Chapter 1: All My Friends Are Heathens
It’s not like there’s anything that can go wrong with keeping Beyond Birthday.
Or at least, that’s the impression B’s seeing here. The building just looks like a normal, if extravagant, house with glass walls and shiny metal, perched on top of a cliff that’s overlooking water dotted with very, very sharp rocks. It’s ridiculously easy to throw something through the glass and run out.
Although, should he try to escape, he supposes he can also be pushed over the cliff to be skewered below. If he survives, the water will be enough to pulverize him into the rocky side of the cliff.
And there’s also the ankle monitor modified (by Wammy himself, how flattering) to shock him should he go out of bounds. He’s tried it before and gotten himself a nasty concussion along with the pain when he’d hit his head on the ground and A had just sighed and tutted.
It’s a shot at normality, he supposes, or something along those lines, that he won’t feel as imprisoned, but he’s been feeling imprisoned since the hospital (or maybe before that). He is aware this is significantly better than where he’d been originally headed for after he’d royally fucked up.
“Happy birthday, I guess,” A says, beside him, setting their bag on the ground as they both stare at the door. They giggle and add, “Birthday boy.”
“It’s been years and that’s still not funny.”
“Ah, lighten up.”
His fingers twitch at that. “Crude.”
They laugh a little again, stretching out their arms. Neither of them are made for sixteen hour car rides, and they’d both been lucky the car was spacious enough for them to entertain themselves with a card game, fifteen rounds of chess, and sleep.
B’s got the chessboard under his arm. A’s got sleep still clouding their eyes.
“Whose idea was it? The house?” B asks.
A snorts. “I asked for living quarters and he gets me this, and we both know why. Don’t act too surprised.”
“Because L’s a bitch, yes. But why a fancy glass house?”
“Crude,” A says.
“You don’t disagree.”
“Not on that topic, no. I suppose it has something to do with the view.”
“Funny that, I didn’t think our sensibilities were the first thing he had in mind when arranging my prison.”
“Hm. It was mine, I think.”
B smiles a little, showing teeth, mildly feral. “Of course.” He drags the ‘s’ out in a hiss.
A picks up their bag again and unlocks the door for him and shows him inside.
The house is spacious, but B thinks it’ll work out nicely for both of them. He knows A has a tendency for huddling in corners and making themself as small as possible while he has a tendency to crowd a room, spread himself out, take up as much space with his presence. Sadly, he doesn’t think A’ll agree to giving him an entire floor to himself (four floors for the entire house, he’d counted while he was outside, possibly a basement, and knowing Wammy, two basements), but since he’ll be allowed to commandeer the kitchen and the living room, finally, he’ll take what he can get.
Everything in the house is white-grey-black-clear. The minimalistic color scheme gives the area a professional feel, and while easy on the eyes, just reminds B of hospitals.
Both he and A stick out of the place like sore thumbs too. He’s wearing pressure garments underneath his clothes. A looks like they need to meet and greet a hairbrush. They are, decidedly, incredibly unprofessional. B blames the sixteen-hour car ride.
The house tour takes about two hours, mostly because both of them silently agree to explore every nook and cranny (for different purposes, obviously), and then he has to drag A out from the solarium because they’re just staring at the sunset and forgetting this isn’t a vacation. Afterwards, they argue on the rooftop as to who takes which floor, which, according to A, floors him for a moment (he'd resisted the urge to punch a wall or something) because he hadn’t expected that.
He gets the penthouse. A still has the access codes to the rooftop anyway, and he’s pretty sure that pretty little AI Wammy’s had made has been monitoring them both since they’d gotten here. It’s impartial, he’d been told.
Once he and A have settled their arrangements, he hears a little beep from his ankle monitor as its parameters are reprogrammed, which just reinforces his idea that they’ve been watched since they got here.
A doesn’t offer him any sympathies for his house arrest. They do, however, go up to his floor and bring him cake and pizza. Which, in his situation, is fair enough.
This is off to a good start, at least.
He doesn’t know how long it’ll last.
When Beyond Birthday wakes up in his hospital room, on a fine day in a long, long list of fine days he’s spent here, the first thing he sees is his very dead friend, who looks very content while reading a very colorful pamphlet.
His first thought is: I’m finally dead. Thank god.
His second thought is, upon hearing the heartbeat monitor and seeing A turn and smile at him is: No, I’m not. Shit.
He supposes it’s wishful thinking since he's been admitted here for a while. Much longer than he'd initially thought he’d be, as he’d expected L to just get it over with and throw him in prison to quickly wrap this mess up, but instead he’s getting treatment and surgery and a burn team (he hates his doctor, and his nurse, and his dietitian, and - ), the whole package. He’s been counting on complications, but so far, he’s unfortunately been missing all of those, or if there iare his burn team immediately fixes them.
So he’s here, and he’s alive.
So is A, unless he needs way more sleep than he thinks he does (or is having too much sleep, for that matter). The way the pamphlet’s colors physically pain him tell him otherwise, however, and he mourns the fact that he’s still breathing for a moment, before he turns his attention to the fact that someone else who is supposed to be dead is in the same room as him.
So unless this is Hell, well.
“You’re alive,” he says, deciding to point out the obvious. His voice has seen better days. “How the hell are you alive?”
A flips the page of their pamphlet. “Simple. I didn’t die.”
The little shit.
B narrows his eyes at them. It takes more effort than needed, given that the pamphlet is distracting him. “What the fuck is that?”
“Me being a concerned and supportive friend,” A says. They close the pamphlet and wave it around, a cheerful little beacon that B wishes he can disintegrate on sight. “It’s a burn unit pamphlet.”
“Get rid of it.”
“I’m not done reading it,” A says, immediately reopening it to a random page to prove their point.
“Yes you are,” B says, “You’ve been staring at the same word for a while.”
“And you can tell, how?”
“You were zoned out.”
“On spacing out. And not turning the page. And not blinking. Now put that fucking thing into the trash bin, it’s offensive.”
“My eyes,” B says, and he just really, really hates that blue background with binary red-green-yellow streaks on the front cover. This hospital is equipped with state-of-the-art-facilities, but not a decent graphic designer who at least made good pixel art on MS Paint.
A just blinks at him, slowly, like he’s a particularly stupid child.
He snatches the pamphlet from their hands – the action slower than he would have preferred it to be, but he still manages it – and then throws it into the trash bin. It misses.
He grits his teeth, but A looks dismayed anyway.
“I was reading that!”
“No you were not,” he says, “And if you were, it was particularly thin enough that you’d have read it over and over while I was asleep.”
“And if I’d just arrived here a few minutes before you woke up?”
“You’re a fast reader.”
“Not if I’m preoccupied with observing your heart monitor to check if you were still breathing.”
He holds his tongue at that. Sympathy – affection as a weapon. Always ingenious.
It works, to his irritation, because he finds there’s nothing he can say to it, and A knows it’s working because they smile, and stand up slowly to go over and pick up the burn pamphlet. They toss it into the trash bin.
He blinks. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve read it thirty-seven times.”
He runs a rough calculation of the number of pages and A’s reading speed in his head, when A laughs and says, “It’s been three years. My reading speed could have changed.”
“Unlikely. You weren’t a child.”
“Plenty would beg to differ.” A sinks down in their seat and leans back, still looking smug. “For all you know, I could have suffered some terrible malady.”
“Like the lack of a growth spurt, maybe.”
A frowns, and then moves to gently poke his cheek. He manages to grab their hand and – holds it there, too small and too real in his own hand and holy shit, the gravity of everything is sinking into B’s head.
A is alive.
And isn’t making any move to withdraw their hand and is just letting him stare at it. He’s absolutely not awestruck. The shock’s just finally starting to sink into his bones, and he at least has enough dignity to not start yelling about the situation as he starts to actually grasp it.
“Um,” A says.
B squeezes their hand, testing the frailty of their bones. He could probably snap it if he’d been as strong as he was before.
“Do not,” A says in warning.
“Your Hurr Hurr Stabby Stabby act doesn’t scare me, Birthday. Let go.”
He squeezes harder, but not with the intent to break. It’s not like he can, anyway.
A waits, patient.
He slowly lets them go, and they withdraw their hand back, spreading their fingers out in a stretch.
He recalls days spent in the music room, sitting on a bench too big for two children, playing a duet on a little piano that’s no doubt currently in the orphanage attic, or worse, burnt since it was unsalvageable. Then he berates himself for it. No use dwelling on that given…well.
He licks his lips and says, “‘Hurr Hurr Stabby Stabby’. Really?”
“I did read your case file,” A says, and B feels the temperature in the room drop, but A plows through like nothing’s happened and B thinks, Well, they do thrive in the cold. “And seriously? Hiding under the bed? Slurping jam out the jar? You’re not seven, B.”
He has two things to take into account here. One, the easy dismissal of his case like it’s not the culmination of months and months of planning, and the failure of which had been a blow to his pride. Two, the easy dismissal of his case like all he’s done is swat down flies and everyone can go about their days because he’s gotten rid of some pests, and now his best friend’s having tea with him.
Sure, A’s solved cases in the past as tests at Wammy’s and should be jaded to these things, but the fact that they have a personal investment in this particular case should faze them a little.
Apparently not. Maybe something really had died back there in that treehouse three years ago. Like A’s common sense and primal instinct to survive.
And then it hits him – of course. What is he thinking? This is A. Primal instinct to survive isn’t something he should be looking for.
“It did its part,” he says.
A sighs. Sighs. Like he’s just been called to Roger’s office after that time he scared a teacher out of the house. And that was in their favor too, the ungrateful brat.
“It still proves my point,” they say.
“I don’t see you holding anything sharp.”
He’s given a flat look for that, and responds with a raised, challenging eyebrow. “I’m not the one who can’t come up with a good nickname for things.”
“Oh, look who’s talking,” A says.
“Hurr Hurr Stabby Stabby isn’t your best work, A.”
“On the contrary, I think that applies to you,” A says, again with the offhandedness.
B grits his teeth at that. If they notice, they ignore it. “I am aware,” he says.
“Good,” A says, “The council has a clear winner then.”
“The council has no room for bias and therefore declares this a stalemate.”
“One reason.” A taps his nose with an index finger and he immediately blinks at the familiarity. “Why is the judgment a stalemate? Give me one good reason that sounds acceptable to both of us and I say you win.”
B has to stop his mind in its tracks, shoving nails underneath the wheels of a van that’s long lost the brakes and is almost careening off the edge. There’s only one thing he’ll accept to himself that A’s said correctly today, and it’s that he’s not seven. Or eleven, or thirteen, or fifteen for that matter. This isn’t Wammy’s, and he’s not the second in line who simpers when everyone’s just fallen prey to whatever mischief he’s cooked up while the first shakes their head fondly and then strikes up an argument as to why he shouldn’t have done that, or at least should have chosen better timing.
No matter if A acts like it is.
Still, he thinks it over, running the past fourteen years in his head and cookie-cutter-editing his memories so he can sift through the important parts and is slightly appalled that he doesn’t have an answer to A’s challenge.
He just watches in horror as A, as if sensing his dilemma, slowly grins and then laughs.
It works like this: B makes a case, Naomi Misora solves said case, L throws B in jail without a proper trial or recovery and leaves him there just to rub the defeat in his face.
Or, it should, anyway. B constantly contemplates this as he sits up on his hospital bed, day after day after day, taking medicine and talking to the staff and staring at bland and awful food no better than cardboard. It’s protein, technically, but after a long time, everything just tastes the same. The jello especially is an atrocity and he's thrown it at the windows too many times, but nobody seems to get the message.
Today, A takes pity on him and offers to eat the jello for him. He makes a face. Honestly, the lack of culture of some people. And it’s orange jello too.
"What? I like jello."
"Of course you do," B says, poking the thing with a plastic fork. It jiggles at him menacingly. He stabs it and then lifts it up, half-expecting the fork to snap with its weight. "Your taste buds are dead and you don't have standards."
“Clearly, since I’m in this hospital being your friend,” A says.
His lips twitch up at that and he quickly smoothens out his expression. “That’s rude, A.”
“Hmm, did you expect me to be polite?”
“Fair. Not to me, no. Not now.”
He pretends not to see how A’s smile falters for a second. For all their talents, they wore their heart on their sleeve, just up for grabs for people to stab into.
Had he been younger, he’d have something to say about that, but he’s not. So he just passes the fork to A so they can swallow up the jello in one gulp while he pushes his tray away. A pushes it back towards him.
"Eat," A says.
He very pointedly doesn't. A stabs a slice of carrot with the plastic fork – and he narrows his eyes at it for moment because ew, germs – and lifts it.
"Eat," they repeat.
"And you'll stay in this god-forsaken hospital longer. Imagine the horror - eye-searing graphic design and orange jello. What nightmares, B."
His bitchface could earn him an Oscar's.
A pushes the carrot onto his closed lips, which decidedly stay closed.
"I will bite your hand off."
"Kinky. Eat your food."
"I'll sneak in jam if you do."
Damn. While he knows the jam is a joke, he weighs his options first. A’s most likely to find a loophole both on sneaking in food and not sneaking in food, and depending if he could weasel himself into their good graces (how much sentimentality he could bank on is still up in the air, but he’s guessing he’s got it good so far since they’re not giving him the ‘how could you do this, I feel betrayed’ speech), possibly sneak in other things.
Like a phone (yes, he knows phones aren’t allowed in, but fuck it). Or keys to a car (not that he’s in any shape to drive yet, but he’s coming along well with mobility). Or at least a good book, since it gets dreadfully boring sometimes (it’s not that hard to find a copy of Red Dragon, really, it isn’t).
A pokes his lips with the carrot again.
He opens his mouth and bites the plastic fork along with the food.
He smiles at them. Their reaction is a comical ‘bleh’ noise, coupled with exaggerated shuddering.
"Fine, chew the plastic along with that and enjoy choking."
“Harsh. And here I thought you cared.”
“Just fucking eat, Birthday.” They drop the cut-off handle in his lap and lean back into their seat, huffing.
B carefully spits out the fork head out, although he’s sensible enough not to spit out the food along with it. He might hate it, but he’s not an idiot enough to neglect nutrition. It wouldn’t do him good to crawl out of here. Best to run for it.
So he eats. A seems more disgruntled seeing him eat with his hands anyway, even if he’s eating cleanly.
“I’m just worried about infections,” they say.
“You shouldn’t be,” he says, “And even if something happened, they’re doing a fantastic job dealing with it.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“Ever astute, A.”
A crosses their arms and stares him down, before sighing, absent-mindedly pulling down the sleeves of their sweater. “Yeah, well, you’re not going anywhere, I’m afraid.”
His hands twitch at that, and he curls them into fists slowly, careful not to dig them into his palms. His flesh is still sensitive.
He cleans his plate and then places it on the table beside his bed before trying to stand by himself. A has to help him, and while he’s already used to being assisted around his hospital room by staff, he finds himself steeling his jaw and not saying anything when A comes up to his side.
They wait for him as he washes his hands, and then guide him back to his bed again, although he tries to push them just a bit away a few times. He’s not a child. A says nothing, doesn’t even sigh, but just sends him a look and helps him back on his bed.
He doesn’t look at them when he’s back on the bed; instead he stares at the ceiling and traces the patterns of the minute cracks. He’s long memorized them.
A looks like they’re contemplating picking up one of those burn pamplets just to read again. He sincerely hopes they don’t.
They don’t. Instead they leave the room for a moment and are back sooner than he expects them to be (which is never – he’s never had visitors before) and are back with a book and –he’s like a man in the middle of the desert who’s suddenly seen an oasis. He could jump out of his bed out of relief and joy. He could grab A and kiss them.
As if they sense his excitement for good reading material, A looks at the book in their hand and then back up at him. “You’ve missed Thomas Harris that much?”
“They don’t have anything other than pamphlets here,” he says, and doesn’t mention that no, none of his nurses really care enough to lend him good books. Hell, none of the staff really talk to him outside of their jobs. This is the most conversation he’s had in months.
“Oh,” A says, settling back in their seat. They extend Red Dragon at him. “Do you wanna read it?”
B eyes the book for a moment. It’s old and dog-eared, but he knows that’s not A’s first copy of it. That one, he’s left in his apartment in Pasadena, along with everything else he’s taken from Wammy’s. He doesn’t know if they’ve ever found that apartment, or if L even cared to look after he was caught (he’d wager no and he did keep the location under wraps and a very far flung alias).
Maybe they’d gotten this one after they’d died. Or, faked their death, more accurately.
He doesn’t say anything about him tiring easily these days.
They seem to get it, as they shift and get comfortable in their seat, bringing their knees to their chest and curling up. “Do you want me to read it to you?”
He settles down in his bed. “If you have nothing better to do.”
“I don’t,” A says. He thinks they do, but are rather just procrastinating to sit here with him instead. He doesn’t know why.
He just listens as they read, voice soft, and tries not to be too nostalgic.
Being in the hospital affords him too much time to think, and while B doesn’t really like thinking too much these days, having reason to suddenly do so isn’t doing him any favors. The way he’d set things up, he wouldn’t have needed to think much after he’d lit the match, but since he’d made a grievous error, he’s afforded with time anyway. He’d rather do without time, but he supposes his numbers aren’t up yet.
That’s the crux of it, he thinks. He can see the world’s hourglass but not tell when his own sand had run out. He’s thought that maybe he doesn’t really have numbers, and maybe he’s the only one who can choose when and where to end his time – master of my fate, captain of my soul – but the sudden weightlessness that comes with free will and endless possibility just makes him want to throw up. He’d never admit it. There’s a lot of things he wouldn’t admit, really, and especially not in front of other people.
Said ‘other people’ is his one visitor (one month now, wow, they’d lasted longer than he thought they would, putting up with his bullshit, although he’s found himself too tired from PT most days to put up an act, so maybe that helped) currently asleep in their chair, a book open on their lap.
He supposes that’s to be expected. They’d spent the last three days just by his bedside – probably pulled some strings to be able to stay past visiting hours despite not being (despite being the closest thing to him having) family – talking to him when he was awake enough for conversation and reading when he wasn’t.
The nearest reason he can find for their behavior is that they need a bit of a safe space. They’d always been like this when they were younger.
He picks the book up from their lap, carefully, since it’s quite thick, and makes sure to pin his thumb between the pages where A’s stopped reading as he inspects the cover.
Then he snorts softly, because of course they’re still a nerd over The Two Towers. He doesn’t think they’ll appreciate it if he folds a page so he just reopens the book but sets it on the desk beside his bed before sitting down. Therapy had been exhausting, but at least he doesn’t have to be driven to the hospital every time, the reason for which he hasn’t wheedled out of A either.
They’re the reason he’s getting all of this, he thinks. He’s not sure if he faults or thanks them for it. L wouldn’t have cared.
He gets dinner delivered, and A awakes for a moment to steal the jello off his tray and then get themself some food. They only notice their book is on the desk when they return, and they say nothing to him but do nod in thanks.
They return to reading once he’s settled down on his bed, the fatigue of the day already catching up with him. When they brush his hair out his eyes – already grown long enough after months of slow progress – he pretends nothing has happened.
It continues on like that for a while. A month of A visiting turns to two, and then three, and on the fourth, they disappear for three weeks and B finally thinks they’re sick of him, but they return with heartfelt apologies and a shitton of sweets, which is almost worth it. He doesn’t say they’re forgiven but he does accept all their offerings, as it would honestly be a waste not to.
He doesn’t ask why they were away for a while either. The dark circles under their eyes and the half-moon scars on their palms are testament enough.
He gets his surgeries, his medicine, his therapy, and somehow, constant exposure to his burn team makes it less aggravating to talk to them when he has to. He gets better, he supposes, although that’s relative and he can’t really say he’s getting better but he’s too tired to be angry these days, and too annoyed focusing on what’s in front of him to be thinking about what’s past him. He hasn’t given much thought to what’s ahead.
He and A take a walk around the hospital gardens, when he’s able to walk around for longer amounts of time again. They had a garden at Wammy’s once, tended to by someone whom B would describe as a dispassionate gardener, but the old man’s disposition just made it funnier for younger kids to try and run through the bushes of flowers. As much as he would have wanted to, he found that he would rather sit around the garden and just watch everything. It had been quiet there. Peaceful. A had sat around with him sometimes, and they’d used the place as a study area when they’d gotten older and threw themself into their work more.
He misses the garden suddenly, a dull burst of emotion somewhere in him, a place he didn’t really know he had, but it’s inconsequential so he crumples that up and tosses it away. Compartmentalizing reactions. Boxing away pain.
There’s children running around in the hospital gardens too, some with numbers lower than others, but that’s not any surprise. This is a hospital.
He stares at one sitting on a bench. Her mother is beside her, holding her hand. She’s only got six hours left. B stares at her numbers, slowly but surely ticking down, before turning away and following A down the path, neither of them saying anything. If A had noticed him staring at the child, they say nothing.
He only knows the kid’s dead when he wakes up from a loud wail in the dead of the night from a grief-stricken mother. A startles in their seat and turns to the wall, to where the sound is coming from, and looks down, paying respects in their silence and their downcast eyes.
“That won’t bring her back.”
“Pay respect to the dead for they’re all ahead of us,” A says. “Isn’t that what you always used to say?”
I thought you’d been ahead, he thinks. “You wish she shouldn’t have died.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like I can do anything about it,” A says, “I know people die all the time, B. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
“Not me,” he says, suddenly, and wishes he could take it back but he’s already said it, so he just owns up to it, his drowsiness loosening his tongue. “I couldn’t die right.”
A’s gaze softens, and they’re silent for a moment before they sigh. “I couldn’t die right either.”
And B laughs, mirthless. “Funny that we both got it wrong.”
A doesn’t smile. “Not really.”
“Flowers,” he says, when he sees A carrying a bouquet of lilies when they enter the room. Their head peeks past the petals, as the entire bouquet itself looks too big for their arms, and it’s a comical sight B would have laughed at if he hadn’t been too shocked to process it.
“Why?” he asks.
“Just wanted to,” A says. He thinks they do a lot of things just because they want to, these days. It catches him off-guard most times but it’s relieving, somewhat. At least one of them grew out of old habits.
He watches them place the things beside his desk. There’s no vase for it, but they don’t seem bothered, and instead just sit down on their usual seat beside his bed.
“How was PT?” they ask.
“Fine. How was going into the shark pit?”
A purses their lips together.
“I knew it.”
“I know, you didn’t have to say it,” they grit out. “Insufferable as always.”
“Are you going to explain?” he asks. “You know that I’ve always suspected.”
“Yes, and I’m surprised you haven’t throttled me just to get something on him.”
B is silent for a moment, before he licks his lips and says: “I have no quarrel with you.”
A stares at him and then slowly, carefully, raises an eyebrow. The message is clear. You had no quarrel with your victims.
“They were going to die whether I touched them or not.”
“Have you ever thought maybe they were going die because you’d chosen them?”
He has no answer. A crosses their legs and sighs, pinching the bridge of their nose as they lean back into their seat. Regality suits them.
They look up at him after a while, tired.
He shrugs. He finds he doesn’t really care about defending himself, and should his trial come to pass (if it came to pass, seeing as A’s pulling some strings here), he’d immediately plead guilty. So, his chosen quarry were set to die because of him; so what? People die all the time. Death is as unremarkable as life, murder as unoriginal as breathing.
To A’s credit, they don’t even look angry or sad or disappointed. Just…tired. Maybe a little concerned. He’s sure the former points to something else and the latter to him, and while he has suspicions over the exasperation, he doesn’t understand the concern.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” A asks, hand still over their face and looking like they need a good night’s sleep.
“No,” he says, not watching them deflate at the answer, but instead just continues. “Do you need to go for a walk?”
A smiles briefly, mood uplifted by him falling into an old pattern of a joke. “Yes.”
He nods. “Then let’s go.”
He spends Halloween in the hospital and jokingly tells A he wouldn’t need a costume if he’d chosen to go trick or treating. A rolls their eyes and tells him he’s almost done with his surgeries, and looks a lot less like a mass of burnt flesh than he thinks he does.
“It doesn’t take a lot to disgust people,” he says, “And I can always – ”
“I will throw you into a ditch first before you can light yourself on fire again, boy,” A says.
B blinks, slow. “That sounds like it would achieve the same result I’m aiming for.”
“I will at least be the one to end all my hard work on this.”
Ah. So it is them pulling the strings. Curious. He wonders if L let them, or as always, if he doesn’t give a shit as long as his assistants are efficient. It’s not like B is in any condition to be walking around in his current state, and he has no doubts that the hospital isn’t free for him to roam around in.
Then again, has he ever had a doubt?
“I can’t go trick or treating, can I?”
“Unless you want to join the children downstairs, no,” A says.
“Am I allowed to?”
A seems to hesitate. “No.”
“That’s expected,” he says, “I ruined her eyes.”
“To create a shock factor that would distract most people, but would be obvious to anyone who could keep a level head,” A says, “In this case, Misora. And L.”
He shrugs. “Well, credit goes to Misora, even with all my interference,” he says, “She was the one there.”
A snorts, leaning back into their chair. They’d already had their knees pulled up to their chest the second he’d implied setting himself on fire, and with the way they sink into their seat, they just look smaller. “Would he have bothered?”
His first thought is No.
And then he tries to tamp that down, because that usually led to an avalanche of other thoughts that he’s long boxed away. Compartmentalized. A skill he prides himself on, in that humans are such creatures ruled by their emotions.
No, L would not have bothered. He knew that. Knows that. The second he’d decided that yes, he was going through with his plans, he’d known that L wouldn’t have taken the level of personal interest B wanted him to take. And he still did it, despite it all. He wasn’t hoping that against everything, L would actually dive into the case headfirst like it’s a battle between him and B, both of them standing toe to toe like equals.
And B hadn’t wanted to be equals, anyway. So it hadn’t mattered that L sent Naomi Misora. It hadn’t mattered that L hadn’t really solved the case himself like B wanted him to, it hadn’t mattered that the man wouldn’t face him like he should have because he was a mistake born out of a dreamer’s attempt to copy something that could never be replicated or was meant to be replicated.
Because B was going to surpass L.
He’d spent too long looking at the gun he couldn’t see the bullet headed straight for him.
But of course, he wraps all this neatly in yellow tape, and tucks it somewhere deep, deep inside his head, under too many trapdoors, and too many Keep Out signs. This is what he excels in. Let the dead bury their own dead.
“I can get you candy,” A says, when he’s been silent for too long. “If you want me to.”
He thinks it over for a moment. “I would like candy.”
“Okay,” A says, “We’ll get some. For Halloween. For Christmas. For New Year’s. Even Valentine’s if you’re in the mood, Birthday boy.”
“That has never been nor ever will be funny.”
“Where did you say we were going?”
It’s been, what? Almost a year since A’s visited? He’s surprised himself with how easily he’s progressed through everything. He looks mostly back to normal, with the addition of pressure garments that he’s going to be wearing for the next two years, hopefully less, and he’s able to move as well as he used to, even if he tires out easier than before. A bit of exercise and normality would help, his therapist had said, and he’s going to be pushing that normality until he can run out and away as fast as he can.
Unfortunately, A has other plans. Or, Wammy, in this case. Not L. Never L.
“Out,” A says, “Both of us.”
“We’re getting moved to a suite?”
“We’re getting moved to a house,” A says, and they look a little…peeved. And considering they’re joining him for the ride, well. B has a few theories. “I just got the news, and I haven’t asked questions yet. I’m just – ” They huff and throw their hands in the air, giving up with words.
B frowns. “When are we leaving?”
“In a fortnight.” When A sits on the edge of his bed, they look like they’re about to collapse from exhaustion. “They’re taking care of the arrangements, we just have to get there.”
“How long is the ride?”
He supposes he can do enough in sixteen hours. After all, the way this is going, he has his whole life ahead of him. A small bit of time is nothing compared to that.
He can be patient.
There’s a garden out back that ends in a fence and tapers off to the edge of a cliff. Beyond thinks it’s a stupid move on Wammy’s part that the man hasn’t just cleared out the entire area to make room for a steel-reinforced cage for him.
Maybe that’s more for A’s benefit or something, giving them breathing space for when everything is too much for them and they need to be somewhere away from work and their prisoner. He imagines they’d rather be locked away in some upscale hotel surrounded by numerous case files and photos – once, he would have thought they’d want the opposite, but obviously that’s been proven wrong since they’ve visited the hospital almost a year ago.
He’s still allowed in the garden though, albeit with his ankle monitor beeping when he gets too close to the fence.
The wind is usually strong here, which is good because on one hand, he never has to worry about the heat, although he could always coop up in the house with the A/C at full blast if that ever becomes a problem; on the other, he always has to cover up when he’s outside so the chill doesn’t dry out his still-sensitive skin.
He still likes sitting out here anyway, and that’s how A finds him a week after they’ve both moved in the house. He’d heard them asking the AI where he was (straight out of sci-fi movies, that thing, but he knows A’s big enough of a nerd to actually love it, and they’ve been talking to it a lot since they’d both settled in), and then walking over, deliberately making sure their footsteps were audible. He’s not jumpy, but he appreciates them adjusting for his paranoia.
Bare feet on cold tile. B wrinkles his nose and wonders how A hasn’t gotten a cold yet.
And then sighs softly when they sit down next to him and sneeze.
“That’s from your own stupidity,” he says.
“I’m not used to wearing socks,” A says, “I’m not in a sock mood right now.”
“You need them right now.”
“Hah, no I don’t,” they say.
He tells them to go back inside and get a coat when they sneeze again.
They sniff and rub at their nose with the back of their hand. “Isn’t it cold for you out here?”
“Not really,” he says. Between getting most of his skin burned off and the pressure garments and the layers of clothing, most temperatures don’t do much for him, the cold especially, although he’d tolerate it better than heat.
A hums and picks at a thread on their sleeve. “Must be weird.”
It was, a little, but he’s gone without feeling much physical sensation long enough that this is normal (and after a particularly huge explosion of pain, he finds he’d rather not repeat this, no matter how much he’d love to).
A sneezes, again. He huffs.
“What are you even doing here?” they ask.
“I’m confined here.”
“Funny,” they say, “Out here then.”
“Is it bad to want a little breathing room?” he says, then, “You can’t think I’m already trying to escape a week into our playing house.”
“Playing house wouldn’t be the term I’d use,” A says.
“I think it fits.”
“We have an AI watching us at all times.” The camera at the corner, tucked between a pillar and the awning, moves slightly towards their direction at that. A sends the thing a salute. B wiggles his fingers in acknowledgment.
He wonders for a moment if the glass cage is as much for A as it is for him. How much did they fuck up and what?
“That can be our…hmm.”
“Maid or butler, with how you’re treating it.” He slides a hand over to his foot, making sure it’s hidden from the camera at its angle, tapping out: Who’s behind the AI again?
A catches it, but it’s impressive how their gaze doesn’t even flicker down to his hand. They just turn to face the cliff again, moving their hand as well so his body shields it from the camera’s view. “It’s impressive and way ahead of its time.”
Oh. Huh. That explains more than a few things.
“Or someone just reads too much sci-fi.”
“Please, we all know technology is already heading this way,” A says.
