The ten minutes Mike had been gone were starting to feel like ten months and Dina was already plummeting from her last sugar/caffeine fix.
“I must say, your reprehensible dietary habits don’t show on you at all, Miss Caliente.”
“Thanks.” She managed, with a chocolate coated tongue.
“I should warn you Michael was not blessed with such a miraculous metabolism. When he was younger he was quite the little —”
"Pudding face, yeah, I've heard." She sighed. “What do you want, Mortimer?”
“I’d like to dance, Miss Caliente.”
So it was back to formalities again between them; she wasn’t sure if that was good or bad sign. “I’m not much of a dancer.”
“Oh, everyone here is well aware of that after your Smustle performance.” He took her hand, chuckling. “But no worries. If you injure me, I’ll just make myself into a cyborg.”
While Mike had been content to just sway and cuddle like middleschoolers, Mortimer did not hold himself back to let her keep up with him. Something about the dance floor scrambled her brain, so every step was on the wrong foot or the wrong way and never on beat. The most she could do was concentrate on not tripping.
“Wearing that mint perfume again? I’m sure Michael liked that," he said, leading/dragging her in the direction of the other dancers. "A little too much, it seems.”
“I’m sorry that I upset your wife. That’s the last thing I’d ever want to do. Ever.”
"I’m 98.7% certain she’ll survive the trauma,” he said, but his eyes were dodging hers.
Bella's screeching kept playing through her mind. She couldn't picture herself reacting that way to anyone, not even if she'd walked in on Nina and Donald. “Does she hate me?”
He scoffed. “Bella doesn’t hate. Hatred’s for the mundane.”
“But she doesn’t think I’m good enough for her brother?”
“It’s nothing personal; it’s just Bella. One has to earn her approval. That's what makes it so vaulable.”
“How? I’ll do anything.”
“Oh...slaying monsters, collecting golden fleece, visitations to the underworld and such. Twelve labors or so should do it.”
“Well, she seems to like Nina just fine. What’d she do that’s so impressive?”
“Ah, yes. She had a head start, you see, Bella always favors the underdog.”
“Underdog? In what, anger management?”
“The clever, introverted sister, always in the shadow of the popular cheerleader? She was on her side from the beginning.”
“Cheerleader?” She broke the dance hold. “Wait, are you talking about me? I can’t even clap in rhythm!”
"Yes, Bella pointed out your lack of coordination as proof of the innate corruption in the jock/cheerleader oligarchy of public high school." He shrugged. "I have no siblings and never went to public school, so it's not for me to say she's wrong on this."
Dina stared at him, speechless.
“But sibling rivalry aside, she most admires your sister as someone who can look past the exterior and see the beauty within.” He glanced over at the veranda.
“You mean Servo? That whole relationship was MY idea! Don’t I get Bella points for that?”
“Possibly. Would you say you’ve always seen Servo as a person rather than a machine?”
“Are you kidding me? I bought him a freakin’ toothbrush! I can see inner beauty like it was on the outside!"
“What about that fox over there?”
“What?” She thought she must have misheard him.
“The fox in the grass. You said you were perceptive, so prove it to me. Can you see its ‘inner beauty’?” His words matched where he was pointing but they still weren't making sense.
“Now you’re just making fun of me.”
“I promise I’m going somewhere with this. Now tell me, truthfully, do you sense anything strange about that fox?”
“Well, it's a woodland creature sitting quietly in the presence of a bunch of humans... and vampires and witches et cetera. Maybe it’s a pet? That wouldn't be the strangest thing here by a mile.” Dina's throat felt dry. And chocolatey. “Look, if this is some sort of trick to confuse the dumb blonde ‘cheerleader’ — ”
“Hair color has no effect on intelligence other than social conditioning," he cut in, his voice low and warm. "And I don’t think you’re unintelligent, Dina. Not anymore. I think you have an extraordinary mind.”
“Gently used. Dare I say, mint condition?” His chuckle was like a taser to the gut. “But it’s foolish to pretend you don’t know what you do. If you really want to earn Bella’s respect, you need to embrace what makes you extraordinary. Not hide it.”
“How do you figure that?” he asked, eyes twinkling.
“She’s the real deal isn’t she?”
“Define ‘real deal’.”
“A fairy?” she whispered. “I mean, I wouldn't give a pink car to some fake psychic. I knew she was special. Maybe that’s why I shouldn’t have trusted her.”
“How did you know?” He'd never sounded so interested in what she had to say.
“Some people just have a vibe about them. I can't explain it.”
"Like the security guard at the museum?”
“You were able to tell he had an exploitable addiction to grilled cheese just by looking at him.”
“That’s just normal observation; it’s what salespeople do." She shook her head. "I'm not even that good at it. If I was I wouldn’t have let Titania trick me into marrying the biggest douchebag in town."
“I think you’re more exceptional than you realize, Dina. If only you could perceive that.”
He added, “but of course my hypotheses doesn’t mean much until it’s been put the test. Are you familiar with the scientific method?”
“I would like to run a few scientific tests on you, Dina, in my laboratory. To truly verify what makes you extraordinary.”
“I’m not a test subject and there’s nothing about me worth studying.”
“You heard me. You’d better listen, unless you want to end up like the last guy who was too full of himself to listen to me.”
“Hey, is everything okay here?” It was a relief to hear her sister's voice.
“Yeah, I’m ready to go. Let’s find Mike.” She turned to leave without so much as a goodbye to Mortimer.
“Michael, what did you do? This was working fine until you showed up!”
“I didn’t do anything! Maybe you just don’t know what you’re doing.”
Siblings had a way of regressing eachother back to grade school. No one could bring out the Bachelor in Bella like her big brother, try as she might to choke that part of her down.
“Do you even know what this thing is?”
“Yeah! Mom told us about it. It’s the…uh...sorcerer's stone.”
“PHILOSOPHER’S, you plebian.”
“Isn’t it dangerous? Why do you need to turn something into gold?”
“As I’m sure an ‘alchemical expert’ like you already knows, Michael, it also summons the dead. Or at least it did a minute ago.”
“I thought summoning the dead was one of your taboos?”
“That’s none of your concern!”
“Wow. Remind me to never buy that brand."
Bella put on her most commanding voice. “Don’t touch anything in this cabinet. Tell no one what you’ve seen here tonight.”
“Tell them what? I have no idea what’s going on.”
“It’s none of your business. What are you even doing here?”
“I wanted to talk to you about Dina.”
Bella scoffed. “You really don’t want to hear what I have to say.”
“She’s not like my other girlfriends; she’s not prejudiced towards magic or anyone, and she really looks up to you—"
“So she doesn’t want to burn us at the stake; do you expect me to sing her praises for that? Just because she likes sparkly things and toadies up to powerful people doesn’t mean she respects our heritage. That’s the kind of thinking that turned Magictown into a tourist trap.”
“Do you even listen to yourself, Bella? Do you hear how judgemental you are? You sound just like —”
Bella cut him off on his favorite dig; it had lost most of it's sting from overuse. “I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself to trust that woman. She’s moved on awfully quickly from her last relationship and she’s moving awfully fast with you.”
Bella sighed. “I have trouble believing her ‘relationship’ with Ocean was about anything other than money.”
“Well, I’m hardly a Landgraab.”
“You have connections, Michael. Connections that a social climber might take interest in.”
“Are you saying she’s using me?”
“I don’t need to. You just did.”
“You don’t know her. You don’t know anything about her. And you’re not going to ruin this one. I won’t let you.”
“Don’t blame me for you failed love life, Michael. It’s not my fault you have bad taste in women!”
“It’s your fault for lighting them on fire.”
“That only happened once!”