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Playing Poker (with a Deck of Tarot Cards)

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Merritt was sitting on his bed in the East Sphere barracks, staring at his illegal video feed to Damian Mercury’s office with undisguised longing before shutting his laptop with a sharp clap. He was wasting his time. Nothing was ever going to happen between them. He knew that even before he had been captured by Troy. Maybe the North brainwashed their soldiers more subtly than the East and West — he couldn’t stop thinking about his former king. Irregardless, he had to stop. It wasn’t healthy.

His new king might have even done him a favor by making him watch over Pogo. There was less time left in the day to stare uselessly at ill-advised crushes— he might get something done beside polishing weapons, watching security, and sighing. Being a North Sphere general had been hard, satisfying work even if he might have rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. In any case, he had never felt like he belonged to the North, he just felt like a strange outsider. Something that had not changed by being moved to the East.  He still felt useless, but watching Pogo was giving him new purpose: it was something to do and –most of the time– necessary:  the boy desperately needed a watcher.There had probably never been a person who needed a watcher more.

Guard duty was strange, and Merritt both did and didn’t like it — he was easily charmed by social interaction of any kind after Troy’s kind reception of him in the East. He had to work hard to maintain the pretense of not actually liking Pogo, whom he’d mentally dubbed “the nuisance” or else Samsid was going to grow even more suspicious of him. Strangely, everything and everyone seemed to bend to Pogo's will, and Pogo was insistent on liking him. He wasn’t going to like Pogo back.

Pogo – who had been suspiciously quiet for quite some time now. Was he jerking off again? Looking over to Pogo’s rollaway bed (quickly, in case he got an eyeful), Merritt established that Pogo wasn't, for once.

"I wasn’t a North Sphere general," he confessed to Pogo in an insane case of speaking before thinking. Merritt didn't really know why he’d opened his mouth, except that he was frustrated and because maybe Pogo was the only one with an outsider perspective, and an outsider might understand. Pogo was from above ground and didn't know how things worked: that nobody could just hop from sphere to sphere without repercussions, that there were borders for a reason, that the game was important. "The North is different. They call them directors," he continued. “It’s not a big difference beside the name, though.”

Pogo didn’t seem to listen to him at all. He never seemed to care at all, except suddenly, when it came to reasonable and well-established things, like that Merritt was a traitor and shouldn’t be trusted, or that you couldn’t just declare allegiance to the king you liked best.

Maybe Merritt was playing a very dangerous game himself, admitting to the King’s favourite all the things he was torn up about. Pogo was going to end up higher than him in the hierarchy— Merritt knew it was going to happen, he just couldn’t prove it yet.  Then again, Pogo seemed pretty bored by all the social maneuvering and might not realize the difference a change in status could make. The King had taken a shine to him right off the bat. Pogo had more privileges as an Ace, the lowest of the low, than even he as an officer had. Pogo would never know how it was, completely on your own in the Underground.

Looking closer, Pogo had his newly printed card game out. Another strange privilege: The full deck was almost always only handed out to the higher-ups. Merritt’s own had been a gift from his former king, once he had made it to director.

Pogo didn’t seem to play any card game Merritt was familiar with, but his hands seemed practiced and smooth.

Pogo flicked over the card with his own face, one of the lowest of the deck, certainly the lowest of the East suit. "You know," he said, grinning, "Above ground, there are a lot of games where an ace is the highest card in the game. Lots of things you can do with one of these."

He flipped over the same card. While Merritt could follow the initial trajectory of Pogo’s printed face—  high, high up to the ceiling, it came down again as gravity had intended. Pogo sorted it back into the deck.

"Not a lot of people pay attention to aces," he said drily to Pogo, "but you’re different. There are at least two kings fighting over you."

"Oh yeah?" Pogo smirked cockily. "So nobody wants to touch me, because two old geezers already called dibs? What an awful situation to be in. People fighting over me, yet I still don’t get laid."

Merritt rolled his eyes. "You are juvenile ." He continued to stare at Pogo’s deft and nimble hands for a while, then abruptly remembered that Troy had been gone for quite some time.  If he wanted to avoid the inevitable lecture about not giving in to Pogo’s whims, that Merritt should spent more of his time trying to shuffle the king’s new obsession off the mortal coil, they had to leave soon.

He pushed Pogo towards the door. "Let’s try to get you to at least ride on the bitch seat passably well," he told him, bullying him out of the building and out to his motorcycle.

