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Jack's heels clicked loudly against the dark purple marble of the tiles that lined one of the many twisting corridors winding their way around the Black Queen's... around HIS palace on Derse. The labyrinthine structure was eerily empty, so soon after his return from razing Prospit to the dust. No one wanted to be anywhere near him after that. Ungrateful vacillators.

Still, even in relative solitude, the Sovereign Slayer kept his back rigid and his pace unfaltering until he reached the room that had been his old office as the Dersian Archagent. He slammed the door shut behind him and stepped across the room, careful to avoid the darkening smear across the floor that no one had thought to mop up. It was starting to stink. Jack didn't particularly care.

He sank into his old chair - uncomfortable and cramped now that he had to lift his massive wings at an awkward angle just to sit down properly - and at last let his forehead hit the desk with a low thunk, a tired hiss escaping from between his teeth. The sword through his chest ached and the scar on his eye ached and the stump where his left arm used to be ached and the ring on his right hand burned against his skin, but he refused to take it off, even for a moment's rest. SHE never had.

There was a rapping sound on the door. "Jack?"

He ignored it. Not his office anymore. Nobody was supposed to know he was here.

A hurried, whispered conversation, and then again: "Jack?" The Draconian Dignitary's voice. "Don't pull this today. It's important. About Hegemonic."

Slumped over with his face pressed to the dark wooden surface of the desk, scarred eye only half open, Jack let off another hiss. The Hegemonic Brute was just another pawn. Dumb muscle. Who cared?

"Droll had an idea, and we're going to put together a memorial service. Something small and classy, just the three of us, to see him off in style."

"I'm doing the decorating!" a small voice piped up from somewhere behind Draconian.

"And Droll's doing the decorating. We owe it to him as one of the old crew."

Jack heard the creak of the door opening, and lashed out with a tentacle, snapping it shut in Draconian's face. "There is no crew," he muttered at last, in a venomous voice muffled slightly by the desk. "There's you, and there's me, and then there's whatever flimsy veil of friendship you've conjured up between us so you can rock yourself to sleep at night. Go away."

The Draconian Dignitary paused for a long moment before responding wearily, "Take off that ring Jack. No one's around to see you."

Jack's one remaining hand clenched into a tight fist, the ever-burning ring biting into his chitinous palm. He'd take it off when his skin caught fire. A king relished his cumbersome prototypings, and reveled in their power. Their painful, exhausting power. "That 'go away' was an order, pawn."

But the door was pushed open yet again, this time forced against the winding tentacle trying to hold it shut, and Draconian stood in the doorway in his typical snazzy black suit. The squat Courtyard Droll peered out from behind him, his head at about the level of Draconian's waist and the turrets on his ridiculous hat making up for the rest of their height difference. Jack considered sitting up straight for a moment, before realizing that exhaustion and apathy wasn't going to allow for it, and so he settled for glaring at them malevolently from his pathetic slouch. They didn't deserve the effort, anyway.

"You're still crawling away to hide in your old office, so don't act like a king," Draconian stated shortly.

"I'm the king."

"I know, Jack."

"I can have whatever office I want."

"Yes, Jack." The Dignitary looked the Slayer over as Jack scowled up at him, still folded over onto the desk. "You look terrible. When was the last time you slept?"

"Kings don't sleep."

"I hate to be the one to remind you," Draconian told him flatly, in a voice that meant something more along the lines of 'I can't believe you actually have to be reminded of this.' "But you weren't born a king."

That was enough. Jack wasn't taking this from anyone, least of all Draconian. With some effort he raised a fist and slammed it down on the desk, making the little Droll jump. "I'm the king!" He shoved himself violently upright, sharp fingers raking the wooden desk, and the chair fell away with a clatter as his wings spread menacingly. "I'm the king, and I'm not taking my ring off, and I don't want you in my office! And Hegemonic was an idiot and an eyesore, so don't think for a second that I care that he's dead or that you're having some garish send-off for him, because I DON'T MOURN FOR PAWNS! I'M THE KING! IT'S ME!"

And he took two steps forward and collapsed like a house of cards.

The Draconian Dignitary lunged forward and caught Jack under the arms before he hit the ground. Dersites were lightweight and Draconian was relatively strong, but still he struggled to support the Slayer under the dead weight of his superfluous prototypings. "Jack? Jack!"

"...hate you..." Jack Noir murmured to the world in general.

