When I woke up, my first reaction was confusion. Now, waking up confused is not actually that uncommon. I mean, the whole ‘transitioning from dreams to reality’ thing can often lead to some serious disorientation. You’re coasting along in your happy, illogical dream world, then boom! Why are the zombies suddenly gone? Were you really just sailing on a pirate ship? What happened to the hippopotamus that was reciting poetry to you?
So saying I woke up confused, while true, really doesn’t get across the mind-boggling what-the-hellness of my awakening. I’m not sure it’s possible to get across the what-the-hellness of this particular awakening, but hey, I like a challenge, so let’s give it a go.
The first few moments were what I can only describe as really, really ghastly. A mess of hazy images pounded through my head, pain and blood and darkness and horror and I remember distantly thinking “Oh god, this must have been one miserable nightmare,” and then I managed to wrench my eyes open and things just got way more disturbing. The first thing I noticed was the smell, which was a particularly revolting blend of too-sweet incense and the sharp tang of a butcher store. Then I felt the floor, hard and wooden beneath me, and I had a flare of panic as I realized that I had no idea how I’d gotten on the floor, or what the smell was, or why the room seemed to only be lit by the eerie flickering lights of candles, or why the hell I was naked....
I sat up, trying desperately not to look too panicked. At the best of times, not knowing what’s going on irritates me, and this was just taking things to an alarming new level in incomprehensible weirdness. The room was dim and filled with a smoky haze. There were marks all over the bare floor, circles and sigils and worrying symbols. There were objects scattered around, globes and rocks and feathers, and…was that a dead goat? What the hell....
“There’s some clothes over here if you want to get dressed. I’m not looking.”
Despite myself, I jumped at the voice and twisted around. A tiny voice in my head yelped, “Please tell me that wasn’t who it sounded like…” but no, of course it was. “Piper?”
He avoided looking at me, which I suppose was good of him considering my no-doubt hot and alluring nakedness. “Here.” He tossed a T-shirt and jeans in my general direction, and I instinctively grabbed them away from several of the candles and avoided making the situation even more horrible and insane by adding a raging inferno to the mix. Then I pulled the clothes on, because if there’s anything worse than being confused, it’s being confused while naked.
“You can turn around,” I said, rather calmly, I thought.
He turned around obediently, pale face blinking at me in the dim light with an expression that even I couldn’t decipher. “You’re okay?”
There was an unnerving undercurrent of desperation in his voice that made me almost hesitate before yelling at him. But come on, what was I expected to do? This was beyond creepy, it was insane. He should be thankful that I managed to keep my voice as low as I did. “What did you do to me?”
In the candlelight I couldn’t see his expression as well as I would have liked, but I thought he looked much less perturbed than you’d expect under the circumstances. He certainly looked less perturbed than I did at the moment, which was just not right. But all he said was, “What I did is less important a question than where you’ve been,” which really completely failed to answer any of the thousands of questions I had at the moment and in fact just added a new one.
But fine. I’d play along. “Where have I been then?”
I already had my mouth open to deliver a scathing reply to his answer, but I have to admit this derailed my thoughts. Because seriously, what? That was clearly not the truth. That was clearly ridiculous and…
And something dark rattled in the back of my brain. Pain and blood and darkness and horror. There had been…I’d been on a train and there’d been…blood? A bullet? There’d… Wait a second.
I blinked down at my wrist, which was bare. That wasn’t…Was that right? Patchy bits of memory were pushing their way to the forefront of my mind, and they weren’t exactly making me feel any better about the situation.
I looked up at Piper with some urgency. “There were people after us! And there was… On our wrists!” I waved mine for emphasis. “What happened to--”
He shook his head. “They’re gone. It’s…” A barely perceptible shudder. “It’s gone. It’s over.”
Just like that? “They were trying to kill me!”
“They succeeded, James.”
I stopped with the wrist waving at this, and suddenly I felt very queasy. “They… I was dead.”
What are you supposed to say to that? “Oh.” My brain continued to flail at the idea rather than do anything to help. “I’ve never been dead before,” I managed, which in retrospect was a pretty ridiculous thing to say, but you try coming up with something witty in the same circumstances.
Piper’s closed expression twisted abruptly. “Just don’t do it again, for god’s--! For, for...” And then the ire faded as quickly as it had come. “This wasn’t-- Just don’t.”
This? What in god’s name did this involve? “This? What the hell was this?”
“I’m not…I’m really not going to go into all the details right now, James.”
Okay, no way. “I’m just trying to under--”
“You don’t need to understand, okay? It’s done now. It’s done; you’re here…” He turned jerkily and produced some tissues from a nearby table. “Here, wipe the goat’s blood off your forehead.”
Wipe the…? Oh, eww. I hastily grabbed the tissues. I was the Trickster. I was not panicking. I was not panicking. “I don’t need to understand why I woke up naked from being dead, with goat’s blood on my forehead?!” The shrill tone was not a panicking tone. It was an urgent tone. A perfectly legitimate urgent tone!
“It is goat’s blood! You said it was goat’s blood! And you said I was dead!”
He directed a frown at me. “It’s not important right now. You just woke up and already you’re… There are more important things than the goat!”
I opened my mouth to retort something at that but then it occurred to me that I’d just woken up naked from being dead and standing next to me was a guy (a friend?) who had just used the sentence, ‘There are more important things than the goat!’ and I just had to stop for a moment. Even by my standards this was getting particularly surreal.
He seemed to mistake this for agreement, for some reason. He really couldn’t be paying attention. “Like time.”
“Time?” I was right about the attention thing, actually. He looked…vague. And god, he was really thin. What the hell had--?
“You’re going to have to deal with some lost time. It’s been about a year and a half.”
Wait, what? “A year and a half,” I repeated blankly. I’ve really been dead for…man. “A...year and a half,” I said again, this time as acknowledgment. “I…was there a funeral?”
At this question he at least raised an eyebrow, which was something. “I wasn’t in a position to provide one. Sorry.”
No funeral. I wasn’t sure whether I was disappointed or relieved. Still…. “I always kind of envisioned an open casket and a crowd of...well, Rogues, probably. I guess it’s a moot point, now?” There was silence for a few seconds at that, and then I couldn’t stop myself from asking. “So...it was quick?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Piper turned around sharply and started blowing out candles haphazardly. “It’s not like it’s relevant anymore, is it? You’re taking morbid curiosity to really weird places. Just... just be...” He hesitated, then stopped, putting a hand to his face, which at any other time I might have taken as a warning sign.
I had a right to be distracted, though. Dammit, this conversation was ridiculous. I wanted to know what the hell was going on, and Piper had so far managed to spend the first few minutes of my new life not telling me anything much at all. “I died, Piper. And now it’s a year and a half later and you’re standing here with a dead goat telling me that you did something you won’t talk about to bring me back and I’d really like a little information here.”
“Yeah, like you’d talk to me if, if....” And then he stopped. “I have to sit down.” Except he didn’t so much ‘sit’ as let his legs buckle under him, leaving him on his knees.
Alarm bells rang in my head. I jumped forward and pulled him around to face me, and was mildly worried that he actually let me. And then I looked at him, really looked at him close up. Jesus. What had he been doing to himself? This close the dimness couldn’t hide the skeletal thinness and the hollows under his eyes. He looked like a freaking zombie. “You know, you look terrible. I thought I was the dead one.”
“It’s just.... I think that it might have...taken something. I don’t know. I’m really tired. I haven’t slept for...” He blinked at me vaguely, apparently trying to count. “...a while.”
Hadn’t slept for a while. Right. This was just getting better and better. “Terrific. You couldn’t take a nap before you decided to perform an unholy mystical resurrection ritual? With candles? And...things? And what do you mean taken something?” My voice scaled up a little on the last two words, because dammit, that is not a good phrase to hear when you’re talking about unholy mystic rituals and Piper should know that. Why the hell would he risk this…? And for me, of all people? Had the world gone insane while I was… resting in peace? Had it even been peaceful? I couldn’t remember any demonic tortures, which was reassuring. But I couldn’t remember anything else, either. All that time I spent trying to keep out of Neron’s clutches, and I still had no idea if it had actually worked…
Piper stared at the ground, pointedly avoiding my face. “I don’t know. I had to...there was...he’s kind of a spirit. Or a god. I don’t know. He didn’t tell me...a lot of things.” His voice was detectably desperate now, the bland calmness of before finally giving way to something that was really just as worrying. Especially considering what he was saying. A god? No no no, Piper, no gods.... “He thought it was funny. He laughed a lot. But he did help. I think. I don’t know whether this, any of this... whether I needed it or it was just him. Maybe he took something from me so you could... I mean, it must take energy, right? To make someone...to bring someone.... Maybe I’m just tired. I’m not making sense.”
