They left the office an hour later, with the interview concluded and a little light chit-chat to round off the visit. Fry couldn’t quite work out what had happened; from the moment the tape machine had turned back on Yancy had been different, as if he’d realised something, as if the entire interview, which he’d been moping about for the whole day, was suddenly just a formality to be dealt with. He seemed... he seemed happy. Yancy was never happy.
And that was another thing. Fry hadn’t seen Leela since they got back, nor could he find Veklerov, which made him just a little suspicious. Not that he cared. She could do what she wanted... even so, he’d walked around the entire building trying to find her and even taken another look in the Professor’s huge underground lab though, after arriving and remembering just how large the complex was, he’d thought better of the idea.
The Professor had disappeared while they were in the interview and Hermes wasn’t in his office. He’d left a note, though, telling everyone that they were at some sort of a conference and would be arriving at the restaurant. Zoidberg still hadn’t turned up either. Even the secretary had disappeared for the day.
“Not invited,” Neena said, staring at the empty reception.
“What makes you so sure?”
Neena pointed at a large notice pasted across the wall, inviting Hermes to perform various acts on his own self. Fry hoped the parts written in Neptunian weren’t as bad as the parts written in English. There wasn’t much else to be said after that, so they let Neena out and waved her off a moment later. Fry leaned against the wall, soaking up the afternoon sun while Yancy locked the front door. Yancy still looked pale but, if he was suffering any after-effects from the morning’s trouble, he wasn’t showing it.
“So now what?”
“We go home for a few hours. I might just go and lie down.”
“We could go for a drink.”
“No,” Yancy said, pocketing his keycard. And that was that.
They made their way back to the apartment in silence, with Yancy seemingly lost in his thoughts as he walked – though not lost enough to imitate Fry’s earlier near-miss. The thoughtfulness remained right up to the lobby door, when Yancy suddenly stopped and turned to look at Fry.
“You said she was a mutant?”
“Uh... yeah. In my universe.”
“I thought they were a myth, you know, an urban legend, like the alligators.”
“Oh the alligators are real too. The little ones keep coming up the drains and swimming around in the toilet.”
Yancy nodded, then shook his head to distract the thought. “Anyway, so you’re saying she’s not an alien? She’s human?”
“I guess... why does it matter? What’s wrong with aliens?”
“Like you have to ask,” Yancy said as they watched a gelatinous green blob squirm past on the far side of the road. A vague silhouette of some smaller alien twitched in the Blob’s interior. “I saw Alien too, you know, and Battlestar Galactica. All that laying eggs in people and weird diseases and stuff, it creeps me out just thinking about it. And the number of times I’ve nearly been eaten by aliens and monsters on supposedly routine package deliveries... I thought that advert was a joke until it happened in real life.” He pushed open the lobby door and headed toward the elevators with Fry trailing behind almost as an afterthought. “But if she’s a mutant, then she’s probably just a bit of a funny shape or something. She’s not going to suck my brains out of my ears or implant her young in my skull or anything creepy like that.”
“No, she’ll just boss you around and treat you like crap all the time.”
“I wouldn’t have figured you for the bitter type, Phil. Besides, the way you stare at her all the time kinda makes me wonder if you really mean all that.”
“Well... maybe I stare at her so I can see her coming!”
“Nice try,” Yancy said as the elevator door opened.
They stepped inside, silent again as the elevator ascended, Fry refusing to look Yancy in the eye. He’d forgotten what it was like to have his brother taunting him about his girlfriends all- “No, no she’s not my girlfriend!”
“Phil, I never said-”
“I know! Just stop thinking it!”
Yancy laughed and shook his head, which was scary. So scary, in fact, that Fry almost felt the urge to hit the emergency button and try to escape. Maybe he’d already got some sort of alien in his head. But the he saw that dreamy look on Yancy’s face, the one Fry knew he got when he was thinking about Lee- “Dammit!”
Yancy stared at him, eyebrows raised somewhere out of sight as he tried to work out what Fry was doing. “Are you feeling okay?”
“My brain is ganging up on me again. Maybe I need to lie down as well.”
