"So. That's four separate cases, signed in triplicate, organised alphabetically-" Mary sighed, staring at the pile that represented three weeks of work and denying herself sleep. But it was done. It was finally done-
"I don't see what the big problem is," Jocelyn said, with a yawn. She had only just gotten up, avoiding being late once again; while she looked, from a distance, perfectly groomed, there were little details that gave her early-morning rush away. Her name tag was on upside down, for one; her ponytail was already slipping loose; her shirt was untucked at the back, and she had two different coloured socks on. Mary didn't care; she knew how hard it was for Jocelyn to appear immaculate all the time. It was hard for all of them. Not that he seemed to care.
He was their boss. He was not referred to by name, except to his face or to other Immortals; but just among the assistants, a pronoun was all he needed.
"I mean," Jocelyn continued, after another yawn and a stretch, "people die all the time and there's never this much fuss."
"Immortals don't usually die," Mary reminded her, taking off her glasses and wiping them with the hem of her tailored shirt. "And they don't usually give their powers away. And they don't usually-"
"I get the point, I get the point." Jocelyn twitched her nose. "Still. They're not doing all this fuss for Liu Kang, now are they?"
Mary stopped, suddenly, saddened by the thought. Was it only three weeks ago that the battle with Lightning had come to a terrifying climax, resulting in the death of Hiko, Nova, and Liu Kang. It didn't seem like three weeks. It seemed like an eternity. "I knew Liu Kang quite well," she said, solemnly.
"You went to the funeral, didn't you?" Jocelyn asked, quietly.
Mary nodded. "Not officially, but I did watch from a distance-"
There was a knock on the heavy door, and then it opened, revealing him-none other than the secretaries Commander-in-Chief: Adiutor, God of Assistants.
"Are those reports done?" He demanded, imperiously. "The Council and the Elders would like to see them, immediately."
Mary and Jocelyn both stood there, silent.
"What is going on?" Adiutor looked from one to the other. "What's the matter?"
"They both want copies?" Jocelyn squeaked. "But... you said... you only wanted the one copy!"
"That was ages ago," Adiutor replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Don't tell me you haven't gotten them done!"
"Fine then, we won't tell you." Mary glared at him. Adiutor seemed a little flustered; he tried to regain his larger-than-life attitude.
"I've had enough back-talk from you, mortal, and-"
"We can have them for you by tonight," Mary continued, as if she didn't hear him. "That's the soonest we can get them done."
"Tonight?" Adiutor blurted. "But- but-"
"Unless," Mary added, "you assign someone else to our team."
Adiutor, trying hard not to think about what would happen to him if either the Council or the Elders got on his case about the late files, gulped. "I can arrange that. I will send another secretary in immediately-"
"But don't just send us a recruit," Mary continued, blithely. "We need someone used to working in the Hall, not someone straight from Thryhyrne."
Adiutor nodded, and turned on his heels and left.
Jocelyn stared at her in awe. "How do you do that?"
"Do what?" Mary was looking intently at the piles of paperwork, representing, alternately, death and rebirth.
"Boss Adiutor around like that. I mean, he's a god. He's Karoshi's brother!"
Mary cast her co-worker and friend a withering glare. "It's Adiutor, not Lord Thunder. Adiutor has as much back-bone as kelp."
"But-" Jocelyn stopped. "I don't see how you can just speak up like that."
Mary shrugged. "I wasn't always like that. But if it's one thing that this job has taught me-" she picked up the files, "it's that life's too short to waste with idiots like Adiutor. Come on, we've got a lot of work to do. It's only 8.30."
10.45am, Omniversal Time
There was a knock at the door. "Come in," Mary called, without turning.
"Hello?" called a male voice. "Lord Adiutor sent me to help with the paperwork-"
Both women turned to see a strikingly handsome Thryhyrne mortal standing at the door, waiting to be allowed in. Tall, sandy-blonde hair, blue eyes... Both Mary and Jocelyn got to their feet, tucking in their shirts as they did so, making sure their hair was okay, trying to make themselves more presentable.
