It’s raining in Jamrock. The canvas above you is suffocating; blue sky blotted out with gray. The paint is still wet and glistening. A decades-old scent of apricot fills the space where you stand, crocodile shoes planted on the secant line of the sidewalk. Your apartment block is secured to a conveyor line of other apartment blocks. This urban sprawl bisects the ring road bypass like an arterial obstruction.
On the radiographic map of Jamrock, your home is the cancer, Harry. I’m sorry to tell you that it looks terminal.
A souped-up Coupris Kineema belches vapour behind you. Its owner, Lieutenant Kitsuragi, is pretending not to watch you. He waits at your side, hands folded delicately behind his back. He can’t repress the neurological impulse to squint each time a raindrop strikes his glasses. Otherwise, he is still. His engine is ticking as it cools.
Up the stairs in front of you, a thin green door separates you from whatever Pandoran calamity awaits beyond. The paint is chipping.
“I think I live here,” you say.
“Yes,” Kim confirms. “That seems like a logical deduction.”
His eyes dart from the key you’re holding to the plaque on the door. This skinny, two-story duplex belongs to you. It’s where you washed up after Voyager. You know it in your soul because your necktie is pressing into your Adam’s apple and fearfully wheezing. Don’t open it, you really don’t want to see what’s in there, it’s only going to make you sick and tired with the weight of things.
The lieutenant shifts, conveying something unspoken through the angle of his body: are you going to open the door, or what?
If you back out now, he will count it among your (surplus other) failings. You could kick the door in. Start negotiations with the upper hand.
You stride forward and plunge the key into the lock. It clicks open; the door swings wide, inviting you into the void. A rush of chilled air greets you in a heavy sigh. You shudder.
Welcome home, Harry. Didn’t someone say that out loud, once, in a voice like a dream? Back on Marvel Hill?
Speaking of, there’s a small mountain of papers on the floor, just inside the threshold. The mail slot has been jammed in your absence. The postman’s frustration with you is evident by the repeated battering of the most recent envelopes on the pile.
Before you is the dim, slender maw of the hallway, coated in peeling wallpaper. It’s striped. A staircase hugs the right wall like a jagged incisor. The only light is a pale, gray sliver somewhere at the back of the throat; a window left uncovered in a room you suspect will be the kitchen – from the smell.
It’s somewhere just past mouldy, as though the fungus has grown and died in the time you’ve been away. Not to worry, Harry. There’s a whole mélange of smells coming from elsewhere in the house, as well. Notes of unwashed laundry and body odour are stuffed into this aromatic bouquet.
It isn’t all bad. There’s that lingering smell of apricot, a honey-sweet current to undercut the pungent scent of whatever animal has nested here – namely, you.
Truth be told, this could have been much worse.
It’s more cluttered than filthy. Discarded clothes, papers, knick-knacks stacked on every surface -- the person who lives here is a grease trap, clinging to every bit of detritus that floats through their life whether it’s necessary or not. Not like a collector, you understand. Like a person with extreme executive dysfunction. Like a person who empathizes a bit too much when other people throw out the garbage. Like a person who thinks if they collect enough abandoned things, someday someone might show them the same kindness.
This isn’t deductive reasoning any more, Harry. It’s just something you know about yourself.
Behind you, Kim clears his throat. “Detective?”
He’s waiting for the all-clear. You glance behind you to find him hovering near the doorway, sheltered from the rain, pretending he isn’t curious about your living conditions.
“This must be the place,” you say, pointing to the avalanche of mail at your feet.
Several of the envelopes have some variant of your name on them. The evidence is undeniable.
The lieutenant notes them and gives you an unreadable look. It’s clear he’s trying to look past you into the apartment, hoping you won’t notice.
“Would you like some company tomorrow?” he asks. “I could help with…”
His gaze lands somewhere just over your shoulder. There’s a garish yellow dress shirt draped over the banister like a nylon snake skin. He is too polite to call it “the mess”.
“You’d do that?”
He shrugs lightly, still not quite looking at you.
“We’re partners. I have the day. You might need help.”
Three infallible reasons to continue to be around you. Whatever you do, don’t question them. He doesn’t want to say out loud that he’s worried about you.
You worry people, Harry.
“That would be great,” you say. “Thanks, Kim.”
He lets you see him smile, three parts relief and one part fondness. He’d be upset if anything happened to you, and not just because he’d be left with the mess.
“I’ll stop by first thing in the morning,” he tells you, then hesitates. “Try to… get some rest.”
Fitful tossing in sweat-stained sheets. A dream you can’t escape. It’s the grease trap; you’re the detritus. A half-forgotten expression flits through your thoughts, trite and true: there’s no rest for the wicked.
Your shoulder twinges, sutures straining. A phantom bullet sends a pulse through your trapezius, and you grimace. “I’ll give it my best shot.”
Hilarious turn of phrase , your wounded body seems to hiss at you. Lieutenant Kitsuragi acknowledges your words with a nod and turns on his heel, leaving you alone in your apartment. You shut the door.
The rumble of a radiator fills the enclosed space. Outside, the rain picks up its tempo. In your mind’s eye, there is a deluge of water rolling through the streets of Jamrock, turning thick and sluggish with her filth, dripping slop down her drains. Your spine tingles.
Don’t you find it problematic to refer to the city as a she? Wake up, you have work to do.
You pull the dress shirt from the banister and fold it under your arm, mustering your courage. Your weight makes the stairs creak as you make your way upstairs to the bedroom. There’s a window at the back of the second-floor landing, grimy and clouded by the warm air trapped between panes. You see the tips of a tree branch creeping into view, the only organic shape in the frame. There is another set of ancient houses-turned-flats next to yours; close enough that you can look down and into the neighbouring kitchen.
Beyond that, the view is purely industrial; factories and smokestacks stretching to the horizon. Charnel houses where machines lay wasting. Miles beyond that, a black river, and beyond that, an old, re-purposed mill where Precinct 41 hums with life. Then Martinaise, then the Insulidinian Ocean, then nothing. Nothing at all.
Your bedroom is on the right. It looks like an apothecary; somewhere underneath the bottles and cans there is cheap, dirty beige carpeting. The apricot smell is strongest here. Your bed is a snake pit piled with clothing, the garish brothers and sisters of the garment tucked under your arm. The slatted door of your closet is open. Inside, it is a demented carnival fun-house of New Era clothing. Disco inferno. You do not own a normal shirt.
This is not a bedroom, it’s a mastaba. A collection of prized possessions, meant to entomb you so that the afterlife can welcome you with a parade of exotic liquors and silk shirts.
You take some time to clear off the bed, hanging your clothing as neatly as possible in the explosion that is the closet. This small concession to order is a relief; a little boost to your morale. Like ticking another box off the list. Another task wrung through the infernal engine and churned out, complete.
You gather the empty bottles and cans into a corner, building a neat magpie nest of glass and aluminium. It’s not clean but it’s better, bringing the cramped burial chamber some much-needed symmetry. Parting the heavy curtains, you permit the natural light to break into the room.
It’s almost livable.
There is a minuscule adjacent bathroom. You step inside and examine your face in the mirror. It’s no longer entirely a rictus grin. The Expression seems to be your default state, but you can make other ones in spite of all the cells you’ve burst with alcohol. You prod at the corners of your mouth, watching your reflection for signs of life.
A week or so without drinking has done you marginal good. You now look like a potentially recovering late-stage alcoholic.
Turning on the sink makes the whole flat shudder and whine as the piping groans to life. You splash your face with water, pressing some between your lips and against your gums. It tastes metallic, like coins. Or a gun barrel.
Water drips from your facial hair. You’ve looked worse, Blue-Eyes.
Come to think of it, you haven’t had the chance to really assess the damage you sustained outside the Whirling-in-Rags. You’ve felt the aftermath, sure, and a half-buried sense memory tells you that you can expect an angry, ugly wasteland of red skin and brutal scarring beneath your blazer. But you haven’t seen it with your own eyes.
Do you really want to? There’s a fearful whisper in your head. You don’t have to confront the fragility of your decaying frame head-on. You could go on pretending you’re intact under there.
You shrug off your jacket and unbutton your dress shirt, rolling it off. Even that makes your muscles ache. Slower. You remove the dressing around your wounds and angle your shoulder toward the mirror. Your stomach churns.
If ever you needed evidence that all you are is soft meat in flimsy casing, here it is. A mottled, reddish, screaming mouth engulfs your shoulder where a bullet ripped through it. You stroke it delicately, your brain reconciling its image of you with the wreckage you see in the mirror. It’s the texture and shape of a map. Here, a radial burst of smooth, pink tissue around the bumpy point of entry. There, cavitation. And over there, a serrated row of sutures intersecting the deepest part of the wound, rendered by a hand experienced in field medicine.