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing.” Tried getting into it yet?
“Fair enough, but you did dismiss my earlier statement about it being impressive.” No. “That just sounded like a roundabout way of calling someone a nerd.”
“Hah, I’m not wrong.” Pity.
“You like sci-fi.” This is an interesting topic you’ve picked as a distraction. “I’ve seen your comics, B. Hell, I’ve given you comics.”
It’s out of left field enough for it to be what Jeevas focuses on. “I’ve never denied that either.”
“Then why the disdain for the AI?” Still.
Still what? “Because, like you’ve said, it’s our parole officer.”
Still an interesting choice. A laughs, then hugs themself and shivers in the cold. “I tried asking for its name.”
“Hm, does it have one?”
A pauses. “MONIKA,” they say, “Don’t know what that means yet, but that’s a pretty name for an AI. I’ll figure it out though.”
“You’d do better fetching yourself a coat if you’re going to stay out here for long.”
“Mm. I actually came out here to tell you to get inside soon, because it’s almost curfew,” A says, standing and stretching.
B watches them and raises an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“You have a curfew. You’re not allowed out the house starting six p.m.”
“And when did you decide this?”
“I didn’t, it was in the welcome e-mail we both got,” A says.
He’d thought it was an e-mail from L. Probably automated from the AI then, damn.
“Ah. Figured you didn’t read it.”
“What happens if I stay out?” he asks.
“Hm. I think for first offense, you get locked out the house but will still be unable to get out of the actual premises,” they say. Okay, so actual escape by missing curfew is out the list of options. “For second offense, I think you get electrocuted.”
He thinks that over for a moment. “Just that?”
“All night until your insides fry out.”
That’s also off the list.
A snorts. “As if you’d be alive for a third offense?”
“Humor me. I’m sure Wammy’s not stupid enough to not have a contingency plan. He always does.”
A takes a while to answer. Nice to see they both still had enough synchronicity that they immediately knew what he was getting at. They shift on their feet. “Why not L?”
He smiles. “Like L gives a shit.”
They incline their head for a moment, relaying You have a point, in their shrug. Okay, maybe not that much synchronicity if they’re just working out why he was confident enough to use Morse while under surveillance.
“Your leg gets blown off, I think,” A says.
Ah. Of course. So good luck to him dealing with blood loss and escaping with only one leg.
He looks down at the ankle monitor for a moment and wonders how the hell Wammy managed to fit a bomb in it, but then just figures, it’s Wammy. Of course he managed to do that. He did manage to make that ridiculous washing machine back at the orphanage.
He feels a tugging at his sleeve and looks up at A.
What would happen to them if he got electrocuted to death or got his leg torn off? If it did turn out that they’re also on some sort of parole? Curious.
They tug at his sleeve again. “Come on.”
He’s got plenty of time to figure it out, he thinks. He might as well go read that e-mail and see if he can find gaps in the AI’s coding.
They do some rearranging in the morning. It’s a bit of a comical sight, both of them pushing furniture around and telling each other to put a bit more effort into it. B wishes he’s as strong as he used to be. He’s not exactly weak, but the extra push from before he fucked his body up would have been more helpful than whatever power A’s noodle arms can muster (A had taken offense to this and told him that if only he couldn’t play the ‘burn victim’ card, they’d kick his ass right then and there).
Wammy had made sure to furnish the house up, but they’d both silently agreed that they didn’t like some of the arrangements, especially with the penthouse having a glass wall that allowed its occupants to be able to see the sunset. The floor was clearly meant for A, because while the view was nice, B was mostly light-sensitive these days.
A orders curtains online and they both argue a bit about colors, before covering the glass wall up with every single blanket they can find in the house. It’s not like either of them is going to be sleeping much for the next few weeks – A from having to catch up on work, B from figuring out the AI and his ankle monitor.
When they inspect the kitchen to see what they both want moved, B’s only opinion is for A to get a step stool. A flips him off.
It’s a tiring day, but the mundane work gets his mind off of things. It’s like he’s back at Wammy’s for a moment, younger, less calloused, less –
Best to leave that where it belongs. Forgotten.
There’s also barely any books in the small library, so they both huddle in front of the laptop and argue over choices again. Most of their interests align, and they’re using L’s money anyway, but arguing for the sake of arguing is entertaining. They end up getting shelves on opposite walls and ordering crate upon crate of books. A gets a few rare first editions, B gets thick medical tomes.
Waiting for a week and a half to get their packages is going to be boring, since the items are going to be dropped off for someone to check them out before it’s delivered to them, just to make sure B hasn’t smuggled in something he could use to bust out of there, but there’s probably a few things that can be done in the meantime.
Although, being out in the middle of nowhere by the ocean and unable to leave the house limits the options. He’s tried to even just touch the ankle monitor, and he’s already gotten another shock, and had spent a few seconds on the floor while MONIKA announced that his behavior was taken as an escape attempt. A had coming running to see what had happened.
So he’s rather thankful when they get a shipment the next day, and gets bonus entertainment watching A trying to push everything into the living room by themself.
“You’re seriously just going to stand there?” A asks.
“I can’t overexert myself. Doctor’s orders.”
A rolls their eyes, and then kicks a box forward. It skids towards him only by a few centimeters and they sigh.
“I haven’t had coffee yet,” B says.
“Then go get your coffee and help me with this, you ass.”
He does get his coffee, and takes his sweet time doing it, watching A sit by the island and get increasingly exasperated. Eventually they start making pancakes, although they’re clearly tired by the way they’re sleepily flipping them.
Breakfast is a silent affair, and slow, with how B’s also taking his time eating (mostly because he hasn’t had strawberry pancakes in a while, but he’s not about to admit that), but A’s too relaxed to complain, and the coffee wakes both of them up properly.
B blinks but does as asked when A says the boxes go to his room, and he holds his breath when he sees that its contents are from his Pasadena apartment.
There’s no weapons, of course, as those had clearly been confiscated, but there’s his (A’s) books, old shirts, an old stuffed bear and a few photographs that aren’t related to the LABB case.
“You amassed a lot of stuff in the short time you were in LA.”
“I wouldn’t say almost a year is short,” he says, carefully unpacking everything and just…staring at it. It’s been a while.
“Half the time, you were planning the murders,” A says. Their nonchalance of it is always a little jarring, and he has to wonder again what’s happened in the time they faked their death.
“I had time.”
He picks up a photograph and runs his thumb over it. It’s a little faded, and he remembers he’d tacked it on the wall right where a beam of light would shine on it during sunrise. On the other side, he’s written something there. He wonders who’s read it.
“I did have to travel all over the city.”
“Fair enough,” A says, “You need help unpacking?”
“I’ll be fine,” he says.
“Okay. I’ll be downstairs then,” A says.
He waits for them to leave before turning back to the boxes he still hasn’t dug through. There’s too many for them to be just his stuff from Pasadena. There’s probably some from Wammy’s, and the thought makes him grit his teeth a bit.
He wonders if he should give A the photographs.
They get their curtains and their books at the predicted week and a half. A hugs their blankets once they get them back, muttering, “Thank god,” as they drag the things back to their room, while B just clicks his tongue at Wammy being a hardass like always. Although that’s expected since he’s got two of his former students grounded in a fancy house. The curtains are a rich red and gold, beautifully standing out in the silver of the penthouse, and the books join the ones already set up in the library - the ones B had stashed in Pasadena.
A had spotted the books when he had been setting them up, and asked if they could see them for a second.
“They’re yours,” B had said, and handed a few of them over. He’d watched A run their fingers over the covers almost reverently, and carefully turned the pages. Their eyes had looked a little glassy.
At the moment, they have their library shelves divided between the two of them, and B stacks his medical texts along with his other books (A’d let him keep them, laughing, “Finders keepers.”) while A stacks their first editions and novels. When they’re done, A jokes about ordering a piano, and B just shrugs and tells them why not. So they do, grabbing their laptop a second later, and then snicker at the thought of someone having to inspect that.
“I can strangle you with the piano wires,” B says, “Or stuff you inside the piano.”
“If you do that, I’m going to be the one to strangle you with the piano wires.”
He smiles a little at that. “You’re not usually inclined for violence, A.”
“Eh,” they say, and shrug. “I’ll call it self-defense when you stuff me in a piano.”
“Even if I call that horseplay?”
A gives him a flat look.
He sighs. “Fine, don’t say it.”
“Your – ”
“ – Hurr Hurr Stabby Stabby act doesn’t work on you. God, A, yes. I’ve heard that once, I’d like to never hear that term ever again.”
“You keep making situations appropriate for bringing it up.”
He opens his mouth, closes it, and decides his dignity’s better served when he’s not looking like a beached-up fish.
A asks, “Do you want a violin?”
He only notices they’ve turned back to the laptop once he registers the question. “What?”
“Do you want a violin,” A repeats flatly, “I remember that you play.”
“Oh,” he says, licks his lips, “Sure, I suppose.”
“Okay,” A says, and goes trawling the internet again. B’s not allowed internet access for obvious reasons and trying to do so would just make the AI shut down any device he’s using anyway. He’d learned this when he’d tried to turn A’s laptop towards himself when he’d been looking for books and the thing suddenly just shut down and the AI announced he was denied this particular luxury.
So he doesn’t bother looking at whatever A’s ordering. It’s just a violin anyway.
They redecorate when the piano arrives three weeks later, and thankfully the library’s only on the first floor so they don’t have to go through the trouble of getting the piano up the stairs. A laughs when he glares at the instrument for being so damn heavy and launches into Chopin the second they sit down on the bench. He doesn’t sit beside them. Doesn’t even ask if they’d really gone through with looking for a violin, because he suspects they might have forgotten or something.
Time moves on for them both like that, in their glass house they’re trying to live in despite all the things they haven’t talked about. Most days they both remember to sleep, A more than him. A cooks, he cleans; they both sit out in the garden and hold three different conversations at the same time, and sometimes they watch daytime TV when they’re bored and A’s completely caught up on their backlog of cases. It’s a good routine even if B thinks the novelty will wear off soon.
Except, he really shouldn’t be here. And shouldn’t be playing house, really. Maybe try to find a way to get out, but he’s been doing that too, and while he’s sure he’ll probably find gaps in the system – well.
Exactly what does he do when he’s never planned past his murders?
He thinks about the question when he’s alone in his room sometimes, tired but not tired enough to sleep, bored but not bored enough to read. And then he tries to not think about it, but the problem is that he’s so focused on not thinking about it that it just makes it more obvious. When he tries to sleep, he thinks of flames, and then he wakes up in a cold sweat realizing sleep had been a mistake.
So it stays, and it scratches at the walls of his mind before he decides this is ridiculous.
And then A calls him down for something and he thinks he’ll be glad to take a distraction, even if it’s just something stupid like moving furniture.
The third floor has a solarium he basks in sometimes when the light isn’t too hot and he misses the sun. He shouldn’t be doing this, he knows, but sometimes it’s just comforting. Not that he’d ever say it to anyone, and while MONIKA could just easily show footage of him lying around the carpet like a cat sleeping under a window, it’s not really of any interest to people. They’re always looking for him to do something terrible, something shocking, and this isn’t it, so they won’t pay attention.
Although maybe the AI knows his light sensitivity and rats him out, because A always just sighs and shakes their head and tells him not to aggravate his skin with heat after he’s come out of the room. He tells them he always wears jackets these days anyway.
They still don’t take it for an answer. Oh, well.
On the days A sits there with him to work, they’d tell him to leave the curtains closed, but he’d still pull them aside, and A would toss him a blanket.
“I’m not fragile,” he’d say.
“Yes, you’re combustible.”
He’d toss them the blanket back, making sure it hit their face. His aim isn’t what it used to be, but it often hits their paperwork anyway and he counts that as a win.
On one particular occasion when the tossed blanket hits their lap, it sends a stack of photos flying into the air, and A fixes him with an incredibly unimpressed look. “Pick them up.”
He just grins at them and does nothing of the sort.
“Pick them up, Birthday.”
“You know, you should thank me for requesting an update for MONIKA’s database on which actions are considered friendly jests and which are considered attacks.”
He blinks. “Was that a friendly jest or an attack?”
“Take a wild guess,” they say, but grin anyway.
He narrows his eyes at them but starts picking up the photos. “You’re pissy today.”
“I’m tired, that’s what I am,” A says, pinching the bridge of their nose in a manner that reminds of him of himself. He supposes fourteen years in the same room is bound to produce similar mannerisms. “I’m sorry.”
He starts to hand the photos over to them when he notices what the top one is actually of, and he raises it to get a good look. He frowns, and then flips to the next photo, and then the next, and then the next.
“Excuse me, but are these people – ”
“Inside crystal candy? Yes,” A says, chuckling a bit. They gather the rest of their crumpled files into their folder and adjust their legs, bringing them closer to their chest. “Candygirl was pretty creative.”
He checks the dates of the photos. “Around a few weeks after my case.”
“Yes,” A says, again.
He doesn’t ask. When A hands over the folder to him, he grabs the nearest chair and sits down next to them, bringing a foot over a knee so he could set the folder on it and read the files properly, balancing the stack of photos on his thigh.
“Paige Turner,” A says, “Smart girl, bit impulsive, cooked her victims in molten candy.”
“I did say she was creative.”
“I thought you meant ‘carved people up’ creative.”
“Oh no, I meant creative-creative,” A says, propping their chin up in one hand as they lean their elbow on the armrest, amused. “Murder comes in all flavors and packagings.”
“I’m sure. At least it wasn’t hot gum.”
“Hot gum’s just nasty to get out of hair, might burn you a little but – ” A makes a so-so gesture. “But if we’re talking if whether it’s still being made and you dump someone in it, well.”
“What happened?” he asks, still going through Turner’s files and glancing at the photos. Just from the photos, it’s clear that most of the victims’ skins had melted off or had to be peeled off when they got the corpses out. Paige must have had a hell of a time watching these people suffer.
A hums for a moment. “You want me to tell you or you wanna figure that out on your own? You know, just to kill boredom or something.”
“Are you still solving the case?”
“No, I solved it a while ago but – sadly the police have lost Ms. Turner, and very recently she’s sent a lovely letter to them addressed to me. Or, to whichever detective caught her, anyway. That’s who she addressed it to; cops forwarded it to me just in case she tried to find me.”
“Is that why you’re here?” he asks, “Hiding?”
A chuckles. “No, B, they lost her about two months before we left the hospital.”
He breathes in slowly. “So you’re telling me you’ve been stupidly risking your neck for three months or so.”
“I am – or, well, was – being escorted around, you know,” A says.
So, that’s a bust. A’s not hiding. And should Paige Turner even find their house, there’s an AI that can lock her out, or at least send them both an alarm. A can probably defend themself, and he supposes he’s here as an extra security measure, somehow.
It hits him then, rather clearly, that if A dies, he might get thrown in jail, or worse, get killed because Wammy might decide he’s not really worth the risk of keeping when his caretaker’s dead. If Paige wants to, she can probably frame him for the murder.
He shifts, uncomfortable.
“So, what about it? Figure the case out yourself or have it told to you?” A asks again.
“I can figure it out,” he says.
A nods, then looks at the camera in the corner of the room. “MONIKA, print out the Crunchy People Candy case file, would you?”
The AI chimes out an affirmative.
B can’t stop the snicker that slips out of him. “Crunchy People Candy?”
“That’s not what it’s really called, but hey, my databank, my filenames.”
“Not as creative as your murderers, A,” he says.
“Everyone’s a critic,” A says, “The rest of that folder is just spoilers for the case. Hand it over.”
He does, shutting it and passing it over to them, but he keeps the photos.
“You know,” A says, “You take good photos. Better than those ones, anyway.”
“They’re not supposed to look artistic,” he says, “They’re crime scene photos.”
“We were taught how to take crime scene photos. The ones in your apartment were nice.”
“Do you want them?” he asks. When they just look confused, he says, “The photos.”
“Oh,” they say, hesitating, “Is that – ”
“I’ll hand them over at dinner,” he says, “I don’t have a lot of use for them anyway.”
“Alright,” A says, a little subdued. “Thank you, I suppose.”
He hums, and waits until A collects themself and leads him to their room so they can hand him the printed out case file to read through. He’s still reading the thing after they’re done making dinner, and he slides the promised photos over to them.
He doesn’t look at them as they flip over each one, reading through what he’s written on the back, even when they wipe at their eyes a little.
“She wanted to cover it up,” he says, walking into the solarium, where A’s still surrounded by folders they’ve stacked into towers even when it’s already midnight. Old habits did die hard, and with A’s new job, they probably found even less time to sleep, especially on a schedule.
“Hm?” They look up at him, confused, before remembering exactly what he’s talking about. It’s been a day or so. “Oh, right.”
“She killed her brother on impulse,” he says, “Poured hot candy down his throat.”
“Yeah,” A says, leaning away from their laptop for a moment to stretch. “Then made it look like his room was broken into and everything, put him in the factory for cops to find. Acted as heartbroken as everyone else.”
“She was inexperienced and she freaked out,” B says, “Thought it would be best to cover it up and frame someone, and then she escalated the severity of the murders. She mutilated some of her victims pre-cooking. Tried to mislead the cops into thinking the first murder was just the beginning for something bigger while letting things point to a coworker.”
A smiles at him. “When all along she’d already had her intended victim.”
“Shock and awe,” he says, moving down to sit beside them and placing the folder carefully on one of the stacks. Hopefully that’s for solved cases.
“She got a taste for it,” A says, “She said, during her confession, that she didn’t freak out because she killed her brother. She freaked out because she didn’t have a plan on how to cover it up yet.”
“But she liked it,” he finishes. He could see it. A young lady suddenly realizing the thrill of being able to completely snuff out a life, high on a power trip of being able to choose who died and how. “Half of those mutilations were enjoyment.”
“Win-win for her, until she messed up,” A says.
B nods. “Did you talk to her?”
“No, I left immediately to get to your hospital after I turned my work in. I only got the details after.”
“Oh.” He…doesn’t know what to say to that. What does one say to that? No one was supposed to do that, not for him.
A looks like they want to say something, but decide against it. Probably for the best. They rub at their eyes and yawn instead, clearly needing sleep.
“Why do you have to solve so many cases?” he asks.
“I don’t need to, I just – I don’t want to sleep.”
“Even you should know rest is imperative to work,” he says.
They laugh. “Look who’s talking,” they say, and then, “Well, then again, you’re the sort of person who used wake up at six in the morning routinely, so.”
He eyes their stacks of folders and wonders how long it’s been since they’ve started on them.
“The victims mostly suffered from the torture,” A says, suddenly, “Well, I mean, being cooked alive is torture, but I meant the part involving the knives and the pulled-out teeth. But once their nerves died from the heat, they stopped feeling much of anything.”
B consciously rubs at the back of his hands.
“Oh, I – I’m sorry, I keep being tactless about this,” A says, sighing.
“It’s fine,” he says, “They didn’t pass out, did they? The whole time.”
A stays silent, and then shrugs. “Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. They’re all dead anyway.”
He watches them close their laptop and stand, stretching again and yawning loudly. They look like they need to eat more, these days.
“I might sleep in tomorrow. You know your way around a kitchen right?” they ask.
He just stares at them and waits while they reach the obvious answer.
“Without burning said kitchen.”
“I’ll have cereal, I think.”
A puts their face in their hands. “How did you live in Pasadena?”
“Take-out,” he says.
They sigh, still not lifting their head. “MONIKA, wake me up when B heads for the kitchen, okay?”
B chuckles just as the AI confirms their request. “Not willing to let me starve? Why, that’s just sweet, A.”
They sluggishly walk past him, looking like they’re going to pass out in the hallway. “In case you haven’t gotten it in your thick head, B, you’re kind of my responsibility now.”
He spends the rest of the night wondering why.
lmao here we have reference number 1
Chapter 3: We Get Colder
The violin arrives on a Sunday. A is still sleeping on the couch, so B has to walk to the front door and then cautiously lay a hand on it, wondering if it’s too early to start arguing with the AI that he’s just going to pick up the package and not run out at the first chance he gets. Not like he has one. The ankle monitor feels like a leaden weight on his leg.
He doesn’t even have to sign anything as the item’s technically already been delivered to the shipping address, and it’s just been forwarded, so he can’t use that excuse.
“A’s asleep,” he says, trying making his voice sound light, and calm, and friendly. He remembers Quarter Queen’s mother, suddenly, the woman crying for him to find her daughter’s killer when he was still imagining blood stuck under his nails. “You don’t want to wake them up, do you?”
“I’d like to remind you, sir, that I am an artificial intelligence programmed with specific instructions and purposes, and thus I don’t ‘want’ things.”
His expression melts into something more unamused, giving up the act. “Well, apparently, you have a sass module.”
“I learn and evolve to accommodate and assist better.”
“You’d assist better by not letting that package get soaked in the rain.”
“It’s not raining.”
“MONIKA,” he says, “That’s a violin out there.”
“Alright, I’m up, kids. You’re so loud, fuck.”
He turns to the couch, where A’s sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. They glare at him, and then at the camera by the door.
“Good morning, A.”
B looks up the ceiling. “Oh, now, you’re friendly.”
“I did say I learned to accommodate better.”
“If you fight our AI, that would just make this morning better, really,” A says. They stretch and hop off the couch. The front door immediately slides open for them when they head over to it, and B turns to the camera with a frown.
A steps outside, barefoot, on a cold, cloudy morning. He’s not going to be surprised when they get sick.
He cautiously steps a foot past the doorway, and waits a few seconds to see if there’s an electric shock. There isn’t.
“You can follow,” A says, having already reached the gate. They pick up the box outside, and the automatic locks click back into place as soon as they’re back inside the premises. “You’re just not allowed near the fences.”
“I don’t trust the AI,” he says.
“I don’t trust you,” the AI says.
A laughs. “You’re an AI, darling, have you learned how trust works yet?” They wipe their feet on the mat, and B figures there’s no reason for him to go outside today when it’s just going to rain anyway, so he steps back into the house with them. The door slides shut.
“Obviously,” B says.
A pats his arm in mock comfort. “Come on,” they say, “It’s your violin.”
The box is tightly packed in bubble wrap, and A has to be the one to slice through it as MONIKA won’t allow B near knives. They push the box over to him as soon as they get it open, and he has to dig through more Styrofoam and paper and bubble wrap.
The violin case is old, and he gently sets it down on his lap. A pulls their feet up on the couch, hugging their knees, clearly trying not to bounce around in excitement.
B runs a hand over it, careful. “A,” he says, tracing the patterns on it. “Where did you get this?”
“Asked for help,” they say, “In exchange for a couple of cases solved.”
He opens the case and looks down at the violin, polished and restored, and takes time checking the label, looking for the name, the lone first digit, the handwritten numbers – he doesn’t even understand why he’s being given this.
“Why this?” he asks.
A shrugs. “Why not?”
He lifts the violin up carefully, turning it over for a moment, before setting it back down and shutting the case.
“Might as well just accept it now that it’s here,” A says, when he looks like he’s deliberating.
He takes a while to answer. Then he nods. “Might as well.”
A smiles. They gather the box and the stray bits of Styrofoam, preparing to dump it into the garbage.
“A?” B calls out as they go to find tape to seal up the box and dispose of it properly.
They pause and turn to him. “Yeah?”
He stops, looks down, and clicks his tongue. “Thanks.”
Then he picks up his new Stradivarius, case and all, and goes up to his room, making sure not to look at A as he does, although he doesn’t miss the way they lightly shake their head, amused.
They decide to pass out in the backyard, piling blankets and pillows right beside the door, the overhang keeping them from being drenched in the rain. It’s a ridiculous thing to do, B thinks, but he’s done things weirder than sleeping outside the house while it’s pouring.
The backdoor is open, and he keeps glancing out at A from where he’s on the couch, reading an old favorite, wondering when they’ll finally come back inside like a sensible human being.
Then he snickers, because, really, why should he expect that?
He hasn’t seen them pick up a new case, and he’s already figured out the candy one, so he knows he’ll be bored in a few hours or so. He’s not in the mood to play piano, and he’s still not sure if he should lay his hands on the fancy violin they’ve gotten him. He’s read the same sentence in his book over and over again, and he’s not too keen on going outside and just standing in the rain.
He groans, plops his book over his face and tries to go to sleep. He mostly succeeds, for about ten minutes, before he wakes up and expects hours to have passed, and then gets disappointed when the wall clock tells him otherwise.
“Tetris?” MONIKA asks.
B lowers the book to glare at the ceiling. Just at the ceiling. Not even the camera. “Don’t tell me you play Tetris.”
“I’m an artificial intelligence, sir. I play anything I can access.”
He considers it, and then remembers Jeevas designed this AI. Right. The damn thing could probably breeze through any platform and hit all the side quests with the added advantage of being able to just scour the internet for guides on how to quickly complete tasks.
“A two-player Tetris match might distract you well enough.”
“You don’t even let me near A’s laptop.”
“Because that’s A’s laptop, sir,” MONIKA says. “Has no one ever told you not to use your friends’ things without their permission?”
He narrows his eyes. Cheeky thing. “I doubt you’d let me use A’s laptop whether or not I had their permission.”
“Very smart, sir.”
He has to remember it would probably be taken as a threat if he throws the book at the ceiling, and as much as he would have loved to do that, he’s not risking electrocution. Again. MONIKA titters.
“Okay, Tetris,” he says, picking the book off his face and slamming it shut. He sits up and yawns. “I don’t have a phone.”
“You can ask A if you can use their laptop, sir.”
He throws the couch pillow at the nearest camera. It hits, and MONIKA laughs so hard that he has to wonder if Jeevas programmed her to be able to laugh or if she’s just piecing soundbytes together to mock him.
He’s a little relieved he hasn’t gotten shocked.
So, MONIKA does know how to discern between actual intent to harm and exasperation. He can work with that. And for all the AI’s fancy specs, humans would always be better with reading body language and tone.
“What are you doing?”
A’s inside the house. The backdoor is shut behind them, and their blankets are dragging on the floor while they hug their pillows as best as they can with one hand rubbing their eyes. They look like they have a headache.
“Your AI’s a child,” B says.
“I feel offended, sir.”
A yawns and hugs their pillows closer. “Whatever, nerds. Just play chess with MONIKA or something if you’re so bored.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
A waves to the television, and MONIKA turns it on to pull up a program. A’s already shuffling up the stairs before it even finishes loading. “Dictation. Good luck.”
His response is automatic. He doesn’t even think about it, and as soon as the words are out of his mouth, he thinks that maybe three years hadn’t been enough to erase old habits.
“No thanks, I don’t need it.”
He stills, and when he turns to A, they look a little confused, not because of what he’s said, but because he’s even remembered to say it.
They laugh lightly. “If there’s anyone who needs it more, B, it’s you.”
They yawn again and continue dragging their blankets up the stairs, nearly tripping once, but they don’t look back down at him again. He goes to sit in front of the television and frowns, then decides it’s not really worth overthinking about. It’s not really a surprise he can’t get rid of knee-jerk reactions from over a decade of…well. He doesn’t know what to call it anymore. They used to be friends. He doesn’t think he can call them that now.
“White or black, sir?”
“White,” he says. His name appears on the screen, right across MONIKA’s, to indicate he’s in charge of the white pieces. At least this would be a sufficient distraction, and maybe after, he can convince A to let him take a crack at some old cases again.
Convincing them is way easier than he expects it to be. Maybe they think a bored serial killer is a dangerous serial killer, and they’re not exactly wrong, but he’d expected a bit of resistance at first.
Instead A just gestures at whichever direction they think MONIKA is (which is, well, everywhere in the premises), and rattles off a few case names to be printed. They hand him the files and photos as soon as they’re done, and then go to hide in a fortress made from their own recent case files. They still haven’t cut down on their workload, and appear to be set on competing with L for the dark circles under their eyes.
As they’re in the solarium again, B just sits on the chair behind them and drags the antique coffee table closer with a foot, grinning when A throws him a displeased look when they hear the legs scrape across the carpet. They just mutter curses at him under their breath, and he turns his attention to his files once they ignore him.
They’re interesting enough cases. Not in the ‘high body count and millions of dollars at stake’ way, but more of a ‘what are these people smoking’ sort of way. Then again, A’s always had a fascination for the weirder true crime blogs. He can appreciate the creativity, at least.
He frowns at their case file names, though. Distasteful. At least he’d thought of The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases, with a fancy acronym and everything – not that the press followed it and instead was set on calling it something else - but A’s names border on childish and sleep-deprived.
“Did you seriously name the Cronos case ‘Guess You Ran Out Of Time?’”
A doesn’t look up from the photos they’re inspecting. “Like I said, my drive, my file names,” they say, “And it’s just a file name – okay, I know I tacked the file name to the top.” They hurriedly correct when he continues to look at them flatly. “But you don’t think I sent it in while it’s named that, did you?”
“I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t have put it past you.”
The case is right up the level of Crunchy People Candy, if B goes by A’s standards. Victims turned into timepieces, eyesockets stuffed with pocketwatches and the bodies turned into gruesome sundials, torn and slashed at joints and muscles so it could be bent accordingly. Parts cut off. Blood used as paint. Making the fact that it had been very premediated glaringly obvious.
Still. Cronos case sounds better than what A’s named it.
And the one with the missing people. “Error 404?”
A snorts, the sort of snort that breaks off into an inelegant snigger. “Hey, it was an opportunity.”
“Hey, I’m not the serial killer here,” they say, but they’re clearly holding in their laughter.
“Exactly. And as the resident serial killer, I’m saying your names for these cases are downright offensive. Look at these, look – ” He pulls up the one with the lead suspect being an animal caretaker, specifically birds. “ – I Guess This Didn’t Fly Over The Investigators’ Heads, Huh?”
“I admit that one’s not my best, but hey.” A grins, and then moves so they’re on their stomach and kicking their legs back and forth in the cliché teenage-girl-reading-a-magazine-on-her-bed pose, smugly looking at him. “Don’t get your feathers ruffled.”
B gives them an unimpressed look. They start laughing.
“I’m baffled as to how no one’s decided to kill you yet,” he says, “Oh, maybe that’s why you get death threats sometimes.”
“They can’t cage my humor even if they tried.”
He winces. “That one was horrible.”
A just giggles. He waits for them to calm down, still unamused with everything.
“Look, had I been the one to take your case,” they say, and something flickers in their expression then. Something he can’t quite place, but they clearly shove the thought aside and focus on the conversation, “You bet I would have graced it with a nice file name.”
“I think I’m fine with the majority still calling it the Wara Ningyo murders,” he says.
“But that doesn’t really nail the essence of the case, does it?”
B groans, picks up his files, and gets up to leave the room. Behind him, he hears A say, “Hey, where are you going!”
“Out, to get some peace and quiet.”
“Was that joke the last straw?”
“If I had taken your case!” A says, hurriedly. He feels them tug at his sleeve and pull him back into towards his chair before he can reach the door. He doesn’t move, and just raises an eyebrow at them.
“If I had taken your case,” A says, “Do you want to know what I’d have called it?”
“I think I don’t.”
“Rude,” they say. “I’d…” They trail off. They look away, apparently deciding it’s not worth it, and shake their head. “Nevermind.”
