Sick Day

I startle awake to Darren whimpering in the bathroom again, almost silently, like he can’t muster up the energy to even be upset. The door’s not locked, but I think that’s more because he didn’t have the presence of mind to lock it than because he knows he’s going to need me in there. I push it open, gently, but he’s not hunched over the toilet, he’s huddled in the bathtub, shaking and giving me puppy-dog eyes.

I turn the shower on just the cool side of lukewarm, and Darren burrows into himself trying to get away from it at the same time he’s shifting to get at more of the water. His hands are shaking too much to peel off his shirt, now that it’s soaked through. I shush at him while I pull it over his head, and then I go off to get the pills I should’ve set an alarm to give him, except that it probably wouldn’t have gone off yet. He shouldn’t be awake this soon.

“Come on, Darren,” I say, voice pitched low and quiet, “lean out of the water for a sec.”

He rests his chin on the edge of the tub and mewls piteously, but at least he’s out of the spray.

“Shh, it’s alright,” I tell him, along with random other murmurs, as I try to make him take his pills. He keeps jerking his head away and I wonder if I need to get some fucking peanut butter or cheese to wrap it in. After he yanks the bottle of water away from me and downs most of it, he finally relents.

“You’re not allowed to be mean to me, I’m sick,” he announces.

I frown at him. “When was I being mean to you?”

“You’re going to be,” he says, but I don’t get to hear why I’m going to be, because his eyes drift shut, and he leans his face against the tub, and he’s asleep again.

I adjust the spray away from his mouth and nose, turn him so he won’t slip, and go to grab a chair and a book so I can make sure he doesn’t drown while he catches up on his rest. A little while later, he opens his eyes again, and stares at me.

“Urgh,” Darren says.

“I know,” I say. “You want an ice pack or a hot water bottle?”

“Urgh,” he says again, and squeezes his eyes shut.

“Come on, up you go,” I say, tucking my bookmark into my book.

Darren waves me off. “Not until I shower. I’m covered in fever sweat.”

I shrug and go back to my book. When I look back up, Darren’s bundled himself in what’s probably not literally all of our towels, and hobbles over to thunk his head on my shoulder. I flail my book out of the way of his hair, the only part of him not covered in layers and layers of towel, which soaked through my shirt on initial contact and is looking to branch out.

“Come on,” I say, setting the book down in a dry spot and holding Darren up so he can trudge over to the couch.

I bring him a pair of his favorite pajamas and a nice soft flannel bathrobe, look at the nice robe, doesn’t that look warmer than your patchwork of towels? but he steadfastly refuses to remove the towels for the couple minutes it’ll take to put them on.

“Darren,” I say, struggling to put enough scold in my tone when he looks that wretched, “you’re not going to be able to eat.”

“Blurgh,” Darren says.

I don’t laugh. I give him a sympathetic smile and I don’t laugh.

By the time I come back with the tea, though, he’s into his pj’s and robe, with two blankets and not a few of the towels piled on top of him. I set it down next to the armrest where he’s leaning, just far enough from his hand that he won’t knock it over by accident.

He pokes at it. “What’s this?”

“It’s tea, Darren,” I tell him.

“It smells like lemons,” he says.

“It’s herbal tea, Darren, I’m not giving you caffeine,” I tell him.

He takes a tentative sip. “It kind of tastes like lemons, too? Also maybe mint.”

“Yeah,” I say. “You want me to get the box? I can figure out what’s in it.”

“That’s alright,” he tells me. “It’s horrible.”

“I can get you something else, Darren,” I tell him.

“No. It’s making my throat feel better.” He shakes his head.

I wait for him to finish his tea, and grab a pillow and tuck him in. I put the TV on low in the background, something soothing (and oddly fitting) about training puppies, and go back to my book. He shakes, every now and then, but never really wakes up. I check his temperature periodically, and take one of the opportunities when he’s more soundly asleep to remove the towels from on top of the blankets – I consider removing one of the blankets, too, but I think that might keep him from sleeping.

I manage to shake him conscious long enough to dose him again, then leave to make him some soup, which is pretty mind-numbing, and I find myself zoning out. Well, at least I don’t feel tired. But I’m running on way too little sleep, and no coffee (out of deference to Darren, who will absolutely be able to smell it in his sleep). The last time we did this we were on the same schedule. Still, it’s not that difficult of a food, and I’d be able to tell if I burned it.

(I give it a taste. It’s fine.)

I take a bowl out to Darren, then go back and get my own, along with a couple of rolls.

Darren cracks an eye open. “What?”

“Food,” I say. “Soup.”

“Hate soup,” he says, and closes his eyes again.

“Broccoli soup,” I say, “nom nom.”

“Broccoli?” he repeats, staring at me with one skeptical eye.

“Mm, leafy,” I tell him.

“Yeah, right,” he says, but he gets up to look at it. “You never leave any pieces in when I’m sick.”

“That’s so you don’t have to work up the energy to chew,” I tell him, and dunk my bread in my own soup.

He snorts at me like I’m being ridiculous, but he doesn’t even look jealously at my bread, so.

He spoons out a little, blows on it, and slurps it up, and then says, “blurgh,” again, but this time in a sort of relieved and contented sigh. I doubled his last dose, and I don’t know if he noticed, but the hand tremors are down, and that’s always a plus with soup.

He finishes it and snuggles back into his pillow. “I want an ice pop.”

I laugh as I get up. “I know. I stocked up.”

“Banana,” he specifies.

I roll my eyes. “We don’t have banana, Darren. We have mango.”

“You can’t find banana, but you can find mango?” he says, “where the hell did you get mango?”

“From the organic ice cream place,” I explain, handing him his ice pop, “they do banana, too, but it doesn’t taste anything like artificial, so I didn’t think you’d want it.”

“Blurgh,” he says, and then starts chewing on his ice pop.

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Case File: Cybergator (transcript)

Conversation between Cybergator (JCTechiePermadmin), Punchcard AI (MicrochipMafiaDon), Sourcerer (CupCoinMirrorSword), and others, TechieBreaky/JCFreeForAll.  (show timestamps)

CupCoinMirrorSword: but even if you break the passwords it doesn’t count

JCTechiePermadmin: like you could break them

CupCoinMirrorSword: doesn’t matter. if you get them disingenuously it doesn’t count

MicrochipMafiaDon: why? ive used em

CupCoinMirrorSword: personal information freely given

MicrochipMafiaDon: depends on what your trying to do

JCTechiePermadmin: can read emails with stolen passwords all you want

CupCoinMirrorSword: But you can’t have any POWER over someone unless it’s freely given!

Arcnemesis: lol POWER

JCTechiePermadmin: dunno blackmail is lots of power

CupCoinMirrorSword: What’s even the POINT of blackmailing people???