Yancy shrugged and turned to face the door, which opened as if on cue, ejecting them into the seemingly endless corridor of their floor. When they reached the apartment it seemed quiet, unsurprising once they found out Bender wasn’t home. Fry flopped down on the couch and turned on the television without speaking. Yancy retreated to his bedroom, leaving Fry alone with nothing but the droning of daytime television to keep him company.
Leela – he knew the name she wanted, but he couldn’t really think of her as anything else yet – had said yes to Yancy without even an argument. A single question and a single answer and Yancy got the one thing Fry had been after for years. Last time he’d had to write an entire opera just to catch her interest and then, afterwards, things had gone right back to normal again, as if nothing had ever happened.
Every so often there’d be a hint or a lead, but either he’d screw up and say something stupid or it would just end up going nowhere. It wasn’t fair!
There weren’t any beers in the fridge. That wasn’t fair either. And there wasn’t any sign of Calculon on All My Circuits, and that wasn’t fair either! Fry grumbled around the apartment, pacing between the door and the window on the so-very-soft carpet as he tried to work out how so many universes could be so cruel to him. He wondered if he should phone Leela, but somehow he figured that would just make her mad.
Eventually Yancy came out and shouted at him for making so much noise. Fry hadn’t known he was making any, until he thought about it and realised that stomping around the room and muttering things could probably be called noisy. He wanted to be mad at Yancy for pointing it out but it wasn’t his fault Leela was being a jerk. Fry settled back into the couch to watch the television, beerless, almost friendless and bored. And then he fell asleep, and stayed asleep until Yancy shook him awake again, pointing at his watch and complaining about the time, and how they had to go and pick up Neena before it was too late, and how Fry was always such a lazy slob. Fry didn’t want to see Leela right then. It would be painful. Unfortunately Yancy had managed to get him into a spare suit before he was really awake and, after all that effort, it seemed a waste to fall asleep on the couch again.
So he followed, wondering if he’d regret it, and trying to keep his mind on the moment he’d get back home, or on the end of his opera, or... anything other than the present. Because the present hurt.
“What about this one?”
“The Gaultier rip-off? Too slutty.”
“Slutty?” Leela stared at Neena over her shoulder and tried to think of a retort. The problem, of course, was that she kept thinking of all sorts of great comebacks but when she tried saying them, they stayed in her head. She wondered if Neena was having the same problem. “It’s my favourite evening dress!”
“I guess seeing it on myself from the outside brought it home,” Neena replied. She folded her arms and shrugged. “It’s all those holes it has in weird places, like the side there, and that one down the back showing the top of my butt.”
“My butt, and you know very well it’s one of John Paul Gaultier’s Head’s top ten ‘attraction zones’ guaranteed to keep your man’s interest.”
“Yeah, that’s what I mean. Slutty. It’s like something Amy would wear.”
“Well that just leaves the black shiny one and this purple one. Oh...” Leela held up the evening gown, ignoring Neena as she shrugged out of her robe and picked up the glittery black dress. “I wore this the night Fry premièred his opera.”
“He wrote you an opera?” Neena turned away. A moment later she turned back. “He wrote you an opera?”
Leela held the dress out at arm’s length, letting the memory of the opera fill out in her mind. She’d seen, so clearly, sides of Fry that she’d never really appreciated before, things she’d always know were there, lurking behind the dull, trapped-animal gaze Fry usually wore. It seemed so long ago now. What had happened to that moment?
Why had they let it go?
“You wear that one, it goes with your hair better than it does with mine. Zip me up will you?”
“Right.” Leela shook her head with the melancholy already fading. She had other things to worry about now, like getting them both home. “So what’s the deal with Yancy? From what little I’ve managed to figure out, you two don’t get along too well.”
“Until today I would have said we have a purely professional relationship,” Neena replied, turning on her heel. “What do you think?”
“From what I’ve seen he’s sort of like a dull version of Fry without the impulsive idiocy.”
“Dull isn’t quite how I put it, more like a sort of dependable charm. But I was talking about the dress.”
“Oh.” Leela looked her counterpart up and down. That black dress certainly suited her. “Shiny.”
