Log Title: Tea for Two
Summary: Royal and Winter meet and chat over tea.
IC Date: Mon Mar 11 19:31, 2381
OOC Date: Mon Mar 11 19:31, 2019
Related Logs: Drunken Noodles, Hangovers and Parasites
royalwinter

 

 

* * *

Royal > Did we eat noodles the other night, by chance?

* * *

Winter > We did indeed. Kudos for remembering.

* * *

Royal > My sincere apologies if I behaved inappropriately. The evening is a titch fuzzy.

* * *

Winter > No apologies necessary. You're very amusing when profoundly inebriated.

* * *

Royal > I endeaver to be so when I'm stone cold sober as well.

* * *

Winter > With variable success?

* * *

Royal > I'm wounded.

* * *

Royal > Let me make it up to you. Perhaps over something non-alcoholic?

* * *

Winter > Hmm. All right. In deference to the people of your homeland, how about tea?

* * *

Royal > Do you have a spot in mind? I'm afraid I'm usually more of a coffee drinker, but I'm adventurous.

* * *

Winter > I know a place, but it's not exactly your average tea room.

* * *

Royal > Good. Why be average when you can be remarkable?

* * *

Winter > Isn't that a tagline for a shampoo?

* * *

Royal > Cologne, actually. Where to?

* * *

An address is set to Royal's ONI for a place called 'New Leaf' situated in one of the middle levels of the city.

It's a small cafe with a counter to order, numerous small tables for sitting and an assortment of plants lining the walls with some vines stretching across the ceiling. The majority of them sport some component of bioluminescence, be it flowers, leaves or stems. There are some quality black, green and herbal teas available to order, but the focus of the place seems to be fascinating new strains of tea plant, genetically engineered to have certain unique attributes: vibrant colors, different flavors, increased caffeine etc. Winter is seated at one of the small tables in a long, rust-colored peasant skirt, fitted black top and a pair of light brown boots. They have a fiberoptic flower tucked behind one ear, slowly shifting through a rainbow of colors, and a mug of something steaming cupped between their hands.

* * *

A place like this, and Mister Peacock is actually quite subdued. Royal wears an excellently tailored black suit with a white shirt beneath. The only loud thing about today's outfit is a hot pink pocket square. It's probably a good thing, because one of his flashier, shinier suits would make him look like a parrot amidst tropical flowers. But maybe that was the point.

He enters, momentarily sensory-and-pattern overload until he distracts himself enough from the decor to pick out Winter. He moves towards his tea companion, then says a cheery, "Hello. I promise I'm stone cold sober this time. And for once I feel underdressed for the locale."

* * *

"I don't think the locale will judge," Winter replies with a faint smile, gesturing to the seat across from them. "Do you want something to drink? They don't have coffee here, but they have a fairly interesting analog."

* * *

"I defer to your expertise, Doctor. I'm just not fond of fruit teas, is the only thing. I'm a fan of things with a bit of a kick." Royal unbuttons his jacket and smoothly sits, then glances around, searching for a menu of some kind.

* * *

There's a menu up on the board behind the counter and another that can be accessed by ONI by glancing down at a discreet barcode on the table. Winter considers, canting their head. "I'd try the 'Mayan' then. If you like a little kick."

* * *

"Does it have a little cayenne in it? Hopefully not too much. Those noodles the other night were eaten with a drunk palette so it's rather on the upper range of my spice tolerance." Royal pages through the menu on his ONI, pausing at the requested one. "Oh, but I also do enjoy rooibos when I've had it."

* * *

"I don't think it's actually cayenne, but that tea was modified to produce capsaicin, so it's similar," Winter explains. "I think there's a few rooibos teas on the menu as well. I've never been partial, myself."

* * *

Royal looks a bit overwhelmed as his ONI twinkles as he scans through teas. After a moment, he exhales and says, "I'm going to go with your recommendation. I've never been one for indecisiveness!" He places the order, then folds his hands in front of him and leans forward a bit. "So, yes. Apologies properly for the other night. I tend to make sure I get home and out of the public eye when I've had that much to drink. Or rather, my handlers usually would have."

* * *

"Well, I don't see why," Winter replies resting their chin on their palm, "As I already told you, it was pleasant company. There's nothing to apologize for."

