If you had told Mickey Milkovich that video games were going to be his ticket out of the Southside, he would have said you were crazy in the most colorful language possible…or he might have robbed you, one or the other.
By nineteen years old, Mickey was in serious trouble. He was officially an adult, and had just wrapped up his first brief stint in an adult correctional facility. Juvie was no picnic, but being in the big house had shaken him enough to force him to actually listen to his parole officer for a change while she jawed at him.
“You can’t keep going like this, Mickey,” she flipped through his record and sighed at the slouching, bored teen before her, “your juvie record is as tall as you are and you seem bent on becoming institutionalized. You need to turn off this path before it’s too late for you.”
Mickey chewed on his nails and shrugged. He was fucked for life anyway, and her stating the obvious wasn’t going to make much of a difference, was it? She sighed again and tapped her fingers against her desk.
“What are you good at, Mick? I mean really good at? I feel I should clarify, your answer should be something that won’t land you in jail.”
Mickey’s head lolled back as he thought about it. The whole must-be-legal aspect of the question was really restricting his options. He clicked his tongue and admitted lamely, “video games?”
To his surprise, she neither sneered nor rolled her eyes at him. Instead, she kept tapping the desk and eyeing him seriously. “Like how good? Casual gamer good, or are you one of those hardcore ones?”
Mickey raised an eyebrow, “why?”
She hesitated briefly before rifling through her desk and pulling out a green folder. “You ever heard of ‘Southside Slaughter’?”
Mickey straightened in his seat, suddenly all ears. “Yeah, everybody knows it. Fucker that made it was from around here, right?”
Southside Slaughter had been the dark horse darling of the video gaming world the year prior. The Grand Theft Auto meets Sims style game had been an independent, underground release only to take the place by storm after the bougie kids finally got wind of it. It was even more remarkable because it was the brain child of some local kid whose brother scammed some college programmers into making it.
Mickey loved that game. It was basically his life, and the life of a large number of Southside kids. It was a dark, twisted hustle and survival game, only with more explosions and less consequences for killing cops and random citizens.
Deidre, the parole officer, nodded her head. “He’s forming his own gaming company, ‘Southside Enterprises.”
“Shut up,” she rolled her eyes and pulled a few forms from the folder, “it’s just starting out and it needs staff, video game testers included. They want to make sure they leave a few spots open for fellow down-on-their-luck Southsiders too.”
“Meaning they want a bunch of desperate losers to work for next to nothing in order to lessen their start-up costs,” Mickey only grinned when she glared at him, “hey, I’m not knocking it. It’s the hustle.”
“Whatever, it’ll satisfy the terms of your parole, you can stay home and out of trouble, and it will still give you an income, even if it is next to nothing,” she slid the forms across the table to him, “interested?”
Mickey took the forms and looked them over. Might as well, at least it was something.
Five years later, he was in New York City, sitting in his place within Southside Enterprises' Skid Row—the company’s core set of testers and programmers. The company had taken off in a way nobody could have predicted. Somehow, he had gotten in on the ground floor of a Fortune 1000 company and, not for nothing, he was great at his job. Mickey was relentless and detailed obsessed, which is just what you needed to be in a job that made you want to put a bullet through your skull half the time.
He yawned, gulped his coke and restarted his level for the twenty-eighth time. He readied himself to resume the grind just as his daily distraction walked in. Owner and creator, Ian Fucking Gallagher, was breezing in and Mickey automatically sank down in his chair to make his ogling a little less obvious. Mickey was almost sure ‘Fucking’ was his middle name, it just had to be. Jesus, Gallagher could wear the hell out of a t-shirt. The redhead gave everyone in the vicinity a broad smile and a greeting before heading into his office. He kept the blinds up, allowing everyone, including Mickey to see him settling in. Mickey loved and hated when he did that, because a continuous eyeful of Gallagher was a wonderful thing, but it seriously fucked up his concentration and productivity.
It didn’t help when about fifteen minutes later, Gallagher was out of his office and standing directly in front of Mickey’s station, towering over everything.
“Hey guys, what’s good?”