“You know sometimes I wish I’d had a sister,” Neena said as she helped Leela zip into her dress. “I kinda like having someone around I can talk to who actually understands me.”
“What about Amy?”
Neena stared at Leela. Then they burst out laughing.
They were still giggling at each other when the reached the kitchen. Neena offered Leela a cup of coffee, then poured herself one when Leela declined. They sat in amicable silence for a while, waiting for Yancy to arrive.
“So what’s he like?”
“Who, Yancy?” Neena stared at her cup. The odd confusion of talking to herself seemed to surface for a moment but then she smiled. “Staid, quiet. Sort of arrogant but, in a nervous way, y’know? Like he doesn’t want to impose it on people but he doesn’t know how to stop. There’s something about him, though, a sort of determination to be more than he is. He’s not very confident, though.”
“Sounds like everything Fry isn’t.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing. Your friend Philip might not be so driven but he sure is confident about himself.”
“Huh.” Leela gave in and reached under the counter for a cookie. They were there. Weird how little familiarities like that could be so surprising. “Confidence isn’t enough. I need a man who isn’t afraid to take what he wants.”
Neena stared at her and then seemed to lose focus a little as she toyed with her coffee. “I’ve known enough men like that.”
“Well...” Leela, vaguely disquieted by Neena’s reaction, played back what she’d just said. I sound like those idiots on Diagnosis Unit Phil...
“He’s cute, too,” Neena added.
“Both,” Neena replied after a moment’s thought. “And please don’t spit crumbs all over me, they’re hell to get out of these optic scales. Or whatever they are.”
Leela swallowed and brushed her mouth clean. “Sorry.”
“Yancy probably wouldn’t write an opera.” Neena brushed imaginary crumbs from her dress. “Impulsiveness isn’t always a bad thing if it produces something like that..”
“Well you never know,” Leela muttered, wishing Neena wouldn’t keep coming back to that topic. The dress was bad enough. She wasn’t sure why she’d decided to wear it, now. “Maybe he’s more impulsive than he looks.”
“I don’t think so,” Neena said. She looked away toward the living room with a pensive stare, biting her lip. “You get to know a guy pretty well when you’ve spent the better part of four years running psych assessments on him.”
“Hey yeah, that’s another thing, an intervention like that would have been an open and shut case. A few weeks at most. How come it took so long?”
Neena’s face coloured slightly but she just shook her head and refused to look at Leela. Fortunately for Neena the doorbell rang, giving her an escape. She leapt up and half ran to the door, almost tripping on the hem of her gown in her haste to get away from the questions they both knew were rolling around Leela’s mind.
She paused at the door to smooth her clothes down and compose her face, then pulled it open. “Hi Yan-”
“Veklerov, what the hell are you doing here? Wait, never mind, I don’t want to know. Go home.” Neena slammed the door in Vek’s face and turned away with a growl. The bell rang again a moment later. “I told you I don’t want to- oh... Yancy, it’s you.”
Neena drew the door wide and stepped back to let Yancy and Fry enter the room. Yancy looked about awkwardly, spotted Leela lurking in the kitchen and quickly looked away again. “I, uh... bought you flowers.”
“Oh that’s so sweet. Where?”
Fry held up his hand. “I kinda fed them to a horse. Sorry.”
“I said I was sorry! Jeeze...” Fry moped toward the kitchen. He stopped short when he saw Leela and seemed a little surprised. “Oh... um... Hi, Leela.”
“That’s a nice dress. Hey, isn’t that the one you-”
“Yes, now stop talking about it.”
Fry glanced over his shoulder at Yancy before backing away a little. And that seemed odd. He was fidgeting, too, like he wanted to leave in a hurry.
“I saw Veklerov outside a minute ago. He seemed pissed.”
“Yeah, well...” Leela shrugged. Fry was staring at her, his expression inscrutable. “What?”
“You weren’t... I... I couldn’t find you earlier.”
“I went for a walk. Are we going or what?”
“What? Oh... yeah, as soon as Yancy does. We have to stop by Amy’s place as well.”
Leela felt something plummet in her stomach. “Amy?”
“Yeah, she invited me,” Fry said, backing away another step. Behind him, Yancy had offered Neena his arm and they were making their way toward the door. They followed a moment later. “Didn’t you know?”