You picture Lieutenant Kitsuragi piecing you back together on the street outside the Whirling, hands slipping in your blood. There’s a cocktail of adrenaline coursing through his system. “Not this time,” he says, perhaps. One day, I will return to your side.
Riding low on your pelvis is the second devastated continent. You can’t bring yourself to touch that one. Breathing hard, you replace your bandages and retreat to the bedroom in search of fresh clothes.
Dressing yourself consumes the last of your volition. It reminds you with its death rattle that the lieutenant will be here tomorrow. He will assess your progress and find you wanting.
The warning is not enough to stop your exhausted body from dragging you to your bed. The path of cleanliness you’ve carved through the bedroom is enough for now; you feel almost comfortable as you sink into the sheets. The smell of you is foreign and familiar; that happens when you’re away from home for days. There’s a faint hint of cigarette smoke and the scent of your own sweat. It’s not terrible; it smells human.
Kim did tell you to rest. You push your face into the pillow and listen to the rain.
Oh, but wait, Harry. It’s not that easy. Before you go to sleep, there are a number of outstanding thoughts to address. It’ll only take an hour or so, and you can do it systematically. Think of it as one of your lists.
Number One: It Could Be Worse. Earlier you said it could, and it turns out this was not a rhetorical observation. When Kim was here, it was easier to assess the situation objectively, like investigating the scene of a crime you didn’t commit. But now Kim isn’t here. This is your kingdom, sire. It’s inherently subjective. And subjectively, it’s depressing. You can feel it draining the life out of you. The entire flat is saturated in a viscous layer of capitulation. You could suck on sadness here until you choke to death -- and evidently, that’s all you’ve been doing this whole time.
Number Two: The Disturbing Lack of Appropriate Clothing. You just want to bring it to your own attention that slapping a halogen watermark on all of your sleeves does not make the Guillaume le Million-inspired contents of your wardrobe into passable police-wear. Sometime soon, you’re going to have to acquire some clothes to wear to work. Ones you haven’t dunked into the ocean.
Number Three: The Kitchen Situation. You’re going to have to go in there eventually. It is certain to be terrible -- however, as you cannot subsist on your own sadness nor delay starvation indefinitely, you will be forced to go off in search of food at some point. There will come a reckoning at that time, and so you should fortify your resolve now.
Number Four: The Apricot Smell. You were fooling yourself before. She’s never been here, and you didn’t smell anything on the street but burning rubber and damp asphalt. You know that now because here in your tiny bedroom, you really do smell it. There’s a wisp of tutti-frutti scent wafting from the top drawer of the nightstand. You sad fuck.
There are simple solutions to all of these issues that will construct the framework of your day tomorrow. You just need to clean the flat, wash your clothes, scrub the kitchen, and check the drawer. Simple tasks to soothe your troubled thoughts; to impose order on chaos. Your ancient reptilian brain burbles happily. That’s the good stuff.
The sound of the rain outside is so, so close to wearing down the borders between being asleep and being awake; conscious and subconscious and even less conscious than that. Your thoughts are beginning to liquefy.
Check the drawer, Harry.
It’s more than an inkling. The thought is so potent it makes your throat contract. It drags you gasping into the cold clarity of the waking world. You twist your head away from the pillow and toward the nightstand. The light from the window has gone dim in the time you’ve been wallowing. Jamrock shifts from blue to black.
The nightstand was covered in bottles before you came along; now the only evidence is the dark little circles staining the wood. The drawer is slender and ominous. You worm your way toward it, breathing through your nose. Smells like a kiss on your jaw.
Your hand finds the handle and pulls, releasing a new wave of apricot over you. Two packets of tutti-frutti gum wink at you from inside, as though they expect you’ll ever need them. Next to them, a collection of drugs, some in prescription bottles and others in tightly sealed baggies. And then, the curling corners of a photograph.
Your eyes make it halfway up the slender figure of a woman in white before you slam the drawer shut.
You’re shaking. It’s another bullet; full hypovolemic shock. Not enough oxygen in your brain. Not enough oxygen in the world.
Get a grip on yourself.
You know what would help? The entire drawer full of pharmaceuticals you just uncovered. That’d put a tight cap on this night; shave the edges right off. But you don’t do that anymore, do you, Harry? Because you’re utterly and irredeemably boring now. Boring people only put other people to sleep.
You turn and pull the covers up to your chin. It’s a case; everything is a case. It’s just trees and riddles. It’s fucking impossible, you don’t see how the threads interconnect, and you always have more questions than answers. It doesn’t mean it will never end. You can close the book on this; you’ll have to. There isn’t an alternative anymore; you tried the other thing and the engine kept on churning.
Somebody kept you alive.
For that reason alone, you can at least try to sleep.
You roll, putting your back to the nightstand. Your shoulder aches in nothing but hard angles, but it's tolerable. Eventually, sleep manages to crack through the shell of your thoughts. And beyond that, sub-consciousness. And beyond that, nothing. Nothing at all.
You’re dreaming, Harry. As you’ve done many times before. As you’ll continue to do as long as your lungs hold air.
Your neural network powers down, one station at a time. Nothing but a fungal pattern of quietly dying electro-impulses. Radio silence. Emergency broadcasts only.
Your neocortex is steering, rudderless, through a sweet sea of oblivion. Welcome back to the good place, my brother. No troublesome compulsions here; no pain from that pesky, gaping wound in your gut. Next stop, Fuck-All-Borough.
The nothingness stretches on for hours, maybe years. You ease yourself into the inky darkness like a warm bath, content to float on until morning. Except that your very last scrap of lucidity is still niggling at you -- an irritating little thought licking at your consciousness, hissing out a warning. There’s something looming off the starboard bow.
By the time you realize that this bright, white something is stretching out to intercept you, it’s already too late. A flood of pale light engulfs you as you breach the shoreline and come to a halt. Dazed, you blink open your eyes. There is a darkening sky expanding above you; a canvas of solid something covering up the nothing. You’ve been marooned.
Follow the light, Harry.
The voice in your head is more resigned than demanding. It has grown weary of your repeat offenses.
You clamber onto the shore and find yourself standing on a stretch of black pavement. It surges out of the Insulidinian Ocean like a beached whale. A hyphal network of roads continues infinitely in all directions, diverging and interconnecting. The city shines around you, all smoke and shifting halogen lights. You tune into Jamrock like slipping on a pair of well-fitting shoes, feeling out her wavelength.
It’s a sad and hopeful warble; the signal of the former pinnacle of civilization. It invokes the conglomeration of human ingenuity and ideals that Revachol was meant to be. It invokes mortar volleys and bombed-out hospitals.
Your spine aches. Somewhere in the bones of this place, a young girl hums as she etches graffito onto a wall scored by bullet holes. Fuckpigs. Somewhere else, an old man twists a ribbon of yellow fabric in his fist and mutters to himself, alone: Revachol forever.
From above, the city glimmers like a mineral vein and throbs with life. Halogen light refracts and dissipates in a stratosphere of smog, sputtering out like a dying engine.
This is the way a city’s heart beats. In the miles between you and the ocean, countless people live their lives in liberty and in squalor. A hundred-thousand tiny apes, loving each other and leaving each other. Somethings and ex-somethings. And beyond all of that, there is a burgeoning hole in the world, crawling toward land at a moralist pace. It is the unthinking, uncompromising promise of obliteration. The biggest ex-something of all.
This is and isn’t Jamrock. Your semi-lucid mind keeps the illusion sharp, but you can see the seams in front of you. You’re dreaming, Harry. As you’ve done many times before. As you’ll continue to do as long as your lungs hold air.
Don’t worry about all that just now, your mind coaxes. Go home, before it’s too late.
A brief flash of memory bubbles to the surface of your mind; a creaking staircase and a thin, green door. A snowdrift of letters cluttering a threshold. A closet full of sequined party shirts.
You find yourself standing back on the slanted sidewalk outside your flat, where Kim’s motor carriage is steaming in the rain.
You circle the Kineema. Your shadow warps and widens in the metallic blue sheen of its fuselage as you run a hand across it. You note the empty driver’s seat, gaze drifting through the front window to land on the radio transmitter that’s slotted into the console.
It’s humming on an active frequency. Police chatter rides the airwaves; nonsense words. Precinct 57, or 41? you wonder. Which pulse does Kim Kitsuragi have his finger on these days?
You would ask the lieutenant, but he’s nowhere to be seen.
“Kim?” you call. A sense of urgency grips your limbic system. Jamrock hunches around you, listening, but there’s no answer.
You glance at the door to your flat, which is angling down toward you, the craquelure of peeling paint gaping in your direction. You attempt, and fail, to find any signs of life.
That isn’t your home , Harry. You live on 11 Voyager Road, now and forever. And if you don’t get there fast... well, you know what will happen.
