Tag Archives: Alex

Thanks, Eddy.

Bethany put down the canvas and mutely left the room. She didn’t look back. She didn’t answer Edison. Terry had another, smaller office built into his, attached by two cherry doors; she headed there, and with a tug, slid those doors open. As they shut behind her, she was left inside a darkened space ruled by a darker veneer. A polished table for eight and matching, high-backed chairs sat below the golden chandelier. It nearly seemed too large for the ceiling, but it gracefully sighed under what light slipped in through the three, arched, captivating windows. As a side note she felt deserving of special mention, Beth was ten seconds from puking and passing out in the juice.

This was a looooot of money. Like, a lot of it, and she had to hide here until she got her mind around the three thousand dollars. She’d been holding her breath for five hundred, yet there Terry was, outside and counting it in cold, hard cash – pardon her, counting in American cash, since that was what Edison brought for his trip. Whatever – American, USD, the exchange rate? Those grossly pale green bills may have sworn they were worth three grand, but here, that was closer to infinity billion. She needed to puke, she promised to puke, she absolutely would puke, last night’s bender so was not helping, but holy moly, Terry had earned his commission.

“– might just hold off on that arm-chopping business.” The doors slid open and shut, but this time, in swept the man of her glorious hour. He glided to her side, catching her hands in his, and while he gazed into her eyes, did so sweetly suggest, “When Edison asks, you’re a manic depressive gone into shock from the loss of her unicorns, and the only thing that can pull you off the edge of severing a limb is that therapeutic sound of twenty Mr. Franklins. Clear?”

Beth could have kissed him. She would have kissed him, but with the whole ‘puke’ thing and her hangover, she whispered instead, “You beautiful, British bastard.” While he fluttered his eyes at that, she crunched the rest of his math. “Did you say ‘twenty’?” Times a hundred, so adding two zeroes. “That’s not three thousand.”

“Well. Netted.” Yeeeah, no. She took her hands back. “Oh – come on, Beth! You only had one the job, and that was to hold the bloody things.”

“You told me to!”

For the record, it hadn’t only been holding. She’d lifted the canvases, lowered them, angled them, turned them, found the perfect strike of light, all for those stupid horse paintings, and all without even once complaining about sore forearms. Those lonely years of Bop It! had finally paid off, and if she didn’t have his ‘Second Favourite Artist’ spot already clinched forever – first place was a pipe dream; Terry’s favourite artist was Terry – she knew for a fact he would have stuck it to her head then with a shiny, gold star. This, she distilled into a single frown. Funny how fast his tune changed.

“If it hurries you up, we’ll go two thousand two,” he said. “You aren’t the only one paying bills.”

Awww. Someone dropped their caviar in the Porsche again, and that someone’s brow twitched like he’d heard her mispronouncing it. ‘Por-sha’, not ‘porsh’.

“All right. Two thousand and two.” Porsh. Porsh, porsh. She held out her hand. “And I get your tie clip.”

“Done.” Off it went, quickly replaced by another one. The man kept – like, six in his vest pocket. She used to laugh, but those little things were handy. “Bringing your total to a staggering two thousand two thirty-five. Are we happy?”

Two thousand dollars, and he’d put the money in her hand? This was cloud fifteen, which was exactly what she wasn’t going to say.

“I guess.”

“Ah! The old ‘I guess’. Nothing makes this all so worth it quite like that uninspiring flatness. Thank you. For it. Again.” He smoothed out his tie, ego safely checked and creeping definition of commission rates back in line. “Right – now I’m heading out, and I’ll need you to count to eighty. When you’ve finished, you’ll emerge as a prostrated spirit, wounded by her art’s commodification, but having come to terms with it in time for our next sale.” His grooming paused. “What’s this one again?”

Primed and Tuned? The piece he had to gush about like he’d loved it for years?

“Whatever you think is best, Ter. I trust you.”

“Good answer.” Terry actually sounded impressed. Maybe first place wasn’t such a pipe dream. “No smiling. Prostrated spirit.”

“Sorry.”

“Better.” As his hair commercial’s big finale, he ran his fingers through every tress. His head sparkled more than the light fixtures. “I might just be buying you that brunch, Keeler, if this goes as I expect.”

Was somebody outside?

“You say ‘might’ like it’s a maybe.”

In her same breath, she peeked off to his side. Beth had caught a hint of something; not to wander from the critical discussion of her meals, but there were only three people meant to be here, and they…

Wait.

Four people.

Noooo!

“Well –” That was Alex outside! “– it may be a free dinner –” Alex was outside and walking. “– provided you behave yourself.” Alex was outside, and walking, and leaving! “Damn. Nearly said that with a straight face.”

He didn’t see her. Nobody saw anyone; Alex had his head down and his shoulders hunched, and Terry’s back was slightly angled more towards the windows than away. For her part, Beth put the carefully tie-clipped cash down her overalls, and took her boss-slash-friend-slash-trigger-happy-thumb-on-the-alarm by his elbow. She never felt more Zen than she did leading his ass to the main office’s doors – but like a high-speed version of Zen, where the only thing she could do less than standing up the neighbour she so wanted to believe wasn’t the crazy half was letting Terry sic his cloud of private security on the poor bastard.

“Oh, you,” she chittered, utterly missing the line for ‘too loud’. “You’re funny – and you’re going to be great! Get on out there and make me proud.”

She tipped him with a British bum pat and pulled him a couple of steps. By the third, he had morphed into Heels-y McGee.

“What did you do,” Terry drew out.

“Nothing.” Why did he always ask? “I simply think we shouldn’t keep Eddy waiting.” Oof! Too far. His eyebrow twitched. “‘Eddy’. Ol’ Ed. What’s in a name? We just bonded so much over art. All right – go, go!”

The arm she’d been hanging onto swung to spin her in front of him. She took very little solace from how it kept his back still turned to Alex, à la Scooby-Doo, since it also left her with a full view of how fast her sort-of-date was clearing the windows – and they were big windows.

“Beth,” Terry sang, trilling her name through the air, “you wouldn’t be planning anything tricksy?”

She tried not to peek.

“No?”

“And you’re sure?”

Well, gee, Ter. Big thanks for the trust.

Yes,” she answered.

“Good.” He returned the bum pat. “We’re back to two thousand.”

“What?!”

He already had it in his hand! Hers went to her pocket; son of a bitch, Ter! Those bum pats were sacred.

“You’ll get this back –” Terry rolled her two hundred into his vest. “– after you don’t ring every steakhouse asking how many lobsters they’ll pile on filet mignon.” She didn’t have time to flounder over how she had only done that once, since he whisked past and headed for the doors. “Still pick someplace nice.”

“Oh, may I, sir?”

Ha!

“Within the limits of your wardrobe. Lord knows none of this will go towards a decent dress.” He had to turn his head for that foppish snark, but only at last his syllable did she notice his gaze flicking off to the window. It took every tendon in her neck seizing to not check it out, too. “Eighty, Beth.”

He wasn’t screaming about Alex. That was… good? Bad? Bad.

“Hmm – yes. Eighty. Gotcha.” Terry hadn’t moved. She glared at him. “One. Two. Six. Fourteen.”

“That’s charming,” he said, sliding the doors apart. “Arthur! Wonderful news: she’s not chopping off a thing today.”

She waited until the doors shut, and then she whipped around. No Alex. Shit!

Her next move was grabbing an overweight chair, scraping it over to the glass, jumping on, pushing open the panel that topped the arch, and jamming her chin in the mesh that clearly hadn’t been cleaned to yell, “Alex! Alex – wait, please, don’t go!”

Pathetic, Beth. The word had already had a definition, but she just repainted it to this.

So that was that. Here she stood, and then sat, and then sort of fumbled over the windowsill, and then sat for real, stuck in this place with a geezer and an ex, counting until she went home and picked up the dead bird nailed to her welcome mat, the first of many I-hold-a-grudge gifts. It was a little of that column A and a good scoop of column B that she screamed.

Loudly.

“Beth? Beth, are –”

Dammit-Terry-go-away!” She jumped up, hiding Alex’s face, which had freaking reappeared beside her. “Go! Go outside! Go sell things!” Terry switched his look of panic to a withering frown, but left without adding to it. Once again, she waited for the doors to close. “Coast clear.” She climbed the chair to re-reach the mesh. “Alex! There you are.”

It was to judge how he’d been doing with all the signs that affirmed how he did not, in fact, require more caffeine. His face looked red, bringing out his caramel hues – and the hues of all his bruises – while his hand scratched at his arm. Alex seemed anxious, not angry, since for any second of eye contact, he spent five scanning the front parking lot.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Right! With me to Pequods.”

“No, I…” His itching arm jerked. He pinned it with his other hand. “I mean, yes, but I have to go. Can I have your keys?”

Uhhhhhhhh, what?

“As in, ‘will I drive you places’? Like Pequods? Sure!”

“No – I…” Alex stopped and rolled his eyes. He put on the fakest smile this side of pure ham. “Pretty please, might I get the keys?”

All right. Now she was frowning. She worked her ‘staring down at him’ vantage to help get the point across.

“No? Because it’s my car. I’m not going to give you the keys to my – whoa, wait!” He’d started walking. “Wait! You’re leaving?”

“I said I was.”

“Well – yeah, but –” Use words, Beth! “Then what? You’re walking home?”

“I was planning to stick with driving.”

Like he had to spell it out for her.

“But – wait! Seriously!” She needed to mash her face into a lot of dust-laden fibres to ‘go after’ him, but he stopped. “You don’t have keys.”

“Don’t need ‘em. I was being polite.” What?! “Hey, was that dick stain parked out front? Cancer Guy? Is that his car? I’m taking it.”

Terry was going to murder her in a million different pieces, and if this was really happening and not a dream, she had no way to explain why he shouldn’t.

“Let me drive you,” she blurted. “I promise – I’ll drive you, but give me a second to come out. Please.”

He tilted his head. What had looked so much like a puppy-dog last night now more closely resembled the lizard from Jurassic Park, the one that had busted out a fringe and spat up acid in a guy’s mouth.

“Sure.”

“Actually?”

She felt immediately apprehensive. Alex had gone from carjacker to model citizen in less than a second.

“Sure,” he said again, shrugging. “But if I were you, I’d hurry. I gotta get my Pequods on, and you people have got to stop getting in the way of that.”

Off he marched, growing her urge to vomit beyond a simple night of binge drinking. Also: craaaap.

She ran. Terry’s voice hit as soon as she opened the doors. The man didn’t even blink, only casually beckoned to her during his speech.

“It isn’t simply the brashness of the skeins. It’s their urgency. That the piece is unique amongst its series as the only canvas gone unprimed speaks to a thirst for the subjects’ misfortune. By endorsing it as art, we’ve lauded its brutality, and yet in that lies our truest nature: for so long as we’re allowed the fruits of our neighbours’ pain, we are content to let them endure in silence.”

All of which was Standard Terry Bullshit, and kept them distracted enough for her to sneak to the exit.

“Amazing.” Applause. “Here I thought it was all splattered crap.”

Thanks, Eddy. Enjoy the dumb horse.

“When we refuse what’s beneath the surface, we… Beth.” No, no – shit. Terry spotted her. She froze, less than three feet from escaping. “Are you planning to join us?”

Please, brain, work.

“Bathroom.”

Yes! Good excuse. At least she thought so until Terry’s back gently straightened.

“What about the bathroom, my dear?”

“Have to use it.” She felt for the hallway door. “To – ah… wash the tears I shed for this tragedy.” A billion pieces. A billion and one murdered shards. “Bye!”

“Beth –”

Nope, bye! She flew out and down the hall, forever grateful she had the floorplan burned into her mind – except for those pallets that rammed her hip since this place was as dark as a butthole. The rush of golden light flowing from the lobby’s round expanse served as her hope that she may have made it in time, and the relief she felt as her hand knocked against the main entrance also very nearly won out over her need to kill the next person who spoke.

“Keeler?”

Not fucking now,” she screeched at… whoever – some old guy dressed as a painter, an interior painter, a different kind of painter, who she doubted should even be here, but oh sweet mercy, not now. She ripped the entrance doors open and leapt outside, calling, “Alex! Alex, if you even touched his car…!”

But Alex wasn’t listening. Alex was busy cutting his arms through somebody’s neck.

“‘Cause ohhh, no. You can’t stay dead. You have to go and make some friends – who usually explode by now, so boy-oh-boy, you sure do look like our fucking source. I’m gonna break your favourite throat today. You deserve this.”

“Looooo,” the other person was wheezing. His eyes bulged from his sockets. “Looooo.”

“Just make a noise if you want it counter-clockwise. I know it’s a little rougher, but you get a better sound out of it. Regular-wise? Hey, it’s messy, but this is your execution, and I’ll be damned if I don’t grant a bitch their last request.”

Beth… backed away…

“Looooo!”

“Counter-clock? You got it, bud!”

The sound that followed was not a neck.

To be perfectly honest, she didn’t know how a breaking neck would sound, but her confidence in stating it wasn’t that came from a bare awareness of the sweet burning fire hose of piss, someone shot her.

Her hands patted at her belly. Feeling nothing but speed, she craned to look back inside the lobby. There, holding a gun – a red gun, like a toy – and running in sluggish strides towards her, was the old painter. His eyes went wide and rolled in on themselves, and she watched as he slowly started to fall. Her blink took hours to pass, dryly scraping her cornea. They shut to the wet echoes of a sharp crack and a long, “Looookrrhhhk.”

There was one last voice as the ground sailed to greet her.

“Dude, shut up about the latté. Get her keys.”

“Work builds character.”

“Alright. I think this’ll work.” He had three feet before the first step. That was plenty of room to swing the corpse around, so Alex hauled it in by its upper pits. He pushed the rest of the door open with his shoulder. “Yeah. This is good.”

Don’t slip. Hate to see you reap karma.

“I’ll manage,” he grunted.

I’ll bet.

The door shut when they were through. Not that he needed to see, but he’d’ve preferred it to having his eyes strain at total darkness and Grave Encounters looping in his head. Xander wasn’t helping either, on pain of I-didn’t-get-my-way, so Alex pulled the corpse to its feet himself. He kicked out its heel just like it’d been strolling down this pitch-black stairwell when it suddenly died from a heart attack. The cops could rule it as natural causes, the news would babble about workplace stress, then everyone would enjoy a normal day. As for the ‘four arms’ thing…

Well, that was the Agents’ problem.

“Come on, gravity,” he said. “Don’t screw me.”

Alex let go.

The first sound he heard might’ve been its kneecap shattering. The other slops were more like meat bursting on concrete. That last noise told him the corpse had found the bottom or at least stopped rolling. Good enough. He felt for the door and left, back to fake gold walls and too-tall, pearly ceilings.

Happy?

“Ecstatic.” Deep down, he kind of meant that. “I know you think I should’ve let them handle this –”

I one hundred percent, sell my soul, promise it’s not ‘think’.

“– but they’re Agents.” Xander’s little ‘Fucking really, Sherlock’ got Alex to put it in plainer English. “I’m not letting Agents hide a body for me. I did that once and they laughed at how stupid I was.”

So did I! You left a fuckin’ note to please ‘tidy the crime scene’.

“It was a threat. I was threatening them.” He yanked off his outer shirt, sick of the moist beast’s sweat-marinade. It was why he dressed in layers. “You keep killing their guys. I just was telling them to remember that when they scraped up their latest group.”

What you did was piss off the people who already have to handle your mess by smearing a bigger mess on the wall.

“Yeah, well.” He wrung out his sleeves. “Work builds character.”

Ohhhh, you asshole.

“I’m the asshole? Who’s trying to suck out whose eyeballs? If you love them so much, marry them.”

Fine. I will. And we’re gonna have a super sweet wedding you don’t get invited to, ‘cause I don’t want a shitty speech finger-painted on my cake with priest blood.

Alex opened his mouth to once again explain what threats were when a gray flicker caught his attention. Up ahead.

“Shut up for a sec.” The corner heading to the lobby looked empty. As the one part of the hall with actual, lemony light, he trusted that instinct. Closer, though, to where the shadows got bigger, all he saw was the blinding white entrance to the skull room. It flickered again. “There. See that?” Xander’d started walking to it. “But I’m paranoid, right?”

Broken clock’s still broken. Shut up for an hour.

So under the skull room’s silent brightness, Alex got to make out the smears left behind from their previous fight. Well – ‘fight’. Xander sank his hands in the moist beast’s face and pried its lids apart. Where its corpse dropped sprayed a greasy sketch of limbs that eventually dragged back to those stairs. Great, then. The Agents could find it after all. His problem was with how many came to look.

“Ten,” he said. “At least.” The anti-Agents didn’t ambush less than that. “And we’re early.” Because the old guy and kid weren’t rushing. “Which means there’s a squad of real Agents alive somewhere.” Who Alex had technically saved from an anti-attack, but since two of those Antis escaped, he’d effectively pissed off both camps. “Neither one can find me. Got that?”

I think the better question is, ‘What am I gonna do with all these firstborn children you owe me?’ I don’t have that many sweatshops.

“They have kidneys.”

Ooh. Dark. I like it.

Yeah. Xander would. On that pleasant note, Alex let himself go numb and watched the room stalk closer. The flickers kept up, adding in muffled clicks of feet. He figured it was pacing by the time he’d moved to stand outside the way in. It might’ve been alone or its other nine-Agent-friends-at-least could’ve not moved for thirty seconds. They did that sometimes. A lot.

Xander knocked on the wall. The pacing stopped. The flickers became a waiting shadow. He thumped again, and it scurried into the hall, mirrored shades first. Its yellowy buckteeth glimmered under its red hat of hair. Its orange shirt still matched the moist corpse’s, and its wispy lip of fuzz twitched when it spotted him.

Awwwwww.”

Not an Agent. But it knew who Alex was.

Xander shrugged and made a fist.

“Shitty,” he said. “I have to kill you now.”