JCTechiePermadmin: money

MicrochipMafiaDon: naked pix haha

Arcnemesis: porn

Arcnemesis:  😀

LuckyTechie13: idk you could get maybe political stuff

LuckyTechie13: like get them to make petitions or something

HollywdHackrXXXO: you could always blackmail people into sabotaging things from the inside

Chi3f9659: that’s not helpful on that kind of site holly

Chi3f9659: what are you going to be like

Chi3f9659: do stuff for me

Chi3f9659: or i’ll show everyone your bad porn

CupCoinMirrorSword: look this is not helpful anyway!! we’re trying to control their LIVES

Arcnemesis: WE”RE not, Magical Trevor, just you

CupCoinMirrorSword: if you want to have power over people

HollywdHackrXXXO: More than one way to have power over people

MicrochipMafiaDon: you’d know

HollywdHackrXXXO: fuck you donnie

MicrochipMafiaDon: you wish

CupCoinMirrorSword: whatever just you know mind control takes minds not computer programs

JCTechiePermadmin: why do you even hang out here

CupCoinMirrorSword: I’m just saying

JCTechiePermadmin: no really why do you come here when you know people think you’re completely full of shit, does insulting people make your tiny dick hard

CupCoinMirrorSword: fuck off

CupCoinMirrorSword: you are so full of yourself

CupCoinMirrorSword: you really don’t want to see these people unmasked?

CupCoinMirrorSword: I can track them down, you know. To their houses.

JCTechiePermadmin: assuming freely given information, so, what, are you going to just ask them?

Arcnemesis: We don’t condone illegal activity here, CupCoinMirrorSword, and if you keep trying to plan it, I’m going to have to ban you.

Arcnemesis: maybe switch to a dark channel if you need to

MicrochipMafiaDon: so how do you allegedly do this thing

Arcnemesis: the word you’re looking for is hypothetically

Arcnemesis: only hypothetically we aren’t here to commit conspiracy

Chi3f9659: does it need to be any good, also, because you may have trouble there

CupCoinMirrorSword: no

CupCoinMirrorSword: they just need to know the person

JCTechiePermadmin: the person the fic is about? because I bet they don’t

CupCoinMirrorSword: not usually

CupCoinMirrorSword: but

JCTechiePermadmin: slim chance and probably not worth it

MicrochipMafiaDon: how do you even know anyway or just risk it

CupCoinMirrorSword: I was getting to that

CupCoinMirrorSword: if you’d shut up and let me fucking talk

Chi3f9659: does it have to be sexy

Arcnemesis: lol

CupCoinMirrorSword: no

CupCoinMirrorSword: there just has to be enough of a personality imprint

CupCoinMirrorSword: then you can track them or control them or whatever you want

Chi3f9659: you’d maybe have to read a lot of that to guess which ones actually know someone

JCTechiePermadmin: probably simpler just to hack their personnel files

HollywdHackrXXXO: or blackmail someone into getting them for you

CupCoinMirrorSword: whatever I don’t even care okay

CupCoinMirrorSword: just

CupCoinMirrorSword: there’s stuff you can do with fanfic

JCTechiePermadmin: there’s stuff you can do with anything if you actually think for half a minute

MicrochipMafiaDon: we could always just dress up in disguise and join the agency

MicrochipMafiaDon: take them down from the inside

HollywdHackrXXXO: ha, let me send you a link to their fitness requirements

MicrochipMafiaDon: you could just sex them into it

MicrochipMafiaDon: here is some tits gimme your fails

HollywdHackrXXXO: sounds about right

MicrochipMafiaDon: files

lemonlimestone: You could always just kill someone and take over their identity.

Arcnemesis: You’re suspended for thirty days, lemonlimestone. This is your final warning. Next time, you’ll be banned.

JCityEsper1998: he was probably joking

Arcnemesis: they weren’t. they’ve been warned about it before

Arcnemesis: you’ve been warned too stop defending them or someone’s going to think you’re together

LuckyTechie13: together

Arcnemesis: Homophobia is not acceptable in any of SinepostIncarnate’s rooms, LuckyTechie13. This is your third warning.

Arcnemesis: if you want to make jokes like that go hang out with otakumemetic

Arcnemesis: he loves that shit

Arcnemesis: besides you don’t even know if they’re girls or not

JCityEsper1998: i’m a dude

LuckyTechie13: whatever it was just a joke

LuckyTechie13: I didn’t even know if he was a girl or whatever

LuckyTechie13: this place was way more fun when there weren’t all these rules

MicrochipMafiaDon: uh, maybe don’t hang out in the open discussions then

MicrochipMafiaDon: the rules are basically don’t be an asshole

MicrochipMafiaDon: (and don’t do anything illegal)

MicrochipMafiaDon: (allegedly)

CupCoinMirrorSword: makes total sense why you guys are always such dicks to me

JCTechiePermadmin: you’re so fucking whipped, arcnemesis

Arcnemesis: yo, I can ban you here, Orion says you can’t touch my account anymore

JCTechiePermadmin: Orion can suck it

Arcnemesis: Orion can stop posting your rants about healers you fucking communist

JCTechiePermadmin: oh yeah just because i care about people i’m a fucking communist

CupCoinMirrorSword: you are a fucking communist

MicrochipMafiaDon: he’s not a communist

JCTechiePermadmin: no, i just think they should have to go to hospitals and stuff

MicrochipMafiaDon: he’s a socialist

CupCoinMirrorSword: how do you know they don’t

MicrochipMafiaDon: it’s not the same

JCTechiePermadmin: what?

CupCoinMirrorSword: how do you know they don’t

CupCoinMirrorSword: how do you know they don’t donate x hours a week at hospitals

JCTechiePermadmin: well you’d hear wouldn’t you

CupCoinMirrorSword: no

CupCoinMirrorSword: because they don’t want to advertise

CupCoinMirrorSword: like people can do whatever they want and get hurt with no consequences

CupCoinMirrorSword: how could you tell if they’re the same ones they all wear masks anyway

MicrochipMafiaDon: what about the private clinics

JCTechiePermadmin: what about them? they’re private

MicrochipMafiaDon: yeah, and to expensive

MicrochipMafiaDon: they could donate time

MicrochipMafiaDon: take on patience

MicrochipMafiaDon: help ppl

CupCoinMirrorSword: that’s a good point actually

MicrochipMafiaDon: see? not a communist.

JCTechiePermadmin: whatever, they have a right to charge whatever they want

JCTechiePermadmin: they provide a service

JCTechiePermadmin: what the hell service does the whc provide

Chi3f9659: just helping masks

JCTechiePermadmin: just helping masks

Chi3f9659: look i’m the last person to say this you know I am

Chi3f9659: but you know it’s what keeps you from getting like

Chi3f9659: blown up by trees or something

JCTechiePermadmin: oh yeah they definitely do stuff

JCTechiePermadmin: it’s definitely because of them that crime rates are so low. villains definitely would still feel the need to show up to mark their territory if they weren’t flying around everywhere showing off

Chi3f9659: well it is a major city

Chi3f9659: you are in JC right

JCTechiePermadmin: of course I am fuck you

CupCoinMirrorSword: you don’t have to of course about it. i’m outside the city

JCTechiePermadmin: yeah well you’re also an idiot

JCTechiePermadmin: who’s obsessed with magic

CupCoinMirrorSword: i know one you know

JCTechiePermadmin: know one what, idiot obsessed with magic?

