Actions

Work Header

Bureau of Badass

Chapter Text

     In the sweltering bosom of the southern United States, nestled amongst cornfields, woods, and pig farms is the town of Faerun, a modest city where the rumor that a Hardee’s might soon be opening on Highway 412 is actually news. Ten years ago, the high school women’s basketball team won the state championship and people still talk about that game. It features two elementary schools, a handful of churches, two movie theatres, but most importantly, for some people in town anyway, a roller rink. The Adventure Zone Roller Rink and Arcade opened in 1979 and has been struggling ever since. There is really only one thing that keeps the doors to The Adventure Zone open, and that is roller derby.

 

     Julia snapped her gum and pushed open the door of The Adventure Zone Roller Rink. The smell of the place greeted her like an old friend--not that it was a great smell, mostly feet and sweat and popcorn and wood polish, but it also smelled like home.

     Ah, and here was her family now. Hurley came flying up to her, yelling something unintelligible, and punched her in the hip, which was about as high as she could reach.

     Julia grinned and threw up her hands. “What?”

     “I said, are you ready to beat the Felicity Wild Women?

     “Hell yeah!”

     “Hell yeah !” came a shout from across the rink. It was Killian, and she was flexing. Carey poked her head out of the door to the locker room, cackled at the sight of Killian, and fanned herself dramatically.

     “Let’s go, let’s go, get your skates on, c’mon!” said Hurley, bounding her way over to their friends at the door. Julia strode after her.

     The locker room was hardly anything more than a closet. Merle, the guy who owned The Adventure Zone, had cut some kind of party room in half to jerry-rig two locker rooms together. One was permanently theirs, but the nicer one was for visiting teams. Personally, Julia liked theirs, which was covered in old posters and photos from past seasons. Killian had gone in with her, so now everyone was there: Killian, who wore dresses every day, but none with sleeves because no sleeve could handle her biceps; Hurley, who was short and stocky and a ball of energy, and was currently doing a handstand on a bench just because she could; Carey, whose smallest motions were precise and quick and whose grin spelled trouble; Sloane, the car grease all over her arms making it look like the Korean tattoos on her arms were smudged, her lithe form slinking through the room; Noelle, chipper as always, fitting her prosthetic skating leg on single-handed, her prosthetic arm lying beside her on the bench; Taako, who was already in uniform and putting on illegal amounts of eyeliner; and Lucretia, arms crossed, observing them all with an expression of stone, though Julia did occasionally see the corners of her lips twitch.

     “I’m just saying,” Carey was telling Noelle, “since they lost whats-her-face, the Wild Women haven’t had a single solid blocker.”

     “Good blockers or no, they still don’t have any problem beating us, do they?” drawled Taako.

     Julia swung her skates off her shoulder, popped open her locker--no use using the lock, it was broken--and pulled out the elements of her costume. Electric blue shorts and jersey, kneepads, elbow pads, long socks, and Julia’s personal touch, some ridiculous orange fishnets. “This time we’ll do it for sure. Right ladies?”

     “Hell yeah!” returned the chorus, all but Lucretia.

     “Don’t get overconfident,” said Lucretia, in her Coach Voice. “Taako’s right. This isn’t going to be an easy match. Especially with a new referee.”

     Hurley fell out of her handstand and stuck the landing. “New ref? What happened to Merle’s guy?”

     Lucretia shrugged. “It doesn’t matter for this bout, does it? I just want you all to be especially vigilant, understand? There’s no telling what this new guy will be like.”

     “I heard there was a fire,” said Sloane, pulling back her long hair.

     “Gundren’s dead ?” said Killian.

     Sloane rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say he died . I said he was in a fire. I heard he was injured.”

     “Hatchi matchi, that’ll mess up your day,” said Taako.

     “Do we know anything about the new guy?” asked Carey.

     “Word is that Avi knows him,” said Lucretia.

     “If he’s Avi’s friend, then he can’t be that bad,” said Noelle. “Anyone’s better than Gundren.”

     “Weelll, I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Julia, pulling her jersey over her head. “Avi’s friends with everyone. Even Gundren.”

     “He’s already here,” said Sloane. “I saw him.”

     “Where?” Killian demanded.

     “Out back.”

     Hurley had her skates on now; she darted toward the door. “Let’s go see!”

     They caravanned out of the locker room to the rink’s back door, tucked between the regular rink and the banked derby track. Hurley got there first and poked her head outside. “Oh, yep, there he is. Where’d Avi find this guy?”

     Carey poked her head out too. “Oh my god. What a weirdo.”

     Taako stacked his head on top of Carey’s. “I dunno, he’s kinda cute.”

     “Are you looking at the same guy I am?” said Carey, backing up to look at Taako.

     “Whatever,” scoffed Taako. “You’re so gay you’d think Usher was a weirdo.”

     “All right, fine.” Carey waved Julia over. “Julia, you’re straight, what do you think?”

     They moved out of the way so Julia could see. She leaned her head against the doorframe.

     The first thing she saw was the van. It was a Dodge van from the seventies with one of those airbrush paint jobs, except instead of space or a unicorn or something, all that was on this one was a giant woodcutting ax. The back bumper was half hanging off and the whole thing was covered in dings and scratches. The side door was open, and sitting on the edge of the van in a ref’s striped shirt was a Hispanic man probably best described with the phrase “Brick Shithouse.” He was putting kneepads on.

     Julia fell away from the door snickering. “Oh my god .”

     The others took their turns. “What’s with the van?” demanded Killian. “Who drives a car like that?”

     “Maybe he lives in it,” said Carey.

     “That bumper is really dangerous,” Noelle commented.

     “All right, ladies. And Taako. That’s enough.” Lucretia herded them back toward the locker room. Julia lagged behind to get another look.

     Taako was right, he was fairly good-looking, in a professional wrestler kind of way. His hair was short but not military short, and he had overlong sideburns. His kneepads were on now, and he was struggling with the straps of an elbow pad. She looked behind him, in the van. It seemed to be full of wooden chairs.

     Julia must have made a noise or something, because he suddenly looked up.

     “Hey,” he called out, “can you hold the door?”

     Oh, goddammit, she was being creepy. Nothing for it now. She opened the door like she’d always meant to go outside. “Yeah, sure.”

     He grabbed a pair of old, dirty skates by the laces and stood up. He was beefy and tall, though not quite as tall as Killian. From here she could see a scar over one eye, which cut a notch in one of his eyebrows. “Thanks.” He paused in the doorway and stuck out a hand, which she shook. “Magnus Burnsides. You a player?”

     “Uh, yeah.” Julia tugged on her jersey. “Duh.”

     “Hm.” He frowned, just a little, and went inside. Julia realized she’d just sassed the new ref.

     Oh well. If he was anything like Gundren, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Julia ambled back to the locker room.

 

     Magnus settled onto the outside edge of the track with a sigh. He didn’t understand it. He’d always had good cordial relationships with players before. New town, new folks, he guessed.

     He untied his boots and started putting on his skates. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he was just distracted, because god , she was beautiful. The sparkle of her brown eyes, the warm sepia brown of her skin, the black floral tattoo sleeve on her upper arm, and the relative softness of her hand--relative because his own hands were like tree bark--

     “Stop,” he told himself, because of course she was hot like fresh pancakes, but he had a job to do.

     “Stop what, sir?”

     Magnus yelped and threw up his fists, but it was just a kid, hanging over the rail around the track. The kid didn’t flinch, he noticed. Magnus relaxed. “Oh. Sorry. You scared me.”

     “Sorry, sir!” He smiled. The boy had ears too big for his head, only slightly mitigated by a mess of curly black hair and a pair of glasses that looked like they were for an adult. His face was covered in freckles. “Are you the new referee?”

     “Yeah,” said Magnus, and scanned the stands. A couple of people were wandering in, but nobody close by. “Uh, are your parents here?”

     “No, I came with Killian and Carey, sir. They’re playing tonight.”

     “And they just left you out here?”

     “I can’t be in the locker room while they’re changing, sir. That would be inappropriate.” He considered Magnus carefully. “Have you been a referee before, sir?”

     “Not a head referee, but yeah,” Magnus said. The kid was cute, but Magnus had a strange feeling he was being interrogated.

     “I’m glad to hear you say that, sir! Mr. Gundren wasn’t nearly so experienced.”

     “You don’t have to call me sir, you can just call me Magnus.”

     The kid smiled again. “Nice to meet you! I’m Angus McDonald.”

     “Nice to meet you too, Angus.” Magnus finished tying up his skates. “Are you excited for the bout?”

     “Sure am, sir! The Wild Women just got a new captain, and I’m curious about whether they’ve changed their blocking strategy.”

     Magnus’ face broke into a surprised smile. “You know a lot about roller derby?”

     Angus nodded solemnly. “I come to every bout.”

     “Maybe you can be one of my volunteer refs tonight,” said Magnus, tightening the laces on his skates. He was supposed to pick two from the audience, which seemed ludicrous to him. Why wouldn’t they just hire more refs? Of course, looking at the state of this place, maybe the owner couldn’t afford it.

     “No, sir! No reffing for me, sir. I can’t skate, and anyway, Mr. Highchurch said I’m not allowed.”

     “Maybe someday, then,” said Magnus. He stood up and ruffled the kid’s hair. “If you’re here all the time, do you know who they usually pick?”

     “Avi and Mr. Boyland, sir.”

     “Hell, you know Avi? Uh--sorry. Heck.”

     “You can swear in front of me,” Angus shrugged. “I’m pretty certain everyone knows Avi, sir.”

     “Someone mention me?” Avi strolled up beside Angus, another man following behind. The other man was a white guy, and he was wearing those...surf pants? With the dropped crotch and the tight ankles. They were pink and green and yellow. And a beanie. This was in stark contrast to Avi, with his mullet and jeans and plain white t-shirt. Avi was quite a bit shorter and a shade more olive than Magnus and had finer features. Pakistani, he’d said. “Hiya, Magnus. Hey, kid, who’s the favorite tonight?”

     “The Wild Women, unfortunately,” said Angus. “I’ve heard they’re taking a pretty subtle approach this season.”

     “Hmm. Subtlety,” intoned the man with the surf pants. “Not the Bureau’s strong suit.”

     Avi nudged the man. “Optimistic as always, eh bud? Magnus, this is my roommate Johann.”

