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Traces of Doubt

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35. Undisguised

Everybody agreed upon it: the M-clones had definitely overdone themselves. Several times over. Any one of the people milling around the stage construction could swear it by anything. The two Queens had given their all, supported by a light show that had made spectators gasp, and a sound system that didn't leave the tiniest nuance of the music to speculation. The live show had been followed by magnificent fireworks that had almost resulted in numerous dislocated jaws and necks, with the people gaping and 'ooh'ing and 'aah'ing at the sight. Praise was showered from all directions on Vanya, who looked modestly pleased and kept reminding that the stunning event had really been the handiwork of an inventive and enthusiastic team of MC's, and that he had only acted as the explosives expert.

Now the stage was empty, the official program over, and the real party was only beginning. Loads of snacks and drinks had been arranged all around the party area, carefully identified and labeled - a necessary precaution with so many genetically enhanced humans around. Although the TC's were the ones with the least tolerance for alcohol, they weren't the only ones whose metabolism didn't quite know what to do with it. But the lack of chemical stimulants didn't stop anyone from feeling festive enough. The place was thumping with rhythm, people were dancing on and around the stage, with glasses and even plates in their hands. Multi-colored lights dotted the darkness - with fireworks on the menu, one consideration had been to find a suitably sunless day - and made everything look distinctly unreal.

They also made it considerably more difficult to spot any particular person, no matter how well one might know what said person looked like. But half of the fun was in the searching, which was why Maurice Radysson didn't let his lack of success hinder himself from the quest. A glass in hand, he stopped for a moment next to a pillar supporting one of the lamp clusters. There he was in relative darkness and had a good view at the surrounding crowd. It had taken a while before his eye had got used to the baffling number of similar faces around, but now his gaze already skimmed routinely past the reveling S-clones and M-clones, and spotted a few 'random' humans a little further away. But no, they weren't the ones he was looking for, the tall dark man and the curly-haired one next to him. Ah, but was that a flash of golden? Maurice took a deep breath and plunged into the throng, eyes riveted to the blond head he had glimpsed.

"Sal!" Troy shouted, clasping the clone's hand tighter. "Where are you going?"

"To dance!" Salvador was glowing. Troy shook his head in desperation.

"Give me a break! I want something cold, I'm thirsty!"

"All right," Sal relented and followed his friend. Troy grabbed a bottle from the coolers and emptied nearly half of it in one swig, then smacked his lips in satisfaction.

"Lifesaver!" he sighed. "What're you trying to do, wear me out completely?"

"No way!" Sal grinned and fetched himself a fresh drink as well. "Dancing is so much fun! I remember a party on Tabaimo, Troy. It was somewhere by the lake, in a house on a pier or something. Did we sometimes go to such a party?"

"We did," Troy nodded, the corner of his mouth twitching. "But I'm surprised you remember anything of it."

"Why?" Sal asked cocking his head. "I only remember flashes. The house, with lights inside, it looked beautiful. And many of our classmates. Pia, she was dancing on the table. And later, Mughar fell into the water - what are you laughing at? Troy?"

"He sure did," Troy hiccuped, "because you pushed him there!"

"No I didn't," Sal protested, but Troy laughed so hard that he had to brace himself against the table.

"Ben sure did..." At last Troy caught his breath and wiped his eyes. "That was the one and only time when the guys decided to get you - Ben, that is - drunk. You always refused alcohol, so they sneaked some wine into a drink and distracted you, so that you drank some of it before you noticed anything. After that I sure understood why you never drank..."

He burst laughing again, and Sal could only wait impatiently for him to recover enough to continue.

"You were totally impossible... a little too playful, for one thing. Mughar didn't get hurt, and everybody, him included, thought it was hilarious. But that was when I decided that it was definitely time to take you home. And then, on the way back, we walked through that park..."

"I remember it," Sal said softly. "It was one of the first things I remembered, wasn't it? You and me, sitting under that tree, it was dark and you told me not to cuddle the way I did."

"Yes," Troy almost whispered. "You were getting sleepy pretty quick, and I was afraid I'd have to carry you back, the way you curled up beside me..."

Salvador sighed and sidled up to Troy, who put his arms around the slim blonde and kissed him slowly. Then he hissed when something cold pressed against his bare neck.

"Sal, you - you prankster!"

"Didn't mean it!" Salvador hastily slunk behind the table, bottle still in hand. "It was an accident, honest - oops, sorry!"

"No damage done!" Edmé smiled, somehow managing to avoid a collision. "I hope you haven't had anything too strong to drink, Sal?"

"He hasn't, unless being on a sugar high counts," Troy grinned. "Have you enjoyed the evening, Edmé?"

