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.”
“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.
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 Sheridan. Oh, 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.
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 –”
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.
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 –”
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.
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.”
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.
“I’m waiting for one of the artists,” he said.
“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.”
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!”
“Yes, ‘them’.” He straightened long enough to do air quotes. “You know. ‘Them’?”
“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.”
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.
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