You are Problem Sleuth and your services are often required. Thanks to this, you are no stranger to waking up in strange places covered in bruises. This time is rather different, seeing as how you wake up with a leg encased in a cast, one eye covered with a bandage, and a distraught mobster hanging over you.
Fortunately, being an old pro, you have worked out a routine for this sort of thing.
“Fuck,” you mumble. The first swear is very important, as it should sum up your feelings on the matter while allowing yourself to find out if you can talk. You note with satisfaction that at the very least your ribs, trachea, and mouth seem to be in one piece, although your jaw is a bit sore.
Slick is staring at you, so you try the next bit of your line up.
“How long was I out?” you ask.
Slick scowls, twirling a butterfly knife. “Dunno. Hours.”
You breathe in deeply. “Ah. Fuck. You patch me up?”
“Course I did, dumbass,” he growls.
Carefully, you try sitting up. Your head spins a bit, but you seem to be okay. “Ah. Anything I should worry about? I mean, ‘s cool that I match you eye-wise now, but I don’t think it’s a good look for me.”
“It’ll heal,” Slick says shortly. “Don’t take the patch off,” he snaps as you lift a hand to your face.
“I wasn’t going to!” you say. “I’m just trying to check everything over.”
Slick subsides, glaring balefully as you carefully run a hand over you face and torso, gently poking at sore spots. Apart from the leg and the eye, it seems like you got away with mostly bruises, albeit very large and painful ones. There are a few cuts on your arms, and your hip is all tore up. You probably hit the concrete hard, then.
You poke the bed you are sitting on. “This yours?” you ask.
“Yes,” he growls.
“Oh,” you say, pushing yourself towards the edge of the bed. “I should, uh, be getting out of here, I think.”
Quick as a wink Slick slaps your arm out from under you and you collapse. A knife plants itself on your neck.
“Uh, Slick,” you say, smiling a bit frantically, “Threatening someone doesn’t actually help them get better faster.”
He glares at you. “You’re not leaving.”
“Slick!” you protest. “I have a case!”
His soundless one-eyed glower bores into your soul.
“It can wait?” you try weakly.
“Good,” he says, pulling back. He throws himself into a chair by the bedside and continues staring at you, once again moodily flipping his knife through his fingers.
“So, uh, how did I get here?” you try, when you get sick of the metallic clicking of his knife.
“Took you this long to ask?” he inquires rhetorically. “You got messed up priorities.”
It is your turn to frown. “I’m a hard-boiled sleuth, Slick. Stuff like this happens.”
“You got dumped,” he says.
You blink. “What.”
“You got dumped in front of our hideout,” Slick says. “Someone knocked and the car went screeching off.”
“Huh,” you say. You mentally add a small tick to your checklist of hardboiled clichés that have happened to you. Some of them have been quite painful, but at the same time you feel a bizarre sense of pride over those incidents.
“So, uh, do you not want me knowing where your hideout is?” you ask. “Because if that’s the case, just give me some pain meds and I’ll be right out. Or blindfold me or something.”
Slick takes a very deep breath and closes his eyes. “You. Are. Not. Leaving.”
You nod slowly. “O-kay then. The pain meds option is still open,” you add hopefully.
“You can’t have some for another two hours,” Slick growls without opening his eyes.
“Oh,” you say, deflated.
The next few minutes are filled with the sound of Slick’s knife.
“Maybe you could just call Pickle and dump me on a street corner-“ you begin.
The knife flashes overhead and slams into the wall. “What part of you are not fucking leaving do you not understand?” Slick hisses, shoving his face up against yours.
“The part where I don’t get what the hell you’re doing!” you explode, shoving him away. “Demimonde, Slick! Why the hell are you so insistent on me staying here? I can recover just at well at home! Hell, I’m probably better off at home!”
“You fuckwit,” Slick snaps. He slams a hand down on your chest and you bite off a whimper of pain. “Do you have no brains whatsoever?”
“Apparently not!” you snap. “Get the fuck off me.”
“You fucking idiot,” he growls. “Do you even know who the hell beat you up?”
You falter. “No,” you admit. “It doesn’t matter though!”
“Like hell!” he roars. You take advantage and shove him off. As he staggers back you sit up and manage to swing your legs over the edge of the bed. Slick responds by full on tackling you and pinning you down.
“You are not helping me recover!” you protest, trying to throw him off.
“Deal with it,” he snaps. “Because you are not taking one fucking step outside this room until Droog comes back!”
You freeze. “Why Droog?” you ask cautiously. Diamonds Droog has always struck you as a hard customer and not someone that you want to tangle with lightly.
Slick snorts. “Because he’s the one out looking for the fuckers who did this to you.”
“Excuse me, I think the meds are making me hallucinate,” you say. “Droog. Is out looking. For the people who beat me up. Me, the guy that Droog despises?”
Slick rolls his eyes. “He doesn’t hate you,” he says tartly. “At least, not much more than he hate everyone. But yeah.”
“Um,” you say. “Why?”
He looks you over and apparently decides that it would be all right to release your hands. You immediately cross your arms over your chest and glare up at him as he ponders.
“You’re sitting on my bruises,” you say.
“Good,” he says. “Think about that the next time you wanna be stupid. I don’t think you can even walk on that leg, you idiot.”
“I would have managed,” you say. You silently cheer for that hard-boiled line which might actually be true. You have been beaten up before, and you know how to cope and still make quick escapes. Besides, this time around you have been patched up and had a few hours to recover.
“Look, why the hell would someone have dumped you outside of my hideout?” Slick asks.
You stare up at him in confusion.
“Detective my ass,” Slick mutters. “Someone went to the trouble of beating you up. They dumped you right on my doorstep. They stuck around long enough that I know who did it. Now why would they do that?”
“I’m going to hazard the guess that this is about you,” you say.
“Ding!” he says sarcastically. “And also wrong. This is about you, too.”
“I don’t even know who jumped me!” you protest. “I was tracking down a runaway kid!”
“You got jumped by a rival gang,” Slick says in a voice that is a bit too calm. “And those little shits beat you up and left you for me to find as a message.”
“Why?” you ask.
“Why the hell do you think?” Slick snarls, control evaporating. “They. Think. We. Are. FUCKING!”
You recoil. “What the fuck!” you yelp. You shove at him ineffectively. “No no no no no! The fuck!”
Slick snorts, staying solidly planted on your torso. “Thank you for that reaction, you ungrateful fucker,” he says.
“Why do they think that?” you wail.
“Stupid detective who regularly drinks with a famed mobster but is still alive. We get into fights in public, fights that involve a lot of puns and jokes,” Slick says. “What the hell do you think people think?”
“I think that people aren’t that perverted!” you howl. “What the hell is wrong with them! I had a girlfriend, for GPI’s sake!” This is not hardboiled at all, but you feel you have a decent excuse, as most of the time hardboiled detectives only have to deal with femme fatales, not… homme horrible, or whatever.
“Had,” Slick says. He seems amused. “Look, you’ve survived three fights with me. Only the Felt have a better record, and they fucking cheat. ‘Sides, people like a bit of gossip.”
“Enough to beat me up over it?” you ask, bewildered.
Slick shrugs. “Yep.”
You whimper. “But, why is Droog out looking for them? I mean, I’m not actually your… ergh.”
Slick’s grin disappears. “Because,” he growls, wrenching his knife out of the wall, “This was a direct insult to me. It doesn’t matter if you’re my whatever or not. They thought you were, and they thought they could use that to get to me.”