"Do you even need to ask?" The graying doctor chuckled. "Tremendously. Decided to use the opportunity and get some more drinks, as I've been relieved of my wife for a moment. Dean is a real shark on the dance floor, have you noticed?"

"Haven't seen him now," Troy said. "We've been dancing, but there are so many people at the moment that it's hard to spot anyone in particular."

"True enough," Edmé said, then looked assessingly at the two young men. "But in fact I've been hoping to bump into you at some point today."

"Well, here we are!" Salvador preened a little, venturing to slip next to Troy and wrap an arm around his waist. Troy didn't protest.

"Yes, there you are, gentlemen," Edmé nodded. "I wanted to ask if you were really serious about what you said when you returned from Chalmer? That you're going to study medicine?"

The two glanced at each other and then nodded at the same time. "Yes, we are."

"Even you, Troy? Of course you've had something of a pause now, since you came here, but - would you really drop out of physics for good? You weren't far away from graduating!"

"I know," Troy said. "But we are serious. And it's not just because we definitely want to be together. We've thought about it a lot - what we'd start doing, now that Sal is okay."

"I don't want to study physics," Salvador explained. "It's all gone, wiped away, and I'd feel somehow eerie restarting it... not to mention how eerie it would be for Troy. Besides, I want to do something with people."

"Me too," Troy said. "So we thought we'd give it a try. I already have all the qualifications for university, and I might even be able to transfer not only from one university but also from one faculty to another."

"And I'm going to study hard to qualify," Sal added. "I know I can do it."

Edmé shook his head with an incredulous smile. "Good heavens, I'm proud of you both! I'm sure you can do it, no doubt about that. And, if that's how you feel, then I'm sure you're doing the right thing."

"Thanks, Edmé!" Sal said earnestly. "It means a lot, hearing you say so."

"André?"

They all whirled around. Maurice, pushing through the dance floor, did a double take and then grinned in mortification. "Sorry... I just saw you for a moment, and thought you were André."

"Indeed I'm not, but I think we saw him not long ago," Sal said helpfully. "Over there, near the stage. You might take a look there."

Maurice thanked them and navigated around the biggest crowd, eyes scanning the surroundings. He was nearly distracted again when he saw another very blond head to his left, but the first mistake had taught him a lesson and he looked more closely, then shook his head. No, that wasn't André either. This was another T-clone, but his hair was short and besides, the person swaying to the music with him was a redheaded female. Skirting the dance floor, Maurice continued on his way and then sighed happily when he finally noticed what he had been looking for. There was André, thick braid pulled over one shoulder, talking animatedly to another blonde. Rob Lancer... Maurice swallowed. No use denying it, he was still more than a little in love with the lithe singer, but that was something better ignored. With determination he crossed the last few meters between himself and the laughing group.

"Maurice!" Both Lancer and André rushed to hug the man, who embraced them with a smile.

"Rob... André... thank you for tonight! It was fantastic, superb, stunning!" Maurice looked at the young men in awe. "You quite literally had me in tears, more than once."

"Thank you," André purred. "We've been rehearsing like crazy, these past few days."

"Yes, and when we heard that you really were going to be there, we doubled our efforts!" Lancer shook his still moist hair back. "I think we both had some butterflies in our stomach, didn't we?"

"Sure did," André confirmed. "Glad you liked it too."

"Liked? I loved it!" Maurice spread his arms. "And you might be able to guess what I'm going to ask you now."

"We just might," Lancer said carefully.

"Right," Maurice said with determination. "You, both of you, must make a comeback. Or at least make some guest performances at Chez Maurice in the near future. I simply won't take no for an answer, not after seeing and hearing you tonight!"

"But we -"

"No buts. Don't you understand? You have no right to deny others this pleasure! Do it together if you want, but promise me that you'll do it."

"We'll give it serious thought," Lancer said softly. Scott, who had stepped to stand next to him, hugged him close. "We promise. Won't we, André?"

"Yes," André nodded. Maurice tilted his head, eyes narrowing.

"That wasn't exactly a binding promise to actually do it," he grumbled, "but I guess that's all I'm going to get now. Just make sure to think about it, so that when I start bugging you in earnest, we can come to a proper agreement!"

"We'll make sure that they won't forget it," Rori put in. "Right, Scott?"

"Yes," Scott nodded. "Do not worry, Maurice. We will make sure that they agree."

André and Lancer exchanged an alarmed glance. "Oh boy... sounds like we don't stand a chance here!"

"You will not," Scott confirmed and kissed Lancer. "So you had better give in right away."