“What would you have named it?”
“Something so disgustingly sappy you’d get diabetes,” they say, turning back to him.
He stares at them for a minute, holding their stare. A never looks at people in the eye, he knows. At least, not for very long. They’d rather look away and stare at corners, even when interrogating someone.
But they meet his eyes now, even when they look away first.
He slowly pulls their hand off his sleeve, careful not to drop his files. “Not what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
He lets the words die on his tongue and shrugs instead.
A laughs. It sounds a little sad. “To be fair, that would have been the kinder title. I immediately scrapped the original thought.”
“I’m going to hate this, aren’t I – who am I kidding, of course I’ll hate it.” He makes his way back to his chair and sits down, bringing his legs over the armrest so he can lean the folders back on his thighs to read through the contents again.
A does tell him their original title then, quickly darting to his side to whisper it and running back to their tower of case files before he can punch them in the shoulder. He gives them the stinkeye, too comfortable in his chair to get up.
“You awful brat!”
“Hey – no name calling,” A says, tutting. He flips them off, and A exaggeratedly sticks out their tongue and gags. “No thanks.”
“Not an invitation!”
A continues making gagging noises, shuddering and wincing when they look at him. He wishes he’d thought to wear shoes so he could chuck one at them. MONIKA probably won’t mind, not when she’d let him off easy last time.
Eventually, they quiet down to breathless laughter, and he huffs out a tired sigh. “Are you done?”
“I think I am. No, wait, hang on – ” They hold up a finger and then let out another stream of giggles. “Okay. Okay, I think I’m done.”
“You’re horrid, did you know that?”
They just raise their chin and pretend to flip their hair over their shoulder. “I’m not a mirror, B, perhaps you should look elsewhere.”
“Where’d you learn that?” he asks, “You used to just nervously laugh and try to melt into the floor when we were kids.”
“Excuse me, I’ve always known I was amazing, what do you think A stands for?”
“Rude,” A repeats. “I learned it when I was – when I was away from Wammy’s.” They look down then, fiddling with their sleeves. They turn around to face their tower of case files again, their back to him. B feels the bubble of mirth in the room burst abruptly, and he sinks into his seat further. They’re not going to answer if he presses.
Pity, he thinks. They’d been getting somewhere. He knows some paths are impossible to tread at this point and the best he can hope for is to get them comfortable enough that they’ll be lenient, and he can find a way to break out (not that he already knows what he’d even do if he does), but still.
He lets out another sigh, this time softer.
“Hey, uh,” A says, after several minutes of awkward silence, both of them trying to read when they can’t focus. “Thanks for the photos.”
“I did offer them to you.”
“Yeah, but, thanks anyway,” they say, “I wish I saw sunrises in Pasadena too.”
He pauses, and then resolutely doesn’t look at them, but nods. “You see the sunrise here plenty enough.”
“That I do.” A chuckles. “That I do.”
He figures out all the cases A’s got for him in a week, and then he’s back to lounging in front of the television dictating chess moves while playing against MONIKA. A stays in the solarium most days, even if they only really keep the curtains open for sunrises and sunsets, and only come down for food. Once, B tries to make food, arguing with the AI the whole time so he could provide a defense for why he’s picking up a knife without being electrocuted, and he ends up with pretty decent steak. Burnt, but edible. So, yeah, decent.
On the second week, he gets bored enough to lock himself up in his room to tune and test out his new violin. His fingers have to take a while to remember the feeling of the strings again, and the frustrations of recovering from burns comes back to him with every moment they don’t obey what he wants them to do, or shake too much as he presses down on the strings.
But eventually – and thankfully, as he was two notes close to doing something regrettable – he gets the hang of it again, relearning his way around the instrument. He recalls old pieces, from when he was still performing to an empty (almost-empty, as A always sat on the stage with him) theater in Wammy’s, saying one day he’d get somewhere with this if the L thing didn’t work out; when he was younger and didn’t think that obsessions ran that deep.
When he exhausts his memories, he has MONIKA print him out a few sheets. He only realizes it’s been hours when A’s knocking on his door, and when he looks at the clock, it’s already evening.
He’s missed lunch.
MONIKA slides open his bedroom door, and he frowns at the camera in the corner.
“B?” A leans past the doorway – how considerate, they’d hid behind a wall to at least give him some privacy – and then blinks when they spot him staring down a few sheets of paper, violin perched on his shoulder, hair tied up in a messy bun. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t – you didn’t come down for dinner.”
“It’s fine,” he says, lowering his bow. A fidgets as they fully step into view. “I was just about done anyway.”
“Didn’t look like it.”
“Well, I’m saying I’m done,” he says. He goes over to where he’s put the case to deposit the violin in it. A carefully watches his movements. He tries to think of how long it’s been since he’s played for them. “Dinner?”
“Proper steak since you, uh, botched your last attempt.”
They laugh at his offended stare and turn to start their way downstairs.
At least they really do know how to cook proper steak. He hadn’t been joking about living on take-outs afforded by a measly salary from an endless string of jobs while he’d been in LA, and hospital food had mostly been horrible as he was on a strict diet until the last few months. At the very least, he’ll keep A for the food, if he ever escapes.
Not wanting to sour his appetite with the avalanche of questions that comes with that line of thought, he immediately digs into his food the second he fills up his plate. A looks at him for a moment when he stabs at the meat rather violently, but says nothing, and dinner is silent as it usually is.
A’s on soap duty, and he grabs the towel and stands right beside them. Routine always helps clear the head.
“I might have to leave you alone here for a while,” A begins. They sound cautious, but not of him.
“It’s your turn to wash the dishes.”
“No, dumbass,” they say, chuckling. “I meant work. Duty still calls even when I have to look after you.”
“Oh,” he says. He accepts the plate handed to him and just stares at it for a moment before wiping it down. “Oh. Fieldwork?”
“Yes,” A says. “Well, not really, but I gotta oversee it. And I have to fly to the actual city and get things done, you know. I trust the local police – ”
“No, you don’t.”
A snorts. “Yeah, no, I don’t. S’why I gotta go and make sure they get the job done.”
“Do you usually pull that voice?” he asks, “With the cops – the – wow, goddamnit, I’ve spent too much time in the States.”
A giggles. He glares at them. They mock his accent and he makes a face.
“Sure, hon,” A says, in a very exaggerated drawl that he can’t decide is a poor imitation of a New York accent or just something they made up. “But anyway, what voice?”
“You kind of have a really soft and warm way of saying that you trust the cops and that they’re very reliable,” he says, “But you don’t, and your voice reeks of lies.”
A shrugs. “It works.”
“Because they’re idiots.”
“Well, I’ve never tried it on you, how would you know?”
B pauses. “Don’t you dare.”
A just shrugs again, and then laughs. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” they say, “But yeah. I do pull that voice. Makes them friendlier and more receptive to being bossed around.”
“And you can’t do that from here?” he asks, “Pretty sure your internet connection’s strong enough. Wammy doesn’t do second-best.” He freezes a bit as soon as he says that.
A keeps their eyes down. “It’s just a contingency plan. Just in case I need to check a few things out on my own.”
“I see,” he says, “Any chance you’ll tell me where you’re going?”
“Nope,” A says, “Wammy says I can’t do that.”
“Via e-mail or did you call him?”
“I got a sticky note.”
“Is that serious or is that a joke?”
“I got the equivalent of a sticky note in my e-mails.” A says. “Short unsigned message from Wammy’s.”
He grunts. Stacks the latest plate he’s handed onto the cupboard. “How long will the case take?”
“Only a short while if everything goes well.”
B turns to them, curious. “Is that supposed to sound unsure of your own investigative abilities?”
A laughs. “B, let’s be real. Things rarely go well.”
He presses his lips to a thin line. “Not if you can’t control all the variables.”
“And I don’t control the variables,” A says.
“I’m not omnipotent,” A says.
He clicks his tongue. “How good’s your reputation among the law enforcement?”
“Good enough.” A’s just about finished washing everything and is running their hands under the water. They take the towel from him to dry off. “That doesn’t mean I control everyone’s impulses.”
“You easily can. Threaten their jobs.”
“Then they wouldn’t work for me at all,” A says.
He turns and leans back on the sink, staring at them. There’s a lot of things he can say to them, about how they haven’t changed at all, but he knows they have. They just hold on to some things a bit too tight for comfort. It would be their downfall, he knows, if they don’t crash and burn by themself first.
“A,” he says, “You’re not fit for babysitting me at all.”
A laughs, loud and harsh. “Who says I’m babysitting you?” They shake their head and place the towel on the rack. “If I threaten you, you’d hold a knife to my throat faster than I can blink.”
“And MONIKA would fry my insides out.”
“B,” A says, “I have no quarrel with you. Don’t try to start one.”
“Sentimentality will be the death of you.”
“Sentimentality is the reason you’re not rotting in a cell, dying of infection from untreated burns,” A says, already walking away, “You’re welcome.”
He knows that. Knows that L wouldn’t have bothered to get him proper treatment at all, but the reminder still stings. His sleeves have ridden up a bit, and he can see the pressure garments around his arms, and he says nothing.
“Oh,” A says, pausing by the doorway. He doesn’t look up. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
He does at that. “What?”
“MONIKA will get you case files if you’re bored. Or you could play your violin. Have fun.”
“Wait, you’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Good night, B.”
They disappear from into the hallway in the next second, and he’s left staring at the darkened doorway. He wonders how empty the house will feel for the next few weeks.
“You really have a way with pissing them off, don’t you?” MONIKA whispers, in such a small voice that he knows it’s isolated only to this room.
He frowns. “Shut up.”
Chapter 4: Eels
might be slightly gross, but not too bad. i think. my gross meter is broken.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s been a week.
It’s been a week since A has left the house, and B has spent that week as best as someone under house arrest can. He tries everything he can think of to deactivate his ankle monitor - taking it apart by a screwdriver, after soaping up his foot so it’s slippery and he can try to slide it, attemping to lob off his whole foot - he plays tetris and chess with MONIKA, reads, plays his new violin until his fingers hurt, plinks around A’s piano when he feels like it, and tests the limits of how far from the house he can walk away and how long he can stay out. It’s a pretty productive week, kind of.
He can’t deny he’s bored though. There’s only so much he can do to entertain himself without it becoming repetitive and stale, and a week by himself in a house with no internet connection (for him, anyway) gets old pretty fast.
He’s lying down on the solarium’s floor, just laid out on the carpet, when MONIKA reminds him that he can always work on a case.
He frowns up at the ceiling. “How many cases do you have for me right now?”
“Six,” MONIKA says.
“Pride cometh before the fall.”
“Very funny,” he says, turning on his side for a moment and staring out at the view through the glass wall. He thinks for a second. He hasn’t heard anything from A, although maybe that’s because they’ve been banned from contacting him so his location’s not given away, but then again they also could have always just set up a secure line.
Maybe they’ve forgotten about him. He wouldn’t be surprised, but.
He pauses. “Six cases?”
“How difficult would you say they are?”
“Considering A has given permission for you to access them, I would say not to worry and they’re definitely not above your capabilities.”
He glares up at the ceiling for a second and frowns, before turning his attention outside again. Six cases. Those’ll probably keep him occupied for a week. Maybe two if he takes his time, but he also likes to be efficient whenever he can. Hopefully he’ll have another source of entertainment by then.
“Okay,” he says, “Print out the files, then.”
Half an hour later, he has a hefty stack of papers on his bedroom floor, and he’s currently arranging them by case. Focus is something he needs for solving things, but he’s also the type to work better when he’s multitasking, so he’s decided he’s going to review every case he’s being given on the same day, and he’ll solve them all side by side, write an essay on the evidence or something, and present it all to A once he’s done.
He’s reminded of Wammy’s for a moment - of being in school - and the thought leaves a sour taste in his mouth.
Thankfully, that’s washed out as soon as he starts reading the first case file, and then rereads the beginning even when he’s not even halfway through just to make sure he’s gotten this right.
“A compiled these reports?”
He hesitates. “They don’t have any typos in this or anything of the sort?”
MONIKA takes a second to reply. “No, sir. All case files are proofread to have accurate reports on the investigation and all evidence gathered.”
He spends another minute reading the file until he gets to the part with - “Eels.”
MONIKA says nothing. She probably doesn’t know anything about the case, only that B has permissions to get to it - that, or she’s actually somehow able to enjoy his discomfort and is keeping silent to watch him squirm. It’s a pity A’s not here so he can ask his questions.
Fortunately, a little perfectly-timed beep comes from his room’s speakers, and MONIKA announces that he has an incoming call from A. He tells her to accept it.
“Hey, sorry I wasn’t able to call earlier, it’s been a hectic week,” A says, voice bouncing around his room cheerfully. He stiffens a little when he realizes how quiet the house has been since they’ve left. “But I have a bit of free time right now, so I thought I’d check in.”
“I was starting to think you weren’t allowed to call me.”
A laughs. “I almost wasn’t,” they say, but before he can ask for clarifications, immediately follow up with, “So, how have you been?”
He raises an eyebrow even though they can’t see him. “That’s a very mundane question to ask.”
“You’re right, MONIKA’s updated me on exactly how many escape attempts you’ve done and how many electric shocks you’ve had.”
He winces. “To be fair, it wasn’t a lot.”
“Yeah, I’m actually impressed. And glad I requested a warning protocol so you didn’t get zapped all the time she thought you were going against the rules,” they say, “But really, don’t try to dismantle your ankle monitor.”
“Of course,” A says, “How bored have you been?”
“Immensely, but I’ve also managed to reach a state of Nirvana without you here.”
“You’re so rude, wow,” they say, tutting a little. “And here I was, considerately leaving you things to amuse yourself with.”
“You left me six case files, that’s not a lot.”
“Have you solved one?”
He quiets, and then frowns, a little offended. “Not yet.”
“See?” A says, “I’ll hopefully be back when you’re done with them.”
“Still can’t tell me where you are?”
“Nope.” There’s a rustling noise over the line. A sounds like they’re adjusting some pillows. “Sadly that’s still not an option. Try asking other questions.”
“When are you coming back?”
“I can’t give an exact timeframe for that either for reasons related to the case, but I will try to wrap this up within the week.” A pauses, and then snorts a little. “Why, d’you miss me?”
“I think I’ve had enough practice to not be able to.”
A doesn’t answer for a minute. B only knows they haven’t ended the call because MONIKA hasn’t announced that they have.
“Fair enough,” they say, “Anything else?”
“Yes, actually,” B says and lifts the papers he has in his hand. “Eels? Really?”
“You have to admit, it’s a little ingenious.”
“Is this what you actually do with your training?” he asks, “L takes on cases with high body counts, or with a lot of money at stake; you take the actual weirdoes.”
“I just find the weirdoes first, he can find his own cases if he wants,” A says. They actually sound a little defensive, if a little miffed. “And besides, I thought you’d find this case interesting too.”
“I wouldn’t say interesting,” he says, “It’s eels.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
He gives them an unamused expression, or tries to, because then he remembers again that they can’t see him, but MONIKA saves him the trouble by saying, “He’s making that face he makes when he’s constipated, A.”
Okay, maybe that’s not much help.
A laughs. “Do you like it, B?”
“A – ” B takes a deep breath, pinches the bridge of his nose, and can’t believe he’s the one exasperated here. “There were eels. Down the victim's throat. And up his ass.”
“And it’s an ingenious murder method, don’t you think?”
He lifts a finger as if to demonstrate a point, and then puts it down and looks away. “You know, sometimes, I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened had your disposition been just a smidge closer to mine.”
A only laughs. “If you feel like the printed files are lacking, you may ask MONIKA for access to the digital copies. You can probably review photos better when she can zoom in for you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says, “How’s your case doing?”
“Awfully,” A says, “We have all the necessary material for an arrest and a conviction, but we have a runner.”
“Ah,” B says, “You haven’t cornered them yet?”
“We’re tracing down a phone call. We’ll wrap it up soon, don’t worry.”
“Pity, I was touched and everything,” A says. “Have you - “ They yawn, and he wonders what time it is, wherever they are. “ - made any progress on the cases I’ve given you, or have you just started?”
“I haven’t finished reading through this case file yet,” he says, “What time is it over there?”
There’s a pause, and then, “9:32 p.m.”
“You should sleep,” he says. “If this is free time for you, you have plenty of time to catch up on rest. Fatigue is detrimental to performance.”
“I was going to sleep soon, it’s fine,” A says, “I’m not breaking a schedule here. Kind of. No need to start getting itchy over it.”
“I don’t get itchy over it,” he says.
A laughs again, but this time it cuts off in a yawn, and B finds himself yawning as well even when it’s still broad daylight for him. He hears another rustle.
“Yeah, I definitely need rest now. I’m getting sleepier now that you’ve mentioned the time.”
“It wasn’t my fault you weren’t sleeping when you should have been.”
“It’s nine o’clock, B, I’m not a child,” they say, “Good luck solving your eels.”
“Not that I need it - and I hate that,” he says. He hears them laugh before the call cuts off, and he reads through the rest of the file before instructing MONIKA to pull up the digital one on his television. He half regrets doing so when he sees the photos blown up on his screen, but it’s a lot easier than squinting at the ones he has on hand.
“They’re different species of eels, right?”
“Yes, sir,” MONIKA says. Ah. So she did just refuse to answer him earlier. “Their species have been listed on the file.” On cue, the latest image he’s asked her to pull up - a photo of an eel still intact after it was extracted from the second victim’s esophagus - shrinks to make room for the aforementioned list.
“Three different types of eels, all live when they were used to murder the victims,” he says.
He doesn’t expect any response, but MONIKA still affirms him. “Yes, sir.”
“Four victims so far with no known links,” he says, “Or nothing the cops have found.”
He pauses for a moment, reviewing what he’s read so far. Four victims. Three men and one woman, all living in different places, all without connections to each other, and yet found dead in their own homes with live - or they were live when they were being put in them, anyway - eels down their throats and, well, up their asses, which sounded like an incredibly uncomfortable way to die, as the eels had eaten through their esophagus and their anal canal. They’d choked on the eels and had bled out too, so that was varying degrees of discomfort and pain, all at once.
Very...crude, if he has to describe it. But A’s right, it’s odd enough to be creative. Odd enough to be eye-catching.
“We know the culprit knew where their victims lived.”
“Would you like me to put together a map, sir?”
“That would be helpful, yes,” he says, “And can you put together a comprehensive history of the victims, please? Credit card purchases, academic records, criminal records, medical histories; the like.”
“I would have to have permission from A to be able to grant you records, sir.”
Huh. Strange answer, but perhaps A solved this case another way. But still. “Ask them, then, they’ll probably answer in a few hours,” he says.
“I’ve sent a message. Anything else?”
“Timeframe. It’s in the case file and I’d make it myself, but you’re around and you’d put it together faster.”
MONIKA immediately does pull up a timeframe as she shrinks down the photo and the list on the television screen.
He pauses. “I’ll let you know if I think of it,” he says. Then he realizes he’s actually focused on this case now, and throws the remaining case files he’s set around him a quick glance.
Well. He’s got a week before A might possibly get home, and it’s not like they’d take the files away from him once they’re back. They set these ones aside for him after all.
He gathers them up and walks over to set them on his desk. He has no paperweights so he picks out a book from his shelf to lay it over them, and then he turns back to his television.
The speakers in the room let out the notification noise.
“A’s answered already?” he asks.
“No, sir,” MONIKA says, “A’s just forwarded to me that there’s been a fifth victim.”
“Oh,” he says, staring at the TV screen of what he’d thought was just a very recently-solved case of A’s. “This is still ongoing.”
At least the victim count stays at five in the three days he spends sitting in front of his television, combing through all the victims’ records and sending requests to be approved by A. He’d work faster if he was able to immediately act on his requests, he knows, but sadly everything he wants to know and have done has to go through A for review, and so far they’ve knocked five out of eight requests he’s had, out of his hands. At least they’ve given him the courtesy of having this case credited to him instead of filing it under one of the many aliases they use. He’s still using an alias, of course (pity he can’t use Rue Ryuzaki), but this is less insulting.
Five victims. All from different areas. All who didn’t know each other. Seemingly no pattern for the time of deaths as the first victim was murdered six months ago. The second four, the third and fourth just at the beginning of this month, and the fifth just very recently.
Another Paige Turner? Someone who’d discovered the high murder gave them and decided to act on their urges, getting more and more impulsive as time went on?
“Well, I know they’re all well-off,” he says, out loud. In the past few days, he’s learned that MONIKA is a good sounding board. “Not rich, exactly, but well-off. Enough to able to afford…” He looks at the list of places in which all the victims had gone to, on the corner of his television screen.
There were three places three of the five victims had all gone to - a hospital, a hotel, and one train station, but their visits were too spaced out. Months, even years apart, but still, taking note of it was making sure he was covering all bases and making sure not a detail slipped past him. There was, however, one last place on the list he’d had MONIKA take note of, and he’s waiting for the confirmation from A once they’ve heard back from the cops they’d sent to investigate the scene.
In three of the five victims’ credit card histories, several purchases were from a high-end restaurant that served fresh seafood. Like lobsters, mudcrabs -
He wrinkles his nose. He definitely doesn’t plan on eating eels again anytime soon, and he’s glad he hasn’t had any recently either.
“Sir, A is on the line.”
“Accept the call,” he says, sitting down on his bed. The windows on his television screen close themselves as MONIKA preemptively pulls up the new files A’s sent to B: the reports and audio files from the cops they’d sent to the Silver Cove restaurant to see if victims Patricia Wilson and Marlon Waide had gone there.
“Hey, how are you doing?”
“Close to cracking this, and wondering how the cops missed such obvious connections,” he says, already beginning to read through the report. He grabs the remote from where it’s fallen to the floor, to hit the down button as a way to scroll through the file. “Didn’t they bother to ask around?”
“They did, I think, but the first victim had an aquarium in his house,” A says, “As did the third.”
“And nobody thought to look up how to care for eels?”
A laughs. “I suppose not. They simply thought - rich guy, big aquarium, an eel inside of the aquarium. The culprit must have used the pet to murder them.”
“The others didn’t have aquariums.”
“Which threw them off. The first murder gained so much publicity that the second was initially thought to be a copycat. Popular opinion is that it still might be.”
He scoffs, and is silent until he finishes reading through the report, and once he’s done he leans back on his hands, grinning, satisfied.
Second victim Patricia Wilson and fifth victim Marlon Waide had both dined in the restaurant, but they’d paid in cash, so their purchases hadn’t showed up on their card histories. The other victims had dined here too, but had paid with their cards.
“Cops didn’t think to go through their card histories either because the first victim was last seen in the restaurant four months before he was murdered. He'd gone to other places with eels before that. It could have been those places too,” A says, “And all of the restaurants he'd gone to in the last two months were interviewed. They skipped Cove.”
“Culprit was biding their time. Letting the anger fester.” B waves his hand.
“Anger?” A says, sounding intrigued. “What makes you say that?”
There are some things, he knows, that shouldn’t be shared with other people, not because they’re too personal, but because it might be too much for their sensibilities. He’s known this for a long time, used it against his therapist back when he’d still been at the hospital, much to A’s exasperation.
Well, that or it sounded too farfetched and dramatic for anyone.
But this is A, he thinks, and if there’s anyone whose sensibilities have long been trampled into the ground, and who’s used to hearing him wax poetry over things, it’s them.
So he says, “The way you kill someone speaks a lot about how you feel about them.”
A is silent, and then they prod, gently ushering him to continue: “Similar how mutilations often point to crimes involving deep-set anger?”
He laughs. “You know what I mean. There’s that, and there’s also elaborately planning things to make sure your victim suffers, make sure that what they go through is as uncomfortable as it is painful. Make it horrifying. Give thought to how every carving you make on their skin expresses whatever you wish to express.”
“It’s usually hatred,” he says, and shrugs. “But then there's also fondness, admiration, respect, pity. That's why mercy-kills exist.”
A makes a curious noise. “Why do you think your culprit used eels, then?”
“Well, if they met the first victim at the restaurant, I’d say it’s poetic justice,” he says, “If not, then I’d say there’s just a lot of anger in this. A lot of contempt. And the desire to watch their victims be horrified even before they’d gotten an eel down their throat.” He huffs out a breath. “There’s three different types of eels used here though. How many does Silver Cove have on their menu?”
“Can you trace the nearest sources for the other two?”
“Already did. Thought you’d ask,” they say. He turns to a camera with a look, and MONIKA replaces the police report with A’s list of places for the nearest sources of European and American eels. There’s several farms on the list.
“Have you gotten people to comb through those farms?” he asks.
“Yeah, just got them out on the field, you should be getting their reports soon,” A says. “What are you thinking?”
“That our murderer’s in the restaurant,” he says, “But throwing two other types of eels into this spreads the net out a little. It could be a farm worker using the restaurant as a cover, or a restaurant worker using the farms as a cover.”
“That is possible. It's something that would require more effort, but very possible, and necessary if a culprit were to protect their own identity.”
He nods. “...or we have two murderers.”
“Also very possible,” they say, but then there’s a little tinny noise in the background, like their own laptop’s just received a notification. B hears them sigh and confirm it. “I’m...sorry, I still have work to do. Any other request you want me to get done?”
He thinks it over. “Can you get me a list of restaurants that serve European and American eels within the map I had made?”
“I can, no problem. You’ll have them in a few minutes,” A says. Then, after a long pause between both of them, sighs again. “I should go. Talk to you later, B.”
“Yeah,” he says, a little awkward and hesitant. “Talk to you later, I guess.”
A moves fast with his requests, so he has his list of places and the rest of his police reports before the day ends, and he spends most of his evening piecing everything together until he passes out. There’s seven restaurants who serve European and American eels, but only one restaurant has been visited by a victim, and that had been three years ago, and Ivan Richards, their fourth victim, had switched to getting his dinner at Silver Cove a little later.
But as it may still be important, he reads through every report he’s given and has A interview all of the staff in all the restaurants, and find that none of them are suspicious, but there has been a theft of eels in the restaurant Islands a few months before their first victim was murdered.
Pre-meditated. Very pre-meditated. B puts out a request for interviewing the staff of Silver Cove and when the reports come in, he only has to spend an hour reviewing the audio recordings until he gets to the one with a Jeremiah Katzberg, one of the wait staff who’s worked in the Cove for six years, who refers to the fourth victim by his first name without even being prompted to.
His attention is immediately caught, and he leaves a message about searching Jeremiah’s house to see if there’s anything suspicious there. They find him and his roommate, whose cousin happens to work in a high-end restaurant that serves European and American eels, and while the boys are lying through their teeth in the living room, there’s aquariums of eels found in their basement.
“The effort is commendable,” B says, eating pop tarts on the kitchen counter. He’s sent in his report to A hours earlier, and they haven’t responded yet, but they probably will get back to him in a few hours. “I mean - stealing eels beforehand and setting up tanks to keep them isn’t an easy job. Neither is stealing supplies even before they’ve stolen the eels.”
“Very premeditated, as you said,” MONIKA says.
He hums. “If we get a confession, everything’s going to be neatly wrapped up, but even if we don’t, it’s a case solved.” He takes a moment to imagine closing this case and moving on to the next one with only theories and no confirmation of the boys’ motives. It makes him frown. “But that would be unsatisfying.”
“Would you like me to send a message to A about a confession, sir?”
He nods, and crunches into a poptart. “Yeah, send them a message.”
He has an idea of why they did it. Jeremiah seemed like the type to be resentful - from his school records, he seemed like a nice, smart boy but one who was pushed around too often and he’d actually snapped once, and had snapped dramatically. He’d set a chem lab on fire and didn’t admit it was him until a week before he graduated high school, and his parents begged the school to let him graduate as the offense was three years ago anyway. He'd gotten ‘nicer’, everyone had said. B just thinks he got better at acting. What a loss to the theatric world.
And he worked as one of the wait staff in Silver Cove. Customers could be irritating sometimes.
The effort really is commendable.
He gets an e-mail from A the next day that his work has been turned in, credited under Akame, and attached to the e-mail were recordings of the murderers’ confessions.
Both boys had broken down under the pressure and had sobbed in front of the detective interrogating them, and B can’t help a snicker as he listens to the audio. It’s a good day, all in all, even when he practically has nothing else to do as he’s still not in the mood to start on the other cases yet. A doesn’t call, and he just ends up watching a movie and falling asleep on the living room couch.
A doesn’t call the next day either, when he finally starts on another case, this one with more sensible and reasonable weapons than a bunch of eels, and B sends A his requests once he’s read through the file and figured out where to start piecing things together. A doesn’t respond until evening, and he sleeps, expecting a response when he wakes.
Except he doesn’t get one. Nor does he get one the next day, and the next, and the next, that he actually starts to wonder if A’s actually forgotten about him or if A’s just too busy to reply to any of his e-mails for now. The thought actually makes him a little miffed, and he spends one afternoon glaring at their piano as he tries to read in the library in peace. It’s quiet, and yet even the silence offends him.
A doesn’t reply for a total of a week and a half before he asks MONIKA if she’s gotten any word from them.
“No, sir, I haven’t,” she says.
This should be a chance for escape, he thinks. A’s not paying attention to him, after all, and maybe he can use that to his advantage even when all previous attempts have been foiled by MONIKA. He can probably find a way around her. Which reminds him - he still doesn’t know what her name means. It’s probably high time he seriously got working on that, now that A’s finally neglected him, or finally got caught in the crossfire of whatever case they’ve been working on, or finally dead -
(He is sixteen and the treehouse is on fire. It is raining, and he is screaming, and yet no matter how hard the rain pours and no matter how loud he screams, the flames don’t stop, and no one steps out of the burning house. A branch crashes onto the ground, embers sparking upon the impact, steam hissing from the grass as it hits, and B - B can do nothing but plead that, please, please, get out of there, please - )
He frowns, slowly. He stops his pacing - because he has been doing that for the past half hour and wearing down the soles of his feet and the library carpet - and sits instead, crossing his legs under him. “Can you call them?”
“I can attempt to, sir.”
“Call them then.”
He waits and listens as MONIKA calls A, the beeping gurgle of a connection in progress ringing in the silent library, and his hands twitch when he hears the automated ‘The number you are attempting to reach is unavailable, please try again’ recording sound out.
“GPS?” he asks.
A minute later, MONIKA announces that she can’t locate their phone. He frowns further.
“So they’ve somehow disappeared off the face of the earth,” he says.
“It appears so, sir.”
Just like last time, he thinks, and his lips slant up in a mirthless smile. He exhales through his nose, slowly, focusing.
If A has forgotten him, he’s here all by himself until he runs out of supplies. He doesn’t know if MONIKA can even order things for him without A’s approval. If A’s has forgotten him, he’s isolated here for who knows how long. If A is dead, there is the possibility that Wammy will remember him and decide he’s not worth all this and just throw him to the wolves. If A is dead - well. Possibilities are endless.
“Yes?” he asks, sitting up straight as he snaps out his thoughts. “What is it?”
“I’m receiving an incoming call - “
MONIKA does, and he hears the click of the line being opened.