“Must have slipped your mind,” Leela muttered, feeling strangely numb. She followed Fry to the door and outside into the corridor with its flickering, annoying light, and watched them walk down toward the stairs. “Fry?”
Fry waved his brother to go on ahead and returned to the landing. “Yeah?”
“I... I thought I was going to be there with you.”
“Oh, well, Amy invited me.”
“You said that already.”
“Yeah,” Fry said. He rubbed the back of his head and looked away. “Leela, I’m really sorry, I guess I thought you’d be there somehow.”
Leela chewed her lip and closed her eye, just for a moment, just long enough to stop the tear. This wasn’t how it was meant to go. She’d say stuff and he’d jump at it, like he always did. Wouldn’t he? She opened her eye again when she heard the quiet steps of someone coming back up the stairs. It was Veklerov, with a strange smile on his face.
“That’s okay, I have a d- a... I mean, I’ll be there. Vek!” Leela pushed past a surprised Fry and grabbed Veklerov’s arm. “You’re taking me to the party tonight, aren’t you?”
“I...” Veklerov looked over Leela’s shoulder, probably at Fry, with a momentarily confused expression. Then he broke into a broad grin and took hold of Leela’s shoulders. “Of course! I had assumed you were waiting up here. Shall we?”
He held out his arm. Leela ignored the strange fluttering sensation in her stomach as she twined her arm around his and resisted the urge to look back at Fry.
“Guess I’ll see you there, then,” Fry said. He sounded... defeated? No. More like he was disappointed. Serve the runt right for chasing after that little slut- but, no, that wasn’t fair to anyone.
“We’ll take my car,” Veklerov said as Fry stumped away down the stairs. They made their way after him at a more sedate pace. “It is safer than tube at this time of day.”
Veklerov smiled and patted Leela’s hand. “I am a little surprised at your sudden acceptance of me. I had expected the same sort of behaviour from you as from our own Sirochka.”
“I’m not ‘accepting’ you, I’m just not judging you yet. And I assume Neena has her reasons for that.”
“Yes.” Veklerov smiled to himself. Not for the first time Leela was struck by how different he was here, in this universe. Perhaps being a clerk at a spaceport had just made him a bit antsy in that other universe. Perhaps. She didn’t know him well enough to tell and the last one they’d met for barely an hour.
His car was parked a short distance from the apartments, just close enough to be in reach without actually being visible from the apartment block itself. It was actually quite nice, a lot nicer than she had expected, assuming his salary was anything like hers.
“How can you afford such a nice car?”
“Smuggling,” he said, with a grin that didn’t entirely prove he was joking. Leela laughed anyway, because to do otherwise would seem rude and she really needed to be at the meal, if just to prove to Fry that he wasn’t going to so easily win whatever game he was playing.
The interior was virtually silent once the doors were sealed, giving Leela a strange sense of isolation. She shuffled in her seat while Veklerov started the car and smiled nervously when he pulled away from the kerb.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Veklerov hummed and nodded for her to go on. “Your nickname for, ah, Neena. Serk... er-”
“Sirochka. Is just nickname, ask her what it means.”
“She wouldn’t tell me.”
“That is not surprising either,” Vek replied with another grin. He tapped his hand on the wheel and hummed a tuneless ditty. “She has her reasons for many things. They are stupid reasons, but they are hers and since she can kick at head-height I let her keep them.”
He chuckled and Leela felt her jaw tighten at the implied insult. She tried to laugh it off but she was already starting to regret this idea.
“So, Philip Fry tells me you two are not lovers.”
“You know, I think I can understand Neena’s reasons already.”
Veklerov snorted. He stayed silent for a moment as the car negotiated a complicated junction. “It is not important. Tell me, do you like to fly?”
“Are you kidding? It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He stared at her, frowning, before returning his attention to the road. “I expect you cannot fly as well as someone with normal eyes.”
“Well now I know how you found out about the head-height thing,” Leela muttered. “This was a mistake.”
“No mistake, I know why you’re here.”
“What would you know?”
“I know enough,” was the only cryptic reply.