"Hey, I want to at least pretend that I have my say," Lancer protested, winking to Maurice who bowed ceremoniously to Scott.

"I am proud and honored to have such allies," the manager said. "Especially knowing that in this case, eventual victory is guaranteed!"

"It's really scary to have such friends," André moaned. "Hey, Rori! Listen!"

"Sounds like our tune." Rori picked the glass from his lover's hand and, while being dragged away, managed to deposit it and his own glass on a nearby table.

The dance floor was constantly full, and temperature on it remained high enough to ensure that drinks were in steady demand. The crowds hanging around the serving tables were a good place to find people to talk to, a fact that Vanya and Corinn had been eagerly using to their advantage. Vanya still didn't feel altogether sure of himself after the operation, so they had limited the drinks and dancing, for once choosing to enjoy their evening in a less boisterous way. But they sure had been enjoying themselves nevertheless, and had now been for some time focusing on a specific task.

"Still no luck," Corinn sighed. "Damn, I'm sure we've been around the whole place at least three times, and still nothing!"

"No giving up, gorgeous." Vanya put his foot on the sturdy lattice that formed the supports for the stage and pulled himself to stand on it, so that he could scan the place from higher up. "We've checked so many places in the past few minutes, so unless they're out there dancing, then - aha! Got you!"

"You see them?" Corinn tried to crane his neck longer.

"Yeah." Vanya pointed towards something behind Corinn and hopped down. "Right there, next to the support pillars on the left..."

Corinn grinned as he finally spotted Haldor's compact form and the slim creature hanging on a muscular arm. "Oh yes, looks like the spiffy redhead all right!"

His gaze raked up and down the girl's figure and he frowned in surprise. Troy's guess had been that Hal's girlfriend would be small, buxom and curvy, but what Corinn saw didn't quite meet the description. She was not exactly tiny, and although the pert curve of the bottom looked delicious enough, the most notable feature were the legs. All the three or so miles of them. Very pretty legs, brought to excellent advantage by very high-heeled shoes that fastened with a strap around the ankle, and very scantily covered at the top by an ultra-short, tight mini skirt that stretched enticingly over said pert bottom. Most of her back was covered by a mass of bright orange-red hair that spilled down to reach below her waist, glimmering in the festive lights.

Corinn glanced at Vanya whose pale eyebrows were scrunched together. "What're you thinking, handsome?"

"I'm thinking that she looks somehow familiar," Vanya muttered slowly. "Where the hell have I seen her before?"

"You know what? I have the same feeling," Corinn nodded. "Let's take a better look, shall we?"

They navigated closer to the couple who were talking eagerly to each other. The girl had a slightly upturned nose and a large, beautiful mouth, and the look in her greenish eyes was nothing short of worshipping. Haldor seemed totally immersed in admiring her, talking softly in a low voice. Corinn's eyes were narrowing as the two men approached their destination, and a few meters from the spot his hand suddenly closed in an iron grip around Vanya's forearm.

"Holy fucking shit," he groaned. "Can't be... no goddamn way..."

"What?" Vanya shot him a questioning glance and saw that Corinn's face had fallen to express nothing but utter, blank, overwhelming astonishment.

"I know where I've seen her before," Corinn croaked. "But it simply can't be!"

He closed the distance with a few long strides and tapped Haldor on the shoulder. "Hiya, Hal! Is this that elusive redhead of yours?"

Vanya followed him and met the bright eyes with a smile. Hal looked surprised, then oddly embarrassed, but smiled back nevertheless.

"Yeah, this is my Lindsey;" he rumbled. "Lin, these are Vanya and Corinn."

"I've been looking forward to meeting you, guys!" Her voice was husky and surprisingly low. "Hal's told me a lot about you."

"Our pleasure!" Corinn touched the rim of an imaginary cap with two fingers and cocked his head. "But tell me, Lindsey, why do I have this feeling that I've seen you before? Though I really don't understand why I can't remember when and where?"

Liar, Vanya thought, seeing the predatory gleam in his partner's eyes. Lindsey grinned and looked in mock coyness at Hal who, strangely enough, blushed.

"Well, you might've seen Lindsey at Chez Maurice," the man said. "On stage."

Vanya's jaw dropped nearly to the floor but Corinn merely nodded smugly. "I thought so. Princess Lily, isn't it?"

Vanya stared at the happily nodding girl - no, boy - in front of him and tried to gulp some air into his lungs. He had a feeling that he wasn't succeeding too well. This was too impossible, too fucking absurd to be true. There just wasn't any way this could actually be happening. Hal? With a boyfriend? And not just any boyfriend, but a cross-dressing drag artist, the ultimate sissy if there ever was one... Vanya's brain simply refused to process it and, judging by the hum in his ears, chose to short-circuit itself instead. Haldor Leboyer's boyfriend... wasn't that a - what was it called - an oxymoron?