* * *

"Yes, well, I feel it's a rather good idea to apologize when you can't remember portions of the conversation." Royal flashes a smile. There's something more tense about him today. His suit's not the only thing that's a touch more reserved. When he's relaxed (or at least feeling confident) there's something slightly more effervescent about him.

* * *

"Hmm," Winter muses, their gaze moving over Royal, perhaps considering his muted clothes and slightly strained mannerisms. "Royal are you… is everything all right? You seem a bit…" their hand lifts and twists in the air briefly as they look for words, "… less than yourself."

* * *

"You are frustratingly perceptive, Doctor," says Royal. His tea arrives and he murmurs a 'cheers' to the server before returning his attention to Winter. "Nothing extreme, no. But drinking too much reminded me of why it's a bad idea to drink too much."

* * *

"Thank you," Winter replies with a faint smile. "Comes with the job." They have a sip of their drink, something pale green with frothed milk. " 'Why it's a bad idea to drink too much'," they repeat thoughtfully. "I'm guessing you don't mean the hangover."

* * *

Royal's mouth twitches very softly. "I'm trying very hard to not consider you a tea shop psychologist right now. It would be very rude of me, and not why I invited you." He sips the tea experimentally, smacks his lips, sips again. He doesn't seem to know what to make of it.

* * *

"'Tea Shop Psychologist' isn't a bad name for a band," Winter muses. "But I'm not asking as a psychosurgeon. I'm asking as a… well, an acquaintance, at least."

* * *

"Can I ask you something? Purely in a hypothetical, of course," says Royal. He follows that up with a grin, but it's a tiny bit forced.

* * *

Winter nods, taking another sip of tea. "Ask."

* * *

Royal doesn't ask right away. He sips his tea. He considers. He rubs his neck. "How do you, professionally speaking, find the line between a way a person just is, and a failing or issue they should work to improve?"

* * *

Winter holds up three fingers. "Issues that warrant at least the consideration of psychosurgery fall into three categories. They harm others." One finger curls down. "They harm themselves." A second finger curls down. "They cause unhappiness." The third finger closes so their hand is a lazy fist. "Everything else…" Winter's hand opens wide again as if releasing something trapped within, "is just diversity."

* * *

"How do you define 'unhappiness'? Or rather, how do you know that the state someone exists in is happier or unhappier than if they changed their behavior or outlook?" Royal's taken on a more academic tone, and is speaking as he would to an academic colleague.

* * *

"Well, that's a bit of a rabbit hole, isn't it," Winter replies with a faint smile, "and I suppose one could always be 'happier', but that's just as likely to be chasing after whispers. I guess I'd say…" they tap a finger against their lip as they consider, "is it the thing itself that's distressful, or the mess around the thing?"

* * *

Even Royal's casual posture is rather refined. That likely comes from being drilled in royal protocol since childhood. No slouching, no crossing your legs a certain way. That might be why when he does fidget, it's small and unobtrusive. Nothing a crowd would see from across the street. He's not fidgeting now, but he has the tea to occupy his hands. "Hard to say," he says. "Of this…completely hypothetical thing to which I am referring."

* * *

"Yes," Winter agrees, "Well, let's try another hypothetical, then. Imagine that it's gone. Poof." They snap their fingers creating a crisp, sharp sound. "Just like that. What would be different?"

* * *

"Imagine what's gone? The scenario or the feeling?" Royal's brow furrows. Talking in hypotheticals does make clarity really difficult. "Or the…personality trait." He rolls a wrist and sips his tea.

* * *

"The last one," Winter replies. "How would you… hypothetical you, of course… be different?"

* * *

Royal squirms a bit uncomfortably. "I don't think I'd be…me. Too many things about me just wouldn't be the same." He doesn't reiterate the hypothetical nature. It just seems a bit silly at this point. But not outright saying what this is all about for him anyway, prevents it from being a session.

* * *

Winter gives a small nod. "And… would you prefer… to not be you?"

* * *

"Lord, no. That's quite the opposite. I live in fear of the day I won't be wholly me." Royal's been pretty upfront about his anxiety arounding resleeving so that, at least, is no secret.

* * *

"Well, then I think you have your answer," Winter replies with a slight cant of their head.

* * *

Royal chuckles softly. "Is that truly the answer, doctor, or are you just doing your best to reassure me? Because a great deal of popular wisdom and the history of human nature tells me that what I want, and what I feel isn't precisely normal or healthy."

