Chapter 1: Vox Populi
“Bruce, huh?” Kingston asked, after the rest of the group had left and it was just him and Kugrash and Pete in his apartment. Pete had retreated to his room, maybe for once reading the room and seeing that this was a conversation for which he didn’t need to be around. Kugrash had places to go, of course, but it was hard to return to the tunnels after talking about who he had once been for the first time in years. Decades, even.
“Not anymore,” he said. “You got anything to drink?”
Kingston got up from the couch and walked to the kitchen and Kugrash followed him, claws clicking against Kingston’s tile floors. They’d been friends for a long time, the two of them, but friends from a distance, mostly, not heart-to-heart at one a.m. friends. Kugrash got the feeling that since Liz had left, Kingston didn’t have any friends like that.
Of course, Kugrash didn’t either.
“Whiskey good?” Kingston asked, opening a cabinet and pulling out a dust-covered bottle.
“Yeah,” Kugrash responded, and clambered up onto the counter as Kingston poured them both glasses. For once, Kingston didn’t offer even cursory complaint about Kugrash’s dirt, and Kugrash was grateful for it.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Kingston asked, when it became clear Kugrash wasn’t going to offer further information of his own accord.
Kugrash looked down at his drink, at the way the light refracted through it, and swirled it around before tossing it back. It burned, but he barely noticed. “No point, was there?” he asked, and he was almost telling the truth.
“I’m good with curses, I could have –”
“Would you have wanted to?” It wasn’t a fair question. Kingston cared for everyone. But Kugrash had known him long enough to know that there were times when he didn’t want to, that there were times when he wasn’t sure everyone deserved it. That was the magic of him, that he did it anyway.
“That’s not the point,” Kingston responded, immediately, and despite everything, Kugrash grinned. Kingston was what Kugrash tried to be, day after day.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway. Doubt you could do anything about it. And I’m better for this city as a rat.” He’d always been a rat, of course. At least now he was doing something with it.
Kingston didn’t argue; it was irrefutable. Instead he took a sip of his own whiskey and grimaced slightly. And then – “Doesn’t it get lonely?” There was something in Kingston’s voice that sounded a little bit desperate, a little bit not just about Kugrash’s answer.
“Not any lonelier than being a man.” Kugrash finished his drink and held his glass out for a refill. After Kingston had poured it, he said, “You should know that better than fuckin’ anyone, right?” Kingston Brown from uptown knew everyone, and everyone knew him. He was fifty-five years old and he had lived in the city for all his life. His family lived in the same building as him, he saved lives every day, and now he’d got Pete to take care of. Nobody in their right mind would think he was lonely. But he was, in the same way that Kugrash was, alone in the subway tunnels every night.
“That’s not the point,” Kingston repeated.
“You sure? You’re the one who asked.” Maybe there was a part of Kugrash that was still the selfish piece of shit he’d used to be, because he was glad they weren’t talking about him anymore, just as glad as he was for the companionship. It was nice to be talking about something, even if it wasn’t exactly what either of them wanted to be talking about.
“About you. I’m good. My family’s right here, I’ve got all of New York. I’m good.”
“You don’t have all of New York, all of New York has you. Take it from the most selfish rat bastard around: sometimes you gotta do shit for yourself.”
Kingston sighed, shook his head, drank his whiskey. “I’ve been used to this for a long time, Kugrash.”
“We’re too old for that, rat-man. Too old by far.” Kugrash couldn’t help but laugh at that. Somehow, being called rat-man by Kingston felt like a term of respect.
“Fill me up,” he said, tossing back his whiskey once more.
“There’s no way you’re not already drunk,” Kingston said, looking all of Kugrash’s two feet up and down, a nurse at all times.
“Who gives a shit?”
That got a laugh from Kingston, and he passed Kugrash the bottle to pour his own glass.
They stayed like that, laughing and reminiscing, until the sun rose. And then, when Pete emerged and stumbled into the kitchen, they didn’t say anything, but they exchanged a glance before Kingston left for the hospital and Kugrash left to fulfill his morning responsibilities.
For a night, they’d both gotten to feel a little less alone.
It’s a Sunday morning, and Kingston and Liz are going for their weekly walk in the park, Bruce (the dog) running along beside them, not needing a leash. Kingston takes a picture of Bruce with the hand that isn’t entwined with Liz’s and sends it to the groupchat, along with the first gif that pops up as an option.
“Beautiful day,” he says, carefully not making eye contact with Liz, and it is.
She squeezes his hand. “Always did have a knack for the obvious.”
Before he can think himself out of it, Kingston leans in and kisses her. He can’t stop himself from smiling against her as she kisses him back. They don’t separate until Bruce starts barking, excited by a pigeon that seems familiar, and laugh together as they chase after him, feeling young.
Kingston Brown has not been lonely in months.
Chapter 2: Queen of New York
Misty Moore and Kugrash have more in common than anyone else might have thought.
Warning for a brief but relatively graphic description of something with the closest real world equivalent being intense dysphoria.
Kugrash didn’t trust Misty Moore, not exactly. But they had an understanding, as two creatures both fully of New York and also, a little bit, of something else. And he knew she could keep a secret, because she had kept her own for lifetime after lifetime.