You swallow. “Any chance I could just, y’know, arrest them? Not have you involved at all?” If you take care of this yourself, you can keep your reputation in tact while distancing yourself from Slick.
Slick smiles at you fondly, running the knife’s edge along your cheek. “Ain’t that sweet,” he says. “But no. Those coffin stuffers are going six feet under in concrete overshoes.”
“Don’t mix metaphors like that,” you say, batting his knife hand away. “It’s just… eurgh. Also, you know I should technically stop you from doing this?”
Slick raises an eyebrow and gestures at your overall situation.
You wince. “Point taken. But, uh, won’t this kind of, y’know, encourage rumors that the two of us are…” you wave your hand vaguely.
“Fucking?” Slick asks, taking great satisfaction in seeing you wince. “Probably. And?”
You want your hat just so you can pull it down over your face. “Slick, you are literally the worst friend ever,” you say, burying your face in your hands instead.
“I’m also your enemy,” he reminds you. “Mobster, remember?”
“You are a mobster who is essentially publically affiliating yourself with a detective,” you hiss from between your hands. “Fucking. Terrible. Friend. I mean, Demimonde, do you know the flack I’m going to catch from this? Hell, just think about the flack you’re going to catch from this!”
“You mean how I still viciously dismember anyone who challenges me, now with the added threat that I could call in the law on anyone I don’t like?” he asks blithely, putting the knife away. “Or how I can imply that you just gave up on arresting me because I am such a tiger in the sack?”
“I gave up on arresting you because it never works!” you snap, flailing your arms. “Lack of evidence and your fucking lawyers get you out in a week!”
Slick just grins at you. “Your lack of persistence and competence is not my problem,” he says smugly.
“Then what is your problem?” you snarl. “You couldn’t just wake me up and kick me out? Why the hell can’t I leave?”
“Why do you want to leave?” Slick says.
“I’m in the hideout of violent mobsters that I used to try and track down!” you yell. “Why the hell do you think I want to leave? The decorating?”
“You are fucking precious,” Slick says. “Like I’d harm a hair on your head.”
“I have scars that say otherwise!” you say.
Slick waves you off. “Mhm. So does my Crew. And?”
“I do not buy your bullshit answer for why you should affiliate yourself with me!” you say.
“Oh, do go on,” Slick says, amused. He starts shuffling his deck on your chest, but his gaze never leaves your face.
“Look, if you wanted to be able to call the law on someone, I know you have corrupt cops on the force. You don’t need me. And that struck me as the single strongest point in your whole damn argument. Hell, it was your only point!”
Slick bridges the cards and then neatens the stack. “Point being?”
“Would you get off of me!” you snap.
Slick grins. “I dunno. You’re pretty comfy.”
“I hate you,” you say.
“Already taken,” Slick says. “By someone much hotter than you, damn her eyes.”
“Look, can we just have like, a public fight and break up?” you ask desperately.
“Sure,” Slick says. “If you wanna let it be known that you are no longer under my generous protection. I’m sure the other gangs will be quite understanding when they snap you up to see what you know.”
You groan. “GPI.”
Slick grins viciously. “Love you too, sweetie.”
“Get off of me,” you say.
Slick stands back up with boneless grace, slipping his deck back into its slot. You make a dive for the pillows and pull one over your face.
“How in the hell are you a detective if you’re this easily flustered?” Slick asks.
“I’m not flustered,” you say, voice muffled by the pillow. “I’m in shock.”
“From what, that people actually think a scrawny little idiot could actually get with me?” he says.
“Exactly who are you describing there?” you snap, pulling the pillow down. “Besides, you’re apparently willing to actively keep up
this façade! I’m an innocent bystander!”
“Make lemonade,” Slick says. “You’re just bein’ whiny.”
“You could kill my career!” you argue.
“Only if the rumors get more evidence,” Slick says. “Eventually, everyone will move on and we won’t have to do anything.”
“No, it’s not going to die down!” you exclaim. “You fucking took me in and patched me up and sent your fucking hit man out to find the ones who did it! You’ve as good as said I’m your… thingamajig!”
“You’re on pain meds and clearly it’s interfering with your thinking,” Slick says. “Maybe you should get some sleep.”
“No!” you snap. “I want to know what the hell you’re planning!”
“I can’t be concerned for a friend, is that it?” Slick scowls.
“You said we were enemies!” you argue.
“We are but we aren’t,” Slick says. “Pretty simple to me.”
“Friends do not kill people for other friends!”
“I cannot believe a detective just said that.”
“Enemies do not kill people for their enemy!”
“Sure they do. ‘S called truce or a show of power.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I’ll sit on you again,” Slick threatens.
You throw the pillow at him. “Go away.”
“My hideout, my room,” Slick says. He settles down on the bed beside you.
“You’re the worst nurse doctor person ever,” you groan.
“I’m sorry, should I have kissed you better?” he asks.
When Droog arrives, he is greeted by the sight of Slick sitting on top of you, tying your hands to the headboard with a pillowcase.
“If I might interrupt your… activities,” Droog says, with the tiniest quirk of an eyebrow, “Things have been taken care of. Slick, if you want to, a few of them have hidden themselves in a warehouse not too far from here. Sleuth will most likely be able to walk himself home safely, although I do have my doubts about that on the best of days.”
Slick thinks this over. He smiles, and pats you on the head. “Sorry, sweetie, business. Why don’t you stay put and recover and once I get back I’ll make it up to you.”
“Slick, I swear to GPI that I will kill you,” you growl.
“You flatter me,” he says. “See you in a bit.” He walks out the door with Droog without a backwards glance.
Immediately, you begin to work your hands free. “Fucking shit-face idiotic mobster,“ you chant to yourself, trying to remember the trick to this. “Ha!” you crow, working your hands loose.
You hobble to the door and wrench it open.
“You shouldn’t be walking on that leg,” Boxcars rumbles, blocking the doorway. “’S only cracked, and yer gonna break it.”
“’Sides, boss’ll be sad if you leave while he’s gone!” Deuce exclaims, poking his head around Boxcars legs. “It’s really bad if lovers walk out on each other!”
You slam the door shut.
“If you kiss ‘em, watch out for the teeth,” Boxcars calls with a laugh.
You flip the bird at the door and sit down on the bed in a huff. Fucking Spades Slick and his fucking mobster buddies in this fucking town. You cannot wait to explain this one to your team.
Typically, when someone locks arms with you on the street and starts steering you along you would immediately go on the defensive and break away, possibly breaking their arm as well. However, when the person can barely reach your shoulder and kicked your bad leg when you instinctively twitched away, you decide the more sensible solution is to keep walking along.
“Slick,” you hiss quietly, “What are you doing?”
“Saving your life,” he whispers back. “Ya got two goons on your back, and there’s gonna be more waiting to jump you if you’re not careful.”
You grimace, but do not look around. “Damn. I was hoping I had lost those two jokers. I’m blaming you for this, just to let you know. Fakey thingamajig.”
“Shut up, you can thank me for saving your ass later later,” Slick says. “Can you run on that leg of yours yet?”
“Not supposed to,” you say, glancing down at your walking cast, “But yeah, for a while.”
“Right,” he says. “There’s a nickelodeon around the corner. We’re going to make a break for that and duck inside. Should loose ‘em.”