* * *

"I don't really have answers, I just help people find their own," Winter says with a faint smile. "You want to be who you are, and this is an important part of who you are. So, what's complicating things?"

* * *

"Expectations," says Royal. The word falls heavily on his tongue. "And the fact that the way I want to navigate things isn't a universal thing. And people can say…" he stops, takes a breath. "Do you mind terribly if I get specific? These vagueries are giving me a headache." He grins, but it's a bit tight.

* * *

"Please," Winter replies, lifting a hand and gesturing towards Royal in a manner that invites him to proceed.

* * *

"As with most things in life, it comes back to sex. I do not want sex with attachments. And this is difficult to find, I've found, without it being one-off encounters or a purely transactional experience." Royal reaches for his tea rather than fidgeting. Now that he knows Winter notices it, he's a bit more aware himself. "People may say they'd be content to keep things casual, but inevitably, there is slippage."

* * *

"Emotions are complicated, even when we want to keep things simple," Winter allows. "So, is this something you're trying to find, or something you've been offered, but you're not sure whether to accept?"

* * *

"In my experience…" Royal's dodging the question, "…there are very few people who can truly keep things at the level I'm content with for any period of time. Sometimes things will go well for a time, but little by little, and not always on purpose…" he wags a finger. "Suddenly I'm in something I didn't want to be in. And I'm left feeling like the asshole even though I made myself clear from the start."

* * *

"Hmm," Winter muses, taking a moment to finish their tea and set down the empty cup as they consider. "Tell me, have these slippages, when they occur, happened with people who wanted the same thing you did, sex without attachment, or people who wanted you and agreed to those conditions?"

* * *

"Once, we both started out with the same thing in mind, but she changed over time and I didn't. Now, twice, for door number two. Or so I think, anyway." Royal takes a pause, sips a bit more of his tea, then sits it down. "One of those was my fiancee. And if you read the taboloids, you know how that turned out."

* * *

Winter gives a small nod that suggests they may have read said tabloids indeed. "And the other?"

* * *

"Short-term and/or purely transactional," says Royal, without shame. "Which, in my experience, is the only reliable way to avoid said slippage entirely. Though I have ghosted on the occasional one-night stand…" he tugs his ear and grins a little.

* * *

"No, I mean, you said 'door number two' happened twice, but then only mentioned your fiancee," Winter says. "What was the second time?"

* * *

Royal smiles tightly, lips twitching a little as he holds that expression. "Well that, dear doctor, would be why you find me not quite myself today. Presently. Ongoing."

* * *

"Ahhh," Winter murmurs with a slow nod. "And how is it going? So far, at any rate?"

* * *

"Despite my best efforts, and my protests, this person is quite intent on…taking care of me. And I recently found myself in a situation where, were I in an actual relationship, the nurturing would be expected of me. And it's made me deeply uncomfortable. I don't like it when people fuss over me, and I don't like to take care of others. Perhaps that's selfish of me. But I've been…minded and managed my entire life. I came to Bay City precisely to get away from all that."

* * *

"I think there's a difference in intent between being managed and being cared for," Winter considers, "though outwardly they could be similar. What does this person do that you find uncomfortable?"

* * *

"Fussed over me. Put my comfort above their own. Waited for me on my doorstep instead of sending an ONI message to ask if I'd be home." Royal says all of those things with a certain tightness to his voice. "This after we agreed to the classic friends with benefits arrangement."

* * *

"Mmm," Winter hums with a slow nod. "Have you tried to explain that these actions are discomforting to you?"

* * *

"No, I'm currently avoiding the issue entirely. Because what happened shortly after this was this person got quite ill and is currently recovering. And in fact, the fussing over me may have exacerbated things and/or potentially masked the earlier signs." Hence the 'nurturing' on his part that Royal felt like he was supposed to be doing. "It does not seem to be an ideal time to discuss the issue."

* * *

"Complicated," Winter agrees with a small, thoughtful nod. "I think, if this person is ill and you don't want to exacerbate things, that's understandable. But, it could also be an excuse to put off what might be a difficult conversation. A relationship like you're trying to create needs to be open if it's going to be open. That is, if you can't communicate with one another, it's very unlikely to be successful."