Oh, you think? I stared at him, and when I opened my mouth I realized I had no damn idea what I was about to say. What have you done? I closed my mouth again and tried desperately for a little restraint. “You...you do look really tired. Long day of not sleeping and, ah, talking to gods, and bringing back the dead, it probably takes it out of you. You just need eight hours in a decent bed and...” And then I just ran out of flippant, and before I could take it back the question spilled out. “Why? Why would you...?” I waved an arm, encompassing the goat and the candles and the god and not knowing when the last time you’ve slept was and… Why the hell? Why the hell?
Piper squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away from me. “It was too much.”
“What was too much?” I knew I should stop yelling, but... “What happened?”
“Everything. Was too much. You don’t even know what I... so much kept happening and I tried to... I wanted to... He did these things to you and he didn’t even care about you, and then I--I thought I would die but... then there was after, and I couldn’t...” He shook his head and I felt cold. Too much of what? Who did what to me? What the hell could have caused this?
Okay. Okay. I really, really wanted answers here, but Piper honestly looked like he was about three steps from collapse, and I suspected I should probably have some concern for the guy who’d apparently just brought me back to life. He needed sleep. Get him to bed. Scream at him about this whole thing when he wakes up. It wasn’t like his answers were going to make much sense when he was this close to losing it, anyway. Carefully, I asked, “Is there anything you need to do now? Closing ceremonies?”
He blinked at the change of topic and looked up blearily. “Close... no. Don’t think so. It’s all done. See?”
I took another look at the mess in the basement, but I managed to withhold comment. “Right. All done. So you don’t need to do anything else, and it would maybe be a good idea if you got some sleep. All right?”
Piper looked vaguely panicked at this. “I... don’t know. This doesn’t even seem that real. Did I fall asleep?”
Jesus, he was losing his grip more by the second. Adrenaline rush fading? I fought off an impulse to tell him yes. Not funny, even by my standards. Instead I took a firm grip on one of his wrists, and helped him up. “You’re not asleep. I’m not dead. Everything else is up for negotiation, say in about ten hours.”
He blinked at me vaguely. “Right. I’m sorry.” He accepted help in being pulled up. “I really think I need to rest.”
“Yeah, I think you might,” I agreed, in a generous understatement. I carefully started steering him towards the stairs. Mostly for distraction, I asked “You don’t have any gods up there, right? Or livestock?”
Piper walked unsteadily, leaning on me a little. “Not any more. Livestock’s gone and gods never stick around. S’annoying.”
“Yeah, well, I’d rather do without them. Who needs the pressure?” I pulled the door open and walked out of what I guessed was the basement and into…a house.
“It was the only way,” Piper protested weakly as he followed me.
The house was of a relatively good size, and looked like a decent enough place, if somewhat cluttered. Okay, very cluttered. There were tech gadgets and alarming-looking possibly-mystical objects strewn all over the place. A card house sitting precariously in the corner; lines of dominos threading through various places in the room and I didn’t even wanna guess what that was about. The whole display looked like something that would fall apart with a few good stomps or a good huff and puff, which, when I thought about it, reflected its owner disturbingly well. Wonderful.
I helped Piper weave his way to another set of stairs and tried not to stare worriedly around the room. I could even see a few of my own tech gadgets amongst the mess, which I supposed I shouldn’t feel annoyed about because it wasn’t like I’d been using them myself. “Nice inventory. Guess the maid took a year and a half off, though.”
“I wouldn’t be able to find things if I cleaned it up. S’easier that way.”
“Personally I’d rather not have the death rays where I’m going to trip over them, but whatever works for you.”
“Death ray’s in the spare room.” It was genuinely difficult to tell whether he was joking about this, which was more than disconcerting.
The bedroom was also piled with potential death machines and crap. So was the bed, which really didn’t bode well. “Man, you really haven’t been sleeping,” I said, and allowed myself a private moment to be appalled that I was just brought back from the dead by someone suffering from intense sleep deprivation. I was probably lucky that I hadn’t come back as a chihuahua. “Is any of this stuff dangerous?”
“Probably,” said Piper and started pushing it off the bed with alarming unconcern. “I slept on the couch some. I think.” His legs buckled a little again and he sat down in the cleared spot and looked vaguely at the rest of it as if he didn’t quite know what he was doing.
I resisted the urge to just back out the doorway and wait for the thump. He brought you back from the dead. A little gratitude was probably in order. I sighed and cleared the remaining junk off the bed, less cavalierly than Piper had. Feeling particularly magnanimous, I even pulled Piper off the bed long enough to pull the covers back.
Piper didn’t really seem to notice my good deeds, however. His eyes slid closed as soon as his head hit the pillow and he was practically snoring seconds later.
“Sweet dreams,” I murmured. I felt a little lonely, all of a sudden.
I closed the bedroom door behind me and took a deep breath. Okay. So. Was dead. Not dead anymore. Probably there were things I needed to do, then. Check for exits? It was never a good idea to be stuck in a house when you didn’t know the exits. Check the internet to find out what the hell had been happening in the world of late? Check that my handy non-suspicious Swiss bank accounts hadn’t been shut down, so I had money to continue living? I mean, I could steal some more money if they had, but--wait. Did I still have a warrant out on me? They didn’t keep warrants out on dead people, surely, although it wasn’t like the police would really know about my lack of living status unless they actually found my body…. Had they found my body? Was this my body, or did Piper just magic up a new body, and my old one was rotting away somewhere being…
Dead. I had been dead. Dead, dead. Passed on. Ceased to be. An ex-Trickst--Jesus Christ. That was just… I stared at my not-dead hand and wiggled my not-dead fingers. I was not panicking. Hell, why would I panic, anyway? You panicked when you were going to die, not when you came back. I’d known people who came back from the dead, lots of people, no need to panic just because this time--this time--
Okay, another deep breath. The first thing I really needed to do was check the contents of the house, because god knows some of the objects scattered around the place looked very worrying indeed.
I walked down to what seemed to be the living room, although it didn’t look like anyone had done much living in it of late. I suppose the basement should actually be called the living room, since I came back to life in it and all.... I glanced around. There were a couple of lounge chairs, one with a bunch of suspiciously shimmering fabric draped over it, and the other with what looked exactly like, and possibly was, a giant soap bubble perched on top of it. There was a mirror at the back of the room, and a dusty television with what looked like an oboe crossed with a vacuum cleaner leaning against it. A bunch of tarot cards had spilled over the floor, and a coffee table was covered in polished crystals, shells, two large twenty-sided dice and what looked like a small robotic insect lying on its back. Also, there were burn marks in the carpet in one corner, carelessly covered with a green striped rug. Hmm. What casually discarded yet possibly lethal relic to touch and/or pick up first?
I decided to not start with the mirror, not because its design looked particularly threatening, but because, while it showed a perfectly fine reflection of me in it, it showed a perfectly fine reflection of me standing up to my ankles in snow in a place that looked a bit like Alaska, and I was pretty sure that wasn’t normal. I made a mental note to find a sheet to cover the thing with, just in case it turned out to be inclined to enforce its personal vision on me. After a few more seconds of deep and intellectual consideration, I picked up the dice and rolled them, upon which they landed on snake eyes and completely failed to do anything more exciting. Maybe it was all in the technique. Or maybe Piper had taken up role-playing while I was gone.
I was just mustering up the courage to try the obocuum cleaner when the doorbell rang.
It was a very determined doorbell. Before I’d even taken one step in its direction, it was ringing again, and an equally determined voice from beyond the door was calling, “Hello?” in a tone of voice suggesting she was not going away until she’d had her say, thank you very much.