     Magnus stuck out a hand. “Pleasure.”

     Johann shook it weakly. “Is it though?”

     “Uh, yes?”

     Johann shook his head, as if disappointed. “Avi says you just moved here from Neverwinter?”

     “I did, yeah,” said Magnus. “Avi, thanks for getting me this gig.”

     “Hey, I’m glad you could do it! You’re helping the team out too. No ref means they’d have to forfeit.” Avi pulled a flask out of his back pocket. “How’s the job hunt going? Still lugging your portfolio around in your car?”

     Magnus laughed. “Afraid so.”

     Avi offered him the flask, which he accepted. “You’ll figure it out soon.”

     “Portfolio?” said Johann. “You an artist?”

     “More of a craftsman. I’m a carpenter.”

     Johann clenched his fist to his heart. “Sometimes to make the really good stuff, you gotta suffer.”

     Magnus frowned. “I’d rather have a half-assed chair and a roof over my head.”

     Avi chortled. “A chair for only half your ass?”

     “Yeah!” Magnus burst out laughing. Even Johann cracked a smile.

     “Sir, if you’re looking for a place to live, my neighbors just moved out,” Angus piped up. “The rent at Moonview is very inexpensive.”

     “Really? How inexpensive we talking?”

     Angus told him. He was impressed. “How do you know that?”

     “I balance the checkbook for my grandpa.”

     Avi spoke up. “I’m not sure, dude. Moonview’s kind of a dump.”

     “It doesn’t matter if I can’t find a job anyway,” said Magnus. “It’d just be nice to have a shower somewhere other than the YMCA.”

     “If you get too sick of it, you can shower at our place once in a while,” said Avi.

     “Thanks, man.” Mangus was touched. He’d only known Avi for a few days and already he’d shown more kindness than most of Magnus’ old friends back in Neverwinter. “Hey, Ango here says you’ve been a volunteer ref before. Would you want to do that again?”

     “I was hoping you’d ask,” said Avi.

     “Great! Um.” Magnus patted his pockets. “Merle said I was supposed to give you a whistle and a hat?”

     “I know where they are.”

     Magnus ducked under the rail of the track and carefully lowered himself to the ground. Avi waved him over to a cupboard built into the outside of the track, using the space underneath the slope of the bank.

     Magnus glided after him and crouched expertly to reach into the cupboard. “So why is everyone so down on this old ref, anyway?”

     “Who, Gundren?” Avi rubbed the back of his head. “I mean, he wasn’t a bad guy, but we’re pretty sure he forged his certification. He had no idea what he was doing.”

     Magnus handed a striped baseball cap and a whistle up to Avi, and took one more of each for the other volunteer and another whistle for himself. “That’s stupid. Why didn’t the league kick him out?”

     “It’s a small league,” Avi said. “We’re always short on refs, and players too sometimes. Last season the only reason the Bureau got to the second round of finals was because the Goldcliff Golddiggers had to forfeit.”

     Magnus nodded thoughtfully and stood. “I’m glad I know. Maybe I can help.”

     “You already are, dude,” said Avi.

     The speakers in the rink crackled to life and started playing Devo. Avi looked up. “Hey, it’s starting! Boyland should be here soon, I’ll introduce you.”

 

     The stands were filling up now, and Julia could feel the anticipation jumping in her gut. She and her team congregated around their bench, getting out last-minute jitters. Sloane was dabbing lavender oil on her temples. Hurley was spinning her helmet, which was emblazoned with two stickers shaped like ram’s horns, in her hands. Carey stretched. Killian stared at the floor. Noelle strapped on her arm. Taako was draped over the bench, examining his nails.

     Julia took a deep breath and listened to the crowd. God, she lived for this.

     Avi glided over to them. “What’s up, B.o.B.?”

     The team chorused hello. Julia high-fived him. “Hey, Avi, what’s happening?”

     Avi hooked a thumb over one shoulder. “The ref wants to talk to coaches and captains.”

     Julia blinked. “Why?”

     “One of those refs?” Lucretia nodded. “I’ve seen it before. Trying to get cozy with us?”

     Avi shrugged. “Ask him, I guess.”

     The two of them followed Avi to the spot between the two benches to wait for the ref. The Wild Women’s captain and coach met them on the way. Their captain smiled sweetly.

     “Well hello, Julia.”

     Julia rolled her eyes. “Lydia.”

     “Looking lovely as ever, Lucretia,” said their coach.

     “Save it, Edward,” Lucretia growled.

     “You’re not still mad at us about last season, are you?” said Edward, his tone saccharine.

     “You could have seriously injured Taako,” said Lucretia, her tone like granite.

     “That wasn’t our fault,” Edward oozed. “Just a little bad luck.”

     They were in earshot of the ref now, so they left off talking. What had he said his name was? Mango?

     “I just wanted to introduce myself,” he said, looking them all in the eye. Julia frowned. Except her? “I’m Magnus Burnsides. I expect a good clean bout. Good luck to all of you.”

     “Thank you,” said Edward, offering his hand. Magnus shook it, and then shook with Lucretia, and then Lydia. She let her hand linger and leaned in toward his face.

     “I have to say, I like a man who takes charge.”

     A puzzled look crossed his face. “Thank you.”

     “Looking forward to playing around with you,” she said.

     Julia turned on her heel and skated back to the bench. Any more and she would puke. Just like Lydia to pull something like that. If this guy was a buddy-buddy kind of ref he probably loved it.

     Julia shook her head. No more of that. Time to focus. Time for the chant.

     She took a deep breath and belted out, “Ladies, your attention please!”

     All six players looked at each other and immediately started talking over each other as obnoxiously as they could manage. Julia smiled and let them go for a few seconds before she banged her fist down on the bench, which boomed. The players quit immediately.

     “I hereby call this session to order. Who are we?”

     “THE BUREAU OF BADASS!” her players shouted back.

     “DAMN STRAIGHT. All rise for a word from the Director!”

     They leapt to their feet, hands over their hearts. Lucretia narrowed her eyes, making them wait to see what she would say this time...

     “Fuck ‘em up, girls.”

     The team dissolved in whoops and hollers. Killian started stomping the beat, and the others joined in, chanting, Who are we? The B.o.B. Who are we? The B.o.B. Who are we? The B.o.B… around them the fans started chanting too...

 

     Magnus watched the Bureau pumping themselves up. Avi nudged him. “Johann wrote that chant. Look at him.”

     Magnus looked; Johann had a hand over his mouth and tears in his eyes.

     “He does that every time .”

     “What a wuss,” scoffed Boyland. Boyland was short and stocky and had an army crest tattoo on his arm and the unlit nub of a cigar in his mouth. Avi had brought him over from a group of about twenty children that Avi claimed were all his.

     “Johann’s just passionate,” said Avi.

     “Speaking of passionate, was the captain of the Wild Women flirting with me just then?” asked Magnus.

     “Worked like a charm on Gundren,” said Boyland.

     “I told you, man, this isn’t exactly the big leagues.” Avi gestured to the crowd. “We love it, though.”

     He was right, because now the fans were shaking the stadium, stomping and shouting the chant. Magnus grinned. He knew how they felt.

     “Llllllaadies and gentlemen!” It was the only thing that could stop the chant, the voice of the announcer on the speakers. The rink erupted in cheers. “It’s time for the first game of the season! Please join me in welcoming...The Felicity Wild Women!”

     There were a lot of boos, but there were more cheers than he expected. Now that he was looking, he noticed a lot of fans were wearing that toxic green/hot pink combination the Wild Women were sporting. As for the Wild Women, they made a lap around the track, voguing all the way. Their costumes were unusually sparkly for derby, Magnus thought. The captain blew him a kiss.

     Yeah, okay, definitely flirting.

     “And now...your team…”

     The cheering swelled.

     “She’s the silent scourge, the omen of death...Jenicide!”

     The slimmest member of the Bureau swooped out of the center, circling the track in elegant curving swoops. She was East Asian; if Magnus was identifying the tattoo lettering on her arms correctly, Korean. She didn’t so much skate as float; she seemed to barely be touching the track.

     “She will hunt you down, dead or alive...give it up for Robocop!”

     This skater was young, with curly light brown hair that poofed out of the bottom of her helmet in a frizzy ponytail, but Magnus found himself doing a double take. Her leg was...not a leg. A prosthetic, which looked like it was built into her skate. Her arm was a prosthetic, too, and ended in a pair of grabby tongs. Despite this, she was skating backwards.

     “If you mess with her, there’ll be hell to pay...it’s Lil Diablo!”

     The skater was Latina, like him. She darted out of the center, seemed to trip--Magnus’ heart jumped into his throat--but she landed in a one-handed handstand, skates still spinning in the air, before falling back onto the track in a crouch and finishing her lap.

     “It’s the baddest little lady in the league...let’s hear it for the Battling Ram!”

     Midget wasn’t a nice word, but this skater couldn’t have been more than three foot six. She jumped onto the track, pawing the ground like an angry bull, and charged around the track, a streak of red hair and freckles around the rink.

     “Let me hear you make some noise for the most magical girl in the world...Abby Cadabra!”

     This skater did a few fancy twirls and then blew a dramatic kiss into the audience. Magnus stared at them, not quite sure if they were a man or a woman or someone else entirely. They seemed to be playing jump rope with gender roles. The screaming crowds didn’t seem to care; they were obviously a fan favorite.

     “She’s the whole package, ladies and gentlemen, and way out of your league...Beauty and the Beast!”

     A huge woman--taller than Magnus and way fitter too, with a braid as thick as a rope sprouting from her helmet--barrelled around the track, flexing the whole way. She had black geometric tattoos up her legs and one arm, the kind that looked ancient, some sort of Samoan or Hawaiian design, maybe.

     “And finally...your hero and mine, oh captain our captain...Jule! Be! Sorry!”

     The most beautiful woman Magnus had ever seen stepped onto the track and lifted her arms like a conquering empress. The crowd lost its collective mind.

     “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bureau of Badass!”

     “That’s the strangest team I’ve ever seen,” Magnus commented as the crowd went wild.

     “Wait ‘til you see them play,” grumbled Boyland.

