“Pass the salt,” Edmund Dugg said. He also pointed, as though no one would understand what he was referring to otherwise.
Mrs. Hamilton’s lips twitched. But she said nothing as Sam passed Edmund both the salt and the pepper.
Edmund looked at the pepper in shock. “This isn’t salt. I didn’t want this.”
“I know, Ed,” Sam grunted. “But my father taught me you passed salt and pepper together. They are a couple.”
“I don’t want the pepper,” Edmund said with a shrug. His impressive black mustache twitched as though the mere thought of pepper made him want to sneeze.
“Then don’t use it,” Sam said harshly, glaring at the other man.
Mrs. Hamilton serenely surveyed the rest of the table. Regina Northwind had the blank-faced look of a woman making a mental checklist while something beneath her notice was occurring. Donny sat with his head down, continuing to eat the greek salad in front of them. Bekany, Edmund’s wife and the one who brought that salad, blinked and smiled.
You do that a lot, dear, Mrs. Hamilton thought fondly. But for all that Bekany was clearly a ditz, she displayed an attribute that Mrs. Hamilton found endlessly enchanting: Patience. And you need it every day, to deal with that man…
“I’ll take the pepper,” Bekany said brightly.
Edmund pushed the pepper grinder across the table with the back of his hand, as though using his palm would somehow infect him with its distasteful attributes. Bekany took the pepper and tilted it incrementally over her salad. No hint of pepper fell out. With that same bland smile on her face, Bekany righted the shaker and set the pepper down.
“I don’t know how you manage the stuff!” Edmund said with a shake of his head. Finding something amiss, Edmund suddenly froze. Then he reached up, removed a rather large piece of ear wax from his left ear, and flicked it onto the floor.
Regina’s face twitched back to wakefulness as she witnessed the callous disrespect conveyed in the gesture, but she just frowned. Mrs. Hamilton covered a smile with her hand. Obviously, it wasn’t worth getting the man started on the dangers of over waxed ears.
In a respectable effort to move the talk forward, Sam said, “Food’s good.”
“Let me tell you something,” Edmund said as he leaned over the table. He propped his elbow up and jabbed his finger at Sam. “There was this place. A hot dog shop, spelled with two p’s and an e. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I would never dine there. I agree, I had the same thoughts. But the hotdogs they served-”
“This food is a damn sight better than hot dogs, Ed” Sam rumbled as he glared at Edmund. The man shrugged, unwilling to back down on his point. Bekany just sat at his side and giggled, then continued to eat her own pepper-less salad.
So the dinner went.
At the end of it, Donny wasn’t so anxious any longer, but he was clearly frustrated. So Mrs. Hamilton shared a knowing look with Sam and excused herself from the rather idyllic rant Edmund was giving about ovens with the System. A short gesture was all she needed to get Donny to follow her.
To his credit, he walked calmly after her, his hands at his sides. But his annoyance was clear in the tightness of the lines beside his eyes. Donny, you truly are so young.
“So, why was I brought here?” Donny asked. Mrs. Hamilton sighed and brought him into the private library of Sam and Regina. As they sat in the overstuffed leather chairs, Donny continued to speak. “I thought it was to talk business. Because all I know is that Donnyton’s growth is leveling off. We have the Undying Hero acting in the Southeast; not even Neveah can pin him down. The two new arrivals to the new Earth smile politely but are trying to cut into Donnyton business. And the Ogre’s-”
“The world is full of terrible truths.” Mrs. Hamilton said lightly to cut him off. “But you cannot let that get to you. You are doing everything you can. Working harder than this will just be counterproductive.”
“Yea, well, it’s fucking getting to me,” Donny said. Then he shook his head helplessly. “We had a string of victories early in Donnyton. Maybe I’m just worried about what’s going to happen to us. Randidly won’t just solve all of our problems. This might be the beginning of the end for Donnyton-”
This time, Mrs. Hamilton flicked Donny in the head. “Yea, we know it’s getting to you. That’s why Sam invited you to this dinner. Because you have too many streams of information; the line between what you can do and what should be done is blurring. You aren’t Randidly Ghosthound. Not even Randidly is Randidly. He always has a team of people behind him. If you forget that, you are going to go crazy trying to keep up.”
Mrs. Hamilton watched Donny’s face carefully. She was also worried that some of the power was getting to his head. All of the capability and power… concentrated in one so young… Mrs. Hamilton had long had countermeasures prepared for the eventuality that Donny fell prey to his darker desires.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the constant stresses of leading Donnyton kept those creature comforts far from Donny’s mind. When he wasn’t in meetings or working with the different factions of Donnyton, Donny was training. Physical fights against very talented fighters had a tendency to keep a man honest.
His eyes were clear and annoyed as he stared at her after the flick, but she could see him visibly calming down. It seems that the realities of the System aiming to kill us has had some unintended consequences. But bright lights just makes deeper darkness, when night finally comes...
“I get it,” Donny said, rubbing his neck. “I’ve just been… stressed. And it’s not something that a sparring session has been able to work out. Ever since Randidly went away… things have been difficult. It just seems like there are more Raid Bosses appearing in the wrong places every week. The Nemesai are moving. We need to be ready for them.”
“And we will be,” Mrs. Hamilton said with a smile. “Look, I’m not trying to just be ambiguous; we have solid leads on their moves. I’ll debrief you on what we know tomorrow if you want to know. The Ogre army is dangerous, but they are just as wary of us as we are of them. They haven’t moved after Alana and Dozer stopped their probe. As for the situation with the Undying Hero…”
Mrs. Hamilton tapped one of her silver rings against the wooden end table next to the chairs. In this, at least, she shared Donny’s concerns. But she wasn’t going to voice them. “Have some faith in Neveah. If she hasn’t had results, there is a reason for it. Besides, her actions have at least kept him at bay for the past several months.”
Donny grimaced. “Still. It was a waste that someone used one of the Danger Zones to triple his own stats. We need those experience buffs so the average Level of Earth rises. If we don’t continue to grow strong-”
“Do you know why we have these dinners?” Mrs. Hamilton asked. “I’m sure you’re curious. For all that Edmund Dugg personally installed almost every sewage system in Donnyton, he’s quite a bit… draining to be around. But that’s the point.”
“You enjoy listening to him and his bimbo wife?” Donny smirked.
Mrs. Hamilton glared at him for the term, but then wiggled her fingers. “Humanity… evolved to have certain needs. The System did a remarkable job taking away a lot of those needs. But it couldn’t erase them entirely. And let me tell you, I’ve never slept as soundly or as deeply as after I’ve listened to one of Ed’s talks.”
Donny blinked. “You… you take those two like sleep aides…?”
“Ha! That was a joke,” Mrs. Hamilton said, wrapping her ring against the desk once more. Did she treat Edmund and Bekany as a drug? She just might. But that sort of callous treatment of others shouldn’t be encouraged. “They are real people. Unenamored with the System or its benefits. To Ed, the trappings of power don’t mean anything. He’s just an average guy who wants to come home after work and complain to his wife.”
“Yea well, we aren’t normal people, we don’t have the luxury anymore,” Donny said. “We-”
“-are not superheroes,” Mrs. Hamilton interrupted. “Do you know why you are so exhausted? It’s because you forget that. Your mind needs a break. Don’t you have a girlfriend? Why don’t you go… spend some quality time with her.”
Donny just stared at her.
Chuckling, Mrs. Hamilton headed toward the door. “Also, you’ve forgotten one more important thing. No one, and I mean no one, in this world is a threat to Donnyton. We are the strongest force on Earth. You are just too close to see it.”