The kid’s shades exploded. Cartilage crushed against its head with the splinters of plastic caving in on itself. Alex’s arm drew back to get its neck, but it already went limp. It landed staring up, eyes unfocused.

‘Fight’.

Is this the same person?” Teen ‘stache. Carpenter uniform. “It left.”

‘Left’ meant ‘gone’. Their anti-group had a star under ‘Kill All Agents’ that pretty clearly said, ‘Unless Alex shows up to wreck shit, then whatever, we’re not getting paid’. They’d played by that rule for seven years. Every run-in had martyrs but nobody stupid enough to come back if they got away. Now he half-expected the old guy, on top of the Agents these dicks lured everywhere.

Think he died too fast.

“That’s not a thing.” No more flickers. How early was he? “Alright. Stairs.”

Auuugghhh.

“I’m not arguing with you.” He went to grab its pointy wrists a second before he stopped to check, “It’s actually dead though, right? Definitely dead?”

I dunno, he looks dead. Kick ‘im.

No other flickers.

“I’m not going to kick a corpse,” he said. “Maybe I don’t Jesus – shitwhat the hell –”

Its arms ripped off in his hands. Two wrists of open bone speared out from its graying sockets, snapping black as its skin dried into ashy curls under his fingers. The kid crumpled into dust and vanished. Gone. He stayed standing with a palm full of leather-sand that started to vaporize in the air.

Or you could’ve kicked.

Shut up, Xander.” Now he had a problem. “What happened? Where’d it go? Why’d it do that? Was it attacking me?”

Easy there, pork chop. He’s gone. Stick to that. Shirt. Alex got turned towards the lump of red abandoned at the stairwell. He took off the other way. That’s not where your shirt is.

“Forget the shirt. The Agents can get it.” He’d pulled the white-ish one he was still wearing over his mouth. “I don’t know if that dust’s floating around or a corpse or not, but if this is their fucked up plan to get inside my lungs –” Could they do shit from there? Maybe? “Shit. Shit, shit.”

Every now and then, somebody had an actual power. No wonder they came practically alone. One of those three was a death fog.

‘Forget the shirt. The Agents can get it.’ Fucking wow.

He didn’t break his stride until he reached the lemonlit corner. Even then, he glanced around the edge before uttering, “Don’t.”

Oh, I’d never. But you know I’m within my rights to choke you. Alex’s head turned back to the stairs. Instead, being such a swell guy, I’ll helpfully point out that unlike Four Arms, who’s immediate proof of superhuman advancements beneath the nose of the general public, your shirt’s a shirt. Judging from the moment of silence, Xander assumed that spoke for itself. He was wrong. Your laundry’s not part of the Agency’s mandate, genius.

“Of course it’s not.” Why would shit start working for him now? Alex’s jaw clenched while he double-checked the corner, in the likely case that the way to the lobby had changed and also screwed him by deciding to burst into fire. “I’ll forget all your, ‘The Agents will do it, I pinkie-swear.’”

I never told you to strip. I got my lesson on your evidence abandonment issues the last time, which’s why I’m sorta-kind’f-fucking insisting.

Those were the three grades of Xander’s sincerity. One way or another, Alex had to get the shirt.

“If I die,” he warned, “it’s your fault.”

Holy shit, I just had the best idea. We go to Roasters, right? But after the gallery.

“Alright, I get it.”

He took a last glimpse at the lobby and pushed off of the wall, mouth re-covered. The jog was just as cold without a corpse trailing along. That thrill of figuring what the skull room sure as hell had evaporated, too. He didn’t trust crossing the light but on a scale of run to leave-his-shirt-somewhere-that-anti-Agents-had-actively-smeared-themselves, crossing killed the question of, ‘How do we finally figure out how to track Alex forever?’

God, it was still damp. He got a fresh coat of ‘moist’ on him from picking up the fabric and trying to wring any –

Hey. Alexander.

For shit’s fucking sake.

Oh, okay, Xander said. I see where this is going.

The kid stuck its head out from the skull room, skull-light glinting off its lenses. Its voice wobbled halfway down the hall but it gave an obviously alive, “Alexander.”

Alex blanked on his protocol.

Here’s a hint: for starters, lose this.The makeshift breath mask yanked to under his chin. Can’t shit-talk through polyester.

“We’re shit-talking?”

Alexander,” it yapped. “Hey!

Shit-talk. Don’t shit-talk. Whatever your heart desires. Xander patted his shoulder. You got this, sparkle butt.

“I – wait –” Then the full weight of control slammed into him. Everything minus his jaw, his foot and stomach started moving like they were on helium. The shirt felt so moist. “What the hell are you doing?”

Training you.

“Now?!”

You asked.

Alexander!

With nowhere to look but at the kid, Alex spat out, “Actual training. I wanted actual training, not smashing bricks on my face or running at someone, but sparring practice. Reflex tests. That kind of thing.”

And shall we practice our basket-weaving? Go get him.

Douchebag! Hey!

His stress rash was screaming. Screw all three of them. Or – four, because he just pinched his hand on the shirt’s goddamn buttons. Swallowing what he meant to say, Alex managed instead a quick, “No.”

‘No’?

“Yeah. No.” That felt empowering. “It’s too early. I have to learn, I get that, but right now I can’t even watch you kill stuff without getting sick. So – just…” He tried to shrug at himself. “I’ll fight it, but you have to still… ‘do the rest’.” That felt lame. “For now.”

He stared at his would’ve-been exit and the anti-Agent in his way, a short twenty feet off from him. Or he could run. He wanted to, but then he remembered these assholes had no choice in chasing him. They took any chance of destroying him as their only chance. Real Agents cut their losses to hunt him later. These assholes, for whatever bullshit he wasn’t going to fix, didn’t seem to know how. He had to trip over them, like a bastard leprechaun of murder.

He got the feeling Xander was shaking his non-existent head.

Okay. We need to talk. Again: now? I’ll be fast.

The kid inched out of the room.

Hey! Are you deaf or just stupid? Answer me!

Shut your whore hole, junior. We’re busy.” It did. Ha. Cool. Listening?

That wasn’t rhetorical. The guy waited for Alex’s awkward, “Yeah…?”

I am not training you to kill someone. I am not training you, Xander said, to kill someone. I am not training you to kill someone. Ever. For any reason. Agent and ‘anti-Agent’ alike. Got it?

Which also wasn’t rhetorical.

“… Sure.” The meaning sank in. “Then what are you showing me?”

Common sense. Just some badly fuckin needed common sense. For every problem you have, the solution’s almost always, ‘Use your head ten minutes ago.’ My goal’s to make you do less stupid shit, thus preventing situations where you feel people have to be killed. If you don’t reach that point, you’ll be put down. Not in a cutesy, ‘Oh, life is harder’ – you’ll get sniped from six blocks away. On the bright side, it’ll probably be painless, but still – like… dead.

… That was surprisingly direct. Usually it took three tries for Xander to land this close to a real point.

“Who’s shooting me?”

Santa. Fine, dumb question. The Agents. I’m gonna let you in on a secret: they think you’re nuts. Not ‘funny’ nuts like I know you are, but psychopathic, ape-shit, blood-on-the-walls, politely head-fucked, which’s why they’re skittish with you. You’re at the point of insanity making them uncomfortable – too little to write you off but too much to suffer a mistake.

“What mistake?” Xander hemmed and hawed right then. Alex had to turn to talk more to the ceiling, the kid forgotten for as long as it shut up. “Seriously. What kind of mistake?”

Y’know – just… Poor judgement.

He narrowed his eyes on a spot of crown moulding.

“What does that mean?”

I dunno, just… poor judgement, is all. Like if I showed you how to spot an Agent for once and you used that to act in a way exposing them. Pause. And you decided to end them before they ended you. Next pause. And you were wrong about whether they were an Agent. Longest pause. Any training I give you has to take that stuff into account. The ‘stuff’ being your proclivity towards shenanigans.

Huh.

The kid hadn’t moved. Alex didn’t have much peripheral vision, but enough to keep a basic watch on it.

“You won’t ever train me to kill ‘cause you’re accounting for my judgement.” Every syllable was emphasised. “What are you actually expecting me to do?”

Well, you’re you, so nothing. The ‘but’ on the end of that howled. But you don’t give crazy people bigger guns. If the Agency heard you kill people you absolutely thought you had to, they would lose their shit, so you can’t risk misinterpreting what I say as active encouragement. Fuckin’ Ron Weasley over there? He’s the epitome of common sense: I don’t think he’s real. He died way too fast, then reappears looking the same. He’s either immortal or sending avatars in or some shit, but he’s also a pussy ‘cause after one admittedly stellar skull tap, he hit his disconnect and oh my God you’re being quiet, stop it.

The voice in his head had called him crazy.

This was his life now.

He breathed.

“If it’s not real,” Alex said, bringing his gaze back to Captain Teen ‘Stache, “can it hurt me?”

… I mean, probably, yeah. I hit him. Something’s there. You’re taking this well.

The kid’s expression was covered by the mirrored shades, but its body language seemed crystal clear. It didn’t want to be here anymore and as for Alex, it thought he was high on bath salts. Fair enough, he guessed.

“You think if I charge it, it’ll… what – vanish?”

I was gonna jump in if it didn’t. Did you break?

“My imaginary friend thinks I have a screw loose. What do you want me to say?” Alex crushed the moist, overly sharp buttoned shirt inside his pocket. “At least you think I’m ‘funny nuts’.”

It’s ‘cause I said ‘guns’, right? I know that’s a hard concept for you. ‘Filed moose antlers’?

“I’m not mad, Xander. Let’s just get this over with.” Fuck. The mildly good news was a sudden nothing-left-to-lose burst of zen, which steadied his heart rate better than he could remember in years. Still. Fuck. “Kid!” He felt a headache coming on. “This is your last chance to run.”

“No,” the kid shouted, “it’s yours.”

Change’f plans.

Alex was in the passenger seat long before he noticed, seconds after Xander launched himself at the ginger’s head. Twenty feet shrank to inches. His fist demolished where its face had been, and it dropped to hammer its temple off the tile. The foot Xander put through its larynx scattered the rest into that ash.

He put the mask back on.

“Was it –”

Shh.

Footsteps? More of them.

Fast footsteps. A lot of footsteps. Too many. The lemonlit corner that was supposed to have been his way out surged with a tidal wave of ginger kid clones. They clumped like a pack of rats, trampling over each other. Dust clouds said a few didn’t make the turn.

“Do I –”

No. Xander had a flight mode after all. To no one’s surprise, it was better than Alex’s. You tell anyone and it won’t be snipers who get you.

They were past the stairs and into the darkness when Alex replied, “Agreed.”


Hiya, folks! Big news!! This is the fifteenth post in TOKoR, which means it’s time to start our P15 Club! We’ve got a full, behind-the-scenes recap for what’s gone into this story, so check it out when you get a chance – but don’t forget to come back! :-O

Was there a dragon?

The only reason Alex stayed in the lobby was to make sure they weren’t coming back. Once he had, he headed straight for the hall on the left – chin down, hands inside his pockets, moving until any eyes keeping track lost sight of him – and went that way until he hit a corner turned towards the mansion’s guts again. He stopped there and leaned against the wall, relieved at finally having one behind him.

“So that was…” Yeah. He leaned his head against the wall, too. “Fucking artists…”

I warned you. ‘Pack of dicks’, I said.

“I thought you meant they’d laugh at my sense of style or something, not flip out ‘cause I can’t recite the zodiac.” Was there a dragon? His one shred of knowledge on this thing had vanished. “Forget it. I’ve got bigger assholes to worry about than her asshole friend.”

D’awwww!

“The Agents.” Xander took the dumbest stuff as compliments. “Tell me you have something on them. Anything.” The sooner they nailed this theory on who these swarms were after, the better. He didn’t get a reply, though. When the reason for that dawned on him, he ground his knuckle into his forehead, trying to smother the thudding aches. “Thank you, Xander, for being the bigger asshole, even though you had no reason to help me outside of your giant, caring heart.”

Xander flopped around in his tribute, enjoying the praise, but eventually reported, Nothing new.

“Seriously?”

Surprise, surprise – I can’t hunt Agents where there are no Agents to be found. His fist clenched. Did make progress on this, though.

“Wh–” And he dropped, collapsing on the tile as he choked, “– furh –”

I told you. You had ten minutes. As he sat with face planted on the floor, hacking from the pain across his ribs, Alex vaguely remembered those words. It’s 8:13, which means you got an extra seven.

“Thanks,” he rasped, “for being so patient with your shot to my lungs.”

Yeah – I mean, I’m not gonna be rude about it. We were in the presence of Terrance SheridanOh, was that what made the goddamn difference? Hey. You’re still down there.

He had ten minutes to fetch a drink and nine seconds to get up after he didn’t. Alright. There was their schedule. He climbed awkwardly to his knees.

“Happy?” Great. Talking hurt. “I can’t leave until Beth’s back, genius.”

I can wait. But owing to your poor decision to save Pequods ‘til after the gallery – oh no, sorry, fucking ‘Roasters’ – you better hope she’s here in the next three minutes. His torso went numb. Xander had taken it for a bit. Aw, you fuckin’ baby. Quit flattering yourself. You’ve walked into doors harder.

“Doors don’t aim,” he chewed off. But he stood, annoyingly aware of how it’d changed from ‘effort’ to ‘instinct’ over the years. The silence hinted someone was waiting on gratitude for that, too. “This doesn’t count as training me.”

You took a surprise hook, coughed a little and hopped up. When this started, you once cried ‘cause I said I was gonna slap you, then slapped you. Alex didn’t cry – At this rate, I’ll have you crushing bricks with your head by the time you’re thirty.

At least one of them had a dream.

He limped along the rest of the gold-soaked hall, past the brightness that the corner had offered. The windows being left behind were covered by those same, thick curtains, but there’d been a dotted line of squashed, yellow skylights on the ceiling. Lemon-shaped skylights. ‘Lemon light’. Yeah, he got it. They didn’t keep leading him, so except for a white square ahead he guessed was a lit room, the hall sank to black fast.

Alex hunched more, not liking the mood of this. He tried to lighten it by murmuring, “You’ve been here six years and I still have to take it day-by-day. Don’t remind me that you’re staying for the next four.”

Probably only two now.

He slowed to a crawl. That wasn’t lighter.

“‘Two’?”

Or thereabouts. Probably two.

His mostly digested juice-flakes turned to ice.

“A month ago, you told me five.”

Key words: a month ago. My energy’s not as shit this week, but we all have our good days.

… Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck –”

That’s out loud.

I don’t fucking care,” he spat. The hall was empty anyway – whatever. He checked though, despite himself, and brought his voice down just in case. “How did your death date drop by three years? We went over this!”

Xander had been very specific that based on how fast he was losing strength, he wouldn’t be able to take control after five more years. Five.

I high-balled you. The guy sounded too calm. Call me crazy, but I had a feeling that otherwise, you were gonna cry and shit your pants. His lungs sucked in a cold gasp. Breathe, dumbass.

Right. He forgot when he switched to pacing around, tugging at his hair since it came the closest to strangling this unstrangleable

“Why are you telling me now?”

As in, ‘right now, on top of all the other stresses’.

I had to eventually and you brought it up. Plus you seemed chill. That’s usually my perfect storm to tell you shit. That wasn’t what that movie was about. And we’re on a ground floor, so it beats telling you on the sixth storey and watching the panicked defenestration. Xander made a noise damn close to a huff. Shall I add this to your list of crap I’m not allowed to talk about?

No.” Crushing his knuckles against his head wasn’t helping anymore. He gave up and let out a ragged sigh. “No, I – just… I needed to hear it, alright, but you could’ve put it better – or waited or… something.”

You want ten minutes of foreplay for ten seconds of news. I’ve literally finished explaining I don’t have that kind of time.

“Your voice isn’t going anywhere,” he shoved back. “Alright, sorry. It’s fine.”

I know it’s fine. I’d like to have these conversations on the first try, but again, shit-pants.

Because he was the one stuck with the Agents. They weren’t just going to drop from their next-level nightmare to an angry but survivable chase for him, and Alex had long since accepted he couldn’t unlock Xander’s subconscious, psycho, death hound, berzerker strength. They were the same person, so it used to make sense thinking they could do the same things. It didn’t happen like that. He’d squeezed a few techniques under his belt, but every other fight left him counting on self-possession or muscle memory.

“I can’t even see suits.” There’d be a second spy later, if one hadn’t crawled in already. Eventually, they’d notice Xander wearing down. Or maybe they had. Maybe the Frenchman knew and was running out the clock with these cheap attacks, and this was all just their grand scheme. “You have to make sure I can do this. I don’t care how.”

Ooh. Was that free rein?

“No brick smashing.”

The number ‘two’ echoed in his mind. He’d sworn five years wasn’t long enough. It’d only been half of one since Xander floated the Death Date theory, but they were talking then about a vague ‘sometime possibly’. Three months passed before it changed to ‘the foreseeable future’. As Alex had mentioned, the date tweaked again last month. His updates were getting faster, if nothing else. By Christmas, he might even hear the whole truth.

He hoped to hell it wasn’t something like ‘tomorrow’. The thought pitched a wave across his stomach.

Their last ten feet to the room was silent, but walking in had him grateful for the break from more goddamn gold. Now he could go blind from all the white. A glass tower sat at the middle of the bedroom-sized roof, shining down a sickly clean pillar that bounced more light off the whiter walls. Squinting helped him find a see-through box by its edges and the wires it hung on. The box had then been stuffed with scraps of whitest paper.

He guessed that was the art.

Thinking of you.

“What?”

The thing’s name. Xander angled him towards black letters on his left. ‘This installation serves as a pseudo-functionalist revisioning of legacies. The obituaries collected within its cube embody our memories over time, left to fade to obscurity under the sun of new horizons.’ He paused. The fuck is this kitschy shit?