You nod. “Right.” The two of you casually stroll around the corner before running like hell, Slick tugging you along when you stumble. You burst into the theatre and quickly dodge away from the door.
“Into the theatre,” you gasp. “Dark, quiet, we can duck down and out if needed.”
Slick nods. “Catch your breath,” he says. “I’ll get tickets.”
“Don’t you dare get them with a pointy discount!” you hiss after him. He waves you off, sauntering away. You suppose you should be proud that he is buying the tickets at all. You lean against the concessions counter and frown at you leg, which is throbbing something fierce.
“Can I have a bit of water?” you ask the guy behind the counter. “I need to take my meds.”
He nods, grabbing a small plastic cup. “On the house,” he says.
“Thanks,” you say gratefully. You dig into your coat pocket for the bottle and tap two pills into your hand while you are waiting for him to fill your cup. You frown when you note that you had accidentally grabbed your nighttime pills when you were leaving your house. They make you a good deal sleepier than your regular pain medication. You weigh falling asleep in the movie theatre against having to stay awake with a throbbing leg and come to the reluctant conclusion that you can at least trust Slick enough to fall asleep on his watch just as the guy at the counter hands you your water.
“Leg broken?” the guy asks after you swallow.
“Just fractured,” you say. “Not too bad, all in all. I’ve had worse.”
“You’re that detective fella, ain’t ya?” he asks.
You shrug. “Maybe. Name’s Problem Sleuth.” Inwardly, you cheer that people are actually learning your name and know that you are a detective.
The guy smiles a bit. “You here with that boyfriend of yours?”
“No,” you say flatly.
The guy raises an eyebrow but by that point Slick comes back in all his highly recognizable eye-patched robotic glory. “Movie’s starting in a few minutes,” he says, grabbing your wrist. “C’mon.”
You sigh and allow yourself to be dragged into the theatre. Slick finds a spot in the back row and you nod approvingly.
“What are we watching?” you whisper.
“Some old movie,” he says quietly. “Boxcars’ seen it; he says it’s pretty good.”
You settle down into your seat, which admittedly could use a bit more padding. “Black and white?”
“Nah, color,” he says as the music starts. “’S supposed to be all detective-y.”
You frown up at the screen. “Who names a movie after directions?” you whisper, followed by a giant yawn.
Slick frowns. “Why’re you yawning?” he hisses.
“Sleepy,” you say. “Only had my night time meds with me.”
“You’re going to fall asleep on me?” he snaps, indignant. A few other patrons shush him.
“Sorry,” you say sheepishly. “But hey, I trust that you’ll look after me. Just wake me up if we get into trouble. I’ll try to stay awake if I can, since you paid for my ticket and everything.”
“You better,” he grumbles, leaning back.
You manage to stay awake just long enough to wonder who George Kaplan is before the dark and the medication take their effect.
When you wake up, you are actually rather warm and comfy.
“Come to bed, Mrs. Thornhill,” the man on screen says, and then suddenly a train is going through a tunnel as the ending credits roll, which is vaguely hilarious and confusing to your sleep and drug addled brain.
“You missed the whole thing,” Slick rumbles. You feel his voice vibrating through his chest and belatedly realize that when you fell asleep on top of him.
“Fuck, ‘m sorry,” you mumble, raising your head. “’s the meds. Can’t stay awake.”
“You drooled on me a little,” Slick says. He seems amused.
“Sorry,” you say sleepily. You uncurl your fingers from his shirt and straighten up, wincing at the minor crick in your back. “Think I got a dent in my shoulder from your robot arm,” you say.
Slick laughs. “Can you even walk back to your place?”
“Yep,” you say with a giant yawn. “’m up now. I can walk.”
“I’ll walk you back, just to be sure,” Slick says, standing up and pulling you to your feet.
You smile at him a little dopily. “You’re a good friend.“
He nods stiffly. “Yep. Now up you get, friend. Let’s get you home.”
“Good friend, best movie buddy,” you tell him, patting his arm. “Yes.”
You are not sure what your friend is muttering, but it sounds like ‘don’t stab him’ repeated over and over. This is extremely silly, so you laugh and swing an arm around his shoulders as you walk out of the theatre, completely unrelated to the fact that your knees have started wobbling.
“Thanks for all a’ this,” you say, completely serious. “Do you wanna see this thingy again with me? When I’m awake. So’s we can… talk about it, or something.”
Slick rolls his eyes. “Sure, why not,” he says. He does pull you closer, though.
“You know,” you say cautiously, “When you say something like, ‘Come with me if you want to live,’ I don’t exactly expect… this.” You wave your hand at the table. A small posy of roses sits in a vase on top of a white tablecloth, and a candle lights the otherwise dark booth.
“You’re in danger,” Slick says. “This place was close. And I haven’t eaten yet.”
You regard him skeptically. “You know, my fracture healed up just fine,” you say. “And I’ve gotten really good at running anymore. Or, y’know, being the hard-boiled detective that I am and actually defending myself. Like I’ve done all my life.”
Slick seems unimpressed. “I’ve seen you try to take on more than one person,” he says. “It’s a miracle you survived this long. Also, isn’t the police chief breathing down your neck?”
“No,” you say. “Not that I know.”
“Oh,” Slick says. “Maybe that’s just station gossip then. So, uh, ya might wanna stay on the down low for a while, stay away from the station and the coppers. Don’t wanna be a scapegoat.”
“Yes, I’d hate for people to think I’m a criminal,” you say. “Or that I was, y’know, the thingamajig of a criminal.”
“Look, people already think it,” Slick argues, waving his fork about. “I am preserving my reputation. You’re just… incidental.”
“Slick,” you begin, but then the waiter arrives with your food and your train of thought is abruptly derailed.
“That is a lot of pasta,” you say, looking at your plate in wonder.
Slick seems to be incredibly pleased. “Like I said, I’m hungry,” he says. “Eat up, I’m paying.”
“I assumed so,” you mumble. Slick had snatched you off the street and dragged you down numerous alleyways to reach here. Apparently, he had not realized that you were taking a five-minute break off of filing paperwork and had left your coat and your wallet back in your office.
You slowly eat a forkful of spaghetti, repressing a fairly inappropriate moan. This is really good spaghetti. If you cared, you could probably come up with better synonyms, like rapturous, or divine, or possibly even plain old delicious, but right now you are focused on trying to eat. Casework has been slowing down lately, so you have had to cut back on your food budget as a result. Thank goodness you like tuna.
Unfortunately, you cannot eat the ambrosia in front of you, as a persistent thought is quietly nagging you.
“Slick,” you say, setting your fork down reluctantly, “If I’m really in danger from…” you pause. “Who am I in danger from again?”
Slick quickly shoves a forkful of lasagna into his mouth and mutters an answer that could conceivably be anything.
“Right,” you say. “Well, if I’m in danger from them, how do you know they won’t come in here? I don’t feel right putting innocent civilians in danger.”
Slick rolls his eyes and swallows. “Too public. Nobody’s stupid enough to do something in here.”
“Okay, so if we’re trying to keep this on the down low and let the rumors die out, why are we in such a public place and not a secure hideout?” you ask.
“Uh,” Slick says.
“And why is there a candle on the table?” you persist. “Nobody else has any.”
“Totally not my doing,” Slick says. “Came with the table.”
You glare at him. “Slick, is there something you want to tell me?”
