The halls of the building were cold, impersonal, and spotless.
Martin Young was an agent for Better Living Industries, except that he wasn’t. The word for it was assassin, but Madam Director hadn’t much liked that word. Agent, she’d said, has a much nicer ring to it.
Martin Young was an assassin for the Director of Better Living Industries, except that he wasn’t. He wasn’t some mindless puppet who smiled because it was the only thing he knew. He was ruthless, agile, and fatally intelligent. He was a fully-autonomous Killjoy who smiled because it was the only thing that would keep him alive.
Yes, he’d stay alive. Force a bright, happy smile. Put on black cargo pants, lace black boots, hide beneath waves of dyed fabric the color of emptiness. Wear a smile. Wear a mask. It would silence his breathing.
Murder an ally. Walk away.
Out here, Dr. D had once said at a fallen Killjoy’s funeral, where Jet Star stood close enough to the bonfire to singe the ends of his coils had it not been pulled back. Out here, we don’t bury our dead. D set a steady, gentle hand on Fun Ghoul’s forearm, the forearm that no longer existed. We burn them.
Martin Young was an assassin for the Director of Better Living Industries, except he didn’t want to be. Except he was so strong, so smart, so skilled, and… he couldn’t leave his family behind. There was a vacant face sitting behind a desk connected to Madam Director’s personal offices, and if Kobra woke up one day and remembered all the times Ghoul had reported in while he was within hearing distance.
Help me, he scrawled into the dust at his feet with the toe of his boot. He scrabbled to resettle the sand so the words disappeared.
Three exes in the sand. CC, he scrawled on his way back to the matte black motorcycle BLi had issued him. Ten paces out. SP showed up in the sand in his wake. Five paces. DDD.
A hurried, desperate skid mark in the dust.
His next target. He left a handprint in the sand. It was hot, to be fair. His hands—hand—was sweaty and he couldn’t have a clumsy, slippery grip ruin this for him, could he? One stray shot and he could be given away, or the target could survive.
(It happened, occasionally. Fun Ghoul was not as ruthless as Agent Young, and maybe Fun Ghoul needed to let the desert know, somehow, he would come home.)
Better Living didn’t not aim for the spots they didn’t have. Fun Ghoul left the coordinates for his next perch. Did it again. A third time.
He left, Zone 2. 109 FM. DDD.
The shaky portrait of a face was left in the dust. An ex was over one eye. Its mouth looked to be stitched shut.
Fun Ghoul’s signature was lost (found) in the dust.
Martin Young was a Killjoy masquerading as the perfect assassin for only Madam Director to give orders to and receive reports from. As far as she was concerned, all targets were taken out. As far as she was concerned, this was not a lie. Fun Ghoul was dead and gone. Buried six feet down.
(Buried but not burned.)
Agent Young was Fun Ghoul was Marty was Alex was technically the representative of the desert, because Party Poison saw him the Destruction or the Savior of All That Was Good, being that All That Was Good was free will and mercy and hot days and cool nights where Kobra would sit still for as long as Ghoul needed him to. Because Party Poison had never been wrong about a damn thing. Because Party Poison had helped him find the Thing for Kobra and he’d helped Party Poison find the Thing for Jet Star.
The Thing could not be discussed. It wouldn’t bear thinking about, not until the Kobra Kid was no longer emptiness incarnate and Party Poison was found and Jet Star was (not found, he’d already been found) set free.
There was a van. Crooked, creaking, dusty, this close to falling apart since—since—since…
Beneath a black mask and black goggles, Agent Young looked very sad and very scared and so very tired.
A black raygun fell to the sand. For the first time since the reliable reinforced steel had been mended into flesh, Ghoul’s knees gave out. He was finding it hard to breathe beneath his mask. Something was clouding his vision and it wasn’t his goggles.
Agent Young was Agent Young was Agent Young was Agent Young, but…
Two doors opened and shut in brief succession. The padding of heavy feet and the rushing of dust beneath super-modified rollerblades was a familiar sound. He hadn’t known how much he’d missed it.
…but Fun Ghoul had always been Fun Ghoul.
“Oh, darlin’.” Show Pony threw their helmet to the ground and dropped to their knees directly before Ghoul. They held their arms open. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. Let it out. You can let it all out, now.”
A tide of relief washed over him. Ghoul huffed short little breaths, almost-cries. Halfway-wept. Pony kept their arms open even though they knew Ghoul’s heavy aversion to touch but… But what? To hell with it. He was so afraid of things he’d just thought he’d never find again.
He slumped into Show Pony’s arms. Cherri Cola was speaking into a handheld.
“It’s okay, hon,” Pony assured. Their hands left, but Ghoul remained slumped into them.
“Pretty sure it’s him,” Cherri said quietly, breathlessly. His breath fogged in the nighttime air. It’d always been so cold at night in Zone 2.
“I’m going to take your… face things off now, darlin’,” Pony informed him quietly. Hands soothed through his short hair until Show Pony found the clasp of his goggles. The skin around Ghoul’s eyes puckered as the heavy rubber was pulled away.
“Has to be him, D,” Cherri was saying now. “About to see. Half a sec.”
“Now for your… hm. Muzzle,” Show Pony said, their lips curled in disgust.
A muzzle. Better Living had outfitted Agent Young with a muzzle.