MicrochipMafiaDon: i kno an idiot obsessed with an idiot obsessed with magic

CupCoinMirrorSword: a healer who volunteers

Arcnemesis: how hot tho

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Internet Famous

I tuck Darren into bed carefully, so as not to wake him, not that I really need to bother; he was out almost before he even took anything. If I thought there was any chance he’d manage to get a full night’s sleep on the couch and not hurt himself, I wouldn’t even have moved him. (That’s probably not true. He’s very precisely in the middle of the bed, as far from every side as possible, right now, recovery position, just in case.)

And I finally go to the office. I figure I better, if I’m not even going to be in until late tomorrow night, either. I can pull a double, and someone else can have the day off.

Except that there’s actually nothing to do, and Stranglehold is the only one in anyway.

He grins at me. “Hi, Teke, you know there’s already four fics about you?”

I stare at him. “What the hell. They don’t even have a photo, yet.”

Stranglehold rolls his eyes. “A lot of pressure on the agency, and yes, they do, they have an official press-ready portrait and two dozen action shots.”

“Action shots,” I repeat.

He brings them up on the projector. “There’s no reason to train in costume, there really isn’t.”

“It helps you, move, the,” I say, “fuck. There isn’t. I have no idea how you guys got me to do that in the first place.”

Stranglehold laughs at me. “You get used to it. They’ve also tracked down the SWAT photos.”

I accidentally knock the projector over trying to get it to slideshow through the shots, and it takes me a minute to get it set up again.

“Shit,” says Stranglehold, “sorry.”

I shake my head, and manage to get the projector working again on the second try.

“Only three of them are porn, too,” he continues, excitedly.

I glance over at his laptop. “What kind?”

“Two with Hunch, one with Sassy,” Stranglehold clarifies, “and that one’s actually the best punctuated of the three of them.”

“Huh,” I say.

Stranglehold shrugs. “They’re going to release a statement about our team sooner or later, so we can expect good results from that one.”

I watch him for a minute, as he scrolls through his various feeds. “You are just way too into the idea of team orgies.”

He laughs. “No, you have no idea, it always generates the funniest stuff. I think my very favorites have always been about whatever team I was on.”

I sigh. “Have they made up a name for me, yet?”

“Not ‘officially’,” Stranglehold says. “The other one, the gen one, did, though.”

“Oh, great, what’s that one about?” I look over his shoulder.

He obligingly pulls it up for me. “Something about how you’re tracking down a whole long list of people For Vengeance. Looks like it’s shaping up to be an epic, already got almost 20,000 words.”

“Great,” I say, “what name did I get?”

“Uh, it’s in first person, hang on a sec,” Stranglehold says, checking again. “Oh, that’s right, Ta-nehisi Malcolm.”

“Malcolm?” I say, staring at the text, right there, plain as day. “Wasn’t that Switchblade’s?”

“Yeah,” Stranglehold agrees, “apparently, you’re his son.”

“Wow.” I scroll back up to the beginning of the story. “That seems a little….”

“Yeah,” he says, “I kind of thought that, too.”

I shake my head.

He grins at me. “You want to see the fanart? A lot of it is from before they released your picture and blurb, but after they released your name, so you’re dressed like old Teke.”

“Great,” I say. “Just how many of these are there?”

“Only a couple dozen.” Stranglehold shrugs. “Mostly alone. None of you and me, yet, but a couple of you and Hunch, in various stages of undress.”

I groan.

“Nothing really explicit, not that I’ve seen,” he reassures me.

I cover my face with my hands. “There’s nothing going on between me and Hunch.”

He snorts. “You don’t have to convince me. Hunch is a good commander; he would never do something like that. You know it’s just because he’s the only one you’ve been on patrol with, right?”

“And Sass?” I say.

Stranglehold lifts one shoulder. “I really don’t know what’s up with that. She’s the first one you see with every new hero, basically, and at least half the villains.”

That’s sort of stomach-churning.

“Yeah, well, you can see why she gets in fights with people so often,” he adds. “We’ve come to an agreement where we always watch each other’s feeds. Doesn’t necessarily work out, though.”

“Yeah,” I say, “right. What with all the people shipping you.”

Stranglehold laughs. “That OTP’s always good for a couple of drinks and a dramatic reading.”

I laugh too. “You sell tickets?”

“Oh, right, you only just put on the mask,” Stranglehold says. “Yeah, someone does one of those every Wednesday, up in the old auditorium. I mean, no tickets.”

“Dramatic readings,” I clarify.

He shrugs. “Generally, yeah, sometimes we get together and write things as a group.”

“You know,” I say, “I’m just going to pretend all the really bad stuff out there is you guys, just fucking with people.”

He nods sagely. “That’s what we all like to pretend, too. Got to be pretty careful you don’t post it from your agency account, though. They do not like that upstairs.”

“How many times have you guys actually posed naked together and then claimed it’s just a really good manip?” I ask, leaning over his shoulder again.

He shoots me a Look. “Yeah, um, no, that is going to violate all kinds of policies. I get where you’re coming from, but it’s not funny, and it wouldn’t be funny. Don’t.”

I take a step back (literally, but also metaphorically). “Sorry. What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever written?”

“Have to be back to a team orgy,” Stranglehold says, snickering, “We went on about Flagship for, I think, close to an entire novel.”

I can feel my eyelids trying to crawl into the back of my head.

“No, none of the big guns ever hang out with us,” Stranglehold apologizes, shrugging, “but we did have Sideswipe for that one, and Apogee pretty much constantly, and Smoke every now and then.”

“Smoke and Apogee aren’t big guns?” I say.

Stranglehold rolls his eyes. “Fine, none of the brass, then, I don’t know what you want me to say. I can show you the story, if you want, we publish under KoolaidMasquerade.”

I shake my head at him. “Fuck, you’re the guys who run Stalking JCitySkies.”

Stranglehold grins. “You a fan of the blog? Believe me, shit takes a lot of work.”

“No, actually, I’m best friends with her, and she hates you,” I explain.

Stranglehold’s mouth drops open. “Okay, um, sorry about that, that’s actually really awkward. She really hates us? What sort of trouble are we causing her?”

“None, that I know of,” I reassure him, “she just likes having someone to rant over.”

Stranglehold grimaces. “You’ve explained to her the extranormal vulnerability in writing about you, right, because I’d hate to have to write you up over it. I have shit to do.”

“Yeah.” I shake my head. “Yeah, I know, you can go back to it. What do you want me to do?”

He waves a hand at a chair. “Be my guest. There’s never a shortage, and it’s not like we’ve got a lot else going on right at the moment. You can look over yours if you want. Like comment wars?”

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Party Like It’s 1999

Eugene hugs me as soon as I show up. “He nearly threw a tantrum when he heard you weren’t coming. He’s been sulking in his room, at least until I got your second text. He made me show it to him.”

“Sorry,” I say, and make a face.

Eugene laughs. “He’s still waiting to develop TK, you know. He’s extremely mad at me for trying to keep you away.”

“You did explain I have a job and life and stuff?” I ask.

“He should develop TK,” Darren adds, “he can join the class and hang out with Travis all he wants. Wouldn’t that be fun, Fox?”