"Why, you only have to ask and I’ll gladly ride bitch for you, Merritt," Pogo replied with the most bewildering look — now Merritt could put a picture to the word lascivious .

"It's not named for that," Merritt said, but he wasn't quite convinced. Plenty of people used it without irony. At least, he wasn't attracted to— Pogo. His bitch.

He snickered, then thought about what Samsid would do to him if he heard that, and felt his gut lurch in the most awful of ways. His king wouldn't kill him for what he was only thinking, right? "We should get going," he said gruffly, and turned the bike around.

"Hop on," he told Pogo.

Pogo looked at the back seat, grimaced, then whined, "Do I have to?"

"Yes," Merritt said patiently. "You have to be able to stick to your seat, unconscious, while under heavy fire travelling over pipes, and doing flips, because that is what's going to happen. Now get on . If you have to, imagine it’s like hopping onto the King's dick or whatever."

For some reason, this time Pogo managed to jump on the back seat without flipping them over. Merritt wasn't going to think about it too hard.


With his eyes closed and the wind rushing by, Merritt could almost pretend that he was feeling the warmth of the sun on his face. There was no sun in Underworld Chicago, though, just UV lights on the ceiling and fluorescent moss along the ways.

Pogo was plastered against his back like a blanket. He was well-behaved and, for once, not even trying to stick his hands where they didn't belong. Merritt was glad for that, because that meant he didn't have to think about Samsid rearranging his innards in innovative ways.

The motorcycle vibrated between his legs, a heavy-set cat that purred as it brought them down the streets. The ride made Merritt feel as though he’d merged with the street, the city, the entire underground. He felt free.

"I miss the sky!" he heard Pogo yelling from behind him.

Merritt didn't reply. It felt like a confession, something that wasn’t supposed to be acknowledged, just shared. He couldn't miss what he never had. Instead, Merritt leaned into the next turn and brought the bike so low to the ground it took all of his concentration to get her back up again.The exertion strained his muscles – a line of sweat was running down the length of his back. He knew from experience that Pogo liked this part of their rides the most.

Merritt himself couldn't deny that having a powerful machine between his legs was exhilarating. It made him feel like he had control of his life and circumstances, for once.

He heard Pogo whoop in joy behind him. He smiled involuntarily, his face cold against the wind. Maybe the weak outsider wasn’t too bad.

Though Merritt's mind kept circling back to what Pogo had said, just before: the Ace as the highest card of the deck. Unfathomable, in a game played by kings.

"What are you doing with the ace again, Merritt?"

Merritt heard the sudden shout even over the sound of the engine-- he figured it had to be important, and with an even louder screech and the accompanying smell of burnt rubber, Merritt pulled back the speed. Cheerfully, he turned the machine around, and then killed the engine. Behind him, Pogo whimpered. (He may have said something like, "I'm going to be sick," but as long as he wasn't puking down his back, Merritt was electing to ignore his whining.)

"Training... What’s it look like?" he replied to the idiot who had interrupted what could have been live weapon training, before he could see clearly who had interfered.

That had been a mistake.

Troy stood at the corner of the street, having approached from the wrong direction. His combat boots were dirty, and he came equipped with both grappling hook and a machine gun. Weirdly over-dressed for going out in what was essentially the East's backyard. There was even an oxygen tank for deep tunnel exploration on his back. His face was set in a glower.

Merritt could hear Pogo exhaling into his ear, "What’s he doing here?" Merritt wanted to know himself. Then again, maybe it would be safer if he didn't dig too deep. Let the sleeping monster lie, and all that.

"What a surprise," Troy said, in unmistakable sarcasm. He had his arms crossed over his breast, and stalked forward as if looking for prey. "Didn’t the king tell you to stop bringing Pogo out to train?"

Merritt’s stomach sank into his boots. Strangely enough, the warmth of Pogo against his back helped with the creeping sense of dissatisfaction, but could not keep it entirely at bay — he still trembled slightly. Clenching his hands into fists, he replied steadily, "I have permission."

Troy moved closer. Even on a huge motorcycle Merritt felt intimidated by the man’s crossed bulking arms. "Permission?" Troy asked with a dangerous undertone.

The sweat running down Merritt’s back turned into a cold slime. It didn’t matter that he’d talked to Jordana before they left, it didn’t matter that the King — Samsid — knew where they were at all times (Pogo had been constantly texting the only number that would occasionally reply back, and the King had apparently a higher rate of tolerance for dick jokes). Merritt was, to put it bluntly, very unused to being frightened by anyone.

