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The Queen is Dead

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Her husband looks at her with those sad eyes of his, and hands down the sentence: Exile. The Black Queen nods silently. She figured as much. The pawns may be crying for her head, but he loves her too much to see her dead, poor fool.

The Queen removes her ring, and feels her prototyping slip away, leaving her as bare as the day she emerged on the board. Already, attendants come and spirit her ring away to be given to some other pawn. Let the new bitch have it. Queen's not a title or a ring to be given away. It's a thing to be born as, and there will only be one real Queen.

The other attendants take her to the Gates. There are a pair of hegemonic brutes to prevent her from escaping, but she has no intentions of doing so. What would she do here? Hide in the shadows? Join the ragged remains of the resistance? Wait for the game to end and for her to be swept off the board with all the other pieces? She's not a fool. Death is the only choice in this world, and she's not ready to die.

The Gates exist on the edges of the constantly shifting battlefield, marking the one and only neutral area in the game. It's a place for the dead to be stacked and left, and for the exiles to be banished from. The area is normally empty, except for the few who attend to the banishing and the bodies, but today it is packed with pawns of both colours, crowded together to get a glimpse of today's soon-to-be exiles.

After all, it isn't every day that you see a former King and Queen banished.

Her lover is waiting there for her when she reaches the Gate. His hands have been pointlessly chained, more for effect than end-results. If the White King wished to leave, he could do so easily. His sceptre is gone, likely already in the hands of a pawn. Prospit's advantage won't last through the end of the week. Their success will all crumble to dust without the White King, without that wonderful ruthless nature of his and his brilliant mind. It's a shame his mind wasn't put to better use on the side of Black, but she imagines he feels the same with her.

She's marched up to the Gate beside him. Their eyes fix on one another, and a thousand pawns are witness to the spark that runs between them, the tryst that has caused one kingdom to stumble and the other to crumble to it's knees.

The Authority Regulator reads out the sentence on both royal's heads. Exile for the White King, though she knows his is because they fear what will come of killing him in this world. Perhaps they would be fine with a new King crowned, but only the lowest of fools would take that chance.

The coordinates are set. The White Queen is absent. Perhaps she is busy instructing the new King on his duties. Or perhaps she can't stand the thought of seeing her husband a moment longer. The Black King approaches with an army, here to bid her goodbye. His prototyping it on, and those eyes of his are masked behind a dozen frills and additions.

The White King and Black King stare at one another with hate in both their eyes. She drinks it in. The Black Queen loves the both of them. Her husband is a fool, yes, soft and tender, but he was still hers. Still is. The White King was never hers, and that's why she loved him, loved slipping away from the city to the battlefield to steal time here and there. All the hate running between the Black and White Kings could fuel a thousand more wars, but it will all be pissed away with the banishing.

The Gate whines and all eyes fall to the White King. He nods to her, and she returns it. They will not see each other again. The pawns who run the machinery are under strict orders to send each of them to the other ends of the dead world. Anyway, what would be the use of taking up an affair when the real excitement was forbidden nature of it all?

He disappears, a wiff of smoke marking where he once was. The coordinates are set again, and she waits for her husband to approach her. He turns the prototyping off at the mouth of the Gate and closes the distance between them. The many minions stand close, as if worried that she will produce some hidden weapon and kill her husband.

Instead, she puts her arms around his neck and leans in close, whispering into his ear. "I've turned the tide, husband."

"Wife, I would have gladly lost." His poor sad bastard eyes fix themselves on her, and she presses a kiss to those lips of his.

"I know." She says, and brushes her fingers against his face. This will be the last time she sees him as well. He will win the war, and they will clear the board, and he will die. "That's why I had to act for you. Don't waste this, my love."

She stands on the platform and looks out at the the kingdoms. Black will win the day. She's made sure of that. Their King is in exile, their Queen is broken. Her husband will triumph. And the new Black Queen? Who cares what she does. Doesn't matter much. Black will win within a month's time, and the game will begin again.

The Black Queen flashes the sign for victory to the black pawns in the crowd, and lets the Gate whisk her away.

--

The Queen in Exile trudges through the valleys of ash and dust, bag slung across her back. Her clothes are torn and tattered. Silk is soft, but not terribly durable, and she's going to have to locate something else soon. But, there isn't much to locate in this shitty little world.

There are others of her kind here, black and white pawns, the occasional exiled rook or bishop, sent away for indiscretions or by political enemies, or for having ties to the Resistance. The White avoid her outright, knowing a Queen by the look of her, even if she no longer wears her ring or crown. The Black fall into two camps: those exiled before she arrived, and those after. She is often greeted more fondly by those exiled before, who are still unaware of her treachery and are looking for news of the front. The exiled Queen accepts the little food they offer, and gives them the information they want; the knowledge that Black will win. And then she takes her leave, knowing better than to stick around and wait for some post-exile pawn to come along and spoil it all.

She travels light, bringing only food with her and a knife. Most avoid her, but there are a few who would enjoy seeing her dead. Reminders of the Resistance, banished after their ringleaders were hung and heads mounted on pikes as a reminder that no uprisings on the battlefield would go unchallenged. Members of her own bureaucracy, purged and exiled by the new Queen in some pathetic attempt to establish herself. And a few others who have their own unknowable grudges.

In the remains of a house, she discovers a package of unopened curtains, still intact inside the plastic wrapping. She dons them, shedding the remains of the rotting silk and wrapping herself in parsley-coloured fabric. It's rough, but warm, and she needs all the warmth she can get when the sun sets. She also finds a silver lighter, still full of fluid. The exiled Queen quickly learns how to set it to work and makes the flame dance. She'll have fires now, when she feels safe enough to make them.

There are bandits these days, or rumours of them. She's not seen them and can't say for certain they exist, but she feels confident that they must. Or if not, then the rumours of thieves were enough to create them. Their allegiance to Prospit or Derse will likely mean nothing in a few more months, once they realize there will be no one to rule them.

She isn't a ruler anymore. The last thing she wants to do is try pull this society together. War has made her tired, and her husband's absent is most noticeable when she's around others. All her life, from the moment she emerged from the lab's breeding tubes, she's been surrounded by others. Being alone is something foreign, new and novel.

Her feet lead her further away from the camps of exiles, deeper into the desert. She's not sure what she's seeking, but she imagines she'll know once she finds it. The winds blow at her new robes, they kick pink and green sand into the air, and she hides her face.

This isn't the end. She only needs to wait and let the world change to suit her again, or wait until she changes to suit it.

The terminal holds little amusement for her. After all, she already knows how this plays out. What good is instructing someone when the future had already been decided?

Still, there's nothing else to do. When she isn't sleeping or eating, she watches the ashen-faced creature scurry about uselessly and attempt to achieve something. He's rather thick and useless, as if somehow the horns on his head have eaten up what little grey matter resides in his skull. Sometimes she finds herself taking control of the keyboard, if only to prevent him from wandering straight into harm's way and dying in the first few gates.

The exiled Queen waits. She's not entirely sure what she's waiting for. A sign perhaps. A sandstorm to force some stranger to take shelter in this place, just as it did with her. Or perhaps she's simply waiting for the food to run out, so she has no choice but to leave this place and venture once more into the sickening desert.

Time passes.

The horned creature narrowly misses death once again, the exiled Queen informing him that he should aim for the eyes of the Amber Ogre using a projectile instead of standing immediately underneath the ogre's rather large and pointy club. Beside her, a few empty tins of food are stacked on top of one another in a tower.

There's the sound of footsteps above. She waits at her terminal for the creature to descend, her dagger sitting beside the keyboard.

It's one of her citizens climbing down the ladder. And as he reaches the bottom and gathers his footing, she realizes that she knows him. The archagent who wouldn't wear his uniform. After the fifth prototyping session, she simply gave up and allowed him to wear nothing. Of course, she was also distracted by the White King at that moment. She wondered idly if he was still alive. Hopefully he was. The world would be poorer without his mind, though safer for her.

The creature realizes that she's there, and a grimace goes over his face. "Your Majesty." He says, somehow making the word seem dirty.

"The Queen is dead." She says to him, knowing it is true. Her title hasn't felt right for ages.

The scurrilously straggler, dressed in ragged winding bandages, glances over to the food she has remaining, and then to the knife still lying by the keyboard. She could send him off. But she has been waiting for this. For anything.

So instead, the solitary migrant picks up a tin of apricots and tosses it to the straggler. "Here."

The straggler bites it open with those sharp teeth of his and sits down in a corner, slurping away at the preserved fruit and the too-sweet juice. She leaves the troll to it's own devices, trusting that his overly large horns will perhaps get him caught up in a bush and make him unable to go charging blindly into the next cave, and has dinner of her own. A can of peaches.

They sit in comfortable silence while the wind howls overhead.

The solitary migrant wakes when the laboratory she resides in suddenly shakes it's way free from the earth and ascends into the air. The straggler sleeps on, and she leaves him to his bed, climbing the ladder up to the mouth and pushing aside the lid.

There are propellers where none were before, sticking out of what can only be described as a stem. She does not step off the ladder, unwilling to risk her life for a better view. The land turns underneath, desert and desert and desert eternally and forevermore. She draws her robes tighter around her as the cold air gusts up around the lip of the lid, and then descends once more.