"I'm David," the secretary said, holding out his hand. Mary was the first to shake it, beating Jocelyn to the punch. "He said that you two needed help catching up."
Jocelyn fumed. "He changed the specifications!"
"Like always," Mary added. "Uh, David, we're a little short of space in this office, but you can share my desk, it's no problem-"
"Or mine," Jocelyn added, breathlessly.
David laughed. "Thanks-but I was thinking we could take the work out of the office-say, to the Hall. There's more than enough room, and it's not quite so stuffy."
Mary blushed. "There's very little cross-ventilation," she offered, lamely, feeling sheepish. The office was a little on the stuffy side.
Jocelyn nodded. "I tried to keep plants, but He wouldn't let me."
"He's got bad allergies, I think," David commiserated. "He threw out my benjamina."
"That's terrible," Jocelyn replied, beating Mary to the punch. Before she could say anything else, Mary interrupted.
"Maybe the Hall is a good idea, change of pace might help us loosen up," she said, elbowing Jocelyn. "Don't you think so?"
"Absolutely," Jocelyn replied, fluttering her eyelashes.
David grinned again. "Great. Now, where is the paperwork? I'll help you ladies carry the boxes."
12.30pm, Omniversal Time
"This is much better," Jocelyn said, for the hundredth time, as they were sitting at one of the tables in the Library. "Much more peaceful."
Mary rolled her eyes. "You can't get any more peaceful than the office, the place is like a tomb."
David laughed, although he didn't look up from his pile of the reports. "You sound bitter, Mary."
"I'm not," she was quick to reply. "Really. I enjoy being a secretary to the Immortals-I just like getting out more."
"So I hear," David commented. "You're always the first to volunteer for Referee Duty."
"And she gets kidnapped, too," Jocelyn added helpfully.
"What?" David looked up.
Mary blushed behind her glasses. "That only happened the one time. And I wasn't really kidnapped-it-well-long story."
"The whole Lukas affair, right?" David nodded. "I had a cousin that was murdered."
"Oh-" both Jocelyn and Mary seemed quick to offer apologies, but David waved them away before they could start.
"It's all right. It had nothing to do with you. I heard," he started anew, steering the conversation, "that you teamed up with several Earth mortals in the rescue."
Mary paled, unable to say anything. Jocelyn patted her back, and shook her head at David. He didn't seem to understand what was going on, but he got the hint.
"I'm sorry if I said something wrong-" he began.
"No, no," Mary said, shaking her head, "No, it had nothing to do with you. Just... sad memories, I guess. Anyway. Let's try and talk about something more lighthearted, okay? I mean, all this talking about death and stuff-"
"I know what you mean," David said, quickly. He looked at his watch. "Hey-it's almost lunchtime. Why don't we break early, take a rest from all these reports?"
"Oh! We could go to the Bar, have a drink--" Jocelyn offered, glad to have a topic that she knew was all right to talk about.
"Sounds like a plan," David agreed, starting to put the files back in the file folders. "You up for that, Mary?"
"Absolutely," she agreed at once. "It's a plan."
1.00pm, Omniversal Time
"And no one's seen him for weeks," Jocelyn said, leaning forward so that she could keep her voice low. The Bar was crawling with Immortals, most of whom ignored the parcel of mortals, but who wouldn't mind picking on them in the slightest, if given provocation.
"He's the Guardian, he can take care of himself," Mary chided. "That's why he's the Guardian."
Jocelyn giggled. "He can take care of me, too, if he wants to."
"Jocelyn," Mary groaned. "You're terrible."
"No I'm not. The Guardian is gorgeous. Have you seen those eyes of his? Mmmm. By the Creator, they make me melt."
"That's not hard. You melt easier than a ice cube in Maresium."
"What's this about Maresium?" David pushed his way through the crowd, bearing a tray with their after-lunch drinks on it. "What'd I miss?"
"Nothing," the two women chimed.
"Thanks for getting the drinks," Mary added, taking her glass of beer. Jocelyn had a white wine, and David had a lager. Normally, when Kerlan was on duty, all that was served was nectar, something which very few mortals ever got a taste for; but most weekdays Marie was on the lunch shift, and she always had a few mortal-friendly beverages on tap.