Leaving the cooling motor carriage in your wake, your feet begin to carry you down the lonesome, long way home. Your heart pounds. Distant shapes and fragments of memory flicker here and there as the landmarks of Jamrock swim into view. Your brain still has a long way to go to a full recovery, but you are dimly aware that you lived a life here. Disco-dancing and drinking and chasing leads all over this city, sometimes all at the same time.
See that gymnasium there, Harry? You spent a lot of time there, hollering encouragements at sweaty children while they ran in circles. And over there, in that discotheque? You kept the dream alive , baby, until the crowd got so thin that they shut the doors for good. And at the end of the street, beneath the video rental sign, where your eyes don’t want to look?
That’s where you lost, Harry. But this time might be different.
She’s waiting for you.
Your gait slows. Suddenly, you are hyper-aware of the arrhythmic thumping of your own heart. There is a pale, ethereal vision standing on the sidewalk ahead, her graceful neck tilting her head toward the nearest exit. A holy wreath is woven into her hair. The sight of her sends a shock through your whole system.
Her Innocence, Dolores Dei, stands before you, a pillar of grace and dignity. The only sacred thing for miles. Her fingers curl over the handle of her suitcase, water dripping from her crown.
Deep breath, brother. This is gonna hurt.
“It’s you again,” you croak stupidly. “You came back.”
“Oh, Harry,” she sighs, turning to face you.
She is so painfully beautiful that it brings tears to your eyes. It’s a sin to look upon her, but you can’t bear to do anything else. You stumble closer.
“I didn’t come back,” she tells you. “I’m always, always leaving.”
The small, sad smile on her face is a diplomatic concession. She is not flattered by your devotion to her; neither is it wearing down her resolve. She’s disappointed to see you here again.
“You don’t have to leave,” you say.
“But I do,” she replies. “Please, please try to understand. I can’t keep doing this.”
The act is growing stale, Harry. The returns have diminished. This time, instead of the questions you always ask, you have to try something new.
“This is Voyager road,” you blather. “We’re in Jamrock. I remember things now.”
She gives you a quizzical look, pursing her lips. “Jamrock? No, this is the smallest church in Saint-Saëns.”
Rain is forming black puddles on the street. They catch the light from the signs above you, reflecting bursts of red and gold and turquoise back in your face. She means that this is a place of worship. You come here every night, paying tribute to her and to your own failure. You’re the patron saint of disco music and being left behind. This is your sad little shrine.
No. You are down the way from your old home on Voyager road. This isn’t consecrated ground. It’s only a crosswalk.
You don’t live here anymore.
“I have a flat,” you tell her. “I found it today.”
“That’s good, Harry,” she says. “Really wonderful.”
She’s turning away from you. She doesn’t even want to give you a chance . Your mind scrambles for something to say to keep her here; running down the lists in growing frustration and despair.
Angle in on her or you’ll lose her again. Do it, now.
“I’m remembering more and more about Revachol; about Jamrock and… and you.”
“I remember Jamrock too.” Her voice holds no fondness. She won’t look at you. “I remember the mould in our flat and the smog in the air. I remember the cracks in the earth where the bombs fell. There was no place for me there.”
Her fingers move toward her stomach, where it swells slightly beneath her dress of clouds. A reflex. “No place for anything.”
Your mind is swimming at the injustice of it all. What she’s saying doesn’t make sense. It’s not the world’s fault that it’s falling apart; isn’t she meant to protect it?
“But you’re Dolores Dei,” you insist. “Jamrock is part of your new, new world. How could you just leave it like this?”
Her patience doesn’t waver in the face of your accusation. “I can’t look after this city forever, Harry. I can’t fix what he did to himself.”
She can’t save him, and she can’t bear to watch him slowly die. What alternative is there? You feel your momentum waning; cold resignation looms. This didn’t change anything. You’re never going to change anything.
But you have to try.
“... What is Revachol supposed to do without you?”
“I can’t tell you that,” she says. “I can’t manage it any more, Harry, I’m sorry. I’m with someone else, in another place. I only have to worry about what I’m supposed to do now.”
“Do you really think there’s any hope of fixing… this?”
You gesture vaguely to your surroundings. Jamrock is curling in around you both. A cold wind twists through the street, pulling at her dress and your tie. Rain drips down your lips. You shudder, feeling the weight of a once-proud city, forsaken. Riddled with bullet wounds. Your hip and shoulder ache.
“I don’t know, Harry,” she sighs. “Maybe. There’s a lot to rebuild. You have a lot of work to do.”
“And you have to go.”
This time, her sad smile has a modicum of weight behind it. Her eyes meet yours. “Yes. I have to go.”
There now, brother. You’re starting to get it.
“This still hurts,” you hiss, more to yourself than to her. “ Why does it still hurt?”
“It will always hurt a little,” she says. “But then, in time, it will be more like a memory. It’s not easy for any of us.”
Yet her posture is effortless and her hand has not once alighted from the handle of her luggage. It’s called resolve, Harry. You used to have it.
“I loved you,” you plead.
It’s one last-ditch effort to salvage something from her. But she knows what this is doing to you and she can’t care anymore. She can’t continue to watch you throw yourself at the wall.
Other people know how to give up while they still have their dignity. Your mind is not equipped for no-win scenarios; it can only function in a world of problems with solutions. This is at once your most admirable and least tolerable quality.
Her Innocence, Dolores Dei takes a step toward you, inclining her glorious wreath of flowers toward your sagging, rain-soaked mass. Overcome, you kneel, planting both knees firmly into several centimetres of water. You slowly lift your head.
“It’s love that’s doing you in,” she agrees, gently. “But I’m not the one pulling the trigger. Goodbye, Harry.”
She turns, leaving you on your knees. Your chest is vice-tight. This can’t happen again -- there has to be something you can say, something you can do. Nothing is unsolvable. You can find the right words, the right inflection, the right option -- it will make her see that she can’t leave you. She can’t leave .
But she has. The street corner is yawning before you, empty. Cold rain trickles down the back of your neck and beneath your shirt collar. The video rental sign hums.
Despair is crawling up through your basal ganglia, locking all your limbs in place, but there’s no time to let yourself fall apart. The infernal engine roars on -- and so does something else, something real , out there, beyond the dream. The waking world is calling you.
The slam of a motor carriage’s door outside brings you a sharp, sudden clarity. You are only dreaming. The illusion of Jamrock begins to melt under scrutiny. The world becomes a hypnagogic blur, half rainy street, half mattress and warm sheets.
Desperate, you reach for the space where the ex-something once stood. At the same time, you understand that your arm is pinned under your sleeping body, immovable.
“Wait,” you mumble. “I can still--”
Three resounding knocks on your thin, green door and you are dragged into waking life.
Your eyes open to a flood of sunlight through the bedroom window of your flat. Your abused body screams at you -- why did you sleep with all of your weight on your shoulder?
Turn over and go back to sleep. Never wake up again. Waking up is a mistake.
Another series of knocks, louder this time, emanates from downstairs.
You throw your legs over the bed and lurch forward, hugging the door frame. Your body is still booting up, establishing a connection with your brain. You don’t know what time it is, but you know without a doubt that it is too early.
Two more brisk knocks. You nearly tumble down the stairs, and come to full clarity halfway down the hallway, right in time to realize you’re half-naked as you pull open the door.
Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi stands on your doorstep, carrying a battalion of cleaning supplies in a bright yellow bucket. His Kineema, the enemy of sleep, cools behind him. You glare at him.
He doesn’t seem to notice. You hear him let out a short, low hum as he takes in the stained shirt and worn underpants you’re wearing.
He’s seen worse. On you. Graciously, he opts not to acknowledge this aloud.
“Good morning, detective. Are you ready to get started?”
Kim’s approval bolsters you, as it always does. Fuel in the infernal engine. You suddenly feel more capable of doing this, this getting-your-shit-together thing.
As you stand aside to allow the lieutenant into your flat, your brain begins to register the freezing temperature. Winter has crawled over the city while you were sleeping. A small cloud of snow drifts behind Kim like a halo, caught in an updraft. More of it powders the street, turning gray where the gutters line the sidewalk. The world has been reforged into a brilliant, white ball.
The sight of untouched snow covering Jamrock seems somehow pure, like a fresh beginning. As much as an endless, pale expanse has the potential to be terrifying, it is also strikingly beautiful.
The only disturbance you can see are the tread-marks left by Kim’s motor carriage on his way to you. The Kineema sits, ticking. Your fingers itch, wondering how well it handles in the snow.
A fair bit better than it does under the ice, Major.
You shudder as Kim puts down his bucket and begins to assess the state of your hallway, formulating his plan of attack. Your bare legs are going numb in the cold. With one last glance at the block of buildings across the way, looking painted-over and nearly clean, you let the door fall shut.
The lieutenant hovers in the middle of the room. He is in civilian clothing today -- which is to say, he’s wearing his usual fare, sans halogen patches. You think the jacket might be different; or else the orange seems darker than usual in the dingy lighting.