     “I guess it’s time.” Magnus rolled into the middle of the track. Avi and Boyland took their places on either side of the gathering players. Jule Be Sorry and Lydia took their spots behind the blockers, both looking ready to kill. Magnus held up his hand, and blew the whistle. And the bout began.

Chapter Text

     Merle Highchurch hit the hot dog machine with a wrench. It shuddered and clunked to life.

     “Jeez, Merle, how do you do that?” said Robbie from behind him.

     “The grace of God, probably,” said Merle. “Now quit messing with it.”

     “Yeah okay,” said Robbie.

     “And get your elbow out of the cheese.”

     Robbie turned and pulled a gooey elbow from the big pot for the nachos. “Aw, damn. Sorry.”

     “Get ready for the rush. The bout’s about to end.” Merle hopped up and over the concessions counter and headed for the broom closet. He’d sweep out bleachers as they emptied. It seemed like the game was going well. There were asses in seats, and asses in the seats meant people were buying food. The first game of the season was always a toss-up in terms of profits, but people seemed to like the B.o.B. this year.

     The whistle blew to end the bout. The whole rink went up in cheers. Apparently the home team had won today. Dandy. He unlocked the closet and pulled out a push broom.

     Merle wandered over to the track, where the teams were lining up for high fives. He had to pay that new ref before anything else.

     “Howdy, Merle.” Boyland strolled over to stand next to him.

     “Evening. How’d the new guy do?”

     “Takes this very seriously. Maybe a little bit of a stick in the mud. Good kid, though.” Boyland moved his cigar nub from one side of his mouth to the other. “You want to do Refuge tonight?”

     “Sure, I haven’t got the kids.”

     “Well I do. Gotta take them home first.”

     “I’ll meet you there. Sweeping needs done.”

     Boyland nodded and left. Merle watched the kid, Magnus, officiating the “good game” high fives, reclaiming the whistles and hats from Boyland and Avi, and shuffling back toward the cupboard under the track. Merle met him beside the cupboard and held out a check.

     “Fifty bucks, as promised,” Merle said.

     “Thanks,” said Magnus. “I really appreciate the opportunity. Roller derby was the one thing I was gonna miss the most when I moved here.”

     “I didn’t ask for your life story, kid,” said Merle. “Next bout’s two weeks from today.”

     “You got it.” Magnus stood up, much taller than Merle. Not that that was atypical, but this kid loomed. “You know, you’ve got some warping on the underside of your track here. That could be dangerous if it gets much worse.”

     Merle frowned. “Let me see.”

     The guy pointed inside the cupboard. “There’s some bad water damage here. It doesn’t extend very far, though. I could probably fix it on the cheap, if you’ll pay for the materials too.”

     “I guess you’re just the answer to all my prayers, huh?” grumbled Merle.

     “I don’t know about that, but I’m a carpenter,” the guy said, visibly uncomfortable. “This is what I do.”

     Merle stared at the kid. He was usually pretty good at telling if someone was lying. “You trying to scam me?”

     “No, of course not,” the kid said earnestly.

     Merle relented. “Sounds pretty good, then. Why don’t you come by after free skate tomorrow? Give me an estimated cost.”

     The kid looked surprised. “Yeah, sure.”

     Boyland was right, a good kid. “Say, Gundren used to grab a drink with me and Boyland after bouts. You want to come with?”

     Magnus rubbed the back of his head. “I’d better not, I have an interview in the morning. Thanks, though.”

     Merle nodded vaguely and tottered off to sweep the bleachers.

 

     Refuge was warm and comfortable, all good old wood and dark green leather. Merle knew the owner, Ren, had gone traveling when she was younger in Europe and had fallen in love with the idea of a pub--not a bar, not a place to drink and pick up strangers, and not a restaurant, where you were bound to a table until the bill came, but a meeting place for a community, a low-pressure environment. It certainly was that; Merle liked it because it served good food and interesting drink.

     Merle got to Refuge before Boyland, ordered his usual, an Old Fashioned without the garnish, and sat at a table where he could people-watch. Refuge always got interesting characters, not the least of which were the derby girls. Today’s post-bout celebration consisted of an arm-wrestling contest, the big one versus three others. She was watching them, amused, as they strained against her.

     Lucretia caught his eye and nodded. He raised a glass in response. Lucretia was good people, had been one of his first employees at The Adventure Zone after he’d taken over. He suspected she could very easily murder him if the mood struck her, and sometimes he wondered why she didn’t. She cared so much about her reputation, and Merle had met her in a very dark place.

     That had all been years ago, though. Look at her now, she was a...some kind of office professional. Not slinging hot dogs at the rink, that was for sure. He knew because he’d stopped paying her.

     Boyland sat down with him with a mug of beer almost as big as his head. “Sorry to make you wait.”

     Merle waved his hand to dismiss the comment, and gestured instead to the derby girl with the arm and the leg. “What do you think about that one? Desert Storm?”

     Boyland glanced over. “Her? No. She’d’ve been in diapers.”

     Merle frowned. “Was Desert Storm that long ago?”

     “You’re getting old,” said Boyland. “The Gulf War was eight years ago.”

     Merle adjusted his own prosthetic. It was a little more subtle than the derby girl’s, ending in a plastic hand instead of a pair of tongs. A hook was an option, and he admitted that he was tempted, but mostly he wanted to be left alone about the whole thing. “Can you believe she skates on that leg, though?”

     “It’s not that leg,” said Boyland. “That clunky thing? She has a different one for skating.”

     “She does?”

     “Do you pay attention at all?”

     Merle shrugged. “They make money, that’s all I know.”

     “‘Spose you didn’t know about Mookie’s little shitshow, either.”

     Merle waved a hand. “I bet you’re going to tell me.”

     “He bit a teacher. Put a bunch of glue in her hair.”

     “That’s my little fireball, fighting the power.”

     “Don’t start with this hippie-ass crap. You didn’t know, did you?”

     “Well how the hell did you know? You been talking to Hekuba behind my back?”

     “My Rissa’s in his class. She told me. It was the biggest thing that happened at their school since a kid threw up on the merry-go-round.”

     “So not a big deal then,” said Merle, a little relieved.

     “You know, I thought so too, but apparently not.” Boyland knocked back a third of his beer. “You’d know that if you weren’t so stuck in your own ass.”

     “Aren’t we supposed to be friends?” griped Merle.

     “We’re not friends. We’re army buddies. That’s different. Means I can tell you that your hair makes you look like an elderly cult member.”

     “And I can tell you that your wife pops out kids like--”

     “Watch it,” growled Boyland.

     “...a rabbit.” Merle finished weakly.

     Boyland leaned back in his seat. “Still getting laid more than you.”

     Merle scoffed and downed the end of his drink.

Chapter Text

Was there anything worse, Magnus thought, than going into an interview with your one good shirt all wrinkled because you live in a van?

And the answer was yes. It was going into an interview with your one good shirt all wrinkled because you live in a van, and getting there late.

He pushed open the door to the bar--Refuge, it was called--and glanced around. There was nobody here except the bartender.

“Morning,” she called, and turned to face him, and Magnus’ heart dropped into his stomach. Here it was, a new horizon of worse, in which he was showing up late to an interview in a wrinkled shirt, finding not the person he was supposed to be interviewed by, but the most beautiful girl he had ever seen instead, who, if last night was any indication, seemed to actively dislike him.

He drew himself up straight. He’d had worse days, right? Right.

“Hey, you’re Jule Be Sorry,” he said.

“Around here I’m just Julia.” Her hair had been pinned up last night, but now it was only tied back in a bandana, and he could see that she had a mound of brown curls. She was holding a stack of glasses on a tray, which she put down behind the bar and started stacking. “Can I get you something?”

“Little early for a drink, isn’t it?” he said, taking a seat at the bar.

“We’re a pub, not a bar,” she said. “We’ve got food too.”

Magnus wasn’t sure what the difference was. “Oh. All right. Um. Coffee?”

“Sure.” She disappeared into the kitchen. Magnus located a neon Budweiser clock on the wall that read 10:08. Meet at Refuge at ten, the man had said on the phone. Magnus had spent the last couple of days crammed in a phone booth calling furniture makers and flooring guys and construction companies, and this guy was the first one who said he was hiring.

He drummed his fingers on the bar, trying to think of all the things he hated more than waiting. There weren’t very many.

Julia reappeared with a steaming mug and put it down in front of him. “Cream or sugar?”

“Yes please,” he said.

Her eyebrows jumped up. “I had you pegged for a black coffee kind of guy.”

“Why would I want to suffer?” he asked. It was only sort of a joke, but he saw the corner of her lip twitch before she disappeared behind the bar and reappeared with a sugar bowl and a tiny cream pitcher.

He fixed up his coffee. “So you work here?”

“Sometimes. I’m a student, too.”

“What are you studying?” Magnus asked, because that was what you asked students.

“Accounting.”

Ah, good, something so uninteresting that Magnus couldn’t think of a single follow-up question. Then again, that was probably what she wanted. He stirred his coffee and sipped it. What did you say in an interview? He hated interviews. See this chair? I made this chair. You like it? Hire me.

“Do you often wander into places just to order coffee and look nervous?”

“I’m meeting someone,” he said, glancing at the clock again. 10:11 “Or at least I was supposed to.”

She followed his gaze. “Oh. You’re the first customer we’ve had today.”

Magnus breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed a little. “Thank god.”

“Hot date?” she asked.

“I wish. Interview.”

The joke didn’t seem to go over as well as he hoped. She pursed her lips and took the empty tray back to the kitchen.

The bell above the door jingled, and in walked a man who oozed “craftsman.” He was wearing a dusty flannel and a cowboy hat and had a mustache you could lose a piece of pizza in. He approached the bar and stuck out his hand. “You’ll be Magnus?”

“Yes, sir.” Magnus shook.

“I’m Isaak.” He took a seat next to him and put his hat down on the bar. “Sorry I’m late. Lost track of time.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Julia appeared. “Hey, can I get you something?”

“Coffee’d be treat. Is Ren back there?”

“Yeah, she’s doing the books.”

“Tell her I said hello.”

“I will.” Julia smiled at Isaak and left for the kitchen. God, was that her smile? It was beautiful.

“I’ll cut to the chase, Magnus, I hate interviews,” said Isaak. “You said on the phone you’ve got some examples of your work?”