Alex blinked away the light’s glare. The farthest wall had twin black ovals painted on, just outside the sun laser’s reach. More details came as he adjusted to the brightness.

“Those are eyes.” He glanced at the rest of it. White walls, ‘memories’… “This is supposed to be a skull.”

I bet the asshole who made it went home and jerked off for ten hours about how profound he was, then jerked it again to holler’s doors and the phrase ‘avant-garde’. Oh, how I love being here instead of my humble coffeehouse. There’s nothing I enjoy more than art. Maybe I’ll even get to see some!

“It isn’t that bad.” The skull gave the room kind of an adult Playplace vibe. He felt a smile touching his face, a little proud over figuring it out. “I like it.”

You also liked the dragon-horse. ‘Scuse me if I don’t read into your opinion.

Another entrance was at the back, where the skull’s right cheek would be. Alex headed there, more upbeat. It led into shadow territory again, but he could probably open a window. There’d been tons around and he doubted Terrance cared.

“Since when did you become an art snob?”

Since the best art became the blurbs.

That got his second grin going. To it, Alex said, “I don’t understand how you like everything I hate, but as soon as I take an interest in –”

Ice.

The sentence died inside his mouth. Bile pooled under his tongue as a man stepped from the hall and into the skull. It bubbled with the sharp taste of acid as he and Alex locked eyes.

“Oh.”

He heard a sea of meaning hid behind the man’s ‘oh’, almost as much as from the kid who walked in next and muttered, “Told you.”

Shit.

Alex tore through every face he’d ever saved in his pit of hyper-memory. Thousands flashed across his mind, scrambling to match.

The man was going gray and wore a leathery grimace. The kid had just ditched his teens, with a patchy lip of fuzz as proof. They were the same height, both wearing an orange shirt and tan pants, their black logos smeared by grayish paint or plaster. In their hands were stuffed tool bags, as if they’d packed to go home.

He had never seen this pair before but they knew who he was. And they knew he knew what they were.

He felt his blood freeze.

Ask ‘em where they hid the talent in this fuckin’ place. ‘Challenges norms’, my ass.

He couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t move. Out of options, Alex waited for them to start.

There! With his eyebrows – the kid did a… thing. The man understood what it meant and seemed to reply through silence. The kid turned to watch the suddenly fascinating hall, leaving his older friend to hitch his breath before he spoke.

“We’re closed.” The skull echoed those words at them. “What are you doing here?”

His throat had dried but he got out a rough, “I’m… a guest.”

“We’re closed to guests, too.”

The man passed between firm and wary. Firm, Alex accepted – hell, he welcomed anything that decided the pecking order fast. But ‘wary’… His arms tensed.

Concentrate.

“I’m waiting for one of the artists,” he said.

“Which artist?”

“Beth.”

“Beth what?”

“I don’t know her last name.”

That grimace deepened to a frown.

“Then describe her for me.”

‘Describe her’. Why?

Xander was paying even less attention than the kid now staring at the floor, so he didn’t plan on holding out for advice. He steadied himself, remembering to breathe and that no one was attacking anybody yet. They were normal people in a normal conversation.

“Brunette,” he listed. “Freckles. Overalls.”

The man pulled back, lowering his head and rubbing it like a war captain who’d heard his reinforcements died.

“That’ll be Keeler.” When the man looked him in the eye again, Alex didn’t miss the effort it took. “Guest or not, we have a gallery to set up and limited time to do it. You, I want keeping to this area. Don’t touch the exhibits. Do we understand each other?”

“I – yeah.”

“Good.” Giving him a clipped nod, the man moved away as the official end to their discussion. He swatted the kid next. “Carbon, go.”

“Yessir.”

Not once had the kid so much as glanced at him, and as if they were still testing the waters, they lingered where they were. The man finally herded the pair off, disappearing the way they came like this route wasn’t worth it anymore.

At least he didn’t have to hunt for a wall to drop on now.

“I hate this place,” he gasped, dropping. “I hate this room, I hate this skull, I hate strangers and I hate the darkness.”

I dunno. It’s not so bad once you get into it.

“Did you not pick up on any of that?” He dragged himself across the wall, hand over hand, aiming for the lobby – and exit. “Those were them!”

‘Them’.

“Yes, ‘them’.” He straightened long enough to do air quotes. “You know. ‘Them’?”

Contractors.

“No.”

Custodians.

No –”

NAMBLA?

“Shut up and let me finish,” he hissed. Alex staggered into the hall with the skylights. “‘Them’, meaning the other people after us. The non-Agents. The anti-Agents.”

Ohhh. You mean the group indistinguishable from ordinary citizens that you constantly order pre-emptive strikes on.

“It’s that or eat a fireball.”

Or lightning. Even Xander’d found that uncomfortable.

I’m gonna go ahead and say this like it’s news: you’re paranoid. This is a symptom of it.

Alex glared into space.

“It didn’t seem off for them to be lurking around? They didn’t act like they were planning shit?” He rewound the past five minutes. “They asked about Beth.”

They asked you to name Beth, which they would’ve done for anybody you said. ‘Who are you here with? Joe? Who the fuck is Joe, you lying prick? Oh, Joe Knob? My apologies, sir. Clearly you have high connections.’

It was that easy, huh?

“I know you can’t tell when it’s not about Agents –”

Fine. Let’s play your game. Xander took over his right arm purely to add a flourishing hand gesture. Imagine they’re exactly what you claim they are. Imagine they’re super strong and dangerous and have all the fun stuff you whine about. Marry that to this basic fact: they’re gone. His fingers wiggled in unfathomable excitement. If they’re up to shit, it’s got fuck-all to do with you. If they’re not, I’m saving their asses from your crazy one.

Alex dug his feet into the ground and curled his lip.

“Don’t talk like you’re some hero when I’ve still got a suit’s blood under my nails.”

Yeah, I’m saving that. I like to keep trophies from my murderin’. Speakin’ of which… His spirit fingers quickly balled into a jazz fist. You are again over your allotted amount of time.

And then the fifth voice erupted.

OI!” Alex snatched his hand back. Xander let him. The weight of a slur of noises blasted through the white room, roared across the shadows and hammered into his head like an avalanche. “CAWKFAK!

The word slammed his ears.

‘Cockfuck’. Well – good work, everybody. I’d say that’s the end of people trying. Xander punched Alex anyway, then full took control, really dawdling on when that included his torso. Almost as loud, he answered, “Can I help you, dick docker?

“So now you believe me.”

Shhhhh.

He would take that as his ‘yes’. Xander replied by releasing his stomach. The pain barely had time to hit him before it became the last thing on Alex’s mind.

A fleshy, bald-headed, pink sack of beer guts with four – oh, fantastic – tree trunk arms thundered out into their hall. Its bloodshot eyes swiveled over the space, and as it gushed air from its nostrils, torrents of drool leaked from its teeth. The goddamn second it saw him at the corner, under the first lemon-shaped skylight going back, it howled again, louder.

Alley-FAKKIN’-xan-dah!” It also had an orange shirt and tan pants, with two extra holes torn for two extra limbs clawing out, looking too meaty for its stubby legs to lift. “Ya killed a hawl lot’f m’friends, ya li’l shitcant.

Xander had to translate for a moment, but then he said, “Cool. Anyone I’d remember?”

“Ya fakkin’ shit,” it screeched. The veins down its damp neck were pulsing. Nearly bursting them, the moist beast whipped its head towards the white room. “OI. Do I haft’a do everythin’ m’-fakkin’-self? Get y’cants out ‘ere ‘fore I shove ‘em up y’cant-eatin’ queen!”

He’s gonna squish real good. Alex’s shoulders turned, angling into a coil. His arms hung loose, one pointed at the moist beast and the other obscured behind his waist. Xander liked keeping the hand he used to rip jaws off a surprise. Four arms. His knuckles cracked. Hope he has room to fit those up his ass, or this’s gonna be unpleasant.

 



Hiya, folks! Just popped in to let you know that TOKoR’s listed on Top Web Fiction, where you can vote for the story with a few, quick clicks! Every vote earns a warm fuzzy, ’cause we can’t put a price on your support! ;-)

[E] “Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts.”

Bethany loved this place. She felt more at home within these walls than the ones she paid rent for. If she hadn’t already tried and been found and kicked out, she would live here instead.

The mood was a stoic peace wrapped in white and gold, gently settled by polished floors of crisp pearl. Dust waltzed through the skylight’s round and filtered glow. She watched it spin under the porcelain masks hanging at the highest corners. The masks were hand-carved by their featured artists, and although they hid behind blushing shadows, she sensed their fashioned smiles upon her. A gilded embossment tied the whole effect together, reaching up from behind the curved reception desk to the ceiling as an intricate tree. Its branches arched over the three halls and dark entryways.

Beautiful. Romantic. Sullen. Suave. Resolute. Exquisite. A hundred words and more. She clutched Primed and Tuned, letting its frame steady her. The foyer’s openness and classical design left her free to sail across the room as much as sit and drink this quiet atmosphere. Nowhere else offered that emotion. She sighed, dreamy and full of glee, then turned to face her guest.

“Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts,” she declared, “your gateway to the nation’s most inspired collection of homegrown talent. Since 1993, these halls have paid tribute to our unsung masters of style, who challenged the norms of their day to shape a new trend. From painters to sculptors, photographers and models, these artists have thrown caution to the wind and dare you to flourish in their world.”

Alex looked confused.

“Did you practise that?”

Technically.

“I work the front desk most weeks,” she said. “I know that blurb better than I know my name.”

“Which is why it’s such a marvel she never remembers it.” Terry! The man of the hour, always prepped to lend his sardonic tenor to a chat. Today, he wafted in from the East Wing, clipping along the floor with shoes shined to a mirror finish, ironed slacks, a tidy vest – charcoal and pinstriped – and his famous, royal yellow shirt and tie. When he stopped, it was at a respectable two and a half feet. “I see we’ve brought a pack mule.”

“Good morning to you, too,” she greeted. “Where’s my breakfast?”

“Where indeed? I didn’t honestly expect you to arrive on time. Colour me shocked.” Terry tipped his whip-straight nose to Alex. “You have a new friend.”

“So that’s a no on breakfast? Do you want to move it to brunch? Lunch? One of your fifty teatimes?”

“Bethany,” he sang, looking good and uncomfortable under his stylized face scruff. “I can’t introduce myself.”

It was ‘unseemly’.

“I know. I like making you wait.” He gave her a tch. In his native land, which here meant Brighton instead of Jordan where he’d actually been born, the noise meant ‘You utter bitch’. Point: Beth. “Terry, this is Alex. He’s from my building. Alex, this is Terry. He’s the –”

Stop. Stop.” Now the man looked pained. The left of his raised-in-perma-sarcasm brows twitched, but he composed himself and extended a hand – not to shake, but merely gesture. With it, he gathered a breath and leaned into a glorious exhalation. “Alex.” The room savoured the sound, balancing the syllables hovered over them. “Terrance Sheridan. Director of Lemonlight Fine Arts. Co-owner of the estate to which you’ve journeyed this morn. It is a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Hey,” Alex said.

They waited.

And they waited.

So it turned out silence hovered, too.

“We’re going to Roasters,” she blabbed, “after this thing with Edison’s done. I brought the stuff!” Beth lifted her canvas. “Fresh off the brush, all for him.” Terry hadn’t shifted his eyes from Alex yet. Alex, who she’d been trying to unwind from the ball of nerves he’d been since she opened her door. He started to freeze at the hawkish attention. Beth to the rescue. “Ter? Money?”

That caught his interest. Terry swiveled to find Primed and Tuned waiting.

“Well, this is manic.” He ran a thumb down its length. Yes, the acrylic was dry, and what he was checking for happened once. “Fresh off the brush, you say. Not ‘tube’?”

There came a faint heat to her cheeks.

“I… may have had to manually adjust some places…”

He recoiled, gasping, “Beth.”

Yeah, hilarious.

“I’m not proud,” she said, “but it’s not like Edison’s going to care. It counts as a part of RAR, and I was showing Alex this morning that if you look at the right angle –”

Once again, Terry cut through, having waved a palm and gone, “Up-up – no. You’ve done your eighth of the work. The rest, you leave to me.” Somehow, Alex got roped back into his line of fire. “So. She showed you this morning. And what did you think?”

Nonchalant, her neighbour answered, “Good.”

“Mm.” To Beth: “Doesn’t talk much, does he?”

“He’s new to this,” she told him. “When we’re done at Roasters, we’re going to wander around here and flesh out his experience. It’ll be an official Lemonlight sightseeing tour.”

“What a treat.” Terry beamed, though his mouth looked a touch too wide and his stare a tad narrow. He’d – for the third time – turned his focus onto her date, who at least seemed more comfortable with it since he pleasantly wide-smiled-narrow-stared right back. Eventually, however, Terry loosed a second ‘Mm’, then motioned to the paintings Alex had tucked underneath his arm. “What are those?”

She braced. Here went nothing.

“My new series! I call it: Pink Beauty, and it requires a very open mind –”

“It’s shit, isn’t it?”

“Wh– no.” Stay positive. “It’s your boulder!” Stay positive, Beth. After all, this was Terry. Ter-bear! Also Terrynx-larynx, for when he needed to fall down a peg. She glued on her ray of sunshine and barrelled through. “You always say you can squeeze pennies from a rock, so… surprise! Here’s your ultimate challenge.”

“Funny,” Terry said. “I can’t recall asking for a challenge.”

Okay, screw positive.

“No, you asked for nine pieces of RAR, and then bumped me to five to fit Jess in since your professional loyalty’s no contest to Edison’s wallet. You completely reneged on your duty to the actual artists slaving to fill this place, so you’re going to take Pink Beauty and cram it down his neck until Edison spits up cash, and you’re going to drop your precious commission because this is your fault to begin with.”

“She’s a bit of a firecracker,” he chirped at Alex.

“Terry!”

“All right, all right – I’ll sell the bloody thing. Inside voices,” he scolded. “Show me already.”

Beth made sure he wasn’t going to change his mind, which he promised via frustrated hand flap at the unicorn trio. Fine. She was holding him to it. Retrieving her latest creation, she arranged the frames in a proper display on the floor.

Terry studied these for the longest time, pressing his fingers into a steeple against his lips. More silence. When she couldn’t keep taking it, she blurted, “Well?”

“Ms. Keeler.” Ugh – he took forever to say her name. Stupid pauses for dramatic effect… “I stand corrected. That.” He pointed by tilting his steeple forward. “That is divine.”

“Aw, shut up.”

“I’m being a thousand times serious. Look at the pony!” Beth would slap him. “It’s fighting a lizard monster! Is this its tongue, by the way?”

“A horn,” Alex popped in, obviously not too unsociable that he would miss a chance to ladle on crap with this jerk. But he grinned at her, coming dangerously close to yesterday’s adorable smirk. “I still like it.”

Then he was still wrong, since Pink Beauty – not lacking a better word – sucked. But… she appreciated the sentiment. She thought he’d been joking before, as expected from everyone else. His sincerity gave her a warm flutter of gratitude.

“Thank you,” she told him.

He did seriously need to learn about art, though. She was not having him compliment the horse if he still couldn’t ‘get’ RAR.

From out of her peripherals, Beth caught Terry’s brow twitching again.

“Good to know she’ll listen to someone,” he noted breezily. “Alex.” Hands clasped, and stepping to the side of her grounded paintings, he wandered closer. “Any last names, or do you only have the one?”

Alex moved his head, dutifully following Terry’s approach.

“It’s just that.”

Did she detect a hint of something? Hostility?

“Ah! Much like Bono. Another man of small mystery.” Terry’s lips quirked. “Cancer.”

“‘Scuse me?”

Definite hostility. She jumped to explain, but not before Terry rammed ahead with, “The crab!” Of course the crab. This was his icebreaker. “Your sign. Astrology. I’ve a talent for reading postures, and yours holds a distinct guardedness across the chest.”

Alex continued staring.

Okay.

Um.

Don’t mind her or anything. She was simply going to tip-toe back on over to the spotlight and ask, “Where’s Edison?”

“Office.” Bethany had had the oddest sensation, as though dear Terry forgot she was here and him saying ‘Office’ marked more of a coincidence than a reply. “Are you?”

To which Alex – not her, since ha, ha, Beth who – said, “Are I what?”

The left brow gave its third twitch, and a lithe wince alighted on Terry’s smile. Never one to let grammar interrupt the theatrics, however, he composed himself and gently prodded, “A Cancer.”

So this was happening? The train had boarded and the ball had already started to roll? Her last attempt at changing the subject involved a cough for their attention and the novel suggestion of, “Maybe we should go to the office.”

“Is that the dragon?”

Alex, according to these four words, hadn’t heard Beth at all, and thus resumed the two men totally ignoring her.

“The dragon is from the Chinese zodiac. We’re focused on the Western set.”

“There’s two?”

“Two –” Terry practically choked. “There’s more than one, as the common knowledge goes.”

She got nothing from either of them.

“Common knowledge. ‘Cause it’s not real knowledge, I guess.”

“Spoken like a Taurus.”

“Is that the dragon?”

Fine! Beth started gathering the canvases her own damn self.

“Let’s go slow,” Terry said, pushing on, “as I do for all the kiddies who don’t quite have it. Taurus is the bull, assigned to late April and May. Not a dragon. Cancer is the crab for late June and July. Not a dragon. I am a Libra. The balanced scales. A refined advocate. Romantic. Not, despite what one might assume, a dragon. Clearer?”

It seemed like Alex was enjoying things after all. Good for him.

“Oh. Those. The goat and the cat and the – right, sure.” He nodded. “I’m in the middle of March. What sign’s that again: the little boy Zeus kidnapped to fetch him booze and bend over, or the half-horse too busy reading to rape as much as the other centaurs? I’m always confused.”

Terry hummed a grim chuckle.

“Pisces. March is a Pisces, with the middle of the month forming an Aries cusp.” His sardonicism cranked to eleven. “Yes, that’d be right.”