Slick looks deeply into your eyes. “Eat your meatballs,” he says.
Wordlessly, you stare at him. You turn your attention to your plate and cautiously spear a previously ignored meatball. You eye it dubiously, as you usually feel like meatballs were better off being left as a delicious steak dinner. You take a hesitant bite.
“Oh my gods,” you breathe. “This is fucking delicious.”
And that was the end of that conversation, as you are now fully distracted by food. After an hour or so you return to your office, pleasantly full and in one piece, apparently thanks to Slick’s intervention. For a few moments, you think he might actually be a friend just watching out for you.
And then you realize the janitor has locked you out of your office while you were gone.
“Pickle, please,” you beg. “You have got to have some idea of what to do.”
Pickle Inspector looks at you wearily from over his Rubik’s cube. “I’m not sure why you are coming to me for romantic advice,” he says.
“It’s not romantic!” you yell. “This is him arbitrarily being all weird and possessive because of random gossip!”
Pickle hums and shifts a few lines on the cube. “Really.”
“Really,” you say desperately. “Look, I’m half terrified that Slick is going to jump out of my closet yelling about how the dust bunnies are planning my assassination. I had to tie a detective tech Salmon of Doubtful Quality to the combat operandi So Long and Thanks For All the Mercury Poisoning just to get away from him the other day!”
Pickle looks at you, surprised. “You actually pulled off that combination?”
“Missing the point,” you say.
He sighs. “I don’t know what to tell you, Sleuth. You’ve always been much better with people than me.”
You sigh. “It’s Slick,” you say. “Stubborn, bull-headed, unobservant, and I don’t even know what the hell he’s thinking other than that it probably involves a knife in there somewhere. I don’t even know where to start.”
“Oh, yes, quite troublesome,” he mutters. “Very hard for that sort of person to take a hint. Even hints that have been written out on post-it notes and placed in very obvious places. Like on doors. At eye level.”
“I mean, what the fuck is up with him?” you continue, ignoring Pickle’s mumblings. “So, okay, I’m down by the docks, investigating, doing my job. Some goons get the jump on me, tie me up, throw me in the river.”
“What?!” Pickle exclaims, nearly dropping his cube. “When…?”
You wave him off. “’s not important, like a week ago?”
“The Meyers case?” he asks. “I told you to wait-!”
“I had a lead,” you say with a shrug. “Had to jump on it or else I could’ve lost it. ‘Sides, being thrown in the river ain’t a real big problem for me anymore. Got loose from the ropes in under a minute.”
“Eventually people will catch on,” Pickle cautions you. “You can’t depend on your escapology every time.”
“I’ll escape that pickle when I come to it,” you say, teasingly poking his shoulder. “But anyways, I’m out of the ropes and swimming up when all of a sudden Slick dives in. He seemed awful surprised to see me free, which is kind of insulting now that I think about it because he is not the only one sensible enough to carry knives, but anyways he grabs my hand and drags me up. Did you know that he’s like a fucking fish?”
Pickle shrugs awkwardly. “He… drinks like one?” he tries.
“I am so proud of you,” you say fondly. “But yeah, he swims damn fast. So he pulls me over to the dock and gets me out of the water and then he won’t. Let. Go. And as always he’s got a knife, so I’m not really about to argue except I did which is why I haven’t used my left arm much this week. He drags me off to some apartment, I guess it’s his or something, and shoves me down on the couch. Then he fucking knifes my sleeves to the damn sofa! And he tells me that if I ever did anything that stupid again the knives would be through my hands, not my trench.
“I try and ask him how the hell he even knew where I was and he just brushes me off with ‘business’ except this was totally not about him and I am not his business anyways. Although I guess he does stuff at the docks? Wait, I’ve stopped looking into that.
“Anyways, I tell him I need to go, and he says that so long as I look like a drowned rat I wasn’t going anywhere. I slip out of my coat and run for the door, he tackles me, we fight, he cheats, long story short and I end up on the couch again, with my fucking ankle handcuffed to his heavy-ass coffee table and him sitting on top of me as we watch some Disney movie.”
You become aware of Pickle staring at you in confusion and you realize that at some point in your rambling you had stood up and started waving your hands about, apparently having stolen Pickle’s cube for emphasis.
“Sorry,” you say, handing it back to him. “Don’t know what came over me there.”
He nods politely. “Why a Disney movie? And which one was it?”
“Peter Pan, and I don’t know, it was on. Did you know Slick wants to kill the crocodile on the basis that it ticks?”
Pickle is looking at you bemusedly.
You cough. “Er, right. Point is, I don’t know what to do. Help?”
“I suppose,” Pickle says, twisting the cube about. “You could write him a nasty note?”
“Eh,” you say, flopping back into your chair. “I dunno, feel like he’d take it the wrong way.”
“Take it the wrong way?” Pickle says incredulously. “How do you think he’ll take it?”
“I don’t know!” you exclaim, waving your hands about. “The wrong way!”
“And yet you fired a very nasty note indeed at Demonhead without thinking about it,” Pickle says.
“Eh, he was easy,” you say dismissively. “Needed to die, I had the holy typewriter or whatever, it all worked out. And I shot treaties at him, not nasty notes.”
“Sleuth, I saw the paper. It was a nasty note,” he says.
“Anyways, it doesn’t matter,” you say. “I just… don’t think nasty notes will work on Slick.”
“Have you tried talking this over with Dame?” Pickle asks, long fingers shifting about on his Rubik’s cube. “She’s much better at this sort of thing than I am.”
“Yeah,” you say with a self-conscious laugh. “She let me down real easy.”
Pickle winces. ”Sorry,” he mumbles, hunching over.
“Don’t worry about it,” you say, rubbing your neck. “We’re doin’ alright now, it’s just…” You and Dame had tried getting together after the Kingpin affair. She took exception to your long hours and the various dames that drifted into your life thanks to the job. You could not find the right words to say sorry.
After a while, she came back to your apartment, chucked all your booze in the trash, and patted your back as you puked up what felt like your entire digestive system. It helped, as did the fact that she finally started talking to you again.
“I still feel like she would give better advice,” Pickle says quietly, after a long pause.
You shrug. “Probably. But I don’t really want to talk this over with her. Might make her worry. More than usual, I mean.”
Pickle looks up from his cube. “Really? Sleuth, indulge my curiosity. Do you still have feelings for her?”
You look up at the ceiling. “Yeah,” you say quietly. “Sometimes. I try not to let it get too bad, though. We’re still friends, and I want to stay friends.”
“But you don’t want to talk to her about possible romantic advances, even though she’s much better qualified than the two of us,” he persists.
“Yeah, pretty much,” you say. “Where are you going with this?”
Pickle sighs. “Egypt,” he says heavily, placing the completely cube on his desk. “This one’s up to you, Sleuth.”
“Sooooo…” Itchy begins.
You do not look at him, as you are in an impromptu staring contest with Doze and you are absolutely certain that you are on the point of winning.
“You and Slick,” he says.
“We aren’t dating,” you say.
Itchy sighs and twists the chair you are seated in so that you now face him.
“You made me loose the staring contest,” you say accusingly. You would flip him off, but your hands are tied. Literally, annoyingly enough.
“Eh, he doesn’t blink,” Itchy says dismissively. “We have to check just to be sure he’s still breathing sometimes. ‘Sides, I’m more interesting to talk to.”
“Look, Slick and I aren’t anything. We’re just friends,” you say.
