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Upside Down

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When Diamonds Droog picks up the phone, he says nothing, listens to the buzz and breath at the other end of the line. If it’s important, they’ll tell him.

“...Droog?” It’s Slick. He sounds pissed. “Say something when you answer the fucking phone, it’s weird!”

“What is it?” Boxcars and Slick aren’t due home for at least another several hours. Deuce is at home. Droog is hunched forward a little in his chair now. If Slick is calling, something is up.

“You better meet me at Doc’s,” Slick says. And there it is. Someone’s hurt.

“What happened?” One would assume that the non-injured one is calling, but Droog wouldn’t put it past Slick to be spitting blood into the receiver. It bears asking.

Slick actually hisses in response, and his voice is white-hot with fury. “We walked into an ambush. They shot Boxcars down in the street like a fucking dog.”

Droog doesn’t twitch. He doesn’t suck in a breath or sit up in his chair. His fingers are relaxed around the cool black plastic of the receiver. But inside his head, a small, dull voice is counting his breaths: one; two; three; four. “He alive?”

“Yeah. Listen, you better come. Bring Deuce.” A beat. Droog can hear Slick breathing. Then: “Whaddya want, a mailed invitation? Get off the fucking phone!" So Droog hangs up. Placing his hands on his knees, he allows himself to close his eyes and think for a moment: the Midnight Crew, so ruthless; Droog and his passionless violence; Slick and his hydrofluoric attitude; Deuce with his demolitions, little slaughters. They are feared and hated, and yet to any one of them, it is utterly unthinkable that any of the others might die alone. And then he’s thought it: die. He shuffles up his cue and thumps Deuce’s door.

“Deuce. We’re going.”

Deuce peers around the door, blinking round eyes at him. “Oh! Where?”

“Boxcars got shot.”

“Oh.” The little man reaches for Droog’s hand immediately. “Are you scared?” Droog knows he means, should I be scared? He shakes his head.

“I’ll tell you if you need to worry,” he says. They drive in silence.

It’s always a smooth ride with Droog, fast and curvy, none of Slick’s screaming tires or Boxcars’ starts and stops. Droog watches the road, and Deuce watches him.

The doctor is a stocky Prospitian, a former pawn, only a head taller than Deuce. He is receptive to a tug on the sleeve, and he always explains just what he is going to do, and how much it will hurt. He explains now that the bullet went through Boxcars’ lung, and that Boxcars’ head is turned to the side like that so he won’t choke if blood comes up in his mouth.

It is hard to see Boxcars through Droog and Slick, who are standing together, talking quietly, so he wedges himself between them to look. Boxcars never ignores Deuce when he comes into a room, but he is asleep and doesn’t look up. His chest is bare and bandaged, and the bandage is bloody: red on white on black. Most days he is a firm presence and Deuce can climb him like a rock formation, but now his limbs are loose. It makes Deuce think of the desert, dim unpleasant memories of exhaustion and heat-sickness.

He looks at Slick. Slick looks angry, shuffling his weight from foot to foot and his hand from pocket to pocket. Deuce listens for a moment to what he is telling Droog, but it seems to be mostly swearing, so he tunes back out.

Droog is standing with his jacket hitched up over his hands in his trouser pockets, looking out across the bed but not at it, close but not close enough for his knees to touch the frame. His mouth says short, empty words back to Slick, and his face says nothing at all. On the whole, he appears less likely to step on Deuce’s foot or shout at him, so Deuce circles his fingers around Droog’s wrist and pulls. He has learned not to tug Droog’s clothing.

“Yes?” Droog’s gaze is remote.

“You said you would tell me if we should be worried!”

“Oh for fuck’s--” Slick starts, but Droog lifts two fingers and he shuts up.

“I said that,” Droog confirms, and jerks his head minutely. “Come on outside.”

Deuce looks back over his shoulder at Boxcars, and follows him. Outside, Droog crouches to get on his level. Up close like this, he is a little scary, but he never shouts and he never lies--not to Deuce, anyway.

All he says is, “It’s bad.”

And all of a sudden, the world stands on its head. Years ago, Deuce did that, to make people laugh. It was easier to make them laugh than it is to make them afraid of him, and everything looked different upside down. He could see things he’d missed before. He is not really upside down now, but things look different all the same: Droog is kneeling here getting the knee of his suit dirty because he thinks Deuce is afraid, and he thinks Deuce is afraid because Droog is really the one who is scared.

So Deuce pushes himself between Droog’s elbows and knees and wraps his arms around his middle, all smooth wool and pressed cotton, with the silk of his tie against Deuce’s cheek, and squeezes. Deuce knows this to be the right thing, but the others are unpredictable and become offended by the strangest things, so he pulls away quickly. Droog is looking at him strangely with flat white eyes. He smiles a little, but the bigger man still does not say anything.

So Deuce says, “Droog, look what I can do!” and turns onto his hands. It comes back quickly, the short, steady rock from hand to hand to settle his balance. Droog is upside down. His tie is an arrow pointing at the sky, which is the ground. From here, Deuce can see the tightness in his mouth.

“You’ve always been able to do that,” Droog says.

“I know!” Deuce replies, and flips back to his feet. “And I can still do it!”

Droog shakes his head, but even right side up, Deuce can see that his jaw has relaxed. He reaches up and is rewarded with two fingers to hold, and they walk back in together.