“And so relieving! I was worried we weren’t gonna solve this.”

To twelve for Alex.

“It’s the magic of teamwork.” Call the press: Terry’d hit thirteen, and his happy expression pulled tight enough to nearly crack his face in two. “As I said, I’m sure it’s been a pleasure.”

That was her cue. With both series piled snugly atop her wrists, Beth took the chance to get a word in.

“I don’t know about you,” she announced, “but too much male bonding makes my head spin. What do you say we put a pin in this and let Terry get on to bringing my art over for Edison?”

His brow shot so far up his forehead, it was all it could do to not pop off.

“You can’t seriously think you’re not helping me with this,” he barked. Then since everyone waited for his instruction, Terry spun on his heel and glided into the dark hall from whence he came. “Keep up, you.” Snap, snap. “Bring the wares.”

She decided not to move until he vanished. As soon as he had, she was all over apologizing to Alex.

“I am so, so sorry. He’s normally a nice guy –” Well, in public. “– but he’s also sort of my boss and I can’t do as much to help as I want when he’s – ah… less nice.”

Or whatever they wanted to call this tiff. Oh. A tiff! Perfect.

“It’s fine,” Alex assured, casually shifting his weight. That shirt was the best mix of tight and modest. “But for the record, if anything says I’m not paying today, that was it.”

“Right – you’ve got it. For enduring him, the first coffee’s on me.” The wind flew out from her lungs. She hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding it there. “Feel free to wander until I’m done. I’ll come find you.”

She left him and jogged into the shadows alone, following after Terry’s wake, but it wasn’t until she arrived surrounded by a cloak of shade that she realized describing this as such felt entirely too generous. The hall was pitch black, save for white outlines glowing around the curtains at the far end. She walked by squeaking her foot forward and touched for paths with the edges of her outstretched paintings.

Where was he?

“Beth!”

Jesus, Ter –”

Two hands took her by the waist and steered her down the long way to the office. Every time – every time Bethany went somewhere dark and hadn’t adjusted yet, Terry, half-bat, frigging appeared and freaked her ass out.

“What an absolute wanker,” he fumed, doing an excellent job of not walking her into a wall. He did a poorer job of speaking with the inside voice he’d mentioned. It ran straight through her ear while his fancy beard tickled her lobe. “I had him pegged right for it as he walked in. I let him talk, of course, for your sake, before casting my judgement, but now it has been cast. Wanker.”

“Easy, Ter,” she said. “He’s not that bad.”

Too little, too late. Terry started mocking Alex through his teeth.

Two zodiacs? Where’s the dragon? Aren’t the centaurs sexual deviants? Didn’t Zeus bugger Aquarius?” Which sounded like Zeus, but she chose not to point it out. Mandela’s Peace Prize awaited her claim. “Honestly, Bethany. Your heart cannot have been so dashed by our uncoupling that this is what attracts you now. He might look like me –”

Whoooooooa.

“Down, boy,” she told him. “You two do not look alike.”

He squeezed her sides and led her through another blind corridor. Ah, the scenic route, the favoured path of people who weren’t carrying four big, flat pieces on their arms.

“Beth,” the people in question assured her. “I’m flattered. Truly, I am. But I’m not stupid. He’s taller than you, I’m taller than you. He’s well-built, and so am I. He has a bronze complexion…”

“You think you’re bronze now?”

Because outside of his amber, Arabic flush, Terry was as fair-skinned as they came. At her best pre-third degree tan, she managed a shade beiger. Alex’s ‘complexion’, on the other hand, embodied deliciousness, like a medium double-double.

Secondly, well-built? Terry was ten percent body-fat! The skinny ten percent, not the toned fifteen Alex clearly worked with. His admittedly impressive sense of style may have allowed Ter to moonlight as someone svelte-esque, but be serious.

“Same diamond-shaped head, same dazzling smile for occasions like being a prick, and he has the same ebony hair as I. Except I’ve cut mine whilst giving a shit –” He grew it past his chin, oiled it, then tucked the locks behind his ears. “– and he’s used a hacksaw.”

Was he going to mention the long schnoz, down-turned eyes, plucked caterpillars who’d given their lives to emote his pouts, or – again – the tickly jaw fur obsessively trimmed to a fade Alex didn’t have?

“You don’t look alike,” she repeated. “You’re taller by a breathtaking inch.”

“Inch and a half. Please,” he said, before she could call him on using colonial measurements, “let me believe this is your quarter-life crisis, and you’ll run its course without begging to move in with me once the thrill of your fling has lifted and you’ve realized the shame of floorcest.”

“He doesn’t live on my floor. That’s how much you know.”

“Oh! Well. Pardon me, then.” Beth could hear him shaking his head behind her, still simmering from Alex. “I suppose whether he is or isn’t a wanker – although he is, it’s not my place to comment on your affairs.”

“In writing, please,” she crooned.

“And I suppose,” he talked over her, “it could be worse. You haven’t shacked up with your other neighbours yet.”

It took eight steps for the ‘yet’ to register. She’d furrowed her brow by the ninth. On the tenth, a thought occurred to her.

“Terry,” she began. “Are you…?”

He tittered. Nothing good ever came of those.

“I’m simply playing the house,” he swore. “Everyone else bet on how long it’ll be. Big money’s on the New Year, so just keep these –” He tapped her thighs. “– closed until January, yes? Or forever. Amuse yourself with sodding Alex.”

She must have been really drunk still, to misunderstand the situation as obviously as she was. Surely a cluster of assholes wasn’t actually gambling on her sex life, when that was the one thing they agreed was off-limits.

“Ter?”

“Mm-hmm?”

“Who’s ‘everyone else’ that’s betting, exactly?”

After drumming on her overalls, Terry replied, “You remember the group we had over Gina’s pregnancy test.” She remembered losing fifty bucks on a barely there pink line. “Us again! Only it’s about you now.”

“About me shacking up with –”

“No, being murdered by, when you’ve let your guard down after a night of fresh starts and rigorous toi-et-deux-rois. Really, Beth,” he said. “This isn’t my first pari-mutuel. As if I’d allow wagers on something someone could influence.” Oh dear God. “Your private life is your own, unless it makes an airtight case for how the main event unfolds.”

To clarify, she echoed, “The main event being that my neighbours will inevitably kill me.”

“You’ve been on about it since they moved in. At this point, we’ve assumed it’s happening.” Terry was taking extra turns on purpose. The office was not this far away. “We gathered the theory during our creative thinking exercise last week. Missed you at that. Next one’s early November.”

“Don’t hold your breath for my R.S.V.P,” she bit off at him. “I might be inevitably dead by then.”

“Oof. Hard luck on that payout. But I wouldn’t worry; if they left you alone for this long, there’s a good chance they’ve up and killed each other,” he spectacularly failed to allay. “Unless, perhaps, your building hid its drugs long enough to learn English and call the police?”

Her building had called somebody, Beth knew from today, but not a cop.

“No.”

“Then dead it is. Such a shame – RAR was growing on me.” The fingers on her sides tightened for a moment. “What’s your problem?”

“Huh?”

“You’re not as bouncy all of the sudden, which means you have a problem.” He tried actually bouncing her to prove it. “Like a wet sack of cats.” Thank you. “So what’s wrong? Bedded them already? Both? Only one, but twice? As I mentioned, it’s not my place to comment. Though I’ll judge. And tut. Might even wag my finger.”

If anything would be the death of her, it was his sense of humour. She’d worked too hard convincing herself that she didn’t need to spit a trail of forensic DNA to let Terry stick her with another dose of worry. Calmly, collectedly, she said with high hopes that he couldn’t notice the slight wobble in her voice from last-second doubt, “It’s nothing.”

He noticed. He so noticed, in fact, he stopped his blind-sighted power strut and brought her to a halt.

“Bethany,” Terry warned. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing!” For her next trick, she added, “As far as dropping my guard is concerned. I can’t really be caught off of it in a vibrant, bustling, noisy, public place like Roasters, right?”

She literally, figuratively, heard him putting the pieces together. The very instant he had, he whirled her to face him – presumably to stare into her eyes, but hello, still dark – and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“You didn’t.” He rumbled the words. “Beth. You didn’t.”

Her neighbours were the only stories she never had to fluff. Following that novelty, Terry – and tons of others, like regular visitors, fellow artists, maintenance workers, check-out clerks, raccoons, birds, and Jessica, but especially Terry – knew every detail.

“It’s a cup of coffee,” she said, “and a quick tour. I mean, I don’t know… Is it so dangerous?”

“That you’ve just asked whether it was dangerous rather than any other adjective in your vocabulary says more than you most days,” he spelled out at her. “Yes! The answer is yes! It is really fucking dangerous.”

“But,” she shushed, because oh God, be quiet, “he is really cute. And – and – stop it – of the two of them, he’s not crazy. It’s his brother-roommate-friend person. Alex apologized for the noise.” After he stalked her back home, she omitted. “By the way, I have a wonderful vocabulary, you…”

What a lovely time to draw a blank.

Terry’s fingers retightened and relaxed. Then they tightened, relaxed, and held.

“Alex,” he began. “No last name of which we can speak. Allegedly sane – brother indeed – and is aware of where you live.”

“Yes.”

“He has bruises on his jaw. You’re not aware if he’s given as good as he gets. And you have no way of telling if whatever is his problem can become your problem next.”

Those were good points.

“But he’s so cute.”

“Not happening.” Terry whirled her back and marched her on towards the office. “It’s not happening. I’ll not allow it. Let him wait for a while, and then we say there’s been a painting emergency and he’ll have to go home.”

“Um…” Now she was second guessing the second guesses. Alex seemed so nice… and more scared of her than vice versa. “I drove him here –”

“Bus. Cab. Couldn’t care less. Fly, for God’s sake, but he’s leaving.”

Once or twice, she’d fluffed the story for him a bit.

“Maybe you’re overreacting,” she said. “He seems normal.”

This time when he spun her, a muted shine from underneath the nearby at last office door helped her to pick the disappointed frown across his features. Terry looked annoyed by what she’d suggested, and the expression of ‘How have you lived this long without choking to death on your tongue when you sleep’ reminded her how nice it was not to still be dating that.

“We’ll get your things when he’s gone. You’ll stay with me for now. The single ‘probably’ I want to hear is you’ll probably look for a new flat while you’re at it.”

Alex seemed normal.

“Whatever,” she mumbled.

“Not whatever. Yes. I’ve had a trying enough time with you in that hovel,” he shot back. “Now’s an even better occasion to leave it behind. Clear?”

Practised, Beth glued on her frilly sunshine ray again.

“We’re clear.”

“Good.” He released her arms to go into preening mode, straightening his vest. “Right – you know the rules with him. Old Man Misogyny: play dumb, look pleasant, let me be the son he never had, and I’ll have you set for rent at wherever you live next.” Gently, he chuckled to her. “I was largely kidding about the pool. Had I honestly thought you would talk to one of them, I would have placed my bet first.”

She chuckled too, so sweetly, readjusting the canvases as she agreed, “Let’s get this over with.”

Then she was going to Pequods.

“You know who else painted?”

It was the longest walk he’d had down five flights of stairs.

‘Hop in the car,’ she told him. So he did. The smack of the door shut the world off to him while she stood outside, merrily shoving crap in her trunk, oblivious to everything headed her way.

“We are the worst people.”

He would’ve liked some silence to let it sink in. Instead he had Xander.

You countin’ Adolf? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that guy was vegetarian.

“We’re leaving her to die.” Before the psycho got too giddy, Alex tacked on a flat, “Not literally.” But yes, literally, if they caught her. They would. The Agents were already this far. “Your suit said it was hunting a painter. This girl is one.” The dots weren’t hard to connect. It fit Xander’s theory, too: Agents didn’t breathe so much life into cover stories. She cared about her pictures. Someone lying couldn’t fake that. “I can’t help her, even if she is innocent. They sent sixty guys.”

Could whittle it to forty.

Alex shook his head.

“It’s not a physical ‘can’t’. We’re not getting involved.”

He ordered, riding shotgun.

“Just stay out of it,” he said. “Do what you’re here to do. If shit hits a fan, we’re gone and she’s on her own.”

Beth. The girl’s name was Beth. He rubbed a hand across his face, trying to stay awake long enough to remember. So maybe coffee wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t make going outside any less suicidal. The sidewalks looked empty, but only as far as he could tell, and not two seconds later came a thud that shot off behind him.

He nearly broke his neck whipping around to see. It sounded like something had hurled through the trunk, but the lid was still propped. Alex saw her puttering over it from the side-view mirror. False alarm.

Cut her brakes, crack her ankle. Gotcha.

“No, don’t –” Again, he rubbed his face. The little adrenaline spikes always left him worse off. “Don’t let it seem like we’re here to save her. That’s all. Throw her a few tips, point her in the right direction, but you already risked my life for someone once.” Peter. “Next time, it might be us smashed with a rock.”

As is, of course, the natural rock smashing cycle. Another thud. He caught a glimpse of the trunk bouncing back up. So it had been slammed. What was going on out there? I’m surprised you’re not swinging the other way on this. The chick has two separate teams allegedly juggling her case. It’s no nine year manhunt, but her powers aren’t active. That doesn’t interest you?

“Nope.”

You fuckin’ suck, Alex.

“Stay out of it, I said.” He hadn’t noticed he’d switched to chewing his fingers until he bit too hard on the skin. So much for kicking his habit. “Take the hint from the Agents. They’re not recruiting her, just running her down.” Screw it. He kept chewing. “They think she’s dangerous.”

They think you’re dangerous.

“I have a voice in my brain telling me to kill people, who then gets bored and kills them for me anyway – a lot. Yes, I’m dangerous.” Third thud. Seriously. “They probably know something’s wrong about her, too.”

Like?

“I don’t know! But for starters, she lied about having a dog, because that’s the cleanest smelling apartment I’ve ever been to. And she lied about her ‘noisy showers’.” The look of panic when he asked if she heard the suit tipped him off. That bastard screamed the whole way down. Unless she’d had something blasting in her room since sunrise, the girl would’ve caught it. “I can’t tell what her game is, but if it’s worth two teams, she has to be incredibly…” More Xander-like than Xander. Alex shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe she can wipe out cities and they want to get to her before she holds one hostage.”

She is an artist. They’re usually a pack’f dicks that way. He said it like a fact. It is fact. You know who else painted? Hitler. Total crate of cocks. Also only had one nut, so his wurst-to-spatzle ratio skewed way towards pork.

“Well, that’s nice for Hitler.”

You think? The dude was literally mostly penis. Other than fucking with France through occupations and bike tours, what’s a uniball ever notably accomplished? Xander sighed. All that wasted potential. It’s like naming your kid ‘Roland’ – once you’re saddled with certain woeful marks, your life can only be a tale of douchebaggery.

Alex frowned at himself. His reflection didn’t look impressed.

“Done?”

Not really. You kinda got me all worked up about a Fourth Reich. Ask her how she feels about trout.

“You’re done.”

He tuned out. There’d been movement outside. The trunk had shut and the girl headed back. Alex snapped to sit less like he’d crawled inside to shank her, relieved that Nazi Bingo hadn’t distracted him enough to miss his cue. For her part, she didn’t look like she noticed. She just opened her door, sat, chucked a jacket at the back seat and flashed him a sheepish smile.

“Sorry. I know that took a while,” she said. “Usually I pile my art where you’re sitting, so it only hit me now how undersized my car is.”

Translation: I may’ve lied about the dog, but I’ve got – like, fifty sad cats at home.

Shut up, Xander.

You laughed. I heard it.

Which was why he had to shut up. Alex forced himself to ignore the bastard. He questioned her instead.

“Did it fit?”

“Ahhhh… I’m going to go with ‘eventually’?” She shrugged. “They’re in one piece and that’s what counts. The rest, I can describe as ‘flair’.”

“You can just do that?”

“Mm-hmm. The jerk buying ‘Pink Beauty’ doesn’t have a choice. As long as it seems like my real work, I can do anything.” The girl jingled her keys into the ignition. This was an old car, but she seemed to be jabbing harder than she had to. She only eased off when it finally speared in. “There we go.” Then she looked at him. “How much time do you have today?”

His rash burned.

“Why?”

“I was thinking outside about my schedule and wanted to run a plan by you.” Oh. “I know the idea was Pequods and that’s why I’m simply spit-balling, but there’s this little café beside the gallery – a gorgeous one – with hundreds of exotic, fair trade beans. It’s called ‘Roasters’.” The girl beamed. “The other artists go every week, and there are a dozen blogs screaming about how good it is: quiet, fantastic service…”

She stopped like it was just those two things.

Alex cleared his throat.

“You want to go there now?”

“After. And I’m spit-balling – spit-balling! It’s nothing against you – ah, Pequods,” the girl replied, “but – and bear with me – but… maybe we could try somewhere more local. Someplace I already know and… where I already know people if I need them – and who can totally make recommendations for you. Maybe… we could try Roasters.”

Something flashed in her eyes. Alex wasn’t sure on how to interpret it.

Xander?

She lost me at ‘fair trade’. And, y’know, by not being Pequods.

The chill down his spine gave him other doubts. That suit said ‘latent abilities’ made the extra forces worth it. So, what? Activated, she destroyed cities, but from reflex, she smashed a couple blocks? He might survive, and he’d have a night of peace within his head if he followed his instinct to do the thing Xander had raged about for eight days. Blowing that kind of vacation to go somewhere the suit said was probably crawling with Agents, just to keep her happy on the off chance she might be a threat… It was a hard sell.

Still. Two teams. For a girl who drew magic ponies. Who wore overalls. Who had freckles. Whose wide-mouthed grin crinkled under a ridged nose.

She looked about as harmless as he did.

“Okay.”

‘Scuse me?

The relief on her face was instant. She – Beth – lit up and breathed, “Really?”

You’re kidding right now. You have to be.