The straggler is awake, standing by the base of the ladder. "What happened?"

"See for yourself." She steps away and returns to the terminal. The player is unconscious. One of his companions stands guard over him, looking rather sour about the experience. She turns off the monitor, unable to care about him. When she does, a compartment to the right opens. She goes through it. It has a few more objects of food, and a strange little box.

When the straggler finally comes down again, she's opened the box and produced dozens of flat rectangles, all with different numbers and pictures on them. "Where did you find the cards?" He asks, sitting down beside her.

She nods to the empty compartment. "What are they for?"

"Card games." He holds out his hands and she gives them to him. She's vaguely familiar with the term 'cards', but she's certainly never used them. She was far too busy to play any game that wasn't chess, and the war required her to have that mastered. The solitary migrant watches the scurrilously straggler make the cards dance in his hands, shuffling them until they're thoroughly mixed. He gives her seven, and himself seven, and goes about explaining the rules of this game.

For hours, they play Go Fish, and then War, and Crazy Eights, and she starts to get the hang of them. It's nothing but counting and luck, and she has experience in both. The straggler swings back and forth between frustration and bitter praise. She should be angry, but she enjoys his temperament. In her life, there have only been those who were afraid of her, and those too stupid to know they should be afraid of her, and then the Kings, who were neither. The straggler isn't frightened of her, but for all his sneering and grumbling, he isn't so stupid as to believe she couldn't kill him if he crossed her. It's a nice change. And then, just as she wins her first round of Crazy Eights, the laboratory descends.

It lands in a rather large sandbank, sinking deeply into it. She climbs to the top, the straggler behind her, and the pair of them look out over their new lands. There are some objects already there: a large sphere, some sort of pyramid, and a boxy-shaped place. The inhabitants of those three objects have already gathered below, starting a fire. A fifth shelter moves in from the west, long swaying legs moving over the sands, and the stragglers' eyes go wide with recognition.

The solitary migrant judges the distance down to the ground, and decides that it will be easy to jump, though she will be unable to return. That's fine. She's done with this. "Come on." She tells him, descending the ladder, "Get your things. Let's see who else is here."

The straggler knows the others. It appears they all worked in the bureaucracy and were friends with one another. The solitary migrant knows none of them by their old names, and so she learns their new ones. The curious dawdler wrapped all in beads and bands of some hard shiny material. The desolate deserter with a collection of half-rotted hats scavenged from the remains of burnt out buildings. And the hapless brigand with his own collection of undoubtedly purloined goods.

There is an awkward moment when the three of them realize that the solitary migrant is their once-queen, but the straggler is used to her by now, and they follow his own habits of ignoring what she was. She sits back and simply observes them, listening as the four swap information. It appears that they were banished in the purge of the bureaucracy, though the desolate deserter chose to banish himself rather than wait for the new Queen to make up her mind about which pawns to keep and which to remove from the board.

The brigand produces dried and salted meat, not disclosing the hows and whys of how he got it, and for the first time in months, she and the straggler eat something that isn't canned fruit or vegetables. The dawdler has strange purple cans of fizzy drink, and the deserter comes up with some flat sort of bread. She and the straggler pass out tins of fruit for desert, and they all have what can be called a real meal.

They all sleep by the campfire, the dawdler being the first to fall asleep against the brigand's side, and she and the deserter being the last to finally allow themselves to sleep. She needs far less rest than he does, but the deserter does his best to stay awake, as if he fears she would kill them all in the night. He shouldn't be so worried. After all, if she was, she would have killed the straggler when he slept that first night beside her. But they both sleep eventually, and when they wake in the morning, the straggler and brigand are standing at the edge of the large drift, speaking about something. She lets them have their conversation, instead relaxing by the ashes of the fire.

Other objects come in over the course of the day, twelve in all. The rest are empty. Those contained inside these objects clearly absconded before their shelter suddenly left, or in once case, appeared to have died from hunger. The compartment with food was left unopened in this one, and the last commands left on the monitor were plaintive pleas to have someone help him. She opens it easily and takes the tins. More vegetables. Better than nothing at all. And a package of something else new. She pulls the plastic off and opens the carton, peering down at a number of long cylinders. The migrant's seen them before, on the screen. The large-horned boy's father used them. You light them on fire, and then you inhale. She produces the silver lighter, and imitates what she remembers seeing.

It's good that she's alone in the half-moon room because she handles the first breath as ungracefully as possible. She leans against the console, coughing roughly as her body tries to remove the smoke. When she's done, she looks at the smouldering cylinder with contempt. She will not let this best her.

Only after three more cylinders does she leave the overturned lab. Her eyes sting a little at the fresh air, but she's able to inhale and exhale without coughing like a fool. The small package is tucked inside her robes.

The straggler comes over to her. He looks more like his old self, bright-eyed and determined. "I have a plan."

"Let's hear it." She says, inhaling and listening.

They start off small. There's only the five of them, and the solitary migrant isn't used to a life of manual labour. At least the shelters provide most of the material needed. They pull them down and break them into pieces, and start building on the most stable ground they can find. Under the sand is bedrock, and it makes the foundation they're badly in need of.

The brigand disappears into the desert for days at a time, but whenever he emerges, he has supplies, or a location where they can find what they need. Building materials, food, fabrics, ill-fitting clothes, all sorts of things hidden deep underground in storage units. There are often bones there, the remains of the race that used to dwell here, and they ignore them as they bring the materials up and out.

After the first two buildings are standing, others begin to join them. The straggler puts them to work. Most of them are from Derse, and most avoid her. Some are from Prospit, and though old grudges die hard, they're allowed to join so long as they contribute. And then there are the others, strange green creatures with no carapaces and soft skulls. She isn't sure where they've come from, but they join the growing collection.

The town rises, building by building. The sand is pushed back to reveal old roads and old foundations that can be built on top of. The straggler directs construction, and the others listen to him mostly. There are a few who grumble about why he seems to be in charge. In those cases, she simply watches and listening, smoking a cigarette, and waits for them to realize they should quiet themselves. And when they don't? Well. She still has her dagger. And no one notices when she comes and goes. She knows how you build a kingdom. There's no room for dissension here.

The straggler builds a home for the five of them. After endless months of living in tents, it's a wonder. She takes the bedroom at the top of the stairs, though most nights she sleeps in the straggler's room. At night, before electricity comes, they spend their free time in the kitchen, playing cards with the deck she found so long ago. The solitary migrant's mastered most of the games she's been taught, but she still enjoys the simplest game best. The curious dawdler, sweet and simple, finds it hard to grasp anything but War, and the two tend to play one another. Luck is most often on her side.

It's one of these nights that things change. She wins the seventh round easily and so she shuffles the cards, laying two stacks out on the table. The dawdler turns over the ace of spades from his pile, and before the migrant can turn over her own, the straggler reaches down and picks up the ace. He flips it between his fingers, and suddenly it's not a card anymore.

"How did you do that?" The dawdler takes the weapon, turns it into a card, and turns it again. But it isn't the same as it was before. When he flips it in his fingers, it becomes a strange grey putty. The dawdler flips it into a card, and back again, and into a card once more. She takes it from him, but no manner of flipping will make it anything but the ace of spades. As soon as it enters the stragglers' hands, it turns once more, black horse hitcher shining by the light of the candles.

He flips it back and forth a few times, and then says, "Spades. Call me Spades."

It's almost scary how well the name fits him. One moment he's nothing but a straggler, and the next he's Spades, just as if he always was. Things have changed, and she's not sure she approves of it.

Years pass. They stay the same. The small town swells and swells until finally she wakes up one day and realizes that it's become a city. Immigrants arrive everyday to fill the city, to join in the building and buying, the dwelling and dying. There's no need for Spades Slick to be coordinating them anymore. They coordinate themselves. They hold little elections and product mayors and policemen, and politicians by the score.

Banker, baker, tailor, tinker, all the little stores and trades spring up here and there, in alleys and streets that grow ever longer as the city crawls outwards. At first, they were all half-built, smelling of sawdust and mothballs, and they accepted anything as payment, so long as it had value. Boxcars kept them rich with the goods he pulled from the desert, the cans and crates with fading labels, the boxes of needles and pens and medicine. Now there's talk of money, real money. Coins instead of cans.

There's a dress hanging off of her door one morning, not long after the first tailor sets up shop, long red silk that clings to her skin the moment her hands touch it. There's a small card taped to the hanger, and she reads it. It's from Droog. He says he's found them all suitable clothes so they don't have to wear dead thing's leftovers. It's been a bitter point with him for years, and it looks like he's finally gotten his wish granted.

It clings in all the right places when she slides it on, discarding her old clothes in the corner of the room. They've been adequate considering the situation, but they haven't been like this. Her hands slid over the silk and she closes her eyes, feeling a little bliss. It's been so long. Her queenly accouterments all rotted away beneath the desert sun, but now she feels a little like her old self again.

She idly wonders how her husband fares, and then regrets the wonder because she already knows the answer. The battle's long finished for him. He's dead by now, one way or the other. Derse has been swept clean and is waiting to be filled again with a new fresh batch of soldiers. She wraps her arms around herself. There's only her left now. All the other royalty has gone and passed.