He alights his hand on the banister and pulls his fingers back, inspecting the thin layer of dust clinging to his glove. He squints.
“I started upstairs,” you mumble.
“All right. Well, I would like to start downstairs, if it’s all the same to you,” Kim responds. His nostrils flare as he inhales, deliberately quiet so as not to shame you. “Maybe in the kitchen?”
He has his feet pointed in your direction, and you can feel his attention on you even though his eyes are elsewhere. He has dialed into your frequency, ready to gauge your response without overtly asking questions. This is a reminder that he isn’t here because he cares a fig about cleaning your flat. He’s concerned about you in general. He’s here to check up on you.
Of course he is. Given everything you’ve been through, there have to be some sunk costs to consider by now.
“Good idea,” you agree.
He relaxes a fraction, smiling. This is a good return on investment; you’re up and willing to help. He’s clearly pleased.
Kim’s approval bolsters you, as it always does. Fuel in the infernal engine. You suddenly feel more capable of doing this, this getting-your-shit-together thing.
Kinetic energy buzzes under your skin.
“I’m going to put on clothes,” you assert.
You notice Kim’s amused smile widen before he can wrangle it. He rakes his eyes up your exposed legs and parks his gaze somewhere along the generous curve of your belly, which is determined not to be contained by any mere shirt.
He clears his throat. “That’s a good idea. I’ll wait, but we should get started soon if we want to get anywhere today.”
What he means is, he’s not going to do all the work while you fool around. It’s together or not at all. He’s aware of the paper-thin distinction between helping you and enabling you.
You make your way upstairs, a cascade of creaking stairs in your wake. The snow has picked up outside your second-story window. It’s a dry but abundant flurry, making small mountains on top of roofs and dumpsters; streetlights and parked carriages. It has christened the scraggly tree between your flat and the next, pooling on its branches. With some weight on its bones, it looks almost dignified.
Your bedroom is still clean enough, save for the sheets you knotted in your sleep. You pull a pair of trousers from your closet. They are a faded yellow color, and it’s difficult to discern whether or not this was always the case. It’s a struggle to pull them on, and a protracted siege to zip and button them, but you emerge victorious.
You trade your stained shirt for a clean one and turn to leave, freezing when a smell assails your senses. It’s a dull, fruity scent that pings off of your olfactory bulb and crashes through the rest of your system like a lightning bolt, dismantling all the neural rigging that keeps your ancient hull moving. You stumble and stop, your eyes darting to the drawer next to your bed.
You don’t want to look at it. Simultaneously, you want to plunge your fingers inside and pull the packets to your nose and breathe deep.
And don’t forget that there are so many other delightful concoctions in there, Harry, each one better than the last. All reeking of tutti-frutti bubblegum.
You could forget all the painful bits; obliterate them until the only thing that’s left is the smell of her. When Kim goes home, and you’re alone again, you’ll be left with so many of your own devices.
He’ll come up here eventually. Don’t let him find the drawer.
You try to moisten your throat with a swallow, tearing your eyes away from the drawer. You head back downstairs, a fresh anxiety compressing your chest. Kim is still waiting in the hallway, one finger tracing a section of peeling wallpaper. He’s emanating a very low, tuneless hum.
He’s here to help you. Remember that, Harry, because it’s been a long time since you’ve had anyone around you that you haven’t worn down to the nub. Here’s someone who isn’t too exhausted to believe in you. But it’s together or not at all.
“Kim?” you ask.
Harry , croaks a warning voice in your head. What are you thinking?
Kim jumps slightly, and plays it off so cool that you almost believe it was a trick of the light. He tilts his head. The change in your tone is obvious, but without knowing what to make of it, he can only wait for you to continue.
When was the last time someone trusted you, Harry? Really trusted you?
And if he finds out you have a drawer full of narcotics, what do you think is gonna happen to that trust?
“Could you… open the drawer of the nightstand next to the bed and…” You fidget. Kim’s brow wrinkles. “Could you throw all of that stuff out?”
The lieutenant is silent for a moment, processing. Finally, he speaks.
“You want me… to go upstairs,” he clarifies, pointing upward, “and open a drawer. In the room you were just in. And throw something away?”
“Yes.” You wince. “Well, you can leave the picture.”
He thinks you’ve lost your mind. Still, after a beat, he shrugs. “...Okay.”
Bending toward his bucket of supplies, he tugs a plastic bag from its depths and heads upstairs. You listen to the steps creak, your heart pounding in your throat.
It turns out the floorboards are no more resistant to strain than the stairs. They groan terribly when Kim reaches the stairwell. You can trace the lieutenant’s trajectory as he crosses the hall and enters the bedroom; you hear him stop next to the bed.
The rest, you can picture as though it’s unfolding in front of you: Kim, the sleeves of his bomber jacket folded up to the elbow, pulling open the drawer without a hint of fear; clinically appraising the contents. He is unaffected by the scent of apricot. At worst, he’s confused that anyone would keep several unopened packets of gum next to their bed.
His brow furrows as it becomes obvious they’re obscuring something more serious. A forensic instinct kicks in; he removes each bundled substance with a delicate touch, inspecting them one by one before dropping them in the trash. It’s precise, surgical.
His expression is carefully neutral even when he’s alone. Force of habit. It’s a kindness; a courtesy to you not to show judgement as he excises this wound. When he’s done excavating the drugs, he grasps the curling corner of the photograph and wrests it from its moorings.
You can’t picture his response to seeing her . Is it awe? Horror?
Maybe he’s eager. This small scrap of evidence is key to so many mysteries about you, and he does care about you. Maybe he’s underwhelmed by the woman who toppled you like a stack of cards.
If he tucks her back into the depths of the drawer and leaves her be, what does that say about him? And if he drops her into the plastic bag, along with the rest of your vices, what then?
Years seem to pass before you hear the bullfrog groan of the floorboards, and Kim descends into the hallway with brisk steps.
“It’s taken care of,” he tells you simply.
Relief balloons in your chest. “Thank you.”
He gives a small nod, shrugging off his jacket. He leaves it on a hanger in the hallway, which anchors a few lanyards and neckties to the wall, but no coats except for his. He tucks his leather gloves into the pocket and hooks the plastic bag, now full, underneath it. You only catch a glimpse of the contents before the fabric hides it altogether.
You’ve never seen Kim without his bright orange bomber jacket. He looks smaller somehow, until he turns back to you, chin high.
“I could use your help with the rest,” he continues, hoisting his bucket up to rest it against his hip. He fishes through it for a moment, and tosses you a pair of disposable gloves. “Shall we start?”
Together, you make your way back to the kitchen, donning gloves; two scrubbed-up surgeons preparing for one mother of an operation.
There is no door, just a narrow rectangle carved out of the hallway where the floorboards give way to tacky vinyl squares. It’s meant to mimic tile, but it’s gone bumpy over the years as the floor has warped beneath it. Someone -- probably you -- has tried to hide this fact with a garish, woven kitchen mat in blue and yellow. It isn’t working.
Kim sucks in a breath through his teeth, and you remember to look at the rest of the room. It’s so much worse than you thought.
There’s a rusting stove older than you are, piled to overflowing with greasy kitchen pans. Beneath, it is crusted with dried food and oil. Flies buzz around the sink, which is the source of the odious smell you traced from the hallway. It’s much stronger here. You can see the jut of bone and graying meat rising from a plate, coated in a sticky, dried sauce. You have to look away; you can process that later.
There are suspect stains on the floor beneath your chugging little refrigerator. It’s not a full one -- certainly nothing the size of a bear. It looks like it was designed for someone’s office, not a kitchen. The cord running from it to the wall appears to be glued to the floor by the dark, dried ring of liquid at the base.
There is an uncountable amount of trash bags piled around a shape you assume is the actual bin. A kitchen table with a circumference barely wider than your own huddles in the corner, utterly defeated by the piles of dishes, glassware, and empty bottles you’ve left on top.
A wave of futility washes over you as you consider the mastodonic nature of this task.
What kind of animal lives like this? Just cut your losses, Harry. What do you even think you’re going to accomplish?
You feel a hand on your shoulder. Kim pushes you gently into the room.
“Let’s do this,” he says. “Would you rather start with the dishes or the fridge?”
Neither sound appealing, but the phrasing of the question leaves you no room to hedge. “Fridge.”
Kim puts the bucket on the floor and hands you an armful of disinfectant and rags.
“Then I’ll start with the dishes,” he tells you, slicing your obligations cleanly in two.
The lieutenant’s expression says he’s not going to brook any argument, and the distribution of the work has already made it seem easier, more manageable. You gird yourself and set to work prying open the fridge, while Kim opens the window above the sink. Instantly, the cold air neutralizes some of the smell. The sound of running water and clanging pipes fills the small space, oddly comforting. Kim wordlessly eases into the routine of washing dishes.
