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catching bullets in our teeth

Chapter Text

 

I'll be a dreamer till the day I die,

but they say, “Oh, how the good die young!”

 


 

You remember very clearly the last time you felt like you knew what you were doing. You were younger, which in retrospect might have helped. You were also better employed, although you certainly didn't think so at the time. As the Managerial Kingsman's assistant, you were often sent on tedious errands that plunged you into the depths of Prospitian bureaucracy

 

You were getting into a fight with the Assiduous Secretary over redacted files when you heard the explosion. The secretary hung low and ran from it, right out the door. But you. You idiot. You dropped everything and ran towards it.

 

Your name is Problem Sleuth.

 

You have a lot of practice looking like you know what you're doing.

 


 

Smoke filled the building faster than the fire, although it was clear from the heat that it wouldn't take long for the situation to worsen. You covered your mouth with your tie and headed for the screams.

 

By the time you got down the hall, up the stairs, and around the corner, everything had gone horribly quiet. You were already trying not to vomit from the smoke even before you saw why everyone had fallen silent.

 

You braced yourself against the door and retched over the red and white labcoat wrapped around the nearest headless torso. A fleshy chunk of hair floated lazily towards a grate in the center of the room that was slowly draining a thick red sea. A mismatched pair of eyes was caught between the tines.

 

Your voice was caught in your windpipe, struggling against your collarbones to crack free. The harsh smoke pricked at your face, into your nose, and your knees ached, adrenaline locking up your legs.

 

“I-is anyone alive in there?”

 

Something answered with a groan.

 

You dashed forward, nearly slipping in the blood, and screamed when a hand wrapped around your ankle. It was attached to a whole person, though one covered in cuts and bruises.

 

“Come on,” You whispered, crouching, helping him to stand. He was trembling like a leaf. Every naked, blood-stained inch of him. “Let's get you out of here,” You coughed, leading him out. You did all the walking. His legs seemed to fold under his own weight.

 

It must have taken a long time to escape, but you honestly don't remember much of it.

 

Just the way the hairless, pale, skinny, bloody man looked at you.

 

By the time you got outside, there were emergency crews. You started to call to them, but the man emitted a high noise of pain and slapped his hand limply against your mouth. You looked down. He just looked up at you with those big bright eyes,

 

...and you realized you had maybe made a terrible, terrible mistake.

 


 

“Well, I couldn't hide him at my place,” you hissed.

 

“I don't understand why we're hiding him at all,” the Acerbic Debator hissed right back.

 

The subject of your conversation had fallen asleep, curled up in the bottom of AD's shower. He had said exactly zero words since you rescued him. His communications skills seemed to be limited to whining like an animal. And crying. He cried a lot.

 

“What else was I going to do?” You whispered, looking down at the mess of person you'd salvaged. “...he was the only survivor.”

 

Probably,” AD's voice rose, his fists balled tight, “because he killed everyone else!

 

You reached out to pap AD right on the face. “Shh, shut up-”

 

The mystery man shifted against the black and white tiles. His face seemed pinched together, as if he smelled something unpleasant.

 

“Do not shoosh me.

 

“I'll shoosh who I please.” You turned to go. “C'mon, let's take this outside.”

 

“It's whom, you uncultured swine.” AD sneered, but followed anyway.

 

The Winsome Homemaker was lounging on the living room couch, a bag of Delicious Salted Corn Triangles tucked behind her folded legs and the television remote in her hand. She looked over at AD as he walked in. “Oh, you're home.” She noticed you, and her eyes roved. “...and you have your friend over.”

 

“H-hi, um, evening, Winsome Homemaker,” You were... quite unsure what to do with your hands. You folded them in front of you, like a total dork. “Sorry to bother you, so late.”

 

She laughed, a hard sound that showed off how very sharp her teeth were. “Adorable.” To AD, she said, “I like your little group of Pawns. They're always so polite.”

 

AD curled his lip, “We're going out. I'll be right back. Don't go in the hall bathroom.”

 

“Why, did you make a mess?”

 

“Yeah.” AD shouldered his way forward, dragging you behind him, “A real big shit.”

 

WH called after him, her voice lilting into something almost like singing. “One of these days, I'm going to leave you!”

 

“That'll be the fucking day,” AD muttered.

 


 

The official word was that there had been a tragic accident at Cloning Lab #16. There were no survivors. There would be a brief moment of memorial silence at 2:00:00 PM precisely to denote the important service of these faithful souls. There was no need to fear their loss, however, as their replacements were already gestating. In three days, the lab would be up and running again.

 

The word on the street was that something had gotten loose from the lab.

 

At least, that was what the Helpful Diagnostician told you.

 

“They're saying the Royal Guard is heading up the investigation,” She said, the two of you seated in your little corner of the refectory of Administrative Complex #4. Most of the tables had four seats welded to the table. This one only had three due to some processing error, but the building office drones had tossed it in the corner and called it a day. “They're desperate to find whatever got out, but nobody's saying what it was. Rumor has it that it might've been a new model of a Rook.”

 

“What do you think it was?” You asked, your insides like ice. Your mysterious man was too small for a Rook. Way too small. But maybe that was... ugh. Too many variables.

 

HD frowned in that way that made you want to smile. Her full lips tilted at the corners, her eyes deep in thought, her eyebrows knit fiercely. She was the kind of person to devote herself fully to her machinations, and analyzing data was her art form. Synthesizing gossip was poetry to her.

 

You miss her very much.

 

“I think it's something else,” Her voice dropped lower, “Cloning Lab #16 has never produced anything according the records I've seen, and I know they have a separate budgeting committee. And I've heard rumors, about the recent battles on Skaia...” HD kept her eye on the cafeteria, watching for anyone drawing near. “...I don't think they make people. I think they make monsters.”

 


 

“He's a maniac! He won't eat dinner when I bring it, but he'll crawl out at night to drink all my alcohol!” WH screeched.

 

“Look, I'll talk to him-” AD tried, but WH continued over him.

 

“He stole all the candy in the house! All of it! He's got it in there with him! He's not even eating it!”

 

AD looked at you.

 

“...I'll talk to him,” You said.

 

Someone better!" WH threw up her hands, declaring, "I swear, I'm going to burn this whole house to the ground!” and ran out. Her absence filled the room with silence.

 

“Sometimes, I wish she would.” AD said.

 

“Why are you two together? It seems...” You searched for a diplomatic description. “...kind of terrible.”

 

AD considered it for a moment. “Honestly? We're perfectly terrible for each other.”

 

He looked up at you, then past you. The naked man from the lab stood in the doorway of the kitchen, slightly less naked thanks to a t-shirt that, on his emaciated torso, looked like a disassembled tent, and a pair of boxers held up only by a zealous elastic band.

 

“...thank you.” His voice was like a dry, rickety door someone tried to open quietly in the dead of night.

 

“You can talk?” AD replied.

 

The man continued to stare at you. His hair had started to grow, you could see, including his eyebrows. ...why had they shaved his eyebrows?

 

“What's your name?” You asked, figuring you could ask about the eyebrows later.

 

He took a deep breath. His whole body rose and fell with the motion, his thin limbs poised as if about to jump into a run. “I'm... Peculiar Icarian.” He titled his head, which did not help make him look any more certain about his own name.

 

“What were you doing in that lab?” AD asked, crossing his arms. He projected effortless stern competence.

 

You did your best to emulate him, nodding, and fell against the counter when you tried to lean into the cabinet above it. You glanced around in a hurry but no one seemed to notice. The Acerbic Debater had his eyes locked on the Peculiar Icarian, who was staring down at his hands.

 

His hands shook with a violent tremor.

 

“I... I was working, there, w-with...” He pressed his hands against his eyes, teeth grit in pain. “...I,”

 

“Hey, you don't have to hurt yourself,” you said, before you knew what you were doing, and walked over to him. He opened his eyes to stare at you. You kept going.

 

“It's okay. You're safe now.” You touched his shoulder and he flinched, eyes round as dinner plates.

 

“...” He licked his cracked lips.

 

“...you can tell us when you're ready.”

 

AD snorted.

 

“Sure. You can wait to tell us if we're committing treason or aiding a murderer until you're more comfortable.” He pointed at the liquor cabinet, “But stop drinking my booze!”

 

PI blinked at him, twice, and slow. “...I'm... s-s-s-sorry. Y-you have b-been v-very kind, and I... I d-d-d-don't know...”

 

“Hey, it's okay,” You said, but AD shook his head.

 

“No, it's not-”

 

No, it is-

 

Quietly, PI said, “I d-don't know h-how else to make it s-stop,”

 

You and AD stared at him.

 

“Make what stop?” AD finally said.

 

PI smiled, tilting his head. “...I can h-h-hear them, on the Outer R-Rim. S-screaming.”

 


 

“There's some kind of Royal Deep Science Experiment to connect consciousness to the Zoologically Dubious camped out in my bathtub, and you're telling me 'JUST LAY LOW'?” AD snarled, gripping the railing of the balcony with hands that could crack bones.

