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Hardison knows that a lot of people prefer hobbies which aren't related to their actual jobs, but, seriously. Why mess up a good thing.

Aside from playing MMORPGS with his guild – Eliot still likes to call them 'internet friends', and Hardison is pretty sure that Parker is under the impression these people only exist on the internet – Hardison spends a lot of time inventing new gaming mods to make up for the sad, sad lack of originality and options in video games. He doesn't blame the creators – much – because of course they have production costs and deadlines and whatever. But Eliot isn't the only one who could have a second career choice, is all he's saying.

“So this puts the voices on a continuum,” Hardison is explaining, “by sort of twisting your different options together... can't put in whole separate character-voices without either getting a voice actor or doing some major work with different soundbites, but - “

“The hell are you doing,” Eliot says behind him.

Hardison looks up, then double-takes. “What are you wearing?!” He scrambles for his phone.

“You take a picture and I'm breaking your hands,” Eliot promises flatly.

“But,” Hardison protests. “But... Man, did you lose a bet?”

It isn't like Hardison hasn't thought of Eliot in a kiss the cook apron before, okay. He's a weak, weak man with a ten-year old's sense of humor. Hardison believes in being aware of his flaws. Even so, he'd never had the gall to imagine a pink apron, much less when paired with the rainbow-colored bandanna Eliot has decided to sport today.

These flattering accouterments do nothing to deter his glower, of course, because nothing ever touches Eliot's bitch-face. “We're outta bread downstairs,” Eliot says. “Bread, Hardison. Which is real funny, because yesterday Amy found half a dumpster of toast out back with these weird faces burnt onto 'em...”

“You can't ask me not to test the laser.”

“Hardison!”

“One order for bread! ASAP!” Hardison picks up his phone when Eliot raises a knife threateningly. Where'd he get that? It looks like a cooking knife, but Hardison thinks Eliot keeps hidden weapons around the apartment, so who knows.

Eliot vanishes a minute later, and Hardison sighs.

He checks his follower count. It's his first day streaming, but to his surprise he has a few hundred followers already. Huh. People must really like the look of these mods, and he's barely begun.

Hardison muses with the option of enabling the text-chat, but that feels like too much work for today; besides, he doesn't need any encouragement to chatter. “Sorry about the interruption,” he says breezily. “Now, I saw this post going around about getting a dragon-skin for the Inquisitor, and...”


ii.

Ned would like to say that he's a fun person with a vivid social life, dozens of friends, and the time and inclination to party whenever he wants.

None of these things are true.

The movies lie about this shit, he thinks gloomily as the familiar knock of his friend, Kyle, rattles the thin dormitory door. Still just the two of them, as always. Which isn't so bad – Kyle is great, and they like the same shit, which is good. Kyle just kinda expected he'd have that movie-experience, nerd-to-cool-guy transformation by this time in his life. Maybe he should just embrace the geekery.

This thought firms when Kyle proposes they watch the new live-stream of some guy he's partied with online. AgeOfTheGeek55. When you're watching other people play video games instead, it's probably just better to accept your life and have fun.

So he shakes off his maudlin thoughts – because, hey, this guy actually seems to know what he's doing, and at least he's funny – when Kyle suddenly gasps. It's pretty clear why.

The live-stream shows two split screens on Kyle's laptop; one side has the game itself, and the other screen shows a side-view of the host's room, a perspective that shows the player and his couch, a glimpse of a hallway, and the back of the room. Behind AgeOfTheGeek55 a dark shape falls slowly into view of the window. A blonde woman – clad only in a dark catsuit, like this is a batman movie or something – peers into the room with just one casual hand resting against the rope supporting her whole body. She makes weird faces for a moment, twisting and tilting her head toward the oblivious host on the couch, and then smushes her face against the window to watch him with wide eyes.

AgeOfTheGeek55 – who introduced himself as Hardison almost as an afterthought – doesn't seem to notice. He keeps chattering on about another mod. Something to do with increasing the number of high-level materials people can find, which is cool; Ned doesn't like cheating on games, but he does like keeping his characters clad in ridiculous yellow plaidweave armor.

He enjoys the simple things, okay.

But it's really hard to learn about the mod when he's watching this burglar blond chick trace the words WATCHING YOU into the window.

“...Should we call the cops, or something,” asks Kyle after a minute of this. “I mean. People sometimes report crimes they see online, right?”

“Is this a crime?” asks Ned, equally confused.

A guy steps behind Hardison holding a knife.

“That's definitely a crime,” Kyle decides.

The guy smacks Hardison in the head, causing their host to interrupt his spiel with a yelp. “Man! I told you I'm streaming today!”

“I still don't know what that means,” the man snarls. “Quit drinking so much damn soda. I made dinner.”

“How are those things related...?”

“'Cause I don't know how you taste anything through all that freaking sugar.”

Hardison whines a protest, but the man just rolls his eyes and walks away.