Every now and then as you clean, you catch yourself looking over your shoulder to remind yourself that the lieutenant is there, steady and constant. It makes everything seem less and less impossible.
The work is slow, not to mention disgusting, but when one task is complete, Kim lets you pick another. Then another, and another, and in that way, the two of you clear the kitchen of its smells and stains and the sad, cramped, trapped feeling that was permeating the walls.
You pick a few empty aluminium cans from the kitchen table and drop them in the bin, while Kim hauls the last of the trash bags out to the dumpster. When you turn, you’re surprised to find that the work is done.
Your stove gleams at you, its knobs burnished to a shine.The table is clear -- it looks bigger now. Your fridge hums. There is sunlight streaming through the window, along with a few stray snowflakes, which land and melt in your empty sink.
Kim returns, peeling off one glove and swiping the back of his hand across his brow.
“We did it,” you say, astonished.
He gives you a small, private smile. “Yes, at least in this room -- and I’d say that’s the worst of it. It should be much easier from here.”
Kim takes off his other glove, flexing his fingers while you indulge yourself, leaning into the feeling of supreme accomplishment generated by a job well done. Task complete. Your lizard brain purrs.
“I’d say the hallway next,” Kim advises. “And we should be able to get the living room before dark. But first, I have something for you.”
Your ears perk up. “Presents?”
The sudden enthusiasm draws a chuckle out of your partner. “A present. A housewarming gift. I know it’s not technically a housewarming, but… extenuating circumstances.”
He means that obliterating your mind with alcohol until you can’t remember where you live technically makes this place new.
You follow the lieutenant into the hallway, where he gestures toward the potted plant he's left on your table. It's clear he had to hastily shift some mail around to make room for it.
It’s a small thing, but full of vitality, if the deep green hues are any indication. Several broad, flat leaves sprout from its core, along with a small, flowering white bloom. It tilts skyward on its stalk, hopeful. Some long-forgotten crevice of your mind tells you this is a Spathiphyllum wallisii, a common house plant. More common before the war.
"We talked about hobbies," Kim says. He's speaking faster than usual -- he's nervous, maybe defensive. Maybe doubting that it was an appropriate gift for a fellow cop. "I thought it would be nice to have something to take care of."
It doesn't take a detective to follow the trail of his logic. The meaning is clear: he hopes this will train you to take better care of yourself. It’s well-meant -- an earnest intention, and a thoughtful one. It will be nice not to be the only living thing in this space; nice to have a reminder that there are reasons beyond yourself to get out of bed in the morning.
It will be nice to have a reminder of him.
You wonder if he thought of it that way. Is that why he's whisked his glasses off of his face to furiously clean them, so he doesn't have to read your response?
Gratitude washes over you. It isn't just a plant. It's evidence of Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi’s unfaltering faith in your ability to overcome yourself. You’ve never received anything like it.
You've been quiet too long. He's putting his glasses back on and shifting his weight to his other foot, fortifying.
"Of course, if you don't like it, I can--"
"It's perfect, Kim," you interrupt. “Thank you.”
"Oh," Kim says, grinning."Good, yes. You’re welcome."
At some point, he hovered closer to you, anticipating your reaction. Once you notice his proximity, it’s impossible to stop noticing. There’s a smudge of dirt spanning from the corner of his left eyebrow down to his cheekbone. He looks like he wants to say something else. Instead, he glances from your eyes to your chin, and back up again.
A realization springs from nowhere and refuses to leave once it lodges in your brain. You could close the gap between the two of you, if you wanted to.
Don’t be ridiculous. You must break the silence before the painful awkwardness does lasting psychological damage to one or both of you.
“So,” you mumble, tilting your head away.
“Right,” breathes Kim, looking relieved -- you think. “We should get back to it.”
He steps away, breaking the nearly tangible tension that’s formed between you, and disappears into the kitchen. You take a moment to collect yourself. Was that a random compulsion just now? Some stray synapse firing because another person wandered into your intimate radius? Any other possibility is daunting, moreso even than the kitchen.
Any way you cut it, you have got to get a hold of yourself.
“What am I doing?” you whisper.
Only your houseplant hears you, and it doesn’t have any more answers than you do.
Kim doesn’t want to dissect this part of himself like it’s a rare specimen on a slab. Not with you, and certainly not in the middle of the laundrette.
Several hours later, you’re sitting in the passenger seat of the Kineema with a trash bag slung across your lap. It’s swollen with dirty laundry, its black mass obscuring your vision. You’re left with only a series of blue halogen flashes in your periphery and the sensation of Jamrock slip-streaming past you as the motor carriage carves a path through the snow. Kilometers away, your apartment sits empty, its floors clear of clutter and its walls scrubbed of stains. Without you and Kim to fill it wall-to-wall with the noise of living things, it is mausoleum silent, and impeccably clean.
Your new houseplant keeps a vigil on your living room table, its face turned toward the window, and the setting sun. The little white bulb hovers; a ghost in the growing darkness.
Shivering, you wrap your arms tighter around the bulk of laundry and rest your chin against it.
Beside you, you can feel Kim’s hand near your leg, maneuvering the gear shift into third. The rumbling of his motor carriage vibrates all the way through you; it’s a gorgeous machine, and it knows that it’s loved. It pays the lieutenant back in kind, greeting him with intimate familiarity; responding without hesitation to his touch; purring when his grip tightens.
Got something you’d like to admit to yourself, Harry-boy?
An involuntary spasm runs along the outside of your thigh. You discreetly shift away from the console, out of range of Kim’s hand. Your skin tingles in the sudden absence of warmth.
Outside, darkness is falling fast. The lieutenant has spent an entire day on this, on you . And it isn’t over yet. This is not the first time you’ve exhausted your waking hours together, but this time it’s voluntary. You should thank him, rather than sitting here in silence, stewing in your own strange thoughts.
“Thanks again, Kim,” you say, breaking the spell. “Couldn't have done all this without you.”
“No need, detective. Happy to help,” the lieutenant assures you.
The Kineema hums. Kim’s too modest to make a show of it, but it’s obvious to you that you wouldn’t have gotten very far without him today. The sight of the kitchen alone would have cut you down before you even started. You would have crumpled under your own weight, like you always do, except that he was there to shoulder the load.
There’s a voice in your mind that’s telling you not to dwell too much on the brand new sense of accomplishment you acquired today. It’s one tiny, clean flat. By comparison, you are still one massive, cumbersome mess.
You feel eyes on you. You glance at the rear-view mirror in time to catch the glint on Kim’s glasses as he looks away. The exchange lasts milliseconds; it’s enough time for him to glean your thoughts.
“The key is not to let it get that bad again.”
He’s not being condescending, or unkind. It’s a statement of fact, made softer by his tone. He thinks it will be easy for you not to let it get that bad again. He thinks you can do this. Already, your darker thoughts are retreating into the crevices of your mind, shying away from his effortless confidence.
You did accomplish something today, Harry. There’s a difference between taking it for granted and letting yourself enjoy it. The difference is accountability -- you’re responsible for maintaining your flat and yourself, now. You can celebrate your small victories while the war wages on.
Kim pulls the Kineema to a smooth stop and twists the key in the ignition. The engine’s growl dwindles into quiet, rhythmic ticking as it begins to cool. Vapour clouds the freezing air behind you. You hear Kim pop the lock on his door, and watch him slide out into the snow.
Hoisting your laundry up over your shoulder, you follow suit, planting your boots into the untouched snow with a dull thud. In front of you, the neon sign above the 24-hour laundrette paints the landscape an iridescent orange. You glance over at Kim. His hands are folded behind his back, angling his chest outward. His breath plumes in front of his face.
For a moment, he appears otherworldly in the orange-and-red glow, smoke gathering around him. You blink the awe out of your eyes; it’s not a delusion, it’s astigmatism. You probably shouldn’t drive at night until you get that looked at.
Kim clears his throat. He’s waiting. On you.
Scrambling, you march forward and into the laundrette. The dull bell affixed to the door frame chimes when it swings open, alerting the three exhausted-looking people inside to your presence. A woman, middle-aged and heavy-set, is hunched over near a squeaking machine. She glares at you, annoyed at your interruption, and resumes watching her laundry slosh around with an intensity that suggests it might vanish if she takes her eyes off of it.
Hers is one washing unit in a row of units that take up the entire back and left walls. A few others have chambers full of tumbling clothes, some frothing with soapy foam. They seem to have been abandoned to spin on, alone. This strikes you as somewhat sad and relatable.
There are a pair of adolescents with their backs pressed up against the free wall, eyeing the door like vultures. One boy and one girl. They put their hands around their mouths and begin to giggle as you walk in, closely followed by Kim at your heels. You can feel him tense up at the sight of juveniles.