 

“Yeah,” You replied.

 

“...okay, great. Just wanted to make sure.”

 

You did not immediately reply.

 

AD leaned down, resting his head on the rail. “...we are so fucked, Servitor.”

 

“I don't think so.” You gazed out, across the dark of the night, up to where the bright blue ball of Skaia lay. On the other side of the planet's curve, you could see the low purple light of Derse. It was daytime where they were. Did they even go out in the day? There was so much you didn't know.

 

“Oh, really? You don't think we're fucked, despite having stolen and secreted away a valuable piece of Their Majesties Royal Experimental Military Project? In the middle of wartime? Please, share what intel you have gathered, oh mighty Personal Servitor.” AD spat, “I would love to hear why we're not going to be tortured to death and then hung in the square like the traitorous wretches we are.”

 

“I don't know,” You admitted. “I just... have a feeling.”

 

“A feeling.” AD repeated. “A feeling.

 

You nodded.

 

“Well, you have a feeling. We're saved!” He shook his head, “I never should have spoken to you.”

 

“You didn't really have a choice. I did help you discover the identity of the real Dersite mole when you were accused.”

 

“I'm an Agent,” the Acerbic Debater replied, “I could have ignored a Pawn like you until kingdom come.”

 

You elbowed him, but your heart wasn't really in it. “Rude.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know...” He looked over at you. “...why did you help me, anyway?”

 

“What do you mean? There was nothing else I could have done.”

 

He didn't seem convinced, so you continued, "It was the right thing to do."

 

AD stared vacantly for a moment. Then, he laughed.

 

“Stupid question. I always forget who I'm talking to.”

 

“Well, you are going senile. In your old age. Because you're old. Old man.”

 

“Now who's rude?” He jabbed you in the shoulder. You laughed and pretended it didn't hurt.

 

You gazed out into the night and wondered if there were a pair of Dersites looking back across the darkness. If maybe someone else out there looked into the sky, towards the glow of Prospit, and wondered about you.

 

Chapter Text

The Meticulous Maven was balancing three bankers boxes stacked higher than her head when you walked into work. She narrowed her eyes at you, as if you'd somehow wronged her by showing up exactly on time.

 

It wasn't as if you could have come in any earlier. Your shift started an hour after hers because your assigned apartment was part of Schedule B. Your bus pass wouldn't work during Schedule A hours, or Schedule C, and vice versa, and so going to work and then back home (or anywhere, for that matter) was a carefully curated affair.

 

An Agent like the Managerial Kingsman could come and go as he pleased, which made the fact that he was late yet again even more beguiling. He was always late. In fact, most of your job was covering for the fact that MK getting to the office "on time" was him coming in at all.

 

"Good morning," You said, smiling, and MM grunted in reply. She must have been in a good mood.

 

You went past her to your desk, sat down on your rickety chair, and turned on your computer. While it booted up you gazed at the cat poster you'd pinned on the message board just above the DERSITE SYMPATHY IS DESERTION plaque, right next to the DON'T BRAG ABOUT YOUR JOB! YOU NEVER KNOW WHO'S LISTENING notice.

 

The cat poster simply said Meow are you doing?

 

“Servitor!” MM hissed at you, snapping you out of your reverie. "The phone!"

 

You noticed, finally, that it was ringing.

 

"Got it!" You pounced on the handset. “Office of Strategic Deployment of Reserve Technologies, how may I be of assistance?” You asked in your very perkiest phone voice.

 

“Ah, yes, good morning. Would you be a dear and get Managerial Kingsman on the phone?”

 

“Ah, unfortunately, he is not available at the moment, but I am happy to take a message-”

 

“He's not yet in, is he.” It wasn't a question. You drew a breath to answer, but then something in you stopped yourself.

 

You knew that voice.

 

You had heard it before.

 

On the radio.

 

“...your Highness,” You swallowed, “...no, he's... not, at the moment.”

 

“You will let him know that we are sending our emissary to his office shortly. We will be most displeased if our Kingsman fails to find the time to meet with him.”

 

“Y-yes, sir. I will.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Click.

 

You looked up.

 

MM stared down at you, eyes wide.

 

“White King is sending someone over to meet with MK,” You managed to say, and MM leaped to her desk, already dialing out.

 

The phone rang... and rang... and rang... for what seemed like forever. You felt sweat tickle at the back of your neck.

 

Finally, there was a click.

 

You heard someone start to talk on the other end, but Maven didn't let him finish before she fired, staccato, into the receiver, “Yes, sir, I know. But. His Highness is sending over a representative to speak with you. At your office.”

 

A momentary silence.

 

Then MM set the phone down. She curled her lip, annunciating to the room, “...he's on his way.”

 

You shrugged. Your fingers were trembling in your pockets. “Whatever it takes to get him in. Maybe now we can get him to look at all those 78-36B forms.”

 

She barked a laugh before she could cover her mouth. You locked eyes for a moment, and you knew that something was different now between the two of you. She had never once laughed at your jokes before.

 

“...back to work.” She said, turning away from you, but you saw her smile.

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

You set to working on some project or other. Maybe it was organizing files by importance and cross-referencing them by color, or maybe it was filing your nails. It doesn't really matter. The point is, the minutes passed in silence except for the clicking of keys and the shuffling of papers under the watchful gaze of an ever-increasing awareness of the advancing time.

 

You weren't done with whatever it was you were doing when the front door burst open, the Managerial Kingsman hustling inside. There were rings of sweat under his armpits.

 

“Is he here yet?” He panted.

 

MM shook her head.

 

The Kingsman sighed, his shoulders slumping, and let the door shut behind him. He strode into his office and turned on the light. From where you sat you could see him fixing up his tie.

 

He had just finished putting on his jacket when there was a knock at the door. Maven got up, tugged her own jacket into place, smoothed her skirt, and opened the door with set shoulders and an even smile.

 

“Good morning.” She said.

 

“Good morning,” replied a man in the bright uniform of a royal emissary. “Impeccable Assistant. I am here to speak with the Managerial Kingsman on behalf of Their Majesties.”

 

MM motioned with her hand. “This way, please.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She led him to the MK's office, knocking on the doorframe, and IA stepped inside. “Good morning,” He said again, and closed the door behind him.

 

You and MM watched it for a moment, waiting to see if anything interesting would happen. The low buzz of voices was all you could hear through the walls.

 

MM went and sat back down at her desk, but you just couldn't focus. You gave yourself several minutes before standing up and heading to the door. “I'll be back – going to grab some coffee.” You said, and she waved you off.

 

Of course, you could have gone to the cafeteria for coffee. But the best in the building was in the break room of the Office of Budgeting and Resource Development – War Ministry (Archives), which was down the hall, up the stairs, turn left, first door on the right.

 

“HD!” The woman at the front desk called when you walked in, “Your sweetheart's here!”

 

“Now how is that possible?” HD called back, “Since, if he was too busy for our date last night, he should certainly be too busy while we're at work?”

 

The secretary rose her eyebrows and hummed. “Oooh, I don't know. But he must have a good reason!” She winked at you.

 

You smiled, but you knew it was weak.

 

HD emerged from the grid of cubicles, hand on her hip. “What do you want, Servitor?”

 

“I want to buy you a cup of coffee.” You replied, tilting up your head in that way that made your face look less round. HD examined her nails.

 

“From our coffee machine, that our office pays for, that you use for free?” She guessed.

 

“Exactly the one.”

 

The secretary giggled.

 

HD rolled her eyes. She walked over and took you by the wrist, leading you to the break room door. You waved back at the secretary. She blew you a kiss right before HD closed the door.

 

“I'm really starting to get ticked off at you, PS.” HD said, tapping her hand against her thigh. Once, twice. You nodded.

 

“I'm sorry, baby, I really am, I've just been so busy, with all the stuff going on...” You replied, walking past her to the coffee dispenser. You plugged in the command for two coffees, made with sugar and creamer. HD preferred it black – but hey, you're buying.

 

Stuff.” HD snorted, crossing her arms. “What's that supposed to mean.” She pouted, quite dramatically. “What's more important than me?

 

You did your best not to glance up at camera bolted to the wall, just above her head. There was another behind you, and probably more. You wouldn't have been surprised if the two visible ones didn't actually work.

 

“Oh, you know, just some guy stuff...” The machine beeped at you, and you opened up the door to retrieve the two coffees. You gave HD hers.

 

She took a sip and made a face. “That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. And this coffee is terrible.”

 

“I'm wounded.”

 

Good.” She groaned, heading to the sink, and poured out her coffee. She came back and took yours, handing you her empty, crumpled cup. “I want you to take this back to your office and think about what you did to that poor, innocent coffee. And also me.”

 

“But Diaaaaaa...” You whined.

 

Pitiless, HD locked eyes with you as she tipped your coffee into the sink, and then as she set up the machine to make herself another the way she preferred.