Except maybe the White King. She hasn't heard any news about him, and she would have expected rumours of him to spread far and wide. Rumours of her certainly spread here and there, and all without her doing. But not a whisper about the White King. Not even bones. She hopes he's surviving out there, in a city much like this one. He was the only mind that matched hers blow for blow, and the thought of it dead is as awful as the thought of her husband's death.

She composes herself, and makes her way to the top of the stairs. She can see them clustered together in the front hall, talking among themselves. They haven't noticed her yet, but she can hear them from here. She leans on the rail, and listens in while they speak candidly.

"I don't know Slick, seems like a lot of work." Droog has his arms crossed over his chest, and she can see the cards peeking out of his pocket. Everyone's got a full deck now, even her. Their decks all work for them, turning into an assortment of explosive, blunt weapons and blades. Her deck is never anything but a deck of cards.

"I'm telling you, we can pull it off." Slick's excited, focused, making his points as he stabs the air, "Nobody else is thinking about it, and there's nothing saying that it's illegal either. We get in first, and it's ours. We can do card games until we find someone who can build the slots, and we can do entertainment or some other shit to draw them in."

"I've got three crates of brandy in the basement. I can get more." Hearts looks uncomfortable in his suit. The fit is fine, but she can tell that he simply hasn't gotten used to being dressed up instead of dressed down. "People will show up if they can get something to drink."

"Drinks then. And music. You find me a piano, and I can make her sing." Slick looks down at Deuce, "Come on, back me up."

"He can." Deuce says, tugging on his collar. "Are you sure I can't have a different hat?"

"No." Droog's voice is equal parts annoyed and offended. "You can't. This hat is fine. Anything else is going to make your head look tiny."

"I can find a piano." Hearts smiles a little, and it's almost terrifying to see, "I used to play double-bass."

Droog is about to say something, when he finally notices that she's standing on the top of the stairs. And as soon as he notices, they all do, going quiet and looking up at her. This is her normal. She descends one step at a time, "Liquor, gambling and music? Sounds like you're planning a party."

"Something like that." Slick's eyes barely leave her. She's fairly certain he's seeing what she saw in the mirror: the ex-Queen. There's lust and hate in his eyes, and she really shouldn't find it so charming.

"We're opening a casino." Deuce informs her, while Boxcars and Droog keep their eyes uneasily fixed on her. He looks rather sad looking without his usual flashes of colour.

"A casino? That should be fun." There's a pack of cigarettes balanced on the edge of the umbrella stand and she helps herself to one, holding it out for Slick to light. He produces a lighter from the inside of his coat and lights it, fixing her with what could kindly be called loathing. She inhales, "I'll leave you to your planning."

They wait until she's deep in the living room before they start speaking again, only snippets of conversation floating her way. She settles in the window seat, looking out onto the streets. Only a month ago, you could see clear to the desert. Now there's nothing to see but other houses, and a crowd of green, white and black moving to and fro.

She has no name. The others found theirs easily enough, but she's got nothing at all. She's not a Queen, even if that old name fits from time to time, and she's no longer solitary or migrant, though that name fits better than most. The only card left in the deck is the Joker, and that fits uneasily when it fits at all. Others are picking mundane numbers, but those aren't for her either. She's not a pawn. She's not a green torso. Her status is still Queen, even if she's been removed from the board.

If she doesn't find a name soon, she's not sure what she'll do.

They call themselves the Midnight Crew. It's the name of the group first, the band second. The casino is simply called The Casino, and when they add the nightclub, they call it Midnight.

She plays drums now and again, whenever she feels like sitting in. Slick and Droog initially suggested she be their vocalist, but the last thing she wants is to stand out. She's just along for the ride. The Crew is their organization, not hers. Anyway, she prefers the lower profile. There's something nice about being able to focus on the rhythm and block out everything else.

They call her Jokers Wild when she's on stage, but only very occasionally when she's off-stage Off-stage, they carefully step around her name unless forced to say it. Wild isn't perfect, but it works for now, works until something better or more fitting comes along. Slick sings, and Droog backs him up, and she keeps time because she's very good at keeping time.

Slick writes most of the music. He's surprisingly good at it, though he hates when anyone's in the room as he composes. She often lingers outside, sitting with her back to the wall and listening to him start, stop, start again, and continue for hours as he tries to put something together. The others pass by, but they rarely stop, and they never comment on what she's doing.

The mint goes through and by year's end, they're getting cash instead of cans for drinks and bets. The card tables run themselves more or less, and they've added roulette and dice games. If Boxcars' sources are true, they'll have their first slot machine in a few weeks time. It won't be too soon, since there are a few other casinos popping up in other sections of the city. They were here first, but others will be along to tread their ground soon enough.

There are enough in the city who find her unnerving, but they're slowly beginning to forget that she was anything else before she was the drummer for the Midnight Crew or Spade Slick's girlfriend. A few of them, ex-rooks and ex-bishops, have occasionally made a pass at her. Slick never handles it well, and it's always satisfying to watch a rook back down from a pawn with a switchblade in his hand. Slick navigates these new waters so easily, and watching him freak out is a nice reminder that he isn't as composed as he'd like to be.

She slowly collects her share of the money in a tin in her closet. Even she isn't sure what she's going to do with it, only that eventually it will occur to her. Mostly she spends it on cigarettes, and the occasional dress when she grows tired of the latest cut and colour. Her finger still feels bare, even though she hasn't worn a ring there for years. The bed in her room stays made most nights, and she sleeps soundest with Slick's face tucked tightly against her back. She's happy with Slick, or as close as she comes to happiness. This has to be the good life. She just wishes it wasn't always so boring. And she wishes they'd tell her their plans instead of always making her guess them. But if wishes were horses, she'd have Knights on all sides.

She's waiting, just like she's been waiting for years, waiting for the next thing to come along and make her feel complete.

Imitators spring up, but most of them have the decency to try find their own hook, their own little catch the lure the patrons in and give them something worth seeing. The Spot has hourly drink specials, while the Deadweight has a dress code and two extremely active bouncers. The Row Rules, however, take it a bit too far, opening up a casino, nightclub, and then have the audacity to show up at the Midnight to try steal customers.

They don't let Wild in on their plans, but she's got two ears and she hears them. And when they gather late at night to take care of their problem, she comes down the stairs with her dagger, and the only pair of pants she owns. Droog lends her his spare coat, and they all act as if this was the plan from the beginning. Boxcars quickly fills her in as they take the getaway van down to the Middle Row, a club that liberally steals from the Midnight instead of simply taking inspiration. Slick hands her a pistol and tells her not to do anything dumb.

A few hours later, the Middle Row is no more, and the last cowering gang member has had his yellow suit filled full of bullets by a rather enraged Droog. Droog's sleeve will need some stitching, and his spare coat is going to need to be dry cleaned thanks to Wild getting a little carelessly close when she cut one member's throat. She and Droog step through the rubble left from Deuce's explosives, and they meet up with the others. Slick's been busy as well, and they're a matching set, blood splatters all up their coats and on their faces.

They leave the building burning, red and yellow-clad torsos stacked outside as a warning to all others that imitation-as-flattery will only get you so far. When they arrive home, she goes upstairs to change and soak Droog's coat in cold water. She's barely out of the coat when there's a knock at her door. She leaves it over a chair and answers it, and finds herself with an armful of Slick. It's the first time they stay in her room instead of his, and it's better than all the other times, wilder and more vicious. He leaves sharp little bite marks all along her carapace and squirms just right when she wraps one hand around his neck and squeezes. There's dried blood on his cheeks when he finally falls asleep against her, and she rubs at it with her fingers until it chips away from his skin.

Their message doesn't hit home right away, and a week later, they get into the getaway van and head out to destroy the Eleven Split. They've cribbed the casino design, and there's a great deal of pleasure taken in killing the piss-poor imitators. The prospitarians send a rook up against Wild, armed with a bullwhip. The whip is impressive, and after Wild blows the rook's head off with a well-placed bullet, she takes the whip for her own. It fits in the palm of her hand as rightly as the gun did, and she lets it coil and twist in her hand as she takes aim and with the snapping of her wrist, she brings the long black inches of it to wrap around the neck of another and choke him to death.

Boxcars pries the safe open with his bare hands and they load the money and contraband into the back of the van. Deuce disappears without explanation and only reappears after Droog gets on the radio and yells for him to hurry up before they leave him. He turns up with half his deck missing, and as they drive away, the club dissolve into splinters and chunks of brick, a fireball lighting up the night. She lights a cigarette and watches the initial blast fade, and the weird orange light fill the night as the fire burns and burns.

Slick comes to her again, before she can even undo the belt on her coat, and they don't bother making it to the bed this time. They shove her dress up over her hips and rut against the door, Slick biting at her with those sharp little teeth of his. She's alive and there's blood in her mouth and Slick in her hands, and she feels like she really is Wild, even if only for these few passing moments. He confesses in love for her in awkward harsh sentences during the height of passion, and when it's over, he helps her wipe away the little beads of blood his too-excited teeth have drawn.