“Check ‘em out,” you hear one of them whisper, the girl, pointing in your direction. “Couple of...”
A slur passes between her lips, barely but deliberately audible. She raises her eyes to look at you, daring you to respond. The implication is clear: you and Kim, two grown men at the laundrette together, cannot be anything other than homosexuals -- or whatever more colorful, crueler word she’d like to use for it.
A volatile impulse shoots through you. Address it. She won’t expect you to snap back. It’ll be so satisfying to watch her seize up and sputter, laid low by a scathing retort. Make it clever, Harry.
You swallow the response bubbling up in your throat.
They’re kids -- worse, they’re Jamrock kids, their contempt bred from someone else’s contempt, and so on down the line, stretching all the way back to the bombings. End it here.
Kim brushes past you without a word and begins slotting coins into a washing machine. You follow, waiting for the door to pop open before loading in your clothes. The adolescents watch for a moment until they confirm you’re not going to take the bait. Reeking of disappointment, they ease back into their conversation, oblivious to both of you.
The lieutenant picks up an armful of clothing and dumps it onto the growing pile. His shoulders are one rigid line.
This is more personal to him. Closer to home.
“You okay?” you keep your voice low.
Kim doesn’t look at you. He’s too busy uncapping the detergent and funneling it into the wash.
“Of course. I’ve heard worse; it’s better not to engage. You did the right thing.”
You don’t clarify how close you came to a confrontation just then. “It doesn’t bother you?”
The lid drops on the washing unit. Kim fires it up; it whirs and squeaks to life. Your laundry tumbles. The machine rocks.
“No,” he says. He can speak more freely now that the noise is picking up. “I’m comfortable with myself. I’d put it in less vulgar terms than she did, but…”
She isn’t wrong, he means. His voice trails off.
This is as open as he cares to be about it -- and not because he’s ashamed. He’s not going to talk about it like it’s less than normal, and speaking in hushed whispers, like it’s a cancer, is just that. He doesn’t want to dissect this part of himself like it’s a rare specimen on a slab. Not with you, and certainly not in the middle of the laundrette.
But you already know that Kim Kitsuragi is comfortable with himself. He accepts all of the facets of his own identity, unifying them into one complete person -- in stark contrast to you , who obliterated your sense of self so thoroughly you forgot what was waiting for you in the mirror.
You became a stranger to the voices in your head; Kim is certain of who he is.
There’s no question that he’s not bothered by the slur. But your question was whether it bothered him to be mistaken for being with you .
“I meant, thinking that we...” You gesture between you. “That doesn’t bother you?”
You watch the spark in his eyes when he puts together your meaning; the small, upward twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Oh, I see. No, that doesn’t bother me.”
Make him elaborate , hisses a voice in your head.
Don’t. He might not give you the answer you want.
Kim returns his attention to the machine in the wake of your silence, watching the spin cycle kick up a notch. You’re aware of the juveniles’ eyes on your back, warily assessing your level of homosexuality.
You don’t know what answer you want.
It’s a cold realization. It settles in the pit of your stomach, worrying at you.
In silence, you wait for the wash to finish. After an hour or so, the woman leaves, and then the juveniles, in succession. Even after they’ve gone, Kim doesn’t make any further comments about the slur -- nor anything else, for that matter. He folds his hands behind his back and shifts his weight from foot to foot, staring thoughtfully at the wall while the sound of the washing machine drowns out everything else.
Despite the doubt gnawing at you, it’s a comfortable, almost familiar quiet that falls when you and Kim are alone. It reminds you of sitting shoulder to shoulder with him in Martinaise. Here you are again, waiting for the tide.
Fitting. You’re still avoiding an inescapable truth about yourself. This time, it isn’t about your driving.
It isn’t until you’re piling warm, dry, clean-smelling clothes back into your bag that the lieutenant finally speaks.
“Does it bother you?” he asks, dropping a neatly folded shirt into the pile. “What happened before.”
You hesitate. It feels like a test. Or a probe, at least, as though he’s sending out feelers. The question is vague out of caution -- he could mean the assumption that you’re attracted to men. He could also mean the specific issue of you being mistaken for lovers.
You’ve considered the possibility of the former. The concept didn’t come to you right away after you started piecing yourself back together in Martinaise, but it slid into your thoughts over time and settled there so comfortably that you’re certain you were aware of it before. You like men. You also most definitely like women. You’re vulnerable on all possible fronts, you absolute disaster.
Now, for the first time, you’re forced to confront whether you’re not only attracted to men, but attracted to the lieutenant.
For the first time? Why do you bother to lie inside your own head, Harry? It isn’t like this hasn’t been lingering on the edges of your thoughts. You have an alarming tendency to gravitate romantically toward anyone who shows you a modicum of kindness.
It feels good , being around him. You feel good. Capable. And consider the motor carriage. Kim’s hand hovering near your thigh, and all the pleasantly warm and impossibly confusing sensations that came with it. When you walked into the laundrette and were immediately accused of being homosexuals, it didn’t even occur to you to deny it. Your only thought was to ask if Kim was offended by the notion.
What answer did you want, by the way?
You tilt your head away from the lieutenant, shaking your antagonistic thoughts into submission.
“Nah,” you say. “It doesn’t bother me.”
It must be the truth. When the words leave your mouth, the weight on your shoulders lifts with them.
You drop the last of your clothes into the bag and tie it tight. The plastic squeaks. When you look back at Kim -- you have to, to check if he’s ready to go -- he’s lost in thought. He meets your eyes, swallows, and opens his mouth.
Did you feel that, Harry? That shift in the current between you? Something electric passes from him to you.
Caution, brother. You’ve veered down this path before, and you didn’t love the dead end that rose up to greet you.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” Kim begins. “I...”
In the silence he leaves dangling, your stomach lets out a long, low, plaintive growl.
The tension breaks. You self-consciously slap a hand to your stomach, and the lieutenant sighs, his lips forming into a fond smirk.
“... I was wondering if you’d like to get something to eat? There’s a kebab place on the corner.”
What was he really going to say? Don’t you wonder. The moment flits out of reach as quickly as it came; nothing more than a fleeting impulse. But you felt it. It’s still tingling under your skin.
“I’m starving,” you admit, trying to mask your disappointment.
He nods, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jacket. You gather your things, and the lieutenant leads you out of the laundrette, into the snow. In the time you’ve been inside, it’s started to fall again. White dots of precipitation dance across your vision and fade into the darkness -- you learned when you were young that every fleck of snow is singularly unique. It seems impossible that there’s enough to cover the whole city. You load your laundry into the Kineema, your breath crystalizing just past your lips.
The cold crawls under your blazer and wraps around your body like a frigid second skin. Kim doesn’t seem bothered, but you notice a healthy red color rising on his cheeks as he leads you down the street. You both duck into a small, corner restaurant saturated with the smell of roasting meat.
The man behind the counter barely glances up at you. Two reels of crackling meat spin over the grill behind him. He turns to shave a slice off of one as it rotates and returns to the counter, folding it into the sandwich he’s making. His black moustache threatens to droop off of his face and into his pita.
“What can I getcha?” he asks as Kim draws nearer.
“One lamb kebab and…” the lieutenant pauses, looking at you.
You glance up at the menu above the counter. All of the letters seem to blur together. You’ve never eaten here. You don’t what any of this means, and everyone is looking at you.
Your eyes wander to the cooler sitting next to the grill, where a few glassy bottle tops are poking through the ice. You want nothing more than you want a cheap, shitty beer right now.
“Two lamb kebabs,” you wheeze.
“Mnh,” grunts the man behind the counter. He swipes a pair of kebabs that were already turning on the grill and holds them out to Kim, along with a generous helping of napkins. Kim graciously hands him a few réal, paying for both of you.
There are a few tables laid out, and one booth tucked into the corner of the tiny room. You take the booth. It’s illuminated by a single, dull bulb ensconced in a tacky green shade. There’s something sticky on the surface of the table. Kim slides into the seat across from you and hands you a crackling kebab.
When you bite in, a stream of grease rolls over your chin. It. Tastes. Incredible.
“Oh fuck,” you say, practically inhaling the rest.
The lieutenant smirks, taking a modest nibble of his own kebab. “Yes, they’re pretty good here.”
“This is the most beautiful night of my life.” Your voice is reverent; your lips coated in kebab grease.
Kim snorts. He doesn’t realize that as absurd as you are, you’re also half-serious.
“Really. Today has been good,” you insist.
“It has,” he agrees. “Hard work, but we did well.”
You finish your kebab in record time. It’s been a long fucking time since you had a good meal; no one can blame you for being ravenous.
The lieutenant is more reserved, savouring the moment and the food. It’s almost impossible not to watch him. Your eyes trace the motion of his Adam’s apple when he swallows.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” you ask.
Kim chuckles. “I’m sure I can’t stop you.”