Sometimes, when the tunnels were too damp and he’d done all he could for the night and wanted to remember what he had given up, he’d come visit her in her penthouse apartment. She never seemed ecstatic to see him, but she never rejected his presence, either, and now they stood out on the balcony together. She had a glass of champagne in her hand, because she nearly always had a glass of champagne in her hand, and he had nothing, because he found it best to be sharp when dealing with Misty. He wasn’t sure she’d noticed. (She had).
A snowflake drifted down from the sky. There had been very little snow for this time of year, and Kugrash, for one, was grateful for it. Less snow meant fewer people in danger.
“Happy New Year,” Misty said, reaching out and catching the snowflake in her champagne glass, watching it settle briefly on top of the liquid and then melt into it. Misty had an aura of warmth to her that reached down into your bones.
“Same to you.”
“Don’t you have work to do?” she asked, taking a sip of the snow-champagne and smiling to herself.
“The work comes in about three hours, when the alcohol catches up to people and they try to sleep in sewers that have already been claimed. You can’t get rid of me that easily.” Kugrash was lying, a little bit; there was always work to be done. But he had checked in on Wally today, and fought the urge to see what David was doing for New Year’s, and the cross of being alone felt like too much to bear.
“Always the same, always busy. That’s my Kugrash.” Kugrash couldn’t tell if Misty was being sarcastic or not.
“Another year gone,” he responded, instead of trying to figure out what game she was playing.
“Another year gone.” Misty raised her champagne to him as if to clink it against his glass, and then remembered that he didn’t have one and turned it into an expansive wave at the city around them.
“How much longer does Misty Moore have in her?” As far as Kugrash was aware, he was the only mortal being to know for a fact that Misty had been many people before he was born and would be even more after he died. People tended to tell him things. He was only a rat, after all; what could be the harm?
“Maybe a few years, maybe days. It’s always exciting towards the end.” Another snowflake spiraled down, landed perfectly atop her head. Everything was a performance, with Misty.
“How do you get used to it?”
“Changing. Being something else.” Kugrash was aware he was being intense, aware he had broken the character that Misty had known him as for decades, but he didn’t much care. He still woke up in the tunnels some mornings with the feeling that he was four feet taller than he was. He still approached people on the street sometimes, people who he’d used to know, and was surprised when they were disgusted. He didn’t hate being a rat. Everyone was better off this way. But Jesus fucking Christ did he wish there was a way to come to terms with the shiver of disgust he felt every once in a while, when his tail brushed against him in a way he wasn’t expecting.
Jesus fucking Christ did he wish he didn’t still get the urge to saw that same tail off with his claws and then rip the claws out one by one.
“It’s what I am, darling. I couldn’t be anything else.” She must have noticed the slightly feral look in his eyes, because she continued. “It’s like your Wild Shape, but young, and beautiful.”
“It’s not like Wild Shape.” Kugrash’s voice was cold, cut right through Misty’s warmth. It didn’t sound like him at all.
“Oh?” Misty asked, placing her champagne on the bannister and turning to face Kugrash. “And how would you know that?”
It was taking all of Kugrash’s willpower not to reach out and push Misty’s champagne glass, send it plummeting to the ground below. I wasn’t always a rat, he imagined himself saying, but couldn’t get the words out. “Wild Shape isn’t permanent,” he said instead, which was true. Wild Shape was fun, sometimes, because he knew he had the choice. It wasn’t the same.
“Nothing is permanent.” She laughed: that old, capricious laugh that the whole world was in love with.
He supposed it was true. It had been ridiculous to even ask.
“Well,” he said, disappointed but doing his best not to show it. “I’d better be going.” There wouldn’t be anything for him to do for at least another hour, but it suddenly seemed intolerable to remain here with Misty.
“And leave me alone? Darling, you couldn’t.”
“You could come with me, you know. Do some fuckin’ good for once.”
For a second she actually looked like she considered it, which was more than he’d expected.
“I’ve always been perfectly happy doing good in my way, Kugrash; you do it in yours.”
“Nothing is permanent,” he responded, a little bit vicious, a little bit more rat than man, and then turned and left. She didn’t deserve it; she was just being herself. It wasn’t her fault that ‘herself’ was someone living the best parts of both of Kugrash’s lives, with none of the pain.
Whenever Rowan Berry looks at her beautiful, young, new body in the mirror, she thinks about that conversation with Kugrash on the New Year’s before everything went to hell. She thinks about what she now knows he must have been asking how to get used to, and she thinks about him echoing back to her, ‘nothing is permanent’.
Rowan Berry is never going to be good like Kugrash was good. The Fae aren’t like that, and she, especially, isn’t like that. She gives back to the world through performing, through bringing joy to people when they need it most. She thinks Kugrash never understood that, really, but that’s okay. She doesn’t need anyone to understand it. Nevertheless, when Ricky quits at the fire station to start doing homeless outreach, she feels a little pang of mourning for the rat who had known her secret and kept it.
“Alright, you got me, you old bastard,” she says as she steps outside into the sun. She doesn’t really know how the bagel works, if he can hear when they speak to him, but she imagines him watching as she walks down the street to where Ricky’s doing the real work, as she runs a workshop because art is what’s kept her alive all these millennia, and maybe it will help other people, too.
Ricky smiles at her as he watches, and she smiles back. Kugrash is with them, because they remember him. And if Rowan remembers someone then, eventually, so will everyone else.