She waits until he's fallen asleep before she extracts himself from his arms and heads downstairs. The rest of the house is silent as she sits in her window seat and looks out at the city. The moon is fat and pink tonight, and it illuminates all the dark little unlit corners of the city. This place isn't home, but day after day, it begins to feel a bit more like one. It's like a cold bucket of water poured down her back. This place is changing her.

The next day she takes her money and heads out to a jewelers.

The city has a million rumours. Rumours of strange technology, and rumours saying the war rages on, and rumours saying that there are portals to other worlds, not unlike this one, with soft pale creatures and others leading to the home of the green things. Most of them are speculation at best, or faint memories blown out of proportion.

There's a rumour that there's a new gang in town. They aren't like the Midnight Crew. They have no casino, no nightclub. They crack safes without using explosives and move so quick that security cameras can't find them at all. It all sounds like bullshit, until Droog comes home with a police report. The papers aren't just blowing things out of proportion. A full bank vault, locked tight and watched all night, was empty when opened in the morning. The vault was completely intact, and the cameras didn't catch anything. One guard reported hearing laughter a little after midnight, but brushed it off as paranoia.

She lets them get caught up in discussing it. It's interesting to speculate, but she doesn't see much point in it. Time will reveal what they need. Instead of speculating, she simply waits for their next job, playing solitaire when she's alone, or War when she's with Deuce, or Hearts when the others feel like sitting in for a hand or two. It's no chess, but she knows better than to push her luck with that game. She pushes it enough when she shoots the moon three times in a row and Droog and Boxcars both bow out of the game.

Everything goes sour the way everything goes sour: when everything is finally going well for once. Slick is upstairs, banging away with a hammer, and Boxcars and Deuce are out shopping for tonight's dinner. She's playing War with Droog on the agreement that when they're done, she'll play a few hands of Bridge with him. He puts down the Jack of Diamonds, and she puts down the Queen of Spades, and then Slick comes in as she's gathering up the cards and drops something on the table.

It's her ring, or what's left of it. Here she thought Slick was breaking up a table or something. Instead, he was busy smashing her ring into pieces. The pearls have all been squashed and the gold bent out of shape. She picks it up between her fingers, and Droog simply stands up and leaves the room before he can be pulled into the middle of this.

"I found this in your coat." Slick says, and his voice just drips with hatred. "How much did you pay to get this made? Who the hell was insane enough to do it?"

She's barely listening to him. Her eyes are fixed on the smashed ring. She's had it barely a month, and worn it only when she's sure she's alone, which is almost never. It cost extra to have it made by green jewelers, extra to swear them to secrecy and have them promise not to show the design to anyone. It was almost perfect, and when she wore it, she felt sane again.

Slick's smashed it all to pieces.

"Hey!" He yells, slamming his hand down on the table, fighting to get her attention back on him. Her eyes snap to him, always from the shattered remains of her replica. "I'm talking to you!"

She rises. A second too late, Slick seems to realize that she's snapped out of her daze. If he's full of hate, then she's overflowing with rage. Her voice is cold as winter when she speaks, "What were you doing in my coat pockets?"

"What are you doing with a fucking ring?!" Slick snaps back, refusing to be intimidated.

"That's not your business, Slick."

"It's my business when I can't trust you! You're supposed to be watching my back, not doing whatever the fuck you think you're doing."

"What I think I'm doing?" She steps toward him, just to watch Slick take a step back. "I think I'm sitting back and letting you handle everything, just like I have since the day we met in the desert. Why Slick, what do you think I'm doing?"

Maybe another time he would back down, but she's not even sure she believes that. Slick's never been good at backing down. Even when he was Jack Noir, he only backed down when he was completely sure he wouldn't win at escalation. "I think you're still pining for fucking Derse! I think you're sneaking around having your ring remade because you can't move on!"

"Maybe being banished was some sort of blessing for you, Jack, but I lost everything. My crown, my husband, my city, everything!" She hadn't meant to get emotional, but there it was, more emotion than she'd felt in years.

"My name is Slick!" She'd gone too far with the last bit, and his teeth were all but bared as he worked himself into a froth. "And everything you lost? The husband you cheated on and the city you betrayed-"

"I never betrayed Derse!" She damn near hits him, only holding back because she knows hitting him will be the end of words, "I won us the war! I took the White King off the board!"

"You could have killed him a dozen times but you didn't! While we were fighting a war, you were busy fucking the enemy!" Slick gets into her space and she's not prepared for him to be there, "The only thing you did was take yourself off the board!"

"You really think that's all I did? You think what I did was easy?" And suddenly she realizes that he did think that. No wonder he finds it so easy to hate her. "I loved my husband. I gave up my marriage to make sure he won. I gave up everything to ensure that White would lose."

She raises the wreckage of the ring, and his eyes dart to it. The hate burns there, but... there's something else. Something she recognizes. It nearly cuts her to the bone when she places it.

"Did you try it on?" She says, and his face flickers, guilt and shock flashing over it, quickly replaced by indignation. "You did. You tried on my ring. You thought it was real-"

"Fuck you!" Is all Slick can manage. So here's his dirty little secret, and it's more than she even thought possible.

"Is this why you built the city? Your shitty little attempt to be anything other than what you are? A pawn who thought he was too good to wear his uniform?" Even if she could control the malicious glee in her voice, she wouldn't want to. Years she's stood by his side, years she's let him lead, and in the end, all he really wants is to be her. "Even if this was the real ring, it wouldn't work on you. You don't have it in you."

"I would have been ten times the ruler you were! A thousand times the ruler!" He's damn near screaming at her, and she knows there's no going back. They're too far gone. These aren't words that can be taken back. "And I would have done it all without the stupid fucking uniforms, and without whoring myself out-"

Slick doesn't finish, because she slaps him across the face, hard enough to knock him to the floor. He goes for his deck of cards, but she's got her pistol strapped to her leg and she gets there first, aiming it at his head. It would be easy to kill him for that last remark.

But she doesn't. Instead, she puts a well-placed kick into his ribs, knocking all the wind out of him. The cards flutter to the ground; ace of spades, six of hearts, three of clubs, and the low joker. "You were a pawn, Jack. You'll never be anything but a pawn. No matter how much money you make or how many people you kill, you'll always be the lowest piece on the board. And I will always be your Supreme Majesty, no matter how many rings you smash."

She drops the crushed ring on his chest, and takes her leave. Slick writhes on the floor, trying to catch his breath. She shuts the door behind her.

Droog is waiting in the hallway. There's a bag to the right of him, and her whip is coiled on top of it. He says nothing, just flicks his eyes to the bag, and then back to her. She supposes she should thank him. After all, if he hadn't packed her things, she'd be storming out of the house without them. But he isn't her friend. He's never been her friend.

She takes the bag and whip and lets herself out.

 

--

She walks. Walks as far as she can. Walks along the streets, past storefronts and houses, and nightclubs closed for the day. She barely pays attention to where she's going. Her heart is pounding, and her blood is still boiling.

The ex-Queen, ex-Midnight Crew member, ex-everything finds herself in unfamiliar territory. There's a bridge here, and a slow moving river underneath. Cars drive here and there, and she takes the pedestrian walkway, heading in a mostly-straight line. The buildings are sparser on the other side of the river.

She has no idea where she's going. It isn't as if she's got any friends to stay with. The closest she came to friends was the Midnight Crew, and they weren't really her friends. They were Slick's friends. She doesn't have friends. She doesn't even have old allies. All she has are enemies, and people who don't know her anymore.

The desert swims into view after a while, the strange sands peeking through the edges of skyscrapers and alleys. There are buildings out here, half-built, still expanding ever-outwards into the desert. She passes them, and heads straight into the sands. It's been years since she was this far out, years since she stood on sand instead of pavement or wood or carpet, but her feet still find purchase in the shifting sands. And she walks, until the stars come out and the city is a ball of glowing light getting every smaller in the distance. Then, when she can't walk anymore, she lies down on the sand, lights a cigarette and stares up at the sky.

She's so tired, and so angry, and so lost. What's she going to do? Get a job? Work at a shop and sell things? Pick up a hammer and teach herself to build houses? She doesn't know how to do that. For fuck's sake, she was breed to be a Queen. She can fight and she can kill and she can love and she can scheme, and none of that is useful. None of that will pay for her food.

It's enough to make her cry. But crying isn't something a Queen does, even if she's not royalty anymore, so she sits in the dark and tries to fall asleep.

Something appears. It's so dark out here. There's the dim light of the city, and the cherry on the end of her cigarette, but that's not enough light to give her definition, only vague outlines. There's something in front of her, and her hand goes for her pistol.

"I hear you're looking for work." He says, and his voice is so familiar that she feels chills crawling up her spine.

"I know you." She tries to see him better, but all she can see is the dim outline of something. A mask maybe. That would explain why the voice sounds slightly off, why she can't quite place it.

"I'm looking for someone with your talents. My name is Lord English. I'm the leader of the Felt." The masked man moves his head as he speaks, as if pondering something. "I can give you whatever you need."

She inhales, and the cherry perks up the darkness. It is a mask, smooth and black and featureless. She can't even see the man's eyes. The rest of his body is wrapped tight in a green coat with strange patches. He's a big man. She only gets a few seconds to see all of this before her lungs are too full to continue. She exhales, and considers the offer. "I don't have much experience knocking over banks."