"Yes, Princess Lily," Hal said - proudly? So it's not just some terrible mix-up, Corinn thought glumly. Hal does know he's a boy all right. But...

"Well, this really is the surprise of the century!" Vanya managed. "I mean, you of all people... with a boyfriend. Even if he's prettier than most girls I've seen!"

Hal squeezed Lindsey's arm tighter. "To be honest, I'm still a little stunned myself," he admitted. "But Lindsey has taught me what it means to really love somebody."

The redhead practically melted next to him and cast an adoring glance at Hal who reciprocated with a tender smile.

"But I thought you were straight," Corinn blurted, thoroughly confused. Haldor looked contrite.

"So did I," he mumbled. "The thing is, when we first started going out, I thought Lin was a girl."

"It was all my fault," Lindsey put in. "I just didn't realize that since Hal's not from here, he wouldn't be as good at picking up clues as someone else. And I usually don't advertise the fact that I'm working for Maurice, 'cause some people take it as gloating."

"But - how did you find out?" Corinn asked. Good god, surely not when... he didn't even want to finish the thought.

"Well, remember that one free weekend when I came back a day early? After Gary had given me his ticket to Chez Maurice?" Hal said pointedly, and both men gasped.

"Holy shit! You mean you went there and saw her - him - on stage?"

"Exactly," Hal nodded. "And you also remember well enough what a total mess I was the next few weeks. Well, I thought that was it, that I couldn't possibly see her - him - any more. But in the end I just had to go and talk things straight, eye to eye. So I did."

"And?" Vanya prompted breathlessly. Hal and Lindsey exchanged another deep look and Hal cleared his throat.

"We talked, and I realized that I had actually enjoyed the time with Lin, even though we hadn't... I mean, it hadn't mattered whether he's a boy or a girl. We'd had such fun together." Hal's dark hand ghosted gently on Lindsey's fingers and he looked down, embarrassed. "I realized that I... was thoroughly in love. With Lin, the person. So we decided to give it a try, to see if it... would work out."

"And it does," Lindsey concluded, no, purred rather, copper-red head tilting to lean against Haldor's shoulder. "This here is the most wonderful man in the universe, did you know that?"

Vanya tried to swallow the lump from his throat but the first few efforts proved futile. Corinn was slightly more successful, as it only took him about ten seconds to force out words.

"That's... incredible. I mean - damn, I'm speechless!" His hands flailed in the air. "Congratulations, both of you!"

"Yeah, congratulations," Vanya joined in. "So you're a couple - really a couple now?"

"I won't ask what you mean by 'really' a couple, Vanya," Hal said with a little smirk, "but yeah, I definitely call us a real couple."

"And thanks for the congratulations," Lindsey grinned. "They are gladly welcomed!"

Hal opened his mouth, then caught sight of something a little further away and smiled wickedly. "Hey, let's talk later, guys. I just saw Gary and Kyo, and they look like they'd want to be introduced to my Lindsey."

"Where? Where?" Lindsey looked eagerly around. "Yes, let's go! I totally love surprising your friends!"

Corinn and Vanya stared dumbfounded as the peculiar couple disappeared.

"I need a drink," Vanya said hoarsely.

"I need a seat!" Corinn moaned. "And a drink."

Wordlessly they made their way first to the serving tables, then to an empty bench, where both plopped down so heavily that it groaned in protest.

"Tell me I'm not dreaming," Vanya said after they had stared at each other for a good while. "That it really happened a moment ago. That we met Haldor Leboyer who introduced us to his boyfriend, a young, pretty, cross-dressing drag queen."

"It did happen," Corinn confirmed and tossed back his drink. "At least I think it did."

"Well, if we had the same hallucination, then I think it just might be for real." Vanya downed his drink, too, then examined the empty glass with a grimace of distaste. "Damn, I need more."

"This is totally weird," Corinn mumbled. "That Hal, of all people, falls in love with this Lindsey. Enough in love to even consider overlooking the minor complication that he's a boy. And now he's there, proudly introducing his boyfriend to everybody. Hal? Hal?"

"I need another drink," Vanya concluded. "Provided that my legs will carry me that far."

His legs did cooperate, but they both still looked stunned enough to alarm Scott and Lancer, who were standing at a nearby snacks table and dashed closer.

"Vanya, are you all right?" Scott asked, then glanced at Corinn. "What has happened? Corinn?"

"We just met Hal," Corinn said weakly. "And Lindsey."

"Ah."