 

“I'm going to bill your tab to your department.” She pronounced.

 

You gave her your best look of abject horror. “You wouldn't.

 

“If you don't get out of my hair right now-” She tossed her head, white curls settling around her face like a halo. “-you'll see just how much I would.

 

“Okay, okay, I'm going.” You took a last look at her after you opened it, “But I will make this up to you! Give me a chance!”

 

HD withdrew her new coffee from the chamber and sighed, “Fat chance.”

 

“I'll think of something!” You called, letting the door shut behind you.

 

The secretary gave you a pitying smile as you left. “Good luck, honey!”

 

It was a longer walk over to the cafeteria, where the coffee wasn't as good.

 


 

You waited until you got to a cafeteria trashcan to palm the folded piece of paper HD had left you in the bottom of her cup.

 

The rest, you threw away.

 


 

You waited until the Schedule B Departure Allotment was almost up to leave work. You rushed to the station with all the other stragglers, desperate to get home before they were stranded at work for several hours or forced to walk home. It was standing room only on the bus.

 

You got off at the station closest to HD's apartment, stopping by a corner store for sandwiches, chips, and a cheap bottle of alcohol. You forgot to buy cups.

 

When HD came down the stairs and into the lobby of the apartment complex, you made a big show of apologizing, cajoling, and pleading. HD, for her part, played the pretending-to-be-mad-but-actually-touched romantic love interest to a T. By the time you both leave, arm in arm, the lobby staff are beyond relieved at your success. The man at the desk went so far as to give you a thumbs-up when HD's back was turned. You gave him the finger guns.

 

In a way, this outing truly was penance. The cost of a trip out to the park was exorbitant, since it was currently Schedule C rush hour, so neither of you were authorized for the public transit. But it's worth it.

 

After all, it was one of the few public places where you knew it was safe to talk.

 

“IA is up my butt again.” HD grumbled. You passed her a sandwich, and she bit into it with gusto. And also her teeth.

 

“The Impeccable Assistant? He met with MK today.”

 

“Oh really. And did the great Managerial Kingsman have time for poor IA?”

 

“His Highness phoned ahead,” You replied, and HD stalled the devouring of her sandwich.

 

“Himself? On the phone?”

 

“Yeah, I spoke to him. ...well. He did the speaking, mostly. To me.”

 

“Wow.” HD sat down her meal. “...Serv, that's not good.”

 

“I know. I think...” You're not quite sure what you think. HD gave you a moment to sort it out. “...Dia, I think things are about to get worse.”

 

The Helpful Diagnostician looked out at the city, the gleaming yellow spires hazy in the mantle of dusk settling across your moon. During the day, the bright light of the sun reflected off the golden towers in coronas that made your eyes water, drawing jagged patterns behind your eyelids even with them closed. It was almost unbearable until the sun finally set, when the stars came out and the soft blue glow of Skaia brushed across your homeworld with a gentle gleam.

 

You wondered if maybe Derse was more beautiful during the daytime.

 

“I think so too.” She said, softly. “The labs are hemorrhaging resources. It was bad before, but now... We're redirecting funds through grants from infantry back to the Royal Warchest.”

 

“...less pawns on the ground,” You mused, “but why?”

 

HD shrugged. “I don't know. Not enough data. But it's... not good.”

 

The two of you watched together as the shadows of twilight lengthened into night.

 

“You never did tell me why you've been so busy.”

 

You glanced over at HD, her face soft and glowing pale as a star in the darkness.

 

“...it's better if you don't know, just yet.” You said.

 

She rose an eyebrow. “That bad, huh?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Alright. I trust you. ...as long as you know I'm always willing to help.” She added, looking back to the city.

 

You grinned, reaching over to brush her hair behind her ear. She always wore a headband, but it seemed incapable of holding back her hair from her eyes.

 

“I know. It's one of your best qualities, O Mighty Helpful Diagnostician.”

 

“And don't you forget it!”

 


 

In the days that followed, work took precedent. You remember that time as a blur.

 

You remember early morning filled with frantic filing, redaction, requests, and the more frequent presence of your boss in the office. That meant less time spent bothering HD, but she had her own stuff going on.

 

When you did get to see her, she seemed distracted, even distant. It made sense. There was an electricity in the city, an uncanny calm. Everyone was keeping their heads down. Stores closed earlier, the streets were empty at odd hours, and you could hear your neighbors arguing late into the night about nothing at all.

 

It seemed smarter to focus on work and just not worry about it. Once things calmed down, you'd spend more time with her. She understood. Her work was just as important, after all.

 

Looking back, you wish more than anything that you had made the time anyway.

 

You don't even remember your last conversation with her. But you know the last thing she said to you.

 

“PS,” the Helpful Diagnostician breathed on your answering machine at an ungodly hour of the morning. The morning. “I need to talk to you. Call me when you wake up.”

 

But by the time you woke up, the world was busy ending.

 


 

“What are you doing?” AD hissed somewhere behind you. You could hear his footsteps ringing in your ears.

 

You closed your eyes, tilting up your head, and coughed. You were so thirsty. It tore up your dried-up husk of a throat. You could taste the blood. You swallowed a little without even thinking. Another fit of coughing ripped through you, your ribs biting into your chest in protest.

 

Crap.

 

You didn't dare look down. You had smashed something in the face with your fist, you remembered that, and it had grinned at you with its horrible piano-key teeth, and then there had been a searing pain and the smell of burnt flesh (you remembered that smell from before, from when you found PI curled up naked in a puddle of blood), and you knew it was probably your own.

 

You had doubled over and stayed down, but PI had snatched you up and gone running.

 

“Th-this will w-work,” PI replied, his footsteps quick and light. You'd never thought about it before, but he was very tall. His legs... his legs go on, and on, like a... some endless... stilts... bird...

 

What will work? Where the fuck're we going?”

 

PI's chest was very warm against your head. He shifted to hold you a little more closely, and whispered, “Just h-hold on... a little l-longer.”

 

You weren't sure what he meant. After all, he was the one holding you.

 

“How do you even know where you're going? Weren't you locked in a lab your whole life?” WH demanded.

 

You could feel PI's heartbeat pulse against your ear.

 

“D'ss... rhude...” You said, but even to you it sounded distant. Small. You frowned, swallowing, and tried again, “...d's...” Your voice slipped in your throat, cracking against your teeth. Breaths were hard coming. You tried to gasp for air and choked on your own saliva.

 

“PI, stop! He's dying!

 

PI did not stop.

 

He broke into a run.

 

You closed your eyes.

 


 

You don't remember much about the first time you died. You remember that you were dead, but not so much how you got there.

 

But you remember Death.

 

“...you... look a lot like someone I know.”

 

Death smiled, softly, and it was comforting.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah.” You smiled back. “...do you get that a lot?”

 

He shook his head. “Not really. But you're a special circumstance.”

 

He poured out a cup of tea from a white porcelain tea pot.

 

“...I am?”

 

You were not sure that was a good thing.

 

Oh, yes.” Death placed the tea cup in front of you, “Milk? Sugar?”

 

“Thanks, no. What do you mean, special circumstance?”

 

Death smiled.

 

This time it wasn't so comforting.

 

“Your friend, the one I look like. He and I... are familiar, with each other. Let us just say he is advocating on your behalf.”

 

“...oh. People are allowed to do that?”

 

Death sighed. “...unfortunately, what is 'allowed' doesn't seem to matter much to our dear Peculiar Icarian.”

 

He poured himself a cup of tea and took a long, drawn-out sip.

 

He closed his eyes and hummed as he placed the teacup back down.

 

I have watched your kind through many iterations...” Death said, eventually. “I have witnessed Skaias won, and lost, more times than I care to enumerate. And yet this one...”

 

His voice trailed off. He fell completely still, his eyes firmly closed.

 

“...this one?” You prompted.

 

Death sighed, and shook his head.

 

I am sorry there is not more I can do.”

 

He opened his eyes to look at you. They were wide and white as spotlights against the dark contours of his skeletal face.

 

A price must be paid, to keep the world spinning. You are simply the most unfortunate yourself in the entire multiverse. You could take comfort in that.”

 

You felt the solidity of the chair beneath you like the harsh tug of an anchor against a storm. It was as if the room was picking up speed, building force, pushing you down with vicious gravity.

 

You were painfully aware of the sweat running down the back of your neck. You reached up to wipe it dry and your hand came back covered in red.

 

In the distance, you could hear the stars rumbling.

 

Death smiled.

 

You are going to live, Personal Servitor.”

 

Death's smile cracked open his face, jagged slices of white teeth glowing incandescent-hot, filling your vision. Everything went bright and pulsing. Even closing your eyes, you could feel the ache of it.

 

You are going to live to regret this.”

 


 

You woke up in the core of the collapsing Prospitian moon.