"I already have safecrackers. I need someone with experience in removing the competition. " He shifts, and sets something in her lap. The ex-Queen picks it up and squints at it. It's a business card. She can't read the directions in the dark. "Take the night to consider my offer."

When she looks away from the card, he's gone. Wherever he's gone, he hasn't walked off. The whole thing unsettles her. She flips the card between her fingers, then tucks it into her bag, curls up, and tries to sleep.

She wakes with the sun, feeling tired and thirsty and all around irritable. As she brushes sand from her eyes, she spots a canteen lying beside her back. She opens it and sniffs. It's water. Tasting it confirms it, and she nearly drinks it dry. Then she checks the business card again. The directions tell her to go west and head through the desert, keeping the city to her right until she spots the mansion standing alone. It's stupid. There's no guarantee that this isn't some elaborate trap, or that Lord English is who he says he is.

But all the alternatives are worse. She tucks the card away, picks her her things, and heads west, back to the rising sun.

--

It burns. There are no words for it. It burns and she can barely keep herself together. When she looks at herself, when she can bear to open her eyes, all she sees is green fire roaming over her black skin. The pain is overwhelming. They said there would be pain, but she didn't understand.

There's someone new over her. Yellow hat with a nine, and a square jaw, and a long scar across his face. He's saying something but she can't hear him, she can't understand him. She can't even speak, not when the fire running burning screaming through her veins. The only reason she isn't crying out in pain is because it hurts so much to breathe that noise simply isn't an option.

The man speaks again, and she gasps as something sloshes across her skin. The burning doesn't stop, but it dims long enough to let her cry out. To breathe in. To hear.

There are words. Like "fire" and "cool" and "no man" and "time". But none of them go together and none of them make sense. The fire comes back, burning hot and hard, and she arches up involuntarily and feels all her muscles jerk and spasm. She has no control and oh that would sting, but she can't even keep two thoughts in her head.

The cool returns, and she opens her eyes. She's standing there. Her own face is looking down at her, wearing a black hat. Two pairs of nearly identical eyes meet, and the one on fire opens her mouth, trying to ask the other if she's real or not, but no words come out.

"Hold on." The mouth says, her mouth, and those eyes fix on her for as long as they can. "Hold on."

The room changes and she writhes as she burns. She tries to hold on, but her world is on fire and she can barely breathe. Fire flickers around the corners of her mouth, the edges of her eyes, and a face appears again. It's the White King. His face has been damaged by something, large curving scar stretching up his neck and ending just below his right eye. There's light moving behind the scar, pulsing light that almost seems to pull her in. It feels like dying to look at his face.

She squeezes her eyes shut, breathing in and out slowly and just holding on. Cold surrounds her suddenly, and her eyes flutter open. She's in a tub of ice, and the man with the yellow hat is watching her again. The White King's gone, and so's the other version of herself. The cold feels so good that she almost cries in relief. The green man just picks up another bag of ice and dumps it into the tub, and she finally lets go and passes out, fire still burning across her skin.

--

The man with the yellow and white hat is Stitch. He doesn't have the scar on his face, and he doesn't remember her, or a tub full of ice, but he's decent enough. Stitch is a tailor and a doctor, which seems like an odd combination to be, until he points out that they both use a needle and thread.

She's not the last to be added. It seems that the mysterious and absent Lord English is busy gathering a number of people. None of them know what he looks like, since he likes to appear in the darkness. They all agree that he appears to be wearing some sort of mask. She can't imagine why. Maybe it gives him power. What it really means is that they're mostly left to take care of themselves, while he goes off and does whatever he's doing.

The mansion is stately and large, and crammed full of clocks. The ticking is strangely soothing, undoubtedly a side-effect of her transformation. The steady march of time is like cool waters, and if Stitch's face is any indication, the same goes for him.

She's met a few of the others. Four is a diminutive thing named Clover, still getting used to his new powers, and half an hour away from abusing it. Ten is a corpulent man named Sawbuck, friendly and soft-spoken. Five doesn't have a name yet, but his resemblance to a shark is uncanny. Eleven seems to have settled on Matches for a name, and he's already endeared himself to her by having a match when she needed her cigarette lit.

There's already a leader emerging. Seven was added just before her. He seems levelheaded and a natural born leader. He's decided to name himself after his weapon. It's not a bad idea, but she already knows that Whip won't fit her, no matter how well the weapon fits her hands.

"Here, try this on." Stitch hands her a coat. Unlike everyone else, hers is a long black trench, the edges going a sort of green when the fabric creases. She slides it on. It's a bit large in the shoulders, and Stitch makes her stand still as he pins the back and notes where he has to take it in. He speaks around a mouthful of pins. "Figure out a name yet?"

With her arms out wide, she thinks back to a few days ago, with her skin on fire and her body tearing itself apart. There were a few words she'd caught, none of which made sense at the time. She was starting to put the pieces together though.

"Not yet." She admits, and turns around as Stitch tugs at her. He places a few more pins and then gets her to slide it off and give it back to him. He hangs it up on a dummy, beside the strange shifting half-finished patchwork of colours, and opens up a rather large circular box. It's a black hat, with an 8 in the middle.

"Here, make sure this fits." He hands it over, and she turns it in her hands before setting it on her head. It's just right. "Good?"

"Good." She agrees, moving her head this way and that. It should get in the way of her vision, but it doesn't, the wide brim pulled up to let her have the visibility she needs.

"Get Sawbuck for me. I still need to let his vest out more." Stitch sticks the remaining pins back into a cushion. She steps out the door-

-and finds herself standing five feet away. There's a puddle of water on the floor where she should have been, and an empty pail rattling down the stairs. Clover's standing there, one hand over his mouth to hide his giggles, and then he's gone. The water, clearly intended for her, has ended up nowhere.

Stitch sticks his head out, doing his best not to step in the puddle. "Handy trick."

"Yeah." She looks where Clover went, and her mind goes back to the words. "Snowman."

"What?"

"Call me Snowman." She says again. The name fits like a glove. Like the whip. Like her hat.

It isn't anything like the Midnight Crew. She does her usual thing at first, sticking to her room, trying to sit quietly off to the side. She's so used to being separate from everything that she's got no idea how to be anything else.

Stitch refuses to let her do this. If she's sitting alone, then he pulls up a chair beside her and carries on conversation until she's all but forced to answer back. Snowman has no idea how old Stitch is, but he acts middle-aged, pleasantly irritated by everything around him. He never minds her smoking, though he forbids her from doing it in his boutique, since he doesn't want her making everything smell like tobacco.

Lord English finishes adding to their numbers, having decided that fifteen is the magic number. He's still nowhere to be seen, but the mansion is constantly packed, constantly busy no matter what the time of day. Go down at seven in the morning, and you can find Itchy mainlining cups of coffee while Doze drinks tea, or two in the afternoon and there's Quarters and Trace playing pool in the lounge, or wait until just after twelve at night, and there's Eggs and Biscuits roughhousing in the kitchen over the last slice of cake.

At first she hates the intrusions. She's used to being left alone. Suddenly, sitting down to play a game of solitaire always ends up turning into Chase the Ace and Die screaming about how Itchy is cheating and Matchsticks punching Sawbuck halfway through the game and showing up two weeks later in the pool, and Clover making through the entire game with three pennies and still taking the pot. Or what is supposed to be a quiet breakfast ends up with Fin biting Eggs and Stitch having to patch him up while Itchy swaps everyone's hats. It all starts out annoying her, and then at some point when she's not looking, it ends up being regular, maybe even endearing.

More and more, she finds herself willingly seeking out Crowbar. Sometimes, it feels like she, Stitch and Crowbar are the only sane people in this place. Or at least, the only three who at least stick to mostly linear timelines. Crowbar is competent without being a tyrant, and since Lord English chooses to keep his distance, it's up to Crowbar to keep the house in order. When she's had enough of the idiot twins tearing a hole in time in the living room, or Clover demanding everyone answer his riddles before he gives back their underwear, she seeks out Crowbar and they talk about pointless shit. The city, movies, music, politics, all the normal things she didn't have time to indulge in before.

It's Crowbar who gives her the cigarette holder, though it's really from Lord English. "He says you'll know what to do with it."

Snowman holds it inbetween her fingers, wondering for a moment if it's like the crowbar. Then, almost out of instinct, she flips it between her fingers. She tried a hundred times with a deck of cards and never had a single thing happen.

The first time she flips the holder, she damn near drops it when suddenly there's a lance in her hands. Crowbar's more than a little surprised to see it work. She holds the lance, flips it back, and flips it again to make sure it isn't an accident. It isn't. Even better, the lance has been balanced for her, resting easily and lightly in her hand.

"How the hell do you do that?" Crowbar asks. She hands him the lance. It stays a lance in his hands, but he can't swap it back. She shows him how, but it's useless. He can't change it.

"It used to be that I couldn't do it." She says, putting a cigarette into the end to see how it works. Crowbar digs out a lighter, getting it for her. "I think something changed when I ended up like you."