* * *

"That's the other reason I'm delaying. I don't think it is going to be successful. Because the desire to care and to nurture seems to be second nature for this person. And it's not what I want. I don't want to be fussed over." Royal sighs. "You must think me horribly self-centered. We've spent a lot of time talking about me. I really do try not to be that stereotype."

* * *

"I'm used to it," Winter replies with a small shrug and a quirk of a smile, "and I tend to be curious, as we've previously established, so I don't particularly mind. I guess my advice, to take or leave, would be to have the conversation, sooner rather than later. The longer you don't, the easier it will be to put off, and the more things will become a sham. If there's something to salvage, a way to make it work, you'll lose it if you don't bring these problems out into the light. And if there isn't, that's something better for both of you to know sooner rather than later, is it not?"

* * *

"Mhmmm," intones Royal. "The problem is, this person is also the most stubborn individual I have met in my life. I fear that I won't be properly heard when I do bring this all up." He clears his throat. "I also have…been with other people during the course of this. Which was also something I said upfront, and clearly. I fear that jealousy or at least, hurt feelings might come into play as well."

* * *

"Sometimes tenacity is a virtue, and sometimes it's an excuse to steamroll over others' needs with our own," Winter answers with a soft breath out. They glance down at their empty mug, brows furrowing a touch. "Couples counseling isn't exactly my area of expertise… but, if you need someone to help mediate this conversation…"

* * *

Royal twitches a little at the 'c' word. "Ah, no, doctor, I appreciate that. But going into that situation would label this the very thing I don't want it to be." He chuckles a bit tightly.

* * *

"Oh, thank god," Winter murmurs with a huff of a laugh. "Then I think you're going to have to bring this up on your own. Tell this person what you need. Help them understand that just because they want to do for you, doesn't mean that's what you want. Perhaps there's some ways you both might meet in the middle?"

* * *

The Duke's smile is more genuine at Winter's exhalation. That's followed by a soft chuckle and a hit of amusement in his eyes. "It is a tangle. And I appreciate your advice. But it sort of circled away from my original query. Which is, is it a failing of mine that I want sex without a traditional relationship, or just the way I'm wired?"

* * *

"I'm not sure it's either," Winter says, their smile growing a touch for the way Royal looks briefly more like himself. "It's not a failing, though as you say, it makes things more difficult for you. I think it can be challenging to find both connection and sex without… expectations, I suppose. But it's not wrong to want that, anymore than it's wrong to like one gender over another or both or neither for that matter. Were you just born that way? I mean, maybe. Could it be tied to your upbringing and the ways you were minded and managed? Sure, maybe. In the end, I'm not sure it matters. It's part of who you are and what you want. And, you don't need to apologize for that."

* * *

Royal looks like he wasn't really expecting that answer. He tilts his head thoughtfully. "Both, for the record," he says, leaning in with a cheeky grin. Yep, he's finding his footing again. "And all shades in between. Part of the reason I stay out of VR is I fear I'll get far too distracted by all the possibilities and never get any work done." He really is back to his old self if he's back to the quips about sex.

* * *

"Really?" Winter asks, lacing their fingers together and resting their chin on them. "That's part of what I like about VR."

* * *

"Oh, do tell," says Royal as he subtly mirrors Winter's posture, but not in a mocking way. More like co-conspirators.

* * *

"I like the versatility. The fluidity." They lift their head, holding up one finger. "I'll stop you right there before you make your next sex joke. I don't mean it that way. Or, at least, not just that way. I… just. I find it freeing, all that possibility."

* * *

"Doctor, you're opening up to me. I wouldn't make a crack." Royal places a hand to his collarbone and puts on his best innocent face. It's not very convincing. "Too much possibility. There's a veritable smorgasboard of possibilities in the physical world. The sheer volume of choice in Virtual is overwhelming." And then he pauses for a moment, then adds quietly, "One could lose oneself."

* * *

"Or find oneself," Winter replies, sounding faintly wistful. "I think you and I come from the opposite ends of the spectrum on that one."

* * *

"It seems we do. Perhaps that's why I like talking to you. Then again, putting people at ease in conversation is a large part of your profession, isn't it?" Royal's brows go up.

* * *

"It doesn't hurt," Winter allows with a quirk of a smile, "but I wasn't using my professional wiles on you. I thought you were meant to be the charming one."