“Yeah, I’ve got some chairs I made out in my car,” he said.

“Then let’s see those.” Isaak pulled a five-dollar bill out of his pocket and put it on the counter. “Lead on.”

Magnus hopped off the stool and strode out of the bar. Yeah, this wasn’t so bad after all.

 

Julia came out of the kitchen with another cup and was greeted with an empty bar and a five-dollar bill. She set down the cup of coffee with a glare. The money was from Isaak, that she knew. He did this fairly regularly, show up to meet someone, order something small, and give her a fiver whether or not he ate or drank it. This Magnus guy, on the other hand, had just skipped out on his bill.

Julia rolled her eyes. What a jerk.

Chapter Text

     “Oh my god, it’s him. He’s here. ” Taako said, immediately getting an iron grip on Julia’s forearm.

     “Who-ow, ow, nails. Nails!” Julia pulled her arm free and checked to see if Taako had broken the skin.

     “Oh, sorry,” he said distractedly looking back at the crowded stands. The Goldcliff Golddiggers were short a player, and the teams had decided to play with only four blockers a jam. Julia and Taako were both on the bench this jam, while Noelle was making quick work of darting between the blockers of the Golddiggers. Lucretia was pacing back and forth, closely observing the movements of her players.

     “Who’s here?” Julia said, leaning around Taako to look into the crowd. She didn’t see anyone noteworthy. Suddenly Taako pulled her back upright.

     “No, don’t look. Then he’ll know!”

     “Taako, I don’t even know who I’m looking for.”

     “ Him!” Taako said fervently, as if that should mean something. “The guy from last season.”

     Julia scrunched her eyebrows. “You’re going to have to be more specific. You dated a lot of guys last year.”

     Taako rolled his eyes. “Four is not a lot, Miss I-haven’t-been-laid-in-two-years.”

     “Whoa, hey.” Julia recoiled, leaning back a little.

     “Sorry, I’m a little...right now…” Taako turned back to look into the stands. The crowd let out a collective ‘Ooh’ as Killian knocked two Golddiggers to the ground. “There. Right there, first row with the camera.”

     Julia looked over Taako’s shoulder and scanned through the front row. She finally saw the man Taako was talking about. He was tall, with dark skin and dreadlocks pulled back from his face. He held an expensive looking camera to his face as Noelle and the Golddigger jammer sped past. He was very handsome, to be sure, but he didn’t look especially familiar. Till it clicked.

     “Wait. That’s the guy who--”

     “Fell on the track, yeah!” they said together. Taako turned back to stare at the mystery man some more.

     “Didn’t you have to like jump over him? And you said something…” she thought for a moment. “Come with me if you want to live,” she said in a very poor impression of Taako. Taako looked back at her as the jam ended and the rest of the team came over for a quick break.

     “I’d never say anything so stupid,” he retorted.

     “So’d you get his number?”

     “Did who get who’s number?” Killian asked, slamming down on the bench next to Julia and picking up her water bottle. The rest of the team crowded around the bench and began quickly talking over each other.

     “Taako.”

     “Taako got whose number?”

     “No he didn’t.”

     “Taako didn’t what?”

     “Get someone’s number.”

     “Who’s got Taako’s number?”

     “Why is Taako giving out his number?”

     Lucretia snapped her fingers quickly, stopping the game of Telephone they were losing.

     “Hey, hey, focus. Okay, we’re only down by two and we can make that up before this first half is over. Jenicide, you gotta stay with the pack.” Sloane nodded from where she was kneeling. Hurley grabbed her shoulder comfortingly. “Abby, you’re jamming, watch out for the wall. If you’re the lead, call it when you get three points.” Taako pulled the star-emblazoned panty from Noelle’s helmet and slipped it over his own.

     “Aye, aye, Cap’n.” He saluted with a smile.

     “Alright, you got this.” The group put in their hands, “Who Are We? B.O.B.!” Julia and Noelle cheered and clapped from the bench as the rest of the team joined the Golddiggers on the track.

     “Abra-ca-look out, folks! Abby Cadabra will be jamming this jam, and when she’s on the track, you never know what to expect,” the announcer’s voice rang through the rink.

     A loud cheer came up from the stands as Taako skated over to stand next to the Goldcliff Golddigger jammer. He blew the crowd a kiss. The cheering grew even louder.

     “I love you Abby Cadabra!!” a loud shout cut through the roar.

     Taako took a deep breath as he watched the formation of the pack 30 feet ahead of him on the pivot line. The Golddiggers were already arranging themselves into that wall Lucretia warned him about. His core seemed to chatter with anticipation as Avi joined them just on the inside of the track. The first whistle sounded and the pack took off.

     To Taako, time always seemed to slow and sound seemed to dull till the moment that the second whistle blew and he took off. The other jammer tried to bump into him at the start, but Taako was too fast. The Golddigger wall was doing a pretty good job of blocking the inside of the track, so Taako swung to the outside and dodged the majority of blockers. Carey booty blocked the last blocker and Taako slipped past the group, swinging his long legs over each other as he rounded the corner.

     He quickly rounded the track and approached the pack again. He only needed to pass three blockers to get the necessary points for the B.O.B. to be tied going into the second half. However, the wall that they had been using had broken up a little bit and there wasn’t a clear path through them as he approached. Hurley held off a blocker at the furthest end of the pack, and the rest of the Golddigger blockers managed to corner Taako on the outside of the track.

     Suddenly, Sloane came sailing back on the inside. Her upheld arm caught Taako’s eye and he stepped back from the blockers. Killian, Sloane, and Carey swarmed at the Golddiggers, giving Taako just the split second he needed to dart to the inside and pass the three of them. Hurley’s blocker reached for Taako, but he slipped past as the crowd cheered.

     He tapped his hands against his hips and Magnus blew the whistle.

     “Aaaannd that’s the half folks. The Goldcliff Golddiggers with 46 and your Bureau of Badass with 47, thanks to some totally righteous jamming by Abby Cadabra!”

     Oh, that was a nice feeling.

     Now that the jam was over, Taako allowed himself a glance at The Man. He had the camera lowered and a sort of awestruck expression on his beautiful face. Taako smiled and winked at him as he skated past.

     He skated directly over to Julia, “Is he looking?”

     Julia surreptitiously looked over Taako’s shoulder; she grinned at the expression on the man’s face. “Oh, yeah. He’s totally into you.” Taako bit his lip and smiled.

 

     The B.o.B. maintained their lead the rest of the game, and finished 9 points ahead of the Goldcliff Golddiggers. Post game was always a busy time for the players, taking pictures with fans, working the merch tables to help keep the league afloat. Taako was doing the latter; he and Carey were manning the t-shirt table.

     The lines were always long, but by now they’d finally emptied out. A few straggling fans wandered about, chatting and making plans for the rest of the evening.

     “Man, I hope someone got footage of that jam of yours.” Carey said, putting some shirts back in a box. “You were just like ahh! And then Sloane just zoomed in, peeww, and then you were like zooop! And the crowd went wild!” She held her hands up to her mouth and imitated the roar of the crowd. “Total game changer, right there.”

     Taako smiled and laughed before turning to a customer that had walked up to the table. “Ah, yes, which one do you--” he drifted off mid-sentence as he saw who it was. “It’s you.”

     The man smiled and pulled on the strap of his messenger bag. “Hullo,” he said in a distinctly English accent. Taako’s eyebrows raised.

     “Wow, I didn’t expect you to be British.”

     “I’m...not.” he said, the accent disappearing and looking uncomfortable. “Sorry, just when I get nervous I sometimes gain an accent.”

     Carey laughed, and Taako gave her a look.

     “Oh, uhhh, I’m gonna go help Killian.” She quickly scooted away, heading towards nowhere in particular. Save maybe a good vantage point.

     “So,” the man cleared his throat. “You’re Abby Cadabra, right?”

     “Yes that’s me. Though I usually pronounce it Taako.” He held out his hand as if for a royal kiss.

     The man laughed. “Taako, got it. I’m Kravitz Sinclair.” He took Taako’s hand and gave it a business-like shake. Taako frowned a little, but brushed it away with a winning smile. “You did great in the game today. And last year too, if I remember right.”

     “Oh, thank you.”

     “No problem.” Neither said anything for a moment, looking around a little.

     “So did you want to buy a t-shirt, or could I interest you in something different, like say my phone number?” Taako gave him a lopsided grin.

     Kravitz’ eyes widened and he looked a little flustered. “Oh, um--” he started.

     “I mean, I did practically save your life last year, so at the very least you could repay me with a cup of coffee.”

     Kravitz looked down and pulled at his strap again. “Oh, well I mean, yes, but I--Just I don’t...I don’t know if it’d be right.”

     Taako blinked a few times, some very old feelings creeping to the surface. He looked away. “I see,” he said without inflection and crossing his arms.

     “No, wait.” Kravitz smacked his hand against the side of his head. “Ooh, boy. I’ve messed this all up. Uh, let me start again.” He pulled around his bag and pulled out his camera and a manila folder. “I’m a photographer- documentary mostly.” He set the camera on the table and opened the folder. Inside was a collection of black and white photographs of their roller derby league. Taako uncrossed his arms and picked up the stack of photos, looking carefully at each one. “I’ve been looking for my next story, and I think I’ve found it here at the derby, specifically, the Bureau of Badass.”

     “Don’t you have to get permission before you can start following us around?” asked Taako, only half-teasing.

     “Mrs. Moreau was my actually first contact with the league.” Taako looked up from an especially good photo of one of the Wild Women from a bout last year.

     “ Mrs. Moreau?”

     “Oh, uh, Lucretia.”

     Taako gave Kravitz an exasperated look. “I know my own coach’s last name...just didn’t know she was married,” he finished quickly. He put the photos back into a stack and handed them over to Kravitz. “Now, why does this mean that you can’t take me out for coffee?”

     “Well, just...as a documentarian I try not to interact with my subjects too much so that I don’t cause an impact on their reality. I’m here to document...not influence.”

     Taako thought about that for a minute while Kravitz packed away the camera. “Do you ever interview your subjects?”

     Kravitz nodded as he tucked the flap of his bag back over the opening. “Occasionally, yes.”

     “Perfect!” Taako quickly wrote down something on a slip of paper and held it out to Kravitz, who slowly took it. “You can interview me here tomorrow at 4.”