Mickey could never talk in any of these little impromptu sessions. He was too busy biting his lip and trying to find a safe place to look that didn’t seem like he was blatantly avoiding looking at his boss. Gallagher’s pecs were a no-no, his goddamned face was torture and Mickey was left staring at his computer screen like an imbecile, trying his best not to have a noticeable physical reaction to his boss’s presence.
Next to him, Carrie was chattering away about the progress she had made on her level of Southside Rumble, highlighting the major glitches she had come across. “And Mick had some similar issues on his level too, right Mick... Mick?”
“Huh?” he turned to Carrie who was looking at him expectantly. He was just doing an excellent job of not looking like a complete idiot in front of his boss.
“I was telling Ian about some of the issues we were running into on our levels.”
“Not too serious though, right? Nothing to change the release date over?” Ian’s question forced Mick to look up at him, only to get a faceful of intense, green gaze for his efforts. Mickey’s brain immediately scrambled.
“Yeah, no, it’s fine,” Mickey mumbled and immediately fastened his gaze on the safety of his screen.
The session mercifully ended, but Ian hesitated in his spot for a minute more before finally deciding to move, “yeah, okay,” and with that, he headed back to his office. This time though, the blinds came down, much to the relief of Mickey’s higher brain functions. Carrie grinned stupidly at her computer screen.
“What?” Mickey asked grumpily. She shook her head, still grinning broadly.
“Oh nothing, he’s just gorgeous, you know?”
Mickey sniffed derisively, “I’ll take your word for it.”
Carrie just rolled her eyes and went on smiling.
It was after eight and Mickey was still grinding his level, determined to finish his report on it before he went home. He was alone, the other programmers and testers having long since gone home, and Carrie, the traitor, had abandoned him over an hour ago.
“What are you still doing here?”
The voice came from the dark behind him and Mickey was out of his seat with the switchblade out of his pocket and in his hand before his brain could even catch up and remind him of his new surroundings.
“Jesus, dude, relax!” Ian took a cautious step back and Mickey blinked at him.
“For fuck's sake, did no one tell you never to sneak up on people?!”
“I wasn’t aware that I was sneaking. I thought I was just heading back to my office,” Ian replied wryly. He waited until Mickey sheepishly closed the blade, made a vaguely apologetic gesture and slid back into his seat. For his part, Mickey was wondering what the disciplinary protocol was for pulling a deadly weapon on your boss. Fortunately, Ian didn’t seem that put out about it.
“What are you still doing here?” Ian asked lightly, as if he hadn’t just been a breath away from being carved like a turkey, “you never stay this late.”
“I kinda fell behind on this level a little bit.” Was that even a thing you should admit to your boss? Mickey winced internally, but was immediately distracted by his Ian’s looming presence growing closer to him. Ian rested a hand on the backrest of Mickey’s chair and leaned forward to squint at Mickey’s computer screen. Way too close. Mickey swallowed convulsively and tried to ignore the heat radiating off Ian and the scent of his cologne.
“Do I need to get you guys bigger screens or something? This seems insanely compressed.”
Mickey laughed at that. “Nah man, they just look that way compared to the monster you keep in your office.”
Ian smiled before pushing away from Mickey, leaving the latter with the combination feeling of disappointed and relief that he was slowly getting used to in regards to Ian Fucking Gallagher.
“You’ve been here, what, two months now? I think this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk, Mickey.” Instead of leaving, Ian had simply moved to slip into Carrie’s chair and swiveled to face the other man. Still, way too close for Mickey’s health.
The tester shrugged, “not much to say.”
Ian hadn’t really stopped smiling since Mickey put the switchblade away, but the grin somehow managed to keep intensifying. Mickey could only manage quick, furtive glances in his boss’s direction and rubbed at his chin with his thumb, trying not to let his nerves get the better of him.
“You’re Southside, right? These games must seem more like Second Life to you.”
Mickey gave an amused snort, “yeah, I thought you ripped off my life the first time I played. Although, I never recovered that quickly when I got my ass handed to me.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Ian said softly. They sat in awkward silence for a moment before Ian offered, “Hey, can I show you something?”
Ian Fucking Gallagher could show him anything he wanted anytime, but Mickey thought the safer response would be just to nod. Not that Ian had actually waited for a response. His boss was already out of the seat and halfway to his office. Mickey hated to see him leave, but loved to watch him go. He admired the view for a bit before remembering he was supposed to be following. He shook himself and jogged after him.