I elbow him, but Eugene hugs him, too, saying, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

Darren pulls his case of pills out of his pocket and shakes it.

“Ah, right,” Eugene says, “that would be courtesy of the other half of our case, I take it?”

Darren and I exchange a quick glance, and he shrugs. “At least I know how long ‘sick’ is going to last with this bitch, so better than it could be.”

Eugene nods sympathetically and glances at me. “You going to need tomorrow off?”

I shrug. Nod. Get barreled over by a newly minted fourteen-year-old.

“Uncle Travis!” he shrieks.

“Hey, kiddo,” I say, trying to stand up again.

“I knew you wouldn’t really miss it!” he gloats, hugging my neck as hard as he can.

“I got you a present,” I choke out, and shove it into his hands.

“Thank you!” Lee screams, right into my ear, and then tears the wrapping off some alien thing.

“You’re welcome,” I tell him, even though I can’t even hear myself speak anymore.

“What is it?” Lee asks, voice full of apprehension and wonder.

“No idea,” I say.

His eyes light up in even greater joy, and I think, not for the first time, that if he’s going to develop powers, they’re more likely to be of the techie or esper persuasion than his beloved TK.

“It’s an alien something or other,” he says to his dad, tone low and awed. “Uncle Travis is the greatest. I’m going to work with him just as soon as I graduate.”

Eugene makes a moue of annoyed consternation.

“You know, Lee,” I say, “your dad works with this stuff, too. He can get you more whenever –”

“Man, whatever, fuck my dad’s lame job,” Lee says, and turns to his dad. “No one cares, Dad, stop trying to get Uncle Travis to vouch for you when you know he’s ten times cooler.”

I don’t really know what to do with that one.

Darren hands over his pen. “I got you a pen.”

Lee looks up at him in wary confusion, pulls the wrapping off, and stares at his present for a minute. “Huh. It is a pen.”

“Yeah,” Darren says. I’d like to blame it on the fact that he’s a little under the weather, but at least he hasn’t asked the kid what his name is.

Lee pauses for a minute, still staring at Darren. “Who the hell are you?”

“Well, I tried,” Darren says, shrugging and wandering off to find something to eat.

“That’s Darren,” Eugene says, “he works with us.”

“Really?” Lee says, suddenly more interested in the pen. “Cool.”

Eugene shrugs at me.

“Uncle Travis?” Lee asks, poking me with the pen.

“Yeah?” I say.

“Do the thing,” Lee says, and waves his hand around.

I wiggle my fingers (for effect, but he’s used to it; I still had to if I wanted fine control the first time we met) and make the little shreds of wrapping paper dance in a circle around him.

He sighs. “That’s so cool. I wish I could do that. Anna from my English class can, but she won’t show off. Jake from Yearbook will, but he’s a giant asshole.”

“Yeah,” I agree, for complete lack of anything better to say, “not everyone with TK is nice.”

“Yeah,” Lee says, sadly.

“Sorry,” I say, not sure what to add there, except that I know better than to go on a rant about Prime Mover, who Lee is also pretty fond of, and who might well be at this party.

“Hey, squirt,” says a voice, coming up from behind me and not so much pushing me to the side as kind of not even noticing I’m in the way.

I move a little.

“Hi, Adam!” Lee says, smothering his brother in a hug. “I didn’t think you were coming back. Mel said she’s in school but she sent me a present anyway so I should open it and stop bothering her.”

“What better present than your big brother coming to visit you?” Adam asks, ruffling Lee’s hair.

He pats it back down really carefully, but grins. “Uncle Travis gave me some sort of alien thing. I have no idea what it is, but it’s alien.”

“‘Uncle’ Travis,” Adam says, with a snort, looking at me, “aren’t you a little old to still call him that? Tell you what, I have a friend who knows all about alien tech.”

“Really?” Lee gasps, and follows Adam off to a friend that I hope gets him in less trouble than most of the friends he’s had who were experts in, well, really, any given thing.

Darren comes back with cake and Sinead, who has another piece of cake for me.

“Hi, sweetie,” she says, giving me half a hug and the paper plate, “I hope Lee didn’t demand too much of your attention?”

“It’s fine,” I tell her, with a laugh, “just wanted a little prestidigitation.”

“I’ll explain to Lee if you need to leave suddenly,” she says, patting Darren on the back, “I understand you only barely made it here? Gene said the worst will probably hit in an hour or two.”

“No, I’m good until tomorrow morning,” Darren says, “probably back at work Wednesday.”

“Take your pills,” I tell him, and he rolls his eyes at me, but checks the timers on his phone, anyway, pulling out one of them and tossing it down.

Sinead pats him on the head this time, more condescendingly. “I heard you were promoted, Travis, how’s that coming along for you?”

“Pretty good,” I say.

She smiles at me. “Good. Let me know if you need any advice. I’ve figured out how to deal with a handful or two in my time.” She tilts her head at her sons.

I grin. “Thanks. I’ll probably take you up on that.”

“I find a spray bottle sometimes works better on children than dogs,” she says, with a wink.

“I like her,” Darren says, as Sinead leaves, “she’s funny.”

“You say that every time, Darren,” I tell him.

He shrugs. “She’s funny every time. You wouldn’t think a lawyer would be.”

“Did she even actually say anything particularly funny to you, Darren,” I ask him, “or are you still convinced that if she’s being nice it must be a bit?”

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You’re not going to die, Darren.

I knock on the bathroom door when I find it both shut and locked, Darren not remotely responding to my queries. Of course, he is in there throwing up, so.

“Darren?” I say, knocking again.

“For the love of Saint Fucking Michael, will you fuck the hell off?” Darren screams.

I sigh. “Darren, I was about to leave, but if you need me to stay, I’ll call and say I can’t make it.”

“Fuck you,” Darren says, “fuck you fuck you fuck you,” and pukes again, and starts crying.

I wiggle my field into the doorknob and pop the lock open, then slowly push the door in, trying to avoid hitting Darren. He shuffles out of my way. I reach down to put my hand on Darren’s neck, but his fever’s still low, and it’s more irritating than pleasantly cool. He shakes me off.

“I hate you,” he mumbles, and leans against my leg.

“I know, buddy, I know,” I tell him, and stroke his hair until he closes his eyes and relaxes.

“I hate everything,” he adds, after a minute.

“I know,” I say again.

He claws at my leg a little, and I’m glad I’m wearing jeans, because he keeps at it, even if he isn’t clawing very hard. “I don’t really hate you, Travis.”

“I know that, too,” I assure him.

Darren hugs my leg, then, and butts his head against it, and mumbles into it so I can barely tell what he’s saying. “I love you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’d probably die.”

“You’re not going to die, Darren,” I sigh.

He sighs back, into my pants. “I feel like I am.”

“Yeah, that’s to be expected,” I say, feeling like I would be a little more sympathetic if I’d gotten another hour or two of sleep last night, “let me get you that anti-emetic, okay? Then we can wait a little bit and I’ll make you breakfast.”

“No breakfast.” Darren shakes his head. “My stomach will murder me. And also you.”

“That’s what the anti-emetic is for, Darren,” I say.