“With benefits?” Itchy asks, waggling his eyebrows.
“Just friends,” you insist. “It’s just rumors that’ve gone to his head. There’s no way he’ll come save me for rumors, so you might as well let me go.”
There is a short bark of laughter from Crowbar. “Sounds like you’re covering your ass,” he says.
You roll your eyes. “Yes, it does. That’s what makes this whole thing so annoying; there is quite literally no way to convince anyone to believe me. This whole thing has increased how much shit I have to deal with on a weekly, no daily basis. You guys aren’t even the worst of it.”
“We loosin’ our touch or somethin’?” Itchy demands.
“No, look. You guys are terrifying and all, got the very nice green color scheme, and you’ve got the weird time shit going on. That’s really promising, and also scary, and I say this as someone who has lived through some fucking terrifying things,” you say soothingly. “But I’ve had to deal with Slick randomly popping up at all times, ‘saving’ me from dangers that I’m beginning to suspect are entirely imaginary.”
“Hey, don’t knock imaginary dangers,” Trace says, sitting backwards in his chair with his arms crossed over the top. “Those monsters are real tough sometimes.”
You give a short laugh. “Don’t I know it,” you say. “I had an entire adventure in the imaginary world where my landlord turned into a demon and tried to kill me and my friends over what amounted to a rent dispute.”
A few eyebrows are raised.
“Long story,” you say. “Don’t you guys work for a demon anyways?”
“Eh,” Itchy says, waving you off. “We don’t see him much. And Scratch, uh, ain’t exactly demonic, y’know? And he doesn’t really try to kill people over rent. He just kinda acts like a disappointed dad and they about kill themselves. So what’s the story?”
You sigh. “It’s really long,” you say warningly.
“You’ve been kidnapped and we have time,” Crowbar says. “Or at least, we should. Trace, where’s Fin?”
Trace shrugs. “Dunno.”
“Shocker,” Itchy jeers. “You two ain’t joined at the hip?”
Trace flips him off.
“Enough, both of you,” Crowbar says sharply. “Sleuth, you’re now the babysitter. Tell the kids a story, and when I get back I’ll hit them on the head for being bad. I’m going to find Fin.”
“What?!” you exclaim, but Crowbar is already out the door.
Trace and Itchy look at you expectantly, and you guess Doze could be slowly forming an expression of mild interest. You give an exaggerated sigh.
“Alright,” you say. “So, it was a balmy summer afternoon…”
“And so then the third Ace Dick drank the hot sauce and became Fiesta Ace Dick,” you say.
“Okay, woah, hold up,” Itchy says. “How many AD’s are runnin’ around here?”
“Technically, only one,” you say. “The other two are now FAD and ZAD. And the other AD’s dead through a suicide attack. I think that one was the girly one?”
“ZAD?” Trace asks.
“That’s obviously Zombie Ace Dick,” Stitch says, comfortably nestled in a large armchair and knitting something or other. “Also, am I to blame you lot for those huge disruptions of casualty a while back?”
“Um,” you say, guiltily remembering the various exploding windows and crying honeybees.
“So, which PI solved the puzzle?” Itchy asks.
You leap on his question gratefully. “Oh, that was, uh,” you frown, staring at the pieces of paper in your hands, which are now covered in illegible notes and doodles. “Anyone got anymore paper?” you ask. “My doodle diagram sheet’s all full.”
Various heads are shaken.
“It was Past Pickle Inspector,” Die says suddenly. “Current PI is dead with the original AD, but he’s solved the sudocube. His alternates are dead, piloting a mecha, busy being a god, or there’s still Future PI running about. He’s the one who caught NB.”
“Oh,” everyone says. Quarters rolls his eyes and tosses a small wad of cash to Clover, who smiles smugly.
You stare at Die, who had poofed in about half way through, dazed and confused. He smiles thinly.
“I keep track of at least fifteen people through an unmentionable number of timelines,” he says. “This isn’t too hard.”
“Alrighty then,” you say. You stand up and stretch, handing off your doodle diagram sheets to Eggs and Biscuits for examination. There is the distinct possibility of them eating it. In fact, you are hoping that they do.
“Oh, goodness, don’t stop and stand on my account,” Snowman says from the doorway.
Everyone jumps a little and quickly attempts to smarten up. You, being a hard-boiled detective and classy gentleman, sweep your hat off you head and bow.
“Ma’am,” you say. “I was just telling the fellows here about a little adventure of mine. You probably don’t want to hear about something as silly as that.” You furiously run through different scenarios in your head because you had been hoping like hell that someone competent would not actually show up.
“Oh, I don’t mind at all,” she says with a slight smile. “I’ve been told you have a lovely voice, which can make even a tired old tale sound fascinating. But one moment, please.” She glides past you to the window and opens it a little wider. “So stuffy in here,” she says pleasantly, settling in on the windowsill.
“Thank you ma’am,” you say courteously, “Although, I’m certain I’m nothing that special.” You resettle your hat on your head, relieved.
“Alright, so where was I?”
“FAD,” Matchsticks calls.
“Right!” you say. “Okay, so I think this is when MK finally descends to become-“
There is a crash from the window. You swivel around to find Snowman walking away and serenely smoking a cigarette.
“Sorry,” she says. “I accidently knocked a flowerpot off the ledge. In my defense, it was a very ugly flower.”
You take a step closer and hear faint cursing. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” you grumble under your breath. “One moment, fellas. And lady. Need a bit of fresh air myself.”
You stick your head out the window and sure enough, there is Slick, sitting in the yard and holding his head. He perks up when he sees you and starts motioning for you to come down.
You shake your head and try to wordlessly convey that you have managed to work yourself into the Felt’s good graces and that if you have five more minutes you can have them so confused and arguing over who’s who that you’ll easily be able to sneak out.
Because this is a complicated thought that does not translate well into charades Slick just scowls at you. You throw up your hands in disgust, but a hand abruptly catches your wrist. You look up and have just enough time to note that Diamonds Droog is smiling at you, which is not a good thing before you are pulled out the window and sent hurtling downwards.
You barely have time to scream before you hit the ground rather heavily, air rushing from your lungs. Nothing is broken, but your back is going to be one massive bruise for a while and fuck your lungs hurt.
Slick suddenly appears above you. “Saved you!” he exclaims.
“Half-dead,” you wheeze, flipping him off. “I’ll rescue myself from here.” You start staggering to your feet when Droog lands quietly beside you and kicks the back of your knee. You collapse face forward and just lie there, seething.
“You can’t run fast enough to get away,” he says calmly. “Clubs’ bombs and my flash bang will only buy us a limited amount of time.”
“Fuck all of you,” you hiss, face down in the grass. “I’m escaping on my own.”
A large hand grabs you by your suit’s collar and you are unceremoniously thrown over Boxcar’s shoulder. “Keep tellin’ yerself that,” he rumbles.
As the three of them stroll off at a stately pace, you bump up and down on Boxcar’s back as you glare at Slick, who is trailing slightly behind.
“Y’know,” he says wonderingly. “People don’t seem to get the message that they shouldn’t mess with what is theoretically mine. D’ya think they’d have more respect for me if I fake proposed?”
“Do that and I will cut off your dick,” you say evenly.
“Look, fiancée just sounds better!” he argues. “Especially since you just call us thingamajigs.”
“Because we are not dating, no matter what anyone says!” you cry. “Are you listening to me at all?”
