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Settling

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Pickle Inspector avoided social gatherings as a rule. It’s not so much that he was bad at them, because he had all of his mannercite shards carefully arranged in his etiquette monstrance.He could fall back on manners. He knew when to say hello, good evening, it’s good to see you, nice to meet you, and so on and so forth. It wasn’t genuine in the least, but it satisfied people. The problem was that he couldn’t stop overthinking it. Did he stutter too much? Was his smile warm enough? Did he respond too quickly to that question? It wore him out quickly, and so when it was possible, he avoided it altogether. That’s why he was hesitant about attending a fundraising dinner for the mayor’s re-election. Sleuth came into his office with tickets—Pickle didn’t bother to ask how he got them—and demanded that Pickle tag along.

“P-perhaps Ace c-can accompany you,” Pickle suggested, fiddling with papers on his desk in an attempt to look too busy for parties.

“I can’t take Ace anywhere,” Sleuth said, shoving the ticket at Pickle. “Least ‘f all anywhere that requires any level ‘f finesse.”

It was true, Ace was more likely to beat someone over the head with his etiquette monstrance than to ever say please or thank you.

“Is—is it really important?” Pickle asked, although he already knew the answer. The Midnight Crew had every politician in Chicagopolis in their pocket, and they wouldn’t miss an event like this for the world.

“Y’know it is,” Sleuth said. “Th’ Crew’s gonna be at that dinner, ‘n they’re gonna be throwin’ cash at th’ mayor.”

“Then—then why do w-we need to be there?”

Sleuth frowned, and tapped the ticket. “You’re goin’, Pickle.”

“If w-we already know the outcome—”

“You’re goin’!” There was no questioning Sleuth’s tone of voice. Sleuth would drag Pickle there if he had to.

Pickle couldn’t bear the embarrassment of being seen dragged somewhere. He decided to go peacefully.

It was a nice gathering. The mayor’s fundraisers were always nice. It helped that he was in the mob’s pocket, and could afford the most expensive venue in town. He probably didn’t even need to raise funds for his election, but these sorts of gatherings were part of how things were done.

Sleuth insisted on arriving early. He didn’t know when the Crew would make their appearance, and he refused to miss them. Pickle was exhausted well before dinner was over, but the party continued past that, while a jazz band played and various important people mingled. Pickle tried to stay out of the way, but he kept getting recognized. He cursed all the cases he had in the past that led him to become so well known among the city’s well-to-do. He had to deal with each of them in turn, shaking hands and asking how they’ve been. Soon enough he couldn’t focus at all. The chatter of the crowd, so ripe with information he needed to gather, was too loud to listen to. The movement of people walking was dizzying. He couldn’t collect intel this way. There was nothing meaningful here. It was all just static.

He shook a hand. He said his lines. It’s been a long time, Glad to see you’re doing well, How’s the night treating you? A hand touched his arm.

“I’m sorry,” someone said, addressing the city planner with which Pickle was speaking. “I need to speak with the Inspector alone for a moment.”

There was no protest, neither from Pickle nor the city planner. Pickle was led down the ballroom, to a door, and into the hall outside. It was quiet there, the roar of the crowd muffled to a dull murmur. He was so relieved to be away from all the activity that he forgot that he wasn’t alone.

“Are you all right?”

Pickle answered automatically. I’m fine, thank you.

A hand slapped Pickle’s face. The unexpected pain brought Pickle back down to earth, and he realized that he was standing in front of none other than Diamonds Droog. Pickle opened his mouth, started to make a noise, then realized he had no idea what to say. He closed it. He tried again, failed to think of anything, and gave up.

“Nice of you to join me, Inspector,” Droog said.

“I.” Pickle put a hand to his cheek, which was still throbbing. “That. That hurt.”

“I know.”

Pickle looked around, trying to catch up with where he was. “Uh. S-Sleuth was uh.”

“He’s looking for us,” Droog finished. He straightened Pickle’s tie. “I know.”

“Hhas he,” Pickle frowned at Droog’s hands, too close to his throat. “Has he seen you?”

Droog shook his head.

Pickle leaned back, putting his weight against the wall. It was cool to the touch, and he focused on that sensation. Droog finished with Pickle’s tie and removed Pickle’s hat. He started smoothing the detective’s hair down. Pickle closed his eyes and ran his fingers back and forth over the wall, taking in every bump and crevice. “I. I d-don’t know what Sleuth means to accomplish here.”

“He’s looking to chase after Slick.”

“I e-expected he’d, he’d have something else,” Pickle said. “A lie, maybe, b-but I expected he’d t-try to look like he’s d-doing more.”

“That is, perhaps, a lie too far.”

Droog put the hat back on Pickle’s head. Pickle sighed, and then sighed again, because he realized how tightly he had been controlling his breathing.

“Thank you,” he said after taking several more deep breaths. “For. For.” Pickle moved a hand. He expected Droog to understand how much he appreciated being rescued.

“You don’t have to go back,” Droog said. “People will assume I kicked you out.”

“Th-thank you.” Pickle closed his eyes again, then opened them. “Wh-what about, uh.”

“Sleuth?” Droog brushed some dandruff from Pickle’s shoulder. “He can look after himself.”

Pickle shook his head. “N-no. He, he’ll.”

“You won’t be able to stop him from going home with Slick.”

Pickle reached for his flask. Droog stopped him, grabbing his wrist and removing it from his coat. Pickle shook his head and made a noise.

“Use words,” Droog said.

“Nnnnn.”

“Words, Inspector.”

Pickle took a moment, shaking his head again, then said, “I don’t like it.”

“I know,” Droog said.

“Y-you can’t possibly?”

“Approve of this?” Droog’s voice strayed from its usual monotone, giving away his disdain. “No.”

Pickle made a noise again, and his fingers twitched. He needed a drink. He wished Droog would let him drink.

Droog waited for Pickle to respond, and when he didn’t, he spoke again. “I don’t need to be here anymore. If you need a drink so badly, perhaps I can treat you to something better than that swill you carry?”

Pickle’s eyes widened, and he stared at Droog as though the mobster had threatened to break his fingers. “Uh?”

“I’m only offering a drink,” Droog said. “To commiserate over our shared frustrations.”

“Nnnnno.” Pickle shook his head, taking a step to the side to distance himself from Droog, still hugging the wall. “No that. That’s how this started. They, they went out for drinks, they had drinks and—”

“Not everyone who goes out for drinks ends up having sex,” Droog said.

“B-b-but. But.”

“Would it even be so terrible?” He asked, moving closer. “Settling for me?”

Pickle did not say that no, it wouldn’t be terrible. He made a point not to say that, because he knew where that would lead him. He did, however, think it so loudly that he was certain Droog could overhear. He took another step away, quietly glancing around to make sure he knew where the exit was.

“It would annoy Slick,” Droog said, stepping away. He seemed to accept Pickle’s reluctance. “But it’s up to you. I’m certainly not going to beg.”

Pickle stammered, glancing at the exit, then at Droog. He wrung his hands.

“Umm. One. One drink w-wouldn’t, ahh. Wouldn’t hurt.”

Anyone else would have smiled. Pickle was sure that Droog was glad to hear it, but the mobster didn’t show it. He simply held his hand out. Pickle hesitated before taking that hand and allowing Droog to lead him outside.