 

You knew this not because you had ever been there before, but because, in that moment, there were a great deal of things you just happened to know. Like that you were something out of impossibility, and that it felt great. And that you had just come back from the dead.

 

“It worked!” Acerbic Debator yelled, and you looked down at him and understood that he was a good man.

 

“I knew it,” Peculiar Icarian whispered breathlessly next to you, and you looked over at him and understood that he was barely a man at all.

 

“Great, you brought a man back from the dead!” Winsome Homemaker shouted up, “Now can we get out of here before you have to do that for all of us?”

 

PI reached over to help you up, but something in your face stopped him. Or maybe it was the fact that you had started to scream.

 

There was a keening in your bones. Then, a crack. It was a sickening snap that filled your body with a burning beyond the comprehension of pain. You didn't know what was happening, but you knew with animal certainty that it had to.

 

Needles sought the light from deep inside your flesh. You were aware of each one as they pierced you, as bones and muscles knit themselves into useful shapes. You arched your back and just kept going. You stretched into infinity, into points of color and sound, and the screaming you heard was your molecules as they broke apart and came back together.

 

In a hiss of smoke, you slipped back into your own corpse. It stood up.

 

This time it had wings.

 

AD's mouth was open wide. WH looked like she was about to vomit. PI was panting.

 

You rolled your shoulders, stretching to try and work out the stiffness in your arms. You felt a tension in your body vibrating deep inside. Like something was... different. Out of place. Gone out to lunch, never to return.

 

PI looked at you in a way you had never seen before. There was a brightness in his eyes, a fever, and his lips were slightly parted and wet. There was sweat on his skin you could see with such crystalline clarity that you could practically feel it on your body. Ringing his eyes was a pale purple grey exhaustion that, paradoxically, seemed only to invigorate him. The hue was familiar to you, but not in a way you could name. Something old and unknowable.

 

You shuddered, feathers rustling, and he looked away. The purple remained in the thick shadows beneath his eyes.

 

“Come on,” He said, his voice crackling.

 

He turned to go and the rest of you followed.

 

You took a look at the place where you'd lain, and found the golden stone bed just as alien as your friend. The silence of the space surrounding you spoke to something manifestly sacred, yet utterly profane. Something harsh and terrible, and exhilarating.

 

You felt an odd firmness and turned to see WH with her hand buried in the slick white glow of wing coming out of your shoulder. Or maybe not. They seemed a little low... You flexed a muscle experimentally, and realized you had a new set of bones in your back. You folded your newborn wings.

 

WH snapped her hand back to her body and looked away, lips pursed tightly.

 

It felt like forever to get your little group up to the surface. Your passage was an old, stone staircase, leading ever upward and occasionally rumbling ominously as your homeworld tore itself apart.

 

You still weren't sure, exactly, what had happened.

 

White King and White Queen had spoken calmly on the radio, resolute in their course, their words indiscernible, as the fire started raining down. Though the hole in the torn-off roof of the hall in your apartment building, you saw a streak of light go screaming across the sky towards Derse, and then a flash.

 

Silence pressed into the air for just a moment, and then you had returned to fighting off the Dersite monsters that had accosted you and your neighbors as you all tried to escape the ruined building.

 

You'd gotten separated, and then PI had found you, AD and HW scrambling behind him bearing a rather large gun and a bloody crowbar, respectively.

 

“He wouldn't stop.” HW said, her nose wrinkled like she smelled something off. “He just said he had to find you, and took off like a maniac. I said we should leave the both of you.”

 

“That's my wife for you,” AD replied, grinning wide. He had a cut running through his eyebrow. It had just barely missed his eye, and it was bleeding quite a bit.

 

And then... and then...

 

Your little group reached the surface, heat and light assaulting from all directions.

 

“We have to get to the ships.” AD said, covering his mouth. The smoke from your burning moon was putrid. Thick with the familiar sweet smell of decay, the sour punch of rot.

 

You knew there wasn't enough time. AD probably knew that too.

 

“No.”

 

You hardly recognized your own voice. From the looks on their faces, neither did your companions.

 

“No?” AD repeated.

 

“No,” you affirmed, nodding, shifting. Your joints ached. Your vision blurred. Your body swayed.

 

You ignored all of that and focused on the growing field of blue in front of you.

 

“Come on,” you whispered, Prospit cracking beneath your feet.

 

You opened your arms wide.

 

You held two halves of a married couple in each arm, PI clinging to your back between your shoulderblades (the old set, and the new) as you launched yourself from your homeworld, out into the shrinking atmosphere.

 

This isn't possible!” WH shrieked.

 

“No, it isn't.” You agreed, “Hold your breath.”

 


 

You crash landed as Propsit broke apart above your heads, pieces of the moon careening into the face of Skaia and smashing new landforms into being.

 

You helped your battered friends drag themselves into a cave set deep and low into a slope of rock.

 

Then you sat yourself down at the mouth and waited for the world to stop burning.

Chapter Text

 

I've been looking at the stars tonight,

and I think, “Oh, how I miss that bright sun!”

 


 

You wake up to shadows and unfamiliar shapes. There's light coming in from your window, soft and purple, and you can hear the muted buzz of voices outside. You stretch, touching your toes to the bedframe. Your feet hit metal and a jolt runs up your spine. Where...?

 

Then you remember.

 

You remember you're not in your bed on Prospit, the bed assigned to you along with your apartment, and your life as the Personal Servitor.

 

You're in Midnight City.

 

And your name is Problem Sleuth.

 

Your friends have new names too, and together you've built a new life in this city.

 

But sometimes, you dream about the days you spent in the desert.

 

You know that you're not the only one. But in a world of war veterans and desperate survivors, no one really talks about what they saw before they arrived at the oasis that became Midnight City.

 

No one wants to relive the memories. But that doesn't spare you from the dreams.

 


 

You are standing alone on a precipice when PI finds you, his long twiggy body wrapped in gritty grey rags that could only imagine a time when they had resembled clothing. You are surveying the land. At least, that's what you are pretending you're doing.

 

To be perfectly honest, you're thinking about tilting a little too far over the edge, just to see what happens when you meet the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. It might be fun.

 

PI doesn't say anything right away. You appreciate that.

 

“I think it goes on forever,” You finally say, looking out over the long plane ahead of you. From your vantage point you can see the curve of the planet.

 

PI comes to stand next to you. His dusty gaze sweeps over the doldrums of the desert. “...in a way,” he says, quietly, “...it does.”

 

The sun is dropping beneath the horizon, although you can't see it. The atmosphere is still thick as a pot of shit, immobile and oppressive. Each breath is sifted through heat and sand. You haven't decided if it's worse during the heat of the day, or at night, when the blanket of earth in the air turns frigid. Either way, the world is always dry, and you are all very, very tired.

 

You have no idea how long you've been walking.

 

You know it's been two days since the group last ate. It was a lucky find of a dead something. It had hard, leathery skin and you watched AD tear it apart with his sharp teeth to share with the rest of you. It smelled like spoiled jerky, and WH made the most ridiculous faces at the smell. PI looked as if he was about to faint.

 

They ate anyway.

 

You passed on the meal, because ever since you came back from the dead, you seem to be able to keep going with less than your companions need. Although, by this point, your stomach is still scraping at itself in a slow, wracking burn of desperate hunger.

 

“Hey.” AD says, coming up behind the pair of you. PI turns to look at him. You keep staring straight ahead, watching the sun's light fade. “Any sign of... anything?”

 

“No,” You admit, “...but I'm going to try again tonight.”

 

“We'll have the fire for you.” AD replies. “I'd tell you to take first watch, PI, but I don't think you sleep at all, do ya, beanpole?” There's no energy in his voice, but he smiles just a little.

 

PI smiles just a little back. “...n-not r-really.”

 

You let yourself sigh. The ache in your belly is familiar to you now. You can almost ignore it, and the screaming exhaustion in your body, and enjoy the company.

 

Almost.

 

You're trying to be grateful. You really are.

 

You're glad at least that you can fly. You scout ahead when possible, day and night, and you're grateful for the fact this lets you spend time alone. Sometimes, when you pull out of sight of the group, you'll dip down into a crevice and cry for a while.

 

If anyone notices, they don't say anything. They can probably chock your red, puffy eyes up to the dirty air you push through on your impossible wings.

 

PI doesn't know what you are.

 

You asked him, in a quiet moment, what it was exactly he had done. You tried not to be accusing. It was a useful thing to do. That's the truth, and that's what you tell him. You saved us. He seemed to perk up a little at that.

 

But he still didn't really know. All he knew was that the game of your world has rules, and for some reason, they were a little... loose, just then. Your session had no heroes, whatever that means, but it had the space where they would be. And somehow he just... fit you right in. Mostly.

 

You asked him about Death, and he went bright red.

 

“...w-we... we're... ah... f-familiar, with each other.” was all he would say. Even when you mentioned the two of them looked pretty similar.

 

You figure he'll tell you the truth on his own time, if you're patient.