They remained silent until the car pulled up in front of Elzar’s restaurant, much to Leela’s surprise, as she’d expected something a little more in keeping with the company’s finances. Then again, in this universe at least, those finances seemed to be remarkably flexible.
The others were approaching as she opened the door. Suddenly Vek was there beside her, holding out a hand to help her exit, the very model of a charming gentleman. She could see Neena frowning at them and Yancy looking bemused. Fry didn’t even look at her.
Vek took her arm and led her toward the doors with a gentle haste, tossing his keys to a valet who approached. As they joined the others Amy came tumbling out from behind Fry and grabbed Leela’s other arm. “Oh Leela, you made it! I was getting so nervous, I thought you- uh... might be... y’know, jealous.”
“Jealous!” Leela forced out a laugh between gritted teeth. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Amy.”
“Oh thank god, I was so worried!” She fell into step beside Leela, one hand resting on Leela’s forearm as she spoke. Leela felt oddly hemmed in, with Vek on one side and Amy on the other, and Fry still ignoring her. “After what you said earlier I figured you wouldn’t mind, but I had to be sure. I mean it’s just, you know, a dinner, nothing special really is it? I love that dress! How long have you had it? It goes so well with your hair!”
And on and on she prattled until Leela felt the urge to throttle Amy with her own pashminah, hanging around her bare shoulders as if to highlight just how bare they were. And she had her back showing. If Fry even so much as thought of touching her there she’d-
“So then, Sirochka, has your little ploy worked yet, do you think?”
Veklerov, leaning toward her and just muttering in her ear. When she turned to him there was a faint smile on his face and an infuriating, knowing look in his eyes that made Leela grit her teeth all the more. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Fry looking at her, almost pathetically staring at her the way he did sometimes when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Leela replied primly.
“Of course not,” Vek replied, letting go of her arm. He smiled and nodded at a passing couple, then at Amy as she moved over to Fry’s side. “Your Philip Fry tells me that you two are not attached in any way whatsoever.”
“Not as such,” Leela said, frowning at Veklerov’s smile. What was he getting at?
“He also said he has no particular concern about what you do with your life,” he added, with a ‘what do you say to that?’ look.
“What’s your point?”
“Right now? Just establishing where we stand, that is all. Which is apparently a lobby,” he added, looking around until he spotted a small bar. “Would you care for a drink before we-”
“To hell with that, what are you after?”
“Oh there’s no rush to find that out, Sirochka,” Veklerov said. “But I am sure you have already figured it out. Come, we have a party to enjoy, and an ex boyfriend to make jealous, do we not?”
“He’s not my boyfriend!”
“That, I think, is rather the point,” Veklerov said. Leela threw her arms up in disgust and stormed away.
The nerve of that man! It was almost like dealing with a competent and marginally more charming version of Zapp... Leela found herself thinking odd thoughts at the comparison and shook her head to try and clear them out. She put on a smile as she approached the group’s table, found herself a seat in between Amy and Hermes and bustled into it.
“I do hope this seat isn’t taken,” she muttered as she sat down. Amy seemed too surprised to argue with her and just smiled a wan smile, glancing over her shoulder at Vek as he approached. Fry sat down on her far side a moment later, along with Yancy and Neena. Leela clamped her teeth around a bread-stick lest the urge to say something acerbic overwhelmed her.
Not that it would have mattered, Amy and Fry were completely oblivious to her now. She listened in, found Fry relating some tale of daring-do about... about her, complete with zooming hand motions and sound effects. Amy hung on his every word, casting admiring glances at Neena and Leela, and even started clapping when he’d finished.
Leela was about to interrupt when she felt Hermes stand and move away, and someone else take his place. She glanced across the table at Neena, saw the look on her face and felt a sudden, tremendous drop in the pit of her stomach. It was the sort of feeling she got when the ship’s engines cut out unexpectedly while landing.
“Hello again,” Veklerov said as she turned to face him. “You left in a hurry, so I bought you a drink. Gamma Ray Burster. Your favourite, I believe.”