     Kravitz looked between the slip of paper and Taako a few times before slowly nodding and walking away. Carey instantly reappeared at his side.

     “So how’d it go? From behind the bleachers it appeared like a B+.”

     Taako slapped a hand across Carey’s shoulders. “I’ve got a date, baBY!”

Chapter Text

     Kravitz checked one more time that he had the address right. 116 8th street was what Taako had scrawled on the paper slip in almost indecipherable chicken scratch. There was a 116 above the glass door and he was definitely on 8th street. But the sign over the door gave him pause. It was a handpainted wooden sign reading The Pothead. The artist had drawn some sort of vase looking thing next to the word. Feeling like he was part of some horrible prank, Kravitz picked up his tape recorder and camera. He crossed the street and cautiously opened the door.

     A bell tinkled over the door and he looked around in shock. For a place called the Pothead, it certainly wasn’t what he expected. There were pottery wheels scattered about the large open room, and patterned pastel tile on the floor. Large wire shelves were pushed against the back wall, on which sat many pottery projects in various states of completion. A trio of older ladies turned as he walked in.

     “Oh, you must be Kravitz,” said one, stepping around a stool and surveying him through cat-eyed bejeweled glasses that made her eyes look twice as big. “I’m Joan. This is Grace and Tracy.”

     “Taako, your little friend is here!” Tracy called. She had on a sweater that had ‘My Other Car is a Ball of Yarn’ appliqued on the front and brightly colored manicured nails.

     “Just a minute,” Taako’s voice came from an open door that most likely led to the back room.

     “Though I wouldn’t call him little,” Grace muttered a little too loudly.

     The other two giggled; Joan elbowed her. “Grace!” But that only made Tracy and Grace laugh louder.

     Luckily for Kravitz, Taako appeared in the doorway. “Alright, ladies, I said you could see him and then you promised you’d leave.”

     The trio took another look at Kravitz, then stepped around him for the door, winking as they passed by.

     “See you next week, Taako, dear.” Tracy waved as they left, the bell jangling as the door shut. There wasn’t anyone else in the store.

     Despite the clay covered apron, and the fact he had a smudge of pink paint on his cheek, Taako was impeccably dressed. Dark tights, high waisted black shorts and a white top with the sleeves rolled up. Kravitz suddenly had the distinct impression that he was unwittingly on a date.

     “Hey, you can set your things down anywhere. We’ll be at those wheels by the window.” Taako gestured to the front of the store before disappearing into the back again. He returned quickly with two hunks of red clay, which he dropped onto the wheels. He snagged a bucket of water from another station and sat down. Kravitz hadn’t moved from his spot by the door, so Taako patted the stool next to him and smiled. Kravitz frowned and reluctantly sat down next to Taako, setting his things on the wide window ledge.

     “Now it’s very simple, you push the pedal to spin the wheel. Don’t make it spin too fast, and don’t let your hands get too dry.”

     “What do I make?”

     “Whatever you want.”

     Kravitz frowned at the lump of mud. He had never been very good with infinite possibilities. Nor with unscheduled plans, so he reached forward and hit record on his tape machine. “Is it okay if I record this interview?”

     “Sure thing, doll face,” Taako said, dipping his hands in water and starting his wheel.

     Taako was really revelling in how delightfully uncomfortable Kravitz looked. But he had to give it to him, the man was a trooper. Kravitz rolled up his long sleeves and Taako couldn’t tear his eyes away; he’d revealed black ink tattoos that had not been previously visible. His left arm had a geometric, futuristic design on it, but the other looked like a forest with barren trees and a flock of birds taking flight. An errant thought wondered how far the tattoos extended up his arms, but Taako quickly squashed that and focused on his clay.

     He pulled the clay up into a conical shape. Taako never decided what he would be making till he already had his hands on the clay. He’d been going through a bowl phase recently, so he hoped that it would be something different.

     “So, ah, do you work here?” Kravitz asked, mimicking Taako’s movements to not quite the same success.

     “Only on weekends. I came here all the time for quite a while just cause I find this relaxing. Last year, the owner asked if she could hire me so she didn’t have to work on Saturdays, and I was gonna be here anyway.”

     “So where do you work during the week then?”

     “Sazed’s Bakery. It’s only a couple of blocks from here.”

     “You’re a baker?”

     Taako nodded, pushing the clay down. He guessed he was making another bowl. “Was a waiter for a really long time, but finally got out of that a couple of years ago when I started at the bakery.”

     “What do you bake?”

     “Cakes mostly. Sazed handles the pastries and so on, but I’m the Master of Cakes.” He sat up a little straighter and struck a noble pose. Kravitz laughed. “What about you?”

     “What about me?”

     “How you makin’ that paper, homie? Does documentary photography pay the bills?”

     “Oh, yeah, actually. It didn’t at first, did a lot of portraiture.”

     “Senior photos?”

     “Yeah.”

     “On railroad tracks?”

     Kravitz smiled. “Yeah, so many.”

     “So what changed?”

     “Do you remember that hurricane that went through Bottlenose Cove a couple years ago?”

     Taako frowned and thought. “Vaguely.”

     “Well, I was one of the first people on the scene. I went as a volunteer and just happened to take some photos. I ended up being able to sell those to the AP and a couple other places.”

     “Wow. That’s awesome.” Taako’s lump of clay was starting to take the shape of a wide decorative bowl. Kravitz’s was a sort of smooth lump.

     “So Taako...why roller derby?” Kravitz asked, trying to pull the conversation back on track. Taako didn’t answer for a minute, staring intently at his spinning bowl. He sat back and wiped at his nose, leaving a little smudge of clay on his upper lip.

     “Because everyone needs a family,” he answered, a different tone in his voice, matter of fact and clipped. “And if I didn’t do roller derby, I wouldn’t have one.”

     Kravitz didn’t say anything, just watched Taako’s face, the invitation to elaborate hanging in the air.

     Taako glanced at Kravitz then quickly grabbed back at his bowl. “Whew, okay, you really don’t want to go there, brocephus, let me tell you that.” The languid drawl returning to his voice.

     There was now a large dent in the rim of Taako’s bowl. Great. He folded the clay back in on itself, starting over.

     “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. How about...uh...how’d you discover roller derby?”

     Taako laughed, though he wasn’t smiling. “You’re just really knocking ‘em out of the park.”

     “I’m sorr--”

     “No, no. I’m the one who wanted to be interviewed.” he said in mock exasperation, holding the back of one of his hands to his forehead. “It’s my burden to bear.” He faked a sniffle and looked to see if Kravitz was enjoying the show. But he was studying Taako, like a scientist watching a petri dish.

     Taako wetted his hands and started the wheel up again. “There was a flyer for a tournament,” he began, that clipped tone returning to his voice. “At a shelter I was...living in at the time.” He decidedly did not look at Kravitz. “Uh, it was kind of a...dark time in my life, but I went to the bout and knew immediately that when I had the money, I would do derby.” He smiled slightly. “I’ve been on the team 4 seasons now. Derby really, ah…” He paused, but nodded and continued, “It really saved me.”

     Kravitz didn’t respond right away, and Taako didn’t look up from his wheel. Taako didn’t seem to be forming it into any particular shape, just working the clay between his hands.

     “If you don’t mind me asking... what did it save you from?”

     Taako didn’t reply. It seemed like he didn’t hear the question. Kravitz almost changed the subject then Taako said, “Myself, in the end.” He let out a deep breath. “I think it’s important for people to have goals for their life beyond just survival, if their situation allows for it. Um...derby was mine.”

     Kravitz nodded and noticed that the clay in Taako’s hands was changing shape. Growing taller and rounded, probably going to be a vase.

     “Well,” Taako began, slipping back into his usual drawl. “Now that I’ve bared my soul, I have some questions of my own.” He smiled wickedly at Kravitz.

     “That seems only fair.” Kravitz braced himself for any number of questions.

     “Why’d you call Lucretia Mrs. Moreau?”

     “Oh. Um…”

     “Don’t worry, I have other more personal questions, but this kept me up all night. I gotta know.”

     Kravitz smiled. “I’ve known Lucretia for years. My mother used to be her coach.”

     “Oh, your mom did derby?”

     “Oh, no.” Kravitz seemed to pause and laugh about the idea. “No, she’d never. Doesn’t like confrontation, prefers to subtly manipulate from behind the scenes.”

     “So what did she coach Lucretia in?”

     “Figure skating.”

     Of all the things Taako thought Kravitz might say, that certainly hadn’t been on the list. Taako took a minute to factor this into what he knew about Lucretia. It illuminated a whole new side to her.

     “You didn’t know?” said Kravitz. “She was kind of a big deal for a little while, she actually qualified for the Olympics... she really never told you?”

     Taako just shook his head, staring out the front window and trying to make sense of this new information. “So wait, something must have happened. ‘Cause she’s not an Olympic athlete, she coaches roller derby and is a P.A..” He turned abruptly to Kravitz. “What happened?”

     “Look,” Kravitz began, shaking his head, “If Mrs. Moreau hasn’t told you, she has a reason. And I don’t want to overstep-”

     “Nonono, Kravitz, please, Kravitz, please, please Kravitz, for once in your life stop being such a stand up guy 100% all the time.”

     “...we’ve known each other less than 24 hours.”

     “Yeah, and I already know that you’re a Good Person, but please just tell me one thing.” Taako clasped his hands as if he was going to pray. “It’s all I want for Christmas.”

     “Alright, one.” Kravitz held up a clay covered finger.

     “Okay...I’ve known Lucretia for four years. And never once have I seen her with a spouse, heard her mention a spouse, or even seen her with a wedding ring on. So what happened?”

     Kravitz frowned, “Well...he died.”

     The word hung between them like dead weight. Taako instantly felt like he had opened a door that he wasn’t meant to.

     “Oh,” he said simply.

     “Yeah. It was pretty sudden…” Kravitz turned back to his wheel. “Anyway, if you want to know more you’ll have to talk to Mrs.--Lucretia.”

     There was silence between the pair for a few minutes. Taako’s vase was turning into quite the work of art. Kravitz’s clay was a sort of bowl/cup hybrid, not very practically shaped or masterfully done.

     “So…” Taako began, the first word almost seeming too loud in the quiet shop. “Did you do figure skating too?”