“Took you a while,” he says, but instead of A’s voice, he hears someone else, someone he hasn’t heard from in a long time, and someone who sounds very, very different from the last time they’d been face to face.
B blinks as he registers exactly who’s talking.
“Hey,” says Mail Jeevas, awkward and unsure, but he’s definitely trying, alright. “So, A is missing.”
been a while but i finally edited this and /table tapping: e e l s
Chapter 5: If You Have The Chance To Pick Me Up
it's still fun without plot don't look at me
“Missing,” he repeats, like that’s going to make it sink into his head when it hadn’t the first time.
“Uh, yeah,” Jeevas says.
“What do you mean A’s missing?”
“As in - we don’t know where they are and haven’t heard from them at all and the last place where we tracked their phone GPS to was a gutter?” There’s a sound of a wrapper crinkling and B makes a face in disgust. “Understandably, we’re not asking the cops they’re working with if they’ve heard from them because A’s got a reputation to uphold and everything - “ B scoffs. Like Wammy’s house would even care about a reputation outside of L’s. “ - but we checked their call logs. None have been from A’s line in the past few days.”
“Their hotel room?”
“Left pristine and untouched as it was on the day they left it. They just never came back.”
“So they either booked it when they got out, or they were forced to run…” B runs a hand over his face, pauses, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “That or a kidnapping’s possible.”
“A has no reason to run, not from their work,” Jeevas says. He sounds a little offended. “Being chased off or kidnapped’s more possible.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” B says. He knows A definitely has at least one reason to try and run away as far as possible from everything involving Wammy’s. “Where was their phone found?”
“I think they’d have more reason to stay.”
“Where was their phone found?”
“Kline Street, Amsterdam in good ol’ NYC,” Jeevas says, a little grumpily. “Sheesh.”
“And how far is Kline Street from where they were supposed to be?”
There’s a full minute of silence. Jeevas only breaks it when he crinkles a wrapper again, probably from opening a pack of chips. B's lips thin out in a line.
“What do you actually want me to do here - Matt.” He catches himself before he can say the kid’s real name; that’s not a secret he’s forking over right now. It’s not the right time. “Why did you call me?”
His response is the loud crunching of a chip. B waits and tries not tell MONIKA to cut off the call. She probably wouldn’t if she favors her creator, if that’s even possible for her programming. It probably is, given that she’s told him she learns. She can learn favoritism.
After about ten minutes, Jeevas is still crunching on his chips.
“Why did you call me?”
“I - ” another loud crunch. B can actually hear the chip crumbs falling onto the table. “ - called you here because we need you to find A.”
He leans back on his hands, still sitting cross-legged, the very picture of confidence and arrogance, exactly as one should seem when an opportunity for negotiation offers itself up. Jeevas and whoever else is monitoring the call doesn’t need to know his confusion and suspicion, even if they’re smart enough to know he’ll be thinking about that.
“Why me, of all people?” he asks, “You can get the cops to look for them. And don’t give me bull about Wammy’s caring about their reputation, because I’d wager they actually don’t.” He hears a crunch that’s louder than the last one at that. “You can even get any of the wannabe detectives still in the house to work on this - how is the latest first-in-line, by the way?”
“It’s Near now,” Jeevas says, “And he’s fine.”
“None of your business, B.”
“Does he know A is alive and so am I?”
“None of your bloody business, like I said, unless the fire burned out a few of the measly number of brain cells you were born with,” Jeevas snaps.
B just hums. “If you still room with Mello, then I expect he knows? Or were you recruited for keeping this a secret?”
“You really lost a lot more than just skin and hair and muscle when you set yourself ablaze, didn’t you. Poor A, trying to restore everything to make things easier for you.”
“Cheap shots, Matt, I’ve dealt with better.”
“I wish it was a cheap shot instead of the truth, B,” the boy says, clicking his tongue, “But if you could focus, please. I called you and not the cops because we do care about A’s reputation. They’re also an important detective, even if they have too many aliases to let just one pile up the popularity.” He’s making the crunching noises louder on purpose this time, B knows. It doesn’t make it any less irritating. “And you’re the only person we have that can actually look into this.”
“So Near and the others don’t know about A faking their death? And getting me out of my prison sentence? No one knows this outside of you?”
Jeevas just continues like he hasn’t heard him, but that’s enough confirmation. “And I know that you understand that should A be declared dead, Wammy’s will easily throw you back into the prison sentence you were supposed to be serving - possibly have it worse if we decide that you ‘escaped’ before you could be thrown in jail. That, or we let MONIKA execute you. It’d be easier.”
B frowns at that. “And waste all that effort hospitalizing me.”
“We didn’t do that,” Jeevas says, “A did.”
B’s frown deepens, and he glares at the wall across from him. It’s too much effort turning to look at a camera right now. If Jeevas is accessing them, he can just see B seething anyway.
“I’ve heard they were the one negotiating a deal with Mr. Wammy - hell, maybe L - to actually get you to a hospital,” he says, “Video and audio footage shows you know that.”
“You’ve reviewed them, huh?”
“I check in with MONIKA every now and then.” Jeevas laughs. “Have to see how she’s doing being exposed to you and A, after all.”
“What does that mean?”
“Whatever it means,” he says, “Now are you going to help find A or not?”
“Why should I?” B asks. “Like, really - why should I? I was going to die after I set myself on fire, what difference does it make if MONIKA executes me?”
Jeevas doesn’t answer.
B smiles, a sort of smile that’s laced with rage and resentment, but also reeks of pettiness. He stands, making his way over to the door, not even bothering to end the call.
“It would be humiliating.”
“It would be humiliating because no one would even know you died and no one would care,” Jeevas says, “You’d die like a dog. Fried from the inside-out by a software in an empty house in the middle of nowhere, because you left the only person who would even think about crying for you, for dead.”
He says nothing, not for a while, but he doesn’t continue to walk towards the door either. He doesn’t hear the call cut off, but also doesn’t hear Jeevas hang up.
He just stays there, staring at the floor, fists clenched, thinking about burning treehouses.
“I’ll send the files of their last case over - “
“How would it even work?” he asks.
Jeevas pauses. “I beg your pardon?”
“How would it work if I helped you find them? The same way I solved the cases they gave me?”
There’s a rapid clacking of keys. He turns to the camera this time and crosses his arms, waiting.
“That, and then some,” Jeevas says, “I’ll send you the files of their last case. Call me if you have any requests. We’re going to continue looking into their location on our own too, and I’ll call you if I have anything important you need to know.”
“I didn’t say yes,” he says.
Jeevas just laughs. “You don’t need to, B,” he says, “We all know you’re a proud arse. You wouldn’t let yourself die without dignity.”
And then there’s a loud click as the kid hangs up on him. B just angrily huffs, turning away. He slams the door on his way out, and he’s surprised the door frame doesn’t crack when he does.
He glares at the files when MONIKA pulls them up on his television screen, but he reads through them anyway, even when he’s way more silent than he usually is. He doesn’t ask MONIKA questions or respond to any prompts at conversation, and only types up letters to Jeevas on things he wants information on. He spends more time in making himself food than looking into possible locations because there's nothing in the case files aside from, well, the case, rather than hints to where A's gone. He goes to the library in an attempt to find something to do that’s not this when he’s irritated. Once, he plays his violin until he shreds the strings and his fingertips.
Seeing blood on the wood makes him feel slightly guilty, considering how valuable it is, but he’d been angry, and playing until his fingers started bleeding had felt good.
He does clean it up, and he puts it back in its case carefully after.
There’s not really a lot he can do from where he is, not when he’s not allowed to mobilize anyone and Jeevas has to run everything he submits back to Wammy’s, where it all most likely has to be reviewed again and again and again to make sure he’s not attempting to sabotage things. Working on the eel case with A’s assistance had been interesting and quick because of how fast A worked and processed all his requests, and they didn’t have to get a vote from twelve people after a week in order to have something done. It wasn’t the most efficient of methods, but B supposed trying to work around their restrictions had been fun.
This isn’t fun, because he hadn’t wanted to have anything to do with this in the first place, and he never hears any word back from Jeevas as to what’s become of his requests. He’s only expected to find A.
Their phone was last found in Kline Street, but A wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near New York, which meant that they’d either ran there and whoever had chased them had caught them and tossed their phone aside, or whoever had caught them had tossed the phone there are a red herring, on the way to the actual location they wanted to take A.
He can’t imagine them running off and forgetting they’d had their phone which could be traced, and then deciding to throw that phone away on the road to the actual location they were headed to. He knows them, and he knows they’re often hyperaware of restrictions, especially when they break a little too easily under the pressure.
They’re not stupid. They’d escape better, like they did last time - perhaps smooth over what they did wrong because clearly, they’d messed up their first attempt at faking their death.
They were supposed to be in L.A. - and funny that; brings back memories - they were supposed to be solving some case about people turning up with stigmata marks all over them, people who didn’t seem to have any connection to each other, aside from the fact that they all ended up dead the same way. The whole thing reeked of a cult operation, but A had mentioned they’d had a runner. Perhaps that was to throw him off in case he tried to look into the case himself, or this was the work of one crazed religious fanatic with too much time on their hands.
“Lost in the city of angels,” he murmurs, when he's sitting on his bed, reading over one of their reports again. They’d gone to L.A. to organize their team a bit better and to see things themself, it was always different if you got a look at the site yourself after all, and they’d ended up missing.
“Just like the rest of the victims,” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “You didn’t run, you got caught. You got targeted because you showed your face.”
He frowns slightly. “Shouldn’t have done that.”
He has no photos of them here in his room, especially as he has no phone and no access to anything with a camera, so he has no way of telling if they’re alive or not via lifespan. Still, it’s an idea. He knows MONIKA has access to security footage, so she would be able to pause on a good shot of them.
He sets aside the files for a moment.
“Do you have any photos of A?”
MONIKA doesn’t answer right away. When she does, B feels as if she’s hesitant, if that’s even possible with an artificial intelligence.
“For what purpose would you need them, sir?”
He weighs his options for a moment, and then decides he and A didn’t grow up together without learning things from each other.
B holds his breath and then lets it out slow, hoping MONIKA can read emotional cues. He blinks rapidly and looks down. “I just want to see them,” he says. “It’s been a while.”
“What benefit would it give to your current work, sir?”
He spreads his hands. “None on the case front,” he says, “But - please. We’re still friends, MONIKA.” He pauses, half to sell the act and half because he realizes they are friends. They’re still friends, even if whatever rapport they have is slightly strained. “Do you have a photo? Even just a good shot from cam footage?”
MONIKA doesn’t answer.
B tilts his head down lower, mostly so MONIKA can’t see the small frown he’s trying to hide. Well, he’s tried. He’ll go into this case blindly then, and if he can sneak something past Jeevas, then he might be able to escape out of here too.
The feed on the television changes.
It’s of him and A, sitting together on the piano. He looks unamused, probably annoyed about something they’ve said. A, on the other hand, is smiling, looking up at him with mischief written clear on their face, and for a moment, they both just look like friends, playing piano together and having fun.
B looks at his own image and isn’t surprised to see that his name and his lifespan don’t show up. It never has and he doesn’t expect it to show up any time soon.
It’s there, floating above their head, which is a relief of some sort, and their lifespan is steady, not flickering like he’d expected it to be, but he does see the numbers ticking down, and ticking down fast.
“They’re alive,” he says.
Then he turns back to the files he has with him. “MONIKA,” he says, “Call Matt for me, will you?”
Thankfully, Jeevas isn’t an idiot. Which is probably a given since he ended up in Wammy’s, after all, but then again, Wammy’s also takes in a lot of people who can’t spare two brain cells to rub together, so it’s a hit and miss, really, and it’s just fortunate Jeevas hasn’t dropped his intelligence today, as he sometimes swings between genius and moron.
He listens when B tells him that this arrangement isn’t working, and he either stops pestering B about the situation entirely, or lets him have free reign. The boy remains quiet for a few minutes after his proposal, and admits that yes, that is a problem.
He’s understandably not in charge of the operation and can’t give B clearance. He tells the man as much.
“I know that,” B says, “But if you could please tell Wammy or whoever’s actually looking for A that, then it would be helpful.”
He pauses, suddenly, as he realizes something. “Who is looking for them, Matt?”
“Wammy’s is,” the boy says. “Why?”
B thinks for a moment. He knows Mail to be a loyal, kind boy. He’s not the most well-behaved child, and perhaps that was his influence, but he knows he’s not a bastard either. He’s good to his friends.
He has an attachment to someone who was practically his babysitter.
The only question is, how much has he changed in the years A was dead, and in the years B hadn’t been in Wammy’s to see how he’s grown up?
Still. He can’t let Jeevas knows he has suspicions if his suspicions are right.
“I see,” he says, “Please tell me what Wammy’s says of my proposal then.”
“What would you think they’d do?”
“Turn it down because they’re stubborn, sensible people who wouldn’t risk giving me have free reign over anything, even for the life of their formerly first-in-line protège.”
Jeevas doesn’t answer.
“Either way, I tried,” he says, “And if they knock that suggestion out, then they have no right to execute me.” Not that he’d mind.
“Alright,” Jeevas says, hesitantly, “I’ll tell them.”
“Good,” he says.
There’s a brief minute of awkward silence before the call cuts out, Jeevas ending it before the uneasiness drags on. B only laughs, and then goes to get himself some pop tarts and asks MONIKA to play tetris with him.
Three days later, he finds a package on his doorstep.
“MONIKA,” he says, looking out of the window to look at the front gate. “A’s not here.”
“I know, sir,” MONIKA says, and without being prompted, slides the front door open. B squints as the sunlight is too bright for him when he’s just woken up. He puts a hand over his eyes and then self-consciously pulls his sleeves down his arms.
He steps out carefully, knowing MONIKA won’t do anything, but wary anyway. He stands on the porch like he’d done the first time he’d tried to pick up his violin, but this time he has to be the one to go to the gate. It shouldn’t be as nerve-wracking as it is. It’s such a simple thing.
He walks to the gate, barefoot. It’s not raining like the last time, but it is a cloudy day, and it looks like the clouds would pour out their load on him anytime. He hurries his footsteps, slowing down only when he’s near the gate, but then he hears the lock on it click open and he realizes he can just walk out of here.
His ankle monitor feels like a leaden weight on his foot, though.
“Pick up the package, sir,” MONIKA says from the intercom.
He gently pushes the gate open. It yields. B steps outside of the house premises for the first time in months. He looks down at the bomb strapped to his foot, and wonders how far he can run before it blows his leg off.
“Don’t try,” MONIKA reminds him. “You know the consequences.”
“I’m outside,” he says, “Fuck the consequences.”
He doesn’t move though, just looks at his ankle monitor, and then slowly looks at the box on the ground.
A is alive, somewhere. He’d asked MONIKA to pull up a photo of them again yesterday, and they were alive then too. He hasn’t checked today, and if he runs now and somehow makes it out alive, he just never has to check again. A might be able to save themself, or they might die.
(Treehouses, burning - it’s raining and he’s screaming himself hoarse.)
He picks up the box and goes back through the gate. The lock clicks shut.
He doesn’t know what he expects to be inside the box when he opens it up, but he does know it’s not a phone and a couple of fake I.D.s. He takes all of these items out of the box carefully, as if expecting them to suddenly catch fire (he wouldn’t be surprised if they did), and stares at them incredulously.
“Hey, you got them!” says Jeevas’ voice above him. MONIKA didn’t even alert him this time.
He flips over the I.D.s, checking them, but finds nothing out of the ordinary. The phone will take longer, so he gets comfortable where he’s sitting on his bed and starts to take the thing apart. Matt laughs.
“It’s not rigged to blow or anything,” he says, “‘course, it’s got a tracker on it, but that’s just standard protocol, you know. And don’t try to take it out. MONIKA’s going to fry you.”
“If I had any intention of being stupid and getting myself electrocuted, I would have run instead of pick up this box when I went outside earlier,” he says. He carefully puts aside the back cover of the phone as he gets it off, and then takes out the battery.
“That’s true,” Jeevas says. “Well, since you’re fully on-board, I guess you know what those are for.”
“I can guess,” he says. The battery is pretty normal too. There’s two sim cards in the phone, but those are also standard, and so is the memory card. There’s a little blue chip at the side, though. That’s probably the tracker. He puts the battery and phone cover back into their places. “When I said I wanted more freedom regarding how I approach this, I didn’t expect to be the one doing the leg work.”
“Heh. Too bad, you’re getting yeeted onto the field.” The boy laughs. “You’re keeping the ankle monitor though.”
“That’s a little obvious to bystanders.”
“Wear something baggy. Wear bell bottoms.”
“Bell bottoms,” B says, nose wrinkling. “That’s more noticeable.”
“You figure it out,” Jeevas says, “But the ankle monitor stays. Your parameters are adjusted, of course, but if MONIKA or I see that you’re up to something fishy, your leg’s getting blown off. That’s definitely noticeable, ‘iinit?”
“That said, turn on your phone.”
B presses the phone’s power button until it lights up. Instead of an Android logo like he expects - or at least a variation of an OS still running on the system, the logo that flashes at him spells out MONIKA.
“You have to be kidding me,” he mutters.
“Nope. MONIKA’s going to be monitoring your phone. She automatically connects to my computer so any suspicious business of yours is getting reported.” Jeevas sounds smug. B just listens and tries not to get irritated.”She automatically traces calls too, so if you manage to get ahold of A, she’ll be helpful.”
“And she’ll manage the bomb on my foot?”
“Yep. And the tracking chip put in your spine.”
B blinks. “Excuse me, what?”
“You heard me,” Jeevas says, “You have a tracking chip put in your spine.”
B frowns. On one hand, that sounds slightly farfetched. On the other, he wasn’t exactly awake for all his surgeries. He doesn’t know if A would allow it, had they known, unless…
“What about A?”
“What about them?”
“Do they have a tracking chip too?”
“Not in their spine, just the arm,” Jeevas says, “They’re more behaved than you.”
“What happened to that?”
“Cut out, we assume. We lost its signal in L.A.”
If the tracking chip isn’t Jeevas spouting crap, it’s either A lost it in a fight in an unfortunate coincidence, or whoever took them knew of its existence and cut it out of them. Or A cut it out themself, but then again, why hadn’t they done it before? They should have had plenty of other opportunities for it.
Curious. Very curious.
B puts down the phone and picks up the I.D.s again. “I’m going to New York?”
“That’s the last place we traced A’s phone to. I - ” Jeevas pauses to hum thoughtfully. “I don’t think going to L.A. is advisable for you.”
It isn’t. Even B knows that. There are a lot of ghosts for him in L.A., and he’d rather not meet all of them again. He doesn’t say anything, though, and lets Jeevas rattle on with his instructions. He supposes he’s going to have to work around those if they slow him down. He just needs to find A and get back.
Into this glass house.
Maybe he should have thought this out just a bit more thoroughly.
He supposes that at least he can get out of the house, perhaps convince A to get out too. They can’t want to stay cooped up in a tiny house following orders from on high forever.
He could spin this to his advantage.
“Pack everything you need to pack today. I’m getting a cab for you tomorrow which is going to drive you all the way to New York. We need to be inconspicuous, after all. A fancy car’s not going to do you any good.”
“I imagine,” he says, and sighs. “Another long trip, huh?”
“Shorter than the drive from L.A. to there, at least,” Jeevas says. “And hey, it’s fresh air.”
“Yeah,” B says, half-heartedly. “Fresh air.”
Jeevas only talks about a few more uninteresting details after; nothing he wouldn’t know as he does have an inkling of how common sense works, so he tunes half of it out and only offers a small wave when the boy hangs up. He stares at the floor for a few more minutes, before he finally lets himself get up and start packing. He realizes he doesn’t have a suitcase with him in his room when he opens his closet, and deliberates asking MONIKA to let him in A’s room for a moment so he can borrow theirs, before figuring that as Jeevas was the idiot who’d forgotten to give him a bag, she’s going to have to let him in their room or he just doesn’t pack anything at all and maybe die in the sunlight because his skin’s still sensitive.
“MONIKA, I don’t have a travel bag.”
“Would you like me to inform Sir Matt - ” Of all names the kid had to let his AI call him. “ - to deliver you one, sir?”
“That’s going to take too long,” he says, “Just let me borrow one of A’s bags.”
“I’m afraid their room is off-limits, sir.”
“Yeah, well, it’s either I don’t leave tomorrow and waste time which could be important to this as their life might be in danger, or I borrow one of their bags,” he says, “You’re always monitoring me anyway, you’ll see if I do anything. I just need one bag.” He steps away from his closet, not taking anything, as if to make good on his threat. “Your choice. Or Matt’s, if you have to run this by him.
“Please stand by.”
He actually lets out a laugh at that. That’s the only message he’s gotten from her that clearly shows she’s an AI.
A minute later, she says, “Access granted. A’s room is unlocked to you for an hour, sir.”
“Good,” he says, and goes down to make his way to their floor.
Their quarters are much like his, except perhaps that the colors are...bland. It’s surprising, really. He’d expected there to be colors all over the place, or if not, then maybe at least a more pastel scheme, but instead all he’s seeing is a lot of beige and grey and white. They have a plain grey carpet and one coffee table that doesn’t even have any books on it, and the rest of their furniture looks just as empty.
He wonders if they spend time here at all, or if they only ever do things in the other parts of the house. He wonders if they even have time to spend in their own quarters as they’re so busy solving cases most of the time.
Their bedroom isn’t as mind-numbingly boring, at least. They have black curtains that have a cat pattern on them, simple scribbles made in white, and the small bookshelf beside the door actually has books in it. Their carpet is still a dull grey, but their blankets are violet and black, painting out what seemed to be the silhouette of a moon and a couple of buildings, and their desk has a couple of notebooks and two picture frames on it, although one has fallen over.
Their closet is right by him, and on top of it is the bag they'd come here with, but he has an hour; hopefully MONIKA won’t shock him as long as he doesn’t loot through their valuables or anything.
He checks the books on their shelf. He doesn’t touch them, he just studies them, thoughtful. A lot of them look new, and he’s not surprised because their old books - the ones from Wammy’s he’d saved - are downstairs in the library. The ones they have here also appear to be extra copies, as they already had these books downstairs. Perhaps these are for their personal use then, and the ones below had been to share with him. Maybe he’ll read them all if he’s bored enough.
Their desk is a bit of a mess, but that’s expected for someone as busy as them. Their computer is turned off, and he knows they’ve brought their laptop with them, so it’s just a couple of notebooks, uncapped pens, papers, and photo frames on the desk. There’s some photos they’ve carefully clipped to a little board, and he’s surprised to find some of them are the photos he’d taken from when he was in L.A. They do look nice, now that he’s had time to be away and see them again. Sunsets over buildings are just as nice as the ones over the ocean.
One photo on their desk is of them and of a friend. He doesn’t recognize him, but he can see the man’s name. They both look like they’re in a book fair, which strikes him as something too normal. He’s never been in a book fair, not really, and he imagines this photo was probably A’s first. They look excited, bundled up in a coat and a scarf and a beanie, too many books in their arms, while their companion is laughing at how happy they seem.
He wonders when this photo was taken. Maybe a few years ago.
He picks up the photo frame that’s fallen over and stills.
The photograph inside had clearly been taken with an awful camera but the image is distinguishable. He remembers when this photo was taken. He remembers a lot of things from Wammy’s, actually.
In the photo, he’s twelve. They’re eleven. They’re both in forest surrounding the orphanage building, but not outside of the premises entirely. They’re both young, and they both...less weighed down, he supposes. They’re both smiling at the camera, as A had clicked the shutter while they were both laughing, amused that B had crawled through a bush and had twigs and leaves in his hair.
They look happy, he thinks. Happy children without a care in the world, even when school had been challenging and A had just started staying up late and passing out on their homework. He remembers that after that photo, they’d both run back into the building so he could clean up before dinner, and shared giggles over soup as no one had any idea that they’d jumped the fence and spent a few hours wandering Winchester until B attempted to pickpocket someone and ended up having to pick A up so they could both run off back to the orphanage.
He turns to their closet and takes the travel bag stacked above it. He reminds himself to ask A how they’d managed to put something on such a high place when he finds them.
He hates New York.
It’s loud and bright and hot, and he’s not really made for loud and bright and hot these days, but there’s not a lot he can do when all they’ve afforded him is a cab with a cabbie who’d attempted to make conversation seven times before B told him they’re both going to take a detour to a ditch if he didn’t shut up, and a simple room in a three-star hotel. Jeevas was probably enjoying setting up his accommodations just to see if he squirms, which, tough luck, considering he’s stayed in worse, but he supposes he can’t really risk worse now, while he’s still recovering from his burns. Even after surgeries, he’d been constantly reminded to be careful, after all.
At least he can close the curtains in his hotel, and he’s got enough gel pads to maybe last him a week here, although he has to find A fast unless he wants to be uncomfortable, and he’s brought his pressure garments with him. Provided he stick to shaded areas when travelling and not getting hit by sunlight drifting through window glass panes even when inside cabs (yep, that had been a major inconvenience earlier), he should be fine.
He needs to get out of here fast. He’s tired, and the thought of having a ticking time bomb on his foot had been hammered into his head even further with the strange looks he’d gotten from the obvious bump under his pant leg, just right by his ankle. He was being allowed to walk, but it wasn’t exactly to walk free.
He opens his phone after tossing his bag onto the bed. MONIKA’s OS screen lights up on it and right after she loads everything, he combs through the files again.
The first victim had turned up in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is also a hell of a long way from Los Angeles. It had been a man, Frank Devron, 46, and he’d been found in his house, having bled out onto his carpet, numerous lacerations on his body that looked like the work of barbed-wired whips, and holes on his feet and hands. The second victim was mutilated the same way, but was in Jamesville - which was in New York.
The third one was in Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania. The fourth, in Toledo, Ohio.
The pattern continued like that. The fifth was in Athens, Indiana; the sixth in Elmore, Illinois; the seventh in Iowa; the eighth in Elm Creek, Nebraska; the ninth in Colorado Springs; the tenth in Glenwood, Utah; and the eleventh in Las Vegas, Nevada
Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada.
“Could have gone to Arizona,” B says. California and Arizona were both near Nevada; hell, so were Oregon and Idaho, but whoever was behind this had gone straight to California - to Los Angeles, where A lied in wait.
He frowns for a moment. “Bait?”
He couldn’t be disrupting an operation, because otherwise, Matt wouldn’t have called. And A would have found a way to report back, or at least let themself be bugged if they couldn’t call back.
An operation gone wrong? Them baiting themself on purpose and it had fallen sideways?
“Isn’t it a little too early for this?” Jeevas’ voice filters through the phone with no warning, and B frowns, pausing. “You just arrived from hours of travel.”
“And I don’t have hours to waste,” he says, “I want out of here already.”
“And here I thought you’d be excited for freedom.”
He scoffs. “Freedom isn’t something that’s going to be granted to me unless I die,” he says, and lifts his shackled leg, even though Jeevas can’t see it. “As you can see, I have a lovely anklet.”
Jeevas only mutters an 'eh', probably shrugging. Then, he says, “If you need rest, you should definitely rest. You’re never going to get anything done with only three house of sleep or something.”
“Watch me,” he says instead. Jeevas sighs and waits for him to speak. He says nothing for a while, and then says, “I think I’m going to need a laptop to navigate things better.”
Jeevas is quiet. Then, hesitantly, he says, “How would that help?”
“How would - Matt, I can’t open multiple tabs or zoom in very well on a phone. I can’t open multiple windows without it crashing, or something,” he says, “You’re going to install MONIKA into it anyway - don’t lie to me - so you’d be able to track what I’m doing.”
“Okay, I’m not going to lie, I would, if you ever get a laptop, but ration your money right now until I can send you some. Or just send you a laptop, if you don’t feel like walking around.”
“I’m not here to sightsee, I’m here to find A.”
“Sheesh, just imagine it, would you,” Jeevas says, “Beautiful, loud little New York.”
“Pain in the ass New York.”
“Truly you’ve no appreciation for the small things in life. Like, you managed to get at least a few good views here.”
“This isn’t a vacation, this is a rescue mission,” he frowns at his phone. “Unless A did up and run, in which case you’d be hardpressed to find them. “
“It’s not,” Jeevas says. He sound so sure, but then again, he doesn’t know A as well as B does. At least, B hopes he does, otherwise, he’d just be failing himself, being unobservant. “They have more reason to stay, I told you.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he says. “But I reiterate, as we’re getting sidetracked. Laptop.”
“Alright, I’ll get you a laptop, give it a few hours,” he says. “Anything else?”
“Yes, any news from you trying to track down A on your end?”
“Nothing,” Jeevas says, “Which means that A either can’t give a signal because they’re physically incapable of doing that, or they haven’t had the time to.”
“Or, they don’t want to.”
“You keep pressing for that reasoning, but I’ll tell you again and again that you’re wrong.”
“That, or you’re in denial,” B says. He tosses his phone to the side, still not ending the call. He unzips his jacket to shred it, since he’s still a little warm from spending so much time in a stuffy cab and having to carry his own bag up to his room. “A’s smart. If they wanted to disappear, they would.”
“They would have done it a long time ago, if they wanted to,” Jeevas says, “I thought you were doing so well with agreeing A hadn’t run. What’d changed your mind? Ride to New York too bumpy?”
He thinks about the photographs on the desk again. A’d looked happy out with a friend, in one of them. The other was a dead memory.
“What do you really think, B?”
He says nothing, for a long, long time. And then he lays down on the bed, spreading his arms as he falls, exhausted.
“I don’t know,” he says.
Jeevas, thankfully, only holds his tongue.
He actually gets some sleep, which he doesn’t mourn over much because he doesn’t feel as horrible in the morning than when he’d first arrived. He gets himself cleaned up, nearly forgets to eat breakfast, and then picks up the package left on his front door as Matt’s made quick work of ordering a laptop from the nearest, yet most efficient, store in the city. B momentarily celebrates the plus side of hastily demanding a computer, which is that MONIKA isn’t installed in it, but then Jeevas says, “Turn on your phone’s and the laptop’s bluetooth.” and that had been the end of his little victory, because otherwise, MONIKA would set off his ankle monitor.
Speaking of, he glares at the damn thing from where it’s poking out under the hem of his pants.
“I really can’t take this off?” he asks.
“Negative, sir,” MONIKA answers from his phone’s speakers.
He glares at the phone and turns off the lockscreen. It buzzes back to life as he sets it back on the bed. He glares at it harder. A few minutes later, MONIKA chimes that the file transfer from the phone to the laptop has been completed, and she needs only a few seconds until set-up is finished. B watches her program load on the laptop screen, slowly installing itself, before the window closes as it completes.
“You’re done?” he asks.
“Yes, sir,” both laptop and phone speakers say, in perfect unison.
B slides a finger over the mousepad on the laptop, hitting the search bar so he can get a map to mark. He’d forgotten to let MONIKA set it up earlier in his distraction of snooping around A’s room. He marks the areas where the victims had been found, and then the last place where they’d found A’s phone.
“MONIKA, connect me to Matt.”
His phone’s screen automatically changes to a calling screen. Jeevas picks up on the third ring.
B resists the urge to groan. “Has anyone trawled the river?” he asks.