“Boss, a proposal this early’s movin’ too fast,” Boxcars says. “People are gonna say you two won’t last.”
“And a proposal now would most likely mean a rainy season wedding,” Droog says. “Unpleasant for all involved.”
“Clearly that’s a no,” you grumble.
“I’m sorry for this idiocy, Mr. Sleuth,” Snowman says, shimmering into existence and shoving Slick into a rose bush.
“No need for you to apologize, miss,” you say wearily.
Snowman smiles at you. “I suppose not. I would, however, like to extend an invitation to visit the mansion again with your safety guaranteed. I would quite like to hear the rest of that story. Perhaps a private telling?”
“Back off, bitch!” Slick snarls, leaping back to his feet and swinging his horse hitcher. Unfortunately for him, Snowman is already gone, so he just ends up hitting Droog.
“Can you put me down now?” you plead to Boxcars as Droog and Slick start their duel to the pain or whatever the hell it is. “I’ve got clearance, you heard the lady.”
“Car’s here,” Boxcars says, lifting you off his shoulder as Deuce turns the corner way too sharply.
“How is he driving?” you ask. “Can he even reach the brake?”
“What makes you think he uses the brake?” Boxcars says, keeping a firm hand on your shoulder. “This is a high speed escape, ya know.”
Your eye twitches.
You edge past the alleyway, glaring at it suspiciously. Slick has gotten a bit too good at suddenly appearing in alleyways and yanking you off to ‘protected locations’. This has meant you have gotten quite a bit of really good food in you lately, but it has not exactly killed the unwelcome rumors and it lost you fifty dollars when you were dragged into the Midnight Crew’s poker night. It also does not help your mental state to have short stabby mobsters suddenly jumping you, even if it is in a ‘friendly’ way.
You are so preoccupied with glaring at the alleyway that you do not notice when a sleek black car pulls up behind you. You do notice the kick to the back of your legs and the hands that wraps about your mouth and midsection, though. As soon as you are in the car it takes off with a screech, the door just narrowly missing your foot as it slams shut. Furious, you throw Slick’s hand off your mouth.
“The fuck, Slick!” you yell.
“Why are you covered in blood?” he shouts.
“What?” you say, momentarily thrown. “Oh. Not mine.”
“This doesn’t look like blood splatter,” he grouses, tugging at your admittedly rather gory shirt. “Let me see.”
“You are not taking off my shirt,” you snap, slipping out from under his arm. “And the moment this car stops, I’m getting out because I have stuff to do that does not involve you.”
Slick raises an eyebrow. “Hear that, Boxcars? You got clearance to run the lights.”
“No, you do not!” you yell. “Fucking hell, what is wrong with you?”
“Friendly concern,” Slick says.
“This is not friendly!” you snarl. “Friendly was when we went out to drink. Friendly was when we kicked the shit out of each other for fun. Friendly is not when you kidnap someone and try to yank off their shirt! That is a felony! Two felonies!”
“So you prefer it when I’m trying to beat the shit out of you,” Slick says.
You freeze. “Oh fuck no,” you say when he leans forward. “Slick, you absolute fucker, don’t you dare, that is also a felony-“ you scrabble for the door handle behind your back but Slick has already surged forward.
For once you cannot bring your superior size against Slick; in the limited confines of the car you have trouble moving about, and Slick has always been a bit quicker than you. Eventually, you are trapped in the corner between the seat and the car door. Slick sits on your lap with a surprisingly steady knife at your throat.
“Feel better?” he asks.
“No,” you growl.
“Whiny baby,” he says, unbuttoning your shirt.
“Happy?” you snap when he gets halfway down. Your chest is clearly still whole, albeit streaked with crimson from where the blood has soaked through your shirt.
“No,” he says, unbuttoning the rest of your shirt and running a hand over your chest to be sure. “Why are you covered in blood?”
“It’s not important,” you say.
“Is someone dead?” he asks.
You look up at the ceiling. “That doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“You sure you’re a detective?” Slick says, poking you.
You shrug. “Well, either way. I’ve got someone else’s blood on me. Murder or assault, really.”
“Ah. No innocent bystander or odd spills of blood excuses,” Slick notes. “So someone’s dead.”
“Well, only possibly dead,” you say. “In self-defense. In the Imaginary Realm, so they probably have another life anyways and that always screws up the prosecution.”
Slick withdraws the knife from your throat. “So you probably don’t need to go into hiding,” he says.
“No,” you say emphatically. “Most definitely not. I mean, I’ll only get caught if they find the bodies anyways. So, uh, you can let me go now.”
“What triggered the self-defense?” he asks, staying on your lap. “If I know you, you ain’t exactly stupid about getting into fights, ‘specially ones like that.”
“I was defending myself,” you say evasively. “Need I say more?”
“Sleuth,” Slick says patiently. “Think about the situation you’re in. Think very hard. And then try that sentence again. I can wait for you to get your brain working.”
You glare at him. “Fuck off. I said something to get the guy’s dander up so him and his buddies jumped me. Happens often enough.”
“Mr. Pulchritude, friend to all living things, pissed someone off,” Slick says.
“It happens,” you say. “Remember when we met?”
“My nose never healed straight,” he says cheerfully. “Now keep talking.”
“You nose wasn’t straight to begin with,” you mutter. “Look, we had a bit of an argument. That’s all.”
“Stop trying to be hard-boiled,” Slick says with a theatrical yawn. “It’s not impressive. What did you argue about?”
“A person,” you say.
“Me,” he says.
“You don’t know that,” you say, meeting his gaze with soulful eyes.
“Sleuth, I don’t believe that you’re being truthful just because you can look me in the damn eye,” he says sardonically. “So it’s me. What’d he say?”
“Dunno,” you say. “I just ended up yelling a lot of profanities at him, which he didn’t take to too well.”
“He say we were together?” Slick asks. He seems a bit resigned.
“No, surprisingly enough,” you say. “It was, uh, more along the lines of you being something like uh, well, let’s not go into that because you are still sitting on top of me and you still have a knife and I don’t upset armed men as a matter of principle?” That last part was pretty stupid, because Slick always has a blade and you are pretty good with making fun of him at any time.
Slick narrows his eye at you, lining up his conclusion. “You defended me. In public. By killing people and hiding the bodies while thinking up a defensible case for yourself.”
You let out a nervous chuckle. “Not public, really. And I didn’t want to kill them. Er, well, for the most part. And, er, the legal… thing…”
You gradually trail off as you notice that Slick does not seem to be paying attention, instead staring off into the middle distance, which is coincidentally where your face is. “Slick?” you ask hesitantly, tapping his shoulder.
Slick suddenly surges forward again and holy shit you are being kissed by an overly friendly shark.
His sharp teeth scrape over your lip and his stubble feels really fucking weird where it’s rubbing against your face. You feel like flailing right now but this is an enclosed space and he will probably kill you. Also, hard-boiled detectives do not flail helplessly. Hard-boiled detectives kiss back!
Wait, fuck, there is something wrong with that thought.
Too late Slick has taken the advantage and holy fuck what is his tongue doing in your mouth. There is a cold metal hand in your hair which is knocking your hat off, which kind of pisses you off because Slick of all people should know to respect someone's headwear.
His other hand seems to be exploring your mildly bloody chest and heading south, which is good not good oh GPI fuck really fucking good. A really weird sounding whine comes out of your mouth, which makes Slick pull back and give a tiny laugh.