“When did you know?” you find yourself murmuring, quiet enough that the man behind the counter can’t hear you.
“Know what?” He’s finished with his kebab; he reaches for a napkin.
“That you were into men.”
The napkin crinkles slightly. There’s a beat before he answers.
“I always suspected, I think. I didn’t have an opportunity to know for certain until I was an adult.”
This is as much as you’ve ever gotten out of him on the topic. He’s off-duty now, more relaxed. There are no bodies hanging from the trees to worry about, preventing him from indulging you. And he trusts you.
Kim Kitsuragi really trusts you.
“What happened? When were you sure?”
Now that he’s opening up, you’re going to be as insatiable as he’ll allow you to be. Your sleuthing instincts are kicking in, flooding your mind with questions. Lists of them.
“I fell in love with my partner.”
Your heart skips a beat before you realize that he doesn’t mean you.
“Eyes?” you guess.
The lieutenant only nods. In the dim light of the single hanging lamp, you can see his eyes flutter until they’re half-closed. He sighs.
“I didn’t realize you two were… partners partners.”
“We weren’t,” he tells you, simply. “He wasn’t interested in men. But he was a friend, and a partner, and an impressive police officer. And once I started falling in love with him, it was hard to stop.”
“Oh,” you breathe.
There’s a little knot of jealousy tangling itself up in your stomach. It’s too small to stop you from doing what you do best; there are too many unanswered questions swimming in your head not to ask more.
“What ever happened to him? You aren’t partners any more?”
Kim presses his lips together. “He died.”
Now you’ve done it. Great show, detective. As though you couldn’t have figured it out on your own; you just had to make him say it.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” you say, wincing.
“Don’t be.” Kim finally looks at you. His fingers twitch on the table. You imagine them reaching out toward yours, but they don’t. “It was a long time ago.”
He means it. This isn’t painful for him anymore. Some people know how to cope with loss, instead of drifting along on the spin cycle forever and ever and ever.
“Still,” you mutter. “Shit. I shouldn’t have asked--”
“Harry,” Kim says, voice firm. Your mouth clicks shut. “It’s fine. You can ask me anything you'd like."
He means it. Now's the time to sate your curiosity.
“What was he... like?"
“He was an exceptional detective,” Kim admits. “I suppose I have what you’d call a type.”
“Cops?” you ask.
“Cops,” the lieutenant confirms.
This checks out with your idea of a young, idealistic, more rebellious Kim Kitsuragi. It isn’t the uniform he likes, it’s what it represents -- at its core, a desire to bring justice to Revachol; to defend and protect; to stand up for something that matters.
You are a cop. The thought crawls into the space under your skull and stays there, grinning smugly.
"It’s... nice to talk about him,” Kim adds. "I haven't in a while. Thank you."
There’s a lingering fondness in his voice, the one he usually reserves for you. Untangle that knot, detective.
“You can tell me more sometime,” you offer. “If you want to.”
“Maybe, someday.” Kim gives you the kind of smile that’s only for special occasions. “For now, it’s getting late.”
He isn’t wrong. You’ve been out for hours. Outside, Jamrock is a cold and black expanse, dotted here and there with the orange and cerulean glimmer of neon lights. Your flat is waiting on its hill, its bed warm and inviting; its drawers cleared of every harmful substance.
Still, the greater part of you doesn’t want the day to end. Not yet.
The lieutenant rises to his feet and places a gloved hand on your shoulder. Heat rolls through you.
“Shall we?” he asks.
It takes every ounce of your willpower not to reach up and squeeze his hand.
“Yeah,” you say. “Let’s go home.”
For once, your body doesn’t ache in the absence of its vices, even as you watch Kim pull the cigarette from between his lips and exhale deeply, looking satisfied. It’s enough to be with him; to know that he considers you a part of this ritual now.
As Kim steers you ever homeward, you stare out of the passenger window and watch the snow floating through the streets. Every now and then a shape looms out of the darkness and into sudden clarity; a snapshot of the people passing by, caught for a split second by the pool of light issuing from the front of the motor carriage. They slip back into the shadows as you pass, and although your eyes roll to track them, the Kineema only goes forward. You see a gaggle of young women pressed into a herd, their fur-lined coats pulled up around their ears, laughing together. On the street corner, a couple holds hands on a bench, making twin puffs of smoke as they breathe out in unison. Outside a chain store, an old man is dumping tare into a machine; he feels you watching him immediately, and meets your eyes in the split second before you speed past.
It may be late, and cold, but Jamrock isn’t sleeping. All along her streets, there are people living their lives; planting flowers in charred earth, playing in ashes, stringing lights between the bones of bombed-out buildings. Life gets hard, but we go on .
You begin to recognize the pattern formed by the buildings around you. Even in the gloam, there’s a familiar angle here, a familiar patch of color there. You’re almost home.
Easing your fingers under your blazer, you gently rub your chest. Why is it so tight?
The Kineema purrs as the lieutenant shifts gears, stopping a razor’s breadth from the edge of the sidewalk, right outside your flat. Exhaustion is breathing down the back of your neck. Now that you’ve stopped, the day is bound to catch up with you. You feel half awake as you pull the latch on your door and ease yourself out, dragging your laundry behind you.
Kim walks you to your front door. The peeling paint is an almost welcome sight. You can’t remember the last time you were glad to be anywhere , much less home.
An unbidden urge to invite the lieutenant inside swells up in your chest. You’re terrible at goodbyes. You could pull him in for a cigarette, a chat, another round of questions. Anything would do.
You can’t hold onto him any longer, Harry. This is your home, but it isn’t his.
As you turn to wish him a good night, you see that the lieutenant is already pulling a lighter from his bomber jacket. He freezes in the middle of cupping his hands to nurture a flame, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Your surprise has caught him off guard.
“Sorry,” he says. “Habit.”
“I have time for a cigarette,” you say quickly, resting your bag of laundry up against the door. He relaxes.
The two of you plop down on your stoop, sharing a step while the lieutenant fills his lungs with smoke. He doesn’t offer you a drag, and you don’t ask. He might have the kind of self-control required to smoke just one a day, but you aren’t in a position to indulge yourself just yet.
For once, your body doesn’t ache in the absence of its vices, even as you watch Kim pull the cigarette from between his lips and exhale deeply, looking satisfied. It’s enough to be with him; to know that he considers you a part of this ritual now.
A plume of smoke furls out of him. You part your teeth and breathe out into the freezing air, forming a cloud of your own. It chases his, and they both dissipate in the darkness. Kim smiles.
“I’ll be heading to the precinct in the morning,” he says. “Any advice?”
“If I ever had any,” you tell him, hunching forward against the cold, “I don’t remember it.”
The lieutenant flicks his cigarette; a hundred minuscule particles of ash tumble into the night. You watch the pinpoint of light hovering near his hand where the cigarette keeps burning. It dances like a firefly on the way back toward his mouth.
“Fair enough. I’ll let you know if I have any, after tomorrow.”
“Thanks. Kind of wish I could go with you.”
It will be several days before you’re welcome at the station, with the injuries you sustained in Martinaise. You’re expected to spend time getting better, but you also hate being alone and aimless and far too aware of yourself. There are some terrifying ideations lurking in the darkest recesses of your brain. It remains to be seen whether you can single-handedly keep them at bay. Tomorrow, you’ll sink or swim.
You can feel the warmth of Kim’s shoulder next to yours as he shifts closer. You’re going to miss this.
“The station will be waiting for you, when you’re ready,” he tells you. “ You still need to recover,”
That’s the truest thing anyone’s ever said about you. You’re going to spend the rest of your life recovering.
Except if it takes that long, the station is certainly not going to be waiting for you. The world and everyone in it is going to move on by if all you do is sit around with your hand on your dick. It did before. That’s why you can’t let the infernal engine stop churning.
Quit running for one moment, and you get left behind forever. Doesn’t the thought of it just make you tired?
“I don’t see how ,” you mutter.
“You can rest,” Kim says, voice gentle. “It will get easier.”
He watched over you once, while you curled up inside an abandoned lighthouse and slept like a child. He was there when you woke up, Harry. But it was you who got yourself back on your feet.
“I think we’re a good team,” you confide.
When you tilt your head to get a read on him, he’s already looking at you. You can see the moon reflected in his glasses, nearly full.
“So do I,” he says.
It’s time to stop pretending you don’t see it, Harry. People used to call you the human can-opener, for fuck’s sake. You can guess thoughts the way other people breathe oxygen, and you can tell when someone wants to kiss you.
The urge to lean in and taste the nicotine still lingering on his tongue almost overpowers you. You barely resist it. There isn’t much of a self-preservation instinct left in you, but it stirs now, holding you back. Please stop doing this to yourself, Harry, you can’t take another unhappy ending. All you do is drag people down with you.