Jeevas is silent for a moment. “That’s a good possibility even if I don’t like it. No, no one has trawled the river.”
B hums, absent-mindedly bringing his thumb to his mouth to bite it, and then pulls his hand away in disgust. “Am I able to notify the police?”
“Please avoid contacting the police.”
He lets out a harsh breath through his nose, irate. “Okay,” he says, “Okay. I can work around that.”
No mobilising the cops means he has to do the leg work all by himself. Maybe he can get people to do a few things for him, but he doubts Jeevas will let him attempt to reconnect with old contacts, and in the off-chance A was kidnapped, he’d just be bringing to the kidnapper’s attention that there’s someone looking for them, unless they’ve left the area entirely. Still, B doesn’t have a lot of options, and he’s got fake I.D.s with him anyway. If he can play his cards right, everything will fall right into place. He just has to make sure to control all the variables.
Control of the situation, that’s what he needs here.
“Kline Street,” he says. He pauses for a second, running his half-formed plan over and over in his head. He doesn’t have much time to smooth it out, so it’ll have to do.
“MONIKA, get me the clearest possible photo of A you have, zoom it in, and save it to my phone,” he says, already standing up to dig into his bag. He chucks aside clothing until he finds the baggiest hoodie he has, and the most faded pair of jeans.
MONIKA chimes out an affirmative as he pulls the hoodie over his head and changes into the jeans. He goes to the mirror, checking - he looks like someone who hasn’t had time to really care about their appearance, who’d grabbed the nearest thing in the closet and put it on, but that’s exactly what he’s going for here. His hair is a mess from putting on the hoodie, but he messes it up more; there’s still dark circles under his eyes from the fatigue of travel, but that’s perfect.
His phone lets out a small ding.
“Image downloaded, sir.”
He turns to pick it up, quickly navigating to his file folders to move the image to ‘Photos’ and changing the file name to a date, just in case someone pays attention to it.
“What’re you thinking, B?” Matt asks.
“I’m thinking of doing my job,” he says. “Kline Street’s someplace to start, at least.”
Matt laughs, amused, but B’s already shutting off the laptop and pocketing his phone, so his voice sounds muffled. “Good luck, B,” he says, “Here’s hoping you find something of use.”
Kline Street is warm and stuffy when he gets there, that he can actually feel his skin itching even underneath his pressure garments. To be fair, he’d chosen the hoodie when he could have just gone for a big and overused t-shirt, maybe sell the pity act a bit more once people saw the pressure garments, but then again, he’s not really sure his vanity would allow that. Acting is one thing. Acting while people are pitying an actual circumstance he has is another.
But he has things to do and not a lot of time to lose, so he goes to Kline Street and goes from door to door, asking if anyone, please, has seen his beloved friend whom he really, really cares for and is really, really worried about. It’s laughably easy how people fall for it once they see how he’s dressed, and at his unkempt, sleep-deprived state. Granted, the friendly demeanor and the soft voice probably helps because they could have easily mistaken him as a stalker. Unfortunately, no one has seen anything, and it’s hard to keep track of cars passing by the neighborhood when, well, it’s right by a street, and streets are made for cars to run on, after all. No one’s going to pay attention to suspicious cars as long as they’re not the fabled white vans that snatch children up and take them away.
Maybe someone in a white van just ran off with A inside. He wouldn’t be surprised.
If only it’s that simple though.
Come noon, he’s exhausted and has to duck under a nearby diner to get out of the heat and down three glasses of iced tea, much to some of the patrons’ shock, but since he’s clearly uncomfortable in the heat (who isn’t, though), they let him be. He regrets not bringing a hair tie, for a moment, sitting there in a booth fishing ice out of a glass to crush it between his teeth, because his hair’s sticking to his face and the back of his neck. He settles for taking out the drawstring of his hoodie and tying his hair up with it. He can suffer with a too-large hood for comfortability.
His phone buzzes in his pocket. He takes it out.
There’s a message, from Jeevas:
He types out a no and moves to put his phone back, but it buzzes again before he can even lower his arm.
I checked Kline Street’s footage from a week before A’s phone was found, and up to the recent tapes, but I haven’t found anything - not that most of the footage is even clear enough to be of use. It’s been raining there recently. Low visibility.
He shouldn’t be surprised, especially if Wammy’s is backing Jeevas’ hacking escapades, but:
You can get into CCTV footage?
The storage for it, Jeevas says, Working around a few things.
B leans back in his seat. Maybe he doesn’t have to trawl the river, not that he thinks A’s there. Unless their body was weighed down, their corpse should have floated up by now.
Can you see if there’s cameras and footage of the river? he types.
I can try, if there’s any, at least. We’re both ignorant Brits, Jeevas says. B just snorts. After a pause, during which B starts typing and then has to stop when another message comes up, he says: I still don’t think they were drowned.
B types out his answer, highlights it, and then backspaces, deciding it’s not worth it. Instead, he just sends: Just check the footage. I’m asking people around the area as soon as the sun stops trying to kill me.
Jeevas only responds with a ‘lmao rip ;-;’ and B doesn’t grace that with a reply.
Mohawk River is huge, and B gets there near sunset, exhausted from walking and asking a few more questions but getting no helpful answers from the diner staff. A hadn’t been here in the past few weeks, or maybe ever, which means B hasn’t made any progress at all, aside from maybe rule out eyewitnesses.
But the phone had been thrown into a street gutter. That had happened. Someone ought to have seen that.
Unless A’s body is in the sewers and their phone had just fallen out of their pockets? Someone still would have had to stuff an entire corpse into the sewer. Someone should have seen that. He’ll have to ask again, about weird behavior near gutters, not that that will probably get him anything. People threw things into the gutters all the time.
He pinches the bridge of his nose. The river’s a pretty sight, at least. And it’s quiet here. Quiet and cold, or maybe that’s because of the setting sun, and B feels just how scorched his cheeks are when the cold wind hits his skin. He sighs, moving to sit down, leaning forward to puts his elbows on his knees as he takes the time to simply rest.
“Where are you, A?” he murmurs. The river doesn’t answer, nor does it spit them up. He supposes he should be thankful.
There’s a loud sound of a branch breaking behind him. He turns, quickly, and sees a young boy with a bike, camera hanging by a strap around his next, blink owlishly at him.
He sits back down, deciding it’s none of his business if a child decides to go biking around here just as it’s getting dark, with a camera with him.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” the boy suddenly says.
He turns and stands, ignoring the kid, but hears the clunky sounds of the bicycle’s wheels turning, and he shoots the boy an unamused look when he comes to stand beside him.
“I came here to get away from people,” he says, hoping the kid would get the hint.
Instead he just laughs. B takes note of his name, floating above his head innocently.
“You a runaway?” Raymond, the boy, asks. He looks down at B’s foot, where his ankle monitor is noticeably poking under the hem of his pants. “Oh, wow, you’ve still got a shackle.”
“That’s not a shackle,” B says. He turns and starts walking, ignoring the kid’s cry of, “Wait, hey! Hey!” but then Raymond circles around him on the bike and stops when he’s right in front of B, cutting him off. B glares, walks around him, and then continues trudging up and away from the river faster than he had earlier.
Raymond sadly catches up easier with the bike. B wonders if MONIKA would electrocute him for pushing a child over.
“I’m just curious,” the boy says. B wishes he had the ability to shut the kid’s mouth without getting killed by an AI. “I’ve never seen you here before, you go around town asking people things, you’ve got that thing on your foot - it caught my attention.”
B pauses, just for a very short while. “You noticed that, huh?”
“During the morning. I saw you out my window. I have no idea how long you’ve been asking around, but you’re still near the neighborhood, so I can guess,” Raymond says.
Well, he can’t say he’s been discreet. Not like he was trying to. And he can spin this to his favor.
“I’m looking for someone,” he says, taking out his phone and opening up A’s picture. He shows it to Raymond, who leans over and looks at it carefully. A looks happy in their photo. It’s the one of them carrying a few books, wrapped up in a scarf and a coat. “Do you recognize them?”
B raises an eyebrow, very slowly. “So you do?”
“Yeah. They moved here a few years back. Pretty nice. Liked to bike with us. Quiet, though,” Raymond says, and waves a hand. “Moved away around a year and a half ago, though. I miss them.”
“I see,” B says. Quiet. Maybe quiet enough that the neighbors didn’t notice them, or too busy with work to actually bother meeting everyone. “How come no one in the neighborhood recognized them?”
Raymond shrugs. “Maybe they thought you were a stalker and decided not to tell you.”
B gives the boy a flat look. Raymond snickers.
“You have a vibe,” he says, and motions to B’s foot. “Plus that really obvious thing.”
“I’m aware,” he mutters, and then fakes a sigh, running his hand through his hair, the image of frustration as he keeps it there and clenches his hand a little, tangling locks around his fingers. “Look, they’re my best friend, okay? They didn’t come home a while ago, someone said they were headed here last, and this is the only place I know where to look for them.”
Raymond stares at him, sizing him up, and tries to cross his arms, but his bike starts to fall sideways so he holds on to it. “Maybe you are a stalker.”
“I’m not,” he says.
“You could just be lying,” the boy says.
B doesn’t blink for a few seconds, enough that his eyes are heating up and watering, and then he blinks rapidly. Raymond’s expression falters.
“They’re the only person I have left,” B says, wishing the lie didn’t quite feel like it wasn’t one, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. “Please.”
Raymond looks at him, and he holds the boy’s stare, eyes glassy, jaw clenched, like he doesn’t want to cry in front of a child, and he doesn’t, really, because that’s pathetic and at most he just wants to go back to the house, but he has to sell the act of a bedraggled college student just looking for a missing best friend.
“I haven’t seen them around town in a year,” Raymond says. He looks away, but he’s silent, no tells giving away anything about him lying. B thinks he’s pretty much gotten the kid convinced. “Sorry about that.”
“Do you know of anyone suspicious passing town?” he asks. “Maybe they were kidnapped when they came here.”
“I don’t know either, I’m in school for most of the day,” he says.
B presses his lips to a thin line. Coming up with nothing on this end too, huh.
He considers, briefly, telling Raymond about the phone in the gutter, just in case he knows something about it. Besides, the kid looks to be about nine. He can’t tattle much, at least not enough to be taken seriously.
“A few cops who were working on this said the last place they found my friend’s phone was in a street gutter,” B says, and the looks to the side, hunching over and rubbing the back of his neck. “I admit I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m kind of doing this on my own, because I thought the cops couldn’t find them fast enough…”
“I get it,” Raymond says, “It’s okay. Do you know which street gutter?”
B holds his breath a little and hopes that’s enough to make his cheeks forcibly color, like he’s embarrassed. “No,” he says.
“Okay,” Raymond says, “How long ago did they disappear?”
“A few days ago. But it could be a week. We don’t live close, as of recently, and I was only told a few days ago.”
“A few days ago,” Raymond repeats. He quiets down for a moment to think, and then he nods to himself. “I don’t know if it could be the same thing, but it was raining heavily here a few days ago. I was outside, running home, and I saw someone toss something out of a car window. They almost hit me with it, actually.” He shrugs. “Could’a been a phone.”
“You think it was raining strong enough for currents to take a phone down into the sewer?”
“The floodwater took one of my shoes away,” he says, “If the phone’s lighter than the shoe, why not? They could have nearly thrown it into the sewer anyway and the water just pushed it through.”
“Fair enough,” he says. “Which direction did they go?”
Raymond jerks his thumb towards the neighborhood. “Towards the highway. Other than that, I can’t tell.”
“The only way they could have gotten to Kline and to the highway if they didn’t take the highway in the first place and then circle back is - “ B makes a motion towards the nearby road.
“Front Street, yeah.”
“I see,” he says, and then remembers to plaster on a grateful, relieved smile that makes him feel like his blood is turning to molasses. “Thank you very much - uh?”
“Raymond,” he says like he doesn’t see the boy’s whole name floating in front of him. Best not to scare the kid and have himself be under scrutiny for suspicion. “Thank you, this helps a lot.” He inclines his head downwards, a gesture of gratitude, and then starts to walk back up towards the neighborhood.
He turns. Raymond is facing him, looking small but determined. It reminds him of someone.
“Yes?” he asks.
“I hope you find your friend.”
He’s heard the well-wishing remark so many times today that he’s practically tuned it out completely, but he’s exhausted from a day’s worth of walking around and acting like he’s someone worried sick, and it’s a little boy - one who looks haunted, like he’s seen things he shouldn’t have seen too.
B smiles, even if it’s more smug and borderline threatening than kind. “Thanks.”
Front Street unfortunately forks into too many roads - it curves to E Main and Pearl, and there’s also the possibility of the kidnappers doubling back (he’s fully ruling out runaway if someone tossed a phone out of a vehicle, almost hitting a kid, because again, A wouldn’t be stupid enough to forget about their phone and just toss it out when they remember, not unless they were planning to confuse whoever tried to find them, which is too much work and is something they would do, but not in the middle of a case that’s nearly solved; he’d asked Jeevas earlier if the cult case was solved - it wasn’t) but at least he has something. He can work with this.
“Where was A staying when they were in L.A., Matt?” he asks. He’s in his most comfortable sweater and pants, with the A/C turned up, because it’s been a sweltering day outside for him. He’s too sensitive, which is irritating.
B stills. He scoffs then and bites into the piece of meat he’s speared with his plastic fork. “Pasadena.”
“Don’t blame me, I wasn’t the one in charge of their accommodations, they chose it themself.”
B harrumphs and finishes the rest of his meal in silence before chucking the styrofoam container into the wastebasket.
“MONIKA, map,” he says. MONIKA pulls it up as he sits back down. He blinks as he sees the line - well, a jagged one - she’s drawn from Pasadena to Kline Street. “From Pasadena in Los Angeles…” He traces the blue line with his finger, although he doesn’t quite touch the laptop. “All the way to Kline Street in New York.”
“That’s far,” Jeevas says. “America’s huge, wow.”
“MONIKA how long would travel by car take?”
“Fourty hours, sir,” MONIKA says.
“Easily doable in two days without rest,” B notes, “But not if they have to stop for gas. And they’d have to, constantly, so we can place this at maybe three or four days.”
“Enough time since A’s disappeared,” Jeevas says. “Counting naps too.”
“But the further they’ve been on the road and the more times they’ve had to stop for gas, the more times A’s had to attempt an escape, if we’re going by the kidnapping theory,” B says. “They could have had their phone.”
Jeevas picks up on his train of thought easily. “Could have tried to call.”
“And was unfortunately found out - phone was confiscated, hurriedly chucked out of the window without regard for consequences.”
There’s a noise on Matt’s end. The boy’s probably wiggling in his seat or something. “We have something.”
“Not quite yet,” B says, “It’s full of holes, but it’s something. And at least we know which direction they’re moving in.”
“Where do you think they’re going?”
“Lots of places they can easily go, but the nearest ones would be - Massachusetts, maybe New Hampshire.” He pauses. “Wait, MONIKA get me a list of those victims and where they were found again?”
MONIKA clears the screen to show him the list. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s probably nothing, but -
The first victim was in Springfield, Massachusetts.
A would be the twelfth, from Los Angeles, but then, why not kill them in the city? Unless it didn’t matter where they were killed as long as they were from the targeted area. Maybe’s A’s too high profile to risk. Maybe A’s not part of the intended victims at all, just someone who needs to be eliminated, as quickly and as far away as possible.
“I need to go to Massachusetts.”
there's definitely bound to be more typoes in this one, i just speed-proofread it sdkfsjk
Funnily enough, for all the time B’s had to himself when he was out of Wammy’s House, he had never been on a roadtrip. He hadn’t had the time for it. There was too much to do, too much ground to cover, too many contingency plans to be made. Or so was his reasoning, had anyone bothered to ask him about it when he was younger, and nobody ever did, not that B ever really gave them the chance to.
He didn’t count the ride from the hospital to the glass house a road trip, as it wasn’t really one, and he and A had irritated and entertained each other in the car at equal turns. There were no pit stops, no pauses to sightsee, and no undercurrent of a roadtrip being made for relaxation, or just pissing the hell out of each other, if some people were to be believed. Not only that, he knew he truly had no choice or freedom during the whole trip, as he was just switching prisons.
So he supposes this is the closest he’ll ever come to a roadtrip now, sitting in the back of a cab with a bluetooth earpiece on, the dividing glass between him and the cabbie put up, yelling at Matt (or MONIKA) every two seconds. The spirit of relaxation, if it ever really is present in roadtrips, isn’t there, but the ‘pissing the hell out of each other’ part is there. And with added bonus of him being able to run for possibly two seconds before MONIKA fried his guts out.
“I’m trying my goddamn best here, B, you can’t expect me to single-handedly trawl through the CCTV footage of the entirety of Massachusetts while getting you accommodations.”
“Then let me take care of the accommodations and delegate MONIKA to half of the footage work,” he says, “Don’t be stupid, Matt, organize.”
“Oh, you have the gall to tell me that, when you’re jumping to another state entirely on a hunch!”
“It’s a fair one, and you won’t let me have people to mobilize, so I have to do all the legwork myself. Hold my hotel room for me if you can.”
Jeevas actually sits in a few seconds of silence at that, obviously balking. Curious.
“I’m not going to hand you control over where you’re staying in Massachusetts.”
“You will if you want to get work done and not have me stay in a street while I’m in the state,” he says.
“Maybe I will.”
B narrows his eyes and glares at the back of the cabbie’s seat. The man, as if sensing his anger, even though it isn’t directed at him, presses down the gas. B feels the car glide down the street faster.
“Then I’ll have to take matters into my own hands, which is already something you’re so daftly addressing for the sake of not giving me anything to do. Which is bullshit,” he says, “I’m already outside the sodding house, the least you can bloody do so I can do my godforsaken job is actually let me help. For fuck’s sake, Matt.”
It’s starting to rain, outside. The hotel is already two miles behind them, and with the cabbie flooring it, they’re going to cross the third mile rather quickly, but it won’t be enough to outrun the storm if it decides to pour on them now. Weather is a fickle thing, irritating in its inconvenience.
“I am not allowed to - ”
“Okay, well, fuck what you’re not allowed to do, and fuck whoever’s in charge of the whole operation who’s apparently intent on making me do footwork without actually letting me have any control over it when I’m the only one they’ve sent out onto the field to look for their oh so precious protégé,” he says. “I’m getting out of the cab and going back to the house, the way this is going.”
“What about A?”
“What about A, you’re the one sabotaging the operation,” he snaps.
“I am following rules, Birthday. Something you apparently have never had a grasp on.”
“Don’t fucking call me that or you’re getting your throat slit, boy,” he says, borderline hissing, and his anklet gives off a beep, a tiny red dot peeking out of the dark material of his pants’ hem to signal out a warning.
He pauses. Takes a deep breath and lets it out, slowly, plastering on the most ingenuinely calm look he’s ever had on his face.
“Look,” he starts, amiable, “I’m frustrated. And I’m sorry that I’m taking out my frustration on you. But if you’re under so much work, then let MONIKA have a share of the load. It’s not that hard. Let her take care of my accommodations if you can’t, or do that yourself for five minutes and then go back to footage review.”
“We’re combing through a week or so’s worth of footage in an entire state, B,” Jeevas says, “Between the two of us, that’s so much work.”
B raises an eyebrow, the odd phrasing catching his attention. “Between the two of you?”
Matt only stalls for two seconds, at least. The boy deserves an award.
“We’re the only ones active right now, there’s another case that requires everyone to assist L.”
B snorts. “Pull the other one. It has bells.”
“I’m not joking, B. While A is an important priority, L is - ” Jeevas cuts himself off, suddenly. B smiles at him, or at least, at the back of the cabbie’s seat, where the leather has cracked and torn off from age. Hopefully, if Jeevas is accessing the cameras he’ll see the malice in B’s smile, teeth practically dripping red with hatred.
The boy clears his throat. “Anyway,” he says, “As everyone else is busy, we’re the only ones looking into this right now.”
“I see,” he says, too pleasantly. “So, are you going to delegate work to MONIKA?”
Jeevas pauses. Then, “MONIKA, arrange B’s temporary place of residence in Massachusetts.”
B lets out a sigh and leans back in his seat. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” On the laptop, he sees the monitor open a hotel’s site, quickly navigating to the room options. When the screen does nothing for a while, he realizes MONIKA’s waiting on him to choose, so he does. “Sometimes, I wonder if you just make things hard on purpose to antagonize me, Matt.”
“If I wanted to do that, trust me, everything would be so much more annoying,” the boy says, “Maybe later when you’ve found A.”
He glances straight at the camera briefly. “Don’t push your luck.”
“Not trying to, I just know how much of it I actually have,” he says.
The call doesn’t cut off, but as the storm finally pours down on them and as the cabbie starts to ease up on the pedal both because he wants to avoid accidents and because B is no longer glaring at the back of his seat like he wants it to burst into flames - wait, no, bad metaphor, like he wants it to explode in a pile of foam and leather, more like - none of them say anything other than a few noises of approval while MONIKA finalizes B’s arrangements.
B takes out the bluetooth earpiece once, just to ease the uneven weight on the side of his head, but has to clip it back on before MONIKA could take it as an attempt to escape.
When it seems like nothing is happening at all since Jeevas won’t let him help, he closes the laptop and leans back against his seat, closing his eyes. He’s still exhausted from the long drive to New York, and he’d already spent most of his time there walking around and socializing, so he needs to catch up on sleep, even if it’s at the back of another cab.
There’s an automated voice from Matt’s end of the call. It says, Sir, you have an incoming message.
“Accept it,” Matt says. He sounds like he’s wheeling away from his desk and is knocking a few things over along the way, and when he speaks, B hears it like it’s farther away from the mic of whatever he was using to communicate with B.
He tunes it out, for a moment, thinking it’s just someone calling Matt from inside the house or is one of Matt’s outside contacts because he has no doubt the kid has those -
B’s eyes open. Alert.
“Holy - okay, okay, I’m connecting you - ”
There’s the sound of keys clacking, a click, and then:
“ - what do you mean you’re connecting me - Matt, what’s going on?”
B wishes it was raining less right now so he can pick out the noises from A’s side of the call. As it is, he can only listen intently and attempt to identify anything from their call that might hint at their location.
“A, stay on the call, just a little while longer.”
“If you’re trying to track my location down, I’m at Angell Animal Medical Center. I’m using a payphone here.”
That eliminates all possibility of them running away then, considering they’d just given their location. Unless Matt is in on it, somehow, and from his slip-up earlier, that can be, but then, Matt wouldn’t be looking for A so fervently if it was just them teaming up to break them out of house arrest.
And where would B fit into that picture?
“Why are you at an animal medical center?”
“Who looks for hostages at animal medical centers? That’s not important, I just needed to call you to tell you my location - wait, who did you connect me to?”
There’s a pause.
“B, say something.”
Right. He hasn’t said anything since the beginning of the call.
“B? What does he have to do with this?”
“I’m the only one they released onto the field to look for you,” he says, “And you’re welcome, by the way. You are in Massachusetts?”
“Yeah, they took me here.”
He presses the bluetooth speaker nearer his ear like that’s going to help him hear what they’re saying clearer. “Who did?”
“I was tracking down a cult case and while it’s most likely the work of a group, I have reason to believe a man named Charles Wickerton is a part of this cult. He’s who I was dealing with for the past few weeks.”
“He, what, kidnapped you?”
“No, not Wickerton himself, but I heard him on the phone with the ones who did.”
“Ah,” he says, “You were kidnapped by the cult.”
“You have a talent for making things sound so trivial.”
“I know, it’s part of my charm. Do you know where they were taking you?”
“Springfield, most likely. I think that’s where they have a base of operations. I’m not the twelfth sacrifice, I think, just a pest they want out of their way,” A says. He hears a soft thud like they’re leaning their weight against a wall, exhausted, and then a very faint hiss that might have been drowned out by the rain were he not listening closely.
“And they want the whole group’s approval of how you go, or will you be getting some sort of ceremonial punishment?” he asks.
A laughs. “We never know, could be either. I ran out the van when they stopped for gas. Got time when the employees saw me and called the cops.”
“Matt, get on the news for that,” he says, and Matt says, “On it,” before he’s even finished. “Which gas station?”
“Uh, I think it was a Mobil,” they say, “But I’m not sure, I was busy running for my life.”
“Never thought I’d see the day you do that, but okay. How long ago was this?” he asks, “Matt’s been monitoring me along with MONIKA and has been going through New York’s footage, not Massachusetts. It’s possible he missed a few things.”
“I’m also operating on barely any sleep.”
“Matt, sleep,” A says, “That happened late last night. If it hasn’t been on the news, then I don’t want to think about what that implies.”
“It’s on the news, but some people think it’s a prank,” Jeevas says. B opens his laptop when he says that, and MONIKA dutifully pulls up several news sites for him. “And I don’t blame them, especially since witness accounts are all to go on. There’s no CCTV footage of the event ever happening.”
A pauses. “No CCTV?”
“Ah, shit,” B says.
“They’d have to have worked fast.”
“If it’s a small gas station with a bunch of terrified people at ass o’clock in the morning, you bet they’re going to find a way to shut them up,” B says, “But that’s already damage control to a big slip-up, which means we have a better chance at jailing them. Have you called the cops?”
“B, I’m legally dead. I can’t try that,” they say. Then, after a pause. “I haven’t tried that. I’m sorry.”
“Call the goddamn cops. We’re on our way too, so try to stay put, but it can’t help to have a first line of defense there,” he says.
A doesn’t say anything.
This time they do, but it’s to hiss a curse out lowly. B leans forward a little, as if that would help. “Turns out people do look in animal medical shelters.”
Oh. He’s got less than five seconds; there’s not a lot A can do now unless they make a scene, but that would endanger too many people and B knows A, knows their pesky morals, so -
“Sorry, honey, I’ll have to talk to you later. The vet’s calling us. It’s our turn.” A’s voice is sickly sweet. B actually has to pause and hold down a shudder. He’s about to interrupt, but A continues like they’re about to win an award for stellar voice acting. Notably, though, their voice is softer, but not any less tender. “Pick us up at the church, okay? So you won’t have to go too far.”
“Which church?” he asks, in an equally small voice, before they’ve even gotten the second sentence out.
“Saint Botolph Anglican,” A says. Then, quickly. “Bye for now, hon, see you later.”
He hears the faint clack of the phone being hung up on its rack, and then a steady dial tone until Matt cuts off the connection from his end.
B lets his thoughts settle for a second. “We have a location.”
“We sure do, hon.”
“Oh, fuck you,” he says, and then reaches to loudly knock on the divider between him and the cabbie. The man looks a little panicked, and slows down so he can open the window, and then presses down on the gas so hard that the car swerves to the left a little, but then steadies its run.
“What is it?” the man asks.
“Skip the hotel, we’re going to Saint Botolph Anglican Church,” B says. He looks down at the map on his laptop. MONIKA’s helpfully changed it. “That’s on Huntington Avenue.”
B closes the window himself this time, and then taps his fingers on the edge of the laptop, thinking.
Jeevas is still on the line.
“You really can’t track them right now, can you?” B asks.
“Not conventionally, no,” Jeevas says, “They don’t have a phone, and if they do, they didn’t give us any information about it. Smart move with the payphone in case someone was tracking it though.”
“They got lucky it was us,” B says. “Does A have a direct line to you?”
“Yeah. I can imagine the fee was huge, but that was slightly worth it.”
“Probably stole someone’s wallet,” B says offhandedly, “Can you check the CCTVs around the area?”
“Around the animal medical hospital?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“I’ll try, and I’ll keep an eye on any cameras near the church.”
“Good,” he says, and then runs a hand over his face. “I should have brought a weapon.”
“You’re not allowed - ”
“And if A’s life depends on it?” he asks.
Matt doesn’t answer right away. Then. “I’ll find a way to get you something,”
B nods. That’s good enough.
Saint Botolph Anglican Church, sadly, isn’t that impressive.
It takes him about four hours to get there. Four hours in which anything could have happened to A in the time they’ve had to wait, because a quick check on the map shows that the medical center and the church aren’t actually that far from each other, although A has an disadvantage on foot, since they’d be significantly slower than vehicles and have a chance of being spotted.
Still, they’re smart. If anything, he knows he can trust in their intelligence, so he does. He makes a quick stop to buy two knives and a gun, which he has to argue with Jeevas for a short moment so the boy and his AI would allow him to keep it, but in the end they do, so he carries them with him, as hidden as possible under his baggy hoodie as he makes his way to the church. He’s careful as he climbs the fence surrounding the building, vaulting himself over as soon as he’s at the very top, glad that his gloves are helping him grip things easier.
There’s no one there.
It’s quiet too. B has no idea what goes on in churches when services end, or during the off days, when a church is just in an office building - he’s never really sought to work in one, hasn’t ever thought to be an altar boy or whatever, and if he’s asked, he doesn’t really care about higher powers. Maybe he believes in them, maybe he doesn’t, but he doesn’t care. There’s a fine line between belief and investment.
He considers knocking on one of the doors for a moment, but if someone other than A is inside - if they somehow have even gotten inside - then that would just alert them to his presence.
“Matt?” He asks his earpiece instead, voice low.
“I saw A get over the fence building about two hours ago,” he says, “It was too dark, but I think they went in the back. I didn’t see them come back to the front.”
“Did you check other surrounding cameras?”
“Yes, no sign of them.”
“Okay,” he says. “So either they’re here or they got whisked off again in an unsuspecting vehicle. We don’t really know what to look for.”
“Are you going to check the back?”
“Yeah,” he says, slowly taking out the gun he’s been hiding under his jacket, tucked carefully into its holster. He takes the safety off. MONIKA doesn’t give him a warning beep.
He walks around the back as silently as possible. The fact that it’s nighttime makes it easier for him to go unseen in the shadows, making his way around the building with a gun in hand. He’s thankful that the fence makes it harder for bystanders to spot him. They’d ask too many questions, and he’d rather not answer any of them.
There’s no one in the back either. Around him, there’s only the rest of the fence and the walls of surrounding buildings.
“A, where the hell are you?” he mumbles. There’s no sign of them outside, but there’s still the rest of the building, and then the area around it. If something had gone on here, there should have been someone who heard it. At least, if it had made any noise.
He closes his eyes in an attempt to focus. Takes a deep breath.
The area stinks of petrichor and the ever-present, faint, sewage smell that plagues cities; stinks of garbage and faint smoke, dust and something that burns his nose and his throat when he catches a whiff of it. He groans, opening his eyes to wipe the back of his nose, and then notices that the weird smell has the familiar iron tang of blood.
It’s not that strong, so that means there’s not a lot of it, but B’s been smelling blood half-awake for months now. He knows what it smells like. He hopes he’s not hallucinating from fatigue this time, at least.
“Ah, shit, flashlight.”
A light from his phone suddenly shines through the fabric of his jeans’ pockets. He blinks and then looks around, hoping no one’s seen that, and then takes his phone out to point the flashlight around the area.
“God damn it, MONIKA, really?”
“I am here to assist you in your endeavor, sir.”
“Yeah, well, don’t give away my location that easily,” he says.