“Can’t take a pill,” he says, “going to puke it up.”

“I know, buddy, I know,” I say again, going back to petting his hair, “I’m going to inject it. Kelly knows you never take them soon enough. She sent me a syringe.”

“Kelly from the pharmacy?” he asks, looking blearily up at me.

“Yeah, buddy, Kelly from the pharmacy,” I agree.

He snickers. “She has a crush on me.”

I roll my eyes. He must be feeling better, and he hasn’t even had his meds yet.

“You don’t know,” he says, at my expression, “I’m way hotter than you give me credit for. I’m way more badass than you give me credit for.”

“Yeah, Darren, you’re super hot and badass,” I agree, wetting a washcloth to dab the vomit from his mouth, and then handing him a glass of water.

“Yeah,” he says, and rinses his mouth out.

Then I hand him the mouthwash and he rinses his mouth out again.

“Ugh,” he says, “I feel like shit.”

“You feel like you’re going to throw up again in the next couple of minutes?” I ask, “or can you come sit on the couch?”

“Couch,” he says, “probably down to dry-heaving now, anyway.”

“Okay,” I say, and take him out to the couch, supporting him until I can get him down onto it, and he goes boneless against the cushions.

He makes some sort of incoherent noise of displeasure.

I bring back all of his meds, and some water, and inject him with the first dose of the anti-emetic, then set the timer on his phone so he doesn’t forget the rest. He doesn’t even react to the needle, just stares at me until I’m done. Then he curls into my shoulder and sobs on my shirt for a while, and I text Hunch to say I’m not going to be showing up.

“Oh, god,” Darren says, after a while, “oh, god, that’s so much better.”

“Uh-huh,” I agree, “this is why I reminded you to take them before I left.”

“Fuck you, Fox, you suck,” Darren says. There’s no heat behind it.

I pat him on the head and hand him the water bottle, and then give him his pills one by one while he glares at me, but he takes them. He leans back against me when he’s done, and waits for the last one to kick in. I wonder if he’s fallen asleep again. I hope for his sake he hasn’t.

He actually groans when it finally does start to work, hops up, and stretches. “I feel disgusting. I’m going to shower. Make me something quick to eat and then we can get going.”

“Going where, Darren?” I ask, more than slightly exasperated. I can’t believe he made plans.

“Don’t you have that party thing?” he says, “weren’t we supposed to go?”

“I was,” I say, “I already told Eugene you were sick.”

“I’m not sick,” he says, “I feel fine. Pack the pills, and I’ll continue to feel fine.”

“The worst of the symptoms are going to hit in about two hours, and you’re not going to want to be anywhere but tucked into bed,” I remind him.

He shakes his head. “Nah. Got her to give me a top up before I left work. Worst of the symptoms shouldn’t be until morning.”

“Shit,” I say, “do you need me to call off work tomorrow?”

“Won’t the kids miss you?” he asks, with a laugh.

“It’s Monday. The kids are going to be in testing all day,” I say. “And if you don’t want me to watch you, I’m going to call someone else, and it sounds like it can’t be any of your team.”

“God, are you going to call Vector to watch me?” Darren mutters, “fine, fuck, stay home, see if I care, just did this to go to your stupid party, don’t blame me if you lose your fucking job.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I say, but he’s already wandered off to the shower. I get started on food, wondering what’ll be mild enough for him, but still calorie rich, because he’s not going to feel better nearly as fast if he doesn’t ramp up his intake a little. I settle on banana pancakes.

Showered and medicated and dressed in clean clothes, he looks a hell of a lot better, and by the time I get some food into him, I can actually believe he’s up for going out, at least to something as undemanding as Lee’s party. He even has a present. It’s a pen, but it’s a present. (Not a particularly interesting pen, just the normal writing kind, but it comes in its own box.)

I grab my own present, text Hunch again, and we leave.

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Coffee

“Is Pris coming?” I say, dropping my bag on the chair across from Perry.

“Why, miss her already?” Perry shakes her head. “You only saw her yesterday, Travis, shame on you, trying to woo her away like that. And after running out on us, too. Rude.”

“Darren’s sick,” I tell her. Again.

“Oh, Pris and I were nearly there ourselves, listening to how much good you’re doing for the world, so that explains that,” Perry says. She raises one eyebrow, and other than that, nothing.

I shake my head at her, and go to get my coffee.

Tony hands me my usual and swipes my card before looking up from the register and staring.

“Hi, Tony,” I say.

“Fox,” he says. “Your schedule changed.”

“Yes,” I agree.

“You’re stalking me,” he accuses.

I laugh.

“You’re not tired,” he accuses, again, “you changed schedules at the exact same time I did, only you’re not tired. You’re not stalking me, you’re taunting me.”

“Sorry,” I say, “I may have a little advantage, you know, I get the military-grade shit.”

He sighs, bringing his hand to his forehead. “And me stuck with just coffee.”

“Don’t knock coffee,” I say, “coffee is the backbone of the industry.”

He chuckles and sends me on my way.

“Do you get better coffee when you flirt with the barista?” Perry asks me.

“I’d think you’d know the answer to that better than I would,” I retort.

“Couldn’t tell you,” Perry says, “I never don’t flirt, so I don’t have a control sample.”

“I didn’t have time to flirt,” I say, “he handed me my coffee before he even noticed I was there.”

“Spent a little long there for the Sunday after-church rush,” Perry scolds.

I look around the only mostly-full coffee shop. “Yeah, it’s so busy.”

Perry looks Tony up and down. “Well, I can see your interest. He new?”

“That’s Tony, Perry,” I tell her.

“So you do know him,” she says.

I sigh. “That’s the same one we always have, Perry.”

“No,” she says, “he works Saturdays, not Sundays.”

“His schedule changed, Perry, that’s what we were talking about,” I say.

“Boring as hell,” she says, “let’s talk about my new film.”

“Alright,” I concede, “anyone I know involved?”

“Yes, but, unfortunately, no one you know who didn’t also make me sign a thing,” she tells me, “I mean, except for Pris, obviously, and Sarah, you’ve met Sarah, right? And Natalie.”

“Sarah the costume designer?” I ask, and don’t question who the hell Natalie is, “the one who makes the interview-variants of all the suits?”

“No, that’s Tara,” she says, “you’re hopeless. Sarah’s the sound tech. Not the one in charge, I mean, the competent one. Hopefully I can fire the other guy.”

“Right,” I agree.

“Natalie’s my new assistant,” she reminds me.

Oh. Right.

“Based on a memoir,” she says, laughing, and I may have missed the first half of that sentence, but with Perry, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

“God, I hate those,” I agree.

“Only, you know, very ’80’s, right?” she says, “we’re wondering whether to revamp everything, set it now, glam it up a little, much more fictionalized, or just go for retro factor.”

“Probably sell better if you modernize,” I say, “but it’s going to piss off your memoirist.”

“Right? Win-win,” Perry tells me. “I keep telling people we need to claim it’s set in the eighties, have the logos and everything, and pretty much just set it now. Best of everything.”

“Well, that’ll sell tickets,” I agree.