While you’re arguing with yourself, Kim drops his gaze, and his cigarette. He stands up before your senseless brain has the chance to tell your body what to do. You watch him grind his cigarette beneath his heel in one well-practiced motion.
“I’ve kept you out late,” he says. “And probably made you work too hard.You are supposed to be resting.”
“Right,” you say.
Wrong, your mind hisses at you. He wanted to kiss you, you felt it. Don't let him cut you off now.
Doubt is beginning to surface. Maybe you’re compromised. You’ve made this mistake before. You could be misreading all of it; you may be a human can-opener but you have the world’s most unreliable narrator for a brain. Your body also betrays you at every step; like it was designed to only crave the things you aren’t supposed to have. Put them together and they’re capable of astronomical damage.
As you should well know.
“Anyway,” the lieutenant is saying. “I’ll let you know how things go tomorrow. Thank you again, detective.”
“You too,” you find yourself saying. “Good night, Kim.”
“Good night,” he responds, and heads down the stairs.
This is how it goes: everyone leaves, and you never do anything about it until it’s too late.
He takes the steps carefully, one at a time. Not like you when you follow after him a moment later, your nervous system wresting the wheel away from your useless motor cortex. It steers you through the snow and after Lieutenant Kitsuragi with a singular purpose: you can’t let him walk away. Not yet, not when the atmosphere is heavy with things you’ve left unsaid.
Snow crunches under your feet. He reaches the Kineema in a few short strides -- a heartbeat later, you reach him.
“Wait,” you mumble.
You can see his face reflected in the window of the motor carriage, along with the row of streetlights behind you, each smaller than the last. He turns to you. A series of wrinkles cross his brow.
“What is it?” he asks, concerned.
“I wanted to…”
There are a hundred-thousand things you want to do, and your heavy tongue can articulate none of them. You can’t speak with your heart in your mouth. Instead, you lean forward, sucking in a breath like you’re about to plunge headfirst into the sea. You cross half the distance between you before you hesitate -- is this a bad idea?
Of course it is.
Kim reaches up in one quick motion. He grabs a handful of your collar and drags you forward, rising to meet you. Your mouth crashes into his and you grunt in surprise, fumbling. His back hits the motor carriage, and then your bodies align and you are suddenly kissing each other like you’ve just found water in the desert. Lightning arcs between you, and he arcs with it, angling toward you. The warmth of him seeps through your shirt and all the way down into your bones. With a muffled sound, he parts his lips and runs his tongue across yours, and the rush of nicotine flavour sends a pleasant tingle coursing through your whole body.
It was foolish to think you were about to sweep Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi off his feet in a grand, romantic gesture. You barely have time to keep up with him. His fingers are on your jaw and in your hair -- it’s all you can do to plant your hands on either side of him and press him into the Kineema to keep him from toppling you both backward onto the street.
“Harry, ” he sighs into your mouth.The word melts through you like an ember in the snow.
Heat is rising in your face and radiating off of the lieutenant in waves. You’re dizzy with it, and with the sudden shift in blood pressure as your body remembers how to rise to the occasion -- it’s been a while, major, but it’s hard to forget the steps. Especially with Kim sliding one leg between yours and applying pressure that is at once too much and not nearly enough. All you are is animal instinct. You’re good at this part, once the ice is broken and you’ve plunged right in; and so is he.
His fingers are grasping desperately at your shoulders. You let your own hands roam; there’s no space for finesse, not when you’ve been waiting weeks to touch him. It’s a furnace beneath his bomber jacket. He presses himself into the frantic angle of your hands, drawing you closer.
A fire is starting deep in your pleural cavity. Your lungs scream, drawing your attention to the urgent matter of remembering to breathe.
Gasping, you break apart. Cold air rushes in to fill the vacuum left behind. Kim pants, his glasses sitting loose and low on the bridge of his nose. He’s staring at you as though he’s just realized that you’re here.
“Holy shit,” you say.
Kim takes in one long, rattling breath. His right shoulder is peeking up out of his bomber jacket, which was pulled down in the fray. He reaches up to push his glasses back into place. You watch the streetlights dance on the lenses. He finds the sturdy frame of his motor carriage with his free hand and leans against it, transferring weight away from his unsteady legs, and away from you.
Your body whines at you. Why are you stopping?
“Sorry if that was too forward,” he says.
“It took you long enough,” you reply.
He laughs, meeting your eyes. “Purposely. I think we both need time, detective.”
Deep in your gut, one of your vital organs does an unpleasant flip, sending a cold chill rattling up your spine.
“Time?” Your voice sounds smaller.
The lieutenant gives you a firm look. “I think you know what I mean.”
You do, whether you want to or not. This has all been too easy, and too fast; the two of you, swept up in the current ever since Martinaise. You need to let this breathe, and who can tell what will be left when the dust settles? A shiver runs through you. It’s ice cold; fear, and trepidation. With enough time, he’ll be able to change his mind. See what you really are.
His eyes are watching your mouth again, a little crack running through his composure. The restraint he's showing isn't easy for him. That doesn't make you feel better.
This is smart and responsible of him, but it leaves you at a distinct disadvantage. You’re not a long-term investment.
“Can’t we just…?”
He tilts his chin up at you; there’s a hint of disappointment there. He was hoping you’d show a little discipline. You stop talking.
“I’d like to do this right,” he says. “I’m not interested in the alternative. I won’t lose another partner.”
A hazy memory floats to the forefront of your mind, blood-soaked and distorted. The lieutenant crouching over you, up to his elbows in your viscera, breathing hard as he tries to piece you back together outside the Whirling-in-Rags. You’re dying in the street; he’s holding on with all he’s got. Not this time.
In the present, Kim’s eyes are burning into you, gauging your reaction. The wind kicks up around you, disturbing the snow. This can only go one way. Together, or not at all.
“I understand,” you say.
Relieved, he surges forward again, giving you a chaste kiss on the mouth. It’s soft, and final.
“Good,” he says, pulling back. “We'll talk more about it. Tomorrow."
He's careful to emphasize it. He needs time and space to think.
"Good night, detective," he adds quietly.
Your pulse is audible in your ears. He wrests open the door of the Kineema and a moment later, it roars to life, its halogen headlights taking a snapshot of the anxious look on your face. Your retinas burn. You step off to the side, wrangling with yourself. A tide of grief is rising in you; it doesn’t seem to care that you’ll see him again soon; that this is a potential beginning, not an end. All it recognizes is the pattern of people leaving you; the empty space where his body fit next to yours.
“Good night,” you call out to the window.
Inside the carriage, the lieutenant raises his hand in your direction, giving a wave. Then the Kineema eases away from the sidewalk and starts off down the hill, unstoppable and unreachable. You watch the tail lights trail off into the dark before you turn and hobble up to your thin, green door.
Your clean, empty, silent flat greets you past the threshold. It is absent of unpleasant sights and smells, but also absent of any sign of what you might call life. Kim was right, and no amount of resentment will change it; you have a lot of recovering to do.
For now, you make your slow way up the stairs to your bedroom and undress yourself. Your floorboards groan in protest under your movements, threatening to cave in. Thinking of the lieutenant, you carefully fold your worn clothes into a pile, preserving the tidy kingdom you’ve established.
We’ll see how long it lasts this time.
Your limbs feel heavy, and your shoulder is one dull, pulsating throb. You seat yourself on the edge of your bed. The smell of apricot is gone, but you still imagine it as your gaze lingers on the drawer of the nightstand. It’s as potent in your head as it ever was.
You still don’t know if Kim took the photograph.
The thought will niggle at you all night if you let it. Curiosity, or maybe your relentless masochism, compels you to find out for certain. As though you haven’t given yourself enough punishment tonight.
You fingers hook over the familiar handle and pull. Your heart thunders in anticipation, but when you slide the drawer open, the photograph is gone. There is only a single scrap of paper inside, roughly the size and shape of the notepad the lieutenant keeps in his pocket.
You pick it up and hold it toward the moonlight.
Don’t forget to water the plant.
Relief washes over you. Compared to the photograph, this message scrawled in Kim’s small, neat handwriting is a blessing. Not an anchor pulling you under, but a beacon guiding you to shore.
You fold it back into the drawer and slide it shut. Somehow, knowing that it’s there soothes your savage thoughts; it’s your own personal good luck charm, keeping the shadows at bay. You ease yourself under your covers, curling your body in the direction of the nightstand. Your shoulder and your hip twinge, but softer now, without your weight pinning them to the mattress.
Somewhere else in Jamrock, Lieutenant Kitsuragi goes through the motions of his own nighttime ritual, his thoughts lingering in the same places yours are lingering. Hope and fear co-exist in equal measure, spanning all the kilometers between his home and yours. Un jour je serai de retour près de toi.
Your final lucid thought is more of an inkling: maybe you can do this.
Sleep greets you like an old friend tonight.