“You needed a flashlight.”
“I did, but not that suddenly. Someone could have seen,” he says. Still, he inspects the area as thoroughly as possible, shining the light on the ground and on the walls, looking for any sign of blood that hasn’t been washed away by rain, as the concrete is clearly damp from a storm that’s passed.
There’s a small pool of it by a corner. B frowns.
“Find anything?” Jeevas asks.
“Yeah,” B says. “Found a pool of blood. Very ominous. Horror atmosphere’s at about forty percent here, Matt, thought you’d appreciate that, maybe leave a review on Yelp.”
“What the shit, B. Whose blood is it?”
“Do I look like I can tell whose blood it immediately is at one glance - is that the bullshit movie-grade genius you take me for, because I’m very firmly rooted in logic and physics here, not script magic.”
B just chuckles, and then crouches down, balancing his phone on his knee for a moment and lowering his gun so he can tear off a piece of his jacket’s sleeve to soak it into the pool of blood, just in case. He lifts it up and then stuffs it into his pockets, ignoring the way the blood starts staining his jeans. Looks like he’ll have to drench this in hydrogen peroxide later, if it can be salvaged. If the night doesn’t end in violence. It probably will.
“I just took as best a sample as I could, just in case we don’t find anything tonight, don’t worry about it,” he says, “I’m not a walking forensics lab, but I can improvise.”
“Good, I’m glad you’re useful.”
“Oh, fuck you,” he says. He takes his gun and his phone back and eyes the corner of the building that turns back to the front, and then shines the light on the pool again, tracing it towards the direction of the corner. It’s faint, washed away by the dampness of the ground, but there looks like there are dark stains pointing to that direction.
He settles the hand holding the gun over the one holding the phone, positioning his wrist carefully.
There’s nothing there, when he finally sees the area. Just a bunch of trashbins and a lot of wet puddles. There’s a trail of blood, but it’s very faint, and it stops suddenly, so perhaps the source of it was carried away.
Something cold presses against his back.
“Oh, you’re kidding,” he mutters. “What the fuck.”
They actually tell him to put his hands in the air and to drop the gun, and for a moment, just for a single moment, B feels like an action movie star, which isn’t actually all that exciting as it is amusing since, well, he’s living out Hollywood’s greatest cliches of all time. He has to hold down a laugh as he slowly puts his hands up.
“The gun,” the man behind him says.
God, being a cliche movie character must suck. He’s suddenly very grateful neither he nor A particularly like action movies aside from superhero ones.
He crouches slowly, making sure to lift the gun to indicate that it’s what he’s going to lower to the ground. He puts it down, careful, and then pulls his hand back to lift it up. He tries to stand but then gets kicked behind the knees and has to kneel.
Well, there goes his amusement.
He thinks about his options for a moment. He’s very sure he has a gun trained on him. His own gun is in front of him but picking it up now would be longer than it takes for someone to pull the trigger. He has knives in his waistband. He has an ankle monitor on his leg. He has Jeevas who’s pretty much useless from afar right now.
He hears the man pulling out a phone to talk to it, to confirm that yes, there was someone who came to the church, which, well, obviously points out they were waiting for him, which means they knew A had backup. Probably caught them when they were talking on the phone, then.
“Are they alive?” B asks, glancing at the man briefly.
The gun gets reintroduced to his face again, just about six inches from it. “Shut up.”
Creative, really. He hates living through Hollywood, he decides.
When the man is done talking to whoever he has to talk to, some dick up the rankings of their little cult, probably, he keeps the gun aimed at B, but then slowly lowers it as he reaches forward to grab B’s arm and haul him up.
B remains on the ground, not budging, but instead holds onto the man’s hand, keeping it in place in his arm. The man makes a surprised noise and tries to tug his hand away, at which B laughs, but B doesn’t let him go. The gun is pressed to his temple.
“You had better let me go unless you want me to blow your head off.”
“MONIKA, do me a little favor, would you,” B starts, and watches as the man frowns - as best as someone can under a mask - in confusion. B’s ankle monitor beeps, which catches his attention, and he briefly looks down.
B smiles. “Do you know anything about electrical engineering?” He wishes for a moment that the man wasn’t wearing a mask. It would have been so easy to freak him out when B can just read off his name from thin air.
The man doesn’t answer, but just presses the gun closer to his skin. He’s been given orders to take B alive, obviously, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried to haul B away to wherever he was supposed to take him, and B thinks that would have been useful so he can get to the location where they’re potentially holding A, but, well. He’s stopped being amused ten minutes ago. He can get there another way.
“Human bodies are very good conductors of electricity,” he says, “Especially because our bodies are made primarily of water and fat, which - well, also makes us very combustible, by the way.” He laughs, like that doesn’t make his skin sting. “So when a person is being electrocuted, you’re not supposed to touch them.”
His hand grips the man’s, nails digging into skin, and the man looks panicked, looks so close to pulling the trigger, but he deliberates. Orders or self-preservation from what appears to be someone with a death wish?
“Do you know what that thing on my foot is?” B asks. MONIKA gives out two obliging chimes. “That’s a modified shock collar, one strong enough to fry a man’s insides.” When the stranger stiffens, B grins, wide. “Imagine what can happen if I let it set off while I’m holding you.”
“Let go of me.”
There’s a beep.
“Should we try it?”
Another, and then another, and then suddenly, MONIKA picks up the pace and the beeping starts getting faster.
“I said, let go of me, you freak - ”
“MONIKA, dearest, would you please - ”
B ducks and lets go of the man’s hand, lunging forward and taking advantage of his panicked state. A gunshot goes off, the trigger squeezed in a panic, and it strikes B for a second that perhaps it really just wasn’t his time to die today since that bullet doesn’t lodge itself in his head but in a trashbin several feet away from him. He rams his palm into the man’s sternum, the blow knocking the man off his feet from the sudden pain, and then he turns the same arm he’s used to slam his elbow up against the underside of the man’s jaw. There’s a small splash of red across B’s face. The guy had bitten his tongue.
As the man falls, B grabs the arm holding the gun and strikes the wrist. When the man’s fingers involuntarily loosen their hold on the weapon, he snatches it out, kicks the man’s chest so he’s further shoved to the ground, and quickly points the gun at him. He aims it a little to the right and squeezes the trigger. The bullet bounces off the concrete and hits the fence wire before slipping past one of the holes.
The man whimpers.
“We have about five minutes until someone in the area calls the police from the gunshots they’ve heard so if you want to survive past those five minutes, you are going to fucking talk,” B says, quickly. He strides over and puts a foot on the man’s chest to keep him down, gun still aimed at him. “Where’s the detective?”
He only gets blood spat on his jeans. He squeezes the trigger again. This time it hits closer to the man’s ear, and the bullet ricochets wildly.
“Four minutes, moron.”
The response is another whimper, but this time, at least, the man tries to garble up something at him, as best as he can with a bitten tongue. It’s not bitten off, which is a consolation to the stranger, he guesses. It’s just going to be very swollen, if the guy even survives the night.
“Hm?” B asks.
“House,” the man says, and points down the street. “R-red house. Basement.”
B blinks. “You’re keeping them in a basement,” he says. Hollywood movie. He hates this. “I honestly should have expected that.”
He crouches down, one foot still on the man’s chest, although the action makes the gun draw closer to the man’s face, which gets another panicked noise from him again.
“By the way, while this is, in fact, a shock collar, it’s actually got a lot of settings,” B says, motioning to the ankle monitor on his leg, “I haven’t figured them all out yet, but from what I’ve experienced, they all range from taser to stun gun. So while I’ve been notified that it can, in fact, fry someone’s insides, it’s not going to do that to me anytime soon.” He smiles and then lifts the man up by the collar of his shirt. “So, yeah, I lied. Stun guns and tasers can’t shock someone who’s just holding the recipient of the electric current. Fascinating, isn’t it?”
And then he lifts his arm, the one holding the gun, and slams the butt of the weapon into the man’s temple, precisely aimed to hit the thinnest part of it, knocking him unconscious.
/kicks door down
WE COULD GET SOMEBODY ELSE, BUT WE WANT SOMEONE LIKE YOU!
Gun is a catchy song tbh.
Chapter 8: Point It Out The Window To The Setting Sun
He leaves the man’s body tied by the inner side of the fence surrounding the building, since he doesn’t want the damn thing to escape that easily if he does wake up a little earlier than B calculated. He grabs both guns, and the holster the man is wearing so he can tuck the backup handgun safely, makes sure to remember and check if he’s left anything that could be used as DNA evidence to trace back to him, before climbing over and pulling his hoodie over his head.
He looks exactly like the guys in photos people are warned about in school, the sort that sell you chalk marketed as drugs, or maybe are said to shank you for no other reason than you look shank-able, but it’s better that no one recognizes his face right now as he walks down the street. ‘Red house’ isn’t exactly very descriptive, but it’s the most that was offered to him, and it’ll be easy to find a red house in a city of dirty grey and smoke black, anyway, somewhat, after he looks at every house in the neighborhood or something.
At least, if Red House wasn’t the big bar several blocks away from the church. B stares at its sign, blinking in neon in the dark city, and thinks, well, the best disguises are the most obvious ones.
It’s occupied, though, which is no surprise - duh, it was a bar, those things ran late into the evening - so he waits outside at the back, keeping quiet, since storming inside while there were people there was just going to have his face seen and remembered, not to mention any ruckus created downstairs once he got there would be quickly phoned to the police.
So he waits, and hopefully A’s holding out a little longer.
“A bar basement? Wouldn’t that kind of be a wine cellar?”
“Depends - if this place was created with other things in mind, the basement’s not a basement, it’s a dealer’s office,” B says, “Storage would be on the higher floors.”
“Do they have cameras?”
“Yeah, they do, but none of them are for basement, so either they got turned off, or - you know, there’s none.”
B grins. “See?”
“Yeah, whatever, no need to gloat,” Jeevas says. “The more you wait, the less chance we have of getting to A in time.”
“Have a little faith in them, they’re not stupid,” B says, glancing at the back door, then to the wall of the neighboring building facing one of the bar’s curtained windows. It’s still bright. People inside.
“You’re surprisingly not worried about anything right now.”
“I know A’s not stupid, and I know they can think their way out of a situation,” he says. “Just because they know I’m being sent in to retrieve them doesn’t mean they’re not going to do any work themself especially when I’m inconvenienced and trying to make sure everything goes smoothly and with as less unwanted attention as possible.”
“I thought attention was your whole thing.”
“Then you severely misunderstood me, Jeevas, I’m a little disappointed,” B says, gravely, and then laughs lightly a second later. “I adjust to what I need. I’m not an idiot either, otherwise I wouldn’t have been in Wammy’s.”
Jeevas doesn’t answer. B eyes the light from the window.
“ 11:10, sir.”
“And when does Red House usually close?”
“Twenty minutes until showtime, then,” B says. He feels for the knives sheathed and clipped to his belt, checks the guns he has on hand, and eyes the door again. They’re going to be closing soon. He just has to wait.
He does. Forty minutes until everything has been cleaned and the bar house is locked, he approaches the back door, crouching down to set his gun on the ground and taking out a knife to slip into the thin space between the doorframe and the latch.
“I can’t believe you’re prying a door open with a knife.”
“I have to improvise, I don’t have lock picks,” he says, “If we get lucky, this thing won’t snap. It’s a hunting knife, so, hopefully.”
“And if it doesn’t work, and you have to get loud and shoot the lock off?”
“We’ll break a window,” he says, “Or, at least try to, quietly.”
He carefully moves the blade down, feeling for the bolt, and then angles the knife so that its tip slides past the bolt, carefully pushing it so that it starts to move back the more the knife digs in. He turns his hand, trying to force the bolt back. It snaps back.
“Not really,” B says, and then takes the knife out to move onto the second lock, the one without a door handle.
Jeevas snorts. “Narcissistic bastard.”
“Not really either,” he says, doing the same thing, only the bolt doesn’t easily snap back and he thinks he’s going to bend the knife or snap the tip completely off if he forces it. He clicks his tongue.
“That sounds like you’re having trouble.”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” he says, slowly tugging the knife back by just a bit, readjusting his hold on it and then letting it shimmy down a bit to the center of the bolt so it has less chance of slipping and snapping. He digs it in with a push, and then another, and another. Slowly turns the knife, letting the middle of the blade balance on the doorframe.
It snaps back.
Jeevas lets out a small huff.
B tucks the knife back into its sheath, gets his guns, and then twists the knob open carefully. “See?”
“That was luck.”
“That and precise maneuvering. The blade could have snapped,” he says, letting the door quietly click shut when he’s inside. He presses the lock. “Basement. Any idea which door it is from your footage?”
“Try the hallway next to the one by the bathrooms. I have no idea where the door there leads, since I’ve found the break room and the storage room, and I’m pretty sure I’m not seeing and confusing the footage - or lack thereof - from it to belong to other rooms. Boxes around the door,” Jeevas says. “That’ll be to your left once you get to the bar proper.”
He keeps his footsteps light, even as he walks quickly to get to the bar, and then to the left, where there’s several hallways. One has two doors that says BREAKROOM, and STORAGE, another has a ‘TOILETS THIS WAY’ placard right at the entrance, and the other is well-kept, but sparsely decorated, surrounded by boxes, with only one door at the very end of the hallway.
His eyes adjusting to the dark of the room isn’t enough for him to make everything out, so he steps into the hallway carefully and whispers, “MONIKA, flashlight.”
The one on his phone turns on, the light phasing through the pocket of his jeans. He turns carefully, taking in everything he can. The wallpaper here is clean, but barely, like it’s been cleaned less than the rest of the area in the bar. There’s boxes everywhere, like Jeevas had said, but they look freshly moved, as there’s obvious marks on the carpet, parts that the dust hasn’t gotten to since the boxes have been there for so long they’d protected the space even as the rest of the hallway got covered in dust overtime.
“When were these boxes moved, have you checked the footage?”
“Yeah, they were moved this afternoon,” Jeevas says. B raises an eyebrow. “They had to wheel in a delivery and it wouldn’t fit through.”
“Deliver - of course,” he says. “If A curls up into a ball, they’d fit into a box if it’s sizeable enough.”
He turns so the light shines on the door at the end of the hallway. The placard on it says OFFICE. He doesn’t think it is. He clicks the safety off his gun, and holds it firmly in both hands.
“MONIKA, flashlight off,” he says. The room is drenched in darkness, and he takes a few seconds to let his eyes adjust again.
He tries to be quieter, somehow, as he walks down the hallway, trying to catch any noises that might be going on there. Not that there probably would be since the bar did just close, unless some of the cultists were still in and just told the employees to close up shop, and were just waiting for the quiet so they could probably try to get A to talk.
If that was the case, it was in both his and A’s favor. They wouldn’t have started when they knew noise would get even their employees suspicious. That is, unless they were cultists, but even then, the bar patrons couldn’t all be cultists.
He tries the handle carefully. It doesn’t turn. He does think he can hear noises from downstairs.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the sound of a locked door, and that knife handle is going to snap.”
“Well, they’re not going to have the keys around here,” he says, “I don’t think they’d leave the office key even to an employee. The rest of the place’s keys, sure, but not this one.”
“I know. It’s still going to snap.”
Jeevas laughs. B takes out one of his knives again, crouches, and feels for the space between the doorframe and the door itself with gloved fingers. The door is unfortunately fitted in a way that the blade would have to bend to even get to the bolt, and he frowns.
“Knife won’t work?”
“It’s not angled right for the knife,” he says, sheathing it back and standing up. “We’ll have to break it open if there’s no key, and I’m pretty sure there won’t be.”
“That’s going to make noise.”
He pauses, staring at the door. Right under the OFFICE placard is a scrap of paper. He thinks he can make out ‘employees are not permitted beyond this point’ printed on it, thanks to being so close to it..
He hears a faint thud, coming from below.
“It’s going to buy A time,” he says, takes a step back, and then kicks the door right beside where the knob is. The sudden burst of pressure is enough to let that weak point break, the bolt snapping off completely and the door swinging open. B grips the handgun again, ready, as he steps inside, footsteps quick but quiet, alert.
The office really isn’t an office at all, and is in fact a basement, or at least, will look like one, as B is still descending the steps, and is getting to the anteroom - and already, he can hear more noises. The doorway leading to the room past this one has its lights on. There’s voices now, and they’re getting nearer. He runs to the corner nearest the doorway out the anteroom, keeping his gun close, before he sees someone else step into the room cautiously, gun drawn. Behind the man are three more people, just as armed and ready.
He fires first.
The bullet goes straight into the man’s eye, and B immediately ducks, firing off another round that hits another one in the neck, his aim off due to the sudden burst of light in his vision from the shot, and then he lunges forward, aiming for one of the men’s knees., even if his arms barely gets what he’s aiming for. He feels a bullet graze his side, shit, but the adrenaline isn’t letting him feel it, and he tackles the man to the ground, before feeling a bullet actually rip through his thigh this time. If he doesn’t move soon, he’s going to have two people to deal with, and one of them has a gun, even if the other is still disoriented.
He rolls off his target, gritting his teeth, and avoiding another round breaking past his ribs and into a lung, then raises his gun, aims, and squeezes the trigger, barely able to bring his other hand up for support as his shoulder jerks back from the recoil, his awful position not helping. The one on the ground is moving - he takes out one of his knives and shoves it up the underside of the man’s jaw.
He takes a second to suck in a breath, take the knife out of the corpse - and it comes out with a disgusting, slick noise - and then stand. His wounds don’t hurt as much, but he knows it’s going to hurt like a bitch when everything’s over and the adrenaline rush has died down.
There’s more thuds in the distance.
“What is that?”
“Could be A, but I’m not sure if they’re the one doing the throwing around or if they’re the one being thrown around,” he mumbles, carefully sheathing the knife again so he can hold the handgun carefully.
“How big is the place?”
“Not big enough,” B says.
There’s a gunshot.
He rushes to the edge of the doorway, careful to look inside first, stepping in as soon as he sees it’s clear. There’s another gunshot, but it’s coming from the room beyond that, and he runs there, gun ready and drawn as soon as he’s inside.
The first thing he sees are there’s three people. A is not there, at least not in his line of sight, but it’s a small, crowded room with three people not letting him see the rest of it. There’s weapons drawn, as all three people have guns, so he fires a shot into the back of the neck of the one closest to him.
The other two turn as that one goes down, one of them yelling, “Shit!” - and then both guns are aimed at him, and he ducks, fires a shot at one before they can pull the trigger again, but the other one has also squeezed a shot at him, and B feels the bullet hit his arm, tearing through skin and muscle easily.
His hold on the gun falters, and time is precious in a gunfight, so he grits his teeth, tries to aim, but the last one already has an aim at him and -
There’s a blur of movement before B’s shooter goes down, A’s shoe making contact with the side of their head after they use the chair they were probably tied to earlier to jump higher and let the kick hit true. The shooter drops to the side from the blow, further disoriented as they hit the ground. A takes the chance to land, dart forward to grab the gun from the first guy in the room B shot down, aim, and fire.
The bullet blows through the shooter’s temple.
B watches, not daring to move in case A might be a little spooked, especially since they’re just standing there holding a smoking gun.
They move after a while, walking silently and kicking the body so it’s on its stomach, and then aim the gun down at it.
They fire, right into its neck. B winces.
“That’s overkill,” he says.
A snorts, turning to him, and now that they aren’t moving, he can see the split lip and the bruise on their cheek, days old and purpling. He presses his lips to a thin line.
“That’s called making sure.”
They take a step back from the corpse, and aim the gun at its back, before squeezing the trigger one, two, three, four, five, six times, arm angling downward with every shot, and it’s only after that B realizes they were shooting out vertebrae, or, at least, that was the thought. The damn things probably fragmented further and further the more they shot at the spine.
They turn to him again, waving the gun a little.
B lets out a breath, laughing, clicking the safety back on his own gun before setting it down, stretching his legs as he sits on the ground. He tries not to lean back on his injured arm. A, across him, sits and props their legs up on the corpse since it’s in the way.
“What the hell happened to you?” A asks, clearly still riding whatever rage they were channeling while brutally kicking someone in the head and proceeding to shoot their spine out.
“I got shot at, A,” he says, “And it’s not fun.”
“You’ve never been shot at?”
“I was a locked room serial killer, not an action star,” he says, “No, I’ve never been shot at.”
A starts laughing, and he’s not surprised when it’s a little hysterical. “That’s another thing I can say I’m ahead of you at, I guess.”
He lifts his gaze to the ceiling. “I just saved your ass.”
“Kinda looked like I was saving yours,” A says, although there’s no heat in the jibe, the edge in their tone ebbing the more they talk. “I sadly don’t owe you anything, Birthday Boy.”
“Not even the Uber?” he asks. “I’m picking you up.”
“Shit Uber, can’t shoot two people at once.”
He snorts. He can start to feel the wound on his thigh now, and he thinks if they stay here long enough, he’s not going to be able to walk without wincing every three seconds or so.
A notices, thankfully, and stands, although they keep the gun with them as they do. They extend a hand to him when they walk over, and he takes it, letting them help him to his feet.
“Do you think you can walk?”
“Yeah,” he says, “We just have to be fast.”
“Fuck,” A says, switching the gun to their other hand so they can let his arm around their shoulders in case he starts to stagger from the pain. “Come on, then. Is Matt connected right now? MONIKA?”
B’s ankle monitor beeps. He notes that Jeevas has been silent for while.
“Okay, good - good, although I don’t know if they can make it fast enough,” A sighs. They look at B’s belt. “Backup handgun?”
“Couldn’t be too safe.”
“Okay, good, I think I might have nearly emptied this one out,” they say. They click the safety on their gun and crouch down a little to set it on the floor gently, and then let their arm hook around B’s waist, making sure they can reach the gun in the holster of his belt in case they’ll need it. B doesn’t think they will, but they can never be too sure.
They both start walking out the room, B trying not to stumble as the pain continues to sink in.
“Okay, MONIKA, I’m going to need you to get us a cab, and then get people ready for us to get to a hospital. I think you know the drill.”
“Yes, A,” MONIKA says, even though B’s sure she knows A can’t hear her.
“And I’ll need this place shut down for the next two days, and I need people to be here as soon as possible to clean up. Redo a check on the employees and compensate them if they’re clean. File a warrant for the owners, they’re with Wickerton.”
“Where is he?” B asks. His footing slips a little and A stops, steadying him. Only a bit more until they get to the anteroom, and then up the basement steps.
“Ran,” A says, “But don’t worry about it. They tossed my recorder out, but if we can retrieve it and it’s in good shape, that’s solid evidence. If we don’t, I remember everything. We’re still good.”
“And you got kidnapped for looking too much into things?”
“I got too close,” A says, “But they actually got me in. Wasn’t my fault.”
B laughs, amused. “God, people are dumb.”
“Yeah,” A says, hefting his arm up their shoulders when it starts to slip off. “That, we can count on.”
He’s not even surprised when A breaks out a laptop as soon as they’re done changing. He doesn’t know where they got it from, although he thinks someone probably stopped by the hospital to deliver them one before they were both released (after a shit ton of weird looks, but significantly not a lot of weird questions, which B chalks up to A and their network’s machinations), and even though it might not have their files, it could always connect to the Wammy’s cloud drive, which...he thinks is where they store their cases, but they could have their own, depending on how much budget they’ve been afforded.
Probably a lot.
He scoots onto his bed and falls back, staring at the ceiling. He’s honestly glad he’s had this hotel room booked prior, even if they had to have a last minute upgrade, because looking for a place to stay in when it’s ass o’clock in the morning, damn the odd looks they’d gotten for the late check in and the injuries.
“How are you still e-mailing.” He closes his eyes and lets his fatigue wash over him. He can probably actually sleep right now.
“Because I have to and time is of the essence. I know where our man might go, and I know where we might catch a few others - I mean, obviously they’re still looking for a twelfth sacrifice, maybe still from L.A. - ”
“Get a social media influencer.”
“ - and - pfft, what?” A snickers, before propping their feet up on his bed. “That would be a scandal.”
“And it would be interesting,” he says, shoving their feet off.
They put it back. “It would, it would cause a lot of noise,” A says, “If that’s what they wanted, that’s honestly perfect, but - I don’t think that’s what they actually want.”
“What do they want, then,” he asks, “Aside from being - well, culty. The stigmata was little too much, don’t you think?”
“It’s a cult, I’ve never been in one, I - ” A yawns, and their voice is clouded with drowsiness as they speak next. “I’ve only been kidnapped by one.”
“It’s too much,” he says.
“Says the one who turned a victim into a clock.”
“No, that, that was clever. That had purpose. That was design,” he says, sitting up, and then falling back down with a hiss as he’s moved his injured arm, and while the anesthetic was working, his natural high drug tolerance meant it still hurt a bit, and he’s too tired to put on a show right now.
A moves a leg to keep him down when he tries to sit up again.
“I will chop that leg off.”
“That leg saved you, you ungrateful ass, so stay down.”
He tries to shove it off, but A stubbornly doesn’t budge and continues typing on their laptop.
“Now, you were talking about interior design?”
“You know what I meant,” he says, “This - the stigmata motif, and it’s a cult; that doesn’t seem like a combination that’s going to have any use for design aside to fulfill something within the purposes of the cult, yeah?”
“But you have to say, altars and robes and a bit of sacrilege is a nice theme for interior design.”
A laughs, and then swiftly lets their fingers tap out the last of their letter and snap at the enter key with a finality. They close the laptop. “I think finding you a new hobby would be healthy.”
“I think I like you better when you’re more well-rested and haven’t hit that sweet spot of sleep deprivation where everything is funny and your brain’s creativity is at an all time high.”
“I love it,” A says, “I miss it, actually.”
“Go the hell to sleep,” he says, and this time actually gets to shove their leg off. “How much rest have you had since you’ve been missing?”
A lifts a shoulder. “A few naps here and there, when I got knocked out, when I was in a van; you get it.”
“Go to sleep,” he says. “You don’t have any other mail to write.”
“Do I not?”
“You closed your laptop.”
“To open again at a later time.”
“There’s still so much to talk about - there’s so much to explain, and you’re probably curious.”
“We can talk about that tomorrow.”
Their laugh is weaker this time, and they yawn again. “I’m fine.”
“You look like you have bruises for eyebags,” he says, “Rest equals efficiency. You know this.”
A stares at him for a moment, leaning back in their seat, and he looks at the tiny cuts on their face, the near-sallow cheeks, the dark shapes under their eyes, and the bandage over their broken bruise. It won’t scar if they’re careful, the nurse had said, but he doesn’t think A cares much about that.
“Yeah,” they say, sighing. “Yeah, I am.”
They stand, careful, and put their laptop on the dresser between both their beds, before flopping onto their mattress, crawling under their blankets with a lot more difficulty than they normally would since they seem like they’re trying to burrow into the bed instead, the covers included.
They stick their head out from under the blankets after a while, resting their head on a pillow.
“God, I do feel tired,” they say. “It’s been weeks.”
“Sleep, then,” he says, “If you’ve gotten enough information as much as you said you did, then you should be set for a while if your assistants aren’t incompetent.”
“Then you’ll be fine,” he says. “Rest.”
A only snorts, and then giggles. He gives them a look.
“I feel like I’m having deja vu,” they say, “I’m not sure - oh.”
He pauses, and then lets himself think as to why they’d feel that, and he pictures it, a memory. He is younger, and so are they, and they’ve just spent weeks on end studying for a test they both know they will ace but still worry over anyway. He argues with them until they crawl into bed, and even then continue after that until they stop answering, having fallen asleep.
He says nothing.
“It’s been years,” A says. “Three years.”
“It’s a long time if you spend it right,” he says.
He looks at them, at their drooping eyes, and decides even the sleepiness isn’t enough. “Yeah,” he says, and doesn’t give an explanation.
A only nods. They let out a sigh and close their eyes, finally giving in to sleep.
So does B. He adjusts the pillow under his head, turns the lamp on their dresser off, and closes his eyes, ready to finally get some actual rest they both need.
It takes him a few seconds to wake up, unsure whether that had been something A said out loud or in a dream. He stares at the ceiling. He’d definitely been at least half awake when he’d heard that.
When he turns to A, though, they’re asleep.
Chapter 9: Just Like My Favourite Scenes
WARNINGS FOR: reference to past self-harm
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Just stay put for once,” A snaps. They look like they’re about to strangle him with the gel strip in their hands somehow.
B glares back at them from the mirror. “You’re not doing it right.”
“I’m trying to, but you keep moving,” A says. Just out of spite, they slap the strip onto his back so hard he thinks he probably lost a lung.
“No thanks,” A says, tearing out the lining of another gel strip. B tries to turn to take it out of their hands, but they slap his arm away. “Try that one more time and I’m going to be digging my nails into your wounds.”
“That’s counterproductive to you offering your help, then,” B says, “Which is already not helping, by the way.”
“Fuck off,” A says, “At least I’m not letting you make your shoulder worse again. It’s already dislocated and you still insist on moving too much”
Said arm was currently out of its sling from him trying to put the gel strips on his back. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m a lot more high-maintenance now,” he says.
“Which was why I offered to help, asshole,” A says. “We’re going back to the hospital later.”
“What?” He tries to turn again and A forcefully makes him face the mirror. When he tries to move, they hold his face in place, gel strip pinned between two fingers. He narrows his eyes at them again. “I didn’t make my shoulder worse, you just thought I did.”
“Tell that to the bruise you’re gonna get in a few hours.”
He just tries to stare them down. A slaps the new gel strip onto his back and he tries not to fall off the bed.
“I feel really cared for when you’re mad about a possible injury while giving me new ones.”
“I’m putting your gel packs on you, stop complaining.”
“I need my lungs, A,” he says, “And actually - hey, isn’t it illegal to be mistreating a prisoner. Why am I not getting any defense from MONIKA here, or even Matt.”
B’s phone, on the same dresser where the mirror he and A are facing is on, buzzes as its screen lights up. “Sir Matt is currently offline, sir.”
“I’m not mistreating you, you just won’t stay still,” A says, and then makes a show of gently smoothing out a new strip on the nape of his neck. He flips them off.
“Put your goddamn shirt on, we’re going to the doctor’s,” they say, sliding off the bed and gathering up the plastic linings of the used gel strips to toss them into the trash bin. B rolls his eyes but snatches his shirt from the edge of the bed to put it on anyway.
“I think I can sue you for mistreatment,” he says, “I’m already injured, and I’m a recovering burn victim.”
“Who said fuck it to an injured shoulder to get to his back,” A says, “And good luck suing me when we’re both legally dead.”
“That’s never stopped either of us,” he says, and then turns to his phone. “I still want to file a complaint. Has Matt already reported to Wammy’s that A’s back, because I want to include how they’ve been treating me in that report.”
A laughs, brushing their hands on the shorts after discarding the last of the plastic linings. “Boy, I just saved your arse.”
“After I went to rescue yours. Ungrateful brat.”
A flips him off. “Narcissistic fucker.”
“And you said no thanks.”
They pause. “Okay, I wasn’t expecting that comeback, but it stands. You’re nasty.”
“You’re worse,” he says. On the dresser, his phone buzzes again, and he hears a click.