* * *

"You're charming as well, Doctor. Mine's just a bit more…" Royal rolls his wrist, "…peacocky and showy. You've got a more respectable, quiet aura of professionalism. While I tend to throw people off-guard, I bet you put them at-ease. We really could be quite effective in an interrogation together."

* * *

"Oh, you have no idea," Winter replies with a quirk of their brows. Their ONI flickers as they order a second cup of whatever they were drinking when Royal arrived. "Too bad we haven't got anyone to interrogate."

* * *

"Oh, a dangerous side as well? You're getting more intruiging by the minute." The further they get away from discussing his personal life, the more back to his old self and relaxed Royal seems to get. "I have no doubt some interrogating will be necessary before the Longbow investigation is through."

* * *

"If it goes anywhere," Winter counters with a faint smile. "Seems a bit… stalled for the time being. Unless you've learned anything new since we first spoke?"

* * *

"Why doctor, are you interrogating me?" Royal asks with a slight bend at the waist as he leans in over the table. "A little bit transparent, I must say."

* * *

"Interrogation doesn't have to be subtle," Winter replies, setting one hand on the table so their fingers can walk slowly across from their side towards Royal's. "It simply has to be effective."

* * *

"In my, admittedly limited experience with investigation, sometimes things can be stalled out for weeks, months even, before another lead smacks you in the face. The only reason I could see this going away is if a meth took care of the problem quietly. But if they had that power, I think we never would have heard about all this in the first place."

Royal eyes the walking fingers. He doesn't reach out, but nor does he move out of range. He watches curiously.

* * *

"Well, you probably do know a thing or two about being smacked in the face," Winter allows. They curl their fingers around the handle of Royal's mug, sliding it over to their side to have a taste of the Duke's tea. "So we do what? Just wait?"

* * *

Royal chuckles softly, at what, it's not exactly clear. His tea is a little cold, but there's a bit left - though the last few sips are full of tea leaves. "I'm poking my fingers in a few spots. Trying to get the police to cooperate is a challenge. I still haven't managed to get a sample of whatever it was that fried the first clone's stack. They're concerned that someone within the Longbow family is a suspect so they're reluctant to share anything with me."

* * *

"I suppose that's a reasonable angle, meths do like to eat their own," Winter replies, wrinkly their nose a little at the leaf-heavy dregs and returns the cup to Royal shortly before their own fresh order arrives. "Are the cops the only ones with a known sample of the original toxin?"

* * *

"There's residue on the broken stacks people received as threats that seems to be similar, though that can't be confirmed without an actual sample of the original, let's call it…Fauxbergine," Royal's grin suggests he's quite proud of that portmanteau. "I'd join you for another cup of tea, but I feel like I'm swimming as it is."

* * *

There's another wrinkle of Winter's nose for Fauxbergine. "Oh, that's worse than tea dregs," they protest. "So, you need the police to cooperate, as they're the only ones with an original sample, but they're not willing to compare the two residues? Why not? It seems as if that would help their own investigation as well as yours."

* * *

"Oh, I have no doubt they're comparing. But they don't need me for that. There are hundreds of broken stacks that were tossed out as threats. I'm positive they have their hands on one already." Royal exhales slowly. "It's actually why I've been spending time at boring events. To see if I can overhear any gossip that wouldn't be easy for the police to catch wind of."

* * *

"Ah, you just don't think they're going to share?" Winter asks. They blow the steam from their tea and take a careful sip. "Have you?"

* * *

"Nothing so far," says Royal with a sigh. He rubs his forehead. "Just the usual drama of who's shagging who, who's backstabbing, who is in, who is out. All the kind of thing that would seem extra petty to anyone down on the ground. They're going to great pains to not talk about it."

* * *

"Hence the heavy drinking and profound irritation of the other night," Winter muses with a faint smile. "Well, maybe a large public display isn't the best place to get the information you want."

* * *

"No, and it's possible they clam up around me. I'm a known double agent and all that." Royal chuckles. "I've been thinking of enlisting the help of a few friends at the Houses to perhaps sidle up and have a listen at an event. They're quite good at that."

* * *

Winter cants their head thoughtfully. "Not a bad idea," they agree after a moment. "Though wouldn't you think a more private setting would be better for the venting of one's spleen, as it were?"