“Roasters could be better.” Shit. He’d tried phrasing that as something to answer the girl and Xander, but the spike of fury at his neck said he missed the mark on one of them. Alex kept trying, really weighting it towards his imaginary friend. “I know so little about you, Beth. I’d really hate to bring you somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable.”

And then be trapped as she killed him and everybody else around.

“That’s specific,” she uttered, “but… okay! I’m happy.” The car’s engine caught and shuddered to life. “After I’m done at the gallery, we can run over there and come back. I’ll give you a peek at the exhibits.”

She kept sitting there and talking, but Alex didn’t hear. His ears were tuned to a different conversation.

You taint spice. That one was new. An hour ago, you were pissing yourself over whether the bitch was an Agent. Now you clear her on that and decide she’s a warhead? He felt his hand lock to his right knee. His nails dug into the meat. Get. Me. My. Latté. Not from fucking ‘Roasters’. Like Xander’d stuck a set of fangs in there. As I’ve emphatically requested, do it.

“– and sorry about the seatbelt on your side,” Beth finished.

“What seatbelt?”

“Mm-hmm.” She clicked hers together. “Remember to duck if a cop drives by.”

The car yanked from the curb, adding a full-body rub to each of the potholes it rammed its busted shocks across. Beth took them through a street off to the side of Friday’s early gridlock. The drive itself only took five minutes, but he counted them through rising shots of pain. They lurched into a parking lot sprawled at the foot of a gray manor. Except for a white coupe she pulled beside, he didn’t see any cars. Then again, the feeling of his leg as it tore apart might’ve been affecting his damn concentration.

“This is the gallery?”

“Uh-huh. It’s nice, isn’t it? You should come by at night,” she said.

He felt like he already had in his nightmares. The house almost resembled a church, what with the steeple over the entrance, but nothing gave him the sense that any less than eight people died here and got stuffed inside the walls.

Spooky.

His point exactly.

Its windows were covered by black roof-to-floor curtains. A yellowed clock stroked the wrong hour from its place above the peeling doors. Latched to them was a brown web of vines sagging under their own, moist weight. Worst was the heads hacked from a grinning, cold brick. Their dead eyes watched him through the windshield, following along as he moved.

“What do you think?”

You have ten minutes to put a latté in my hand ‘fore I rip one of those down and shove it up your ass.

“Love you, too,” Alex muttered.

“What was that?”

“My leg,” he explained, louder. Sure, Xander was gnawing at his limb and damn near scraping bone with his own thumb, but she didn’t know that. She wasn’t going to because he more evenly replied, “It’s cramping.” Slow and smooth. “I’m going to need a second, so… why don’t you go ahead…?”

With how hard he trailed off, a corpse would get the hint: get out. To her credit, she mumbled a ready, “Sure.” It didn’t sound sure, but whatever. It worked. “I’ll start unloading the canvasses.” She immediately did the opposite and stayed where she was. “Does your leg cramp a lot? Are you alright?”

“Fine.” He forced a smile. “I can handle a cramp. It’s the pain in my ass I get every hour that’s tough. Ha.” Based on how her eyebrows twitched – down – he guessed that didn’t sound as friendly as he’d had it in his mind. But if Xander said the same thing… “Yes. I’m alright. I do need a second, though.”

This time, she gave a long “Oookay” but hopped onto the asphalt. Alex waited until she’d gone to the trunk and flipped it back up. As soon as she had, he whipped his head to the mirror, ready to snarl at the glass.

Xander beat him to it.

You’ll kick her out’f her own car, but you can’t manage a simple, ‘Hey, let’s leave Roasters for the next adventure and go to Pequods the fuck today like we agreed’? Unbelievably, his grip tightened. Eight days.

“Keep this up, and it’ll be nine.” Alex scratched at his wrist, fuming, trying to peel the hand away. Xander didn’t budge. “I’m not going to die ‘cause you couldn’t wait and pissed her off.”

‘Pissed her off’? The guy howled with laughter. What do you think she’s gonna do that I can’t take care of? At best, she’s got no powers. At worst, they’re inactive.

“Mostly inactive,” he snapped. “The suit said –”

The suit is rotting in a dumpster where he belongs. Fucker couldn’t read an address. That’s the word you wanna pit against mine?

Yes. And at that, he felt Xander curdle in a mix of scorn and offence. It didn’t loosen the vise crushing his sinews, but the pressure quit where it was. Progress.

“The suit,” Alex pitted away, “said to manage my distance. If her powers trigger through physical contact, I can’t touch her.”

He’d shaken her hand but she might not have been… ‘triggered’ enough to do whatever it was she did. She had to have a way to get through life with some contact.

You’re a death ray. You don’t have to touch her.

“And what if she grabs me?”

Xander sneered, which was always impressive given his present lack of a mouth.

Use your imagination.

Alex returned with his traditional scowl of, ‘Much obliged, dick’, before cutting to the chase and spelling out, “No physical contact. My ‘death ray’ requires me to physically make eye contact or else I can’t stun, can’t cause seizures, can’t put anyone in a coma and you can’t kill. Do you understand the problem yet?”

In the side-view mirror, he watched himself curl his lip at the dumbest asshole to walk the planet. Screw you, Xander. He knew what the guy was going to say: You’ve made me retarded. It didn’t change Alex’s mind.

“You can’t promise it’s not a risk.”

Uh, yes, I fucking can, ‘cause it isn’t. Sure as shit not by that logic.

“I’m not taking the chance.”

There is no chance to take. You don’t have a physically-based power, shithead, Xander spat. Fuck it – just get out’f the car. I don’t even have breath and I’m wasting it. Feeling came back to his right hand, along with free arthritis in every joint. Ten minutes. I want my goddamn drinks.

That left him nine minutes, because one went to detaching the Jaws of Life. Two knuckles cracked like they’d been drying in cement. As for his foot, the pain of blood re-flooding his toes made it pretty clear he’d be limping for a week. It was his survival instinct mostly, more hyperactive than most days, that pushed him to ask anything else.

“You okay?”

Fucking dandy. Get out.

No ‘It’s fine’. He wasn’t even pretending now, and they were in enemy territory. Alex couldn’t wade through it alone. Any silent treatment might as well be an execution order.

“If you want,” he carefully ventured, “before I head home, I can go by that pond and throw rocks at the geese.”

Half an hour of harassing birds was a small price to know Xander wouldn’t screw him over because he was pissy.

Depends. The guy considered his bait. Alex could hear the gears grinding in there. Are you gonna act like you’re there to feed them but then drop the rocks on their stupid heads?

One time, four years ago, a goose hissed and chased him a little.

“Sure.”

Then whatever. Sure.

Great. Now everyone was happy so long as they weren’t geese.

Alex opened the door, just to flinch when it swung out and nearly knocked over Beth on her walk back. She jumped away faster than he could, even while holding one of the unicorns.

“Whooooa – careful there! I haven’t sold this yet,” she said.

“Sorry.”

Beth grinned, tickled by something, and told him, “No, it’s alright. That hinge is a little wonky. I take it you’re feeling better?”

“Better enough.” There’d been five chips clawed out of his leg. At least if he had to run, they were Xander’s problem. “Thanks for waiting.”

“Oh, it was nothing. I had to do some last-second repairs. Here –” She lifted the picture higher. “Tell me what you think. In your professional opinion as an outside observer, does this seem intentional?”

It was the picture she’d shown him in her room, now with a massive tear under the dragon’s head and across the pony’s torso. She must’ve had a stapler ‘cause it looked like Frankenstein. The ‘stitches’ didn’t match up, either. They left a warped, open gap between the sides.

“Is it supposed to?”

“Yes! Sort of.” She shrugged. “It’s supposed to be a painting that I didn’t rip on a sharp bit of the trunk after I wedged it in, slammed the lid on its frame repeatedly and then yanked out. Which is what happened, obviously, but again, it shouldn’t seem like it.”

It did. The way she stared at him, though, painted it just as obvious that she had a very right answer in mind and a very wrong one. He played safe.

“I… guess?”

“I’ll take it.” And so she blossomed into a grin. “Whew! That is a relief. I was worried there. Here’s hoping Terry feels as open-minded.” The girl strode towards a pile of her other pictures leaning on the back bumper. “You’re still okay to carry stuff, right?”

“Yeah –”

“Awesome! You grab ‘Pink Beauty’ and I’ll bring this.” Beth swapped for the splattered paint thing. “So long as you don’t drop them into a million, splintered pieces, you can stack those however you want. They’re bulky, not heavy.”

Finished, apparently, she turned and headed to the manor’s pale stairs. Alex took longer, easing his weight onto his sore leg, but eventually he made the trip, grabbed the pile and followed after her.

“Tough morning?”

At a quarter past seven, Beth heard a knock. Score one for Mr. Coffee and his fashionable sense of time. She meant to do it back at him when she tip-toed to the door and stylishly delayed answering, but after a pause, she remembered he’d seen her shadow last night. This more than likely looked as though she was waiting there with her finger rammed up a nostril. New plan: open the door, which she did with a flourish of her arm and brilliant smile that only strained when she saw how tight and nervous his smile seemed. It was uncomfortably similar to the one he used when they’d first talked.

“Heeeey,” she welcomed, ramping down her giddiness. The arm she flourished tucked behind her head as if she’d been stretching all along. “You made it.” This earned a half-hearted nod. “Tough morning?”

“Why? Did you hear something?”

“No,” she said quickly, flicking her damp ponytail. “I was in the shower. Showering. Noisily, and for hours.”

Beth dubbed this her Plausible Deniability. She considered adding that fake dog to the story – for consistency’s sake, of course – but eeeeee. Creepy. She had an aunt who showered with her dog. It was an image no one should feel too keen on adopting.

He gave her a second nod, this time with an equally passive, “Oh. Good.”

Kind of an awkward silence there, buddy.

“So – um…” She guessed it was up to her to stir things. “Do you –”

“I’m Alex.”

Whoa. Alex was intense. She took it that that was his name, but he said it so seriously, as if he’d expected more of reaction than, ‘Cool. I’ll stop calling you Mr. Coffee’.

She wouldn’t, by the way. Mmm, Coffee.

“It’s nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Beth.” Soon to be known as tomorrow’s local kidnapping headline. “You look good!”

He did look good. Alex had a whole I’m Too Cool to Iron ensemble. Plain, faded jeans slung around his waist. His white-ish shirt went ever so slightly taut against his chest. A pale red, checked button-down layered over that, and it almost seemed like he’d taken a brush to tease his cocoa black hair into careless bedhead. Hot. This was ignoring the bluish-black and green bruises surrounding his jaw. Other than those, the eye-witnesses sketches were going to look amazing.

Yeah, she still wasn’t ‘sure’ about this. Carpe diem only brought her so far before hitting YOLO territory.

“Thanks. You, too.”

Ha! Liar. She was wearing almost exactly the same as yesterday: overalls and a teeny pair of black booty shorts for the ass she didn’t have, except she’d swapped her crappy top for a stretchy, long-sleeved one. On second thought, she shouldn’t have picked a hue of fabric that clashed as badly with her vampire skin as dark purple did. On third thought, that was every hue but orchid, and laundry day had dictated no dice there.

“Thank you.”

That floated between them fairly listlessly. Beth curled her hair around her hand and tugged it, trying to rattle out a plan for her next move. Should she let him in…?

“Is that a horse licking a dragon?”

“What?” She jerked her head over her shoulder, towards the garish display of yellow-trimmed wings and soaring hooves stacked up against her kitchen bar. The colours were hard to miss. They practically leered at her and him. “Ah! No. That’s Pink Beauty. The tongue is…” Beth was a professional artist. “The tongue is his horn. He’s a unicorn.” To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there lay her dying reputation. “It’s a commissioned series. I don’t… I mean – this isn’t really my thing, the whole fantasy element, but when a client says jump, am I right?”

He appeared to be thinking awfully hard about the three-legged, magical pony. It was like he didn’t trust her, or thought the joke was on him somehow.

“What do you usually paint?”

Alex asked as though he wasn’t sure he could handle the answer. To be fair, drip painting was a violent cascade of emotions. She could rein them in long enough to title their blazing moods, but otherwise, she fell as lost to them as any person before a wonder. Beth wasn’t the only person saying so, either. Her work didn’t stand for simple explanations; it elucidated through a subconscious interpretation. That’s what the critics wrote anyway, and so as long as they kept awarding her cash, she would let them pile on whatever smarmy narrative they wanted.

Under these casual settings, however…

“I’ll show you.” Her heart began to race. She barely knew this person, and already her palms had sweat from the pressure of living up to his standards. While she rushed inside and leafed through the throwaway series, she eased her mind towards him hating it. Her style didn’t always top a guy’s list. Beth tried not to blame anyone for their opinions, but when they couldn’t see the canvases come alive, there was a certain sadness she had to bury. “Here.”

Oh God, his thumbs went straight onto the paint when he grabbed the frame. From the record scratch that went off in her head, Beth winced. He, more focused on studying the piece, missed this look of pain and lifted her portrait higher in the far window’s daylight.

This was the one ‘real’ entry from RAR she would sell to Edison. Its blues flashed out to the sides, taunted by reds calling from the edges. Sprays of black shattered the contrast to ebb below a muted green. This was an experiment in primary tones, and as she recalled, it was from the last night her neighbours owned a TV before Screamy flipped and smashed the damn thing. Primed and Tuned, she’d named this. The dark streak across its middle was from their screen crashing to the floor.

He took his time to gather his thoughts. She didn’t wholly mind the wait. The way he had to hold the bulky shape made his biceps flex. At last, he did utter, albeit more to himself than her, and staying in low in his throat, “This looks angry.”

Eureka.

“Angry,” she squealed. “Exactly! It’s supposed to be. Here – see this?” Her fingers waved over a top corner. “This is its defining madness. It snapped out on when the scene hit its high notes. The natural serenity of the blue got completely destroyed when it started chewing away at the red, and the bottom layer was shredded by how harshly the droplets cut in. You’ll notice the light – tilt it this way –” There was a perfect angle she’d found that, if Edison hadn’t screwed her out of wall space, she would’ve pointed a small lamp to catch. “The shadows. Recognize anything?”

Was that a smile? Beneath his furrowed brow of mild concern, did she spy enjoyment?

“Uh…” He cleared his throat. “Scary face.”

Right. Objectively! I hate calling my work objective, but the snarl that this black line ripped up left me a hellish glare from one damning eye. You become the subject of its rage.” She put her hands on his wrists, guiding him along the vision. “It’s powerful, isn’t it? Yet it’s so shy. The glare disappears the instant you turn your head the wrong way. It’s a thin glimpse into the fury it’s trying to hide from the world.”

His glance was more sidelong than she expected, but attentive.

“Your painting is passive-aggressive?”

“Unbearably,” she delighted. “My teeth hurt from clenching at it, but unless I twist to understand the deeper pain, I’ll miss the hidden beauty of its wrath.”

She could’ve stood and marvelled for hours. Beth took a raw pride in her art – in any art that forced her spirit to the surface. Had Jessica slipped even a single emotion into her dumb islands, Beth wouldn’t have complained so much about sharing a space.

Alex stared at her sidelong, having reservedly watched her while she talked. His stance softened a little, and as he lowered the frame, she noticed a light appreciation and intrigue.

“You’re really into this.”

As if until now, he hadn’t believed her.

“Well, yeah. Everybody is, deep down. It’s the same as music,” she told him. “Human nature can’t help forging connections, and with art, it’s to suites of work that can cross generations. We end up connecting to each other. At this very moment, you might feel the same as a stranger will in forty years, but your cousin could walk up tomorrow and have the total opposite experience. It blows my mind.” She quietly nudged the canvas closer. “So… what about you?” Beth leaned in, studying his eyes as they swept across the glossed fabric. “Are you feeling anything?”

Alex looked to be considering it. Then he said, “I think I liked the unicorn.”

“Oh my God.” He was grinning, in that cautiously warm way she’d started growing used to. When she whacked his shoulder, she did it with high spirits. “Come on, neighbour. Let’s get going.”

He didn’t at first. After she’d bent to grab half of the stack by their feet, she saw his head still turned towards Primed and Tuned. He held it firmly, his tentative smile clouding in concentration. Beth delayed bothering him until he came to whatever decision he’d been trying to make and fluttered to reality on his own.

“Sorry. Just…” Another grin. This one was more pensive than earlier. He twitched his arms as though he meant to hand the canvas back, but figured out what was happening and simply added it to his half to carry. “It’s good. I think I’d need a day to get it, but…”

“You’re new to the art world,” she assured him. “Don’t rush it! Let the meanings come to you. That’s the most satisfying way.”

“Yeah.” He apparently glazed over at those words, floating off again to wherever his mind went to think. When he returned this time, he maneuvered in front of her with two deliberate steps. “I’m Alex.”

Ooookay.

He was exactly as intense about it as before. Beth blinked, sort of stuck on what to do. He hadn’t seen the napkin she’d left on her counter, which was good, since she’d scribbled a few things on it – height, build, other identifying features – that might be cause for offence. She got so caught up wondering what she’d left out, she nearly missed the offered hand waiting for her.

“Oh.” Then they truly were doing this twice. All right. She shuffled, freeing one of her own. “Hi. I’m still Beth.”

Her hand found his.

… Something happened. Stopped happening, rather.

“I’m not great at first impressions.” Alex smiled. Actually smiled. Sheepish, but real. “Or second. Or – uh – third.”

“No, your…” She swallowed. “Your second one was good. Impression, I mean. Last night. When you apologized. That was sweet of you.”

His eyes. Beth hadn’t realized how deeply they’d pierced her. They brimmed with such a wild energy… No wonder she’d been avoiding them. She never noticed she was avoiding them until now, when his gaze touched hers and she held it. The comfort of the gesture threw her off.

Alex pulled away. Bethany’s hand felt empty from it.

“I’ll try not to need a fourth.”

“Hmm? Oh.” Oh! “Um – sure, no, yeah, you’re fine,” she said. “All is forgotten. Water and bridges.”