     Kravitz shook his head. “No. Mother tried, but I was never any good at it. Didn’t have the coordination.”

     “Really?”

     “Oh yeah, I was rubbish. Couldn’t even land a waltz jump.”

     Taako grinned. “And here I thought I was the idiot for not being able to do a quadruple salchow.”

     Kravitz laughed, shaking his head a little. They both turned back to their wheels, and quietly smiled to themselves.

Chapter Text

     It had been a bad week. Noelle’s project proposal was flat out rejected by the projects committee. Killian and Carey’s landlord was falsely claiming that their rent hadn’t been paid. And Sloane’s best mechanic just walked out during his shift.

     Without any of them talking about it beforehand, they all showed up at Refuge on Friday night. Julia was the first one there, she just didn’t leave after her shift was over. Lucretia showed up last, throwing her briefcase on the table and ripping off her tweed blazer.

     “Rough week?” Sloane said, holding her glass up out of the blast zone. Lucretia slammed down next to Taako and ran her hands over her short greying hair.

     “Two hours,” she growled. “He lectured me for two hours of how I should be ‘grateful zat I even have zis job,’” she said in a fairly accurate impression of her boss’s accent.

     The whole booth let out a low ‘oooo’. Taako scooched an arm around to pat her shoulder. The booth wasn’t really meant to hold 8 people, but that didn’t stop them from crowding into it anyway.

     “Some lady yelled at me cause her son apparently isn’t progressing to orange belt fast enough,” Hurley commiserated. “He’s been at the dojo for a month and is late to every practice.”

     “I forgot to put the eggs in a $2000 cake,” Taako commented as he finished his second pina colada.

     “Did it even work?” Noelle asked.

     “Nope, nope. Had to throw out 5 full sheets worth of essentially Tahitian vanilla flavored duck food. Sazed was not a happy camper.”

     “I got barfed on,” Julia said glumly, swirling the remnants of her whiskey sour in the glass.

     “Ewww. You win,” Carey said, scooting as far away as she could, which was about one inch.

     “I changed!”

     “Still…” Killian teased, also attempting to scoot away as well.

     “I’m getting a drink, anyone want another round?” Lucretia stood up. Everyone raised their hands. “Sounds about right.” She left for the bar.

     “This week could not get any worse.” Julia shook her head.

     “Careful, the universe likes to play tricks on people like us,” Taako warned. As if on cue, the door opened and in walked Avi and Johann, and they had Magnus in tow. Julia groaned and downed the rest of her drink.

     “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she grumbled under her breath.

     “That’s the new ref, right?”

     “Yeah, and right out of the gate Lydia was making moves,” Julia said in a lowered voice. Avi waved when he saw the booth and started making his way over. “This guy’s no better than Gundren was--Hey Avi.”

     “Heyyy guys, room for three more?” He laughed at his own joke. The girls smiled weakly, a little bit worried that he wasn’t kidding. “Ehhh, I’m just joshing. Do you guys know Magnus? He’s new in town. And Gundren’s replacement.”

     “In more ways than one,” Julia muttered into her glass. Carey was the only one who heard her and she started laughing and choked on her drink. Julia patted her back a few times while she coughed.

     “Well, uh, Magnus, this is the B.o.B.” Avi continued, undeterred. “This is Taako, Noelle, Killian.” He pointed to each one, and then switched to the other side of the table. “And Hurley, Sloane, Carey, and, oh, you’ve already met Julia.”

     Magnus smiled and gave a small wave. Julia stared him up and down, her crappy mood and couple drinks pulling down any attempts that she might have made at civility. Plus, he still hadn’t paid his tab.

     “We’ll let you ladies-and-Taako get back to it.” He slapped hands down on Johann and Magnus’ shoulders and steered them towards the bar.

     Magnus glanced back over his shoulder at the table. If looks could kill, he mused to himself as he sat next to Avi at the bar. The B.o.B. coach was a couple of seats over; the bartender put an incredibly large glass of red wine in front of her.

     “Thanks, Ren,” she said, before drinking quite a bit of it.

     “Rough week, Lucretia?” Avi asked, leaning over the bar and grabbing a basket of chex mix.

     “You could say that,” she said, nodding to the trio. She turned and headed back for the booth. Magnus could see Julia with her head thrown back in laughter. If he was a poetic man, he probably could write a book about the way her curls moved. He turned back and picked out the rye chips from the chex mix.

     “Dude, did you like shoot Julia’s dog or something?” Avi asked.

     “So it’s not just me?”

     “Nah, man. She is not happy with you.” Avi looked over at the table. “What did you do?”

     “Hell if I know. I think I’ve said ten words to her.”

     “What’ll it be, gentlemen?” Ren said, stepping up and refilling their basket. She was a youngish black woman whose hair was straightened and pulled back in a spiky ponytail.

     “Port,” Johann said, not looking up from the notebook he was scribbling in.

     “I’ll have your cheapest beer, my fine mademoiselle. And put whatever this guy’s having on my tab,” Avi pointed to Magnus.

     “Hey, thanks man.”

     “No problem. Welcome to Refuge! When you’re here, you’re family.”

     “We’re a pub, Avi. Not Olive Garden,” Ren said, grinning.

     “I’ll have the same,” Magnus said, nodding back to Avi. Ren walked away and began pouring the drinks.

     “So you really don’t know why Julia hates your guts?”

     “Well, I’m not sure I’d go so far as ‘hates my guts’.”

     “Johann, what do you think?”

     Johann heaved a sigh and looked up from his notebook. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

     Ren returned and set down the beers and Johann’s port.

     “Ren, could you help us?” Avi asked.

     “Wait, we don’t need to--” Magnus started.

     “Friends don’t let friends be hated by other friends,” Avi assured him, putting Magnus’ beer in front of him. “Julia ...is not the biggest fan of Magnus, to put it mild sauce.”

     “Can you offer us insight into the female psyche?” Johann finished.

     Ren looked between the three of them and chuckled. “Look guys, I know I’m a bartender, but I’m not a relationship therapist. Besides, Julia hasn’t even mentioned a Magnus to me.”

     “Hey that’s a good sign.” Avi tapped Magnus’ arm and took a swig of his beer.

     “She has been grousing about this new referee though,” Ren mentioned as she walked away to tend to another customer.

     Oof. Magnus picked up the beer and took a drink. Double oof. He grimaced and looked down into the glass. “Avi, thanks for the beer, but this is terrible.”

     “Oh yeah. But it’s $4, soo,” he shrugged and took another large swig. “The key is to drink it fast, cause once it’s room temperature it is literally undrinkable.”

     “Pretty sure it’s undrinkable now.” Magnus looked over as Taako and Carey were snickering by the juke box. They slipped in a couple of quarters and pushed their selection, high fiving with devious smiles on their faces. Suddenly a loud song came over the speakers.

 

Yoooo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.

I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.

I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)

I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah.”

 

     Taako and Carey immediately started dancing and singing along, each taking a part in the song. They knew all the words, and even had a couple coordinated moves. They waved over to the rest of the team still in their seats in the booth, though they were watching with big smiles on their faces. Sloane hopped to her feet and joined Taako and Carey on the floor as the first verse began.

 

“If you want my future, forget my past

If you wanna get with me, better make it fast

Now don't go wasting my precious time

Get your act together we could be just fine.”

 

     As she sang and danced along, Sloane pulled a pin out of her bun and her hair tumbled down, dark and wavy and almost to her waist. Sloane held a hand out for a blushing Hurley, who took it and the two began dancing together. Hurley laughed as Sloane dipped her.

 

“I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

So tell me what you want, what you really, really want

I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)

I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah”

 

     Killian was deeper in the booth than Noelle, so she ended up pushing her out onto the impromptu dance floor as she got up. Killian immediately joined in the dancing, surprisingly light on her feet for her stature, but Noelle stood awkwardly to the side for a minute. Till Taako hip bumped her and Noelle smiled, starting a small dance and quietly singing the echoes.

 

“If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends

Make it last forever, friendship never ends

If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give

Taking is too easy, but that's the way it is.”

 

     As the next verse began, Julia and Lucretia were the only ones left in the booth. They watched as the rest of the team grooved around in the small space they’d cleared between tables. The group on the floor kept waving the two of them over, but neither made any move to get up.

 

“Oh, what do you think about that

Now you know how I feel

Say, you can handle my love, are you for real

I won't be hasty, I'll give you a try

If you really bug me then I'll say goodbye.”

 

     Suddenly, when the chorus began, Julia jumped up on the seat of the booth, singing along with the song. The rest of the team cheered and Julia hopped down to the ground, throwing her arms up and swaying her hips to the beat. Magnus watched her movements; she looked just as home out there as she did on the track, whipping her dark curls around and smiling cheesily at Noelle. She was breezy, languid. Free.

 

“Yo I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

So tell me what you want, what you really, really want

I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)

I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah.

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends

Make it last forever, friendship never ends

If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give

Taking is too easy, but that's the way it is.”


     Rolling her eyes, Lucretia stood up and joined the team on the impromptu floor. She hip bumped Carey and Taako grabbed her hand, giving her a twirl. She laughed and her arms moved effortlessly moved in a complicated pattern across her body as she swayed to the beat. All the other people in the pub tolerated the song and the ruckus, but Magnus watched, entranced and not even just with Julia. He felt like a kid with his nose pressed up to the glass at a candy store. He longed to be a part of their fun.

Chapter Text

     Johann blinked a couple times, and then rested an unsteady hand on Magnus’ shoulder. “Do you ever think about Beethoven and cry?”

     Magnus laughed. “Not usually.”

     “Oh god, don’t get him started,” chuckled Avi.

     It was sometime around ten now, and Johann was already plastered. He ran his hands through his very deliberate Leo Dicaprio ‘do. “Ohhhh man. Oh man. Shit, man. Beethoven. Guy was deaf, right? Deaf . Writes some of the best music there ever was and he can’t even hear people play it.” He tapped his temple. “He hears it all in his head.”

     A ruckus over at the B.o.B.’s table drew Magnus’ attention; most of the ladies were saying good night and leaving, including Julia. Magnus made himself stop watching them. “That, uh, kinda sucks.”

     “Nah, it’s the artistry, man! The musicality!”