"No problem. Now, what was it you guys were talking about? Don't make me feel all left out," David continued, his eyes twinkling. Mary and Jocelyn exchanged glances.
"We were talking about Jikan Tai," Jocelyn admitted. She started to blush, but her friend saved her.
"Yes-about how some people think he's gone missing," Mary finished.
David nodded. "I've heard Kerlan talking about that-the Guardian has taken off before, but not like this."
"Yes he has," Jocelyn suddenly blurted, looking thoughtful. "It was a few months ago, remember?"
The pair stared at her.
"Yeah, I think I remember something about that," David replied, nodding. "It wasn't very public news-they tried to suppress the information about it."
Mary was sitting, quietly, thinking. "I remember," she said, almost in a whisper. Then she snapped out of it. "I was working in the Council room when he barged in, ranting about Nova. Then he disappeared for a few weeks."
"Really?" Jocelyn and David seemed entranced. Neither of them had the experience that Mary did with working among Immortals.
She nodded. "But then he showed up again, and ran off to Earthrealm-" she trailed off, the colour draining from her face. "That was right about the time Lightning showed up."
Jocelyn stared at her. "You're kidding."
Mary shook her head. "It's in the reports-Lord Rayden's statements and everything. Remember there was that line about Jikan Tai that we found odd and that He said we should take out?"
"What? What's this?" David repeated, confused, and curious.
Jocelyn nodded, her eyes bright. "We took the report that Lord Rayden wrote out-and there was one line about-what was it, Mary?"
"Something about Jikan Tai opening the door for Lightning-"
"No, no, it was 'Jikan Tai opened the pool for Lightning'," Jocelyn interrupted. "Lord Rayden said that was the way it had been told to him by the Guardian. And then He said that we should take that line out, that it wasn't important."
David whistled. "A conspiracy in the upper ranks-this is great!"
"David," Mary said tersely, touching his arm where it rested on the table, "You can't tell anybody about this. I mean, we haven't been sworn to secrecy, or anything like that, but still..."
"My lips are sealed," David agreed quickly. "But I don't see what the big deal could be about this-I mean, Jikan Tai wasn't in league with Lightning. He fought against her, for the Creator's sake."
Mary shrugged. "I don't know. I just know what I've been told, and what I read."
Jocelyn shivered. "Still. Just because he's gone again doesn't mean anything's going to happen."
"True enough," David replied. "It's not like every time he shows up a major disaster happens."
"No, but you know who does forecast disaster: Sonya," Mary said, suddenly. "Every time I see that woman, something bad happens."
"That's not true, and anyway, she's a goddess now, you have to say 'Lady'," Jocelyn told her, sternly.
"She's not, and I'm not going to. I knew her back when she was a mortal like us and I'm not going to start bowing and scraping now." Mary finished off her beer. She found David staring at her, his mouth open.
"Mary's fearless," Jocelyn offered.
"I'm not," Mary argued. "I just... don't see any reason to beat around the bush."
"She talks back to Him," Jocelyn continued.
"She's the one who ordered him to transfer you over here," Jocelyn finished, smugly. Mary was furious; David was staring at her in awe.
"I did not order Him. I just said, if He wants the reports done by-" Mary looked at her watch, then leapt up in horror. "It's almost one-thirty! We've got to get back to work!"
"Dammit," Jocelyn whined. "I don't want to see another report for as long as I live."
"If we don't get those reports to the Elders in time, you won't live long period," Mary snapped. "Come on."
3.25pm, Omniversal Time
"This is great," Jocelyn said, absentmindedly chewing on the tip of her pencil. "Having David around, I mean."
"Yeah, we're almost done," Mary agreed, stamping reports. "And if it was just the two of us, we'd be doing overtime."
"That's not all I mean," Jocelyn continued, devilishly, in a sing-song voice.
"Jocelyn," Mary sighed.
"Oh come on, Miss Prissy Pants. You enjoy having him around as much as I do."
"Because he's an efficient worker."
"Uh huh. I caught you staring at him."
"I was not."
They broke off the argument, both breaking into grins.
