable man to be swayed. A long time ago, Viktor pulled Swain out of a messy situation from the Russian Mafia..

Now Singed puts the cans under the catering table, where Zac is to listen in, and heads on back so he could refill the drinks.

While this is going on, Rumble and Veigar are putting on the finishing touches for the stage lighting.

"Spotlight check!" the head electrician goes, and up in the control booth, the coordinators test each of the spotlights, one-by-one, making sure everything is in working order.

Rumble has set his Tristy mecha on standby, by the ceiling, when everyone else has left the stage. He's dressed it up in a Super Galaxy outfit. Having seen the Black Rose's perfomance itinerary, the idea is to interrupt their finale – giving the audience a real shocker, like something out of wrestling when another wrestler comes by unexpectedly for a showdown. It might seem rude initially, but whatever makes the crowd cheer, so Team ROCHAT can have some publicity, as well as getting the Black Rose's attention to their joint-venture proposal.

He's also reprogrammed the routines in the control room, so the lights will dim and re-focus accordingly when they crash the party. "It's a change of plan sirs," he told the control guys, showing them a written letter with Swain's signature (faked). "They're orders directly from the Black Rose," and with the time pressure, coupled with his convincing tone of authority, the control guys don't bother checking the purpose of these routine changes. An extra dim here, some spotlight focuses there – these seemingly innoceous changes – and the show goes on like normal afterward.

Veigar wipes his forehead. Mon dieu! Thank god it's over, everything is set to rock.

"They have Kool-Aid in this place, non?" he says to Rumble, when the rest of the technician team are busy congratulating themselves.

"There's 20-year old Merlot and Sherry," Rumble goes, having glanced at their fine wine collection. "I'm pretty sure they have your favourite somewhere."

/

Alone in her makeup room, LeBlanc is playing around with the blushes and lipstick, experimenting with her new look she'll be presenting outwardly. It's like with Madonna, who's able to reinvent her image with every one of her new albums, which is something LeBlanc's always admired.

Currently, she dabs a bit of lipstick just in the middle of her lips, and pulls back her hair in a fanciful bun. When she spent time imitating a geisha, she found it suiting to be poised like a mime. Ready to suggest people through her hands and gestures, not with her words.

The door creaks open.

"Evaine?" Renton goes. He sees her wiping away her makeup, and catches a momentary glimpse of what she was going for in the brightly lit mirror. She is immensely talented, and his already pounding heart is erupting now, like a volcano.

He inches himself inside the same room as her, and the scent of vanilla caresses his nose. Bursting out of him, those moments which have been underlying himself the whole time.

The way she's kissed him, sliding her lips back like how the ocean waves retreat, before diving deeper in his mouth for more.

Losing all sense of himself under her embrace..

It touches the innermost recesses of his mind, that he's yet to feel comfortable revealing.

"Why do you love me?" he says. "It was so sudden, and.. and.." Nothing can express the confusion he's having over this. "I don't understand. Do you know me from somewhere, like distant cousins?"

"Non." She exits her chair. "Renton.. you don't know what I've been through. Seeing you brings back so many memories. I'm not related to you or anything. I just.. used to have a son, and his father.. that's such a long time ago."

This revelation isn't really that stunning for him.

"I'd have thought you were together with Twisted Fate or Swain," Renton goes. "You're so beautiful, why aren't you in love with-"

"I was. But it grew exhausting on them after a while, and so we had to break it off, keep professional. Ever since, I've hidden my feelings from everyone, though they know about it.. how I had my heart torn to shreds, and left with nothing but despair."

"What happened..?" Renton approaches Evaine's still figure.

"My lover was killed! And they took my son – he was all I had left in my world. My SON, Renton!" Her arms are clasped over her chest, like trying to stifle a bleeding wound. "It's not the Black Rose. Someone else. Katarina.. Cassiopeia.. Riven! Oh god, I can still remember all their names..!"

And she slams the table with her fists, the items on the table clattering. It takes a second for her to recollect herself.

"My son's name was Booker, Renton," she goes, her eyes partly caught up in her memory. "I was going to look after him, hold him tightly in my arms, grow older with him. I don't even know if he's even alive! The last 23 years, I sought to find those bitches who took him – hoping that the next city we'd venture into, I'd find them, and my son with them. Or the next city after that. But they're all gone now, and.. I'm sorry.."