“Candy corn, Sleuth?” he says, pulling your four pieces out from under your hat. “D’ya know what they say about guys who like candy corn?”
You cannot give an intelligent reply because your brain is in the process of a complete and total shut down. (You also have no idea where he is going with that line.) He gives another little laugh, licking his lips before he leans forwards and mouths his way up your neck, sharp teeth gently nipping at your skin. Your hands convulsively clench his coat. When did you wrap your arms around Slick?
A weary sigh sounds from the front.
“Slick,” Droog says patiently. “While I appreciate the fact that you like this car altogether too much and that these shenanigans have essentially only served to highlight your exhibitionist streak, I’m not sure if your date is of quite the same mind.”
You make a strangled squeak because, oh yeah, there are other people in the damn fucking car. Droog is eyeing the two of you as he smokes a cigarette. Boxcars seems to be covering Deuce’s mouth and pointedly looking away. Mortified, you unwind your arms and yank your hat down over your face.
Slick takes a little longer to respond, and he only leaves your neck alone with some reluctance. “Think you’ve got a point, droogie,” he says appraisingly. “C’mon Sleuth, look at me. S’alright, okay? We’ll find somewhere nice and private if it’ll make you feel better.”
A stream of profanity escapes your lips mixed with a few quiet ‘no’s. Slick finally removes his hand from your pants when he realizes that you are using one hand to scrabble for the door handle again.
“Sleuth,” he says, grabbing your hand. “What the fuck are you-“
“Hell fucking no!” you yell, shoving him off and kicking him away for good measure. You get the door open and tumble out because oh fuck you are not prepared to handle this because you and Slick are FRIENDS. Friends who stab each other after a few drinks, even. Not friends with benefits who-
You quickly shut off that avenue of thought and focus on your daring escape. Unfortunately, Boxcars had the forethought to park right in front of an alley, so your only avenue of escape is running back towards the car that Slick is getting out of.
“Sleuth,” he says, and his smile is like knives. “I’m pretty sure we just had the part where I beat you into submission. But if you want to try again, I’m all for slamming you into the ground until I get through that thick fucking skull of yours with the concrete.”
You hurriedly back up and begin searching the voluminous pockets of your coat. Desperate times, desperate measures. You begin trying to think of a good one liner because your brain is on autopilot right now and your autopilot is incredibly hard-boiled and not at all interested in kissing mobsters, nope!
Slick slowly advances, eyeing you warily. You let out an exclamation of triumph as your fingers close around a set of vials and you pull them out and hold them over your head.
“I wish the Weasel King would come and take me away, right now!” you yell.
Slick’s eye widens as a truly massive hole begins to open in front of you.
“See you on the flipside of my imagination!” you call, jumping down the hole. Not really your best line, but the look on Slick’s face makes up for it. Now you just get to look forward to the look on his face the next time you see him.
… Son of a bitch, he still has your candy corn.
You shake your head, sending water droplets flying. It was quite nice of the Weasel King to let you take a shower, but you suppose he would prefer you not walk around his castle bloody and rather disheveled. You had scared everyone when you first arrived, although things had calmed down once you vaguely explained that the blood was not yours and that things had just gotten a little out of hand.
You step out of the shower reluctantly, braving the cold air. You do not see your clothes, but there is a very fluffy white bathrobe waiting for you. You note the little green laurel wreath stitched over the breast and wryly wonder if anyone in the Imaginary Kingdoms would ever forget that stupid battle. It is not as if you are the living personification of charisma every day.
As soon as you pull on the bathrobe a weasel appears and hands you a pair of slippers. These, you are relieved to note, are just coved in images of eggs, which is the kind of weirdness you expect from the Imaginary Kingdoms.
After you manage you worm your feet into the slippers, the weasel motions for you to follow him. He leads you down a few halls before he opens an unobtrusive door for you. You nod at him politely and step inside a comfortable solar.
“Sunny Jim,” Madame Murel says tartly, “Just what have you been doing?”
You flatten yourself against the door. “Madame Murel!” you exclaim. “What a… nice surprise!” Inwardly, you whimper. You had met her at the royal wedding, which the Weasel King had invited you to. You suppose she could be a very nice lady if she were not quite so… overbearing and also if she had not tried to murder Hysterical Dame and Nervous Broad on previous occasions.
“Get your tuchus over here,” she says. “We need to have a discussion.”
Warily, you edge your way over to the table and pull up a chair. You sit halfway off of it so you can leap for the door if necessary, but then you get distracted with trying to pull the bathrobe down over your knees.
She shoves a cup of tea at you. “Sleuth, I don’t mind you stopping by at all, but I don’t like it when you pop up unannounced and covered in blood.”
“Trust me, ma’am,” you say earnestly, “I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t felt that I needed to.”
She snorts. “Needed to, feh. You think I ain’t got eyes?”
You stare in polite bewilderment, tea hovering between your lips and the table. She rolls her eyes.
“Seen your neck lately?” she says tartly.
“Oh my Godhead fuck,” you groan, slapping a hand over your neck.
“Watch your language, young man,” she snaps. “You’re in the presence of a lady.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” you say hastily. Madame Murel was not best known for her patience or her understanding nature.
“Now then,” she says, mollified, “Normally, I wouldn’t interfere. ‘S your life, you can take care of yourself. But when it leads to you scaring half the court and nearly starting a diplomatic incident, then I’m going to have to intervene.”
“How’d I upset the diplomatic thingy?” you ask. “I can probably talk it over with them, see if I can smooth things out for you.” You half stand as you set your tea back down on the table, ready for any excuse to run.
“Sit back down,” she says irritably. “See, that’s the other half of the problem.” Gently, she lifts something onto the table as you gingerly settle back in. The Weasel Wraith howls, leaping from her hand to charge at you.
You yelp and fall out of your chair. “Why is that thing here!” you yell.
“Honey, he’s the direct emissary of the Midnight Crew in our kingdom,” she says. “Why d’ya think he’s here?”
You peek up above the table. “He didn’t.”
“He did,” Madame Murel confirms. “Jimminy Christmas, boy, you couldn’t have picked someone a bit less dangerous to annoy?”
“He started it!” you protest.
“And you didn’t end it,” she says. “I’ve been talking to this little fella here,” she says, gesturing to the Weasel Wraith, who is now jealously guarding the sugar cubes, “And he’s been telling me about your little misadventures with Slick. You ran out on him right after he made his clearest statement yet ‘bout how he feels?”
“Madame,” you say stiffly, levering yourself back into your chair, “That weasel is a liar and an unreliable narrator. Slick showed his interest in some extremely unwelcome ways and I reacted accordingly.”
“Oh deary me, you mean how you freaked out because some boy started mackin’ on you and shoved his hand in your pants?” she says tartly. “That was prime time to tell him straight out that you ain’t interested, flatfoot. Feh! When I was a girl-”
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable discussing this with you,” you say, feeling the tips of your ears burn.
Madame Murel raises an eyebrow. “Honey, I ran a whore house and I’m married. If you think I don’t know about what folks get up to…”
“No need to elaborate!” you exclaim, waving your hands. “I just… this is really fu- just really awkward.”
“Not used to affairs of the heart?” she asks unsympathetically.
“No, no, this is not an affair of the heart,” you say. “This is me. Avoiding any mentions of heart, love, or anything that sounds vaguely appropriate on a Valentine’s Day card.”