"Jack, you're stretching my coatsleeves." Draconian lowered him slowly to the ground and straightened up to readjust his suit with an air of annoyance. The floor wasn't much better than the desk.

"Are you okay?!" Droll asked with genuine concern. The gaudy colors of his uniform danced fuzzily in front of Jack's vision.

"You can't make me wear that," he managed.


"Go away. I told you to go away. I'm the king. That's a royal decree. I command you on pain of death to go away."

Droll and Draconian exchanged looks. "Let's get him somewhere where he can lie down," Draconian said at last, completely ignoring Jack. Droll nodded soberly.

"No. Go away. I will cut you to ribbons I swear."

"Yes, Jack." Draconian had him under the arms again, and was dragging him slowly and laboriously across the floor. "We really need Hegemonic for this. Write that down; we'll toast to it at the memorial."

"No, I'm... I'm the king. Don't need help from pawns. I'm..." His eyelids fluttered, and the world lurched abruptly. "I'm... not a pawn... I'm not..."

"Jack?" Draconian repeated, but a sleep-deprived and battle-drained Jack was already drifting away.

- - - - - - - - - -

It was a while later, after they'd put the Sovereign Slayer to bed, that the Draconian Dignitary stepped out into the hallway and stared without really seeing out one of the windows that looked out onto the warped and alien architecture of Derse. "Did that strike you as odd, at all?"

The Courtyard Droll, meandering out after him, gave Draconian a funny look. "What Jack said? He didn't mean that stuff about us and Hegemonic. I'm sure he's really sad about it and everything. He's just bad at showing it."

"I meant the part where he fainted because he refused to sleep, but you have a point. This isn't strange; it's just Jack being Jack. And that worries me."

"He really didn't mean it!" Droll insisted.

"Maybe. But all this; the power and the social insecurity and the prototypings dragging him down, and now Hegemonic... It's a lot to deal with all at once. And Jack notoriously does not deal with things. He buries them and lets them build up and then he snaps." Draconian was still gazing out the window, at the pristine darkness of Derse, and the black-carapiced pawns walking along the streets and bridges below. "And it's a problem, because now he's got the power to wipe out the population of a small planet."

Droll looked up at him uncomprehendingly. "Why is it a problem?"

"A Derse-sized planet. Think about it."

A long, LONG silence, and then: "Ooooooh."

Draconian turned away from the window and began pacing quickly down the deserted hallway, trailed by Droll. "This is just going to get worse, isn't it," he murmured, more to himself than to the other Dersite. "He's ranting about kings and refusing to sleep, and it's going to get worse, and there's not a thing we can do about it."

"We could get help," said Droll, half-skipping to keep up with Draconian's longer strides. "There's doctors for this stuff, right?"

"Therapists. Psychiatrists." Human words the Dignitary had picked up somewhere. Words for professions that didn't even exist on Derse. But at the thought of asking for help, another unfortunate realization arose. "We can't tell anyone on Derse about this," Draconian said aloud.

"Why not?"

"Because no one LIKES Jack. He's the king, but he's a diabolical gamebreaker and he slaughtered our entire army just to speed up the reckoning. If anyone knew he was..."

"Crazier than usual?" Droll supplied.

"Yes, thank you. There would be a panic, or a coup, or something that inevitably resulted in Jack killing far more of his own people than is really justifiable. Including you and me, most likely."

"He wouldn't do that."

"Your faith in your friends is impeccable, Droll."

"So if we can't ask for help from a Dersite," said the Courtyard Droll, straining his brainpower to its relatively short limits. "We'll ask for help from someone who... isn't... a Dersite?"

"You really don't seem to be grasping some of the fundamental concepts here," Draconian stated flatly.

"No, I mean... Isn't one of those kids - the ones playing the game, I mean - a therapist? We could ask her to help!" He grinned up at Draconian.

"You really, REALLY don't seem to be grasping some of the fundamental concepts here."

"But if we ask her really nicely...?"

Draconian considered for a moment. In all honesty, his future was looking depressingly bleak, and yet another futile errand wasn't likely to make it any worse. "Alright. Fine. We've got a few hours before the Sovereign Slayer wakes up, so why not?"

"Really?!" squealed Droll, whose ideas almost never got implemented.

"Yes, really. But if this idea of yours lands us in a convoluted mess of fiery death, that's on your head."

"We can't put it there, Draconian," Droll said seriously. "I'm already wearing a hat."