* * *

"What are you suggesting?" asks Royal with a drawl. "Out with it. Do tell. You have an idea?" He leans in conspiratorily again.

* * *

"I'm just saying that if you want someone powerful to talk about something they fear, you need to make them feel safe. Comfortable. Wanted. And some sort of endorphin rush wouldn't hurt either," Winter replies. "Don't send your friends to an event, or if you do, send them to hook a private evening. Not to glean gossip."

* * *

"Ah but seduction of that nature would mean knowing who to target. And if I knew that, I could work my way in other ways." Royal considers, though. "For a moment, I was thinking you were going to suggest tugging them in to Virtual."

* * *

"You'd still need a target for that," Winter replies. Then their brows lift. "Unless…"

* * *

"Unless what? Don't hold out on me now." Royal leans a bit closer and drops his voice.

* * *

"Well," Winter replies, "Your position with the embassy in Bay City has you throwing the occasional opulent gala, doesn't it? For exactly the sorts of people we're looking to learn more about?"

* * *

"Well, I wouldn't say opulent, but upscale, yes," says Royal. "And often incredibly stuffy. Not a crowd that would appreciate a fibre optic suit." He glances up at the rafters and the colourful decor, then down to Winter. "Are you suggesting I throw a big shindig and invite all the people I believe could spill secrets?"

* * *

"Yes," Winter answers with a quirk of a smile, "and while you're at it, why don't you make it a shindig in virtual space." Their brows lift slightly as they regard Royal.

* * *

Royal seemed to be on-board until that last bit. His lips twitch. "Why Virtual? I don't…" he takes a breath. "That might lead people to be suspicious considering I'm not exactly…comfortable. I've actually only been in a half dozen times in the past two years, and all of those were to visit with my family." For all his bravado, for all his talk, he doesn't make much use of the sexy possibilities of VR it seems.

* * *

"Because virtual would let us learn more with less work," Winter replies, "and it would be different and unique." A corner of their mouth quirks. "A bit like a fiberoptic suit. How many stuffy parties for the rich have you been to? And how many have been held in virtual?"

* * *

"I've turned down the invitation to the few I've been invited to. So there could very well be others, but maybe I'm off the list." But Royal considers. "I…suppose it would also allow me to invite people who aren't physically in Bay City." He doesn't sound too happy about it. "But…I would…need to spend some time in, lest I give the game away with my discomfort."

* * *

"Mmm," Winter agrees, "and if it was a masquerade ball, it might lower inhibitions. Make people more inclined to talk, if they feel they're anonymous. Provide a setting impressive enough to entice, fantastical enough that it would have to be held in virtual. Give everyone a mask of their choosing, and if a few among them are actually people there to help us learn a little more…" their shoulders lift in a small shrug, "who would be able to tell? As for your own concerns, you're welcome to spend some time in my chair whenever you like. I think I could help you become comfortable enough to bluff your way through a party, and I'm probably not the only one who would offer to help."

* * *

"That is the flaw in your plan. Inebriation. Alcohol loosens the tongue, though I suppose there's a way to simulate that." Royal really hasn't spent much time in Virtual. "I'm sure there's some opulent setting that would be simple enough to purchase and doctor a little." He pushes at his empty mug, spinning it and tracing fingers over the faint raised design. "I have a chair, actually. Not that it gets much use."

* * *

"Really," Winter muses for Royal's chair. Their tone is just slightly surprised. "For speaking with your family, I suppose," they say after a moment. "They wouldn't want you to go somewhere public for something like that."

* * *

"Mhmm, yes. Safer. As your sleeve is quite vulnerable while you're in VR." Which is another reason Royal isn't especially fond of the whole idea. "As well as a secure connection for privacy purposes. The tabloids would love to eavesdrop on a private family chat in Virtual."

* * *

Winter tips their head in a nod that yes, that does seem like something tabloids would like. "To answer your earlier question, most things have a virtual analog, alcohol certainly being among them."

* * *

"Yes, that makes sense. I've heard stories of Virtual being so convincing that people weren't aware that they weren't in the real. And not being able to get smashed would be a dead giveaway." Royal wobbles his head. "At least for some."

* * *

"For most, I would wager," Winter replies, bemused. "I'll need a little time to put an appropriate venue together. How much time is expected between an invitation and the actual event in your circles?"

