Hmm. Never thought I'd write one of these things! Just goes to show you can never predict what your brain's going to come up with!

Dedications: Phil, who sort of gave me the germ of the idea. (Achoo!) Dawn, who commented on the rough draft notes and was, as usual, wildly encouraging. All the other people who've written SC stories and created the 'rules', so there would be some to break. :) And most importantly, the Amazing Kielle who thought the Cafe up in the first place!

***

SC: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

A breeze blew around the corner that was there and not there, carrying the scent of dew from long ago summer grasses. A trick of shifting architecture broke its path, and it whirled for a moment into a dust devil, then faded away, leaving a person standing beside the path, smiling like the sister of the Nissan man.

The setting, not being crucial to the stories taking place within it, flickered like the teasing promise of heat lighting. The building was a city-night bistro, a quiet pub in the country, even (for just an instant) something like a Denny's. Then it settled into a low-slung back-highway roadhouse, with a dusty gravel parking lot and one huge cottonwood hanging over the front half of the building. Pulsing neon signs decorated the windows and blinked out the place's name, the one thing that never changed: Subreality Cafe.

The woman beside the path looked almost too ordinary to fit into the scene, except for her clothes--hospital scrubs featuring brightly colored and unruly tropical fish. The stethoscope looped around her neck glowed lemon yellow in the sudden dusk.

As she considered her best approach, a tall man appeared out of the dark, striding down the walk with his black duster flicking behind him at each step. A Bouncer popped up from out of nowhere. "Sorry, man, but you know the rules. Mainstreams not allowed, except on special occasions."

"Not a Mainstream, homme," protested the tall man with a peculiar grin, the kind that hints at secret knowledge.

The Bouncer sighed. "That's what they all say, buddy. Now do me a favor--" The tall man leaned down and whispered something to the Bouncer which caused him to take an uncertain step back. "Oh, yeah? Umm--"

"An' may I say, dat black leather outfit is def'nitely you. Tres chic, mon ami." This line was accompanied by a flirty wink.

"Uh, I'd just as soon you didn't," gulped the Bouncer, with a weak attempt at a strictly business smile. "But I guess you can go in."

"Merci beaucoup."

As the tall man ducked inside, the Nurse strolled up to the entrance, humming "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox If I Die". The Bouncer finished wiping his forehead in nervous relief and rounded on her, exasperated. "What is this, Push Your Luck Night? No Writers allowed at the SC!"

"I know," she said soothingly. "But I thought maybe you could...." She held something out in her hand, and he stepped forward to take it, assuming it was a note or token to be passed inside. Instead, she pressed a strange device to the fleshy part of his upper arm, then caught him as he slumped--with a little 'oof', because he was a big Bouncer.

"Sorry," she said as she guided his slide down the wall into a peaceful sleeping heap. "But you forgot the first rule: 'Never trust a Writer.'" Digging into the large bag she carried, she pulled out a light dustcloth, the kind used for covering furniture in spooky old mansions, and unfurled it over him. Then she reached deeper into the bag, fumbling around until she halfpulled out a sign. "'Santa is off feeding his...' no, that won't do." She shoved it back and tried again. The next one said, 'Please seat yourself'. Shrugging, she placed it beside the door, and let herself in.

The Bartender might still be a problem, so she slipped into the ladies' cloakroom first. She shook her head at her reflection in the mirror--not too obvious who she was!--and muttered a few trial sentences. A puff of neon pink smoke erupted, and when it cleared, looking back from the mirror was a slightly taller, definitely thinner woman in dignified black spandex, sporting long, bright blue hair. "That's more like it," she nodded with satisfaction.

The main room was half full of people she knew to one degree or another, but she'd come here for a reason, not just to schmooze. Carefully, trying to look casual, she began to make her way around the cafe, in search of the one she'd come to find.

"You a li'l outta place here, chere," came a voice from a booth behind her as she passed it by. The Cajun accent did fall pleasantly on the ear, she had to admit.