“MONIKA said you called for me?”
“Hey, Matt,” A greets.
“Hey, good to hear from you when you’re neither kidnapped nor getting shot at,” Matt says. “How are you?”
“I could do with a bit more sleep, but we don’t have a lot of time,” A says, “And I have to get B back to the hospital again.”
“He might have made his injury worse.”
“They kept trying to knock my lungs out of me.”
Both of them stare at each other as they’ve spoken at the same time.
“He tried to get gel strips on his back. He got hit in the arm last night, and before that, fired a gun wrong,” A says.
They both hear Matt wince. “Yikes.”
“It’s fine,” B says, “I think I got hurt worse with A slapping me and trying to break my neck.”
“You moved around too much first,” A says.
“You don’t deny the violence, then,” B says, and then motions to A like Matt can see them. He probably can if he’s hacked into the CCTV. “See? Where’s the electric shock for them? There’s never any punishment for them when they manhandle me even when their chip was still in their arm.”
A frowns slowly. “Excuse me, what?”
B looks them in the eye, very clearly repeating his words. “You heard me,” he says, slowly standing. He still need painkillers for the day so his leg doesn’t hurt when he tries to walk around. “There was never any electric shock when there was still a chip in your arm.”
A says nothing at first. They just stare at him, their frown of confusion still on their face. B watches them as they process what he’s said, and then slowly let their expression melt into blankness. They brush past him and crouch down their bed to get their laptop there, opening it and tapping a few things out for a few minutes, keystrokes quick and practiced.
And then they stand, quickly setting the laptop aside to dash for the kitchen.
B runs after them, even with a slight hobble from the pain of moving his leg. It would take too much time to grab his crutch now so he can get to them without re-injuring himself. He reaches them just as they reach the knife block, and uses his injured arm to wrap around them to pin one of their arms to their side, while he snaps the good one out to grab A’s wrist just as they unsheath a knife from its slot.
A freezes as he holds them in place.
“Calm down,” he says, whispering. He doesn’t know what they’ve done that Matt hasn’t immediately started yelling when they ran for the kitchen. “What did you do?”
“Let me go.”
“What did you do, did you do anything to MONIKA?” he asks. He tries to keep his voice calm and soothing, taking note of how A’s nearly hyperventilating. “Matt didn’t start screaming when you got the knife.”
“I overrode her controls, she’ll be dead for a while,” A says, keeping their voice down along with him. “What the fuck do you mean there’s a chip in my arm?”
“You can override MONIKA’s controls?” If he can get their laptop maybe he can get a copy of whatever software they’ve cooked up in their spare time to incapacitate Matt’s AI.
“What the fuck do you mean there’s a chip in my arm?” A asks.
“Put the knife down,” B says, “I need to check your arms first.”
“A,” he says, “Put the knife down.”
Their hand is shaking as he says that, and slowly, they let their hold on the knife loose. B plucks it out of their grasp and tosses it to the island behind them. He nudges the knife block away. Slowly, he takes A’s hand and lets them stretch out their arm so he can check for scars. There’s a few thin lines here and there, but they’re faded. He frees their other arm to do the same, and finds as much as he’d found with the other. When he turns their arms over, all he sees is thin symmetrical lines by their wrists, near the crook of their elbows, and on the sides of their arm.
“None of these are recent, right?” he asks.
A shakes their head slowly. Their breathing isn’t getting any better and from this close, he feels their whole body shaking.
“Okay,” he says, loosening his hold on them, but still not letting their arms go in case they reach for the knife block again. “Okay. I think Matt’s lying.”
“He told me there was a chip in my spine, but I thought that was bullshit,” he says, “He said it as a threat, that if I didn’t help find you but found a way to ditch MONIKA, they’d still be able to kill me with the chip in my spine. He said you had a similar tracker, but it might have fallen off or was cut out when you were kidnapped. I don’t see any recent wounds on your arms.”
“If I had a tracker, they wouldn’t have needed you to find me,” A says, slowly letting their logic override their panic. “He just told you to make you help.”
“Yeah,” he says, “And it seems awfully convenient that your captors would have known you were bugged under your skin.”
“Yeah,” A says, nodding to themself. They’re not looking at him, their focus elsewhere even as they stare down at the kitchen tiles. “Yeah, and they didn’t cut me open, they just punched me around and drove me here.”
“You’re fine. You’re not bugged,” B says, “They don’t own you. You’re okay.”
A nods, a lot frantically this time. “I’m okay,” they say, sucking in a breath. “I’m okay.”
B catches them as they fully relax, knees nearly buckling as the dam of their panic breaks, mixing with relief and confusion.
“MONIKA’s going to be online - ”
“Shit,” B mutters.
“Where are you?”
A says nothing. Matt’s connection to the cameras is probably still processing if he’s asking where they are.
“We’ll talk later,” B mouths, and A nods again. He lets them go, slowly. A few minutes later, they reach for the knife block to return it to its original place, and then walk over to the island to fetch the knife there.
“What the hell, A, put that thing down.”
Camera connection back online, then.
“It’s fine,” they say, sliding the knife back into its block.
“What did you just do?”
“What did B mean there was a chip in my arm?” A asks.
Matt hesitates. B moves back to sit on the island, not wanting to worsen his leg. He tries to cross his arms and winces as he feels the full soreness of the injured one now that his focus isn’t elsewhere.
“What was that about?”
“The truth, Matt. I gave you interference to ask B about it and he said you told him there was a chip in my arm but I have no recent wounds from it being taken out, if losing it was the reason why you had to turn to B to find me,” A says, “If there was really a tracker and yet you still enlisted B to help find me, then I don’t know what Wammy’s is playing at.”
They’re met with silence. A turns to lean on the sink and cross their arms, posture mimicking B’s, although he doesn’t think they’re doing it on purpose since they’re glaring at a camera in the corner of the room instead of looking at him.
When Matt still says nothing, B says, “I noticed there was a curious thing he said when I was on my way to Massachusetts.”
A turns to him.
“He said between the both of him and MONIKA, there was too much work to cover,” B says, “That could be nothing, but you’d think an operation backed by Wammy’s house would have manpower to spare.”
“Everyone was busy.”
“Helping L?” B asks. “How big of a team was it, Matt?”
A frowns. “I don’t share contacts with L.”
That’s news to B. He raises an eyebrow.
“I don’t really work with the same people he does. I get in contact with the House and Mr. Wammy, but we don’t share agents. I have my own network,” they say. “They don’t really oversee any of my work until I get it done, and even then, it’s usually to review if I gave anything that could connect to Wammy’s. A lot of my cases are passed on to me, but there are some I pick myself, and for those cases, I’m usually given free reign. This was one of those cases.”
“I meant his network was looking for you, but another case came up.”
“Were they really, though?” B asks. “Are you on L’s network that you know this? I’d have thought you were on A’s.”
“He’s not,” A says.
“So he’s been working for Wammy’s the whole time?” B asks. He turns his attention back to the camera. “Then again, you did design MONIKA. Curious how that came to be.”
“I was already developing a project for artificial intelligence,” he says, “Evolving artificial intelligence.”
“And they put you in charge of monitoring the AI,” B says. “Don’t you have classes?”
“But Mello and Near have no idea what’s actually going on,” B says, “But you do. Why you?”
“It was my project.”
“Could have had someone else monitor it, or replicate it,” he points out. “You’re still a student, after all. Why let you have the burden of looking after us - a detective and a murderer?”
A glances at him. He says nothing. They both know that while MONIKA was created to monitor him, they were part of the package. The house wasn’t just his fancy prison cell. It was both of theirs. As to why, he’s still yet to figure it out, but he’ll get there.
Matt is silent again.
A presses their lips to a thin line. “Tell me the truth.”
A pause. Then: “No, I’m not the one officially in charge of looking after you,” Matt says. “I’m...a student. And third place at that, and I don’t even get merits for side projects.”
B tries not to look smug. A keeps their attention on the camera as Matt continues.
“Not to be dismissive of your achievement of being able to create a fully functioning AI,” A says, smoothing over B’s bluntness. B just lifts his good shoulder in a shrug.
“No, I actually get it. We’re not - I know I’m not stupid. I also know it would be monumentally moronic to have a fourteen-year-old be in charge of looking after you two,” Matt says, “I’m smart, but so are you.”
“Don’t - don’t feed his ego, he’ll start preening,” A says, and B just laughs. “So when you started e-mailing me…?”
“They asked for my project, actually, and I was proud of it, so of course I let them have a look at it. I never got it back,” Matt says, “But no matter how much I asked about what they were doing with it, they never told me. So I found it out myself, and the next thing I knew, MONIKA had all these fancy upgrades and she was the automated system assigned to look after you two.”
“How long have you two been talking?” B asks.
“A bit after we moved into the house,” A says. “I thought he was part of the team who was looking after us.”
“I wasn’t. I just checked in from time to time,” Matt says. “And then one day A just stopped answering all my e-mails, so I looked into it and all their contacts said no one has heard from them. I tried to - I’m shit at detective work, but I tried to piece things together.”
“The phone in Kline,” B says.
“Yeah. The phone in Kline,” Matt says, “I genuinely didn’t want to cause a mass panic with the police you were in contact with.”
“And you yourself couldn’t get out of the house,” A says, “So you turned to B.”
“I tried to see if Wammy’s was doing anything about your situation and they - I don’t think they were,” Matt says.
A pauses, and then runs a hand over their face and sighs. “Does anyone know you’re contacting us?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve tried to double check every now and then that all the footage loops are natural and seamless, and I’ve tried not to be obvious with contacting you guys, but the downside of being in a house full of genii is that you’re suddenly average since genius is the norm,” Matt says, “I definitely made fuck-ups along the way.”
“At your house.”
“And you lied to B because you - ” A frowns and waves a hand in a gesture, trying to convey something, and B laughs as he catches on.
“You couldn’t think of anything better to lie about, Matt?” B asks. “Deadly tracking chips?”
“Shut up, someone’s genuinely working on that right now,” Matt says.
“Well, thank you for contacting B, and thank you for your concern, as well as with trying to do damage control with the footage at the house.” A bites their lip as they think. “We need to get back fast,” they say, “Or at least, B does.”
“Really?” he asks.
“I’m supposed to be on the field. You’re not. Matt’s already covering for you.”
They’re right. And he knows they’re right, but now that the chaos has died down and everything’s alright, he can focus on what actually matters - getting the fuck out of here and getting his ankle monitor off. He hates Massachusetts just as much as he hates New York, but at least he’s been able to walk around in the past few days.
“And you’re continuing your job here?”
“There’s not a lot left to finish up.”
“Then there’s no problem if I tag along, do I?” he says, “Between the both of us, it would be faster.”
A fixes him a look. He doesn’t back down, meeting their eyes.
“You really just want to stay out the house, don’t you?” A asks.
“That should be obvious,” he says, “I hate that stupid glass house.”
A just scoffs and shakes their head. He can’t tell if they’re amused or exasperated, with the dry laugh they’re giving him.
After a moment, they push themself off the sink and make their way back to the living room.
“Come on,” they say, “We still have to go to the hospital.”
The car ride to the hospital is silent, but not awkward. It’s more tired, B thinks, and mostly because of the exhaustion that A seems to radiate despite a full night’s sleep (due to painkillers) hours prior. They only talk in a hushed voice while on the phone with someone, probably to make sure their hospital visit goes well, and B doesn’t press them for conversation.
Their laptop. It had something that could disable MONIKA, maybe long enough for him to break his ankle monitor and book it, considering the AI had shut down long enough for both of them to talk. But then again, there was the factor of them not being in a house tailored to monitor them both, that meant that their only surveillance was MONIKA, and then Matt, who wasn’t even officially looking after them. If they were back at the house when he exploited the program, there might be a possibility that there were other countermeasures in place. He doesn’t think Wammy’s put it beyond him to attempt to hack into his babysitter AI.
But not A. They wouldn’t expect A.
At least Matt hadn’t. That was the only reason why that brief, mistimed, contained nuclear explosion of a reaction they had earlier worked, because he hadn’t expected A to suddenly do that.
Not that it’ll be unexpected from now on considering A has shown their cards, but no matter. It was only Matt who’s seen what’s happened, anyway, and if he’s really ass worried for A as he says he is, he’s not going to rat anything that’s happened in the past few days to Wammy’s.
So B can find a way around it. The first step was to get to that program and then get out of the house.
When he starts questioning exactly what then after, he forces himself to stop and shove those thoughts down. It wasn’t time for those. He had a window and he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to take it.
A hovers the whole time he’s being examined at the hospital. His shoulder has bruised from him pulling it earlier that morning, and the doctor makes him put his arm back in a sling and a stern warning, to which A gives him a smug look. He only rolls his eyes, exasperated, and thanks the doctor with something close to relief when he’s finally allowed to get out of the room.
“Don’t pull your arm again when you get back to the house,” A says, “God knows you’re gonna try to.”
“My arm is fine,” he says, carefully maneuvering his crutch for his leg (although yay, painkillers, finally) so he doesn’t stagger into a wall. “And I’m not going back to the house.”
“I know you hate it, but you know how this goes,” A says, “You’re not even supposed to be out here.”
“Is that gratefulness I hear?”
A stops walking and sighs, closing their eyes and pinching the bridge of their nose.
“Look,” they say, huffing out a breath. It’s probably not the best time to press them like this when they’ve had a hell of a morning, but the house is dull and is going to feel even more of a prison when he goes back to it now when he’s tried walking around again, for the first time in nearly more than a year.
“Thank you. I mean this when I say thank you, because I did think I was on my own when I...got in trouble. Thank you for looking for me when you didn’t need to, and thank you for saving me,” they say, “But the more you’re out here, the more they’re going to question whether or not it’s a good idea to be keeping you around, when they get word of this.”
“Do they care?” he asks, shifting his weight back so he’s not putting too much strain on his injured thigh. “I wasn’t under the impression that they did.”
“I don’t know,” A says, “That’s the thing. I don’t know. I never do. And this isn’t a conversation we should be having in a hospital, of all places - ”
“Hey, hey, hey, don’t go avoiding the subject.” B grabs their arm when they start to walk away. “You’re just going to get me a ticket and fly me back as soon as we get back to the hotel, so no, this is the perfect place to be having this conversation.”
A’s jaw tenses. “B.”
“You know as much as I do if we get back to that hotel, I’m not going to be able to say anything to you to change your mind,” he says, “So you can go and I can stay here, or we can have a conversation like actual adults. Your choice.”
“MONIKA can just take care of the situation,” they say, lowly, glancing at the covered ankle monitor.
“Are you going to let her?”
A doesn’t answer, instead turning their attention elsewhere. He doesn’t let their arm go.
After a minute, they sigh and pull their arm back sharply, shrugging off his hold.
“Fine,” they say, moving to lean back on the wall opposite to him. If they’re quiet enough, maybe everyone else in the hallway won’t hear them, although B doubts anyone would be eavesdropping on a conversation between two people who are clearly radiating animosity. “What do you want me to do, drag you around like a fucking pet?”
“Don’t be degrading,” he says, “You said you only had a bit more to wrap up with your work, why not just let me help you and save time?”
A crosses their arms, defensive. “They might check.”
“Is that a certainty or just paranoia?”
“Better paranoid than dead,” A grits out. “I had to bargain and jump through so many hoops for you to even have a proper room back at the house, and much more to give you work to do - this isn’t something they’re going to easily let slide if they find out.”
“Who’s in charge of this whole thing?” he asks.
A doesn’t answer.
“I am,” they say, “I’m the one who said I was going to look after you, because the house couldn’t be bothered. But they couldn’t have you running around giving away information either - ”
Of course. That was the only reason L even actually bothered with his case, after all.
“ - and you don’t have the best legal track record, so you have to be supervised. Someone checks in every now and then.”
A waves a hand. “Sometimes it’s Roger, sometimes it’s someone else. A few times I’ve heard from Mr. Wammy.”
“How thoroughly do they check?”
“Very thoroughly,” A says, “And I’m in charge of this, but they’re still the ones who’re actually making it possible that you’re not behind bars right now.”
“Sure, they just stuck me in one that looks fancier,” he says.
“At least you’re alive,” A says.
“Ever thought I don’t want to be?”
He doesn’t look away from them as he says that. A just looks down and mumbles something, too soft for him to catch.
“The problem is that if they check and they see I’ve been way more lenient than I should be, they might pull the plug on this because it might not be worth it,” they say.
“And you don’t want them to.”
A snorts. “Why would I when I’ve already done this much.”
He studies them for a moment, their hunched posture, and the way they’re curling in on themself. If he pressures them more right now, they’re going to stop answering.
This really was a bad time to talk about this. Oh, well.
“Alright,” he says, clicking his tongue. “If they find out, then we tell them the truth.”
A blinks in surprise. “What?”
“Matt said he’s doctoring the footage to make sure it looks like I’m just in the house, and the kid is capable, but there’s only so much that can be done with pre-recorded footage. In that regard, your paranoia is justified,” he says, “On the account that they do find out what’s happened, then we tell them the truth. You were missing, he was desperate, I thought to look for my best friend.”
A stiffens at that.
“We’re not friends,” they say, “Not really. Not anymore.”
“Who cares,” he says, “They’ll buy that bullshit with our history.”
“So, what, we appeal to their empathy?”
“That’s the most useful thing around,” he says, “This the set-up: two friends separated by death and tragedy finally reunite after three years. One of them goes missing again, leaving the other behind just like what happened the first time they were separated, except this time, the other can do something about it. Their relationship is strained, but deep down they’re still best friends. People love that shit.”
A laughs. They run a hand over their face and sigh. “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“It won’t be too hard to pull off,” he says, shrugging, “We just have to act like we like each other.”
“If I have to look at you for five more seconds, I’m going to maul your face,” A says, “How on earth are we going to do that?”
“We bullshit like we always do,” he says.
They lean their head back on the wall, looking up at the ceiling. “I hate this.”
“It’s the best play we have, just in case. Slightly-tweaked honesty is the best weapon,” he says.
“Okay,” A says, “We have an explanation for you getting out of the house, and for Matt letting you out of the house. What about for you having an extended vacation?”
B moves his sling a bit. “I have gel pads to put on and I can’t do it myself. You’re too nice to let me get re-injured every day.”
“Oh my god.” A puts their face in their hands. “Oh my god.”
“It ties in with our other excuse. You can finish your case faster, I’m out of the house for a few more days. Win-win.”
“You really hate the house, huh?” A looks up from their hands, resigned. Got them.
He smiles. “You have no idea.”
it's yet been another while
Chapter 10: Just Like Up On The Screen
Some downtime for our favorite nerds.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first thing he notices when he wakes up is that his neck is sore from being bent at an odd angle for hours. The second is that A is talking to someone on the phone.
It’s a small blessing that they’re not travelling in an awful cab, like he did on the way to New York, and that their driver is more interested in getting his paycheck than starting a conversation with either of them. There’s even a divider to minimize the annoyance even further, although that also means if B wants to glare at anything just for the sake of it, all he has is the tinted glass of the sliding window.
A turns to him briefly, noticing that he’s awake, but continues on with whoever they’re talking to on the phone. They’re typing at their laptop with one hand. It’s an e-mail. The address line says to the LAPD.
He frowns, briefly remembering a few unsavory things, but pushes those away. “You have leads in L.A?”
A reaches their hand up to make a shh motion before resuming their typing. B huffs.
They take another two minutes for them to actually wrap up their call. “No, I’m cleaning things up in Los Angeles. We’re going to Oregon.”
“Is that where your man is?”
“That’s where I heard he was going,” A says, “It doesn’t mean the cult doesn’t have operations in Los Angeles - or any other state - in fact, I’ve given the police enough to let them make arrests by themselves, but I have a personal grudge to settle with Wickerton. And so far, the cult has exhibited behavior that points to the fact that they really, really respect hierarchy and ritual. If the high priest has to be there to offer the sacrifice, they that’s where I’m going.”
B shifts so he can look at the bandage on their cheek properly, since it’s visible from where he’s sitting beside them. He pokes at it lightly.
A hisses in pain and frowns at him. “Don’t.”
“What happened with that?”
“I tried to bite someone’s fingers off when they tried to stick needles in my gums. They backhanded me with brass knuckles,” they say.
He stays quiet, focusing on the gauze and the Hello Kitty bandaids A had used to tape it onto their skin. After a while, he clicks his tongue and asks. “Where are they?”
“I kicked them in the face and shot their spine out a few nights ago,” they say, fake-cheerful.
B hums. “Good on you for making sure,” he mumbles, and then turns his attention to their laptop just as they hit send. “Are you going to fill me in on anything I’ve missed out on the case?”
“Didn’t I give you six cases to work on when you were at the house?” they ask.
B gives them a flat look, mirth crashing. “Are you serious?”
“Those were still ongoing, you know those are equally important.”
“Standard murder, standard burglaries - you have all the interesting cases.”
“Look me in the eye right now and tell me you can look at eels the same way,” A says, lifting their chin a little and dropping their voice as they stare him down. He frowns. “That’s what I thought.”
“Disgusting doesn’t equal interesting.”
They throw their hands up. “Finally, he gets it and hopefully will be able to internalize it to fix his most prominent fake persona.”
“You are incredibly rude.”
“You are letting people die when you could do something about it.” They actually flick his nose at that and he draws back slightly, frown deepening, teeth bared a little.
“Don’t use the morality argument on me, we both know our moral compasses are shit,” he says. When A raises an eyebrow, he rolls his eyes. “You shot someone’s spine out a few nights ago - ah, ah, ah and don’t say it was for the greater good. That was highly unnecessary, from a moral standpoint. It was already dead.”
A falls silent.
They look away after a minute, typing on their laptop again.
“We’re going to Oregon,” they say, “And for as much as I can, I will be working on the case from the hotel we’ll stay in, but there may be instances when I have to get out.”
“Like when you can finally shoot Wickerton in the face yourself.”
“You, meanwhile, have five more cases to go. All your requests have been approved and as of today, processed. MONIKA has sent all your files to your e-mail. If you have any further requests, you have my permission to go ahead with them without having to run it by me,” they say, ignoring him, but his attention snaps to their last sentence. “MONIKA, do you understand?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have that kind of clearance, A.”
“He’s bored and I’m in a hurry, I’ll take responsibility if all goes to shit. Don’t report this back to Wammy’s and just process it,” they say, “Contact Matt to have him help if you have to. And you know what to do with his ankle monitor anyway.”
A doesn’t strike him as an idiot, but maybe exasperation just wears a person’s logic down. That, or confidence in THE AI since he probably has to be extra careful again with MONIKA. Back to square one with his restrictions, although maybe he can work with this.
“You said you would let me help you,” he says.
“Why are you invested in this?” A turns to him. They spread their hands out and lift their shoulders in an incredulous gesture. “You’re outside of the house, and you’ve got five cases to work on. I’m not forcing you to go back to your dolled up prison by yourself and I just made your permissions a bit more lax. What is it?”
He thinks his response over. “It’s interesting,” he says, shrugging carefully. “It’s a cult. You got kidnapped. It’s more entertainment than what I’ve gotten in years.”
They stare at him for a minute, studying his answer, before shaking their head. “You’re insufferable,” they say. “MONIKA, how long until we get to the hotel?”
“Seven minutes and twelve seconds, A.”
“So am I helping you or not?” B asks.
“We had a deal,” he says. “You wanna go back on another promise, A - ”
A sighs, reaching up to pinch the bridge of their nose as they close their eyes.
B waits for them to speak. They don’t, focusing on steadying their breaths instead, at least until the car has stopped.
“Fine,” they say, through gritted teeth. “Get your cases done, and if you manage to finish them before I wrap up, you can get on board. In the meantime - ” They pull on his ear harshly and he lets out a surprised cry of pain. “ - stay on the ground.”
Right on time, the car door on their side opens, and B sits up, removing his head from where he hasn’t bothered to move it from their shoulder since he’d fallen asleep earlier, so A can close their laptop and slide out of the car, flashing their driver a polite smile as he holds the door open for them.
He scoots over to the open door to stick his head out.
A pauses in their step and turns to him, slight irritation clear on their face.
He grins, knowing. “Revenge looks good on you.”
A’s hotel rooms are different from what he had gotten when he’d gone to New York, which is to be expected since Matt probably just stole someone’s money to afford him things, especially because he was sneaking around, but it still makes him feel a little miffed. He’s quick to forget the indignation once he learns there’s a jacuzzi in the suite, though, and A just waves him off while they talk to room service over the phone.
“I feel like a new man,” he says, messing up his hair on purpose right by A’s desk, so the flecks of water hit some of their handwritten notes. They shoot him a venomous look over their cup of coffee.
“You’re going to feel like a dead one if you keep that up.”
“Finally,” he says, and then goes over to bed to fall face first into it, crutch and dislocated arm and all. The mattress is incredibly soft, even though the impact still hurts, and he doesn’t get up for a solid ten minutes.
Room service delivers their food in that time, and he hears A flatly laugh and say, “He’s trying to suffocate himself, don’t worry about it, I’m not going to sue anyone but him.” before closing the door.
“Eat,” they say, pushing the cart over to him while they take their tray to their desk.
He looks up, seeing new pajamas folded up by his pillow first, and then the food cart next. He moves so he can sit on the bed, propping his crutch on the edge, and get his tray. “How much of a budget do you even have?”
“Enough,” they say, and point their fork towards his bed without looking away from their laptop. “Change into the pajamas if you don’t have anything more comfortable than your hoodies. I don’t know how much you’ve been making sure your skin hasn’t been irritated in the last few days.”
“I’ve been fine,” he says, picking through his food to check what’s in it. It looks more expensive than anything he’s ever eaten before, and he happily tears off a chunk of the steak to eat.
“Have you really been?”
“You sound like my doctor,” he says, mouth full. A spins in their seat just to make a disgusted face.
He does try them on later, when he takes his pressure garments off for sleep, since he’s still incredibly exhausted from days of being on the move when he had just been getting used to having little to do, and then being on painkillers because of his leg and his arm. They really are soft, which is a relief for his skin since it’s had to withstand more sunlight and sweat than necessary in the past few days. Even with the burn gel, it was still sensitive, so this was a nice change.
It’s not even weird to feel like an actual responsible adult, for the first time in his admittedly short life, taking care of himself and dutifully taking his painkillers and slathering on the burn gel so he can sleep comfortably, because these pajamas were just pampering. He does have to suffer through A getting to his back since his arm is still injured, though.
At least they’re not trying to punch his lungs out this time.
“So where’s Wickerton now?” he asks.
“Good try, but like we agreed, finish your caseload first.”
“You didn’t make good on our first agreement,” he says.
A responds by reaching over and smearing gel on his face. He leans away, even when it’s too late.
“Shut your mouth if you don’t want to eat the gel.”
“Why do you have to avoid the subject so disgustingly.” He wipes the gel off his face. It’s quite nice since it’s cool on his skin, but it’s just going to feel gross later since he likes sleeping on his side.
“I’m not - ”
A threatens to put gel on his face again and he swats their wrist away.
“I’m not,” they still insist.
“We already have a cover story, stop being so paranoid,” he says, looking at them over his shoulder as best as he can. “Wammy’s doesn’t give enough of a shit about me to care if you took me out on a joyride.”
A looks up and raises an eyebrow.
“That could have been said better, but you know what I mean.”
“They care enough to make sure there’s security measures,” A says.
“I thought that went for both of us.”
“I’m not a prisoner, B,” A says, focusing back on their work.
He laughs, a hint of malice seeping through. “Are you sure about that?”
“Not like you are,” they say, snapping the cap on the gel tube back on and then shoving his shirt in his arms as they stand. Their hands feel nearly feverish in contrast to how cool his skin feels right now, especially with the air conditioning.
“That’s funny,” he says, slipping his injured arm through a sleeve carefully before he can put the other one through and start buttoning the shirt back up. “I was getting the impression that we were both in the same cage and you were just making me more comfortable.”
“Are we really doing this here?” A asks.
“You tell me.” He shrugs. “You’ve been agitated since you got back.”
They pause at that. Close their eyes. Take a deep breath. Let it out.
“You never did take well to stress, huh?”
“No,” A says, laughing a little. They sit on their bed and lean back on their hands, sighing. “No, I never did. It hasn’t piled up in a while quite like this too.”
“Hm.” B moves to his left so he can lean over better and poke at their cheek bandage again. They give him a warning look, but he just slowly peels off one of the bandaids holding the gauze down, before lifting the pad so he can look at the bruise.
It looks a lot worse up close. He hadn’t really gotten a proper look at it when they were in the Red House basement, and they’d had to get treated in separate rooms when they were in the hospital. It’s healing, though.
“It’ll feel worse if you sleep with the gauze on,” he says, “If you sleep on your side.”
A takes off the rest of the bandaids. “I forgot. I’m not turning in this early, anyway, I’ve still got things to work on.”
He hums, nodding, before tapping their cheek with a finger. “You’ll live.”
A laughs. After a beat, B does too.
“Taping an ice cube to my face isn’t going to help, I’m just going to start sneezing.”
B stretches out the tape with an obnoxious noise anyway. A glances at him briefly with a grimace.
“Tests must be done before you can conclude anything,” he says.
“Not if you already know what’s going to happen,” A says, “The bruise is going to get worse from the tightness the tape’s going to cause, the ice cube is going to melt, the tape is going to fall off when it gets wet but that’s if I’m lucky.”
“You don’t have to work with one hand.”
“B, the interval is ten minutes-twenty minutes, I’d still have to take it off.” They spin their chair to look at him from where he’s lounging on the chaise by the floor to ceiling windows, stretching and rewrapping the tape roll. It’s early dawn, neither of them have slept, and the sun is rising behind him, the view clearly seen since they’re in the highest floor of the hotel. They motion for him to move as soon as they realize this.
“Get out of the way, I want to see the sunrise.”
B turns, squinting outside with a frown. The sun always was irritating. “I’m going to...burn from that,” he says, ignoring how he hesitates briefly.
“Then get out of the way and get to sleep or something,” A says. He hears a click and sees them by the light switch when he directs his attention back to them. They’ve turned off the lights, leaving the room dim with only the rising sun and their laptop for illumination. “I want to see the sunrise.”
“Since when did you want to see the sunrise rather than just waste it away studying?” he asks. They walk over to the chaise and make a shooing motion. When he doesn’t move, they jokingly swat at his good leg. He still doesn’t move, so they push it off and sit, leaning back on their arms and sighing as they looked out at the glass walls.
“Since a while ago,” they say.
“Was ‘a while ago’ five minutes prior when you decided it would be good to push someone who had an injured leg off the chaise?”
“You’re very much still on the chaise, B, don’t be dramatic,” they say, motioning to where his other leg, the injured leg, was behind them, and to him.
“It was still attempted eviction,” he says, rolling the tape up and putting it on their their head like a crown.
A snorts but keeps the tape roll crown on, adjusting it so it doesn’t fall. “You’re chatty today.”
“It happens when you suddenly start staying up after a solid schedule of sleeping early,” he says.
“Do you actually miss sleeping early?” they ask, “At least, way earlier than you’re used to?”