She is weeping, and Renton is agape trying to comprehend what she's saying. He just knows her feeling of loss, thinking of his long-gone father, and that he feels this pull towards her.

"Hey, there's no need to be sorry." He tugs at her shoulder. "When I was around 10, I lost my dad in a truck crash, and it's never been the same for me since. I miss him every day that's passed – it's just something that happens, and I live the best I can for his memory. I try to, at least."

It makes Evaine smile. "He must be so, so very proud of you.."

"I can't imagine how it's like to lose your child like that. But if Booker were here, knowing you still care about him after so long, he'd be so happy." Renton flashes her a reassuring grin. "You never stopped believing in him."

"Oh-!"

A lipstick falls to the floor.

He finds himself suddenly cradled in her embrace. Passionately warm and soothing and intoxicating. His cheeks pressed by her neck, while his breathing is slightly constrained within her arms – every inhalation makes his chest press back against her soft breasts.

It's like before, where he is shuddering at experiencing the entirety of her being up-close. Her fingers running along the back of his neck, curling up at the soft parts she finds.

"Does this.. feel good?"

They look like lovers caught in a still frame of an intimate waltz.

"You're so beautiful.." Renton goes.

"What are you talking about?"

She leans in to kiss him – holding still in his mouth, before slowly drawing back. And then another, this time with a trail of saliva linking their lips which makes her smile.

The excitement proves too much for Renton, and his breath noticably trembling, he tries to lunge towards her life-giving mouth, but she draws away from his unrestrained eagerness.

"Slowly.." she instructs him, a finger on his cheek – not wanting to break the feeling of delicacy – and when he kisses her again, he remembers to relax, and let his mind be saturated with those sensations her soul delights in showing him.

/

Tomorrow evening's show has almost a hundred thousand showing up. The parking lots have been congested with varieties of car colours – when a spot is filled, the ground underneath it is set aglow, which is a nice touch for the event. There's also small business owners inviting other cars into their backlots (with cheap Christmas lights to replicate an MGM Grand spot), and a huge lineup of viewers, reporters, stretching down the sidewalks as far as the hotels some of them are staying at.

Police and security dot the vicinity with their presence, from the parked cruisers that help redirect traffic, to the guards who do random patdowns to check for weapons and laser pointers.

Even refreshment tables are there since the entire line has been growing for hours long.

In the actual hotel/exhibition centre, David Bateson is chewing on a Snickers bar – his reflection silhouettes his walking cane behind the glass. It's like a piece of him is going away with it. And a weight off his mind. Then the custodians tow his cane away, along with the numerous treasures he's found throughout his travels.

And Renton, he is also chewing a Snickers bar. While his stage outfit is ready in the dressing room, he's wearing normal clothes.

"Just talk with David Bateson and lead him into letting you have your hands on the cane. The loading area has a few blindspots in their surveillence, and I'll show up moments later to congratulate Bateson and his crew in their efforts – that's when you make the switch. Hide the real staff in a blindspot, and we'll retrieve it later."

Everyone is already murmuring in the stagearea, and Renton can feel the hefty weight of the retractable cane in his pockets, as he wanders into the loading bay, where David is overseeing the process of every item, film memorablia, jade doll being fitted into its display case.

How am I supposed to get his cane? It's not they'll be willing to undo the boxing just for me..

Doubt gives Renton pause over Swain's idea. A part of him wants to turn back and ask Swain if maybe he should rethink it. He continues forth anyway, and with a slight change of perspective, sees the glass case beside David in which the cane rests.

"Young lad-!" David goes, spotting Renton. "I know you're not one of the faces I usually see here! It's not an appropriate place for you to be – were you looking for the washroom?"

The loud whirs of the drills intermittently erupt through the room.

"Yeah.." Renton scratches the back of his neck. "I was. I got a little lost – I'm in a hurry for the show. Can you show me?"

Bateson checks his watch. More than enough time. So he leads Renton back to the halls..

"Around your age Renton," he says, with a slight lisp in his step, "I didn't really dream big, truth be told. I was what you'd call lazy and modest. I thought the best I could aspire to was being a content pencil-pusher in the offices."