“A... what? What made you think I liked...” Leela’s eye was drawn to Neena, who shot her and Veklerov a dirty look before very obviously turning away. This had been a bad idea from the start but, now she knew why. Then again it was already a lousy night already, getting drunk couldn’t make it worse, could it? Neena, she could probably smooth things over with. If only she could get Fry’s attention away from Amy.
Leela downed the drink in a single swallow. “Oh, that’s disgusting...”
“You want me to get you something else?” Veklerov stood to head back toward the bar. She grabbed his arm, tight as she could without breaking it and heard the satisfying sound of an indrawn gasp.
“No, I want you to-” Leela bit her lip. Her voice had been just a little too loud and now Fry was looking at her. In fact everyone was looking at her, just staring, like they were expecting her to explode. Even the background babble of patrons seemed to quiet down a little, instinct for impromptu entertainment directing attention to their table and Leela as they waited for her outburst. Well she wasn’t going to give them a show. She put on a smile, placed the glass delicately on the table and folded her hands together. “I’d like you to sit down.”
Veklerov sat, evidently unsure of quite how to deal with the situation, yet he still had that infuriating smile, as if the whole thing were one great big joke for him. Leela squeezed her eye shut and wished, hard, prayed even, that the whole thing was just a terrible dream, that she was still at home, in bed, not making a complete ass of herself over an idiot who wasn’t even worth her time.
The Professor and Hermes took their seats without comment, and drinks and starters were ordered, easing the tension at the table just a little. Soon the conversation was flowing freely, with the conspicuous absence of Leela, who found herself absently staring at the table-top as she picked at her salad, and Vek, who seemed content to wait in silence.
One minor consolation was that Yancy and Neena seemed to be genuinely hitting it off. Perhaps if Fry had been a little bit more like his brother... she sighed, half smiling as she remembered one or two reasons why he wasn’t like Yancy, who seemed rather too staid and unadventurous for her tastes. When Leela turned to peer, Fry quickly looked away and laughed nervously, proving that he’d been watching her, even if it was just for a moment. So that was still the same.
Leela turned her eye toward Vek and his arrogant little smile. “All right then, let’s-”
“I think I shall take you flying tomorrow,” Veklerov suddenly stated. The table fell silent as everyone turned to look at Leela. It was the proverbial pregnant pause, filled with portent and expectation. “That is unless you’re afraid.”
“If you think you can bait me that easily you’ve got even less brains than I gave you credit!”
“Shall we say ten?”
“Perhaps we can say stick it up your-”
“You’re just the same,” he said, a strange smile playing across his features as he glanced at Neena. For some reason this stung Leela; the same as a woman who had never got the guts to quit her job? Who let the morons at her work walk all over her the way Leela had done up to the day she left? Who hadn’t even tried to find her parents...
Vek seemed to realise he’d got to her. He bowed his head slightly, offering up another drink as some sort of peace offering, and she took it and took a sip without really thinking. Vodka. Typical.
“Ten-hundred hours then,” he repeated, raising his own glass in a small toast. “Perhaps we shall see what sort of a pilot you really are.”
A damn good one, Leela thought. And better than you ever could be, two eyes be damned. The conversation around the table resumed in dribs and drabs until their private war was lost amongst the chatter once again, with a noticeable exception. Fry wasn’t talking. Oh, sure he could have just been listening to Amy’s prattle but, Leela knew, as she turned slowly toward him, it was more than that.
She took another drink handed to her by Vek, not really watching, and downed it in a single swallow. Another one of those Gamma Ray things. “This stuff kinda grows on you.”
Fry was looking at her without actually facing toward her and his face had a strange, sullen tension she’d only seen perhaps once or twice in the entire time she’d known him. It didn’t suit him, Leela thought. His was the sort of face that should be laughing more. When was the last time she’d seen him really happy? For a moment the gown she was wearing seemed awfully tight around her chest. It hadn’t been that long, surely?
The next drink came and went and she heard a voice, her voice, saying something about going slow before the food but when she looked at Neena she couldn’t tell if she’d said it, or if it was her own conscience prickling. Leela pushed the empty glass away and rested her forehead on her hands, quite certain she would end up making a fool of herself tonight. The one consolation she had was that her headache had finally gone away. It was a cold comfort.