Perry sighs. “Yeah, I know, I think we’re going real high-brow with this. The book won awards, every single fucking person will have you know; they’re hoping to grab onto its coattails.”

“Are you allowed to tell me what book?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah, there’s already announcements all over,” Perry says, “but since you don’t follow the memoirs, I doubt you’ve read it, and it was one of the ‘just a normal person’ ones, no one famous.”

“Not that you’re not going to work big names into the movie, somehow,” I say.

Perry laughs. “There was a hell of a lot of name-dropping in the book, and critics loved the shit out of that, who am I to say it’s not valid art?”

“Do you ever do any kind of project anymore where you don’t judge the shit out of every single person involved?” I ask her.

“Not since school, Trav,” Perry says, with a wistful sigh, “I’m going on sabbatical and doing an art film as soon as I can get someone suitably famous yet unpretentious lined up.”

“That’ll happen,” I say.

Perry throws her straw wrapper at me. “Look, amazing lofts don’t just buy themselves without you selling out.”

“Yeah, or you could just ask your parents,” I say, “since, come to think of it, they actually could get you that unpretentious celebrity you want, I’m sure.”

Perry rolls her eyes. “There’s selling out and there’s selling out, Fox, I’m surprised at you.”

“No, you’re not,” I say.

Perry laughs. “You always did like my parents more than they deserve.”

“Well, they liked me,” I say. “Or, at least, they thought we were going to get married and thought it was completely adorable and didn’t want to jinx it.”

“They thought they ought to show how accepting they were of all the wide array of diverse and exotic people in the world, you mean,” Perry says.

I shrug.

“They never would’ve let us get married,” Perry adds.

“Yes, because you were so set on that one,” I say.

Perry elbows me in the ribs. “You could do worse than me.”

“I certainly could,” I tell her.

She snorts. “You did do worse than me.”

I narrow my eyes at her and stick out my tongue.

She waves a hand. “The piece I’m setting up – and yes, I do know I’m not going to be able to do it as low budget as all that – it’s going to be set during the first incarnation of the WHC.”

“During World War Two?” I ask.

Perry shakes her head. “No, the original incarnation, when they were still police, maybe just right after World War One, when everyone was busy going a little nuts over everything.”

“Alright,” I say, “who’s the focus, or no one famous?”

“Probably not anyone famous,” she says, “I’m hesitant to use any real people at all, actually, since the setting’s more for symbolism than anything.”

“Is it a triptych this time?” I ask her, “tell me it’s not another triptych.”

“It’s not,” she protests, “it was going to follow a couple guys who became friends after enlisting. Before enlisting, probably, actually. I don’t know. I’ll have to research military history some.”

“No action, no romance,” I say, “Priscilla will be so pleased.”

“There’ll be a little bit of action,” Perry says, “not that much, but a little. As for the romance, I don’t know, I could work in a bunch of sex, but then I’d better bump up the timeline.”

“Lovely,” I say.

“You think I should set it during World War Two? I was thinking maybe an angsty subplot in there, but if it’s going to be a big thing, probably during the war,” Perry muses. “One or the other.”

“You haven’t even told me the plot, yet,” I say.

“Haven’t finished the details,” Perry dismisses my point. “Have to finish filling them in, and that’s going to be very different whether or not it’s during a war. Only half the script’s written.”

“I’d probably be able to tell you more if I read it,” I offer.

She grins at me and presses a bunch of buttons on her phone without even looking at it.

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Getting the Band Back Together

After Darren finally falls asleep (define ‘too early’ when you’ve been nearly zonking out all day) and I can be sure he’s not going to injure himself without me around, I head over to Griff’s house for dinner. A chorus of ‘Fox’ greets me when I step through the door.

Griff hands me a beer just in time to clink it against his and shout, “to Teke!”

People have been here for a while and are already a little bit happy to scream call and response.

“So?” Griff says, “enjoying your new promotion?”

I laugh at him.

He shrugs. “Alright, fine then, putting up with your new job, at least?”

“Sure,” I say, surprised at how relieved I feel to only have people from work around. “Gatling is just as much a little shit as ever, but the other kids seem okay.”

“Eh, watch out for Caffeine,” Jonesy tells me, “kid’ll steal your cigarettes right out of your pocket before you even notice they’re gone.”

I choke on my beer. “What, to smoke?” at the same time Hannah reminds him that I don’t, in fact, smoke and therefore don’t carry cigarettes around.

Jonesy waves a hand. “No, because he thinks I should quit. Well, maybe, who knows?”

Chris snorts. “I thought you had quit.”

Hannah winks at Jonesy and says, “he did, for almost a whole week.”

“I will have you know it was eight days this time,” Jonesy brags, then laughs.

“So, is Hunch a better boss than me?” Griff asks.

Danny pats him on the shoulder. “Aw, no one’s a better boss than you, Griff.”

“Of course.” I raise my eyebrow. “He doesn’t have a moral opposition to snacking.”

“Go ahead, snack yourself silly,” Griff says, waving at a bowl of pretzels. “There’s no presentation for you to drown out with your incessant crunching.”

“Well, he was never opposed to quiet snacks,” Chris offers, with a shrug.

Magnet grins. “Like bananas.”

“That’s a good point,” Danny says, “you’d think Fox would’ve remembered that one.”

“Nah,” Point retorts, “too busy being all bent out of shape over Griff banning his pizza-flavored chips. I wonder where he got so many of those?”

Hannah smacks him. “You’re one to talk, whining over your lack of fish tacos.”

Griff crunches on a pretzel. “I told you guys you could as long as they were soft shell.”

“Yeah, well, Hunch doesn’t care if we pay attention to him,” I tell Griff. “He figures if we don’t, he can look forward to kicking our asses.”

“Ah, there’s the difference between him and me,” Griff says, “I find there’s far too much paperwork involved in regulation ass-kicking.”

Magnet laughs. “Or you just only think you could take some of us.”

“What, with your ability to MacGyver a clusterfuck out of any situation?” Griff says, “no, you can just go ahead and listen quietly to your briefings, thank you, no ass-kickings necessary.”

“I’ll kick his ass for you, Griff,” Chris offers, “he still owes me fifty bucks, so I’m good for it.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Jonesy butts in, “Magnet won that back fair and square.”

“How is that fair when he’s that much better at darts than we are?” Chris demands.

“Aw, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” Magnet says, fanning himself.

Point nudges me. “Chris was trying to get him to play poker for it.”

“Well, I would’ve had a chance at poker,” Chris says.

I shake my head at him. “Yeah, because you cheat.”

“It’s not cheating if you do it in your head,” Chris protests, echoed a half beat behind by Hannah and Griff in eerie unison.

Jonesy pokes Chris in the chest. “You cheat at cards more than I cheat on my diet, and I’m the one who can’t bother eating healthy because the lung cancer’s going to get me first, anyway.”

“You cheat at cards,” Hannah joins in, “more than my exes try to cheat on me to make me jealous in case we aren’t really broken up.”

“You cheat at cards,” Magnet says, “more than I cheat at mini-golf.”

“Why would you bother cheating at mini-golf?” Point asks.