“A bit,” he says, “It feels like wasting time.”
“Yeah, I can get that,” they say, looking down but not quite focusing, “It’s always annoying to just sleep early when you know you have a lot of things to do and you can do them if you just stay up.”
“Except I didn’t really have a lot to do,” he says. He counts how long it takes A to notice the bitterness in his tone.
They just sigh, which is an underwhelming response, but they did just crash from the emotional high of anxiety. “Enjoy your vacation, then,” they say. “Even with the ankle monitor.”
“It’s amazing how no one has asked yet, even when they’re obviously curious,” he says, snorting.
“Have you ever tried to look at a mirror?”
“I don’t need to, I know I’m gorgeous.”
A gags. “No, dumbass, I meant you look terrifying,” they say, motioning with a hand to indicate his height. “You’re tall and off-putting. You give off a natural fuck off vibe. You have an ankle monitor. You know what that screams to people with common sense? Convict under house arrest. Which admittedly isn’t too off the mark.”
“Don’t judge the book by its - ”
“ - cover - how dare you.”
“Easily,” A says.
He lifts his good leg and drops it on their lap in response. A lets out a little ‘oof!’ noise at the sudden weight and tries to push his leg away, but he stubbornly keeps it in place.
“Payback,” he says, when they glare at him.
They give up after a minute, instead just huffing and shooting him a glare, before their attention shifts to the walls and the view outside. The sun is up, and the hotel room is drenched in orange now, the light making the shadows on A’s face more prominent, but washing out the rest of their skin in the glow of the sunrise.
B can only stare outside for a few minutes, before everything is too much for his eyes, and the light reminds him too much of fire burning off his skin and flesh. A just looks mesmerized, like they haven’t seen the sunrise in a very, very long time.
“A friend once told me,” A starts; the sun is still slowly climbing its way upwards, and they’re still bathed in the light, although they’re looking down at the floor now. “Sometimes things will go too fast, and we’ll start thinking that we don’t have any time at all, even when we have all the time in the world. And when that happens, we tend to just overthink, and have tiny nuclear reactions within our brain, because that’s the worst echo chamber we could get trapped in.”
They laugh softly, fond. “We lose more time than spend it meaningfully at that point,” they say, “Because we can do a million things at once and it’ll go by in a blur, but the ones that mean the most to us are sometimes just those isolated events where we can just stop and be ourselves and breathe. And those are the moments when we do more for ourselves than all the million other things.”
He watches them reach a hand up to wipe at their eyes, even when they’re still dry.
“So I asked him, well, when that happens, what do you do, then?” They draw in a breath and let it out shakily, leaning back on their hands and looking up. “He said, find one thing that has never ceased to amaze you, but something you haven’t had the time to indulge yourself in. Go find that thing, even for just a few minutes. And of course, he meant the sunrise, because he knew I loved sunrises and sunsets.”
“That’s funny,” B says, “You never noticed them, when we were at Wammy’s.”
A nods. “Yeah, I never really let myself indulge in them but every time I see them, it’s just - it’s amazing,” they say, “I was already going off the rails during that time, when we talked, so the next day, I went out of the cabin we were staying in. We were on vacation - don’t look too surprised, I didn’t always have this detective gig - “
They laugh again at his reaction. That’s another piece of news to him.
“Anyway, we were on vacation, and one of my friends had a cabin right by the beach, it was literally four meters away from the beach and everything. So I got out at dawn, and then I just sat on the sand in my pajamas,” they say.
“I thought you were going to talk about the sunrise,” he says. He lies down on the chaise so he’s resting on his back, although he still doesn’t remove his good leg from where it’s propped on A’s lap.
A snickers. “Yeah, but I got out at like five in the morning.”
“Oh hell, were you trying to get sick? You were right by the ocean.”
“I was sneezing for a good while, yeah, but it was actually therapeutic,” they say, “We weren’t at a resort or anything, we were just in a really rural area, so it was so quiet. No one was around. There were fisherman boats, but they were on the other side of the island. The place was so clean, and I was just...alone.”
He tries to imagine it. He hasn’t really been to the beach, now that he has to think about it. The house was close to the ocean, but it’s not like it’s resort material, and Wammy’s was nowhere near any beaches. For the last few years, he’s been mostly travelling from the UK to the US and bounced from job to job until he decided maybe a challenge to L was in order.
There’s so many things neither of them really haven’t experienced before. It’s normal, right, to be able to go to the beach and see the ocean and not feel like a prisoner? To actually just have fun there?
“It was peaceful and I haven’t really felt that kind of peace, ever,” A says, “It makes me miss the ocean.”
“Was that your first beach vacation?” he asks.
“An overnight stay? Yeah,” they say, “We were there for a week, it was...I think everyone thought it was pretty normal, but it was just exciting for me.”
He nods, but doesn’t say anything else.
“I saw the sunrise a little bit after six o’clock,” they continue, “It was beautiful. I wish I had taken photos. I think that was the first time in years I had properly seen a sunrise and just didn’t feel hurried.”
He sits up slowly, propping himself up by his good arm so he can lean forward. He reaches a hand out to touch A’s cheek, their skin still feverish. They flinch at the sudden touch.
“You’re crying,” he says, trying to get the words out at the surprise of them actually flinching.
“Oh,” they say, wiping their tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just - I miss it. It’s been a stressful few years.”
“We have an ocean back at the house,” he says.
“Right by a cliff, B.” A laughs. “But that is better than nothing, I suppose.”
“It’s got a dramatic view, if nothing else.”
“That’s a good point, I love being dramatic considering I’m an emotional disaster,” they say. “The ocean just makes for a good backdrop.”
“Pity they didn’t get us beach trips for school, huh?”
A thinks it over for a few seconds and then shrugs. “Maybe that was for a best,” they say.
He nods, remembering a pool, two children, and A pale and not breathing on the tiled floor of the natatorium. “That’s actually ironic, since you miss the ocean now.”
“It’s surprisingly not all that bad,” they say.
He holds his tongue on asking whether or not they just love it because they know it’s the one thing that’s come so close to killing them before, and it can always kill them again. At least, the water.
He watches as they glance outside again; their tears have stopped, although their eyes are still red and they’re still sniffing, nose runny. Outside, the sun as already risen past their building, their hotel room less bright than it had been before.
“What happened?” he asks, “You had friends. You sounded close enough to go on vacations with them. I don’t recall you being comfortable enough with other people to be in close quarters with them.”
A smiles. It looks sad.
“That’s for another time, B,” they say.
They start to stand, gently pushing his leg off and taking off the tape roll crown, but B just pins them down on purpose. The tape roll crown falls off their head and clatters to floor in a series of dull thumps.
They shoot him a glare and he laughs, loudly.
"Thin, and apparently fairly tall, but his back was curved, leaving his gaze two heads lower than Misora's so he appeared to be looking up at her."
- Another Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Cases
Part One: The Message
on B's height
They’re quick to move for Oregon after breakfast. The doctor’s not going to be following them around, and B’s technically going to be able to take the sling off in two days time, so taking it off early should be fine as long as he doesn’t do too much heavy lifting. When A looks at him disappointedly he just says, “We’re going to Oregon, so.”
Since they’re not taking a plane (because of the ankle monitor, and when B had offered to take it off, A had cut him off with a flat “No.”), they’re going to be travelling by car again, for around two days.
It’s a different car from the one they came to the hotel in, and B gives A a raised eyebrow, to which they simply stuff their suitcase in the trunk and say, “We have to be as careful as possible. They know how I look like. You still have to tell me what went down on your end when you were looking for me.”
“How many cars do you have?”
“Oh.” A laughs, and shuts the trunk, patting it almost fondly. “This one’s not mine, it’s a friend’s. I called a favor.”
“You’re allowed to do that?”
“If Wammy’s knows who I’m calling. Relax, I’ve been working with these guys for more than two years.”
They don’t say anything else when he asks again, so he doesn’t press, and instead just settles in the backseat of the new car after taking his painkillers for his leg, placing his crutch inside carefully, with its new driver, and its new seats - or, well, it’s not actually very new. It’s clearly used, but it’s not abused. It’s well cared for, even with the obvious signs of age in the leather of the seats.
A sits in the passenger seat. There’s a small divider between the backseat and the front.
B raps his knuckles against the glass less than an hour into the ride, waiting for A to open the small window between them up. He could do it himself, but this is funnier. A glances at him from where they’d been talking to the driver, their conversation muffled by the thick glass (and that’s surprising - they never talked to their previous driver), and he gives them a small wave.
They slide the window open. “What is it?”
“Do you happen to have chips?”
A slides the window close and he bursts out laughing.
“A, I’m serious,” he says. A doesn’t hear him, of course. He knocks again.
When they don’t open the window, he knocks again, and this time he doesn’t stop.
A slides the window hard enough that he’s surprised the whole thing doesn’t get ripped off. The driver glances at them.
“I’m bored,” he says. “There’s nothing to do here.”
“B, I let you keep your laptop. MONIKA’s fine with letting you run rampant,” they say, “That’s plenty to do.”
“I’m bored,” he says again instead of providing an actual counterargument.
“Then you’re going to be dead of it when we get to Oregon then,” A says, and then moves to close the window, settling back in their seat, when the driver says something that’s enough to make them pause.
“Are you sure about Oregon?” he asks.
The window gap is small, but B can still hear them. A sighs.
“Yeah, I’m...sure,” they say.
“...you don’t seem very sure.”
“I’m gonna be when we get there.” A laughs. A small bit of tension leaves their shoulders as they do. “Anyway, we’re already en route.”
They start closing the window, and B catches the driver saying, “We can always just stay at another - ”
B pits his fingers against the small gap between the window’s frame and its cover and shoves it back open. A looks surprised.
“What’s up with Oregon?”
“Gravity falls, that’s what,” A says.
B keeps his hand on the window’s panel so A can’t close it. They just frown at him, although they look more tired with their pout than actually angry at him.
The driver is silent, and he keeps his eyes on the road, immediately detaching himself from the situation. Smart man. At least A knows how to choose their employs.
“What’s with Oregon?” he asks again.
“It’s Oregon,” A says.
“Well, something about it is clearly a problem for you, so what is it?” he asks. “Did you get shot there?”
A wrinkles their nose. “Dear god, no,” they say, “Thankfully not.”
Running circles around people by evading the subject is all fun and games until he’s not the one doing it, he realizes. His frown deepens.
“So why are you hesitant with staying in Oregon?” he asks. “And you can avoid the subject all you want, you know I can keep pestering you all day. You want that kind of stress?”
“That’s new, threatening to be the stressor,” A says. “You want a megaphone with that?”
A huffs and laughs. “I could tell you but it’s not going to make sense to you,” they say, “Not much.”
He shrugs. “What’s the harm in it, then?” he asks. “At best, I’ll put it together; at worst, I’ll try to put it together while you watch from the sidelines.”
“That sounds like it’s the wrong way around.”
“Yes, well.” A settles back in their seat and drops their hand from the window panel. “I have a house in Oregon.”
B waits for them to continue. They don’t.
“Yes, that’s it. I have a house in Oregon. That’s where we’re going to be staying.” They cross their arms and look out the window. On their lap, they have a box of photos instead of their laptop. B tries to get a look. It’s all crime scene photos.
“No,” they say.
That’s not that unorthodox, for detectives to stay in houses rather than hotels. He drops back into the backseat, but leaves the window open.
“That’s not that odd,” he says.
“It’s not,” A agrees.
They don’t say anything else after that. He closes the window, and they don’t disturb it.
Since they’re not interested in talking to him, he turns his attention to his laptop for the next few hours, eyeing the battery (full) and hoping it’s going to last long enough for his sanity to survive until Oregon.
It’s really just standard murders and standard burglaries, even with the high body counts and the methods of murder, though he supposes it’s a little difficult to top eels when he’s started with that. He solves two of the cases in four hours, and they stop by a little diner to eat. B charges his laptop, and they eat in silence - it’s a little awkward for B seeing as he doesn’t know the driver who’s eating with them, and just contemplative for A since they seem to be spacing out and thinking over things even as they eat.
He takes his painkillers when he’s supposed to. They make him a little drowsy, but not enough that he’s useless.
He closes two more cases before midnight. He tries to strike up a conversation with A, mostly out of boredom, but they’re fast asleep in the passenger seat.
Well, they did say they’d let him help on the cult case if he finished his work load, he might as well plough on with the fifth case. He’s exhausted from the ride and his eyes are tired from constantly staring at the screen of his laptop (and arguing with MONIKA on-screen) but he can’t sleep. It’s most likely just roadtrip cabin fever than nerves.
Their driver is still surprisingly functional despite the fact that it’s already very late, but that might not be the case very soon, so in case of emergency, he’d at least be awake.
He works in silence for most of the night. The case is simple - murder of seven children, all from the same town; murderer left no evidence, and no murder weapons were found. All the murders appeared to vary from child to child: oe was carved up, another shot, another had his head bashed in, another was decapitated, another was torn open, and another was bled out. All the kids were from well-to-do families, all with rooms of their own in which they were killed in, and the rooms were very clean even as the kids were put on display for their parents to find.
Not unlike his case, but not quite.
The crime scene photos all make him grimace with distaste at the decor of the rooms - he tries to be respectful of the dead, but that’s not going to stop him from critiquing their living spaces - as they’re all too bright for his liking. It’s like a paint store threw up on the walls, a gift shop following on its heels.
The photos of the bodies are more helpful. The cuts made on the first victim look like they could have been done with an ordinary kitchen knife, there were no bones that had to be damaged that a hunting knife would have been necessary. The one that was decapitated didn’t have their neck cleanly severed so that was several whacks, maybe by an axe - maybe it was an Axe Man situation. The one that was torn open had no bones damaged either, only had cuts on their skin that was then pulled back, and the one who was bled out similarly had no bones damaged and was only cut at veins and arteries.
So, surgical knowledge, and simple tools.
Following the Axe Man theory, he lets MONIKA search for if the parents of the third victim kept an axe in their house, and if they did, if it’s still there. The rest, he asks for the detectives to search if there’s anything in the house that could have been used as murder weapons that are now missing.
Their reports aren’t going to come in for a while, of course, but he still can’t sleep. His eyes droop, but he’s still aware of his surroundings, and as this just exhausts him more, he takes to staring at the ceiling of the car, lying down on the backseat, trying to see if he can see knife scuffs on the surface.
He hears A stir, and then they sneeze, once.
It’s cold, and they’ve left the car’s A/C on for all their sakes, so they’re probably just a little chilled, but then they sneeze again, and again, and again. They start to wake up, mumbling a nasally, “Oh god,” and let out another sneeze.
B sits up. He peeks into the window.
“Do you have a blanket?” he asks.
A motions to their suit jacket, which they’ve turned around so they’re wearing the back part on their chest, their arms still slipped through the sleeves; makeshift blanket. “Not really.”
“Turn off the A/C, you’re going to keep sneezing.”
“I’m fine,” they say, and they sound like they can’t breathe. They clear their throat and wince. Probably a cough on the way too. “It’ll be too warm if we kill the A/C on my account.”
“Except you’re sneezing,” B says.
“Not to overstep my boundaries, but he’s right,” their driver says, and B nods to his direction as if to say, ‘See?’.
“It’s just a cold, it’ll pass in a few hours,” A says. Their voice is croaky. It’s too dark to see clearly, only the small orange light from B’s end of the car illuminating the cramped space, but B thinks they’d probably have tears in their eyes right now, from how uncomfortable they are with their throat and nose.
“You’re getting sick,” B says. He tries to reach his hand through the open window and A leans back, a little surprised.
“What are you doing, get back in there.”
His arm barely fits, but he manages to touch their neck.
“You’re burning up.”
“I’m alright - ” A starts coughing, harshly. B pulls his hand back. When they’re done, they lean back, collapsing like the whole ordeal had taken out a lot from them.
“You could at least do yourself a favor and move to the backseat,” he says, “Less colder here.”
“More cramped,” A says, laughing. B gives them an unamused look.
A is about to say something but then starts coughing again. B rolls his eyes this time.
They spend a few more minutes stubbornly refusing to move to the back, until the driver actually slows their car to park on the side of the road. A gives him a betrayed look, and he just shrugs, and B decides the guy has more sense on his shoulders than most and that he’s passable, as far as his list of tolerable people goes.
A immediately curls up into a petty ball of sick and tired as soon as they’re in the backseat.
B closes his laptop and leans as far away from them as possible, because he’s not too eager to start sneezing anytime soon.
“Do you have a first aid kit?” he asks. He hears the glove compartment open, items tumbling out, and turns just as the driver waves a tiny plastic box at him before tossing it through the window. He hums, shooting A an appreciative glance. “Prepared for once.”
“Wasn’t my idea,” they grumble, their voice already fading out. The driver shoves everything else that fell out back into the compartment and closes it.
“It should be next time, you know how you can get,” B says, and then hands them the plastic box. A just stares at it. “Take it,” B says.
“No - oh, god damn it, can we stop at a convenience store or anywhere with a vending machine?” The question comes out more of a snap at the driver, but thankfully the man just takes it graciously and nods.
A murmurs something into their knees, but it’s too soft for him to catch. B pockets the plastic box.
All three of them are silent until the driver pulls them up into the parking lot of a gas station, nodding towards the store, still alight and open with the most bored-looking cashier who B can’t blame because the job is shit although it has the perk of being quiet due to the odd hours.
B gets out of the car from his side, leaning on his crutch although it doesn’t really hurt that much with the painkillers - the driver starts to get out to help him, but he motions for him to stop; A makes no move, probably asleep, and he opens up the car door from their side and has to catch them when they tumble sideways, his crutch clattering to the ground. This time the driver does get out.
“Would you get up,” he hisses, moving his arms so they’re under theirs and he can heft them up to stand. A just leans their weight on him out of spite. He’s dangerously close to falling over because of his leg, and he doesn’t want the driver to hover, so he shoots him a glare before he can get close.
“I will carry you undignifiedly to that store if I have to, I swear to god.”
“Do it then, coward,” A says. Their eyes are barely open and their speech has taken on a bit of a sleep-drunk quality. “You don’t even need to carry me to the store, all you need is one bottle of water.”
They have a point. He’d just thought to drag them with him in case MONIKA was hyper-vigilant. Still, though, he’s just as petty as they are, if not more, so he has a choice here.
Of course he makes the one that ends up with him hauling them up like a sack of potatoes over his good shoulder, picking up his crutch so he can lean on it and tries to balance. A lets out a surprised noise, a small breathless one when their stomach hits his shoulder, and then a long groan that tapers off into delirious giggling by the time B steps into the store, their driver worriedly following behind them.
“Sir, I must ask - ”
The cashier looks up at them, mouth open, which just looks disgusting since he’s got a half-eaten donut in hand and the half-chewed part in said mouth.
B doesn’t even stop, instead going for the fridges.
He’s aware that the cashier is staring at them as they move, and he feels A shift, but he doesn’t say anything. He grabs a nearby basket as he passes by them, releasing A in the process, which makes them yell and grip onto his clothes as tightly as they can. The driver pries the basket from his hand, long-suffering despite the few hours he’s been around them both, and B lets him have that. Otherwise A might bolt and he’ll lose his entertainment. He goes straight for the fridge with the water bottles.
He hears the sound of a phone being picked up. In the reflection of the fridge door, he sees the cashier trying to dial someone, probably the cops.
“Don’t bother,” B says.
The sounds stop.
A giggles and snorts. “You don’t have to make it sound so ominous, the poor guy looks like he’s going to have a heart attack.”
B sees the reflection relax, hopefully he’s just mistaking them for a bunch of weird college students, although if he looks outside, he’s going to notice the car they have isn’t normally anything college students ride in.
He checks A’s clothes. Turtleneck, suit jacket worn wrong, slacks, dress shoes. Fancy enough to balance out his sweaters and pajamas. Rich kid and decently off kid, then. The decently-dressed driver just completes the image.
“Are you - ” The cashier points to the three of them.
“We’re fine,” A says.
B starts grabbing water bottles and chucking them into the basket the driver is carrying, snaking his bad arm through his crutch to lean on it and use it at the same time. He’ll have hell for this when the painkillers wear off, but it’s a small price to pay for A’s delirious mumbling. He slams the door close once there’s enough water bottles and stalks off for the next fridge. He opens that and goes for the Gatorade.
“O-okay,” the cashier says, placing the phone down, slowly, and going back to his donut, even when he’s still staring at them.
B tosses the grape Gatorades into the basket.
A fakes a gag. “Gross.”
“It’s grape,” A says.
He pauses. “What do you have against grape?”
“Nothing, I’m just petty right now.”
He jostles them so their torso drops down a little further towards the floor, earning him an “Ow!”
“You wouldn’t drink unless someone forces you to, might as well get as much electrolytes into you as possible.”
“It’s just soda,” they say. “Sugar.”
“You would need it,” he says. “How low’s your blood sugar right now?”
A is silent.
“You are lucky we are not in a pharmacy right now,” he says. He closes the fridge, going towards the aisles this time. The driver follows. “Although I doubt you’d tell me your prescriptions, so I’d just buy every awful gummy bear vitamin pack there is.”
“You just like making my life miserable under the guise of taking care of me,” A says. He stops walking to glance at them, although he’s not doing so very well.
A groans again and he feels them bunch up his sweater in their fists, pressing their face into his lower back. “I’m dizzy, I think I’m going to hurl.”
B sighs again and heaves them off his shoulder, setting them on the ground. His shoulders thank him for the sudden lightness, and so does his leg since he no longer has to deal with leaning on it for too long.
A immediately nearly falls over and has to grip onto the aisle shelf of Oreos. “That’s better.”
“Well, walk, we’re getting food,” he says, turning them around and pushing them by the shoulder with a hand. A huffs but takes packs of Oreos and boxes of Hello Panda. They pause appreciatively at the green tea ones before hoarding some into their arms. B just watches them drop their sweets into the filled-up basket, which the driver puts down, excusing himself for a moment, and then he comes back with an empty one for A to fill.
“How long have you been sick?” B asks.
“I’m not sick,” they say. He raises an eyebrow. “Yet,” they correct.
“How long have you been feverish?”
“A few days into being kidnapped,” they say, “Although I might have just been uncomfortable.”
“Were you feverish when you got back?”
“Not really,” they say, “I think it started up a while after we got released from the hospital.”
“Stress crash, then,” he says. “And lack of sleep.”
“Fuck off, will you?”
“I will when my welfare does not depend on yours, you tiny anemic bastard,” he says. “As it stands, they’re probably going to send me back to jail if you land in a hospital.”
“Oh, now you’re worried about that and acknowledging it,” they say, “That’s new.”
“It’s true,” he says.
“Gone through the five stages of grief now over it, have you?” At his flat look, they laugh, grab a pack of Kitkats, and drop it into the new basket. “No worries, I went through it too.”
He snorts. “Whatever, you get my point. You know it as much as I do; you’ve been stressing over the same damn thing lately.”
“Yeah, whatever, I’ll get my pills, I’ll get some sleep, I’ll play shots with the bleedin’ Gatorade if it makes you happy. Crush the iron tabs and snort it up,” they say, waving cheesecake Oreo around. He notices the driver snicker as their accent shines through, too tired to put up the usual act. “Satisfied?”
“Not until you actually do it.”
“God, the amount of hoops I have to jump through,” A says, and then laughs. They drop their last box of cheesecake Oreo, stare at their hoard, and then nod. B hobbles over to the cashier, one hand pushing A towards it to make sure they don’t just stop in the middle of the store and parody Blair Witch. Their driver reaches the counter first and starts unloading their items.
The cashier still looks concerned - and shit, he probably heard their conversation - but he starts ringing up their items anyway. B waits, not patient but not impatient either, while A just smiles sweetly at said cashier, too out of it; they just look high, or sleepy.
“A-are…” The cashier points to A and then immediately regrets it at B’s questioning look. Still, since he’s started, he continues. “Are they okay?”
B closes his eyes and thinks of the ten most creative swears he can come up with on the spot. The driver chokes down a laugh.
“They have not been sleeping well,” he says, when he’s calm enough. “And on top of that, they didn’t say they had the flu.”
“You’re delirious,” he says. “And you need sleep if you’re going to function in the morning.”
“I have functioned fine on worse,” they say, crossing their arms, childish.
“Yeah, well, this isn’t school, you’re not getting a do over this time if you fuck your job up because you refused to take a fucking aspirin.”
A goes silent.
The cashier speeds up scanning the items at the sudden drop of awkwardness. The driver equally hurries just so they can get out already before they both start yelling.
B pinches the bridge of his nose.
A continues to be silent, saying nothing and instead looking upset, hurt shining through their expression which is already open enough on days they don’t have to bullshit their way through anything. Hearts on sleeves just get worse with fever, apparently. Hearts on sleeves get hurt more delirious.
The cashier tells them their total. B realizes his credit card has just shut up and is currently looking like they’re going to cry.
He taps their arm gently. Thankfully they take out their wallet, hand their card over to the cashier, and input their pin when he asks them to. He doesn’t give them the usual “Have a nice evening,” when the driver takes the bags, A and B following him out the store.
He heads straight for the car to put their items in the backseat, but not before B grabs one of the water bottles to take to A.
Who’s just standing by the store, arms crossed, pouting at the asphalt like it’s the one that’s upset them.
He holds the water bottle out to them while he leans his other arm on his crutch so he can try to fish the plastic box out of his pocket while not putting too much weight on his bad leg.
A stares at it..
“Come on,” he says. “You know what I meant.”
A looks up at him, and he freezes in place at the emotion in their eyes. It’s never directed to him often, and it hasn’t been directed him in three or so years, so the sudden expression catches him off-guard.
They look angry. Maybe that’s too warm a word to describe it. Furious. Livid. He actually pissed them off enough that they look like they’re going to pull a gun on him and shoot his spine out.
They snatch the water bottle from him with enough venom that he thinks their nails scratch him.
“Didn’t make it suck any less,” they say, voice low and cold. They open a hand out for the plastic box, and he tosses it to them. They pop it open with a thumb.
“Okay, I could have said it better.”
A rips the bottle cap off. “If you’re not going to apologize, then just shut the fuck up before I break your teeth in,” they say, “I don’t need the pandering, Birthday.”
Ah, they’ve reached the last name basis stage of the wrath. He’s really fucked this up, huh.
At least they take their medicine and empty the whole bottle, shooting it towards a nearby bin (and missing), before shoving the medicine box at his chest and then stalking past him, their hands in their pockets as they head for the car.
“You can’t be serious.” He tries not to, in case MONIKA takes note of the rigidity of his body language but he pockets the box with equal anger.“It was one thing.”
“One thing - “ A spins on their heel to face him, and yeah, if they had a gun, he thinks he wouldn’t have an eye right now. If their don’t miss out of sheer willpower, that is. Hopefully the fever will keep their aim off. “ - which you know that I am deeply affected by.”
“You still do it,” he says, “Submit yourself to the pressure.”
“At my own pace and for a reason,” they say, marching forward to get in his face. “And this isn’t about the pressure, B, it’s - ”
“Because you fear failure?”
“Because I’m expected to not fail,” they spit out, standing on their toes to sneer close. “Despite the fact that I will. And I know that. I’ve accepted it. I’ve made my fucking peace with it, which is hilarious because that was what drove me to death the first time. The fact that I’m made to feel like I owe perfection is what I hate, Birthday, and you’d do well to know I have a shorter fuse than I did years ago.”
They shove him back, and he staggers, taking a moment to right himself with his crutch.
A is still glaring at him, fists clenched tight.
He licks his lips. “What happened to your fuse?”
“Blew its head off and burnt it in a fire years ago.”
He looks away. Nods. “Okay,” he says, “How’s that working out for you?”
“Better than it did for you,” they say, and it’s his turn to frown, whatever last shred of patience he’d had gone.
“Three years,” he says, “Three years, you goddamn twat.”
A laughs, throwing their arms up in a scoff. Look at the nerve of this guy. “Are we finally doing this?” they ask, “After a year?”
“I said one thing and you had to blow it out of proportion,” he says, letting go of his crutch to storm forward and jab a finger into their collarbone, harsh, pain be damned. MONIKA beeps. He ignores her. “You know what I meant.”
“And I’m not happy either way.”
“You are slowly killing yourself,” he says, “Again. And sure, your numbers aren’t that - ”
A starts laughing. “Let them go down, you hypocritical fucker, you don’t give a single shit! You have never given a shit.” A steps forward; he refuses to move back. MONIKA beeps again, twice this time.
“Oh, let him be, MONIKA,” A says. “Let him snap. Let him do it. Because I could slit my wrists right front of him and he wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about it..”
“You’re the only thing keeping me alive and I’d like to stay that way right now,” he says, anger condensed into a soft-spoken sentence.
A smiles. “Proved my point, B,” they say, “I’m the only thing.”
He grits his teeth.
They’re sick. They’re sick, they’re delirious, their emotions are all out of whack. Of course they’d blow something out of proportion especially if it’s been simmering under their skin for a while. Of course they’d be upset over something that’s easily triggering to them. Of course their stress would blow up, and he just happened to say the wrong combination of words at the wrong time.
It’s just the flu.
It doesn’t make him want to punch them any less.
“You don’t even have a plan, B,” A says, leaning in close, dropping their voice to a whisper. “I’m going to stop humoring you for five minutes, because even though you’re a bastard, you deserve that much. I’ve been around you for the past year and do you know what I see? A poor, suicidal bastard who couldn’t die right and now doesn’t know where to go. But he keeps going, because he doesn’t want to lose the game.”
His frown deepens.
“Because God fucking forbid, B,” A says, “God forbid you stay second best all your life.”
He snaps, grabbing them by the collar and lifting them up, their feet leaving the ground. MONIKA is steadily beeping now, although she doesn’t zap him, due to A’s earlier instructions. He hears the car door open and sees the driver look at them, one hand reaching for the gun in his holster.
B doesn’t back down. He just keeps A at eye level.
They just meet his stare, equally stubborn.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” they ask, “People pointing out you’re never good enough.”
“If you say one more word,” he says, “I can guarantee you are going to regret it.”
The gun gets drawn. B ignores it.
“You want a knife with that?” A’s so close their noses are touching. “Ready to commit your first murder involving actual emotions?”
The second sentence throws him off before he remembers. Right, they read his case file. They seem to read the brief second of confusion that flits over his face.
“Didn’t need to see past the cliff notes version to see you,” they say, “For someone who prides himself in being so repressed, you sure do wear your heart on the knife handle, B.”
“You didn’t study the case,” he says.
A shakes their head. “Read the case file,” they say, “Just that.”
That hurts, somehow, and the admission surprises him enough to drop them. A’s knees buckle, of course, and with them standing so close, they knock their head into his chest when they fall forward. His hands steady them by their shoulders on automatic, even as he stares far away from them, at the lights of the parking lot, at the road beyond that, at the other side.
A pushes him away, gently, like all the fight’s gone out of them too. He lets them go.
“Let’s just get to Oregon,” they say, making their way to the car.
B’s ankle monitor beeps one last warning. For the first time he’s had it, he doesn’t feel worry. He’s not sure he feels anything at all, right now.
Anyway, happy MCR day.