She was talking too fast. This marked her other type of nervousness, the one that had her girlishly agree to get coffee with his cheekiness and cocky attitude. But he wasn’t acting like that today. If she had to label him, she would have picked meek. But nice. Beth could live with nice.

“So,” he said, hoisting the last of her wares onto his unignorably toned shoulder, regardless of how many shirts he wanted to wear, “where are we walking?”

“Well…” Weird. Was it a good weird though, to suddenly feel this at ease? “I figured we could drive. My car’s parked out on the street.” She should warn him now: “It’s a screaming, metal death trap, but it has tires and it usually stops before I hit a dog.”

“Great.” Really? He elaborated with, “My old car’s method for braking was exclusively trees. I’m used to tucking and rolling.”

Unlike yesterday, where every word from his mouth apparently won either high-pitched giggles or a snort she continued to smack herself over, Beth found her current crack of amusement relaxing onto her lips. She enjoyed it.

“Let’s just say I’ll drive,” she said. The paintings in her hands tut-tutted. Dammit – yes, Terry, she hadn’t forgotten about him. “I just have to send my buddy a text when we’re downstairs. He told me to be early, but since it is me, he probably hasn’t even bothered waking up yet.”

“You’re a night owl?”

“Ah…” She imagined her ideal day. Four AM, no work the next morning, not sober but texting everybody. “Sure.”

Alex seemed okay with this, in a way that vaguely suggested he was on her wavelength.

Interesting.

“Okay.” He adjusted the canvases. “I’m ready.”

Pink Beauty awaited its maiden voyage. Beth shooed Alex out and locked the room behind her. She got a feeling the counter-napkin of Cop Cliff Notes blew off from the breeze of door swinging shut.

She doubted she needed it.

“Special, special, special.”

“Agent Aird. Rank: A-6. Acting Lead. Suit Status: Special. Age…” Xander walked off with the ID. “Doesn’t say.” He flicked the plastic at the ground and got back to walking with his ‘cereal’. “I bet you’re old enough to know about Goldilocks.” He made another pass by the Agent. Then another. And another. The light from the wall-hole teemed with expectant shadows. “Or there’s Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Pinocchio… Really any fable where some bitch kids start their shit at a private residence.” Around and around, cutting a deep path through the rubble. “I think you can guess what happened next.”

“It’s been a while,” the Agent rasped. Xander’d dropped it on a mountain kicked together from broken chair legs. Since then, it had to balance while straining against the chains that bear-hugged its ribs. “If my memory serves…” Puff. “… they each had…” Pant. “… happy endings.”

“Why? ‘Cause they lived? Oh, suit.” Xander sucked back more spoonfuls of Corn Flakes soaking in orange juice. Alex didn’t even know they had juice. “Nine times out of ten, you walk into a house made of candy, you better hope your parents abandoned you. That way, when they have to lie about how you died, you’ll get a better epitaph than ‘was retarded’.” He sipped his juice-flakes. “I’m sorry – ‘special’. Can’t believe you put that on a card.”

“The titles,” it wheezed, “are assigned to us.”

“Which explains why it’s so modest.” Around and around, like the Agent had dripped blood in the water. Xander lingered at its blind spots when he wasn’t carving sharp circles by its face, not giving it a chance to focus before he strolled past. “Special, special, special. That’s new. So what did they title the other suits? Bullet sponges?”

“… Deployable…”

“Seriously? Shit, that’s meaner.” His cow-ish chewing was the only sound covering their footsteps and its ragged choking. “Alright. Screw those masked jerks. Sure, they have the same bulletproof, shockproof, fireproof, wizard-proof, camouflage tights and do the same amount of nothing, but they don’t wear goggles and don’t kiss nearly as much ass.” Xander tapped its head with his spoon like a fairy godmother. “You are gonna need tongue to smooth this one over, though. I’d pity you if I wasn’t already sure you’ll enjoy it. Fuckin’ suits.”

Alex had no idea what started them again. After forty dead and two years as a no show, he’d figured they got the message: so long as he had Xander, the suits’ little camouflage trick – the ‘fading’ – wouldn’t work, to the point that he switched back to sleeping with his eyes closed. He’d recycled the headspace into self-soothing techniques. Happy thoughts netted more mileage than nervous stretches of insomnia whenever ‘Xander has control’ and ‘Agents’ turned up in the same breath.

This wasn’t his show. Alex watched carefully, trying to take notes on what it said before its neck got snapped, but he couldn’t say anything. His body wasn’t his right now. He was better for it. Agents occasionally had good information, and the chances of Alex wringing it out of them compared to Xander’s were…

“I don’t enjoy –”

“I’m sorry, did a fucking A-6 start talking back to me? Did an A-6 try to tell me what he does or doesn’t enjoy?”

“… No.”

Yeah. So Alex stayed out of it, letting Xander handle this like he’d handled all the other ones. Today’s happy thought was that he owned plenty of bleach and garbage bags. They also had the community Purell can downstairs. The thing was two-thirds acid, good for burning fingerprints.

He wasn’t stupid. He knew what Xander did, and recognized that a few ‘ohm’s weren’t going to cleanse Alex’s soul, but they needed this. He used to bet his life on a one-size-fit-all solution: run, which – fine, was morally better, but where did it get him? Caught. No matter what, the Agents were always right behind. Xander’s method skipped that forever. Less Agents. Fuller intel. A life where he fought back.

There’d been nightmares at first, at the sight of… everything. His insomnia got worse. Xander had to talk him through the logic: if he wasn’t controlling his body, then it wasn’t technically Alex hurting anyone. The exact words were more like, ‘Blow me. You didn’t do dick’, but it still let him sleep at night if he didn’t pick at it.

Practice made perfect.

“Relax, suit,” Xander ordered. “I’m not gonna kill you.”

He was lying. Its eyes swivelled to follow him as he walked by again. It didn’t get a good look, which was the point of moving around, because it would have seen Alex’s cheeks raised in a blatantly bullshitting grin. Instead it croaked, “Will you –” Cough. “Will you be… documenting this?”

“Right. That.” He shrugged, scraping the bowl. “Well, if you wanna take the coward’s way out, I guess I could just kill you. But that’s a lot of paperwork, and it’d be funnier to hear that my boss washed all your precious work climbing to A-6 right into the shitter. And then you’ll probably kill yourself anyway.”

The Agent waited for something. Across its face was a web of pieces slowly fitting together, and when the one it needed didn’t show up to finish the thought, it prodded with a tight, “Unless?”

Xander snorted.

“‘Unless’. You think I’m negotiating? You think I’d – what, cover my eyes and ignore my duty to report you by blaming some A-8 instead? That if you start talking real goddamn fast and explain why the fuck you intruded on a DTD site, I might hear enough to consider deceiving the very hierarchy we’re conditioned to show debilitating obedience, all so they don’t rip those magical leotards off your tiny, soon-to-be-demoted limbs?”

“Or…” Its lips were almost blue from the lack of airflow. “… I go back… without my goggles… and say you… threw them –” Cough. “– as a punishment. I don’t care… if you’re… an A-5 –” Cough, cough. “Good luck –” Cough. “– explaining that –” Cough, hack. “– to my A-4 –” Cough-cough-hack-cough-hack-cough-cough.

A-5, huh? I’ve been called worse. Out loud, after chucking their last bowl somewhere in the room’s debris, Xander said, “Touché. Pick your scapegoat.”

“Can you untie –”

“Nope!”

The new look on its face told them it hadn’t expected any better. Shifting awkwardly on Mt. Chair Leg, it drank in the fist-sized holes and bits of wood still decorating their walls, then murmured, “This… is a DTD site?”

“Welcome to a real case, suit. That aroma of cat piss and old farts is the smell of the big leagues. Maybe you’ll get to go on one someday.” He never stopped circling. Even in the passenger seat, Alex felt dizzy. “Talk. Why’re you here?”

The Agent’s mouth pursed, but eventually said, “I’m on an investigation.”

“Alone?”

“No. With –” It puffed. “With one other. We… separated.”

“You ran your mouth off,” Xander translated. “Fuckin’ suits. What’s the investigation?”

“It’s –” Cough. “It’s classified.”

“Unclassify it.”

“It’s… above…” The Agent stopped to suck down as much of a breath as it could manage hogtied. “It’s above an… A-5’s authority. What I can tell you… is that our main team… noted disturbances… in the area.” Three guesses who that could be. “They’re affecting our case… and the main can’t afford… to be sidetracked. The case lead… had to call in another group to handle it. All of them… have the information I have… that you don’t.”

The Agent was really trying to hype this.

He has to. If I’m ‘not convinced’, I’m gonna turn him in and he’s gonna lose his suit.

Not even loud enough to call it whispering, Alex asked, “Is that bad?”

The only thing worse is a goggle suit losing their goggles. They go fuckin’ insane, Xander chirped. It’s too cute. But yeah, they’ll kill themselves. You’ve seen it.

“No.”

Right, right – I’ve seen it, back at my ‘birth’. When Alex went crazy, blacked out for a month and woke up with a sociopathic voice in his head. My version’s shorter. Anyway, shut up. “Alright, suit. I’ll bite, since I apparently have to ask: what information?”

“That this address,” it said, “is listed on our files… as our address. Our target… is supposed to live here. For… whatever reason… that’s wrong.” It took another break, shaking its head like it was fighting sleep. “Now… I… could tell my lead… and be praised for… for correcting the mistake. That’ll save some time for us but… for a DTD site, with – uh… delicate operations in place… this is another hundred and twenty Agents… who could wander in after me. Think of the trouble you’d save… your lead if you…”

Xander slowed down, and Alex saw his eyebrows drop. He must’ve been frowning now. Sure enough, he heard his other self say, “The fuck?”

“You would save… your lead… plenty of trouble –”

“Not that, dipshit. The number. You’re saying there’s a hundred twenty people here?”

“Two teams… of sixty,” the Agent replied. “One for the main team. One for the… response force… to the external threat.”

Wait. What external threat?

Xander had a different question.

“Since how long?”

“Since,” it puffed, “July.”

Three months. That was when the swarms started.

Seriously, what external threat?

“Your mountain rights have been revoked,” Xander said. With a kick, he knocked half the rubble away. The Agent dropped off and smacked its shoulder on the floor, beating the sound of its skull thudding off the linoleum by a decibel. A blast of air choked out of its throat. “The one fucking job you suits have is keeping facts in order. This is the second time you fucked it up.”

What,” it gagged, wheezing even harder on the ground. “What –”

“Don’t shit in my sock and call it a hamster, Aird. There’s not a hundred twenty guys here. I counted fifty-eight. You know what’s not fifty-eight? A hundred twenty.” Xander casually buried the Agent under the rest of the chair leg pile. “Hey. It’s okay. Not everybody’s meant to have a suit.”

Th–“ Hack-hack-hack-cough-hack-cough-cough. “There were two teams of sixty sent –”

“There weren’t.”

Outraged, it barked, “The external threat… could have impacted their numbers –”

I’d be the first to take credit but I didn’t off that many. To the Agent, Xander spelled out, “Other than a DTD, there are no targets worth a team of sixty. Maybe for your fuckin’ external threat, but not your actual target. That’s an army.” A small army. Which would be dead if you let me go outside, Alex. “Aw – I ruined my trench! Now I can’t keep walking. Fuck you for that too, suit.”

“I didn’t make a mistake,” it swore. “She might not be a DTD, but it should mean something… when I say… my work… is… being sanctioned… by the NCA…”

“Ran out at the end, huh?”

“You could untie me,” it snapped at him.

Alex focused very hard on thinking, ‘What’s the ‘NCA’?’ He did it on a loop, hoping Xander noticed one of them.

National Cell Archive.

Which was…?

Shh. “Considering those valuable NCA’s lab rats are best known for licking Cheetos dust off of their keyboards, no, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“The project.” The Agent had flopped back onto its stomach and took a second to look proud of itself. Then it shook off some of the rubble by wiggling its shoulders and waited for some noise of recognition over what it’d said. There wasn’t one. “The commissioned project.” Alex and Xander both stared until it added, “The A-1 commissioned project. My target’s a part of it.”

“Some of our jobs involve work, suit,” Xander said. “I can’t be on a first name basis with every shenanigan.”

It screwed its face up.

“I can’t divulge those details. They’re classified. Even for an A-5.”

“Okay.” Xander cleared a space to sit. With his full attention on their captive, he politely said, “You have two options. The first is where, now that I realize our case will be seen as intruding on an A-1’s territory, even though we were fuckin’ here first and were actually intruded on, I leave you for my DTD to find but blame it on your external threat.”

“It’s classified for me, too,” the Agent blurted, not waiting around for option two. “I’m from the NCA and the most I know is that the project exists and that my target belongs to it – but I assumed you heard of it.”

“Ohhhhh! So when you told me, ‘It should mean something that the NCA is watching my target’, you were bluffing. Well, Aird,” Xander detailed, “I’m bluffing that I’m not going to punch you in the face.”

“I wasn’t –”

The Agent took its hit better than Alex usually did.

Don’t feel bad. Suits get punched all the time, and you have the fists of a prepubescent girl.

Thanks.

“I wasn’t bluffing,” the Agent spat. “My target’s powers haven’t manifested, but her latent ability warrants the size of the main team. It comes down to belonging to the A-1 project.”

“Fascinating. I’m gonna punch you again, this time for taking so long to get to that.”

Wait. ‘Her’?

“I’m happy to have been of help,” the Agent answered, spinning each word as ‘go fuck yourself’. “Let me up.”

“Tell me where your target is,” Xander said instead.

It mentioned a ‘she’ before too, didn’t it?

No. Alex was hearing things.

“Why?”

“‘Cause if she’s still in the area –” Xander said ‘she’. Xander had also just said ‘she’. A thousand red flags shot up in Alex’s head. “– then she’s still my problem. Where’s your target, and then I’ll let you leave.”

They needed to talk. Right now – him and Xander had to talk, because who the hell was ‘she’?

“It’s…” The Agent frowned. “It’s classified.”

Oh, for God’s sake. “You don’t have to give me every detail, suit. Hell – if it saves you from crapping your pants, I don’t even need to have an exact location. Mostly ‘cause sixty bucks says you’re wrong. Again.” Xander had enough eye contact to end this conversation permanently. He didn’t take it. “You just put an A-1 project on my boss’ list of shit to dance around. Active avoidance of your target’s hotspots, along with you people updating your fucking addresses, is my fastest mitigation strategy.”

Who was ‘she’, who was ‘she’, who was ‘she’ – Xander couldn’t ignore him forever, so who was ‘she’?

The Agent bit its lip, silent for what felt like hours.

“I can’t guarantee this is accurate,” it finally replied. “I’m on a separate investigation –”

Xander punched it in the head for a third time. The Agent didn’t like that nearly as much as the first two, and it didn’t like the first two. It worked up a storm, turning purple.

And you, settle down in there. It’s not your turn.

At Alex’s first thought of the word ‘But’, he felt a massive mental pinch. He decided to settle down.

“Coffee shops. Art stores. Cliffs overlooking a sunset. Soup kitchens,” the Agent listed at last, now that it’d quit yelling about its treatment. “Anywhere an artist’s stereotype would go. Are you satisfied?”

It is nice knowing she’s too poor for Pequods. And to the Agent, Xander asked, “Am I gonna get a tip-off from visible patrols?”

“Plainclothes patrols. Small clusters. She isn’t aware we’re here, which is why we have to manage our distance.” It shifted uncomfortably. “And latent or not, her powers are triggered by physical contact.”

“Was that so hard?” The Agent looked ready to explode. Ignoring it, Xander got on his feet and… actually started unlocking the chains. “When you’re out, go to the window and show me how you climbed up.”

“I could describe –”

“I did not say ‘describe’. Get off your ass, move your twiggy legs and show me.” Xander yanked the restraints, giving it a last rattle before setting it free. “Fuckin’ suits. God forbid your day involve effort.”

As the chains fell off and the Agent was distracted by taking real breaths, Alex reached out to quietly check, “You’re not really…” Letting it live. “Are you?”

I’m making him stand beside the wall-hole.

That was a ‘no’, right?

Since Xander’s only response was shaking his head, it didn’t matter that the Agent got the next word. It tripped clambering to stand, awkwardly balancing on chunks from the table, then nodded at the chains and muttered, “You’re good with those. Disturbingly.”

“Takes a lot of idiots with no survival instinct. You should see what I can do with handcuffs.”

It didn’t look like it wanted to know and Xander didn’t elaborate. Instead, he shoved the Agent towards the window and had it kick a vague path through the mess. Bits from the old TV stand crumpled under their heels as they came to edge of the wall – and the hole that’d been smashed through.

Alex didn’t relax until the Agent leaned outside, not positive on what to do and even telling them as much.

“There’s not much to show. I climbed up and in.” Its back was angled away from them. Xander stepped ever so slightly behind. “This was due to faulty intel. Our files said room #616. This is room #616.”

“How’d you climb the brick?”

It scoffed and turned back to flex its hands at them.

“The way any suit would. Gloves. Special suits are assigned the type to attract magnetic fields in steel girders, which is why the holes from the claws that deployable suits still use aren’t there. The forces pull through the wall.”

Somebody rented Mission Impossible.

“Bullshit those things support your weight. If you found a key to this place, I will eat your family.” Xander paused. “Within the confines of protocol, obviously. I write really mean letters.”

The Agent had had enough of being picked on.

“Okay,” it said, clipping the word. It did something that a flicked a blue glow across the palm of the black fabric. “Watch.” And it leaned out so far, Alex couldn’t see its head. “As expressed, the magnetic fields allowed me to climb up.” It tugged for proof. “There’s no key.” Tugged again. “Only this.” Tugged once more. “Like I informed you.” Xander grabbed its legs. “Whoa – what are you doing –”

“A lot of idiots, no survival instinct.” He pitched its kicking legs out the window. “That’s three times you’ve fucked up fact-checking. You’re crazy bad at your job.”