"Okay, maybe I do think he's attractive, but still..." Mary admitted that, but she wasn't going to go too far. "But my first priority is working."
"Your first priority is always working. You need to get out more." Jocelyn checked her watch. "Where is he? I thought he just went to get stamps."
"Maybe he stopped by the Council to flirt with Stephanie," Mary suggested. "She'll chase anything, she's probably got her hooks into him already."
Jocelyn's face fell. "You think so?"
"They both work-use to work-Council meetings together." Mary looked back to her stamping. "I need more ink."
"I need a break," Jocelyn added.
"You need a brain," Mary corrected. "We're almost done."
The door opened, and David walked in. "Hey, I got the stamps."
"Good," Jocelyn said, with a fake smile. She paused, then launched into: "How's Stephanie?"
"Huh? She's fine-as far as I know. Haven't talked to her since last Friday. Sorry I was late, but He caught me in the halls, to give me a lecture." David gave Mary a fresh inkpad, seeing that she was running low.
"Give me fifteen more minutes, and we're done for the day," Mary announced. "Then I'll run over to the Council session."
"Oh, count me out," Jocelyn squeaked. "I hate meeting the Elders-they always look at me like I'm worthless."
"They look at everybody who aren't Elders as though they're trash," David consoled her. "I mean, I've only met Ariel once, but he was really cold."
"Ariel's always cold," Mary said, absentmindedly, "Once, when I was refereeing the Tournament between him and Halversian-"
"Oops," Jocelyn interrupted. "You dropped something, Mary."
"I did?" she looked to the floor. "What did I drop?"
"A name." Jocelyn glowered.
Mary rolled her eyes. "Give it up. I've offered you positions on the referee committee-"
"I hate refereeing. That one Agri Tournament was enough for me." Jocelyn sat back, her arms crossed. "Are you done yet?"
Mary was about snap something in reply, but David just laughed. "Patience, Jocelyn, patience. I'll run over to the Council with you, Mary."
"Sure." She stamped furiously. 'There. All done."
David looked at his watch. "And only quarter to four. Good job, guys. No homework!"
Jocelyn cheered. Mary stretched as she got to her feet.
4.00pm, Omniversal Time
"This is great-we get off early today!" David exclaimed, as they headed down the corridor to the Hall. "Normally-with the Council-we stay late so often I've started thinking of eight o'clock as quitting time."
"I can't wait to go home," she agreed. "This has been an exhausting day."
"It's not over yet," David added. "I was wondering-do you have any plans for dinner?"
Mary stopped in her tracks, considering. "I'm don't have any plans, but I'm not sure about Jocelyn-"
"I'm not asking Jocelyn," he replied, with a bit of a smile. "I'm asking you. Just you."
Mary blinked, and pushed her glasses up. They'd fallen down her nose again. "Like-as a date?"
"Exactly like." David was looking at her, waiting for her response. "Of course, if you're already seeing someone-"
"Nope, not at all," Mary replied, almost too quickly. "Nope, dinner sounds great. Fabulous. What time?"
"About six? Even if he insists on keeping us til the end of the day, that still leaves an hour for a break, to freshen up."
Mary grinned. "Great. The Bar?"
David nodded. "I was thinking that we could-"
"Mary! David!" It was Adiutor, storming down the corridor after them. "Do you have the reports? Good! I want them immediately-the Elders are most displeased-" Mary held out the folders; he snatched them and hurried off, leaving the two mortals behind.
"That was rude," David remarked.
Mary shrugged. "He's a deity. That means he gets to think he can treat us like dirt."
David held out his arm. "C'mon. We'll start dinner early. As I was saying, I was thinking we could fetch some food from the Bar, and then eat it outside in the Elder Garden."
"That's a great idea," Mary agreed.
8.30pm, Omniversal Time
"And she said that? With her mike still on?" David laughed, as they were walking back to the Mortal Quarter of the Elder Realm, the section where all the Omniversal Assistants lived. "That must have been priceless."
"It was," Mary agreed, remembering. "But that Tournament was a lot of work-more so than usual. And of course-that was also the Tournament where Eli-" She trailed off.