“That leaves sex open,” she says.
“That sentiment is behind every card, so no go," you say quickly. “But look. I’ll admit that Slick is attractive in a sort of greasy, scrawny, sharp-edged way. But you see, I’m not sure how appealing that is to me, so I’ve tried to get rid of him. But now he won’t go away because I gave him time to start growing. Like mold.”
“Mold,” she repeats flatly.
“He is this terrible, parasitic mold,” you explain. “He somehow found me and made friends with me, like implanting me with spores. But those little spores grew. And now I am covered in mold and it is gross and disgusting because it is crawling down my throat and trying to constrict my heart. And, apparently, the only way to get rid of mold is to kill it completely or else it will regenerate from a single spore or something and killing Slick seems like a terrible idea. Plus, what if the mold is actually good, like penicillin or some shit, sorry, stuff, except instead of curing diseases it gives me superpowers or turns me into a giant monster and let’s me rampage through the city!”
“Rampage through the city?” she interrupts.
You blink and sit back down, fiddling with the bathrobe's belt. “Oh. Um, yes. Look, there was this one time with monster legs, and it was great, and- you know what? Why don’t I shut up and let you talk some more.”
Madame Murel very quietly and slowly puts her head in her hands. “I’m beginning to suspect that you cannot deal with this because you are ten years old,” she says into her palms.
“It would be very irresponsible of the universe to make a ten year old the Chosen Arbitor,” you joke before getting serious. “Sorry if I’m a bit,” you wave your hands about, “I’m lacking some sleep and I think I just came the closest I’ve ever been to a panic attack. Pickle says laughter is my defense mechanism. But he also says me being hard-boiled is just an irritating side effect of my repressed social anxiety, so who knows.”
“Alright, Chosen Arbitor,” she says with a sigh, straightening up, “where’s that diplomatic skill of yours? You haven’t been able to negotiate somethin’ out, instead of right out panicking? Couldn’t stop to make a few jokes at your own expense instead of running like a chicken with your head cut off?”
“I’ve already had this discussion,” you say patiently. “I don’t want him dead. I haven’t been able to stop him before or dissuade him. Exactly what do you want me to do besides running?”
“Sit down and tell him that you aren’t interested,” she says. “You’ve been running and screaming, which Slick’s used to from about everyone. You haven’t done anything unusual to show that you’re uncomfortable with this, considerin’ that the normal state between you two is a friendly argument. You two haven’t even been in a real fight for months right up until that thing in the car. Which happened right after you got in a fight defendin’ his honor and basically killed three people in his name. I think by chivalric romance standards that’s a proposal.”
You shift uncomfortably. “Did he tell you all this?” you ask, prodding the Weasel Wraith. It nibbles your finger.
She shrugs. “Most of it. Some of it I’ve heard on my own. The Imaginary folk haven’t forgotten you, Sleuth. Some of us still try to look out for you.”
“Madame Murel, are you trying to seduce me?” you say incredulously. “Because I don’t need an auspitice, unless I really pissed Slick off with that last stunt, and if you’re pale for me-“
“Stop right there,” she says wearily. “I’m lookin’ out for you as a friend, and as a favor to my hubby. He’d be talking to you right now, but he’s a bit better at flipping out than giving advice most of the time.“
“Oh,” you say. You drink your tea. “… I still don’t like it.”
The Weasel Wraith chitters and throws a lump of sugar at you.
“Crude, but true,” Madame Murel says to it. “Sleuth, honey, what about this don’t you like?”
You run a hand through your hair. “Everything,” you say irritably. “This, this thing can’t work out. I swear, I’d be black for the little shit if I knew he wasn’t already committed. Do you know how annoying he is? I mean, Godhead, how much trouble has this all caused because people thought we were together? What’s it going to be like if we actually do hook up?”
“You do realize that you’ve essentially been going on dates with him and half the city is guessing that you’re going to be betrothed in a few months, right?” she asks.
“Yes, I’ve realized that,” you say, annoyed. “My grocer tried to recommend me a caterer. But couldn’t Slick have come out and said it instead of just dragging me off?”
She raises an eyebrow. “I’m sorry, were you expecting him to show up at your door with red roses in hand?”
“No,” you mumble. “I just… fuck. Sorry.”
“Alright, so apparently you have no plan to deal with this," she says wearily.
“Okay, no, see, I had a plan,” you say. “The plan was, avoid Slick and ignore the ever-loving shit out of him.”
Madame Murel gives you a look. You hurriedly backtrack.
“Alright, so it wasn’t the greatest plan,” you say. “Because, um, I underestimated Slick’s persistence. It’s like a B-horror movie. Actually, now that I think about it, it is exactly like a B-horror movie. There is a ridiculously persistent monster serial killer thing-y, there is a bit too much blood, and if I have sex I will almost certainly die.”
“Die?” she says archly.
“In a metaphorical way,” you amend.
She raises an eyebrow and shakes her head. “Sleuth,” she says, voice oddly thick. “You are ridiculous.”
You beam at her. “Thank you?”
She takes a deep breath and exhales, trying to stay on topic. “Alright. So you had a terrible plan that failed. What’re you gonna do now?”
“Tell him off,” you say automatically. “This can’t work out.”
“And why not?” she asks, settling back in her chair.
“He’s a mobster,” you point out. “I’m a detective.”
“Didn’t stop your friendship,” she says.
“Relationships and friendship are different things, but whatever. Surprise make out.”
“You think that’s a bad thing, mister ‘attractive in a greasy way’?”
“… Point. Shut up, Weasel Wraith. I feel weird thinking about a relationship with him.”
“That’s called love.”
“… I don’t think so. He stabbed me. Multiple times.”
“He’s stabbed everyone.”
“Tried to. I sent ‘em flying. And then his friend Droog whapped him with a newspaper when he started getting a bit fresh with me.”
You rest your head in your hands. “Godhead,” you say, shaking with silent laughter. “That’s Slick alright.”
“Honey,” she says quietly, “Are you sure this ain’t love?”
You run your fingers through your hair. “I don’t think so,” you say honestly. “I mean, I loved Dame. With all my heart. And this- this doesn’t feel like that. And I get that no love is alike,” you say hurriedly, “But… I’m friends with Slick. I want to stay friends, and there’s a lot of practical considerations that go into this too. I can’t look at him and just kiss him back without worrying what’s going to happen.”
Madame Murel nods understandingly. “So long as you know where you stand,” she says. “Talk to him, Sleuth. You know where he’s standin’ on this, so let him know what you’re thinking.”
You wince slightly. “Oh. Talking. Yay. Um, if he stabs me to death first…?”
“Then he’s out a boyfriend,” she says implacably. “So sad for both of you, we’ll ship your body back home for burial and he can cry at your funeral.”
You drain the last of your tea and stand up. “Heh, back home. I guess that’s where I’m going now?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Right now?”
“Sure!” you say in half-felt reassurance, bouncing on the balls of your feet. “Better sooner than later, right? If I give Slick too much time he might actually come up with a decent plan to get back at me.”
She looks at you patiently, chin resting on her hands as she waits.
You frown and cock your head to the side, questioning.
The Weasel Wraith snickers and flaps past you, snapping at the belt holding your robe closed. You yelp and grab at your robe, trying to keep it from fluttering open.
“Pants?” Madame Murel suggests kindly.
“Pants,” you agree, face burning.