Pony’s hands found the buttons on either side of Ghoul’s jaw that unclasped the front of the mask—muzzle—from the back. They pressed the buttons. The pieces fell away like the last bricks of a wall crumbling away. Ghoul’s mouth felt cottony. Everything from his jaw to his goggle line felt tacky.
“It’s him,” Cherri rasped. He turned away. He always turned away when he was afraid of what he’d see. “D, it’s him.”
Show Pony, pale eyes so teary and sad, pushed their hands through the inch or so of midnight hair on Ghoul’s head and said, “You’re safe now, Ghoulie.”
He sobbed and wailed and curled up on the ground, flailing about when Pony wrapped themself around him because this wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair but he was at the mercy of all of Creation, and Jet Star was frozen solid in a glass tube, and Party Poison wasn’t fucking anywhere, and the Kobra Kid was so vacant and void that he didn’t know how to see full pictures anymore.
(“You are going to have to make a choice, one day.”
He and the Phoenix Witch sat side by side on a thin mattress that sat upon a wooden bedframe and was tucked in pale blue sheets. The Witch had him tucked under her arm, much like the fitted sheet was around the thin mattress.
“One day,” she continued, “you’ll have to choose to destroy the desert or to save it. I’m sorry this has been put to you. There are many things factored into this, and you must decide.”
“Give me more to work with?” Ghoul pleaded, staring at the soft wood of the wall before him.
“My dear,” the Witch said, sounding melancholy and exhausted and, above all, resigned. “I already have.”)
Before the sun rises over the East, Agent Young does (not) take out his target and says goodbye to two rebels who’d never been there and gets on a matte black motorcycle with his mask (muzzle) and goggles firmly secured and he leaves. It is (not) an easy thing to do. He’s had practice.
(He knows it will never get easier for as long as he lives, however much longer that may be. It’s hard to break himself away from two older siblings who never knew better than to expect his greatest work. His greatest work always happens to be found the next morning, these days.)
Agent Martin Young, an assassin in Madam Director’s arsenal and the most deadly and intelligent one, was a liar. He was not Martin Young, or Agent Young, or Marty, or Alex, or Agent Zero-Zero-One. He was a liar and an arsonist and a bomb-craftsman and a murderer. He was a liarliarliar.
Agent Martin Young reported in to Madam Director. Advisor Wright stood to the right of the Director when he entered. His eyes caught on Young as though he were something new to look over and make a yes or no decision on. Like he was something so easily forgotten.
(He was trained to be that way. Something learned, however, does not have to stay that way.)
“Target eliminated, Ma’am,” Young stated cheerily.
(Fun Ghoul had wept in the arms of one of the people who’d raised him last night, nursed him on free will and mercy. There was no body in a ditch to speak of anywhere.)
“A job finished at all is a job well done,” Madam Director said primly. She smiled. “I can always rely on you, Agent Young. Thank you.”
(Liar. Liar. Liar.)
“You’re welcome, Ma’am,” he answered. Something in him was ticking and it wasn’t something he’d made in the shed off of the Diner for kicks. It felt…
(Liar, liar, liar.)
“You know, Agent Young,” Director started. “I don’t think you and Advisor Wright have yet to meet.”
“We haven’t,” Young agreed, holding out his right hand for Wright to shake.
If I ever get captured, Kobra had said one long, cold night after a Disaster. Ghoul had tried to disagree, to stop him from saying whatever it was he was trying to say. No, hush, just… Just listen, Ghoulie. Please. If I ever get captured, and if you see me, I want you to—
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Agent Young.”
Static. Ghoul’s brain short-circuited.
(Liar! Liar! Liar!)
Kobra had always, always been a better actor than the rest of them. He could fool even the cleverest of players. The Director was smart, but not as smart as Fun Ghoul. Even then…
Even then, Fun Ghoul, with all that knowledge at his disposal, with all the knowledge of a certain particular person at the ready. Fun Ghoul, with the smarts of a million minds. Fun Ghoul, the Decider.
Fun Ghoul had been fooled.
He shook the Kobra Kid’s hand. “The pleasure is all mine, Advisor. Thank you for the opportunity to meet your most praised right hand.”
“You’re very welcome, Agent.” Madam Director stood from her desk, all sharp angles. She turned toward the left wall, where a screen was mounted. Fully faced away from them. “I’d like to discuss your next target. Advisor Wright, you’re dismissed back to your office.”
“Yes, Madam Director,” Advisor Wright said easily, but he made no move to leave. His hand was still clasped in Agent Young’s.
Kobra pulled Ghoul’s hand up and pressed his soft, chapped lips to Ghoul’s knuckles. Ghoul’s mind melted for a second time within five minutes.
The Kobra Kid turned and hurried away.
Madam Director was smart, but Fun Ghoul was smarter. Her back was turned. She trusted her new toys not to check her surveillance later. She’d given him the chance to betray her, as well, but he was smarter.
Madam Director (the Cheater) had clones. Advisor Wright (the Liar) was not a vacant face. Agent Young (the Decider) was not an idiot, but nor was he Better Living’s pretty little plaything.
Jet Star (the Brother) was not dead. Fun Ghoul tried to convince himself that Party Poison (the Prophet) was also not dead.
Martin Young was (not) an agent of Better Living Industries.
The halls of the building seemed a little warmer today, but it might've just been him.