It's only from Stitch that she knows that whatever she went through, the rest of them didn't. Their abilities are innate, inborn, and easy to coax out. Hers was an ordeal. But that could also be the consequences of her powers. She's not sure if she believes the universe ends if she dies, but it makes for a good story.

Crowbar snaps the hinged lit shut and pockets the lighter. "Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me."

He's right. She inhales and lets the smoke stream out between her lips.

She's always where she needs to be. That's how her power works. That's what she does. Where she needs to be is standing in this alley, staring at the back of four large hulking men. She knows them. They're part of the Seven Outs. Snake Eyes is nowhere to be seen; instead Railroad Nine appears to be halfway into a threat against whatever poor bastard got himself cornered.

"-business, but that's ending. Shoulda stuck closer to your boyfriend." She can hear the familiar whirl of Railroad Nine's revolver. Sounds like he's about to start up a game of back alley roulette with whoever he's caught. Roulette is more the Sixes style, but Railroad's never been afraid to crib from others. "Think luck's on your side?"

Snowman can't see beyond the bulk of the two white rooks flanking Railroad, but she hears that ever-so-familiar bitter tone. Even when he's outnumbered, Slick still talks like he's the one with the advantage. "I don't need luck."

She could slip away. Slick's tough, but four on one isn't good goods, especially when there are two rooks on the board. He's still only a pawn. But time brought her here for a reason. And as pissed as she is at Slick... she does owe him something.

Railroad brings up his revolver, and she brings hers up too, aiming for his shoulder. She'd rather not accidentally kill Slick during the rescue attempt. That would just be wasteful. Railroad falls as the bullet hits him, and as the first rook spins around, she uncoils the whip and snaps it forward, wrapping it around the big bastard's neck. He stumbles as it cuts deep and falls into the other rook. A yank snaps his thick neck. The whip's caught up and she leaves it, not willing to waste her advantage trying to get her secondary weapon back. Instead she pops the cigarette out of her holder, flips it into her lance, and sticks it straight through the rook.

Slick's not wasting his time. The other pawn goes down, throat slit by one of Slick's oh-so handy cards. And as Railroad tries to right himself, Slick flips the ace of spades in his fingers and smashes Railroad's head in. It's not particularly quick, and she's got time to get her whip off of the rook's neck while he turns the pavement red. She wraps the whip back up her arm, and puts three bullets in the second rook's head when he stirs.

It's been a few months since she's seen Slick. He looks mostly the same. There's blood covering him, most of it Railroad's, and he doesn't seem too concerned with that. Mostly he shakes the blood off his horse hitcher, "You cut it real fucking close Droog." He growls out, eyes still fixed on the corpse.

"Hello Slick." She says, and he finally looks at her instead of just assuming she's Droog. One of his eyes is swollen shut. Looks like the Seven Outs spent their time working him over. The look of shock in the open eye is gratifying.

"You-" He says, and stops himself. Slick can't even bring himself to spit out the false name he gave her. It never fit, and it doesn't fit now.

"Snowman." She corrects him, and draws the lance out of the rook's body. Snowman flicks it, soaking in the second look of shock on Slick's face. Saving him might prove to be a poor choice later, but right now, it's paying off in all the ways she wanted it too. There's blood on the end of her holder, and she steps in close to Slick, wiping it off on his jacket. The glowering hate and resentment resurfaces, and she just smiles. "See you around."

Time takes her away, leaving Slick alone with his corpses.

It's a blessing in disguise, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time. At the time, it's the end of fucking everything.

She can see the sky cracking when she turns her head to the right and looks out the window, the splits in the seams of the world, and through her own pain, she can hear the rumble of earthquakes. Her eyes don't want to focus, so they slide over the lightening bolts, the darkening clouds, until Crowbar yells at her to stop drifting and pay attention.

Gutshot. That's what she is. Count her fucking blessings because gutshots don't kill you right away. Higher up, and she'd be drowning in her own blood. Higher than that, and she wouldn't even be drowning. She would just be dead, and the whole universe would be just as dead as her. But it hit the sweet-spot, and there's a hole in her torso spilling out blood and green fire, and she's got hours of this ahead of her.

The pain slams through her again and again, hard harsh throbbing moving out of time with her heart, and her skin's on fire, and her brain just wants to check out and let someone else handle this. It's one thing to be told you can end everything, but it's another thing to watch the sky start to crumple in on itself.

The heist had no right to go so badly. It was simple, in and out, no witnesses if it was done right. But the Sixes had the same plan as the Felt, and before they knew, they were mired in the middle of a gun battle. She'd taken out 33 and 8, and was heading for 21 when she felt time tug at her. It had never steered her wrong before, so when it pulled, she went, expecting to show up exactly where and when they needed her. Snowman ended up right in front of 00's gun.

She's bleeding all over Stitch's latest projects. If he gets pissed about her smoking in here, he's going to be livid when he realizes that she's permanently ruined all those half-finished back-up jackets he's working on. Lord English's backup cairo overcoat is by her head, and the colours keeps whirring and flickering. Her eyes drift over to it and one by one, all the colours stop flickering, and instead are replaced by black.

Crowbar slaps her. The world goes white for a moment, but then her eyes clear and Crowbar's looking down at her, telling her to stop being such a fucking princess and get her shit together. She tries to tell him she's never been a princess, only ever Queen, but the words don't come out right, and Stitch tells Crowbar to ease up because he's still digging the bullet out. She tries to prop herself up to see, but she breathes in too deep and the pain just pushes through every part of her and all she can do is lie back and wait for the pain to end, or for her to die, or some other third option.

Snowman takes the third option. Stitch gets the bullet out and sews her up, and Crowbar keeps yelling at her until the cracks in the sky fade and the earth stops rumblings, and then he drops the act and tells her to keep herself together until Die gets back with some medication. She passes out before they arrive, but when she wakes up again, there's an IV in one arm, and Stitch's sleeping in an armchair beside the table. She waits a moment to make sure he's really asleep, then slowly sits up, wincing as she does. Snowman slips the IV out and lets the end fall to the floor. The sky doesn't split up this time, nor does the earth shake when she gets to her feet and slowly crosses the room. Her things are lying on a chair, and she slips them on, hat settled on her head, gun secured in the pocket of her jacket. Then she takes a risk and lets time take her when she needs to be.

It's hard to keep on her feet. She shouldn't even be considering a gun battle, not on her own, but she goes anyway. Time deposits her in the middle of an empty street. The neon sign that once read The Split is dead, shattered by someone's tommy gun. The club is still burning, fire guttering in the windows, and two mostly burnt torsos lie on the ground. One of them has been beaten to death.

There's a card lying beside him. Snowman carefully bends down and picks it up. It's the Queen of Spades. She turns it over in her hand, and then looks at the burning building. Then she slides off home again, before anyone can catch her staring at the sweetest gift anybody's ever given her.

The Felt hits the big time. A week ago, they were just another of a dozen gangs, barely indistinguishable from the rest. Now everyone knows that the Felt is more than a bunch of sneaky burglars.

When the world almost ends, everybody sits up and pays attention. Now when Snowman strolls into the room, gunfire ceases. Now she's facing people who don't want to kill her, only maim her slightly. They pull their punches, but she doesn't pull hers. Nobody wants to kill the woman who ends the universe, but Snowman has no such limitations. This is more effective than spreading rumours. Turns out time did put her in the right place at the right time.

They bring in money. Nobody's sure what it's for. Lord English has his plans, and they're not for anybody but him to know. Snowman's more than happy to let him do the scheming. For once, she's got other things to keep her mind on besides just waiting for the next heist.

She likes the rest of the Felt. It's an odd thing to feel. She never particularly liked most of her citizens. And she was never really part of the Midnight Crew. They weren't at ease around her, and she preferred it that way. But to the Felt, she's not a Queen. And though she can end the world, they don't care about that. Die can end the world too. Same with Eggs and Biscuits, if they get too out of hand. Even Stitch has the potential to end everyone, so long as he's got access to the effigies. Being a weapon is much more tolerable when everyone else is a weapon too.

They don't always stay around the mansion. There are dozens of little nightclubs, dozens of bands playing jazz and ragtime, plenty of places for the Felt to go. She's not much of a dancer, but they don't seem to care, and more often than not she finds herself out on the dance floor, doing her best to Peabody with a surprisingly-light-on-his-feet Sawbuck or Charleston with Crowbar. Snowman always runs out of cigarette when they go out, since Fin likes to smoke when he's drunk but never brings his own pack, and inevitably she ends up sending Clover out to bum cigarettes off strangers for her. She has no problems getting her own drinks, since ending the universe appears to be an attractive quality to a number of gentlemen.

Once in a blue moon, she sees one of the Midnight Crew out and about, off on some errand or just back from shaking someone down. They aren't friends, but they aren't exactly enemies either. This city is large enough to support two active gangs, and none of their heists have overlapped (yet, she always adds. They haven't overlapped yet). Deuce always comes over to say hello, though he never stays long, and Boxcars always does his best to pretend he can't see her. Droog acknowledges her, but never makes the first move. She's not entirely sure what he thinks of her. Usually she stays at her table, but sometimes, when she has a few drinks in her, she goes over and they talk. It's too bad that Stitch refuses to come out, because she has a feeling that he and Droog would get along like a house on fire.