"Looks who's talking, tall, dark and angsty," she replied with a smile, and sat down, taking the offer of conversation as an invitation to do so.

"M'not Mainstream," he protested amiably, "so I'm street-legal. I'm--"

"Yes, I know," interrupted the Writer. "There's a reason I mostly write in 3rd person omniscient." She looked him up and down. "Unrequited passion is fine, you know. But...for Charles?"

The Cajun shrugged. "You de one writin' dis story, gal." He eyed her with undisguised curiosity. "New plotline comin' down in Neon Hearts?"

"I don't think so--not with you, anyway," she said, being sure to pitch her voice low enough to prevent eavesdropping. "Not sure where you came from, to tell you the truth. Something going on in the old subconscious I don't know about yet, maybe."

"Lemme know. Always nice t'fin' steady work," he said, giving her a 'no hard feelings' sort of smile. "So why are y'here?" he continued, just as interested in a little gossip.

"I'm on a mission of mercy." Her eyes scanned the crowd behind them, and she frowned at the hubbub. It was going to be almost impossible to find the one she was looking for in this crowd.

"Bein' a nurse an' all," he said, urging her with his tone to go on.

"More the Writer end, this trip," she told him with maddening lack of detail. "Plus, of course, the fact I can never resist a challenge."

"Dat's a Writer, all right."

A Waitress, carrying a tray full of empties, stopped. "Anything I can get you?"

"Y'pref'rence is a Fuzzy Navel, n'est-ce pas, chere?" the Cajun asked, his innocent air marred by a knowing wink.

She almost blushed, but ignored him to ask, "You wouldn't have... Summer Wine?"

"'Strawberries, cherries, and an angel's kiss in spring?' Sure. Don't get much call for it from the younger clientele--but we have everything here. That's a rule of the franchise."

The Waitress headed off in the general direction of the bar, and the Writer turned to her boothmate. "You want to help me? I'm looking for a certain person--"

"Pret' sure he'd be at de Mainstream Bar--though he's boun' t'have a li'l 'jolie blonde' right beside 'im."

"Oh, I can find them easy, anytime I want," she told him, waving impatiently. "This other one's...different. If I just go asking around, people might take offense." Intrigued in spite of his facade of aloof amusement, he nodded his willingness to help. "Anyone in here seem...strangely attractive to you? A seductive pull you just can't explain? From the women, I mean."

"Already tol' you--"

"Yes, I know. That wouldn't matter in this case."

He obligingly looked slowly and carefully around the room. Eventually, his attention came back to her. "Don' take dis wrong, but...dere's somethin' about yo' hair...."

"Oops, should have thought--I picked it for exactly that reason, but it's bound to be interfering with the vibes!" She pulled off what turned out to be a wig, revealing quite ordinary short dark blond hair, its utilitarian cut crazily tousled from the confinement. As she stuffed the wig in her bag, the Waitress returned with her glass of wine. She seemed quite unfazed by the change in her customer's appearance.

"C'mon." They got up and began to slowly walk through the room. At one point, the Writer hastily moved to her helper's other side, so as not to be seen by three people sitting in a booth. An older couple was nodding along with a stylishly stout woman in a red blazer as she declaimed in a loud voice about what ought to be done to Writers who didn't keep to their schedules. None of the three noticed when the redpoint Siamese under their table gave a soft baleful hiss at the pair skulking past.

As if drawn by a magnet, they followed a path through the laughing crowd, ending up at a booth way in the back, where a young woman sat alone. "Do I know de p'tite? Or...should I?" the Cajun murmured.

"You undoubtedly do," said the Writer. "But I need to work alone from this point. Thanks for the help and all"

"I don' mind stayin' t'len' a hand, w'atever yo' plan is."

"No," said the Writer firmly. "If you stay, you risk succumbing to her powers, and that would be most politically incorrect." She gently turned him around and gave him a mildly hinting push. "Remember, you're saving yourself for Chuck."