 

You try and cultivate patience out on the dry winds you navigate every day, and every night, to seek a path for your companions. It's a risky business. Even after waiting out the initial duststorm after the destruction of the moons, the air is still thick with soot and nearly opaque at most times. It's impossible to see the sun or the stars, and whatever remains of Derse and Prospit. If anything remains.

 

Plenty of times, you sight a shifting something in the distance peeling away from the dusty horizon, the dead air around you vibrating with intent, and you scramble back to camp to get everyone hidden before the roaring storm crashes over you.

 

There have been other instances where the winds pick up so quickly you are buffeted to the ground, and as your heart races and the electricity builds, you imagine yourself in the palm of a mighty god, tossing you every which way, and you can almost hear something whispering softly in your ears, a price must be paid.

 

You never worry that you'll die.

 

It hasn't happened, yet.

 


 

You drag yourself out of bed and grumble over to the coffee machine. They're importing the beans now from another city, but you prefer the synthetic sludge that comes from the pressurized bricks produced by prototyping. There's just something comforting about that plastic taste.

 

While you wait for the coffee to brew, the phone rings. You consider the impassive dial on the face of the phone. You can't wait for them to figure out how to do digital displays again. For now, you're stuck with just answering and hoping it's not someone trying to collect on a debt. You have quite a few of those. It's a new concept, in your brave new world. As part of a people defined by militant efficiency, scarcity is familiar to you. Personal fiscal responsibility is... something you're still working on.

 

“...hello?”

 

Sleuth.” Ace Dick growls, “Where the hell are you?”

 

“...uh... bed.” You reply, glancing over at the dark circle of clock on the wall. It's late out. Or early, depending on who's asking. Ace Dick has no right to be so crabby with you. “Where the hell are you?”

 

You can hear him bite off several expletives. “The Midnight Cinema, you dingus. The Crew's back.”

 

Shit,” You whisper, as if perhaps they could hear you over the phone. Maybe they can. You've heard all sorts of stories.

 

“Yeah, no shit. Get your ass over here! Pickle was supposed to go and get you. I had to double back and find a phone, now I'm by myself. Hurry up!” He hangs up in a huff, and you're already ducking into your coat, grabbing up your keys. You spare your lethargic coffee machine a final glance. It's produced about a half-cup of coffee.

 

You give yourself just a second to think about it before you yank out the pitcher, replacing the glass carafe with a chipped bowl. You down the searing hot droplets of coffee and dash out the door. You pray to anyone listening that you won't be too late.

 


 

You're too late.

 

Pickle Inspector is curled over a pool of his own blood, his hands on his nose, his eyes wild. He's got his back to the wall and a man in a dark suit looming near him as you approach. You're still a few blocks from the Midnight Cinema, but you know what you're getting into.

 

“Hey!” You command, as much as you can. You smooth your face over in a grin and hope it's a confident one. “Pick on someone your own size.” You pull your keys from your pockets, flipping one over into a pistol.

 

The night stills in the alleyway. Pickle Inspector looks up at you, and his eyes get real wide. “S-Sleuth!” He calls, “G-get o-out, it's-”

 

The darkness turns to you, a sinuous three-quarter profile detaching from the night, and you're staring into the hooded white eyes of Diamonds Droog.

 

He's holding a pool cue in one hand and wiping blood from it with a handkerchief with the other. There's a cigarette hanging from his lips, casual as anything, like he doesn't even care that he's battered your friend. Like he doesn't care about anything.

 

His eyes flick down your body in an unhurried blink. When he meets your gaze again, he is clearly unimpressed. He tilts his cuestick up over his shoulder, delicately folding up the cloth and disappearing it into an inside pocket. He reaches up, takes a drag from his cigarette, and then holds it between his fingers.

 

“Friend of yours?” Droog asks, motioning ever so slightly to Pickle Inspector with his cigarette.

 

You do not think you have ever seen anyone so hardboiled in your entire life.

 

“Yeah,” You reply, trying for nonchalance. “And I'd appreciate it if you'd step off, huh?”

 

Diamonds Droog takes another drag from his cigarette. His lips flatten into an expression you absolutely cannot read. Then, he nods.

 

“Sle-!” Pickle Inspector tries, but Diamonds Droog turns on him, cue in hand. Before you can stop him from violence, you feel a pair of very large arms wrap around you. You are lifted into the air. You kick your leg back as hard as you can and hear a deep grunt.

 

“He's pretty strong, Droog,” says a rough voice with a strange accent, “You sure I can't just snap his neck?”

 

“I'm sure.” Droog replies, although you can't see him at this point. “Slick wanted him alive.”

 

Your vision is starting to fizzle out, but you grit your teeth and dig your nails into the flesh of the guy holding you. It has to be Hearts Boxcars.

 

He laughs. “Sorry, kid. I'm made of tougher stuff than that.” He drops you and you land on your feet, but you just keep falling. You scramble to get your feet beneath yourself.

 

You finally get a glimpse of the guy, and he's... he's big. He is just so big. His teeth are bright white in the darkness, and his giant fist is the last thing you see.

 


 

Every night, it's the same routine.

 

You try to keep flying out in a single direction, and then head back the same way.

 

You carve your way across the landscape using the stunted geographic features you can observe from above the nondescript sandbox of a world. Beneath you, sand shifts into rock, pulverized into a pebbled shore that, in time, gives way to yet more hills of sand.

 

Your wings ache, but it feels good. It's the only thing that feels like anything good in this entire hellscape.

 

Your hands are shaking at your sides.

 

You tighten them into fists, distracting yourself, and curl into a curve mid-air. Your weight begins to pull you downwards and you scream your rage at the night sky, scathing your throat and burning your lungs.

 

You plunge downwards. You are not afraid.

 

You twist in the air and fold your wings, hurtling downwards, tears blurring your eyes. You're still screaming. If you stop, you might as well die.

 

The ground draws closer.

 

You let your heart race, your shout snapping apart into gasping laughter. You open your wings and let the wall of air slap into them, arcing back upwards with a triumphant shriek. You feel as golden as the sun. In the cold night, you feel warm, bright, burning, supermassive, you are overcoming entropy, you are l i m i t l e s s if you stretched out your hands you could part the winds and bring back the sky, you are

 

Your vision clears, and you are above the dust.

 

Above you, for eons, stretches the stars.

 

Like an endless ocean, they shine on, glacial and untouchable, forever. Will your people ever return to their celestial destiny? Was the existence of Prospit already on borrowed time to begin with?

 

The game is already over.

 

The thought is a wave of cold, crystalline clarity over your scrambled thoughts. You take a breath – the first clean breath you've had in what feels like a lifetime – and then another.

 

Then, you let yourself slip back down to the dusty world that waits below.

 

When you make it past the clouds you are momentarily disoriented by what you see.

 

A patch of green, surrounding a constellation of blue.

 

Your eyes burn from the jewel tones of the color. You are mesmerized, drifting down to earth on the breeze. You are perhaps mere hundreds of yards from the ground before you realize there are fires down there, small points of light in the dark, and there are figures gathered around them.

 

You circle a few times before you realize the shapes are humanoid. And, more importantly, alive.

 


 

You come to in a haze of smoke, your cheek itching like crazy. You peel yourself up from... whatever you're laying on. It's a pool table. There's a little of your drool on it. You wipe your mouth on the back of your hand.

 

“Finally awake, huh?” Says a voice scratching like a record.

 

“...Spades Slick,” You grin, tilting up your head. You really hope it makes your jaw a little more rugged. “To what do I owe the... distinct, pleasure?”

 

He sneers, baring sharp white teeth. There's a knife in his hands. He toys with it between his fingertips, blade to skin, and laughs like dust settling on a buzzsaw.

 

“Pleasure's all mine, Sleuth. Caught you wanderin' around where you ain't supposed to be, and now look at you.” He shakes his head, “'s like you don't know any better.”

 

“Maybe I, uh,” You try and come up with something really hardboiled. “Maybe, I was just looking to borrow a cup of sugar, neighbor.

 

Spades Slick squints at you. “...are you making fun of me?”

 

You blink.

 

“...uh. No?”

 

He frowns, and you notice that beneath the scar under his eyepatch, there's a smaller one on his lip, drawing up the skin next to the corner of his mouth. His canine tooth flashes white and sharp when he frowns.

 

...that's the coolest fucking thing you've ever seen.

 

“You're a real smart ass, Sleuth.” Slick tells you, making his way over to the pool table. His eye is dead on you. “And I got not use for smart asses snooping around the place. I'll be generous this once, since we've been gone a while, and I figure... hey, people get lazy. They get comfortable.

 

He's standing right next to you. You can't look away.

 

“But don't you forget this, Sleuth...”

 

He reaches up, grabbing your shirt by the collar.

 

I don't.” He snarls.

 

Your heart skips a beat. Are you staring at his lips? You look back up at his eye.

 

Oh, shit.

