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Rat Race

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Red wakes up and stumbles into the shower. He has precisely 37 minutes to bathe, shave, dress, and be standing at attention outside the door to the antechamber before Vivek Headland emerges. After two years, he has it down to a science. It's nice; he can sleep in now. He used to wake up three hours early, during those first months, just to make sure he wouldn't be late.

He's never been late. No doubt Vivek has any number of imaginatively obscene punishments readied for any of his staff who aren’t on time, but Red doesn't make sure he's punctual because he's afraid of punishment. He does it for himself because in his old life, executing his duties to the letter—whatever those duties were—was what made him a professional and not a butcher, and old habits die hard.

Which isn't to say those 37 minutes don't grate. He was never a morning person. The work didn't allow for it, for one, and then after he retired, neither did the nightmares. Red doubts his employer is even aware of the effort he puts into looking presentable at this ungodly hour, superhuman powers of observation be damned. To say nothing of the fact that with his army of servants and bottomless bank accounts, Headland's probably never had to lift a finger to look good his entire life. Gregor and Dmitri from Housekeeping swore up and down when he started that Vivek dresses himself and only owns one suit, but Red didn't buy that for a heartbeat. He knows how to spot a game of “bullshit the new guy” when he sees it.

He sets the razor down and checks his face for nicks before getting started on his hair. It had grown out while he was on the run—when you're running from the people he was running from it's not like you have the time to worry about styling. And anyway, it helped with the disguise. But now that he's become a “moderately productive member of civilization,” as Headland puts it, he'd just as soon as go back to shaving it bald. Headland had ruled that out in no uncertain terms, through a disembodied voice in the bathroom the morning he'd reached for the razor. “Butlers should have hair,” the voice had said, and that was that.

Red's never been able to figure out where either the intercom or the camera are positioned. And he's looked.

It makes him wonder what the story behind Marcus's godawful handlebar mustache is, but the rational part of his brain thinks he's better off not knowing.

He gets into the elevator and yawns the entire way up to the penthouse floor. But when the chime dings and the doors slide open, he's composed and all business. In fact, he's still got enough time to head over to the kitchen for some of Marcus's wickedly strong coffee before he officially goes on duty. “'Mitri, Noble.” He nods to them both as he heads past and pushes through the swinging doors. Dmitri greets him in turn, but Noble's still got three days of silent penitence to go, so he just nods.

“Morning.” Marcus doesn't look up as Red enters. He's bent over the stainless steel cooktop, individually roasting coffee beans with a pair of tweezers over an ornate antique brazier.

“You gotta be kidding me.”

Marcus looks up and grimaces, a fuck my life, you know I'm not expression. When Red rolls his eyes and makes an obscene gesture, he softens. “Stuff you want is over there,” he says, gesturing with his chin. Red grabs a heavy ceramic mug from a cupboard, heads over to the urn Marcus indicated, pours himself a cup and knocks it back, sighing in satisfaction. Headland may take his coffee as painfully hipsterish as he can get it, but Marcus's personal philosophy is that coffee should be brewed thick enough to stand a spoon in, and it's a philosophy Red shares.

He sighs again, loads the cup into the industrial washer, and heads back out and across the hall. He's in place outside the Human Room with five minutes to spare.

Vivik emerges precisely on time, as immaculately dressed and groomed as ever. Starched collar, bespoke suit perfectly pressed, silk tie impeccably knotted. Even his fingernails shine. He walks by Red as if he doesn't even see him. “Good morning, sir,” Red says to the empty air. He does not flip Vivek the bird, but he thinks about doing it very hard.