“Because he only likes a third of the courses,” Griff answers, “and you’re lucky he’s never dragged you along, because he really does work fast to skip the rest of them.”

“You cheat at cards,” Danny chimes in, “more than I cheat at cardio on squats day.”

“You cheat at cards,” I add, “more than I cheat at shell games.”

“You cheat at cards,” Point says, pausing for a minute to think of a good one, “more than I cheated on every ‘match the passage’ test growing up.”

“You cheat at cards,” Griff concludes, “more than I cheat at baked pasta.”

“How do you cheat at baked pasta?” Jonesy asks.

“I use the kind meant for baking, instead of pre-cooking it,” Griff explains.

Magnet snorts. “That’s not all that much of cheating.”

Griff shrugs. “Well, he doesn’t cheat that much when I play him.”

Point leans in to ask me, “there’s a kind you don’t have to cook first?”

I give him a skeptical nod.

Just about at the same time, Chris leans in to ask me, “there’s a kind you have to cook first?”

I narrow my eyes at him for long enough to believe he’s just genuinely confused, then roll my eyes and nod at him, too.

Danny flops down against the arm of the sofa and asks, “is it true Hunch buys you cookies if you’re a good boy?”

“Hunch has three kids,” I tell him, “he’ll bring you cookies whether or not he even likes you.”

Danny snickers. “Do you have to eat all your vegetables?”

I sigh at him. “You should be eating all your vegetables, anyway, Danny, you’re a big boy now.”

Danny flips me off and vindictively gnaws on a carrot stick. Magnet passes me the bowl of M&Ms, and we pointedly snack on them until Danny gives up in a huff.

Chris comes back with more alcohol for everyone, this time in the form of cider. Point, meanwhile, is congratulating himself on bringing cider donuts. They’re too tiny to even have centers, really, but it was a good effort. And they go well with the cider.

When the doorbell rings, Hannah screams, “pizza’s here!” and three separate people trip over my feet on the way to the door.

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Downswing

“So, you got a present for, whatever, Hunch’s kid?” Darren asks, from the couch.

“You’re going to have to call him Eugene if you’re going to the party,” I call back, and then rush to him at the sound of glass breaking.

“Shit,” Darren says, cradling his hand.

I walk over to the kitchen to grab the dustpan and start sweeping up the pieces of glass. “Did you cut yourself?”

Darren shakes his head. “No, fine, just a cramp. On the downswing now.”

“Fun times,” I agree, “at least the project’s over.”

Darren chuckles morosely. “Phase one, anyway. Might be back next month with a shiny new plan to ruin my life.”

“You might not get conscripted next time,” I tell him, trading the dustpan in for a towel to mop up the rest of the beer from the, fortunately, mostly empty bottle.

“Shit,” Darren says again, as his hand spasms.

I glance up at him. “They didn’t give you anything for that?”

“Oh, they did, but you know how stingy they are with the controlled substances.” Darren shakes his head. “I start now, I won’t have enough for the weekend.”

“I can cut them in half for you,” I remind him.

He waves me off. “I’m fine for now. Won’t get really bad until I should be asleep, anyway, and I’d really rather take something a little stronger for that one.”

“You forgot to renew your script,” I tell him.

“Shit,” he says. “I did.”

“Sorry,” I say.

Darren shakes his head. “You have some left over, right?”

“Yeah,” I say, “but you know they’re not the same kind, right? They might make you sick.”

“I’m already sick,” Darren grumbles, “or I’m going to be by nightfall.”

“They might be expired, too,” I add.

“You know it just means less effective, right?” Darren says, exasperated, “it only needs to be effective enough to knock me out.”

“I’m going back to the office and picking up your refill,” I tell him. And resist the urge to pat him on the head.

“I’ll get it myself,” he snaps.

I elbow him back onto the couch. “Like hell you’re driving.”

Darren groans in acknowledgement.

“Was it this bad last time?” I ask him.

He drops his head back onto the couch. “It’s this bad every time.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t this bad last time,” I tell him.

He shakes his head, and then just buries it into the couch cushions. I give him a minute while I go to wash the beer off my hands, but when I come back he’s still sitting the exact same way.

“Darren,” I say and give him a little shake.

“I’m awake, I’m awake, what the fuck do you want,” he says.

“Darren, honey, if you fall asleep now, you’re only going to feel even more like shit by the time you get up in the morning,” I say, and figure maybe I better not leave him alone until he’s ready to fall asleep. I message my team to see who’s at the office right now, in case one of them can grab it.

“Fine, fine,” Darren says, “tell me about the brat and his birthday extravaganza or whatever.”

“I just picked him up one of the alien artifacts,” I say.

Darren chuckles. “Attaboy, Travis, steal presents from the labs.”

I roll my eyes. “It was declared safe, and they were going to chuck it, anyway.”

Then my phone buzzes, because apparently Sass is at the office, and bored, and happy to do me a favor.

Right, I tell her, Darren forgot to pick up his refill, and he’s not looking so hot right now.

At the pharmacy, she tells me, a couple minutes later. What did he want, the Ambien or the Ativan? Oh, hey, there’s a beta blocker, too. He didn’t happen to talk to Amphetamine recently?

Sass, I text back.

Is that what you call me in your head? she responds almost immediately. Never mind, I’ll pick them all up. He’s going to need them.

“What’s he want,” Darren asks, shaking himself awake again, “with alien junk, anyway? I mean, if he did, couldn’t his dad just get him some, whenever?”

I laugh. “You obviously don’t remember what it was like talking to your parents as a teenager.”

“I didn’t,” Darren reminds me. “We tried to avoid each other as much as possible.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have asked for alien stuff, either,” I tell him.

He shakes his head and puts on the TV. “That’s true.”

We watch for a while, and I shake him awake every time he looks like he’s about to drift off. Poking him yet again, I say, “I know it’s a bad idea, but do you want some coffee?”

“God, no,” Darren says, “don’t tempt me. Don’t tempt me with any of your wicked stimulants, I’m onto your nefarious ways, coffeemonger.”

He jumps at a knock at the door, but at least the adrenaline started out in his system, and isn’t going to impact the withdrawal. Amphetamine’s power is polite that way. And at least he’s not liable to fall asleep while I go to answer it.

“Hey,” Sass says, holding up a handful of little white bags.

“Wow,” I say, ushering her inside. “That was fast.”

“Yeah, well,” she shrugs. “I may have walked a little faster than regulation.”

I laugh, looking her up and down. “Been cooped up a little? Because I don’t remember you developing speed powers.”

“As the crow flies? You’d be surprised,” she says, “also, stop checking me out, Travis.”

“Sorry,” I tell her. “It’s just. You look, you know, different, out of costume.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m not prone to wearing catsuits as casualwear.”

“That’s fair,” I say.

She hands over the drugs. “That’s all five of his, and one for you.”

“Me,” I repeat.

“I think the tired is catching,” Sass tells me, “yes, you, apparently you have a prescription for sleeping pills, too, that you never picked up. I did have to explain why I was picking up his meds.”

“Oh,” I say, “right.”

“Travis, introduce me to your friend or tell her to get the fuck out,” Darren says, “she’s interrupting the TV and I’m going to pass out if I can’t concentrate on it.”