I could have ignored her. Whatever state of mind Piper was in, I was still pretty sure he’d locked the door (which admittedly wouldn’t have stopped any number of people of my acquaintance, but those sorts of people generally don’t bother with a doorbell). And it would probably be wiser to keep my head down until I had access to more information about my current situation, such as, for example, whether I was wanted by the law. Really, though, how can you get information without sources? Such as the one currently ringing the door down? Seize opportunities before they seize you, I always say.
I strolled over to the door, waited a moment, mainly to be irritating (you have to stay in practice with these things), and then pulled it open. “Can I help you?” I asked, with my very widest smile.
The woman on the other side looked entirely civilian--no costume, no guns (something flickered in my memory and was gone again), just a pantsuit and an irate expression. She’d jumped when the door opened; possibly this was not her first time trying this. She recovered herself immediately, however, and addressed me in a tone of extreme annoyance: “This has got to stop!”
I raised an eyebrow--the medium-polite version, not the “I am provoking you into a murderous rage” one, which didn’t seem called for. “If you could specify a little, ma’am...? If you didn’t want me to answer the door I suggest not ringing the bell next time.”
She gave me a look of deep suspicion. “The noises!” Ah yes. What else would one of Piper’s neighbors be complaining about? “You can’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. Clearly you are in this building and therefore you clearly must have heard the noises. If you’re not responsible for them, you know who is!”
I smiled at her, pleasantly and entirely noncommittally. “I’m quite a recent arrival, I’m afraid. Can you describe these noises for me? It may be important.”
She scowled at me. “They were just there! Just before! There was horrible squealing, like you’ve got some kind of animal in there.” Her voice rose in indignation. “And then there were the awful wailing sounds, and the shouting, and the weird laughing. It just went on and on! And this isn’t the first time!”
All right, even by Piper’s standards, that was...pretty out of the ordinary. I had a fairly good idea what she must have been hearing fifteen minutes ago (I can’t imagine the goat was happy about its fate, no matter how worthy a sacrifice it might have been), and for the hundredth time already I wondered what had been going on before I...woke up, that’s a nice neutral term for it. I didn’t let any of this show on my face, of course. Pleasant and noncommittal was my middle name. “Mm-hmm, yes. And the other times, were they the same?”
She looked a little taken aback that I wasn’t arguing with her. “Well, no,” she said more calmly. “Sometimes they were the same, but sometimes there were different things. All kinds of noises. That nasty laughing sometimes, and the animal noises. There were awful smells sometimes too. And the screaming! There’s been all this screaming at night! How am I supposed to sleep?” Her voice was rising again.
“Screaming,” I repeated, and despite my best intentions my voice lost animation as I said it. I’m no stranger to Piper’s nightmares--or vice versa, if I were going to be more honest than I generally prefer--but they used to be...quieter. Assuming it was only nightmares...and how had that situation gone on this long without somebody calling the police? My mental file of questions for Piper was getting longer by the minute. But Piper was upstairs asleep and the mark was standing in front of me, so I manufactured a slightly rueful smile. “Well, it sounds as though he may have gone a bit overboard, but on the whole he seems to be making excellent progress.” I lowered my voice conspiratorially as she gaped. “You see, Mr. Peters is one of the effects designers for my next movie.”
She blinked at me, completely thrown. “You.... Movie?”
“Oh, yes.” I cheerfully spun her a tale about the exciting new horror film Piper was working on for me, full of blood and demons and haunted houses--I even threw in a goat for good measure. Movies make for great cons; you’d be amazed what kind of ridiculous stories people will believe if they think the magical world of film-making is involved.
“Well... well.” She blinked at me, clearly thrown (and a little fascinated), then visibly summoned up her annoyance again. “That all sounds very nice, but does he have to do it here? You’ve no idea how awful it’s been. Not just for me, for the other neighbors as well. I mean, it’s very exciting, but we need to sleep, and I have guests over. Goodness knows what they’ve been thinking...”
I smiled charmingly. “I’ll see that he, ah, keeps it down in the future. He’s a genius at what he does, but he’s a bit...eccentric, and I’m afraid I haven’t been available to oversee him lately. I hope he hasn’t been unpleasant to deal with?”
She sniffed. “It’s difficult to tell. He never answers the door. I’ve only managed to talk to him once or twice.”
“Yes, he’s quite reclusive when he’s working on a project.” Unfortunately. While I hadn’t been expecting Piper to furnish the neighbors with a complete record of his activities and psychological state, it would be nice to have something to work with besides screaming and animal noises. Piper, what the hell were you doing? “Gets obsessed with his work and forgets all about the outside world, you know.”
“Yes, well. I suppose he did seem quite introverted when I talked to him.” She frowned, looking vaguely confused. “I mean, I’m fairly sure...” She trailed off, obviously trying to remember.
I repressed a smirk. Well, at least Piper’s skills hadn’t decayed. On the other hand, it was more than a little worrying that he’d resorted to brainwashing just to deal with a complaining neighbor. Not entirely surprising, though, I decided with an internal sigh. Probably no more information to be had here.... “I’m sure he did. These creative types can be so difficult,” I assured her earnestly. “But I’m sure he won’t bother you in the future.”
She looked a little placated by this. “They certainly are. Well, if you’re sure he’ll listen to you... I will have to talk to someone if this happens again...”
“Of course, of course. I’m planning to have quite a long talk with him, believe me.” You have no idea.
“I’d appreciate that. I’m glad to have found someone helpful to talk to. I hope I won’t have to return.” She nodded her head in goodbye. “Good luck with your movie.”
“It’s been a...troubled production,” I told her, “but there’ve been recent improvements.”
Having seen my visitor off, I returned to my survey of the house with slightly more urgency, abandoning the siren call of the obocuum to check the other rooms. If there was anyone, anything else in the house, it probably would have made itself known by now, but I was metaphorically damned if I was going to bet my newly acquired life on that. I’d gotten as far as the kitchen--which clearly hadn’t been cleaned for at least a month and was stocked with half a loaf of bread, three pickles, two cans of soup, a jar of peanut butter, and, for some reason, a rack full of what was apparently every spice known to man--when the second knock came.
It was a fairly gentle tapping, this time; I almost didn’t hear it. I thought about just ignoring the new visitor--I didn’t really want to spend the rest of the day cleaning up Piper’s messes (well, I was contemplating washing some of his dishes, but mainly out of self-preservation), and I didn’t think listening to another round of complaints was going to provide much new information. Obsessed Rogues make bad neighbors, film at 11.
But then I heard a small voice calling out. “Mr. Piper? I made some cookies with Daddy. If you aren’t there I’ll just leave them here, ’cept I hope that the nanimals don’t get out and eat them.” I wasn’t sure whether it was the mention of the animals or the cookies that most intrigued me (hey, I hadn’t eaten anything in a year and a half. I was hungry). Besides, my curiosity was killing me. Piper had taken time out from breaking the laws of nature to befriend small children?
This time there was a little girl on the doorstep. She was Hispanic-looking, with untidy black hair, scuffed sandals, and a faded blue dress. She looked young, maybe seven or eight at most. And she did indeed have cookies, a whole paper plate full of them.
She looked up at me with interest. “Hello. Are you a visiting?”
I looked at her with equal interest. “You could say that. I think I’m staying here for a while, anyway.” I leaned down a little, so we could talk better. “My name’s James. What’s yours?”
“Marie. I’ve got some cookies. Is Mr. Piper here now? He should eat them.”
“Piper’s asleep right now; I think he’s been working too hard.” Or just hard enough, depending on how you look at it. After all, I can’t argue with the results. “It’s nice that you made him the cookies, though. You do that a lot?”
“Only now. ’Cause Daddy makes things with me since he’s better. It’s fun. I think he should eat more cookies ’cause he’s not very fat.”
I silently agreed. Piper’d been a little on the thin side for the last few years, granted, but the guy I’d left upstairs was edging towards skeletal. “I think you’re right,” I told her. “He’s never been a very good cook.” Which was true. Apparently growing up rich does something to your abilities in that area. “Does your daddy know you’re over here?” I asked, manufacturing an appropriately concerned look.