Pull me up,” the Agent screeched, anchored to the wall by its right hand. Alex watched it tangle as Xander reached outside after it. “We had a deal – you were letting me go!”

“Yeeeah. I think I’m gonna go with the ‘leaving you for my DTD’ scenario. Hi, by the way.” With all its flailing, they managed to snatch – well, Xander did – its other arm. “I’ll borrow your gloves forever, though. You won’t mind for long. You…” He started picking at the flap on the left glove. “… are gonna be having too much fun cannonballing into the trash that I pushed right there for these laughably frequent encounters.”

“‘DTD’,” it shrieked back. “‘Trash’?”

And you didn’t wanna move the dumpster. ‘How many times could it happen, Xander?’ He went after the anchored glove, picking at the flap on that next. “Yes, suit. The trash. No mess, easy clean up every Thursday… You’re not my first rodeo.” The flap was coming undone. “But I’ve gotta say, I’ve never had a guy wander in on me by accident. You hit the jackpot on Murphy’s Law.”

We can talk about this!

Alex… felt a little sick. There were red marks being scratched in skinny trails across the wall, and it just occurred to him that with all their fighting these past months, no one was going to think twice about the yelling now.

He hoped.

He sincerely hoped.

Fuck, these are on tight. They better fit. They heard a snap. Got it.

“Fu–aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa –”

Five storeys left. Four storeys.

Before you talk, shut up and let me enjoy this. BLAM. Yes! Fuckin’ fuck yes – look’t that shit! Perfect goddamn landing. The dumpster lid slapped down and blew out a cloud of dirt over the nestled garbage bags. Except for the bang, no one would suspect a corpse. I love suits. You can’t get that anywhere else. Then he sighed. Alright, fine, go.

“‘She’, Xander,” Alex barked. Pain sparked through his jaw. “Were you grinding my teeth?”

Whoops.

“We talked about that!” Never mind. He wanted the truth first. “Who’s ‘her’? What’s going on?”

God, the whining… Xander fiddled with his new toys while dully answering, Logic dictates ‘her’ is the chick his team is after.

“It was supposed to be after us,” he hissed. “That’s why I’ve been hiding. The swarms, the ambushes?”

The hundred fuckin’ times I told you to go outside? Were you not watching me play Agent? Explain how that worked if the suit knew who you are.

He backed from the hole in the wall, trekking through rubble to find a pile flat enough to sit on without being stabbed.

“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Dude.

“Second worst, whatever. I just found out I wasted a month of my life for nothing.”

You wanted less Agents after you. Good news, these aren’t. That’s why this date is perfect. I get my latté, I can check if there’s still heat and if there isn’t, we disappear. Why aren’t these fitting your hands?

“We’re their external threat.” He didn’t want to be on their radar at all, but at least as a side focus, he was… something. “We can’t ‘disappear’ from another sixty – ow!”

God-fucking-dammit, we found the one suit with girlier fists than you. Xander whipped the black gloves at the ground. He said nothing about the chunk of flesh he’d shredded on Alex’s skin. And no, we’re not the external threat. These people have their own party going on without us for once. Assholes.

“We’re not their target or their side-quest?”

Yeah. It sucks. Not that I care or anything. ‘Cause I don’t.

“No – it’s not…” He gave up. He didn’t matter in this. If he’d never attacked, they would’ve never noticed him, so she, the girl downstairs, had legitimately… “Huh.” Alex sat straighter. “This is just a date.”

Oh my God, like I’ve been saying.

“But now I have a dead Agent under my exploded window. If somebody sees glass –”

My gloves don’t fit! I am having a bad day. I don’t need your shitty, non-problems, too. For once, enjoy the morning without anybody chasing you. He felt his teeth grind. Fucking suits.

‘Enjoy the morning’. He almost didn’t understand. This was like a vacation from… well – his life.

“I guess we’re doing this,” he said.

His rash didn’t itch quite as bad.

“I think I broke my toe.”

You alright down there?

“– wait –”

He heaved. His stomach groaned a morbid whine and his throat choked up another gurgle. Alex spat, then panted, then wheezed into the toilet. The silence crept back. He broke it with a flush.

Now’re you done?

“Wait.” Nothing lurched, but his gut felt full, like he’d caught it on break rather than a real end to this. The pressure in his head had faded though, and his ears finally quit buzzing. Was this… optimism? “Yeah. I’m done, I think.”

Awesome. You’re not, by the way.

He knew it. Alex collapsed for another ten minutes of sweat, snot and vomit. His nose leaked from the constant smell of acid and his eyes burned like they were on fire. He burped, triggering a new rush of phlegm, followed by a rickety hiccup parade, long pauses, bonus dry heaves, then a flush.

“Okay,” he rasped. “That’s it. That’s everything.”

You sure?

“Yeah. I’m good.” And an extra flush for good measure. He wiped a hand over his mouth. “Where’s the toothpaste?”

Toilet. So it was, swirling in the bowl. It’s fine. The cap’s still on.

“Forget it.” That’s what he got for flailing: toilet toothpaste. Alex crawled to the sink and grabbed his mouthwash instead. That small act of hand-eye coordination took a stressful thirty seconds longer than normal. “Next time, we puke in the kitchen.” Because the wreckage between here and the front door had been unbelievable. His foot throbbed with a gist of it. “I think I broke my toe.”

Probably.

“But I wouldn’t’ve if I didn’t need hiking gear to take a piss.” He never thought he owned a lot until he’d had to sprint across the remains. The process might’ve been more delicate if he wasn’t juggling his digestion, about to add it on the floor like a river to a mountain range. “You’re fixing this tomorrow. Starting with that window.”

The window’s gone. How much more fixed does it get?

So there was Xander’s logic at full force. Alex knew enough about brick walls to not run at one.

“I’ll hang a curtain or something,” he muttered.

That’ll fool ‘em.

“Eat a dick.”

His stomach sloshed in misery as he struggled to stand. He had to tense until it settled, which took a while. When he trusted it to manage the knock-off Listerine, he gargled a cheekful of the stuff and leaned his head outside the bathroom. His apartment stared back. Empty. Quiet. Dark. Unrelated to the fight, their lights’d blown two nights ago. Lucky they had a massive hole in the wall. The moon’s freezing, blueish glow really cheered this place from Hostel to a less haunted scene out of Hostel II.

Looking for someone?

Always.

“No.” Alex horked the mouthwash at the drain, staining it green where the basin wasn’t rusted orange already. “I’m trying to figure out why I’m sick.” His pseudo-Agent-sense never got this bad. Nausea, sure, but not this sudden. “What do you think?”

‘Bout what?

“The girl.” Obviously. “Did you get any vibes when you talked to her? Anything… special?”

Besides the part where she tried soaping up a disembodied voice with her voice? Xander shrugged. She’s great. Good taste in disembodied voices.

“That’s exactly what I meant.” That was sarcasm. His stomach didn’t appreciate it, or it was protesting his decision to leave and start spelunking towards the front door. He ignored the noisy sack of guts, clenched his teeth and kept moving. On top of all of this, they were not sleeping in an unlocked room. “We went downstairs – ow – to check who she is, not turn it into a sex thing.” A Pequods thing. The same thing, if he thought about it. “She’s not your new Delaney.”

Alright. She’s New Maggie.

Maggie?” Well, that hit like a brick. “Russian Maggie – the girl with the… with the thing – she was an Agent, too?”

I think the real insult behind eluding the Agency for almost a decade comes from you doing it without actually ever clicking in to who wants to murder you. The guy sounded thrilled about it. They called you a tactician, man! That’s like book snobs saying you’re the new Orwell.

Luck was a tactic. For the three years before his breakdown, Alex’d lived off of it pretty okay. What helped was how easy-going the Agents were about him back then. They’d thrown a few defenses together – like those sunglasses with mirrored lenses – but it wasn’t until his walking-rage-coma that he jumped from ‘a little slippery’ to ‘undeniable complication requiring full force containment’. But by then, he had Xander. Luck, blanket distrust and violence: the trio hadn’t failed yet.

His stomach rolled again. Cold sweat had beaded on his face. His tongue felt like soggy paper. Finally close enough to the door to chain it and set a fast barricade, he turned to the kitchen and aimed for the sink, re-crushing clumps of drywall.

“You held a full conversation without attacking her,” Alex reasoned, bringing it back to basics. “The girl’s not an Agent.”

That’s what you’re banking on? My word? Xander stopped sounding impressed. So, what – nine hours ‘til you panic and waste my night double-checking every time I could’ve lied to you?

He thought it would only take a night? Add another lie to the list.

“I’m not going to do that.”

Fuck you, ‘I’m not gonna do that’. Meanwhile Alex had reached the Promised Land and began his hunt for a glass. Clean or intact, either worked. Screw it – they both were pipe dreams. He drank from the tap. I promise, if I have to hear your sobbing about her next week, I’ll walk you into traffic.

“Then I won’t mention her.”

You will. Do the fucking date and get your own opinion, ‘cause God forbid you trust me for once that it’s fine.

Yeah, yeah.

The water helped, but he still felt shaky. And cold. It had to be because something was wrong with her. Right? Instinctively, a wise part of him refused to trust her for a good reason? His stomach gave a loud agreement – drowning Xander’s mental snort – and he swore her pros and cons looked too neat. Maybe because she lived under him or whatever, but he needed a final answer.

“Alright. I’ll go.” And leave the room to wander streets full of Agents. “But you’re only pushing it for coffee.”

Gift horse, Alex. We’ve been through this. ‘Sides, she’s kinda hot. I mean, if you squint and ignore the farm clothes.

Stomach twist. Stress-rash. As he swallowed past his mouth’s returning dryness, Alex casually tried to ask, “You think that’s how they’ll get us? With kinda hot people?” Attractive but disarming. Friendly and not a threat. “It could be like Peter –”

Hey, look! Next week came early.

Forget it. Never mind.

The pizza sat on the counter, sweating lukewarm cheese grease. Alex tossed the leftovers in his fridge. Presto: tomorrow’s breakfast.

“I’m going to bed.” He’d had enough of tonight’s adventures. “Wake me up for the ‘date’.”

What time?

“I dunno.” He yawned. “What time’s it now?”

Alex had to ask, because completely related to the fight, the clock on their oven was also smashed.

11:43.

“Okay. Six, then. Six-thirty.” His left temple pounded. The room suddenly seemed too loud. With or without his consent, Alex’s body wanted rest. “Pick one. I have to sleep.”

Party pooper. Fine, get to bed. The opposite happened. Yeah, I’m just gonna end this guy real quick.

So basically, the next fourteen seconds played out as a gagging squeal, Alex’s hand around a neck, his other fist crushing into cloaked ribs, followed by the blam of a fully visible Agent inside his apartment breaking through their now ex-table. The force sent chunks of wood tearing at his wall, gashing the spackle with craters and blinding him while he hacked on dust. Then Xander was at the Agent and digging it out of the rubble by its jaw.

Alex knew what it was, but he still screeched, coughing, “What the fuck is that?

A suit.

I can see it’s a suit, Xander!” Skinny, masked, wearing a black unitard: it wasn’t allowed to be something else. “Where did it come from?”

Oh, he’s been here the whole time.

“Wh–” For fucking fuck’s sake – “Doing what?”

Suit stuff.Suit stuff’. Xander yanked the fabric off its head. A wheeze ran from the Agent’s face as it hit the open air. He was standing there, fading. You know, the regular shit they do. “But he didn’t engage his diaphragm, which’s why the wind got knocked out his ass.” The Agent failed to reply to Xander’s out loud scolding, more than likely distracted by trying to breathe. That and I saw ‘im. Stupid suit.

Alex didn’t. Alex hadn’t seen anyone.

‘Fading’.

Fading – shit. Shit. That crap was the reason he hated suits more than the regular assholes, including the big guys. Their unitards let them turn invisible – Not invisible, ‘cause if they went invisible, they’d call it that – or near it enough to paint every encounter the same as finding a spider crawling over his mouth: probably not an immediate death, but goddammit, too close, he hated spiders.

“What’re you gonna do with it?” His breathing sped. His arms gripped like steel where Xander had control, but everywhere else – the parts Alex still managed – felt weak. “What’s – uh… What’s the plan?”

The fuck d’you think the plan is? I’m gonna kill him, Xander chirped. He almost skipped as he pulled the Agent to the kitchen, specifically across jagged clusters of plywood. Where’d I put those chains?

“You’re hanging it?”

Yes, Alex, I’m hanging him. You murder people at will, but I’m gonna burn the little energy I have and dangle him from the ceiling for giggles. He watched his hands rifle among old sprays and wilted sponges shoved under the sink. I’m tying him up, moron. I can’t waste a suit. He’s one of the goggles kind! Xander found the chains. Can’t kill him yet, anyway.

The practice they had at this showed when Xander pried the suit’s eyes open. Delirious, it glanced at him. That was all they needed. Alex’s vision warped, stinging like someone squirted onion juice, but his crystal clear line of sight needled into the Agent’s head. By the time Xander started hooking iron around it, the suit was seizing in a mess of froth.

Brain melt.

Overload.

He never picked an official name, but this was what they – Alex – did. From two inches away or across acres of field, so long as he made eye contact and sucked up the chafing pupils, he could mutely set whatever-he-called-it off. So sayeth the Agents, his powers autopsied like natural causes. Xander called this benefit a ‘nifty alibi’. The Frenchman just called dibs.

“Xander?”

Hm?

“How did it get here?”

It wasn’t leaving the same way. The metal strangled it. He watched the Agent flop against the chain links and still nothing gave. They’d had a lot practice with hostages, too.

Well, Xander began, dragging the suit back along the floor, I shooed you downstairs to let him scope the place. Considering he not only stayed but scoped the whole way to the door, and given the length of time we were downstairs chit-chatting, I’d say we trapped him halfway through his sweep, implying his most feasible entry point’s at the other end of the room.

So the gaping hole in the wall.

Alex’d spent his ‘For fuck’s sake’ too early.

“You invited it?” Why would Xander – oh cool, he answered his own question before he even finished it. “How the hell long did you know about this?”

Remember when I chucked a chair at the window? About then. Alex felt himself shrug. I saw his head pop up when you got your shirt, the creepy bastard. Alex felt a wave of discomfort. I still can’t believe he came in after I threw it, either. But he did! Hilarious. The moral is suits are stupid.

Which is why the Agents stopped sending them years ago. Their fading didn’t work since Xander could cut through the illusion, meaning the bullshit involved in seeing one here right now, despite that, brought a rare peak to his Screw Goddamn Everything meter.

“Where’re the rest of them? Are there more?” There had to be. His life was shit piled on more shit, and at that, a nerve under his cheek twitched. “Xander?”

He’s a suit. They’ve got too much ego to play on teams. If there are more, they’re not coming for him. Xander dropped the thing, gave a stretch, then added, Bed.

“No, something’s wrong.” His rash burned. Alex whipped his head towards the corners, glaring at the shadows and ignoring the pained groan from his gut. “They got brave enough to start this crap again. It can’t be a coincidence. First a girl walks over, then this?”

Hey. Pastry puff. I’m tired, Xander said. I’m tired because you’re tired. Unless you wanna fend off your own ambushes, go to bed so I’ve got shit to work with tomorrow.

“But –”

Bed. The feeling in Alex’s hands returned, shaking. Xander hadn’t lasted to wind down the adrenaline from this, and his final push of control just nudged their foot at the mattress. I used to take over for weeks. This is depressing.

“Yeah. Really sad.” Those weeks were permanently burned into his mind. Good riddance. “The Agent’s not going to be a problem, right?”

If I were you, I’d focus more on napping off that food poisoning. I’ll handle Goggles.

Alex refused to take his eyes off it. He walked backwards through the chaos until his leg hit the bed’s. When he sat, he heard a mental light bulb click.

“Uh…” No, Xander had said it. Alex wasn’t crazy. “‘Food poisoning’?”

Yeah. The word dragged. The pizza may have been definitely undercooked. Microwave it next time. Is that still broken? Stuff it down the toaster.

His exhaustion swept in again. Alex swayed and tucked himself under the blanket. Food poisoning. Well… that didn’t matter. He had the timing of this mess to stress out about now. The girl jumped three ticks in his suspicion.

Seriously screw Xander for the pizza, though.

“Good night, asshole.”

Yup.

“If that wakes up –”

I got it.

Good enough. He closed his eyes. On the third try, they even stayed closed.

“‘Cause if she is…”

Cleaning the apartment took his mind off the girl for ten minutes before he called it quits. Well, ‘cleaning’. He’d merged that pile of trash with that other pile. Not exactly Martha Stewart Living, but Alex had a lot on his mind.

He just didn’t understand why she came here, and he had his usual stress-rash from thinking about it. That red splotch doubled up on yesterday’s, which never fully healed ‘cause he wouldn’t stop rubbing at it long enough. The last time his guard slipped, Xander had to save him by smashing a rock through their ex-friend’s face. It’d been five years since then, and Alex learned a strict fact of life: people were traps. The itchy bicep, nausea, hand tremors and restlessness were welcome to stay if it meant nobody got the drop on him. The problem now was that he had his rash but not the rest of the symptoms. It felt like a misfired signal – or a sign he’d caught on to the Agents’ new tricks. It’d been six years since his escape. The ‘girl’ might be what they learned –

More.

… Right.

Alex dragged himself to the pizza they eventually agreed on. He’d thought about cooking, but freezer-burned bacon, soggy almonds, old ketchup and eggs that Xander liked the look of but wouldn’t eat could not a good meal make. Considering he sure as hell wasn’t running to buy groceries until the Agent swarms left or been dealt with, delivery became his world again. That put half-Hawaiian, half-barbecue-pepper-onion crust on tonight’s menu. Alex hated cooked fruit so this floated a compromise. He also hated barbecue sauce, peppers, onions and pizza, but Xander liked it and mostly stayed quiet when he got what he yelled for. The system worked. He ate one bite.