"If y'ever write it," he complained. "I din' jus' fall off de Mardi Gras float yest'day, gal."

"No promises," the Writer warned, trying not to laugh, knowing it was mean to tease people, even when they were only figments of your imagination. "But I'll do my best--I'll set a couple of people to na--uh, remind me, okay?"

"A bientot, den," he said, knowing there was nothing to do when Fate and the Writer dealt you a crummy hand but play it out the best you could. His posture as he walked away spoke eloquently of the heartache he constantly tried to hide, and many more than one head turned to watch him go back to his booth.

The Writer shook her head to get off the plot track threatening to diverge from this one, then stepped boldly forward and took a seat across from the lone woman. Making meaningful eye contact was a bit difficult, because the person seemed to be in a near-constant state of flux, so much so that she made the Cafe itself look as permanent as Plymouth Rock. Her eyes changed from green to blue to violet and so on ad infinitum, though they were always an enchanting shade. Likewise her hairthe length and color shifted continually, but it was flawless every time. Other bodily details altered as well, but these were almost unnoticeable beside the hair, the eyes, and an ongoing costume change that would have made Vanna White cry with envy--if she'd been allowed into the story, which she wasn't.

"You don't want to talk to me," said this apparition of loveliness. Her tone was half bravado, half sorrow. Ensigns' braid winked on the long sleeve of her Star Fleet uniform (original version) as she toyed with her half-empty glass.

"Nonsense, dear, I came especially to see you," the Writer contradicted her kindly. "Don't mind the 'dear', it's part of the nurse thing."

"Especially to see me?" A modest amount of cleavage showed from her Xena-like armor as her bosom heaved. "Go ahead and make fun of me, then! I don't care!"

A little overdramatization was only to be expected, and the Writer pretended not to notice. "I'm not here to do that, either." She took another sip from her wine glass to let the young woman calm down. "Trying to be a little fair and show the other side of the picture, actually," she took a chance and used her trade name, "Mary Sue."

"Fair!" Mary Sue's laugh was bitter. "That would be a change, all right!" Her clothes became street-tattered jeans and a faded Kiss t-shirt with no sleeves, underscoring her alienation.

"I came to see if I could help you understand why people--fanfic readers and writers--react to you the way they tend to do."

This gave Mary Sue pause, and she toyed unconsciously with the jeweled clasp of her cape. "Do you...really know? Can you explain how come characters all love me, but everyone else hates me?" Her lovely wide eyes glimmered with tears. "Even the people who write me try to deny I exist!"

"Well, this is just my opinion," warned the Writer. "But I think maybe it's because just about every Writer who ever turned out to be worth five minutes of a reader's time started out with you. So you're like a security blanket--once kids outgrow them, they're embarrassed by the whole concept of ever having used one. Until they get old enough for nostalgia, that is."

"It's not because I'm...I'm...badly written?" Her tattered rags revealed the depths of her shame at having to say the words.

"Well, that doesn't help," said the Writer with honesty. "But do you see people vilifying bad writing on TV--and the gods know there's plenty of it!--or the dozens of other places it crops up? Not much! I really do think it's mostly the embarrassing memory thing."

"That would be...easier to understand," Mary Sue said softly. The sudden gleam of pink spandex made the Writer wince in spite of herself--although she positively adored the Power Rangers, compared to how she felt about Barney.

"Mary Sues get written...a little larger than life, that's true enough. But it's because they have too big a core of reality. A beginning writer hasn't figured out, most of the time, how to just take little pieces of herself and grow them into lifelike characters. That's a knack that comes along with time."

The Writer studied Mary Sue carefully, to see if she was being persuaded at all. "It's a natural fact you have to learn to walk before you can run. People smile to see babies learning to walk, precisely because they know someday they'll be up and running." Mary Sue nodded, her expression softening at the mental image. "Some of those little walkers will turn into good honest joggers. Some will be weekend warriors who race for the fun of it, and a few will astonish everyone by turning into cheetahs, burning up the veldt as they run for the pure joy of it."