“I said to him I was going. He was giving Mummy cookies so she would be happy to him ’cause she was having the cast cut off her arm. That’s why we made the cookies, but we make things a lot now. I give things to Mr. Piper sometimes to say thank you and ’cause he’s nice.”
“He is,” I agreed, and felt a real smile tugging at my mouth. Apparently Piper hadn’t changed entirely. ”Why did you want to thank him, though?”
She smiled back at me, and then leaned forward like--well, like a kid with a very important secret. “’Cause Daddy’s more nice now. And he can’t drink bad things ’cause they make him go sick. So he makes things with me to say sorry to Mummy.”
He can’t drink things because they.... “I...see,” I said slowly. No, some things hadn’t changed. But.... “Marie, how did you meet Piper?”
The smile vanished, and she answered reluctantly. “When Daddy got mad and Mummy broked her arm. He came in the house.” She hesitated and then added, “I thought he was scary like Daddy ’cause he was mad but he was nice after.” She frowned deeper and stared down at the cookies.
I kept my voice gentle. “And after that, your daddy didn’t get mad anymore? You’re sure?”
“No. He’s nicer and he makes things. But he can’t drink things that make him mad. They make him feel icky and go bleurgh.”
“Good,” I said, and surprised myself a little how much I meant it. “I’m glad Piper helped you out like that. He’s a good person to have around when--” you’re in trouble, I started to say, and revised to “--you have a problem. Did he come over after that?”
“Only sometimes. I came over here to say hello. And he showed me the animals he has! Are they here still?”
And there were the animals again. I resolved to be careful about exploring the basement. “I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “I haven’t seen any animals around.” Well, except for the goat. I wasn’t going to discuss the goat. “Did he have a lot of them?”
She looked disappointed. “I don’t know. There was a bird but I only saw it once. And a goat! But I liked the dog! I heard it talk!”
Of course she had. Couldn’t Piper just keep a rubber chicken like a sensible person? “Really?” I said, pitching it to sound impressed and interested.
“It said hello. And it laughed at me.”
Somehow, I was pretty sure that wasn’t the result of an overactive imagination. “It liked you?” I suggested cautiously.
She considered this. “I don’t know. It laughed a lot. I heard it sometimes.”
“Weird laughing, check,” I said, mostly under my breath. Maybe the dog had gone away. I hoped the dog had gone away; I wasn’t in the market for a pet sidekick. “Well, I haven’t seen the dog, Marie; what did it look like?”
She gave me a slightly-confused grin. “Like a dog!”
I grinned back, kind of enjoying this. Kids this age are cute--in small doses, and when they aren’t messing with my cons. “A big dog?” I suggested, positioning my hands to give her the idea.
“Yeah. It was a big dog.” She bit her lip, obviously trying to improve on this unhelpful description. “It was brown and its ears went up.”
“Did it growl at you? Or ever try to bite you?” A little advance warning would be nice, if Rover was still hanging around.
She shook her head. “No. It didn’t look mad.”
I thought about the state of the house, and the state of Piper, and I couldn’t stop myself from asking: “Did it look happy?”
“Yeah.” She peered at me, looking confused. “I didn’t see it too much. Mr. Piper wouldn’t let me stay. Is he going to wake up soon?”
Yes, because I’m going to go upstairs and shake him. I sighed, setting the fantasy aside. For the moment. “No, I don’t think so. He’s really, really tired, so I’m letting him sleep.” I held out my hand expectantly. “If you want to give me the cookies, I’ll tell him you brought them for him when he wakes up, okay?”
She considered that seriously, and nodded, carefully surrendering the plate of cookies to me. “Okay. But you can’t have them, because they’re not yours.”
I solemnly assured her that Piper would receive her cookies, and waved her goodbye. After shutting the door, I turned around and studied the plate for a moment. “White knight,” I muttered. It came out more affectionate than I meant, somehow.
After some consideration, I decided that Piper would need a lot more than a few cookies to satisfy his nutritional needs anyway, and therefore my taking one morsel would hardly make any difference. It was for his own good; after all, they had chocolate chips and M&Ms in them. All the fortified wheat flour in the world wasn’t going to make these babies healthy. I slipped one out from under the plastic, wandered back to the lounge room and…
And there was a coyote on the sofa, smiling widely, as coyotes are wont to do, and looking quite a lot like a large dog with ears that went up. He laughed a lot.
Well of course he did.
The coyote nodded to me casually. “Say what you want about the fact that he beat his family in fits of drunken rage, the guy makes a good cookie, don’t you think?”
Steady. I blinked. Once. Then I took a thoughtful bite, swallowed. “Pretty good,” I agreed. “Are you hungry?”
“I’ve eaten.” The coyote smiled disconcertingly. “Goat meat’s very tender.”
I found myself grimacing involuntarily. Man, I’d been trying to avoid thinking about the goat. “The rest of it is still down there if you want to fill up. You’re welcome to it.” I couldn’t help putting a faint and slightly hopeful emphasis on the last word.
“No, I’m good.” He shook his head and rubbed a paw. “So, catching up okay?”
Wasn’t this nice and informal? Just a nice, casual conversation between me and…well, that was the question, wasn’t it? I shrugged, trying not to let the gnawing feeling of unease in the pit of my stomach show. “Oh, you know how it is when you come back from the dead. Newspapers to read, bank accounts to reopen, occult rituals to clean up after...but I think I’m getting the picture.” Okay, take the initiative. “I was wondering when you’d show up.” I had been hoping to get a night or two of sleep before having to deal with whatever horrible mess Piper had undoubtedly left behind, but I hadn’t been counting on it either.
“Of course you were.” He sounded amused. “I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Was that a threatening tone? Maybe? Sort of? I pulled out a deck of cards and started shuffling them, mostly to have something to do with my hands, but just a little bit because I once spent two solid weeks learning to flick a card hard enough to cause noteworthy eye damage when aimed right, and having some kind of weapon made me feel a little better, even if it was a laughably poor one. “Always nice to be appreciated. I guess I owe you a thank you, huh?”
He laughed. It was a slightly disturbing sound. “I don’t think I’m the one you need to thank. It’s always a laugh to work with someone who’s willing to indulge your any whim to get something done.”
I was going to answer that, and then…for just a moment his eyes literally glittered and a little alarm at the back of my head started ringing and--
I was running.
Running hard; running for my life. Clutching a small package to my chest with one hand and the other arm wrapped around my stomach. Oh jeez, my stomach. Eyes flick down to the blood seeping out under the arm, but I can’t stop now because they’re after me, can’t let them catch me…wait. Who’s after me? What’s going.... Eyes flick down again to the wound, past the green cloth…green? Piper? Wait, is this…? I’m in his…? I/he turns around and there’s a costume down the corridor. Running and shouting the alert…wait, is that Dr. Mid-Nite? Am I…did he... He stole something from the Justice Society?!? Piper, what are you do--
“Ah!” And I was in the lounge room. Standing in the same position. Hell, I didn’t even drop the cards. Just barely, but, y’know, you’ve gotta be proud of something, right? Also, I was talking to someone who could give you visions. More than visions. That felt like…like I was there. Like he was there. Oh, I am going to have a lot of very impolite words with you soon, Piper. I propped up my smile. “How…hilarious. So, how’d he find you?”
“Interesting response.” He raised an eyebrow. “And he looked in the right places, obviously.”
“You know, I think we may have different definitions of that word.”
“Could be true, I don’t dispute it. Things tend to be rather more obvious from my perspective.”
And of course it would be much too easy if you were to just tell me what that perspective would be. Not that I didn’t have deep and probably well-founded suspicions. Even if I hadn’t been the shrewd and cunning person I was, anyone who’d read a book on myths and legends knew to be careful around talking coyotes. “Well, then here’s an obvious question. What do you want?”
“That is an obvious question. I’m glad to see your intelligence hasn’t been damaged by your premature expiration.” He stretched his body elegantly, and then, as he drew himself out, he arched up into the air and black feathers began to flow over his fur like water, and some of his mass just… dwindled away, and....
The former-coyote, now-raven opened his wings and flew to perch on an errant antenna that sat atop a baffling device. “Here’s an obvious answer,” he said, casually, as if suddenly shapeshifting into a different creature was not something that should cause a break in any serious conversation. “I want to talk.”