"Hey Sammy!" Pogo suddenly purred into his phone, and Merritt’s creepy feeling of uneasiness turned into secondhand embarrassment. "No, I’m not calling for phone sex. Though if you’re up for it— hey! Wait! This is important! Want to guess where I am?"

Pogo pushed the loudspeaker, and Samsid’s very annoyed voice echoed across the street. "I do hope you went out training with Merritt like you were supposed to. Why? Did you get kidnapped?"

"No, god bless — there’s just been some minor communication problems. What are you wearing?"

Samsid hung up, and the dial tone reverberated loudly between the buildings and the caves. Pogo smiled at Troy in a way that couldn’t really be called innocent any more than it could be called malicious, but nevertheless had traces of both innocence and maliciousness. Merritt could also have been running on fumes, and could have been hallucinating the exchange, maybe.

"Okay, then," Troy said, and seemed to relax slightly. "I was just a bit worried about how it would look."

Sure he was. Something wiggled at Merritt’s back, and without looking back Merritt jerked his elbow into Pogo’s gut.

With a shout, Pogo went down. Sprawled half on the ground with one leg still on the footholds he looked utterly ridiculous. The wiggling at Merritt’s back didn’t stop.

"That wasn’t me, you asshole!" Pogo yelled and pointed to the ferret. "Annie! I know you like Merritt, but there’s no reason to fondle him!"

"I’ll leave you two to your training ," Troy said with a condescending twist of his lips, and then— he calmly walked away.

Bewildered, Merritt looked after him. That had been a little too easy. And why was Troy randomly stopping motorcycles? Was he lying in wait for-- maybe not them-- but someone? But he was distracted by Pogo’s utter inability to stand up. He had managed to wedge his foot into the space between exhaust pipe and frame, and twisting it out apparently caused him unmanageable pain. He didn't seem to be burnt by the exhaust pipe at all, and so Merritt was more worried about the motorcycle.

He got off the motorcycle with a sigh. He couldn’t keep the bike entirely stable. It jerked forward. Pogo howled loudly. Merritt lost his grip, and Pogo howled louder.

"Fuck," Merritt swore. "Hold still ." He stemmed the bike so Pogo could pull his foot out. The ferret danced around them in upset circles. "Sorry, sorry," he repeated.

Then, of course, with loud engines ringing, the border patrol appeared. Apparently, there had not been enough interruptions yet. Merritt decided on the spot to hold the next training sessions somewhere more remote. Pogo knew how to procrastinate well enough on his own without outside help facilitating his laziness.

Both he and Pogo were on the ground when the patrol stopped, the commanding officer getting off his own bike and looking over over Pogo, "What happened?"

Of course it was Jordana. It couldn’t have been any of the god-knows-how-many officers of technical lower rank than him, no– it had to be Jordana.

"Natural clumsiness," Merritt replied. With Jordana’s help, the motorcycle was easily removed from Pogo’s foot.

Pogo stopped whimpering for a second to complain, loudly, "You pushed me off a motorcycle!"

Jordana smirked. "I’m sure you deserved it," she told Pogo.

"I’m sorry?" Merritt apologized at the same time.

Jordana proceeded to ignore Pogo as was her usual operating procedure and asked Merritt, "You haven’t seen a suspicious dude lurking around, have you?" She looked around further and added, "We’ve been hearing reports of people illegally crossing the border."

"No," Merritt said and pulled Pogo up. He looked a bit scraped up, and hung limply in Merritt’s grasp. With Pogo blinked back at him, eyes saucer-wide.Unceremoniously, Merritt dropped him again. "You’ll be fine," he said. "We’ll go back for now and come back later."

Under his breath, Pogo murmured, "Hopefully never," but Merritt decided to let that stand. Pogo was going to learn to sit on a motorcycle, if it was the last thing he ever did.


 

Pogo turned out to be even more useless on the unmodified motorcycle Merritt got for him. They trained a few times at different places, sometimes with the King watching with a raised eyebrow and a smug feeling to his posture, but Pogo didn't seem to get how motorcycles worked . The few times he could even start the engine, he startled so badly he lost his grip on the clutch.

Merritt thought about getting him a quad, but remembered in time that Pogo was an Ace. It was already unusual enough for him to have a bike, let alone a fancy one.  He was currently contemplating if he should give up on Pogo ever riding a motorcycle competently; it was not as if Pogo wanted to ride the cavalry. He decided that Pogo was probably better of riding bitch for the rest of his life, and just when he was getting ready to tell the king he was giving up forever, he stumbled over Jordana and Troy.