"I don't know yet what I want to aspire to," Renton goes, feeling a tinge of embarassment go through him as they pass by a WC sign that has the gendered stick people pointing in the right direction.

"There's no need to hurry yourself. A lot of the historical greats didn't know what they really wanted to pursue until they were well into their middle ages.. you, my lad, it seems like you've got a lot of spirit showing through you."

"That's really encouraging."

The men's washroom, you turn right at a juncture between the men's and women's. Some music from the first act plays very distantly, as the frightened yelps from Heimerdinger suggest that LeBlanc is slapping his ass over the poorly-made Antoinette cake.

"There we are," Bateson says.

Renton is at an impasse – Bateson is just going to turn back around, and he'll be left in awkwardness if Bateson sees him stumbling by again. Why did he even run along with 'going to the washroom'? That was foolish-

"Oh, now that I think of it," David Bateson goes, "I could use the little men's room too."

So after Renton takes a whiz, he mentions to David about his 'famous' cane that he used to be walking around with. "What happened to your cane?"

"I'm giving it away for the auction tonight."

Renton notices his frown in the washroom mirror.

"You're going to miss your cane, aren't you?" Renton goes.

"We've been through so much together." David pats his face after he's given it a splash. "It even saved my friend's life."

"Really? That must be one cool cane..! If I could have had the chance to touch it beforehand.."

A beat. David eyeballs Renton, and then the idea hits him – the last thing he does with his cane should be something happy, and what better moment for finality, than to let this boy take a look with his own eyes?

"Tell you what Renton," he goes, "You can run your fingers along all its intricate lines if you like. The auction isn't for another half-hour anyways."

"Oh – you're so gracious!" Yeesss!

Coming back to the loading room, David is opening the cane's display case. The workers ask him what he's doing, and he's explaining that he's giving his cane a last, sentimental hurrah. After the case's security alarm has been deactivated, he unlatches the cover, and lets his fingers carry it over to Renton.

It's really thrilling to hold a piece of history in your own hands. By touching it, it's like you become a part of its history. No longer is it just a vague idea you'd find off a library book, with the old picture to prove its existence outside of words.

The light faintly sheens over the staff of Ra's surface as Renton turns it over, revealing the numerous micro-scratches it's accumulated. Somehow it feels lighter than the fake staff Renton's been carrying, and then the thought hits him – wouldn't Bateson know right away that it's fake from the switch? If he gets his hands on the fake..

Where is Swain? He's supposed to show up any second.

"I like it very much," Renton goes, hoping that light talk will let him hold the staff longer. "What did it look like when you first picked it up?"

David snatches the cane from him. "There were bronze gildings over it. 1952. The excavation site of Hamunaptra, where we were looking for the Egyptian tomes buried by Nasus's tomb. Mon dieu, it was so hot. It was a souvenir from what we found, and I kept it – helped me trek back through the desert."

"Ooh. You were an archaeologist?" Renton's hands are just eager to get the staff back.

"Yeah. From China to Greece and the Mayan ruins. Now I'm selling off the last of what I have. It'll be lonely with just my memories, but my work will go on better appreciated once I stop clinging to the past, so to speak." Bateson runs his hands down its whole length, and Renton could swear that there was a weird glow from the staff, before his focus snaps back to his mission.

"Hey, I'm not done looking at it."

The magic show is being broadcast on TVs, and Renton hears the applause over the first act's ending. Swain's going to be in the second act..! It's going to be starting very soon, and he hasn't even come yet.

"I have to put my cane back now, young lad," Bateson goes.

A deluge of confusion. What is Renton to do now? His head is swirling, wanting to snag the staff away and run, or just plain head off and report back to the dressing room.

Then after he hears: "Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise. One of our principle cast members is currently unavailable. But we promise, the show will go on! He should be around shortly." And the groans and uneased murmurs of the audience.

"Umm, excuse me," Renton pips. "I need to be somewhere." And he is striding off – his hesitation dispelled with the fact that Swain is missing from the whole picture. Everything is starting to go wrong..

"What's that all about?" David asks to himself. "Funny lad."

January 2017

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