Well isn’t that…tricky. I smiled at him cynically. “This is a lot of work to go to for a conversation. Although I guess you weren’t the one doing most of the work, were you?” Part of me thought antagonizing the guy was a supremely bad idea, but hell, that’s never stopped me before.
The raven tilted his head and looked down at me. “That depends an awful lot on what you mean by work. Isn’t relativity grand? But seriously. I know you have deeper questions than this. So keep going! I’m listening!” If it was possible for a bird to have a smile, he was certainly managing it, and this was not allaying my suspicions in the slightest. But if he’s in the mood to answer questions…
The number one question in my mind was why, which surprised me a little, because it was at least half-answered and it wasn’t as though it was tactically important right now. No. I swallowed it and tried for something else. “Piper made a deal with you, for...this.” For me? No, I wasn’t even thinking about that right now. “Think you could fill me in on the details? If it’s not too obvious to need discussing?”
The raven shrugged in a dainty, birdlike way (unsurprisingly, when all’s said and done). “The details? He did a few jobs for me, and I did some negotiation for him.”
I’m standing somewhere, and it’s white and misty and so very cold. It eats at your body, gnaws at your bones. Look down to my arms, twisted around my body, anything to stop the chill… Green? Piper again? Where the hell is he/I? I…so cold. I/he stands numbly at the gates with his arms, legs, my whole body shaking and Raven is there. He’s talking to someone. Looks…supernatural. Angelic? There are ghostly figures in the distance, but it’s hard to make anything out. The mist…the cold…
“--all there is to it. But I know you’re worried. What are you afraid he’s done?”
I shook my head disbelievingly, and for a few seconds desperately resisted the urge to run off and find a nice warm fireplace.“I’m afraid he’s been incredibly stupid.” I thought about that for a second, thought about who I was talking to, and the cold, and the gate, and then amended, “Well, no, I know he’s been incredibly stupid. I want to know what the consequences are.”
“Well, you’re alive instead of being dead.” Another head tilt.
“That’s nice,” I agreed. “What’s the catch?”
The laugh sounded even odder coming from the bird. “Do you think I’ve stolen his soul away? Rest assured that’s right where it’s always been, and will be for the foreseeable future--he’s not really my type, though he has his moments.”
Oookay… I started shuffling the cards again, extra casually. Not worried. Look how not worried I am. “No contracts in blood, huh? And the rest of him’s still in one piece? No after-effects from--” I gestured at myself.
Raven approximated another shrug. “No permanent after-effects. One can’t wander around in places where humans are not meant to go without feeling just a little worse for the wear.”
I felt my mouth twist. “Tell me about it.” I couldn’t help but flash back to what had happened to the Rogues when they dealt with Neron, quite literally a lifetime ago. “Nothing permanent. Nice to know. What about me? Do I owe you something?” I was pretty sure I still had my soul now--from what I’d seen the effects of losing it seemed to be pretty obvious--but that wasn’t quite the same as owing it later.
“Owe me?” This time the laugh was louder. “What would be the point of that? You already belong to me; you always have.” He looked down at me and seemed to ooze off the antenna until all traces of the raven were replaced by a large black spider that was dangling from it. “How do you think I fetched your soul out of Purgatory, little Trickster? They knew I had more right to it than they did.”
Wait, what? Suddenly all of my suspicions crystallised, and the alarm in my head was playing in harmony to the bad, bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was grateful that the wall was behind me; it saved me the embarrassment of trying to back away. I desperately wanted a weapon, or a con, or at least to know what I was doing, but the only one I had of the three was made of cardboard, and no matter how good my aim I didn’t think it would help me here. “I belong to me,” I said, as evenly as I could manage. “Nobody else. And I don’t take orders.”
Anansi twirled from a thread, looking as amused as a spider really could. “Then why did you take my name? Don’t fear what you’ve always embraced, now of all times. I never ask anything more from my followers than they wish to give me. It’s up to you to decide what that will be, in the end. Besides...” He gave the spider equivalent of a shrug. “The other gods out there would bore you to tears. Honest.”
I stared at him. What you’ve always embraced. But that wasn’t… And he had done to Piper…
He had done to Piper what Piper allowed to be done to him. And yes, Piper was desperate, but… When has that ever stopped you?
I wanted to say, “It’s just a name,” but really, was there anyone present who’d believe that? Besides, there was something uncomfortably familiar in the spider’s amusement... “You don’t want anything from me,” I said, testing.
“Nothing more than to do the job you already do. While it irks me sometimes that you don’t play the role as well as you could, I see no point in forcing you to obey my whims. There’s no fun in such blatant coercion.”
Oh. Well. That’s…that’s really very… “I... In that case,” I said, slowly, “I suppose it’s a little late to decide I’m an atheist. All things considered and all.” That being my death and resurrection, by what turned out to be the god I didn’t notice I was worshipping, so nothing important or, or…wait a second, what did he just say? “Hey! What do you mean I don’t play the role as well as I could? What, you’re giving out report cards now?”
Anansi started to spin a web between two bits of equipment. “That would be amusing! But there would be comments, certainly. You’re supposed to teach other people lessons, after all. Throw people’s petty bigotries into their faces. Show them what fools they are! Rather disappointing that you let your own fears and weaknesses overwhelm you so that you need the lesson taught.”
Petty? Wait, he wasn’t seriously talking about…. Come on. Like he should even care about a bunch of stupid jokes. “Do I look like a social crusader?” I said, and I wasn’t sounding defensive because I had no reason to be. At all! So there! “You want that, he’s asleep upstairs.”
--at which point I suddenly felt even more like kicking myself. What the hell was I doing?! Did my brain really stop working for long enough to forget that I didn’t want this guy’s attention directed back to Piper? It’d been there a year and a half and had half-killed him already, for god-- for heaven’s--dammit! Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The spider’s tone was gilded with amusement. “He’d be only too happy to help me, I’m sure. It’s almost no fun to use him, though use him I have.”
And I thought of Piper, way too thin and too exhausted, going through what I fervently hoped was not literally hell for the sake of a man who, let’s face it, hadn’t even treated him particularly well, and suddenly thirty-plus years of learning to smile no matter what was all that kept me from snarling. Instead, my voice was low and cold. “He doesn’t need you anymore. Leave him alone.”
The spider simply slipped from the web and behind the couch. A fox looked slyly around from the side a few seconds later. “Where is your pettiness now, little Trickster? Perhaps it was nothing but denial?”
And before I could even open my mouth to answer, I was lying--
I am lying on a bed, and it’s so, so soft and comfortable. My eyes are closed, and I know I’m not alone but it doesn’t… It doesn’t matter. I don’t feel the need to open them, and that’s so very strange. And yet… this isn’t someone else’s experience; not this time. I never felt more like me in my life. I feel like I could do anything I want, say anything at this moment, or say nothing at all and it simply wouldn’t matter. And god, I never realized how good that could feel. I never realized I could let the mask fall away and just not care. This is…
Fingers whisper over my skin and I feel myself smile and lean into them. My skin tingles as he presses his lips down and it’s so achingly, achingly nice. Finally, I have to look, and I open my eyes to see Piper looking down at me fondly and with just the slightest hint of amusement as I--
--I slammed back against the wall before I remembered it was there. What? The fox smirked from the front of the couch and I stared at him, in retrospect a little wildly but I… “What-- What just--?” The smile on his lips widened, and suddenly something cracked and slipped, and blank confusion turned to blind, blazing anger. Son of a bitch. That bastard was screwing with my mind. Making me feel like--he was--
He was still smiling at me. Watching my anger, with just a tinge of triumph in his eyes. No. No you don’t. You don’t get to do that you don’t.
I breathed in, out, and when I was confident my voice would do what I told it to, I said, “You do that again and we’re parting ways, I don’t care what it takes.”
He was unmoved, and if anything the smile widened even further. “Indeed?”
I couldn’t stop the stab of anger, and the fact that I knew that he knew that just made it worse. “I’m not joking!”
“Really then? It was such a horror? Such a terrible thing?” He stepped forward, and I had to check myself to stop from stepping back into the wall again. “What do you fear, little Trickster? Why do you fear? What is there left to fear after...” And I saw the glint in his eyes again before I could react.