* * *

"Well, that depends on who's doing the inviting and the social status of those on the guest list. And I'd need a little time to go through my contacts to see who might have a loose tongue." Royal's trying to get his bravado back but it's clear the idea of going into Virtual is a bit like someone afraid of the water contemplating a pool party.

* * *

"Well, when you know, let me know. In the meantime, I'll start putting things together," Winter says. They're quiet a moment before asking, "Do you dislike virtual because you're so accustomed to your sleeve? Or because you're afraid something will happen to it if you're not inside it?"

* * *

"Both," says Royal after only a little hesitation. "Not only am I quite happy with things right where they are," he motions to himself, "…but it was impressed on me from an early age how tied to my family legacy my birth sleeve is. It feels…disconcerting to not entirely be in control. And strange to think of appearing as someone else, if only in Virtual."

* * *

"Well you don't have to. You can always just appear as yourself. Most do," Winter replies. "And you can do things there you can't do anywhere else." A corner of their mouth quirks. "Again. Not referring to sex." Beat. "Only."

* * *

"No, but part of the reason I don't use it much for intimate encounters is there seems to be this expectation to bend reality a bit. Or a lot. I consider myself fairly adventurous sexually, but I suppose the lack of control in the virtual environment unnerves me a little." Royal grimaces, "Here I go, talking about myself and my hang-ups again. I am rather reliable, at least?"

* * *

"Well, I did ask," Winter replies, "and you might be right, though some use it to bridge distance or, of course, have affairs. Some use it to be… as you say… adventurous. I'd say one generally has more control in virtual, rather than less."

* * *

"Ah yes, when all is well, but others can take control of the construct in a way they can't in the physical world." Royal gestures around them. "Maliciously, that is. And that's a terrifying concept especially when it's supposed to be so very real feeling."

* * *

"If that was always true, I don't think I'd have a job," Winter points out wryly. "The vast majority of emotional injury I deal with didn't happen in virtual."

* * *

"I'm not saying this is a logical anxiety, doctor, but it plagues me nonetheless," says Royal with a flickering grin. "Perhaps it's a blessing, though. If I enjoyed myself in Virtual, I might never come out." Annnd taking a sharp turn back to sex jokes.

* * *

Winter rolls their eyes with a faint smirk. "Mmm," is their response to Royal's deflection. "It's up to you, if your discomfort with virtual is something you'd rather work on or avoid. After the party, at any rate."

* * *

"I think it would be a bad idea for me to become your patient in any capacity, doctor. For a few reasons, one of which is that chats such as these might become inappropriate or a skewed dynamic. At least when we're not having a transactional conversation, you can tell me what you really think of me." He flashes a grin. "As much as I've enjoyed our chat, I have another engagement soon. But thank you very much for meeting me. Although I feel as if I still owe you something light and frothy by way of apology."

* * *

"I wasn't offering to make you my patient, Royal, I was just offering to help," Winter replies with a soft sigh. "If you find you do want the services of a psychosurgeon, there are a number I can recommend, but I won't include myself among them. Nice talking with you." They lift their hand in a small wave.

* * *

"But enlisting your psychological help feels a bit like…asking an artist for a free painting. And I'm rather particular about paying people for their professional efforts." Royal stands up and re-buttons his suit jacket. "I have a feeling if I wanted a psychosurgeon in Bay City, I'd have to pick one off a list cleared by my family," he makes a bit of a face. "Well, we'll be in touch soon. We've a party to plan, don't we? Lovely."

* * *

"Well, you're putting together a party at my request, in a setting you don't particularly like, because I'm bored and tired of waiting. So," Winter quirks a small, wry smile, "take the free painting."

* * *

Royal laughs. It's a genuine sound. "Not just that. It's a good plan. It just happens to be one I'm uncomfortable with. But I didn't take up this PI gig to stay comfortable. So, in for a penny, in for a pound?" Which is an incredibly archaic phrase by now.

* * *

"A pound of what, is the question," Winter returns, their smile growing a touch. "But I know that world, as well or better than you know your own." Their tone becomes slightly teasing. But just slightly. "I'll keep you safe."

* * *

"A…pound. The currency of the old United Kingdom," before Ireland reunited and un-united the kingdom. "Never mind," he says with a headshake. "Good day to you, doctor. Chat soon." And with that, the be-suited Duke makes for the exit.