“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

4 thoughts on ““Work builds character.”

  1. Welcome back! Glad you got over your hurdles. I had a glance at this part last week, and left a bit confused, so I decided to return on a weekend when I’d have more time to leave sensible thoughts. I couldn’t figure out if four-arm guy was an Agent or not; reminding myself of the last Alex part, and then reading more closely, I’m going with no. So at this point I’m thinking this is somehow a war between Agents and Anti-Agent-Metahumans with Alex/Xander caught in the middle, disliked by both sides. No one likes a wild card.

    Further thoughts:
    -I think good call on only describing the ‘fight’ in retrospect. Incidentally, does this place have no security cameras? Just wondering.
    -Ah, sometimes Alex has a dark sense of humour; this is why they still get along.
    -Inside his lungs?! I can’t figure out if that’s insanely paranoid, or foreshadowing.
    -I don’t think avoiding confrontation is the best plan, if you killed this guy’s brother. Or clone. Or something.
    -Xander imparts good advice. I’m impressed. His “killing” logic does fly a little in the face of his earlier “you saw me now I have to kill you” remark, but I guess as long as they recognize Alex in some way, they become fair game? (Alex is far too twitchy.)
    -“Santa” gets my vote for funniest line this part.
    -Huh. Impressive finish. I also noticed that in the previous part the kid was called “Carbon”… that’s funny. Presumably they only have to get somewhere public to avoid pursuit. Like Roasters.

    1. It feels great to be back. :) And confused at first or not, mathtans, you’ve been following along excellently. That’s the war around Alex in a nutshell (as far as the anti-Agents go, anyway).

      About the security cameras, because art is supposed to be worth a lot, there has to be a few. Probably only token ones around the exhibits, and not likely to impact the story (if the Agents can clean up a body, they can erase a few tapes), but they would need to exist just for the sake of common sense. As for the other points you brought up, ohhhh, don’t worry. I’ve got fun plans in mind!

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