He comes back a minute later with an artfully arrange plate of what looks like lemon-cured fish, mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, and heavy soup. Hardison thanks the guy distractedly but doesn't seem to find this strange. He eats a mushroom almost absently, munching bites in-between telling his viewers how he's given the dracolisk-mounts wings 'for the sheer badass of it'.

Behind Hardison the angry dude brings the second tray to the window, opens it, and serves dinner to the stalker outside.

She eats her fish sitting in mid-air.


 

It's not unusual for streams to run late into the night. Ned and Kyle, like a lot of people, have continued to watch the stream partially for a view of Hardison's in-game mods, and mostly to catch a glimpse of the fucking crazy people in his house.

They also entertain themselves joining in the chat-conspiracies, which Hardison, unfortunately, doesn't seem to read.

I wish the viewer screen for this guy could get bigger, one person says. I'm honestly watching him more than the game. It seems to be a common sentiment.

The girl disappeared for about four minutes a few hours back, only to reappear suddenly. It actually took the chat nearly half an hour to spot her, because only the gleam of her eyes and a few wisps of hair are visible through the vent behind Hardison.

I've never seen someone get murdered, says iluvliliana, helpfully.

But neither Hardison nor the girl seem interested in doing anything else of note, and the long-haired guy departed hours ago, saying he was “calling it a night”, and, “damn it, go to sleep before you ruin your damn eyes.”

Some of the viewers are still talking about the fact that he departed into another room, apparently in the same building.

“So I think I'm honestly just going to avoid this god-awful swamp,” Hardison is saying, and the window behind him silently swings open.


 

prettybirdy6: what what what

deathofnugs: Maybe the girl has a twin?

QueenCassandra: Maybe this dude is about to DIE, jfc

TheIronDragon: do they have knives??

prettybirdy6: the girl!! Where'd she go?

 

Three different men carefully crawl through the window. They do, indeed, have long knives that barely glint in the darkness. They step forward slowly, carefully, one inch at a time. The subtle approach seems to work: Hardison keeps clacking at the controller, whole body illuminated in a green-blue shine from the lights of his many game screens.

One of the men raises a knife.

Hardison keeps tapping buttons as the black-clad stranger suddenly collapses. The other two intruders turn around, the left one falls to a sweeping kick and a punch to the solar plexus. The long-haired dude from before effortlessly grabs the third invader around the neck, squeezing until desperate choking sounds are heard.

Hardison finally turns around. “and this whole Tevinter thing about blood – Eliot! What the hell!”

“Don't yell at me,” 'Eliot' snarls. The man in his choke-hold slowly stops struggling, reduced to weak arm-spasms. “We got any zip-ties?”

“Why the hell would I have zip-ties!”

“Like we don't ever deal with bodies,” Eliot scoffs. He throws his unconscious prisoner to the ground. “Watch 'em for a minute, I'll be right back.”

And he is, bearing a collection of twine that anyone else might use to pin back the legs of a chicken or turkey. He starts to lift away the first unconscious intruder.

“Today's supposed to for relaxing,” Hardison mutters to himself. He grabs another body and drags it with a bit more difficulty than Eliot. It takes a minute, but on the way back he says, “Er, sorry, guys – we'll pick this up tomorrow,” and the camera shuts off.

And, unbeknownst to Hardison, he would gain approximately 271,000 followers before he logged on again.

Clearly people really, really liked his mods.


 

Ned has decided to thoroughly embrace geekdom; at least he knows what he likes. Also, most people on campus are blissfully unaware of AgeOfTheGeek55's podcast, which just goes to show that he is the one having more fun.

Kyle and Ned pass the pizza box between them while Hardison, speaking through the cracked screen of Ned's laptop, rambles on about mage-discrimination in the fictional world of Thedas.

He seems completely ignorant of the lithe blonde woman who occasionally scuttles across the ceiling behind him, like a large and very quiet spider.

About an hour into the stream, Eliot – wearing all-black with a dark bandanna wrapped loosely around his neck – walks backward on-screen dragging a long black bag through the room. Hardison glances over.

“The dead pigs,” Eliot mutters. “I'm decomposing them in your room. We're going to get investigated by Health and Safety if anyone smells this, you realize that?”

“Ugh.” But Hardison doesn't protest. “You got the food dye and that weird mushroom?”

“I know how to do my job,” Eliot complains. Hardison shrugs and turns back to his game as Eliot disappears through the left.

A minute later the blonde woman runs after him carrying a potted plant.


 

peskytroll341: Is this performance art?

Rivers666: No one knows.

 

Against the far wall the mystery-blonde stands on a single hand, eyes closed - which isn't the weird thing. One leg, bent and twisted awkwardly so that the foot hovers barely above her head, manages to hold a bowl of cereal pinned between her knee and the wall. The other foot clenches a spoon and casually transports cereal to her open mouth.

A small, colorful box held in her free hand proclaims, Rocket-Os!