There was a flash of clarity and instinctively I knew. This part was real. No.
No, no NO. The flash of panicterror, and I know who Deadshot is aiming for and I can’t let that-- Not him not now! My muscles, my face, everything is screaming but the dread gives me the strength to shove myself in front of him and-- the bullets-- rip-- Burning I am burning-- mouth open---screams I have to I choke on the blood it’s bubbling up. Ohgodohgod ithurts. My head is fire I can’t it hurts it hurts. Make it stop makeitstopmakeitstop ohgodplease I can’t--
I was on the floor. On my knees, and my hands were shaking; I was shaking, and gasping, and I could feel the blood bubbling when I tried to breathe, just for a second, before I remembered that I was alive now. Oh Jesus Christ. “I...oh, god...” Is that why? flashed through my mind, and suddenly I was more confused than I had ever been.
The fox’s tone was deadpan. “Yes?”
“Not you,” I wheezed, still shivering. “You’re just, just a principle. With a rotten sense of humor.”
“I imagine many people aren’t too enamored with your sense of humor either.” He smiled easily at me. “Now, I believe you have one more question before I go?”
My hands were still shaking, and my head was reeling. I didn’t bother to get up and give him the pleasure of seeing it. I just looked at the god’s expectant smile, and I knew perfectly well what it meant, because it was a smile that I had used many, many times before. I win.
Not that easily you do. “Yeah, I do,” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “Can you get rid of that goat?”
There was a two-second pause before the fox threw his head back in laughter. Then he looked at me with an expression that was something between fondness and amusement. “I do like you sometimes. Very well. Don’t ask me the question that burns you inside. I think, perhaps, it would do you good to find out through other means.” He smiled a little wider. “And I will get rid of the goat. Enjoy your second chance, little Trickster. Use it well.” He nodded in farewell.
“Making plans as we speak,” I assured him. “Let’s not do this again...ever.”
The Trickster god laughed again as he faded away. And the room was empty once more. Probably.
Slowly I stood up and leaned back against the wall. “You know,” I told the room tiredly, “some days I just wish I’d stayed with the circus.” Nobody answered, and after a minute I frowned. “All right, so I don’t,” I admitted. “But if I had more sense, I would.”
Many hours, a number of cookies, and a depressing amount of pacing later, Piper finally woke up. It wasn’t a particularly peaceful awakening; more like a gasp and a jolt. Whether that meant he was dreaming something good or bad was unclear, although I knew how I’d lay the odds. He didn’t really seem to take in my presence at first, and might possibly not have envisioned that I’d be sitting at his bedside when he awoke, but screw it. If he was that worried about his personal space he could have done something about it, like, oh, not bargaining with cosmically powerful and scarily fickle godlike beings.
“Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty,” I said in an irritatingly cheerful voice. I like my irritatingly cheerful voice. I have fucking perfected it.
He started again at that, sat up with a jolt and swung to face the chair. Confusion registered on his face for a few seconds, and then last night’s events vaguely wandered back to him and he seemed to remember to take a breath. “I...hi.”
“Hi,” I agreed. “You feeling better now? Not going to fall down again?” Always best to start slow.
He closed his eyes and shook his head a little, then took a deep breath and opened them again. “Yeah. I’m...a lot better. Sorry about that.”
I ignored this as beneath my notice. “You need an aspirin?” I gestured pointedly at the bedside table, where one of the two huge economy-sized bottles of painkillers I’d found in the bathroom was sitting next to a glass of water. Always thoughtful, that was me.
Piper’s gaze flicked over to them. He squeezed his eyes shut again, then opened them and nodded. “That would probably be good.” He fumbled with the jar and dry-swallowed two of the pills in a clearly habitual motion, before apparently remembering there was water and draining the glass. Still clutching it, he looked up at me as though he wasn’t entirely convinced I was there.
I ignored that too. “And of course you could probably use some food,” I mused. “That is, if there was any.”
He gave me an apologetic half-shrug. “There’s some bread somewhere, I think. Were you hungry when you... I didn’t think...”
“Yeah, I gathered,” I agreed, dangerously pleasant. “Seems to have been something of a theme for you lately.”
That earned me a scowl, so at least he was in there somewhere. “I guess it would be too much to expect you to be... Well, at least it probably is you.”
I just raised my eyebrows. “Were you expecting something else, maybe?”
He looked...resigned. It wasn’t an expression I was used to seeing on his face, and I didn’t like it now. “No, not really. Look, you can stay here until you’ve... caught up with things if you want. Or you can go. I don’t mind. I’ll go shopping later, anyway.”
I watched his face and listened to his voice and I really, really wanted to hit something. Instead I clasped my hands in front of me to keep them still, and leaned back in my chair. “So let’s see if I’ve got this straight,” I said, with exaggerated thoughtfulness. “I die. You spend a year and a half not eating anything, having screaming nightmares--” Piper flinched, a startled look on his face--“collecting artifacts that probably drive you insane just looking at them, and of course we can’t forget running errands for a god who is probably lying to you just in case he can help you take a trip to the underworld. You wrap this up with a ritual that requires blood sacrifice and that you think might kill you, and now all you’ve got to say to me is ‘you can go’?” My voice got harder, and I realized with a sudden start how angry I was. “What the hell happened to you?”
He sat there, blinking at me. “You know about the god-- How I...” He seemed to waver over what to say. “I... You died. And I... I didn’t want that.”
“Why the hell did you care?” I snapped. Which, all right, was not the show of gratitude the situation merited, but I didn’t understand what was going on here at all, and it was making me crazy.
He flinched away from me, and I felt even worse. “I couldn’t... I just needed it to stop.” He stumbled painfully over the words. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not going to go and... stalk you or... make you uncomfortable or anything. You really can go,” he offered, obviously hoping this would fix whatever I was upset about.
Which it really, really didn’t, but his body language was telling me it was time to rein it in before he fell apart. Whatever I wanted from Piper, yelling at him until he started to cry wasn’t it. Okay. Okay. Play it cool. I eased back in the chair, settling down like a man with no plans to go anywhere soon. “You’re awfully eager to get rid of me all of a sudden. Did I come back from the dead with bad breath, maybe?”
Piper just stared at me blankly. “All you wanted to do was go when the... the cuffs were on us. Now you’re free, and...and you’re alive. Why would you want to stay?”
Because I’m not a complete jerk, I thought, and you still look like a good wind would knock you over. What I said out loud was: “If I always did what you expected of me, I wouldn’t be much of a trickster, would I?”
He blinked a little, but didn’t argue with that. Maybe he’d gotten the word about my religious vocation. “Okay. Well, I can tidy the place up and go do some shopping. There is a spare room. It’s got some stuff in it now but...” He trailed off helplessly. “...I didn’t know whether it was going to work. Are you okay? You seem like... like everything’s normal. I was worried that something would... That he would... I don’t know. I was worried.”
My grin was wide and faintly mocking. “If you’d brought me back as normal, Piper, we’d both have something to worry about. But I look like me, I feel like me, I’m my usual brilliant self...”
Piper smiled weakly in return. “Well, that’s sort of a relief.”
“Hey, you should be grateful. I think your neighbor was working up to an eviction petition before I talked to her.”
He winced. “She came around again? I thought I’d gotten her off my back.”
“Oh yes, and she had a lot to say.” I remembered one of my less-urgent questions. “How has someone not reported you to the cops yet?”
He shrugged. “I put some sub-hypnotic generators in some of the street lamps to discourage people.” Ah. That explained that, anyway. If it wasn’t anything Piper on his better days would have considered...well, not much of a surprise there. “There’s also a lot of people in the neighborhood who don’t care what’s happening behind closed doors,” he added, scowling, and that was so familiar I could have laughed, even though it wasn’t funny.
“So I gathered. Marie left you a plate of cookies, by the way.”
Piper’s expression was neutral. “Her dad used to work in a bakery before he lost his job. Now that he’s unexpectedly found alcohol unpalatable and physical violence even more so, he’s been using his time... more productively. Did everyone in the neighborhood knock on the door while I was asleep?”
“Is there a crowd of friends you’ve made and people you’ve influenced that I should be prepared for?”