 

He holds you there for a moment more, mostly on the pool table and the rest of your weight suspended in his grip. He must be much stronger than he looks.

 

Spades Slick holds you there for another moment. His eye darts over your face, his lips softening into a frown. “...you got that?” He mutters.

 

You try to remember what he was just saying to you. It's hard. ...difficult. You mean, it's difficult.

 

“Um,” 

 

Good.” He lets go of you and you scramble not to fall right off the table. “Boxcars. Show the gumshoe out, would ya?”

 

“H-wha-” Your breath goes out in a woosh as you are, once again, lifted against your will. He's got you by the scruff this time.

 

“Solid grip you got there,” you mutter, trying not to choke.

 

He growls a laugh at you and tosses you into the alley. Diamonds Droog is waiting with his cuestick.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Slick slides up from behind Boxcars, grinning down at you. “One more thing...”

 

He tosses a piece of paper down at you. It lands on your chest, and you flip over the black rectangle to reveal a playing card. The Ace of Spades.

 

“My calling card. If you see it somewhere, don't fuckin mess with it. Got it?” He sneers down at you, a dry coughing laugh sawing past his teeth.

 

“Oh, yeah?” You get up to your feet, squaring your shoulders. “Well... I got a card, too.”

 

Slick leans against the doorpost. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah!” You reach into your coat pocket and toss one at him. He catches it without even looking. He glances down.

 

He looks back up at you.

 

He looks back down.

 

“...huh.”

 

Boxcars leans over to look and laughs so hard he slams his head against the lintel of the door. It doesn't seem to bother him, since he just keeps laughing. You didn't think the business cards were bad. You got them on the cheap, but not that cheap.

 

“The fuck is this?” Slick holds up the card for you to see.

 

It is.... not your business card.

 

“Um,” You try and explain, “That's... not the right card.”

 

Slick waves it in front of your face. “I can fuckin see that. The hell is a 'Hunk Rump'?”

 

“It sounds...” Boxcars manages to say between laughs, “...pretty straight forward, boss!” He is losing it, over there. You're beyond a little disturbed.

 

“Not the words I would use.” Droog adds dryly right behind you, and you jump inside your own skin. You can't believe you forgot he was there. You can't believe you forgot Diamonds Fucking Droog and His Terrible Cuestick was Right Behind You.

 

...but wait, there's someone missing, something's not right,

 

“But what, like, is this a trading card or something?” Slick flips it over, looking at the back, then the front again. “Who prints something like this?” He looks over at you, “You some kinda pervert or what?”

 

“What? No! It was part of a case!” You defend yourself, “I forgot it was even in there!”

 

Slick shakes his head. “Yeah, right. Uh-huh.”

 

Boxcars roars with laughter, even louder this time. He claps Slick on the back. “I love this town!”

 

“Don't you just?” Slick replies, stepping down from the door, cracking his knuckles. “I have a feeling we're gonna get along just fine.”

 


 

 

“Well,” You say, taping up Pickle Inspector's ribs. “...that could have gone better.”

 

“You think?” Ace Dick asks from beneath the bag of frozen peas he's pressing onto his face.

 

“N-no sh-shit, Sleuth,” Pickle breathes.

 

You yank the bandages tighter.

 

Dick ignores Pickle's squeak. "Next time, let's actually grab some intel, instead of just getting our asses handed to us.”


“Well... there is one thing I noticed...” You admit. Then you reconsider. “...or, I guess, that I didn't notice.”

 

Dick leans back into his chair. “...yeah?”

 

“Where's Clubs Deuce?”

 

There's silence, for a moment.

 

Then, in the distance, you hear the rumble of a massive explosion.

Chapter Text

“Hey!” The security guard yells at you, “Get out! Who let you in here?”

 

You continue to poke through the wreckage as Ace Dick heads off the cop's approach. You don't have a great relationship with the city police, on account of the fact you can't fucking stand them. Pickle Inspector hovers over near you while his eyes stay trained on the officer. He's even worse around the law than you are which, all in all, make a little too much sense.

 

What doesn't make much sense is what you're seeing in the ruin that used to be the Mayoral Mansion.

 

“It must have been the Midnight Crew.” PI tells you, turning over a bit of ceiling tile. It crumbles against his shoe.

 

“I just don't get it,” You mutter aloud. You take another look at the brick arches that used to be the front entrance, the cinder blocks of the foundation. Some of the wood is still smoldering. “Why go to so much trouble, and then... not demand anything for it?”

 

“That's what we would like to know.” Interjects the cop, standing real close behind you. You are the picture of maturity and do not roll your eyes as you turn to meet him.

 

“Your identification and licenses check out,” he tells you, “but Problem Sleuth, you are on notice to remain 100 feet outside the Mayoral Residence at all times, unless summoned by the proper authority. You are in violation of the terms of your liscensure-”

 

“What violation? I don't see a Mayoral anything in this hole.” You motion around yourself, for effect.

 

The effect is that he tosses you out of the crime scene.

 

“Don't you worry about me,” You call to Dick and Inspector, “You guys keep looking around here! I'm clearly a liability to the people's smoking crater.” You adjust your trenchcoat with the most self-righteous pose you can manage. The security guard just snorts.

 

“Fuck off, Problem Sleuth.”

 

“Maybe I will!” You shout over your shoulder, already fucking off.

 

“Good!” Shouts back the cop.

 

You turn back around, arms wide open as you add, “Great!” while you walk backwards away from him.

 

Excellent!

 

You're about to up the ante with 'Stupendous! ' when Ace Dick interrupts, “ Will you both shut the fuck up? We're trying to work here!

 

The cop manages to look sheepish. Ace Dick's on your team, so you count it as a win. You turn back around and truly do fuck off this time. You've got an idea of where you'll find a lead, and it isn't in a pile of rocks.

 


 

You're almost through The Maltese Falcon when he joins you. You know it's him because he falls into the seat likes he own the place (he does), and stretches out his legs to rest his shoes on your shoulder.

 

“Hey, Sleuth,” Spades Slick asks from the row behind you, “What're'ya doing in my Cinema?”

 

“Catching a movie.” You reply, easy. “I love this one.”

 

He drops his feet and now he's leaning closer to speak right behind your ear. His arm is right on the back of your seat, his jacket touching your neck.

 

He breathes out his cigarette and the smoke curls past your cheek. You can immediately tell it's the good shit. The kind of thing Ace Dick might've had in his old life, the kind of thing you only ever dreamed of.

 

“Everyone loves this movie.” He says.

 

You nod. Maybe you're trying to disguise a gulp. Maybe you're just that cool.

 

“...'cause it's that good.”

 

Slick leans back into his seat. “I'll give y'that. But why are you here, when your buddies are down at the mayor's place?”

 

“You mean the people's smoking crater?”

 

He wasn't around to hear it the first time you used it today, and you're pretty proud of it. It's a good quip. Makes you feel all... hardboiled.

 

His laugh settles like a cough in his throat.

 

You watch Humphrey Bogart confront Mary Astor. You hear Spades Slick draw another drag from his cigarette.

 

You are pretending to pay attention to one of these things more than the other.

 

“Y'think we had something to do with it.” He says. It isn't a question.

 

“Not sure.” You reply. Mary Astor's lips tremble apart as Humphrey Bogart lays his accusations out before her. “You come back to town after being gone for so long, and it just so happens to be the night City Hall gets cratered? And then no one jumps up to take the credit for it? Seems... too easy.”

 

You almost feel Spades Slick grinning behind your head, with all those pointy teeth of his.

 

On screen, Humphrey Bogart is tracing his broad hand down Mary Astor's slender throat. Her eyes go wide as he tells her...

 

I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.” Slick says, voice dropped low.

 

You feel a dire murmur deep in your brain vibrating at the same frequency. You have no idea what you're doing here. This was a terrible, terrible idea. The worst.

 

“You know where I found these movies?” He asks.

 

He's closer now. In your peripheral you can see the tip of his nose. The white of his cigarette. The dark purple grey of his hand.

 

“...someone had stashed 'em in a vault. We thought maybe it was treasure or something.”

 

You can't help but laugh, just a little. “...guess you were right.”

 

His hat dips. He's nodding. “Didn't think so then, but...” He motions towards the screen, smoke trailing after the cigarette between his fingers, “...now everybody wants a piece. ...everybody's lookin' for bits of whatever this is.”

 

You watch together in silence as Humphrey Bogart tells Mary Astor about what a man's got to do.

 

Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be.” You say as Humphrey Bogart says it, and maybe Spades Slick says it too.

 

He waits until the movie's almost done before he stands. His cigarette has been smoked down to nothing.

 

“...maybe you're not as dumb as you look, Sleuth.” He remarks.

 

You're not sure it's a compliment. It sounds like it's supposed to be one.

 

“...uh... thanks?”

 

“C'mon.” He taps your shoulder once, twice, then moves away. “I'll humor you.”