Mickey had only been in Ian’s office once before, and it had been a couple months earlier when he had finally transferred in to the New York headquarters. The office was immense, more like a large studio apartment than an actual office, but for the perfunctory officious-looking desk and chair shoved in the corner near the windows.
The centerpiece of the office was the monster-sized wall-mounted television screen, the gaming systems stacked beneath and huge couch facing it. Mickey took everything in—despite the obvious expense of the furnishings, the décor could have easily been transplanted from his own bedroom, and the definite Southside feel coming from Ian and the office helped put him at ease a bit. Ian waved him over to the couch while he popped a disc into one of the consoles.
Ian threw himself down next to Mickey and tossed him a controller as the game’s title screen faded in. Mickey’s eyes widened in recognition.
“Oh shit, this is-”
“Southside Legend,” Ian finished for him, “I just got the alpha from development today. Planning an MMORPG is a bitch and a half. This is the single-player version though.”
After the selections, the game started as all the other Southside games began, a poor kid with an ignoble background preparing to hustle his or her way out of the Southside, whether legit or otherwise. Mickey dived in; the game wasn’t pretty and smooth yet, but alpha versions hardly ever were, or Mickey wouldn’t have a job.
Mickey played uninterrupted for some time, while Ian watched him as discreetly as he could. Since Ian seemed to have an aversion to long periods of silence, he eventually interrupted, “what do you think so far?”
“Fucking awesome,” Mickey breathed, not pausing his gameplay. “It’s off to a better start than ‘Survival,’ and that fucking ruled.”
Ian beamed and unconsciously shuffled closer to Mickey, “I dunno. I’ve been losing sleep over this shit; keep thinking it’s going to be crap.”
“You are out of your mind,” Mickey snorted, “after all the other games, why the hell would you even worry about that? Your brain is like a gaming wonderland.”
“Yeah, that’s just it though, ‘Survival’ was the first game I released since I’ve been on my meds, now I’m doing ‘Rumble’ and 'Legend’…I don’t know if I work as well when I’m even…”
Mickey let his stolen ice cream truck crash into a fire hydrant. He turned his full attention to a pensive Ian, “so that Bipolar shit is for real then?
“Yeah,” Ian admitted hesitantly, surprising himself that he was speaking so freely about his illness, “and everything up to Survival was done while I was manic, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s like you’re finally firing on all cylinders. ‘Legend’ is my first MMORPG and I really need it to be perfect. Kinda makes me think, you know?”
Mickey looked at him as if he was crazy. “No, I don’t know, but I’ve seen bipolar dudes in lock-up and that shit is on another level. You’d seriously consider going off your meds to make sure an already great game is actually good? You’re crazy; I mean, your story and world building have been getting better with each game, so it stands to reason that it’s not your illness then, right?”
Ian had never actually considered that. “You really think my games have been getting better each time?” He asked shyly, ridiculously pleased by the chiding praise.
“Jesus, yes really. Stay on your fucking meds, dude, and trust your talent.”
Ian nodded and went back to quietly watching Mickey work his way through the available gameplay. He hadn’t seriously been considering going off his meds. Well, maybe just a little bit, but he certainly wasn’t going to now.
“Oh shit, it’s 10:30?” Mickey let out after glimpsing his watch. The realization that he had just spent nearly two hours in his boss’s office, basically holding the man hostage, crashed down on him. He put away the controller and the old awkwardness quickly descended. Mickey couldn’t help but feel a bunch of lines had somehow been crossed here and he had no idea who had done it or how it had happened. He stood stiffly.
“I’m going,” he said abruptly, “I’ll see you tomorrow…” he reached for an appropriate title, he had never actually addressed Ian directly before, “Mr. Gallagher?”
Ian burst out laughing, “not even my dad was Mr. Gallagher. You should call me Ian, Mick. Everyone else does.”
Mickey turned it over in his head, couldn’t see it happening. “Can I just call you Gallagher?”
Only Mickey could find a way to make the more formal seem insanely intimate and Ian nodded eagerly. “I’m fine with that.”