"You were there when that happened?" he asked, curious. "By the Name, you've seen a lot."
Mary shrugged. "Sometimes I wish I didn't. But I guess I'm happy the way everything's worked out. I could be a lot worse off-like Eli." Eli, fresh from his training on Earthrealm, had been bought out by Shao Khan during the Agri Tournament; the mortal had installed the security cameras that caught Rayden's cheating during a match. Shao Khan still lost the battle, and as a result killed Eli, just for being in the wrong place and the wrong time.
David let the conversation die out; he sensed that Mary was in need of some time alone. She became very sombre whenever Earthrealm was brought up in the conversation; he was curious as to why, but knew that there was plenty of time to find out. "I hope we'll bump into each other tomorrow," he said, finally, when the silence got too awkward.
Mary looked up, startled. "What are you talking about?"
"I was only transferred over for today," David explained, sadly. "Tomorrow I'm back with Steph in the Council Hall."
"That's terrible," Mary blurted. "I mean... uh..."
He laughed again. "I know what you mean, don't worry. It's all right. We can still see each other after work-how about Friday?"
Mary nodded. "I'd like that."
"Good." David looked like he was about to say something else; but then he didn't. After a long pause, all he could manage was: "Here's your apartment."
"So it is," Mary agreed. She wanted to kiss him, but felt it was too forward; he seemed to be having the same feeling.
"Well... six o'clock, the Bar, Friday?" he blurted, to ease the tension. She nodded. "Good."
"Very good," she agreed.
"I guess I'll see you then, then."
"Yeah, see you."
He started to walk away, turning to wave. She waved back, smiling.
9.00pm, Omniversal Time
"Did you smooch him? Did you smooch him?" Jocelyn started jumping up and down. "By the Creator, I'd like to-"
"Everybody knows you'd like to," Mary sighed. "How long are you planning on staying?" Jocelyn lived in the apartment next door; she and Mary had exchanged keys so that if one was staying late, the other could take care of her cat or houseplants. Maomao, Mary's pet, wound himself around her legs; she picked him up and rubbed him under the chin, so that he would purr.
"I'm going to go as soon as you fill me in," Jocelyn replied, with a pout. "I figured that when you two didn't come back to the office that you were off in a closet, somewhere."
"Please, Jocelyn," Mary chided, setting Maomao down. "Nothing happened. Nothing like that, anyway. We had supper, that was it."
"Uh huh." Jocelyn looked suspicious.
"Really, that was it."
"I believe you."
"No you don't."
"You're right, I don't." Jocelyn sighed. "Oh well, I suppose it's for the best."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Mary demanded, taking off her glasses to wipe them off.
"Just that you've been all mopey about Liu Kang," Jocelyn replied.
Mary glared. "I was good friends with him. I'm upset that he's died."
"I know. And that's why David is good-to get you over him."
"There's nothing to be over! We were just good friends!" Mary snapped.
"Sure you were, Mary. Sure you were." Jocelyn sauntered over to the door. "I'll see you tomorrow-another day, another Omniversal crisis."
"Bye, Jocelyn," Mary replied, shutting the door after her friend. Jocelyn was crazy. Mary wasn't hung up over Liu Kang. Far from it. Just because they'd fought together-and kissed-not that Jocelyn knew about that-didn't mean anything. Right?
"Exactly," Mary answered him, and herself. "David is perfectly nice. Cute, smart, friendly-what more can a girl ask for?"
The cat meowed again.
"And anyway, even if I was hung up on Liu Kang, it's not like he's going to come back into my life, now is he?" She scratched him under the chin. "Maybe she's right. Time to move on, Maomao. Let bygones be bygones."
10.30pm, Omniversal Time
Mary snuggled down, clicking off the light, and putting her glasses on the end table. Maomao was curled up at the bottom the bed, already asleep. "All in all," she murmured to herself, "it's been quite a good day." She adjusted her pillow, laid her head down, and was asleep in moments.
7.00am, Omniversal Time
The alarm went off with a sudden blaring beep. Mary, startled, bolted awake. "Aw, crap," she groaned. "Time for work again...?"