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happy hour

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The Stalk is sitting next to the body of her latest assignment. She’s had to get up and move twice to avoid the encroaching seep of gore. When she does, she heaves a put-upon sigh like she can’t believe he’s inconveniencing her in such an egregious way. It makes The Will laugh. Now, though, the blood’s mostly congealing, and The Stalk is secure on her patch of reddish, clover-flocked ground. She holds out a hand to The Will.

“Gimme another one of those, will you?”

They’re eating chips.

“You’ve eaten half the bag already,” The Will says.

“Fuck off. Hits are hungry work. Which I guess you’d know if you’d made one this decade, but--”

“Hey, I had engine trouble, okay? If those goddamn thrusters had been drawing full power I’d’ve been here yesterday, and then who knows what would’ve happened. I had a lead on that guy back in the Red Band and I was coming in hot until my damn ship decided to crap out on me.”

The cat looks up from the sunny spot where she’s curled in a lazy semicircle. “Lying,” she says sleepily.

The Will throws a chip at her. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”

The thing is, the exsanguinated dude whose husk they’ve dumped at the edge of the clearing was both of their assignment. The Stalk just got there first, as she’s wont to do.

“You gonna call it in?”

She sighs. She’s playing with a strand of silvery hair, running it back and forth over her lips compulsively. He thinks she looks pretty.

“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” she asks.

If she calls it in, the wheels are back in motion. Her cut gets wired to her account, his...well, he already got his up front, all he’s going to see from this job, anyway. They both get new marks. Turns out lots of people want lots of other people killed. Sometimes they’re both contracted by the same people, winner take all, like today, and that’s where it gets awkward. But they won’t talk about that, not seriously, anyway. They never do.

There are always all kinds of clauses in their contracts depending on who the client is, nondisclosure agreements and and rules for competition that The Will’s never bothered to try and understand. They shouldn’t even be here together. If the agency knew--but The Stalk’s the best in the business, and The Will’s no slouch himself, so he guesses she can do what she wants and maybe drag him along with her, if she feels like it. He hopes she does. Things usually work out pretty well for him when she does.

“What was this guy’s story, anyway?”

The Stalk shrugs. He remembers back when he thought that looked funny. That was a really long time ago, when he was either more or less of a dick.

“Some Moony deserter, trying to sell state secrets. Who the fuck knows. I don’t ask questions, The Will, I just do what it says on my invoice.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that,” he says. “You know my name.”

He’s not sure what makes him say it; it’s been so long since he took up his Article, and it’s not like he calls her by her name either. She’s never made a big thing about it. For all he knows, names don’t mean the same thing where she comes from. Maybe The Stalk is the first one she ever had. They’ve never talked about it; there’s never really time.

She smiles at him, a little sadly. “We need to report,” she says. “They’ll be waiting.”

“Fuck it,” he says. “Fine.”

“Billy--”

He stands up, shoving his hands in his pockets. A noxious breeze stirs the trees. He wants to get the fuck off of this rock all of a sudden, never mind the fact that he hasn’t seen her in way too long and isn’t sure when he will again.

“Have you ever thought about doing anything else?”

She sighs again, letting her neck loll forward in an obvious show of resignation. “What would I do? I have a pretty particular skill set.”

“Fuck, I dunno. You’re whip-smart. You could do anything. Or...what if we went into business on our own?”

“What, freelance Freelancers? You think the union would let us get away with that for a second? Doesn’t work like that.”

“You’re the best in the business,” he says. “You go solo, your clients would jump ship in a hurry. I bet you’d be surprised. And what’s the union going to do about it, when you get right down to it?”

“Blacklist me,” she says. “Probably. And you? How do you factor into this scenario?”

He shrugs. “I’m decent,” he says. “We’d make a good team.”

She smiles. Not at him, of course, but it’s a smile anyway and he guesses he’ll take it.

“I work alone,” she says.

“Maybe I can be your manager or something.”

She snorts, shoves another chip in her mouth. Flies are starting to collect on their supine friend and she blinks at him with all her eyes like she’s looking at him for the first time.

“You, behind a desk? You’d be bored out of your mind.”

“I don’t know. Could be fun. Low-key, right? Kick back, surf the infostream all day.”

“Lying,” says the peanut gallery.

She gets her phone out and scrolls through her contacts, no doubt looking for their agent’s number. Their agent thinks they don’t know about each other, which is hilarious.

“Case in point,” she says, nodding at the cat.

“I don’t know what I keep her around for.”

“Lying.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

All around them, the planet is tilting. Navy-blue shadows are sliding over the glade, and the flies are buzzing like static. The Stalk makes a harsh noise in the back of her throat and tosses her phone down onto the ground.

“It can wait,” she says finally. “He’s not going anywhere.”

She turns back to him, smiles a slow white knife of a smile.

“Where are you parked?” she asks.

“Not too far. And I’ve got a six-pack in the fridge.”

“Lying.”

“Fuck it, fine. I have five beers in my fridge. How do you know these things, anyway?”

But as usual, the cat is unforthcoming. The Stalk doesn’t seem to care, though, just extends an arachnid paw to scratch her behind the ears.

“Come on,” she says to him. “What are you waiting for?”