He shrugged. “No. A couple of the others complained once or twice. Most of them don’t know anything about me. I was busy and I didn’t want people... involved. Some of the stuff I was doing was... something might have happened.”
“You mean it’s dangerous to work with dimensional-portal generators and invocations of the gods of the dead?” A lot of the things scattered around the house were still a mystery, but some of them I’d identified, and I would have been fascinated if the picture they painted wasn’t completely fucking terrifying. “Especially when you’re not getting any sleep? Gee, who knew?” Piper shot me an irritated look, and I smiled innocently. Maybe time to move into deeper waters.... “Someone else did stop by,” I added, “but he didn’t use the door.”
That one drew a worried look. “Oh?”
“Mmm.” I could feel my smile getting tighter, and the worried look increased. “Our mutual employer, apparently.”
Piper rubbed his hands over his eyes and frowned. “Are you okay?”
“You know, Piper, most people would think your quota for worrying about someone was filled when you brought them back from the dead. You can take the day off.”
He gave me a helpless look. “He’s really unpredictable. I just don’t really know whether he would be in a good or a bad mood after... everything.” He shivered slightly in remembrance of... something.
“What’s he like when he’s in a bad mood?” I asked, morbidly curious. In a good mood he’d been bad enough....
Piper’s gaze slipped over to one of the bedroom walls, just for a moment, and with a sick feeling I registered the plaster covering a hole in it. “Hysterical,” he said tightly. “That was probably just his goodbye, anyway. We won’t have to deal with him again.”
“Yeah, because that’s the way our lives work.” I didn’t bother to restrain the sarcasm. ”Nobody ever shows up when we really, really don’t want to see them again.”
“I know it’s not the best...” Piper’s hands twisted in frustration. “It wasn’t easy, finding someone who could do this! There, were much, much worse--” He cut himself off. “He was the best choice I had.” He gave me a wary look. “He just talked, right?” But there was a slightly desperate edge to his tone, as if wondering what we might have talked about.
For no good reason, I had a sudden, vivid flashback to that one image the god had given me, the one I didn’t want to think about, and only years of practice kept my face from heating up. “Oh, he talked lots,” I said, mouth mostly on automatic. “Life, the universe, you, all kinds of stuff. With the occasional slideshow for a better multimedia experience.”
“Slideshow?” he asked cautiously.
“‘You Are Here,’ and actually I would have preferred not to be for most of it.” I could hear my voice getting more and more flippant, just thinking about it. “You get a scar, there?” I gestured at Piper’s right side. “It felt pretty deep. And painful.”
Piper looks startled and his hand fell to his side unconsciously. So that one really happened... “It wasn’t that bad,” he protested weakly. “I stitched it up.”
Of course he had. Dammit. “You can’t even sew a hole in your shirt and you’re putting stitches in yourself? Aren’t there cute nurses you can charm into doing these things for you?”
He looked vaguely uncomfortable, like a kid who’d been called into the principal’s office. “Being seen in the area might have been... It didn’t hurt. And I made sure I disinfected it. It’s fine now.”
I let it go for the moment; it wasn’t the first or the last time either of us had gotten hurt in our lives, and if Piper said it was okay now then it probably was. Then again, maybe this wasn’t the right time to trust his ability to take care of himself. Mental note: see if I can get a look later. “The area? You mean like the scene of the crime?”
“It wasn’t a crime. Exactly. Look, how much did he... I mean, he didn’t spend the whole time showing you things about me?” He looked nervous, and I could almost see his thoughts running in circles--trying to guess what secrets I knew?
I wished I knew if I knew his secrets. That year and a half of blank was still lying there between us, and all I had were a handful of conversations--and some really disturbing flashbacks--to fill in the gap. “What’s the matter?” I asked bluntly. “There something you don’t want me to know about, Hart?”
He made his face still, like he had no idea what I could possibly be talking about. “Something I don’t want you to--”
“Yeah, you know,” I interrupted, and smiled at him, sweetly. “Deep, dark secrets you’re just too embarrassed to share with your old pal Trickster?”
I meant to push him, just a little--nothing, really, by my standards, or what used to be his. I didn’t expect the explosion; all that bewildered detachment just cracked in two, and suddenly he was screaming. “I don’t want you to know about?! I don’t want you to... There are things I don’t want to know about!” His voice changed, uglier now. “What, did you sit there and watch while he gave you a nice little rundown of my life? Which bit did you like best? Which ones did the two of you sit around laughing at? The ten thousand different times people have screwed around with my mind? The deaths--? Or how about how it was all my fault, everything, every time--wasn’t that hilarious?”
Wait, wait, what?! I tried to interrupt, to say it wasn’t like that, but he just kept going.
“What about when I lost my friends? Oh, wait, which time was that? Hell, you could have spent the whole time when I was asleep watching each and every thing I’ve ever cared about be systematically taken away and I’m sure you would have laughed your damn head off!” he snarled. “I don’t know why I even care what you know about my life! There’s nothing decent left, anyway--” He broke off with a strangled noise, tears tracking down his face.
I snatched up the moment before he started again, brain whirling with genuine alarm. “I didn’t mean it like that--” I protested. Didn’t you? murmured a sardonic voice in my back-brain. I shook it off. “I don’t care what he laughed at, all right, I am not him,” and I wasn’t sure who I was talking to anymore. “I haven’t thought this was funny since I woke up and saw you looking like you were dead and hadn’t noticed yet, and it gets less funny with every word I hear.”
Piper stilled for a moment, eyes locked on me like he was trying to memorize me. Then he shook his head: “No. No. I--” And then he turned away, sliding down into a heap on the floor on the other side of the bed, head down, back bent. Where he wouldn’t have to look at me at all.
I thought about going around the bed. Then I thought about getting up and leaving the room for an hour or so. In the end, though, I stayed where I was, looking at Piper’s back. I didn’t have to be a genius con-artist to see the misery in the set of it, but that didn’t tell me how to make it go away. “Sorry I don’t live up to your high standards,” I said, because it was all I could think of, and winced when Piper stiffened a little more at the words. Maybe I should have shut up, but it’s not really one of my better skills. “Rogue, Piper. You remember the concept, right? You want somebody to say all the right things and give you a hug and fix everything that’s wrong with your life, then you brought back the wrong guy.” Oh, I could probably find his buttons if I tried, pull the strings till he was up on his feet, but there was only one Rogue who’d ever been worth a damn at really making people better, and he was the one in pieces.
He was silent for a few moments, just sitting there, staring at the floor, and I wondered if he was even hearing any of this. Then he said, not turning, “That wasn’t why I brought you back.” His voice was steadier, and I breathed out, relieved. “God, I’m not... I haven’t lost my mind.” He snorted slightly. “Or maybe I have. I told you the truth, okay? I don’t expect you to stay. I didn’t bring you back for you to...I didn’t do it for love, or friendship or even comfort. I just...” Piper finally twisted to look back at me. “I had to make something right,” he said, like it was a prayer. He started to talk faster, the words spilling out. “Everything bad under the sun just keeps happening and I can never, ever stop it. It was too much. You were...and then he said the whole thing was because of me, and I got him for you, I did, but--God....” He shook his head, eyes wide and stark with whatever he was remembering, and I bit my tongue; later we were going to get through this explanation without the blanks, but...later. He kept talking: “And I thought I could do better, I really did, but it just got so much worse--” He shivered, and then focused on me. “And I kept coming back to you; I kept seeing what happened when you...there was blood everywhere. And I tried to shock you, tried to scream at you, but it wasn’t any use. But I was still attached to your body. It was days before I... I had the knife, but I couldn’t do it. In the end I...” He met my eyes pleadingly, and I swallowed, understanding. “I couldn’t get the noise out of my mind. I had to cut through the bone and it... I couldn’t get the smell... I had to fix it, it was just. too. much.”
God. He was out there for days, with my--I swallowed--my rotting corpse handcuffed to him, and-- I flexed my hand, just to remind myself it was there. There wasn’t even a mark on my wrist, I knew that, I’d looked, but I have a great imagination, and the images Piper had just fed it were live technicolor nightmares. Yeah, less funny all the time.
Except it sort of was, though I doubted Piper would appreciate the joke. I got it now, and hell, I’d got it earlier, ’cause I’m a genius like that. White knight, yeah, and Piper’d been killing himself for the last year and a half because he needs to help people.