“Hi,” says Sass, “I’m Ursula. You’re Darren, I just picked up your prescriptions, you’re grateful, and you’re only being an asshole to me because you’re coming down off the hard shit.”

“That about sums it up,” Darren agrees. “Nice to meet you, Ursula.”

Ursula makes a face. “This is why I’m always at work.”

Darren snaps. “Sassy!”

“Yeah,” Sass agrees.

“You’re sassier out of costume,” Darren says.

“Uh, sorry?” Sass says.

Darren shrugs. “Thanks for picking those up.”

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Teke

“Are you going to say it outright, or are we just going to imply it at each other until we’re blue in the face?” Perry pulls me inside and slams the door behind me.

I sigh, making my way over to the living room.  “Yes, Perry, they switched me to mask.”

“I thought all the masks started out mask?” she calls from over by the coffeepot, where she’s gone to get coffee, because there’s no way I’m having this conversation without any coffee and she knows it, “you want sugar or honey?”

“I don’t even care,” I call back, “bring it black, I won’t even notice.”

She brings me one of the big mugs they have for expressly this purpose, filled to the brim with delicious piping hot coffee. Incidentally, I better get lunch out of this also. “Sugar then, Caffeind.”

I make a face at her.

“Well, you haven’t exactly told me your code name, have you?” she says, grinning.

I sigh. “Teke.”

She rolls her eyes at that. “Catchy. I thought there already was one?”

“No, we just had Gates Teke visiting for a while.” I shrug. “Wasn’t my pick.”

She sets her coffee down, looks around for Pris, and leans towards me. “Seriously, though, are you safe?”

I shrug again, sip my coffee. “Mask is statistically safer than armor, anyway.”

“Yeah, and when it isn’t safe, it really isn’t safe,” she says. “How big is this project? What do they want you for, what are they making you do? Do I need to call someone?”

“Perry,” I say.

She shakes her head at me. “Don’t give me that, Travis. Don’t play it off like you’re not worried.”

“Perry,” I repeat. “They want me to coach the kids.”

Her eyes widen slightly, and then she snorts hard enough to have to squeeze her nose so she doesn’t sneeze, and a fair amount of coffee manages to dribble out of the corner of her mouth anyway. She dabs at it with her sleeve. Then she starts laughing.

“Oh, fuck you, Perry, you wanted me safe, I’m safe,” I tell her.

“You’re gonna, you’re gonna,” she gasps, red in the face, “you’re gonna get chicken pox or something, you’re gonna end up in the hospital with chicken pox instead of stabbing.”

I sigh. “Perry, I’ve had chicken pox. You gave it to me.”

She pauses, then snorts again. “No, I’m sorry, I think that makes it funnier, somehow.”

Priscilla chooses that moment to walk back in, carrying lovely, lovely bagels and lovely, lovely coffee, and takes one look at Perry and says, “well, I’m sorry I’m late.”

I shrug. “Apparently, she’s easily amused.”

“Mm,” Priscilla says, “funny name or funny costume?”

“Neither,” I tell her, “funny job, apparently.”

Priscilla frowns. “Why, what are you doing? I’d think we would’ve noticed sooner if you were doing PR, and I can’t imagine there’s much else quite that amusing.”

“Coaching,” I say. “I’m teaching kids how to punch things.”

Priscilla raises an eyebrow. “I don’t get it. I mean, I guess I don’t know you as well as laughy-pants does, but that doesn’t really seem all that funny to me. What do you, hate kids or something?”

I shake my head and shrug. Perry’s eyes are watering now.

“Come off it, Trav, you do too hate kids,” Perry says.

“Not more than anyone else,” I tell her.

She nods, eyes still watering as she takes deep breaths. “Fair enough, but still, come on. Like you got into this to mentor the next generation on how to be warriors for the light or whatever.”

“I’m only training them in running, and controlling their powers, and karate, and stuff,” I complain, “I’m not even training them in karate; Sensei Domino’s training them in karate.”

“Teke,” Priscilla says, pointing a finger at me.

I nod.

“Informational packets,” Priscilla explains. “We’re doing a fluff piece on Coach Domino next week; he’s going to be endorsing some gyms or something.”

“Oh, tell me we’re not,” Perry says, “are we still sucking up to them just so they’ll let us use the archive footage? We don’t need the extra seven minutes that badly.”

“Oh, no, this is some other thing,” Priscilla says, “some friend of a friend’s boss’s nephew, or whatever, someone owes someone else a favor, who can ever follow that shit.”

“So we didn’t get the seven minutes after all?” Perry says, “shit, there goes my award.”

“You weren’t getting an award for that, darlin’,” Priscilla says, “that thing is shit with or without the seven minutes, and you know it.”

“I know,” Perry says, with a grin, “that’s what makes it award-bait.”

Priscilla rolls her eyes. “You want an award, ask ‘Teke’ here to do some sort of retrospective about Switchblade with you. Nostalgia points, progressive points, action, romance, everything.”

“Romance?” I say.

Perry rolls her eyes at me, then. “Because you’ve never heard a thing about him and Ultraviolet. That’s definitely possible.”

“That never happened,” I tell her.

Perry sighs. “I didn’t say it did happen, necessarily, but –”

“And you know, of course,” Priscilla says, “because you’ve met personally, right?”

I open my mouth to respond, then close it again.

“Shit,” Priscilla says. “Well, there goes that narrative thread.”

“That would’ve been pretty creepy, though, if it were true,” I say.

“Sixteen’s not that creepy,” Perry says, “and no one ever guesses younger than sixteen.”

I shake my head at her. “Sixteen is super creepy –”

“Well, you have to say that,” Perry deadpans, “or you’ll get fired.”

Priscilla shakes her head at Perry, too. “I was going to go with eighteen, at least, thanks.”

“Go too much older and there’s not enough time to build a plot,” Perry says, with a shrug, “but you do you – oh, wait, we decided against it altogether, just because it’s ‘not true’.”

I throw my hands up in the air. A throw pillow falls off the couch.

“Hey, none of that,” Perry says, “making ‘not true’ true is my job, sweetcheeks.”

“Although, I feel obliged to point out, you decide on thirteen or fourteen,” Priscilla muses, “then ‘Teke’ here sure does have the right end of the stick. When did Ultraviolet start the program?”

“What,” I say, “do you want me to look up the records?”

She shakes her head at me. “They all got scrubbed as part of the arrangement, Fox, don’t you know any history at all? This is only your job to follow, you know, and yet I know I have hundreds more alerts than you do.”

“Following criminals is my job,” I say, “actually, that’s not even, my job is to teach kids to punch things and stop them from punching each other.”

Priscilla laughs. “Well, bless your heart, honey pie, I’m fucking with you.”

I sigh.

Perry waves her phone at us. “There’s only two shots of you so far, and they’re blurry.”

“They’re supposed to be,” I say, “we were working something sensitive. Why are there any shots at all?”

Priscilla pats my shoulder. “Special interest blogs, Travis, it’s not like we’re the only ones who have alerts set up. You’re going to get to be the star of a bunch of after school specials!”

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