So back to being paranoid, he –

More.

Alright, more. He took another bite and went back to –

Relax, Xander snapped. She’s not a damn Agent.

Rih-ree,” he chewed. “Hoh do you knoh?”

‘Cause if she is, I’ll break her neck.

It was that simple for him. It must be nice.

“Got proof for someone who cares?” Alex wasn’t a Coke fan either, but the too-sweet gulp washed his food down like any drink. “They’re planning stuff.”

Not news.

“I meant worse stuff.”

Alternatively, Xander said, she’s not an Agent, and you’re crying over some chick you’ll never see again while I starve to death.

Maybe. But he couldn’t risk ignoring this.

Xander made a pissed off noise and went to grab the food himself. Alright. Alex found another slice and numbly ate that, too. It kept the guy away from controlling him.

This girl had access to his building – lived here, let in, didn’t matter. At the most basic level of shenanigans, she could coat his door with plastic explosives or gas them from the vents during the night. Part of him was shocked they hadn’t already. The Frenchman though, the whole three times they’d met face-to-face, promised he wanted Alex alive at first. The Agents seemed convinced Alex’s powers would vanish if he died, and great, they thought his seizure rays sounded cool. It didn’t justify that Xander had killed damn near everybody on the Frenchman’s team. The signs pointed to the Agents judging whether their Alex hunt was still worth it. Building assassins from scratch felt unlikely, but…

“You really think we won’t see her again?”

Put the food in your fucking face –

Okay.” He hated pizza. “Thanff fuh thuh thupport.”

Live in the now, kid, his worse half drawled. She’s not here, she’s not your problem. Quit bitchin’ to me about it.

“You’d care if there was ten of her.”

Which could be true.

Is there ten?

Xander sounded excited. His perfect day spelled fighting strangers, sprinting into ambushes and generally not giving a metric shit that it technically wasn’t his body. Xander loved traps. He looked at them like nifty obstacle courses, so Alex pulled some assurance from the guy’s indifference towards the girl, since it meant she wasn’t fun enough to win his attention.

By that logic, it also meant the girl had non-Agently checked on him.

She…

Huh.

“You think she’ll come back?”

Alex.

“That’s not in a bad way,” he said quickly. “I just…” She’d been worried. The girl asked about his face. “I…”

Are you this out of touch with basic human interaction that the first person who doesn’t openly berate you becomes your love interest? Xander crammed pizza down his throat. I’ll brace for the obvious: ‘I hate her, Xander’, ‘now I like her’, ‘oh no, she’s stabbing me in the face with a pen’.

Agent.

Stress flared through his nerves, and Alex immediately started coughing on an onion. His hand whomped itself against his chest.

“Thanks,” he wheezed. “… So is she?”

Eh. I can name eight worse places to stick a dick. You’re caught up on your shots, right?

“I’m not asking so I can have sex with her.”

Good. Agency women are nuts. I regret fucking the last one. What last one? Delaney. Irish bitch. Big ears. Scratched the hell out’f my back. Your back, whatever.

“She was an Agent?!”

Yeah, dude. Why d’you think I kicked her out after?

“She wanted my skin!” Alex felt sick. “She brought a knife.”

A pen-knife! See? We’re both right. And she didn’t want it all, just a strip off your shoulder. About those shots…

“Stop.” His shoulder throbbed remembering that psycho. He’d burned a lot of effort repressing the night. Good to know it was still in there as vividly as ever. “You need to tell me when you notice this stuff.”

Why? So I can solve a minor inconvenience to the soundtrack of your crying? Fuck that noise.

“I’m in the dark about everything,” he spat. “Everything about my life.”

Honestly, you seem happier that way. And before Alex wholeheartedly called him an asshole, Xander drilled in, You don’t like it? Solve your own problems. But you won’t, ‘cause you can’t, so quit whining. You’ve got it good, all things considered.

What things considered?”

You’re alive? You’re welcome, prick.

Alex scowled at that.

“Don’t act like it’s charity when you do it to pass time.” Alex felt a thrill of giddy agreement from that spot in his head. Asshole. “This is why I’m out of touch. Everybody around me is either insane or too mentally stable to survive. The first thought when a girl walks to my door shouldn’t be, ‘Do I crack her nose or aim for her kneecaps?’ It isn’t healthy.” Especially when Xander’d ruled her out as a danger. “I should have been thinking…”

What did normal people think about?

Tits?

“Sure. Sort of.” He sighed. “I don’t know.”

Hers weren’t great.

“Shut up, Xander.”

His heart wasn’t in it. He flopped on his bed instead, landing with a whack on the rock-filled mattress and slowly sinking into the lumpy springs. Rest would be smart. His legs could use a break from twitchy wandering.

But what if?

Dammit. A secret third chunk of his mind spun up. There went sleep, because suddenly the scene with her replayed on a loop. After one minute of sifting through piles of too-bright features carved into memory – memory he was supposed to be using to track to people who came uncomfortably close too often – the big decision he came to, based on its hyper analysis, decreed the girl looked… okay.

She’d been wide-eyed when they met, so he did kind of recall two green circles gawking at him. Her chin was normal. Sharp, maybe. Her left nostril had a mark that might be an old piercing or acne. He guessed if he brushed down the rest and softened the freckles on her cheeks, she mostly fit ‘cute’. So… okay, then he wasn’t far off from her. Others said Alex mostly fit ‘cute’, too. Being in shape helped. His shirt had its own freckles out of various blood types, but his jeans smelled clean and that counted.

This is sad or impressively sad. I can’t decide.

“I’m gonna go change my shirt,” he muttered.

It’s eleven.

And he was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. He had a gray shirt somewhere, actually washed. After a struggle from the bed and a walk to his dead dresser, he found it in the bottom drawer.

“Laundry tomorrow.” No rips, no blood, at least not under the window’s moonlight. From his onceover, he low-balled being able to wear this three times, too. “If I say I’m a hipster, can I pretend this is style?” A few beats ticked by. “Xander?”

Hm? Sure.

Alex lowered the shirt. He felt a sting of hairs rising at the back of his neck. The rash itched.

“Everything… good?”

You still want that chair?

“What ch– what the hell, Xander,” he roared. Glass and wood burst from the room. Alex’s last intact piece of furniture, his single remaining seat, had just been ejected through a gaping hole – a hole he called until two seconds ago ‘his rotted window frame’. The crash of shrapnel when it hit the ground four storeys later hinted at how well it landed. “Why? Why?

I’m cleaning. It was clogging the place.

“We were done cleaning!” Alex stuck his head outside and looked. Yeah, he figured. The final semi-nice thing he owned – meanwhile, the wall-crater blended right the fuck in. “Where am I supposed to sit now?”

I dunno, the bed? I’m bored. Let’s go do shit.

Their deposit was gone. Just – completely, ‘cause before, there’d been a shot at scamming part of last month’s rent back. Now – the shock cracked off and his first spark of anger ignited – they were gonna stick him with the full cost of… this. This shitty apartment and spongy floor and perma-stains from a leaky ceiling.

“Tell me,” Alex said, very calm, trying to give some magic benefit of the doubt, “you know carpentry.”

It’s fine. Go outside, you hermit. Get air.

“What, and miss the fix-it gnomes you’ve got headed here to handle this?” Crap – the noise! The neighbours already knew who to blame it on. “The girl’ll come back.” Fuck every minute of his life. “If she’s an Agent, she’s got her excuse to visit twice. No one’ll blame her, and she can cover by saying I died long before she knocked.”

Then go to her first.

“That’s the worst plan!”

Nah. Move.

He lost. His body disappeared from under him. Xander had taken control. As his first act after charging their limbs through the door, the guy switched their shredded white shirt for the gray and left the freckled remains in the hall. They were headed for the stairs.

“You are not finding her,” Alex ordered. His mouth didn’t react. “You don’t even know where she lives!”

That’s a good point. Xander stopped at the pain-in-his-ass stairwell and blasted the entrance open with his foot. Glue or syrup had stuck to it once and forevermore, the bar that should’ve answered to a gentle push needed a savage beating to let anyone leave. It was that or use the elevator. Xander did not enjoy the elevator. I figured if she heard us and doesn’t live up here, the room under ours would be a good start. He led them to the fifth floor. I guess I’ll have to roam the halls and shout until she answers, though.

“Hey, bitch!”

Xander’s words in Alex’s voice, and he rang down the corridor.

Silence echoed. The fifth floor was empty.

I guess we’re knocking. Xander picked up his stroll again. That’s the one.

It looked like the room. Not her room – she could’ve been anywhere – but this was underneath theirs. Morbid curiosity didn’t mix well with Alex’s survival instinct. He saw flashes of her tongue being ripped out, and it wouldn’t take much for that to happen. Xander hadn’t attacked a wrong person before. If he picked up the scent of an Agent…

“Are you sure about this?”

Oh yeah. Trust me. Despite himself, Alex had to. Big smile for me! Deep breath for you.

He felt a little steadier inhaling air, enough to say, “Don’t make a mess if she’s… you know.”

Agent.

It’s half the fun, so yes, I will.

“Alright, but don’t –”

Shhhhhh. Shut the fuck up, Xander soothed.

And he knocked.

 

“The fuck do you want?”

Alex regretted opening the door before he’d thought up an excuse about the noise. This slid under ‘spectacularly stupid’, seeing how his life depended on those lies. Neighbours were the second greatest threat he faced: crotchety, nosy, dickish, ‘I have work in the morning’, ‘I’ll get the landlord’ types who went out of their way to plan legal surprise parties. The right line got them to leave. Agents never left. It was his best trick for telling the two apart. Now he’d screwed himself, because instead of saying something convincing, he stared at her. Then he kept staring, waiting for his mouth to move.

“The fuck do you want?”

Thanks, Xander.

“Uh – hello, I mean,” Alex said. Sincere. He wanted sincere. “Can I help you?”

“… Yeah…” This was new. The girl looked more uncomfortable than he did. She stood with her hand holding her other shoulder like she was her own security blanket. Maybe it had to do with the staring. “I wanted to…”

Take your time. I could use the rest.

Alex’s hands twitched. Xander, don’t start.

“… visit.”

Oh. Uh… Okay. He waited, but she didn’t elaborate. The normal written complaints and petitions weren’t anywhere he saw, either. This fell far from his element. Alex continued Operation: Cold, Dead Eyes until he clued in to echo her nervous, “‘Visit’?”

That broke the dam: “Ah – sure! You know, because – ah… you live here, and I live here – only I don’t – like – um… live here so… don’t try to come and find me or anything! You won’t! Ha-ha!”

Alex noted the forced giggle.

D’aww, she thinks you’re a mental patient, Xander cooed.

He probably was. He’d wandered in a walking coma for a month after their big Agent-land escape. Six years really flew by since then. And where he used ‘flew’, Alex meant ‘dragged with the agony of carrying an extra voice inside his head’.

“But yes, I –” Right. Her. “I came to visit. I – ah… wanted to say ‘hi’.” She paused. “So… hi, and I will simply be leaving now so – see ya later, gator!”

“Much later,” he swore the girl muttered.

That was weird. That handled itself. Were they done? Where’s my fucking latté?

“Hey, is that it?” She’d already started leaving. Fast. “You’re not here about the fight?”

“Oh, I – oh my God,” she shrieked. Alex leapt back. “Your face!”

That’s what I always tell him!

“You – you look…”

She’d been ten steps away when she turned to reply. From there, she freaked and waved her hands at his head, talking very loudly. Sure – his face, the mirror, the bruises… He figured she was saying he looked bad. She noticed, by the way, ‘cause he’d even more stupidly stepped out there to call to her. He got behind the door and shut it to a crack. Alex didn’t need her glancing inside if that’s how she felt over a swollen cheek. With his track record in catching breaks, the girl worked as a room inspector. Paying extra on his rent only bought so much ‘understanding’, and his deposit had long gone. Thanks, Xander.

This place sucks anyway.

“I’m alright,” Alex promised. “This is nothing.”

“That was your fight?” The girl squinted at him. She didn’t move closer. Neither of those made for good signs. “That was from today?”

“Uh…” What should he tell her? “Yes?”

“Oh my God. Oh my God – I had no idea! Who were you fighting?”

“My…” If he pulled himself together, Alex could spin this to get rid of her. “… roommate?” Yes, that sounded confident.

“What is he, a bear? Is he the one who throws everything? Do you need the hospital? Is he still there?” Suddenly she shot towards him and whispered, “Should I call the cops?” And bring more people? “My phone’s right here. I already had it set to dial 9-1-1.”

“No, it’s…” Wait. “You did? Why?”

“No reason!” She whipped the phone away. “Are you dying? How badly dying? Are you dizzy? You need a doctor. Is this what’s always happening?”

Ignoring the theft of his personal space, he tried to keep track of her questions. Dizzy? Yeah. Now.

“Could you excuse me?” He took the quarter-second silence as an answer. Alex closed his door, slamming the brakes on her interrogation. He flattened his shoulders against it to hold it shut in case… well, in case. “Great. What’s the plan?” Something better than ‘Nice job, genius’, please.

Alex. We have to kill her.

The sweat along his neck turned to ice. A vice caught within his throat.

“We have to kill her,” he croaked, “because she’s an Agent?”

Nah, she’s just gabby. ‘Sides, those shoes with those overalls? Guuurl…

Thanks, Xander. I almost had a fucking heart attack.”

I know. It was funny. What do you want me to do?

“Get rid of her! Non-lethally,” he added. “I don’t want her here. She’s an Agent or she’ll get hurt by the actual Agents chasing me.”

All four of them.

“There’s been more than four,” Alex said.

Not that you’d know since I do all the damn work. And – oh look, guess who’s crawling to me again. He – Save it, Pop-Tart. Next time think before you shout ‘Is That It’. What do I say about gifts and horse mouths?

Nothing?

Yeah, but trust me, it would’ve been extremely relevant.

“Will you just –”

Sorry I can’t hear you I didn’t fucking go to Pequods.

Alex glared at the air.

“You’re the worst split-personality in the world.”

That’s uncalled for. Then from his mouth came a violent shriek of, “He’s eating me!There you go. Now I’m the worst.

This type of crap was so typical, he nearly forgot other ears heard it, too. Xander’s voice had cut past the door. The walls of this building were like paper and – shit, she was gonna call the cops. He grabbed the door and ripped it back open.

“It was a joke,” he swore. “A really, really, really bad joke.”

If I knew ventriloquism, this’d be even funnier.

Shut up, Xander.

The girl gave him a stare similar to the one he’d launched at her first. She lowered her thumb from the green ‘Send’ button and tucked the phone into her pocket. With a weight attached to her tone somewhere between disturbed and personally slighted, she told him, “You said you’re alright.”

“Yes. But,” he answered, “thank you for the visit.” Don’t ever do it again. “So… uh… I have to get back to…”

Renovating.

“Yeah. I mean – renovating. I’ve gotta get to that… fun… stuff.”

Alex tacked on a tight smile. Please go?

“I suppose.” A glint lined her eyes. So her suspicion hadn’t left, and neither had she. The nosy type, he decided. “Renovating, huh? That’s what this was about?”

“We’ve got stylistic differences. I’m more into –” He drew a blank. “…ducks.”

Hahahaha!

“He’s more of a red guy,” Alex tried to finish.

“You can’t settle on red ducks?”

Red ducks? Ha-ha! Ha-ha… Wow, uh…” Please leave. “I’ll run that by him. Thanks. Thank you.”

God, it’s like watching cows fall off a cliff with you.

“You’re welcome.” She inched farther away, teasing the intent to leave but not quite going because that would’ve been too easy. This leaned dangerously close to ‘Agent’ territory. In his mind, he felt a muted rush of excitement from Xander over the thought. “You’re alone here, aren’t you?” His fear deepened. “It’s only the two of you?” Oh. Oh man. Whew. “You should come out sometime. Things might be easier if you had nearby friends to offer support.”

Okay? She’d loaded ‘support’ with a creepy emphasis.

“Thank you.”

“I’m serious. Everyone deserves a caring place to live, no matter who you’re living with.” She seemed closer. “Friends put things into perspective or help you move on, even if you truly feel like you have to stay here for a reason.” Definitely closer. “People can be reasons. Sometimes, a certain person can be the wrong reason.”

… Agent…?

I think she thinks you’re gay. What?! You shouldn’t’ve said you were renovating. What kind of a straight guy fights over that? No, because Xander said – Forget what I said. Red dicks it is. Dicks of every shade!

Ducks.

Gay ducks, too!

Alex ran a hand through his hair, pulling on the messy strands like that was going to yank him into sanity. With a second smile, tighter than the first – you know how I like itshut the fuck up, Xander!

“Look – thanks for coming by to double-check I wasn’t dead,” Alex said. She blushed. “I’m fine. Sorry about the noise, sorry about the yelling, sorry about my roommate who I have nothing to do with past sharing this crappy apartment, but I have to finish renovating and that means I need to close the door. So for the last time I’m gonna ask: is that it?”

“Yes, but I –”

Thank you.” Slam. “For shit’s sake…”

Amazing. Xander applauded. Like watching gay cows fall off a rainbow. Alex ignored him in favour of sliding to the floor. He stabbed his butt on the morning’s shrapnel but he wanted to sit. Neighbours were awful. You know what I’d’ve done five minutes ago?

“No, but you’re going to tell –”

Not talked to her. There, problem solved. What’s for supper?

Alex tensed as the shock wore off. Who was that? Why did she jump from prepping 9-1-1 to dishing domestic battery advice? It didn’t feel normal. But she left like an Agent wouldn’t, and what did he know about basic interaction anymore? Unless this formed a new angle… Get to him by pretending to not want to? Stupid. The question was whether it seemed stupid enough.

Hey. Pay attention to me. The guy slapped him. I want food.

Alex did, too. More than that though, he wanted this place clean.