Running into the other three is sometimes awkward, but not awful. Awful is getting a drink at the bar and turning around to find Slick standing behind her, face already halfway into a sneer.

"Slick." She says, and sips at her drink, just so she doesn't throw it in his face and go for her gun. She likes this gin joint, the last thing she wants is to end up banned.

"Snowman." At least he's calling her by her name. Her jacket and hat are hanging off her chair, and she feels needlessly exposed in the flapper dress Stitch made her, even though Slick's seen her with much less on. "Figures you'd be here."

"Where else would I be?" She'd love to have a cigarette in her hands, just so she could blow smoke into his smug little face. "The nice thing about having more than four people in a gang is that you get time off."

Crowbar catches her eye from across the room and she just looks away. She can fight her own fights, thank you, and she doesn't need him doing something stupid on her behalf. The Razzle kicks into "I've Found a New Baby" and Slick raises his voice to be heard overtop the clarinet, "It's funny, but I don't remember you giving a shit about going out when you were with us."

"Maybe I didn't have a reason to want to go out on the town with you." This is already turning nasty, but there was no way it wasn't going to. Something about Slick just gets under her skin, and she knows the same goes for him.

Slick's opening his mouth, and she's bracing herself for whatever's about to come out when Crowbar slides in beside her, hooking his arm around her waist. He's ditched his coat as well, and his shirt is somewhat damp from dancing, and he doesn't even seem slightly self-conscious as he presses up against her back. "Come on doll, they're playing our song."

Years of training keep her face composed, but Slick's got no such skills and his face goes ahead and betrays everything he's feeling. Snowman hands him her drink, and lets Crowbar tug her out onto the dance floor. There's already a substantial crowd on the floor, but he manages to find them a place, and he leads her into a quickstep.

"You really shouldn't have done that." But she can't keep the smile off her face as she says it, because it's better than anything she would have come up with.

"Done what?" Crowbar does his best to look innocent, but his face isn't built for it, "He wasn't going to ask you to dance, and I'm not letting this song go to waste."

She shakes her head, but dances anyway, doing her best to keep up with Crowbar. By the time the song ends and they head back to their table, Slick's long-gone.

The Midnight Crew's house burns down, and it's clear to everybody that the Seven Outs finally figured out that Slick was responsible for the death of Railroad Nine. They don't bother rebuilding, and the next she hears, they've got themselves a new hidden base. Snowman makes a point of not finding out where it is, even though Trace offers to track it down for her.

The Felt continue their streak of successful heists, knocking over bank and casino after casino. The Midnight Crew's holdings have been untouched so far, but that won't last much longer. They're going to have to go after them eventually, and she knows that's going to spark an all-out war. Lord English hasn't given the order yet, but it's only a matter of time.

They've already started feuding anyway. This city is big, but not big enough for two big groups. More than once, they've shown up at that night's target, only to discover that the Crew was already in and out, and the place is in flames. She's sure the same's happened to Slick and his men, but they don't stick around after they get the cash to find out if anybody else was gunning for the same bank. And as it works out, they inevitable turn up at the same time, and that's when all hell breaks loose.

She's in the safe, helping Sawbuck load cash, when she hears gunfire. The others are out there, holding down the fort until the two of them get out of here, and this isn't a good sign. She doesn't panic, she just finishes filling the sacks and ties them down to Sawbuck. All it takes is a prod from her holder, and they're years in the past, long before the bank was ever built. "Can you find your way home?"

Sawbuck opens his jacket and shows her the pearl-handled razor hanging inside his jacket. "Can you?"

"Yeah, I can find my way back." Time's already pushing at her, wanting her to wade back in and get where she's supposed to be. Sawbuck gives her a bit of a wave and trudges off in the direction of the mansion. Hopefully he won't have to slice himself too much to end up in the proper time, or run into anything out here.

Snowman falls back into time, and surfaces in the bank vault again. She can hear the strain of metal tearing and warping. And beyond that, the sound of gunfire. She slides the whip out of her jacket and lays it out, ready for the moment the door vault comes off.

With an awful screeching noise, the door comes off. Boxcars holds it up in his arms. He can't see her. She pulls her arm back and lashes out with the whip, snagging around Boxcar's leg and yanking hard. He's already weighed down by the vault door, and the tug's all she needs to send him sprawling on the floor, heavy door landing straight on him. It's not enough to kill him, but just enough to knock him out.

Snowman steps out, sliding her whip off of Heart's leg. The steady sound of a machine gun going sounds off from another room. And Itchy's lying on the floor, head covered in bumps. Slick's got his horse hitcher up and ready for what could be the deathblow. She sends the whip snaking out, grabbing onto the hitcher and yanking it clean out of his hands. Slick slips as he's caught off-balance, and Itchy takes the opportunity to speed up and get the hell out of there.

Slick turns his eyes on her, and they both go for their pistols. He's not crazy enough to kill her, but he's cold enough to take out her legs and beat her into a coma given half the chance.

"The cash is already gone." Snowman says, keeping her gun focused on Slick's head.

"Bullshit!" His eyes glance over to the vault and maybe she could take the shot, but she doesn't. She's not ready to take the shot. Slick glances back at her, looking to see if she's bluffing. He figures out pretty quickly that she isn't. "Fuck!"

"Pack it in Slick, you were too late this time." There might still be cash in the tills, but it's not her job to help him out.

"We've been planning this for months!" Snowman can't tell if he's more angry at her or at himself. Could be both at this point. Time tugs on her, but she can't follow it just yet. She'll leave herself vulnerable, and she wants Slick's gun away from her before she starts fading. It tugs again, hard, and she realizes that maybe something serious is about to happen.

Something serious involving ticking. Slick hears it too, and he looks behind him. They can't see the bomb, but it doesn't mean that Deuce hasn't dropped the three of clubs behind the door. Hearts might be okay with the door lying on him to block the blast, but she and Slick are going to be pulp if she doesn't move. Snowman doesn't even think it through, she just closes the gap between her and Slick while his head's turned, and grabs onto his neck. He brings his gun around and she fades the both of them just as the bomb goes.

They're halfway somewhere else, and only part of the shockwave hits them. She knows it hasn't killed them because it hurts like a bitch, and if she was dead, it wouldn't be hurting this much. She stumbles as they materialize, and ends up on her knees, body dry-heaving in protest of her cutting it way too close. It hurts like hell and she sags back onto her calves, just in time to hear Slick cock his pistol.

Of course it's pointed at her head. Maybe she's wrong. Maybe Slick is that crazy. He looks about as sick as she does, barely standing on his feet. Snowman would like to stare him down, but she's still feeling the effects of the blast. Instead, all she manages is a tense, "You're welcome."

"What?" Slick puts one hand on the wall to keep up. Clothes shift around him. They're in someone's walk-in closet.

"I said you're welcome." Snowman repeats, because if he's going to shoot her, then he's going to shoot her. "For saving your carapace."

The gun stays leveled at her head for a moment longer. Then he uncocks the trigger and puts the card back into his suit pocket. A second after that, his legs give and he hits the floor too.

She lays down on the floor. It's carpet and soft, and the rest of her still hurts. As soon as she feels better, she'll be out of here, and Slick can find his own way home.

"Thanks." Slick mumbles, mostly into the carpet. It's the only time she's ever heard that word out of his mouth.

She feels like she should say something back. Something nasty and smug. Except she doesn't actually want to ruin this, so she keeps her mouth shut and soaks in the comfortable silence.

Snowman turns up a day later. There's a scar running down the length of Stitch's face, a present from Deuce and his bomb. Everybody else is alright. Sawbuck got back with the money, just as everybody else was coming into the mansion. Rumour has it that the Midnight Crew is fine too.

Nobody asks her where she's been.

--

The feud between the Felt and Midnight Crew gets uglier and uglier with every passing week. There's not so many opportunities to go out on the town, not when the last time ended up in an ambush that destroyed half of their favourite club. The City's pretty pissed with both gangs, and it's not a friendly place to go anymore. These days, they find things around the mansion to amuse themselves with.

Snowman still spends her time with the Felt. Crowbar's a bit busier, with Lord English constantly calling him up to his study. She's almost tempted to walk in and see who he is when he doesn't have the mask on, but it's been so long since she joined that it would feel strange to demand an answer now. Mostly she hangs around Stitch's boutique, watching him patch outfits and fix the effigies, which always seem to have split seams or some sort of danger. They've proved themselves useful a million times over, but lately he has to watch them closely to make sure no one dies before he has a time to sew them up.

She learns to play pool, though most days she's content to watch the others face one another. Snowman still prefers cards, but they play new games. She rarely plays War, contenting herself with Bridge and Euchre and Cribbage. There's the occasional game of Hearts, but she shoots the moon too often and it always ends the game far too soon. Winning isn't that much fun when there's no skill to it. They set up a dart board for a whole three days, before Fin lodges three darts in Matchsticks' head and he burns it to a crisp in retaliation.