The two generals were fighting for the fifth time this week. He missed the start of it, it had probably been something small and stupid, like who had eaten the last protein bar (it was Pogo).

Now, they were at each other’s throats in the midst of the barracks, and were lucky to not be attracting the entire East sphere’s population, but from the looks of it, that could not be long from now.

Jordana had already got her knife out and was accusing Troy of faking an entire delivery chain because supplies had been dwindling and, for all intents and purposes, it looked like Troy’s responsibility.

"What can we expect from a traitorous rat like you!" she yelled, and waved her knife around in a subconscious gesture.

"You’re in hysterics, woman," Troy replied, and Merritt winced. Not the best way to de-escalate the argument. He chanced a look at Pogo, who was laying on his front on the bed watching the argument with more rapt attention than he ever showed when being taught. "I’m certainly not the only one running a supply chain. That's also not the only supply chain I am running."

Merritt winced again. The other people running supply chains were him, Jordana, and Mercy – Mercy, who’d been out of the main area for a couple of weeks training up new recruits.

"I don’t know why I expected we could handle this like real men!" Jordana seemed even angrier now – not unexpected –  and Merritt wondered what Troy wanted to achieve with this display. He scooted closer to Pogo, hoping to drag him out of there as quietly as possible as he watched for signs of the fight escalating.

"Are you asking me for a duel?" Troy asked, a dangerous edge to his voice.

"Would you be man enough to accept, or are you going to run off with your tail between your legs as soon as a real challenger appears?"

Fights in the barracks always attracted attention through an unfathomable net of gossip with a speed Merritt would love to run his datanet cable on, and so the numerous spectators chanting "Fight, fight, fight," provided distraction enough to abscond with Pogo to do some further training.

"What was that all about?" Pogo kept asking, youthfully ignorant of social convention.

After the fifth time, Merritt finally gave in and barked, "Testosterone," then made Pogo do pull-ups hanging on the pipes until he was too exhausted to ask again.


 

Tensions between Merritt and Troy had been running high. Tensions between everyone and Troy had been running high, and since Merritt had arrived, he had become the scapegoat for many things. Merritt always checked first to see if Troy was otherwise occupied before leaving to train Pogo.

Troy was weirdly obsessed with leaving Pogo as untrained and naive as possible, and Merritt didn’t like it. Then again, this was the East, and they had weird hang-ups with people wanting to avoid fights.

Which may have explained why Troy was having such a hard time adapting to Pogo. The thin little thief did hardly anything but avoiding fights by aggravating people. Merritt had no idea how that worked, but Pogo was notoriously shy of anything physical that didn’t involve sex.

Case in point: "I am not hurling myself into moving vehicles!" Pogo said, outraged. It had stopped working on Merritt after the second time he had seen Annie do the same. "Do you want me to die?"

"We could do this at slower speeds," Merritt attempted to explain this reasonably, "but you are able to do the jumps on empty, and it’s much easier to coordinate at full speed!"

"I am NOT jumping down a bridge to try and land on a motorcycle! I want to have sex someday!"

Merritt rolled his eyes in abject exasperation. "Everyone you have ever met knows you want to have sex. This is going to help you survive until that unlikely event happens."

Without any warning, Annie appeared out of nowhere and yanked on Pogo’s jacket. She had mastered the lip-pout much better than her… master. She did have the advantage of actually being cute.

Despite his initial reluctance, Pogo’s almost unnatural luck with falling down from places held true. He managed to jump onto Merritt’s motorcycle three times in succession without injuring himself, though he complained loudly and ferociously.

Merritt could not believe he needed a ferret to persuade his trainee to learn something useful. Scratch that. Merritt could not believe that Pogo had learned something useful.


 

"What’s the matter with Troy?" Pogo asked later, when they were back at the barracks again.

Merritt hid behind his laptop, so nobody would think the question was meant for him. Littlefinger shrugged, made a circular motion with his finger and left— probably for something to eat.

"He’s—" Jordana began to answer and then shook her head in hesitation, "When he came back from the West, he was… weird. Maybe he was brainwashed, or something. I’m kidding, of course." She didn’t look like she was kidding. She looked worried.

Pogo’s ferret snuffled around. She really did not like Troy, and like to express it by leaving droppings on his clothes. Troy had yet to find out that Annie was Pogo’s chosen companion.