Lancer looked so demure that the two men turned to stare at him.

"What 'ah'? So you've met them?"

"Hal introduced us in the afternoon," Scott said calmly.

"So you knew!" Corinn burst out. "How the hell?"

"I've known since the day after the battle," Lancer confessed. "When Hal took me away from the ward, remember? I was so out of it that he was afraid to leave me alone, and he felt awkward coming to my place for the night. So he took me into his apartment, I slept there nearly around the clock, and in the morning we somehow got talking. Then I slipped something about having been a drag artist, and that got him pretty worked up. He wanted to know if I had always been cross-dressing, and why not, and why people do that at all, and so forth. I swear I talked like an encyclopedia! Finally he told me the whole story, and I encouraged him to talk things over with Lindsey. You see, Lin didn't have a clue of what had happened. Hal had just missed an agreed meeting, didn't come after that, never called, never even answered when called, nothing. He had not understood that Hal didn't know what he is. And Hal felt like such a fool for not realizing it earlier - that Lin is a guy and not a girl. But I swore I wouldn't breathe a word to anyone."

"He did not even tell me," Scott added.

"Oh fuck, what a mess," Corinn groaned.

"Precisely," Lancer said. "It was so plain that Hal was absolutely smitten by her - I mean him. But I don't know exactly what's happened since. Whatever it is, it's Lindsey's doing."

"And what a feat!" Vanya said solemnly. "Truly, my friends, I propose a toast to the guy who took the citadel. Let's drink to Lindsey!"

"I second that." Corinn nodded and raised his glass.

It was getting late. Slower music had taken over, and Terry perched on the edge of the stage, placing his plate and large cool drink next to him. He enjoyed the view over the crowd. Osip and Arria, by popular demand dressed smartly in their black and white suits, were easy to spot in the middle. There was Greg the transport driver dancing with his Nameeka, and a little to their left Terry saw the chief M-clone Adam and his wife. Apart from their hairstyles, the two women looked deceptively alike, which was no wonder - they were both M2's.

Terry sighed in satisfaction as his gaze fell on Adrien and Wilson. Their reunion hadn't been quite peaceful; Adrien wasn't one to spill over easily, but his brothers had still picked up enough clues to realize the problem. Wilson, fighter pilot to the core, had been so dead set on securing herself a place on the Zodiac system mission that it hadn't even occurred to her that their parting then might well have been their last. By contrast, Adrien had been only too aware of it, and had been deeply hurt by Wilson's glib goodbye. Oh, he hadn't expected any teary farewells or declarations of undying love, but still... But now it looked like Wilson had figured out the problem and even managed to convince Adrien that their relationship really meant something for her, too. Terry reached very cautiously to skim Adrien's consciousness. Of course the man felt it, but the lazy, contented shove he sent in return was a far cry from the well-concealed tenseness he'd been radiating so long.

Satisfied, Terry continued to scan the dancers, then his eyebrows jumped. That was Dean Blaine all right, dancing practically cheek to cheek with Sabina the S-clone! Terry did another stealthy probe, pulled quickly back and sighed. How sweet...

"What are you sitting here and grinning to yourself?"

"Ugh, you really startled me!" Terry slumped a little and shook his head to Giancarlo.

"Didn't mean to." The younger TC sat down next to him and swung his legs over the edge. "Are you having fun?"

"Sure! What about you? Not tired yet?"

"A little, but this is too good to miss."

"Where did you put the others?"

"Oh, they're having fun too." Giancarlo looked thoughtfully at the dancing people. "Everybody has somebody special. Aren't you sorry that you don't?"

"Oh," Terry waved a hand, "I'm very happy with my life as it is, right now."

"So you wouldn't want to have someone to love?" The boy's fingers toyed with a fork. "Julian still cries at night, sometimes, you know, because he misses Miklos."

"I didn't know," Terry confessed. "But I'm sure at least Adrien does."

"He does," Giancarlo nodded. "I'm not sure if I want to ever love anybody. It'll just hurt if something bad happens."

"You shouldn't think only of the bad things," Terry said gently. "Look at them all - they've had rough times, but they're happy now. Don't you think something like that's worth suffering a little?"

"Hmm." Gian chewed his lip. "I'm still not sure if I want to take the chance."

Terry gave the boy a one-armed hug. "You won't know until you try, that's what they say."

"Yeah." Giancarlo picked up the last small sandwich from Terry's plate, examined it for a moment and ate it. "Terry, would you dance with me?"

"Why not. Now?"

"Yes."

"All right." Terry carefully dropped himself on his feet from the elevated stage and reached out to catch the younger clone. "Come on, little brother - let's dance!"

~ The End ~