Crowbar turns up with a chessboard, and refuses to explain how he got his hands on it. Snowman's overcome with both delight, and a horrible longing that doesn't leave for days. She does her best to hide this, not wanting to make Crowbar feel bad, especially when he's clearly gone to some length to get his hands on it. She teaches him and Quarters how to play, but it's a waste of time. They grasp the basics, and Quarters even manages to become half-decent, but she can still wipe the board with them in less than ten minutes if she tries. The only time she gets a challenge is when she plays herself, and she already knows the outcome before she makes the first move.

For the first time in years, she finds herself waiting for something to happen. She's still not sure what the something is. The final battle maybe. The first real death. For Lord English to finally let her see him outside of the dark and shadows. For Slick to go crazy enough to kill her and end the universe. Snowman waits, hoping this time whatever she's waiting for is worth it.

She shows in the late afternoon, and everyone knows because the moment she does, the sky goes black. Snowman's in the foyer, but she hears Stitch cursing upstairs and time doesn't so much as tug as it shoves, and she follows because she has to be where she needs to be.

All the lights are off, but the room is full of green light. The fire creeps and crawls over the shaking black body. Stitch looks over at Snowman, and does a double-take. "I didn't think you could be in two places at once."

"I didn't either." She looks at herself.

"I can't have her in here, not if she's on fire. She'll burn down everything." Stitch glances at the effigies, hanging uncomfortably close by. "Snowman, what the hell's going on?"

"She's trying to get away from the pain. She's going to where she needs to be, when she needs to be. You've got the experience to take care of her." And he does. When the Felt started, Stitch was good, but he wasn't nearly as good as he is now.

"Hell of a journey through time." Stitch grabs onto a blanket and smothers the flames temporarily. It's not a lot, but it's enough to get those eyes open and looking up at Snowman. Snowman looks down at her past-self, and says "Hold on."

She's long forgotten the pain, but looking into her own eyes, she can almost remember it. "Hold one." Snowman repeats, and she's gone again, leaving the blanket behind.

"Shit, where'd she go?"

Snowman's not sure. She suddenly realizes sometimes. All this time, she assumed the White King was a hallucination. Now she's not so sure. Stitch snaps his fingers, and she glances back at him. "Um. She'll show up in the bathroom soon."

"Go get some ice. Take Crowbar with you." Stitch grabs the smoldering blanket and heads for the bathroom. Snowman lingers a second longer, mind still fixed on the thought. What if the White King isn't dead?

Time tugs, and she absently goes, turning up in Crowbar's room. She quickly explains the situation, and the pair head into the city. They get back with a dozen bags of ice, and manage to get six into the tub before time ripples and the burning Queen shows up. Snowman gets Crowbar and herself out of the room, since they aren't in her memories and she'd rather not accidentally branch off into another timeline. It's always a bitch to get back to where she's supposed to be.

Crowbar rests his back on the wall and looks at her, "Is that what you went through?"

"Yeah." She digs through her coat, coming up with a pack of cigarettes. He's already got a lighter out and ready before she gets it into her holder. Snowman lights it, and breathes in, letting the smoke fill her lungs. She exhales, and says, "Have you ever seen Lord English's face?"

Crowbar hesitates for a second. It's as good as a yes.

"Does he have a scar?" She traces out the scar she saw on the White King's face, finger ending just below her eye.

Crowbar pauses again, then nods just the once. Snowman puts her back to the wall and laughs. She's such an idiot. How couldn't she have figured it out before? Trace and Fin play pool all the time. She's seen the balls a million times and never had a second thought about the cue ball.

"Hey, are you okay?" He's concerned, and she can't stop laughing. She just leans back and laughs until she can't breathe, and then she leans against Crowbar until she catches her breath.

"Yeah." Snowman manages to say. Her cigarette has gone to waste, burnt down to the filter. She stubs it out and tucks the butt in her pocket. "Yeah, I'm fine. Come on, I want to play a game of pool."

Crowbar raises an eyebrow, but he follows her down the stairs and doesn't mention her outburst.

--

It ends the way she always suspected it would: with everyone dead. Except for her, of course. There was always a 50/50 chance she'd end up alive. But the rest? Of course the rest died. What else would you expect with Slick in the mix?

Slick isn't exactly dead yet, but being as she's locked him in a vault with no medical supplies, and a shot-off arm that will undoubtedly keep on bleeding as long as it's untreated. His chances of survival are slim, and that's just the way she likes it. She's not feeling terribly bad about that. Maybe if the little prick hadn't killed Crowbar and Stitch himself, she would have gone a little easier. But this was a war, and in the end, she was quicker on the draw than him.

There's nowhere for her to go. The mansion is nothing but burnt rubble, and the City isn't what she would call welcoming. So Snowman finds the most comfortable looking piece of wreckage and sits on it, smoking her last cigarette and waits a little more. Everyone she knows is dead or dying, and there's only one person left to show up. He'll have no choice to reveal himself now that the rest of the Felt's dead, and they're the only two balls on the table.

She savours her cigarette and listens, wondering if she'll hear Slick moving around inside that vault. Snowman isn't entirely sure what's in there. Maybe all that money they've been stockpiling for ages. Maybe something else. Something hopefully worth the death of all her friends. The butt smolders uselessly between her fingers and she stubs it out.

The world goes white for a second, and then he's there, as if he was always there. It's been years since they last faced one in the desert, and so many years before that at the Gate, him in chains and her surrounded by guards. Snowman drops the butt on the ground and gets to her feet, looking at the man who was once her lover and greatest enemy, the man who is now her boss.

He's still wearing that mask of his. It's smooth and black, and hides his face fairly well. The green cairo overcoat covers the rest, the patches cycling smoothly not that there's not a ton of distortions happening. He's buttoned it up, but she can see a sliver of white where his neck is. He greets her, familiar voice muffled by the large black mask. "Snowman."

"Lord English." She says, mouth forming the words. It fits him. But of course it would. "Everyone's dead. Except for Slick. He's bleeding away in the safe."

"That's fine." His eyes flicker over to the safe, the only thing left intact in the rubble. "He'll find an old friend in there to keep him company."

She reaches for another cigarette automatically, but all she comes up with is the empty package. Lord English reaches into the cairo overcoat, colours flickering over her as he feels around, and draws out a pack of Coffin Nails. Of course he knows her favourite. His hands are hidden in the long sleeves of the coat, but she's sure if she looks close enough, she'll see white there too. "Thank you." She says, taking the pack and stripping off the plastic. Snowman lights it, inhales, and looks over the wreckage.

"We have to go." Lord English gestures to the wreckage. "The game's been won. It's time to reset."

Those old words. They go crawling up her spine. "Is that what was happening?"

"Of course." He steps toward her, and she finds it strange how much she wants to close the rest of the distance. There's still that spark there, the attraction she felt from the moment she first set her eyes on him. Snowman wonders if it's still returned. "Are you ready?"

There's nothing to pack, and no one to say goodbye to. She's as ready as she can ever be, but she shakes her head instead. "No. There's one thing left. I have a question for you, if you'll answer it."

He considers this. She taps out ashes onto the ground, and he nods. "Ask it."

"How did you get the scar on your face?" Snowman smiles as the eyes behind his mask widen momentarily, and then return to normal. His hands reach up to the mask, so white against the black of the mask, and he draws it away from his face.

The scar is exactly as she remembers it, long sharp hook slicing straight up his face. The colours swim in the crack, and they sing to her softly. She steps in close and runs her finger along the edge of it. Fire boils up on the edge of her fingers and the colours in him swirl and flicker. She pulls her fingers away and pops them in her mouth, extinguishing the flame.

"I tried to Castle." The White King says, and it's her turn to be surprised. She knew he hadn't moved on the board, but that had meant nothing once the fifth dimension had been added to the gameplay. It's only now that she understands.

All this time, she thought she was taking him off the board. She thought he was making the same sacrifice to remove her. Snowman doesn't mean to smile. She should be pissed, but the game's long over, and all she can do is smile at the brilliance of it. The Black Queen would have been removed, and then he could have castled and moved between the worlds.

Except, it hadn't worked. The scar on his face was proof of that. It was clear what had happened. "The rook moved first."

Lord English nods, just the once. "I survived, but he didn't. We opened a hole but... it only worked one way."

The rest of the story is easy to piece together. The Castling had failed, and instead of a gate that worked both ways, they had a gate that only let things in, but never out. If it had worked, the White King would have ended up in one of the Twelve Lands and within a week he would have been back on the board. Black would have been crushed. But it failed. And the White King wasn't the White King anymore, not after splitting the fabric of the world. That's how he'd gotten his power. And her friends, Crowbar and Stitch and all the rest, had come through the one-way rip in the world and made their way to the city when there was no turning back.

She smiles, because there's nothing else to do but smile, and presses her hand to the unscathed side of his face. He rests one large hand overtop hers, looking down with those sharp eyes of his. "Darling." Snowman says, and leans up to kiss him on the mouth.

It's been years, but it's good as the first time they kissed. His free arm encases her waist and presses her tight, and her free arm holds her cigarette off to the side so it doesn't burn him. They break to breathe, but don't move away.

"Are you ready?" He asks again.

She doesn't know what's next. But whatever it is, it'll be worth the years of waiting.

"I'm ready." Snowman says, and drops her cigarette in the sand.

He fades and she follows.