If this is the sort of thing heroes do, the only wonder is that they’re not all crazier.
Now me, I’m not a hero, not even when I’m working the side of the angels, and I’m only crazy in interesting ways. But I know who my friends are, too, and I finally had something to work with. I scrambled off the bed, down to the floor to put myself eye-to-eye with Piper, and grabbed his collar with one hand to keep him there. He stared at me, mouth open to say something, but I talked over him ruthlessly. “So, hey, Piper. Here in front of you? That would be me. James Jesse, live and in person. You probably noticed the live thing, I’m breathing and everything, but just in case you missed it. Also, both hands.” I waved my left hand demonstratively, keeping the other firmly anchored on his shoulder. “No blood, no bones, and if you scream at me, I promise to scream back. So you fixed it, okay? Go you, even if you are a complete lunatic.” Okay, so maybe most people wouldn’t include that last part in their pep talks, but I couldn’t help it. I gave his shoulder an encouraging squeeze, then let go, but stayed where I was.
He just stared at me for a moment--can’t imagine why. Then he smiled--weakly, but still, a smile. “Yeah? Be nice if I could make it a trend. Losing’s really lost its novelty.”
“Are you in jail right now?”
He blinked, looking confused. “No.”
“Blown the house up?”
“Close enough, and also, you’re explaining what all of that stuff downstairs does, in detail. Brainwashed? Injected with mind-altering substances? Turned into a puppet?”
“Okay, I’m getting the point--”
“Handcuffed to a devilishly handsome and brilliant fellow outlaw?” The minute the words were out of my mouth, they felt incredibly awkward, and I was suddenly conscious that I was sitting two inches away from him. What do you fear, little Trickster? I didn’t move.
I thought I saw something flicker in Piper’s eyes, but his voice was mild and even when he said, “Not that I can recall.”
I kept my relief off my face, and smiled brilliantly. “Oh, well, you can’t get them all. But the rest of it sounds like a trend to me. Plus you’re getting really good homemade cookies.”
He made a considering noise. “That’s true.” His eyes were still tired and shadowed, but I wasn’t expecting to fix in two minutes the damage that had been building for a year and a half--longer, really. Right now, there was a smile on his face, even if it wasn’t much of one, and that was good enough.
I eyed him critically. “So, are you up to dealing with the outside world? You can just give me directions if you’re not.”
He blinked at me. “What for?”
“Well, to the grocery store,” I said patiently, with the air of something that should be plainly obvious. “You might be okay living on stale bread and canned vegetables, but if I’m going to be living here I’d like some actual food in the house.”
Piper looked like he didn’t know what to say. “I can go with you.” He hesitated. “I don’t expect you to... If this is because you--”
“--are sticking around when I don’t want to in a spirit of gratitude and noble self-sacrifice?” I drawled. “Because, yes, that sounds like me.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so either, but...” Piper looked at me, and bit his lip. “Trickster... James. Do you remember anything now? How you...” He hesitated before saying the word. “...died?”
Oh, there was a pleasant topic. Too bad I couldn’t say “nope, not a thing, let’s go shopping” and short-circuit the whole discussion--just because I was going to drag all of Piper’s issues out of him didn’t mean I wanted to reciprocate. But Piper knows me too well; he’d never believe I wouldn’t want to know. “Mostly,” I said finally. “The part after I got shot is a little fuzzy, but I remember--yeah.”
And the question just burst out of him, like he’d been spending the last year and a half--well, the parts when he wasn’t busy being crazy-- trying to figure this out: “Why did you do it?”
I throw myself in front of the bullets, and the world explodes-- My gaze slid away. I really didn’t want to talk about that. Especially when I wasn’t entirely sure what the answer was. “Wasn’t thinking very clearly,” I said with a shrug. “You get some strange ideas when somebody keeps frying your brain--”
Piper gave me an exasperated scowl. “That’s your excuse? Really?”
“It was very disconcerting,” I said, a little weakly.
He drew back from me and studied my face with an expression that was… far too perceptive. “You don’t even know why, do you? It wasn’t even the shock chains, it was just...instinct? Whim? A mistake?”
I hesitated for a second before answering, thrown. People aren’t supposed to pick up that kind of information from my face. That’s what I do. I… should have been more alarmed about that than I actually was. “It… isn’t anything I ever want to do again,” I said, doing my level best to keep my tone casual and the memories down. “But...no, it wasn’t a mistake,” and saying it, I knew it was true.
Piper kept looking at me for a few seconds more, and then sighed and managed a faint smile again. “I guess that’s not the worst answer I could have waited eighteen months for.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Hey, it’s just as sensible as yours is.”
“You only had to wait a few hours until you got your answer!” When I opened my mouth he added, “And no, being dead isn’t waiting.” He gave me a sharp smile. “Besides, what did you want me to say? That I’d brought you back because I’d fallen in love with your shining good looks and I couldn’t bear to--?”
“Spare me your lurid fantasies,” I interrupted. “Although,” I added, after a deliberate pause, “if you had said that, I would have to concede your good taste, at least.”
“No personal slurs and a remark on my good taste? I guess that’s better than before,” he said dryly. He shook his head, laying the topic to rest for now. “So, you wanted to shop?”
“Need,” I corrected pointedly. “Need to shop. The mold at the back of the refrigerator is getting lonely.”
“There’s cookies,” he said defensively. “And some bread. And a couple of cans.” He frowned, remembering something. “And I guess there’s the goat.”
I...stared. “We’re going to have to make a few house rules. One, no eating the sacrificial animals. You have no idea what kind of magical germs they have. Two, no eating goats anywhere I have to know about it. In fact, just no eating goats. You get that hungry, you order pizza. Besides,” I added, “it’s not there anymore.”
“Oh? You cleaned it up?” He looked a little surprised. Well, more than a little, not that I blamed him.
“Let’s just say I made the problem go away,” I responded cheerfully.
He eyed me. “Why does that statement make me anxious?”
I gave him an angelic smile. “Because you worry too much?”
He snorted. “I might have been before, but if you’re going to be staying, I think I’m worrying just enough. Look, there’s a supermarket about half a mile away. I guess I’m forced to conclude that shopping might be a good idea...”
“And green might be your favorite color,” I retorted, pulling myself up from the floor. “Come on, I’ll drive.”
“Why are you driving my car?”
I held up the key ring I’d pocketed earlier. Hey, it’d just been sitting there. And frankly I had no plans to get in a car he was driving until he’d had at least three nights’ sleep. “Because I’m the one with the keys?”
Piper sighed. “You better not dent the fender. I just replaced it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And it needed replacing because...?”
“Let’s not go into that.” He got up and started out the door. “Come on, or I’ll figure out how to drive without the keys.”
I shook my head in mock-disbelief as I walked after him. This, I was enjoying. The banter felt… natural? Okay, I don’t think I’m ready to go there just yet. “Running on the wrong side of the law all these years and you don’t know how to hotwire a car? Growing up rich really does stifle your development.”
“Oh, shut up,” he said amiably. “Besides, I know what happened to your last car, Tricks, so I’m not sure you should talk.”
“That was on purpose.”
“Even the part where it blew up?”
I was about to defend my intentions when he paused, almost at the front door. “Oops. Wait here.” He sprinted back upstairs.
I frowned as something white flickered at the edge of my vision. I turned to the coffee table to find a piece of paper sitting innocently on top of it. “REPORT CARD,” it read in block letters, and below that, “Performance improving, but could try harder.”
I rolled my eyes and tore the thing up, whereupon I was not surprised to see that it crumbled into dust.
A rapid set of footsteps announced Piper’s return. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly, holding up a wallet. “I thought maybe it would go faster if we didn’t have to rob the store.”
I snickered. “You’re no fun.”
He grinned, and this time it was almost entirely genuine. “Not all of us have your sense of humor. Come on, if you’re so hungry.” He headed out the door fast enough that I suspected I wasn’t the only one with an appetite.
I lingered for just a moment, casting a glance where the report card had been. “I was never good at playing well with others,” I informed it, then grinned. “On the other hand,” I added, “I’m a very quick study when I’m motivated.”
I headed out the door, whistling.