 

peskytroll341: I just did a google search and i don't think that cereal exists.

darlingdear: So creepy roommate knows the stalker????

forsworn13: Why isn't she just eating the cereal with her hand tho

Rivers666: your new arent you

 

Eliot walks by the woman and plucks up her bowl and spoon without saying a word. She scowls at his back, lips moving in a discontented mutter, and a moment later he returns and holds out a plate layered with two golden omelettes and half a dozen strips of bacon. The woman glares at him, crossing her legs in a twisty spiral that somehow gives the impression of a pout. The man glares back. They remain in this staring contest for 6 minutes, 32 seconds while Hardison complains bitterly about the lack of good throne-scenes in Skyhold.

Finally the woman snatches away a single piece of bacon, eating it slowly. This seems to satisfy Eliot, who drops his plate to the ground and walks away.

Parker suddenly raises her head. Twisting around silently to flip herself into a stand, she lifts up the gate to the vent and eels inside just before Hardison looks over his shoulder.

Hardison peers at the solitary plate by the wall, seemingly baffled. “Huh.”

 


 

“Holy shit,” Kyle yelps.

“Is that...” Ned trails off.

Their host has abandoned the screen for a moment, claiming he needs to fetch his new phone 'for bragging purposes, ya'll'. In his absence the blonde girl reappears, and her face hovers in front of the camera now, stony and vaguely threatening.

“Internet people,” she whispers. “I am watching you. Hardison says you're growing. He says I shouldn't threaten you. But I know how this works. I've seen movies.” She looks at the camera significantly. “I usually encourage rebellion, but if you try to break free and kill Hardison to win your humanity, I will destroy you.”

Footsteps are clearly audible over the connection. Parker glances behind her, then pastes a tiny, creepy smile on her face before ducking away.

Hardison sits down in his chair and pops open an orange soda.

“Right,” he says. “Where were we?”


 

Eliot starts out shouting in Japanese, then places a new call and switches to Spanish. A few minutes of that, and then he starts snarling out questions in a language that some viewers recognize as Farsi.

“You gotta do this here?” Hardison complains.

“I listen to your shit, don't I? Yeah, I am talking to you,” Eliot snarls, and then he's speaking in Russian.

Hardison pauses the game, rolling his eyes. “We're about to get a cut-scene,” he informs the viewers, “So we'll wait a moment so it can actually be heard...”

Eliot shouts something into the phone, then says in English, “I will cut off your ears and jam them down your throat if you try that thing from Brazil - “

“Hey, you know. I don't think I've ever turned the chat on,” Hardison muses, and his viewers go nuts.

 

prettybirdy6: This is it guys!! WE CAN ASK ABOUT THE SCARY CHEF AND THE SPY

Rivers666: im a bit more interested in the bodybags honestly??

 

Hardison leans over to fiddle with the controller, then looks back up to his multiple tv screens, which most of his viewers envy fiercely.

“Okay,” says Hardison brightly. “Any... questions...”

Hardison stares wide-eyed as the chat scrolls, and scrolls, and scrolls, propelled by hundreds of comments being entered all at the same time. “Aw, no,” Hardison says.

Eliot wanders over behind him. “What?”

“I set the video feed to the wrong camera; they weren't supposed to be able to see the rest of the room. And I'm pretty sure the internet is entertained by you and Parker more than my game,” says Hardison, aggrieved. “...When did you two practice yoga back there? They're attaching pictures.”

“Pic... Wait. You sayin' people can see us through that screen?”

“I explained that part before, man. Live-stream.”

“Dammit, Hardison! You know how many countries have bounties on my head?”

“Uh, two less than last year? You're welcome?”

Eliot scowls at the screen. “Parker, turn it off,” he says. Hardison yelps and starts to protest.

“Come on, Eliot, it's just a game...”

Their arguing forms are blocked out as a head appears, encompassing the entire screen. The blonde from the window – peering at them upside down from an unlikely position over the camera – seems to somehow stare at each and every distant viewer, her face utterly blank. Then she reaches out, and the screen goes dark.


 

An online hacker manages to pull up images of Alec Hardison, Eliot Spencer, and someone just called 'Parker' from the pages of multiple government websites. The reports all include phrases like 'DANGEROUS: DO NOT APPROACH' and 'REWARD OFFERED FOR INFORMATION'.

They also find a picture of someone in a military uniform, who looks suspiciously like Hardison, accepting a very important medal from the Japanese Prime Minister. Spencer seems to have look-alikes in the professional singing, hockey, and baseball worlds. Although everyone agrees that he couldn't be proficient in all of these fields.

-They don't really find any pictures of Parker.

IMMORTALS or CLONES, screams conspiracy website Rense the next day.

THEY WALK AMONG US.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(And in his little apartment, a man named Ned – who long ago noticed a tiny shopping bag in Eliot's hand that read 'Portland Native, All-Natural' – keeps his silence).