 

You wait a moment.

 

You give the screen a final glance and catch the shadows of the elevator grate falling across Mary Astor's face, her eyes glinting in the half-light as the police take her away. The doors close, and Humphrey Bogart walks past, cold statue in his hands. He does not look back.

 

Spades Slick leads you out of the theater and up to the manager's office. It immediately becomes clear that he is not only the manager, but that this is barely an office. It's more of... well, it's more like a lounge.

 

“Take a seat, Sleuth.” Slick tells you, motioning to a plush chair in the corner. He goes to a cabinet near his desk. All the furniture matches: solid pieces carved of the same dark wood. It might even be real wood.

 

He joins you a moment later. He has two glasses of golden alcoholic something in his hands. He presses one into yours.

 

You make to decline, but his eye is on you, bright and unwavering. “I'll be insulted if you refuse.” He tells you outright. Then he smiles, conspiracy in the upward tilt of his smile. “Anyway... 'makes it easier to deal with the enemy.'

 

Your insides turn to slush, an uneasy giddy feeling rushing up to your face. Ohhhh jeeze. He's quoting Bogart at you in his fancy gangster movie lounge as you pump him for information. You might be blushing. You hope you're not.

 

You raise your courage and your glass in a quick salute. Then, you give it your best shot.

 

The first thing you taste is anise.

 

After that, you get a nice, subtle hint of harsh burning sensation searing down your throat.

 

It's horrible.

 

But in a really nice way.

 

Spades Slick slips down into the seat across from you. “Ask me anything.”

 

You start with the classic, “Where were you last night?”

 

“Here.” He replies, easily.

 

“What were you doing?”

 

He smiles, leaning back. You can tell this is just how he sits. It's not really sitting, more like... slumping. Lounging. He lounges on things.

 

“I'll tell you. But you gotta answer one first.”

 

You frown. “I didn't agree to that.”

 

He braces his elbow on his knee, craning forward like he's sharing a secret. “That's the way it is. You tell me what I want, I tell you what you want.” His eye glints in the half-light. “...it's just good business.”

 

He smirks as you cross your arms, incline your head, and put on your best look of indifference. “...fine. What do you want to know?”

 

Spades Slick opens his mouth. He licks his lips.

 

“...what did you do during the war?”

 

You feel your eyes tighten, but you push your face into a winning smile. “I was a data clerk.”

 

“...what?” He squints at you, although it might very well be a wink. You can't really tell.

 

“My turn,” You reply, pushing on. You're tempted to return the favor and ask him about his past, but that's not why you're here. You won't be distracted. “What did you do last night?”

 

He snorts, eye glancing away from you. “Spent most of the night at the theater doing boring shit.” He smiles at his glass and takes a drink before continuing. “Throwing you out was the most interesting part.”

 

“I'm flattered.” You say, and you actually kind of are.

 

Seemingly out of nowhere, Slick's next question is, “You ever see combat, during the war?”

 

You look at him, really look at him, and can't help but notice how tense his shoulders are. He is coiled with a kind of sharp readiness that precipitates a fight, not... whatever it is you're supposed to be doing. An interrogation? That seems more appropriate. He's following a weird line of questions, and you're not sure why, but you're not afraid. Most of your life was pretty mundane, up until the end of the war.

 

You shake your head.

 

“No. I never fought on Skaia. Closest I got was when the moons fell, I fought some... weird, monsters.” You shudder at the memory of their twisted bodies, their horrible faces.

 

He frowns, and with the way his scars lay, you can see the grit of his teeth at the corner of his mouth. Whatever he's looking for in you, he clearly hasn't heard it. You decide to press your luck anyway.

 

“Where was Clubs Deuce last night?”

 

“Here.” He replies.

 

Spades Slick's face is shadowed in the low light of the room, lit only by a lamp crowned by a warm, red shade. You wait for his next question in silence.

 

Something crosses his face – a pinched, sour look – and he shakes his head.

 

Screw this,” He snarls, slamming down his glass. You put yours down in a hurry. He's standing up now and so are you. “I saw you, back in the desert. I thought I'd fucking lost it, but no, years later, here you fuckin are. But without the....”

 

He motions to your body. Mostly where a pair of wings would be.

 

“Oh,” You whisper.

 

Yeah.” He growls, “So what I wanna know is – where the fuck is the ring?”

 


 

PI hadn't understood. You did your best to explain it –Pickles, they were helpful, but I can't live my life with all these extra... bits!– but he'd just ogled you with those big black eyes, like you were some special kind of moron for wanting to blend in with the rest of society.

 

In the end, he had still helped you. You knew without him saying so that it had pained him. He tried so hard not to show it, but he never was a very good liar. His lips gave him away. Trembling, even when he tried to press them out into a flat line.

 

You were used to lying, especially with your mouth. You smiled, cracked jokes, and he sat behind you and smoothed his hands over the dirty white of your wings as he considered how to unmake them. You felt the light drip of water on your feathers and pretended you didn't notice he was crying.

 


 

“...the what now?”

 

The! RING!” He shouts. He would be positively frightening if you had the faintest idea what he was talking about. “Your Queen's ring! I know you had one! How else could you have been flying around like that?”

 

You know you're staring at him like a moron, but you can't help it. He's completely thrown you out of whack. He looks like he's about to explode.

 

“...I'm gonna be completely honest with you,” You reply, “I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.”

 

There is murder in his eye. “Are you calling me a liar?

 

A nervous tension pulls at your lips. You shake your head, quickly, trying to cover for your itchy smile. You can't help it. This is nuts. “N-no. That's not... Look.” You draw in a deep breath. You're trying to steady yourself. You're trying to tell him – what, the truth? You don't even know what that is.

 

Spades Slick's eyebrows are up near his hairline. His lips are parted in disbelief.

 

“Are you,” He is shaking. “-making fun of me?”

 

Oh, shit.

 

Spades Slick pushes forward, knife falling into his hand like a magician summoning a bouquet of flowers. You stumble backwards into your chair, flailing, and kick at him. He takes it in the hip but doesn't stop.

 

He straight up stabs you.

 

“You stabbed me!” You accuse.

 

His eye is sharp as flint, his fingers curved around the handle. He licks his lips. He pulls the blade from your body, curved over you as you slump in his chair.

 

Both of you are staring down at your shirt. He's ruined it. It was your nicest shirt. Since you weren't planning to get stabbed today, you didn't exactly dress for the occasion, but apparently that was just too much to ask for. There's a big hole in it, right between your ribs.

 

Beneath the hole in your shirt, you can feel your skin writhing back together.

 

“...what... the shit...” Slick breathes, reaching down to touch.

 

You swat his hand away. “That was so rude. That was the rudest thing anyone has ever done to me.”

 

He glances up at your eyes, which you are doing your best to narrow in righteous fury. “You're not...” He starts to say. He stops. He waits. You let him.

 

He tries again, “I've seen Prospitian Bishops and Knights, and you ain't any of those.” He studies your face for a solid moment, frown deepening, before continuing with, “...you ain't an Agent, either. What the hell are you?”

 

You're not sure how to answer, so you go with what feels right.

 

“I'm a detective.”

 

He snorts.

 

Slick leans back, shoving his hands in his pockets. He's still standing right in front of you – you would have to shove him over to get out – but he's not looming anymore. Just... looking at you.

 

“You're gonna be a pain in the ass to kill, that's what you are.” He finally says.

 

Your lips twitch up into a smile. “...probably.”

 

He sighs.

 

“...just my fuckin luck.” He mutters, scowling right at you.

 

You smile a little brighter.

 


 

The next time you see Spades Slick is a few days later. You're chasing down a lead and run right into the business end of his knife.

 

That is not a metaphor.

 

Once again, he straight up stabs you.

 

“We gotta stop meeting like this,” you gasp. You're breathless from running after the Alacritous Smuggler, who might know something about some explosives you're looking for.

 

And also from having just been stabbed.

 

Again.

 

“How was I supposed to know it was you?” He growls.

 

He's a little flushed, maybe from his own chase. You saw someone run past you, some wild-eyed Dersite, and maybe you're buying them a little time with this thing you're doing, which is definitely not flirting in any way.

 

You laugh, “Why are you going around corners knife first?”

 

“You don't?” He asks, sincerely incredulous.

 

You withdraw the knife from yourself – he was startled enough to let go this time – and wipe it off on his jacket. He watches you with unmasked surprise, his teeth not so much bared as laid bare. You can see his throat bob as he swallows.

 

Your blood is bright red on his jacket, but there isn't much of it. You pocket the knife.

 

“This is mine now.” You tell him, and then add, “It's only fair.”

 

His eye goes wide, but you don't wait for his reply. You rush past him. You've got a smuggler to find.

 


 

When you see Spades Slick for the third time in as many weeks, you're beginning to suspect the universe has a predictable sense of humor.

 

“This is just ridiculous.” You mutter, splayed out beneath him.