"And it's the same with Writers?" asked Mary Sue, who, it must be admitted, seldom let a point go by without emphasizing it at least once.

"Yes. At least, I believe so." The Writer leaned forward, grinning, to share a confidence. "I remember when I first met you. I was 9, and my teenaged aunt showed me a story she'd written where you were a 16 year old surgery patient. Dr. Kildare saved your life and the two of you fell in love..."

Mary Sue's dress turned pink, with short puffed sleeves and a lace trimmed Peter Pan collar. "He had such dreamy eyes," she sighed, remembering the young doctor who had collected thousands of hearts long before transplant surgery made it routine.

"You go way back, you know," the Writer reminded her. "Rudolph Valentino?" A highcollared shirtwaist dress suddenly adorned Mary Sue as her hair wound up into a chignon. For the moment she looked amazingly like Mary Pickford. "Probably further than that, if a person knew where to look."

"I guess I have been in love a lot of times," she admitted. "John and Paul said that was all you need, you know." Her peace earrings swayed as she brushed back her long paperflat blond hair, which was secured by a tie-dyed headband.

"I remember," said the Writer. "They meant, to help you do anything you really want to do, I think." She swirled the wine in her glass as she pondered. "Actually, that is probably another big reason you exist. You--literally--personify love and admiration of heroes."

"You think so?"

"Oh, sure. Heck, someone who's been part of creative people's psyches for as long as you have goes well beyond just being a cultural icon. You're probably a lot closer to a Jungian archetype!"

"Really?" Serious wire-rimmed glasses and a lab coat flashed into being. "That's...kind of important, isn't it?"

"Very much so," the Writer assured her. "So don't fret about people making fun of you. Just...try to tell yourself they don't understand what it is you do for--" She broke off, staring at a new image brought forth by who knew what subtextual undercurrent. "Wait! Hold that! I know you!" Mary Sue was now a slim blonde girl, who ought to be far too young to have the carefully still face and deadly poise of a spy. But those sensitive eyes, and the purple assassins' caste tattoo just at the corner of the hairline on her forehead were unmistakable. "G'wen?"

"You remember me?" Her sudden new accent was strange, yet as familiar as a childhood bedroom.

Lost in wonder, the Writer murmured diffidently, "Oh, yes." She reached out and almost touched the other--but let her hand fall back. She didn't need to do that to know she was...real. "I've always been a little glad I never put you on paper, for people who didn't understand to laugh at. But...I remember your adventures better than a lot of things that actually happened to me. You got me through an awful lot of the Grey Times. My writing wouldn't exist--I wouldn't be me--if it wasn't for you."

Before the new persona could speak again, someone came in the front door yelling, "Hey, who mickey-finned the Bouncer?"

"Uh-oh, time for me to go!" The Writer slid out of the booth at speed, and gulped down the last of her wine. G'wen, her movements graceful as a serpent's, followed her example.

From beneath the table where he'd been patiently and invisibly waiting came a dark sable collie, straight out of Albert Payson Terhune. He gently nudged his head under the Writer's hand. "Hi there, fella," she said, even more pleased. "I remember you too--except not your name, I'm afraid."

"Doesn't matter," said G'wen, as the dog returned to her side, and sat to watch them both with a solemn doggy gleam in his eyes. "He wouldn't be here if you didn't remember the important parts."

"Is your horse outside, too?" the Writer inquired, getting a great idea for her getaway. "I could borrow Cassie's--they're a matched set, you know. And maybe we could...ride together for a little while?"

"Into the sunset," G'wen said gravely, with an invisible smile only her Writer could see. "It is traditional."

Outside, dusk rolled back upon itself and blazed into a flaming Western sky, which soon silhouetted two very old friends astride two prancing Paint mares, a faithful collie trotting at their heels. A duet of laughter floated back on the breeze created as they broke into a gallop over the fields of forget-me-nots that surround the Subreality Cafe.