     “I swear you make most of these words up,” said Avi.

     “Hey, fellas. Mind if we join you?” Taako swaggered over, somehow managing to look like David Beckham, complete with frosted tips, despite being skinnier, swarthier, and gap-toothed. Killian loomed behind.

     “Please do,” said Avi. “Johann’s just talking about Beethoven.”

     “Oh, do you know the story of his ninth symphony?” asked Taako, sliding onto a stool beside Avi, while Killian took the one by Magnus.

     Johann slouched toward Taako. “No.”

     “Yeah, it was crazy, my dude. He was onstage after the performance, right, turned toward the orchestra, and the audience was losing their fuckin’ minds about it, right, but he couldn’t hear.” Taako took a sip of what looked like a piña colada. “So the mezzo-soprano soloist had to turn him around so he could see how much they loved him.”

     “ Oh god .” Johann laid his head down on the bar and sobbed.

     Avi patted him on the shoulder. Taako hid an impish smile.

     “Now how’d you know that?” asked Killian suspiciously.

     “Please, Killian, I’m a man of culture .”

     “Well I’m a woman of tequila. Ren?”

     Avi stood up, one hand still on Johann’s back. “Do you need to go outside for a bit? Get some fresh air?”

     Johann blubbed something unintelligible. Avi helped him away from the bar, whispering to Magnus, “We’ll be right back.”

     Magnus wondered if he should start a conversation, but Taako beat him to it.

     “So Magnus, we’ve been keeping an eye on you.”

     “We’ve noticed some things,” said Killian. “We thought you should be aware of--oh, thank you, Ren--some facts of life?” She waved her shot glass as if it were a decanter of the finest wine.

     “Uhh...what do you mean?” Magnus huddled into his shoulders.

     “We saw the way you were looking at us dancing,” said Killian, leaning in close, shaking some salt onto the webbing between her thumb and pointer finger.

     Magnus leaned back. “Oh...oh! No, shit, no, I wasn’t trying to be creepy.”

     “Somehow you managed,” said Taako.

     “Who did you have your eye on, hmm? I swear to god, if you say Noelle, I’ll end you.”

     Magnus gulped. He was pretty sure Killian could rip him in half. “Look, you all just looked like you were having fun. It was fun to watch.”

     Killian eyeballed him. She licked the salt, drank her shot, and popped a lime wedge into her mouth, never moving her gaze, and placed the glass carefully on the table.

     Magnus was suitably intimidated.

     She took the lime wedge out of her mouth. “Taako? What do you think?”

     “Hard to say,” said Taako.

     “Look, I don’t know what I did to make you guys mistrust me so much,” Magnus blustered. “I’m sorry I stared. I’m new here, I don’t have many friends.”

     “You won’t make any more if you keep flirting with players,” said Killian.

     Magnus paused. “You mean the captain of the Wild Women? No, she flirted with me. I’m not into that. It’s bad sportsmanship.”

     Taako took the last drink of his piña colada and raised an eyebrow. “I notice you’re wearing the same pair of shorts as you were during the bout.”

     Magnus shifted uncomfortably. There was only so much laundry you could do in a van. They’d passed the sniff test. “Yeah? What about it?”

     “So if we were to search your pockets, we wouldn’t find a scrap of napkin with her number on it?” Taako put down his glass and moved into the seat next to Magnus.

     Magnus was getting tired of this. He slid off his stool and turned out his pockets, revealing his wallet, the van’s keys, and sawdusty lint.

     Killian and Taako exchanged a glance. “Passable,” Taako decided, and patted the seat to invite Magnus back up.

     “Are you done interrogating me?” asked Magnus.

     “We’ll say yes for now,” said Taako.

     “Hey Ren?” said Killian. “Can I get this man a better beer than the swill Avi’s been feeding him?”

     “Sure thing,” said Ren, ducking away to grab a mug.

     Reluctantly, Magnus took his seat again. He admitted to himself that if some random guy was staring at his friends, he’d probably do the same thing. “You’re really protective over each other.”

     Taako shrugged noncommittally, as if he hadn’t just hosted a minor inquisition.

     “We have to be,” said Killian. “Some men are weird about derby girls.”

     “I can’t see why,” said Magnus. “Four of you are pretty clearly taken.”

     Killian raised her eyebrows. Taako looked impressed. “No wait,” he said, “this is a fun game, which four?”

     Again Magnus felt like someone was putting the screws to him. “Uh, Sloane and Hurley? Right? They’re together.”

     “Correct,” said Taako. “And?”

     Magnus gestured to Killian. “You and Carey?”

     Killian smiled. “Isn’t she great?”

     “No one ever guesses Carey,” said Taako.

     Magnus frowned. He tapped his own shoulder. “She’s got that tattoo. Two female symbols interlocking.”

     “Right, you’d think between that and the butch haircut and the flannel it’d be obvious, right?” said Taako.

     “She thinks it’s a spicy Latina thing,” said Killian.

     “My cousin gets the same thing,” said Magnus.

     Ren appeared with a beer, for which Magnus thanked her, and then thanked Killian once he’d tasted it.

     “So Neverwinter, huh?” said Taako. “Why would you move to a podunk place like this?”

     “It’s not podunk,” protested Killian.

     “Two movie theaters does not a city make, Miss Priss,” said Taako. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s home, but it’s like the moon out here. Devoid of life.”

     “I uh, was trying to get away from some… trouble.”

     “What, do you owe someone money?” asked Killian.

     “No, there was this gangbanger I pissed off in my old neighborhood. Got him thrown in jail.”

     “Hatchi matchi,” said Taako.

     “Yeah, his friends weren’t too pleased with me.” Magnus took a long swig of beer. “I needed a change of scenery anyway.”

     Avi and Johann reappeared, taking the seats next to Taako. Johann leaned over and wrapped Taako up in a hug. “You’re so great, man. Like. So great.”

     Taako looked as though he were suffering rigor mortis. “My fella, I’m gonna ask you once to stop.”

     Johann dragged himself off and wandered over to the piano in the corner. He started playing a very pleasant jazz riff.

     “Maybe you two can tell us why Julia hates Magnus,” said Avi.

     “Just a misunderstanding, I think,” said Killian. “She thinks he’s another Gundren.”

     “Gundren wasn’t so bad,” Avi said.

     “Come on , Avi,” scoffed Killian.

      Avi put up his hands. “Fine, fine. He wasn’t great. But Magnus, for what it’s worth, I think you’re a good guy.”

     Magnus was touched. “Thank you.”

     “Oh, this reminds me,” said Killian. “I have to tell you about the moron I was training at the gym the other day.”

     As Killian launched into her story, Magnus relaxed.

Chapter Text

“So you’re telling me he’s cool?’

Killian shrugged and opened the door to the stairwell. “That’s what I’m telling you. Magnus is cool.”

“Not a douche,” said Carey, tapping down the stairs.

“If he was, he wouldn’t have seen the plain fact that you and I are gay as hell.”

“Huh.” Carey hopped onto the bannister, slid to the next landing, and opened the door for Killian. “So then why was he staring at us dancing?”

“He’s just lonely. Thanks, babe.” Killian shuffled down the hall, carrying both their skate bags in one hand and holding Carey’s hand with the other. “It takes time to make friends.”

“He’s lucky Avi found him first, then,” said Carey. “Plenty of friends, in no time.” She paused, mid-step. “Did I turn off the stove?”

“No, but I did,” said Killian.

“You’re so good.” Carey narrowed her eyes at Killian, hiding a smile. “Almost too good.”

Killian kissed her on the top of the head. “Anything interesting come in the shop today?”

“A woman tried to pawn a cheese slicer. Said it was a rare artifact from some island somewhere.” Carey snorted. “I almost felt bad for her.”

Killian laughed. They stopped in front of a door marked 344, and Carey knocked.

Angus opened the door and hopped outside. “Hello, Miss Carey and Miss Killian!”

Carey mussed his hair. “Hey, buddy. You’ve got popcorn kernels in your teeth.”

He sucked noisily at his teeth. “That’ll be on account of the popcorn I had for dinner.”

Killian groaned. “You had popcorn for dinner?”

“It was all that was left. Grandpa said he’ll bring something home this morning.”

“Goddammit, old man!” Carey shouted.

“Please don’t talk that way about my grandpa, Miss Carey,” Angus pleaded. “It’s really much better here than the group home.”

Killian placed a hand on Carey’s shoulder. “Anger later. Angus now.”

Carey sighed. “Yeah. Angus, do you want a sandwich?”

“But we’ll be late for practice!” said Angus.

“Not if we hurry. I’ll race you up to our place! Ready-set-go!”

Angus bolted, laughing, with Carey close behind. Killian followed at a walk, suppressing a sigh. Angus’ grandfather had taken him in a couple years ago after there were allegations of abuse at the group foster home Angus had been staying in. The old man barely had a paycheck from a night watchman job and was slowly losing his memory. Normally he wouldn’t be considered an appropriate guardian, but blood relatives were given preference, and the system here was already overwhelmed with kids, and Angus was just on the cusp of the time when any older meant “unadoptable,” and on, and on, and on.

So they tried to help out when they could. The old man wouldn’t let Angus spend the night while he was at work, but they could at least watch him in the evenings. They’d talked about taking him in themselves, but it was hard enough for lesbians to adopt kids, much less minimally employed lesbians, one of whom had a brief but inescapable criminal record.

It got Killian’s blood boiling, that was for sure. Life wasn’t fair.

She relaxed a fist she didn’t know she was making. She should take her own advice. Anger later. Angus now. They had a practice to get to.

 

Carey pulled neatly into a parking space behind the rink and looked up. “Huh. What are they doing?”

Lucretia, Noelle, and Julia were waiting by the back door. Lucretia was wiggling a key in the lock.

The three of them unbuckled and got out of the car. Killian called, “What’s happening?”

“Merle said the rink was closed for the evening, but that we could still practice,” said Julia. “Except that his stupid key won’t work.”

“C’mon, you cheap-ass dwarf, don’t tell me you gave me the wrong key,” grumbled Lucretia.

“Have you called him yet?” asked Killian.

“That’s what Sloane and Hurley are doing,” Julia answered.

“Here they come now,” said Noelle.