 

“...shaddup,” Spades Slick hisses as he scrambles to get away from you.

 

“Let me guess – you didn't know it was me.”

 

His eye searches through the dark and never seems to find you. “How could I? It's fucking pitch black in here. I can't see shit. What are you even doing here?” He asks, backing against the wall.

 

“Bad lead. Thought I was in the right place to gather intel but, uh... they must've known I was coming.”

 

“...seems t'happen to you a lot, huh Sleuth?” His mouth twitches into a smirk.

 

You shrug. ...not that he can see you do it. Speaking of... “What are you doing here?”

 

He snorts. “...waiting.”

 

You give him a few moments before realizing that's the end of that thought. In that time, he comes up with another. A smile flashes across his face. His eye crinkles up, gleaming even in the dark, and you recognize a hint of... mischief. You draw in a short little breath.

 

“...wanna help me with something?”

 

You swallow.

 

“...why do I get the feeling you're about to ask me to do something I won't like?”

 

“It'll be fun,” He insists, looking much more at ease. “Run a little con with me. I'll owe you one.”

 

You don't like the look on his face. It makes your insides twist in a peculiar sort of way.

 

“You'll owe me one,” you repeat. You're stalling in hopes of catching your brain up to your weird feelings. Looking for the trap.

 

“Yeah. A real solid.” Slick replies. The look has not faded from his face.

 

You sigh.

 

“...what did you have in mind?”

 


 

And that's how, the fourth time Spades Slick stabs you, it's consensual.

 


 

“Well, that's half our problem solved. We were gonna shoot him out back, but thanks for saving us the bullets, Slick.” The leader of the Q-Street Arsonists says over your body.

 

You hear Spades Slick stand. When he speaks, it is with a cold clarity you have never heard from him before.

 

“I'm giving you this one chance. Stay the fuck out of my territory, quit messing with my boys, and I'll let you keep the shit you have.”

 

“Oh, Slick,” The arsonist replies, stepping over you. A few of his guys follow him. You do your best impression of a corpse and hope no one kicks too hard. “It's so cute how you think you're scary.”

 

You flinch as the air breaks with the sound of Spades Slick's gravelly laughter.

 

“You stupid motherfucker.” He mocks, “...it's so funny that you think I'm not.

 

That's your cue. You sweep you leg out and knock over one of the arsonists, grabbing another's ankle and pulling with all your strength as Slick leaps at their leader. There are a few screams. Then, you're upright, and you and Slick are back to back. He's panting, grinning, tense and coiled to fight.

 

He catches your eye with a smirk before sliding the knife out of your back.

 

“Thanks for holding onto this for me, Sleuth.”

 

Then the knife is flashing out again, stabbing someone else. They take it a little less willingly than you had before. They also don't quite get up like you did.

 

“What- the fuck-” Someone says, and you punch them right in the throat. Spades Slick is laughing. The sound goes right to your fucking toes. Your hands are throbbing.

 

You are startled to realize that you haven't felt this way in a long time – and that what you're feeling, for the first time in forever, is alive.

 


 

“Y'know-” Slick says later, the cut above his eye bleeding sluggishly through his eyebrow, “-you were pretty good in there, for a gumshoe. You sure you didn't fight in the war?”

 

You take a deep drag of his cigarette. “I'm sure.” You pass the cigarette back to him as the two of you watch the Q-Street Matchworks burn.

 

“Guess you're just a natural.” He mutters, smoke filing past his jagged teeth.

 

“Quick study.” You amend.

 

“Ughh...” Groans one of the incapacitated mobsters you're sitting on.

 

You sit together, lit by the fire, until Ace Dick and Pickle Inspector appear at the end of the street. Spades Slick sights them first. He grimaces, and as you turn to look, he puts out his cigarette on the guy beneath you.

 

Pickle Inspector looks at the pair of you like he's seen a ghost. Ace Dick just frowns, in his very Ace Dick sort of way.

 

“...Spades,” He says, in lieu of a greeting. Pickle Inspector tips his hat with a trembling hand.

 

“Heya, Sleuthies.” Spades Slick replies, stretching up. He motions to the bound Q-Street Arsonists. “...consider this an apology for, uh...” A smile tugs on his lips as he waves his hand at Pickle Inspector.

 

Ace Dick gives you a look. You ignore it in favor of frowning at Slick.

 

“Don't forget, you still owe me one.”

 

His shoulders tense, but his smile remains. “...we'll settle up later, Sleuth. See ya around,” and then he's turned, on his way out. He waves backwards once before ducking into an alley.

 

“...so,” Ace Dick says once Slick's out of sight. There's mutiny in his voice.

 

“Help me with these guys.” You interrupt before he can get going. “...we'll talk later.”

 

Ace Dick snorts. “Oh, we'll talk alright.”

 

“Did you find it?” Pickle Inspector asks, ignoring the emerging fight to focus on the actual job.

 

“Y-yeah, sorry, yeah.” You dig into your coat and pull out the ledger you snatched from the warehouse, handing it to him. He leafs through it as you and Ace Dick handcuff up the mobsters, sitting them against a wall to wait for the police. You can hear the sirens cranking through the streets, on their way to the desolate scrap of industrial zoning where the matchworks has already begun to burn itself out.

 


 

Detailed notes on the mayor's movements. Coded telegraph stubs. Payment records – including routing numbers. It's damning evidence, putting the Q-Street Arsonists in the middle of an extensive web of political machinations.

 

Some might say your hard work has saved not only your city, but the burgeoning new form of government that your people are just beginning to come to appreciate: democracy.

 

Truly, a worthy cause, and the three of you are deserving of the highest praise and adulation.

 


 

“So, what'd they give ya?”

 

You don't even bother asking Spades Slick why he's waiting in the shadows outside the police department's headquarters, leaned against the wall like he's not the most obvious crimelord to ever walk the city streets.

 

You hand it to him.

 

He stares down at the white porcelain mug, emblazoned with these words:

 

I ♥ MIDNIGHT CITY

 

“...” Spades Slick looks up at you. “...you're fuckin with me.”

 

“The Chief of Police also said, 'Good Job, Son.' ...of course, then he said I'm still banned from going near the former site of the Mayoral mansion.” You shrug, grinning wide. “Mixed messages.”

 

Slick points the mug at you. “No, you're fuckin with me.”

 

“Ha! I wish. That'd be funny.” You let the air settle in your chest, drawing another breath. There's still smoke clinging to Slick's clothes from the warehouse fire. He hasn't changed, although he's clearly washed his face. You ducked in a bathroom earlier to give a quick rinse, but you'd very much like a shower.

 

“Anyway, give it. I have had a long-ass day, and I'm going home.” You hold out your hand.

 

Slick frowns, shaking his head. “...oh, fuck no. No. That ain't right.”

 

“What? I'm tired.

 

“Not that, you moron. This is fuckin ridiculous." He's all snarls now. You've seen him angry before, certainly, and this isn't that different. ...except for the part where instead of being mad at you, he's mad for you.

 

He's positively simmering with righteous indignation.

 

“Hey.” You say, softly. You say it again when he doesn't answer. “Hey. I'm calling in my favor.”

 

He squints his eye at you, but not quite at you. More like just above your head. He's quiet for a pause that's long enough to remind you that this is stupid, what you are doing is incredibly stupid, Spades Slick is a criminal and not just any criminal, oh no, he's the most criminal.

 

"Oh, right! Told you I owed you one," He remembers, and coughs a little laugh. His smile is so charming. You're so charmed. Look at that rascal. "Whaddya want?"

 

Fuck it. Why not?

 

"I need a shower. After that... drinks?"

 

He tilts his head, something like a smirk dragging up his mouth. "...drinks, huh?"

 

"Yeah. Make up for this," You take the mug from his hand, and he lets you, "and for the last time we 'got drinks.'"

 

You see Slick's tongue poke the inside of his mouth as he glances away. He raises his eyebrows and shakes his head, looking back at you. There's something warm there, in the way he considers you. "Drinks. ...yeah, why not?"

 

Drinks. Why not?  There's nothing inherently wrong with drinking with the (sort of) enemy. It's even kind of honorable, in a way. Certainly hardboiled. Yes. Drinks!

 

“Well, c'mon. Let's go.” Spades Slick turns with a hunch of his shoulders, starting off in a direction you recognize as being towards his movie theater. You stare after him like a dumb idiot.

 

"My place is, ah-"

 

Your dust-covered sense of self-preservation chooses this exact moment to yawn at you. Should you really tell him where you live?

 

"-not that way," You recover, almost choking on your words.

 

Spades Slick looks over his shoulder at you. "You can get cleaned up at my place. It'll save time."

 

He wants you to get naked at his place so he can take you out. As payback. If that's not a veiled threat, you're not sure what else it could be. 

 

This is it, Problem Sleuth. This is how you die. Murdered by hot mobster with a knife in the bathroom.

 

Well, okay then.

 

You catch up with him.