Merritt concentrated hard on his screen, and hoped nobody noticed he was even there. Samsid had told him to take the day off (the first one in months!), and he was going to go out and meet Archer soon. He did not like this at all. He did not think he could trust himself, not between Troy, and Damian, and the King. Pogo was a distant afterthought, though one he was probably going to die for, it was what he needed Archer for. Something so he would not die.

Jordana moved out, probably going on patrol again. She was a bit over-eager to be named Queen, whereas Merritt thought the King would leave the spot open until Pogo could be promoted into it. Then again, maybe Jordana was a good interim solution. How was he supposed to know. It wasn't responsibility Merritt wanted, he just wanted to be free.

When he looked up again, Pogo had weaselled out of the room, leaving a indecipherable note and one of the knives Merritt kept on his body at all times. He checked, and yes, all the other one were missing. He buckled the knife back into its holster, and left for some coffee and to look at security feeds some more.

Just outside the door of the sleeping quarters, Merritt could hear loud voices again. Before he could open the door to provide himself as an acceptable target, he stumbled over Annie. It was almost as if she wanted to stop him. "What are you doing here?" he whispered to the ferret who likely couldn’t understand human tongue for all that Pogo talked to her constantly, "You know exactly what's going to happen to you once Troy finds you." Hot ferret on a stick, probably.

She huffed, as if to say that there was nothing at all to worry about. For all that Merritt hadn't opened the door yet, suddenly he could hear Troy loud and clearly.The bottom dropped out under him.

"—leave the money, I can lure him into neutral territory. You can easily pick up the Ace there. Nobody is going to miss him." Merritt heard Troy laugh, and a shudder of revulsion went down his back. There were only two people Troy could be talking to— both kings who were eager to get their hands on Pogo. An ace. And now the ace gave an ironic echo to the deal Troy was making. An ace which could win you the game.

Did the general know that the Ace was probably going to usurp his place soon? Was this his pre-emptive strike? Was this maybe a test Merritt was going to fail? Was this another one of Troy's mind plays, where whatever Merritt did or said, Troy was going to reap the rewards.

He looked down to the ferret who had so far been a better protector to Pogo than him. She stared back at him evenly. Was there anything he could do?

He could hear Troy leave on his motorcycle. He followed.


They were in neutral territory before he caught up with Troy. It was probably not the best spot for a disagreement of this size, but Merritt could not care about the politics of yelling at his superior officer.

The neon lights of Yaxley’s Booze and Drugs were in eye-sight, and Merritt felt re-assured by their presence. Troy wasn’t going to shoot him in the full view, surely.

Troy was taking one look at him, and then smiled. It was a pretty smile. “So you found out, huh? I was wondering about that. Didn’t think you would, see.”

Merritt opened his mouth. Nothing came out, he was too outraged. "You are selling him out to the West Sphere!" Merritt said finally, incredulous. That was the only thing that made sense, given what he’d overheard, and he almost felt like Troy had let that slip on purpose, as if to test Merritt’s loyalty to him. To Samsid, maybe? Definitely not to Damian Mercury.

Troy squared his shoulders and replied with an intimidating hiss. "Yes. I am." Implied was What the hell are you going to do about it? — then Troy made his intentions clear.  "Wouldn’t you sell out your own mother for a mere wink from Damian Mercury?" He spat on the pavement. There were fluorescent spots on the floor, Merritt had just noticed. "Hypocrite," Troy mocked, turned around on his heels, and left.

Merritt stood there, and looked at the lights playing on the only bar in neutral territory. This wasn’t true. As if Damian would ever wink at him— as if he wanted to have Damian wink at him— it was his resemblance to Troy that made Samsid so suspicious of him. Merritt’s motivations were completely unpredictable to Samsid! (To be quite honest, they were very dodgy to Merritt, too.) Was it that Samsid was having Pogo keep an eye on him as much as Merritt was keeping an eye on Pogo?

Merritt shook his head in denial, and went into the bar again. No way Troy was selling Pogo to the West Sphere. It was probably some sort of sideways attack the King had authorized, and because it involved a different sphere and Merritt's loyalty was uncertain, the King had given him his day off.

That was probably it. It had to be. Merritt went into the bar, and splurged all his hard-earned money on drinks that weren’t going to help him see this any clearer, no matter how cyan the Focus was.


Circumstances wouldn’t allow Merritt to watch him, but just a few hours later, Pogo would ride a motorcycle maybe not all by himself, but unconscious and under heavy fire.

He would not fall off.