They rattled up in Sloane’s Frankenstein junker. Hurley jumped out of the car, still wearing her gi. “No good,” she said. “He’s not answering.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” said Taako, who came stalking around the side of the building. “His daughter’s in a play. It’s not like he’s got a cellular. No other doors or windows open, Coach.”

Lucretia pulled the key out of the lock and threw it on the ground. “Dammit Merle.”

Sloane and Hurley had joined them now. “So what now,” said Hurley, “we just cancel practice?”

Carey bounced on her toes. “No, wait. I’ve got it. Sloane, do you have a bobby pin?”

Sloane pulled a pin from her hair and handed it over. A few black strands fell out of her bun.

Carey knelt down in front of the lock. “I’m a little rusty on this, but we’re not exactly breaking Fort Knox here.” She stuck the pin into the lock, feeling around carefully.

“You can pick locks, Miss Carey?” asked Angus.

She paused. Very gently, she took Angus by one shoulder and pivoted him so he was facing away. “Yes. I used to do it a lot. And then I got thrown in juvie.” She went back to work. “Don’t do crime, Angus.”

“Okay, Miss Carey.” He stared dutifully at the side of the building.

“I mean it. Ever.”

“I understand, Miss Carey.”

The lock clicked, and Carey pulled open the door. “Here we go.”

“Hell yeah!”

“Nice job.”

“Thanks, Carey.”

Killian squeezed her. “That’s so sexy.”

Carey grinned. “Thanks, babe.” She noticed Angus watching. “But illegal. Very illegal.”

“Oh, of course.” Killian rested her arm on Carey’s shoulders and, together, they walked into practice.

Chapter Text

     “Why does Merle have so much Gloria Estefan in his pre-game playlist?” Noelle asked, as she and Julia skated through the lobby.

     “I think he used to have a crush on her,” Julia snickered as Get on Your Feet came over the speakers.

     The lobby was beginning to crowd with people. A group of fans waved at Julia and Noelle, holding signs and wearing the electric blue of the team. The concessions stand already had a line forming and Robbie was running between stations like a madman. The pair skated over to the water fountain by the door, Julia bent down to fill her water bottle. Noelle leaned against the wall, crossing her arms and surveying the crowd.

     “There’s a lot of Robes fans here,” she said quietly, her eyes darting between groups dressed in red. Julia looked over her shoulder.

     “Eh, it’s early yet. Our fans aren’t very punctual.” She grinned as she spun the lid on her bottle. They traded bottles, and Julia began to fill Noelle’s. “Hey, how’d that project of yours turn out?”

     “Which one? The lunar mining one?”

     “Yeah...I think.”

     “Pretty good. We’re still troubleshooting right now. The problem is the code.” Julia stood up and they began to skate back to the track, dodging around fans and spectators. “For some reason the programming is telling it to drive in circles, and--”

     “Well, well, well. If it isn’t a couple of B.o.B. star players.” Julia and Noelle stopped skating; they both recognized that voice. “Though I suppose it’s not hard to be the best when the whole team is garbage.”

     They turned around to see Lup, team captain of the Rad Robes, flanked by a couple of her cronies. Lup was several inches taller than Noelle, and was all olive-toned skin and hard-packed sleek muscle. She bore an eerie resemblance to Taako, though he always insisted that he couldn’t see it. She put her hands on her narrow hips and smirked.

     “Really? Trash talk?” Julia retorted, crossing her arms. Most of the time a little trash talk wasn’t a big deal, but there was something about the Rad Robes, and Lup in particular, that just set her off. “You’re about as classy as that rat’s nest you call hair.”

     Lup stopped smirking and her cronies exchanged a glance.

     Noelle started to edge away. “Uhh, Julia, maybe we should…”

     Suddenly, Julia felt a hand on her shoulder; Lucretia had skated up with Hurley in tow.

     “Sour Scream, excellent to see you, as always.” She nodded at Lup and maintained a placid expression. “I look forward to a good bout today. But I’m afraid my captain doesn’t have time for pleasantries--”

     “Hey Lucretia,” Lup interrupted, that smirk returning to her face. It was echoed by her buddies. “Uh, my teammates and I were just wondering if you found it as funny as we do that you’re now a has-been in two different sports?”

     Julia made to step forward, but Lucretia’s grip tightened on her shoulder. Hurley was getting the same treatment, but was trying to pull herself free, one finger pointing at Lup’s nostrils. “Hey, why don’t you shut the hell up?”

 

     “Uh, Magnus?” Avi asked, the straw from his juice box still in his mouth.

     Magnus didn’t look up from where he was bent over, adjusting the laces on his skates before he put them on. “Yeah?”

     “There seems to be a storm a-brewin’ on the horizon.”

     “What?” Magnus sat up to look at Avi. Avi gestured with the box towards the lobby. A circular group was starting to form near the foosball tables.

     “Ooh, it’s been awhile since we’ve had a fight,” Boyland commented. Magnus groaned and rolled his eyes, but got up to go over and break it up. It always seemed so useless when players would fight during the bout. No one ever accomplished anything, except bruising each other’s egos.

     “Ladies, ladies, let’s break it up,” he said, pushing his way through the gathered spectators and standing beside the shouting players. He was surprised to find Julia at the center, and the way her eyes were alight with fury made his gut flip-flop.

     “Ref?” the Rad Robes captain, Lup he thought her name was, raised a finger up. “We were wondering if the Bureau would have to forfeit this bout?”

     “On what grounds?” he asked, though he felt like it was playing right into her hand.

     “They don’t have a full team,” she simpered, her mouth curled into a cruel smile. “Considering they’re missing a quarter of one player,” she looked pointedly at Noelle, “and about half of another,” her gaze turned to Hurley.

     “Oh, FUCK NO.”

     Lup abruptly disappeared from vision; Julia tackled her to the ground. It took everyone a second to realize what had happened, and in the meantime Julia did not so much punch as clobber Lup’s face.

     The crowd started yelling and pushing in. Magnus grabbed her wrist. Julia wrenched out of Magnus’ grip and swung again. Lup was screaming and blood gushed out of her nose, her arms flailing.

     Magnus locked his arms around Julia’s waist and hauled her up off of Lup. The crowd backed away as he turned--Julia was kicking, still trying to break free. He threw her over one shoulder, and the crowd parted in front of him.

     “LET ME GO!” she roared. God, she was strong; she almost got out of his grasp a couple of times. She kept up a steady string of insults against Lup, and a couple for Magnus, up until Magnus kicked open the locker room door and dropped Julia unceremoniously on the floor. Lucretia was close behind.

     “You’re out of the game.” Magnus said flatly. Julia reacted like he had tossed a bucket of cold water on her.

     “ What ?”

     “No, please, I know she--” Lucretia skated around between the two of them.

     “No! It’s the league rules. She assaulted another player, technically she assaulted a ref, I’d be within rights to ban her for the rest of the season.”

     “But she was goaded! You heard what Lup was saying about Hurley and Noelle!”

     “And she said a lot more before you finally got there, ref !” Julia added harshly. Lucretia shot her a sharp look and Julia looked down at the ground.

     “I know.” Magnus looked between the pair, feeling conflicted. “And that’s why she’s only out this bout.” He wanted to say something more, about how he would have done the same thing in her situation. But it didn’t seem fair, so he just said, “Don’t let it happen again,” and left the locker room.

     The door clicked shut, and Julia looked at Lucretia. She didn’t turn around, just pinched the bridge of her nose and took several deep breaths.

     Neither of them said anything for a minute. Finally Lucretia let out a breath.

     “You realize that you did exactly what the Rad Robes wanted you to do, right?” She turned and looked at Julia, her gaze like a punch to the gut. “Without you, this game is going to be much easier for them to win.”

     Julia opened her mouth to retort, but she realized that she was right.

     “You’re a good player, Julia. But you’ve got to start thinking a couple steps ahead, or it’s going to be your downfall.” And she left Julia alone.

 

     After checking that Merle had someone on lobby clean up, Magnus returned to where he’d left his skates. He pulled harshly at the laces and jammed his foot into the boot. He wasn’t sure why he was angry. He was just doing his job. Yeah, Lup had been a bully, and she definitely deserved the broken nose Julia had given her. But it still didn’t feel right to kick Julia out of the game.

     “Did you see her? Wham! Bam! K.O.,” Avi said returning to the ref’s bench with Boyland.

     “Sour Scream never even had a chance,” Boyland laughed.

     “It’s crazy how much she and Taako look alike,” Avi said, looking back at the group of Rad Robe players.

     “Right now, she looks more like a Jackson Pollock painting than anything else.”

     “Hey, good work, breaking up the fight,” Avi said, elbowing Magnus’ side. “Gundren would usually let them go a few rounds before he’d intervene.”

     “You suspend Jule Be Sorry?” Boyland asked.

     Magnus nodded, switching to the other skate. When he didn’t say anything, Boyland and Avi looked at each other.

     “Hey, don’t feel bad, man,” Avi said. “It’s our job, we gotta enforce the rules. The players know that.”

     He was right, Magnus shouldn’t feel this way. So why did he?

     The door to the Bureau’s locker room banged open and out stalked Julia, back in her street clothes, dragging her skate bag behind her and making a beeline for the door. She looked about two words away from punching someone else, but Magnus got up and skated over to her.

     “Julia, I just wanted--” he started, stopping at her side. She blew right past him, heading for the door.

     He watched her go a ways, wondering if he should give it up. But no, this was important.

     He ended up having to go outside to catch up with her, skates rattling on the rough asphalt, but managed to reach out and touch her arm. “Julia, wait.”

     “What?” she snapped, turning around to look at him, her jaw tensed. Some part of him realized that this may not have been a great idea.

     “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. I don’t want to kick you out, but the rules are--”

     “Why are you telling me this?” she replied tersely.

     Magnus blinked and looked away. Why was he telling her this? Why was he so compelled to convince her that he wasn’t a bad guy? Why?

     When he didn’t reply, Julia rolled her eyes and pulled her arm out of his grasp. Magnus watched her get into her car and speed away, the realization dawning on him as his fingers felt like they were on fire from where they had touched her skin. He stood there, frozen, watching her car disappear around a corner.

     After a minute, the door opened behind him.

     “Hey, boss? You ready to start the bout?” Avi asked.

     “Yeah.” Magnus blinked a few times, as if breaking the spell. “Yeah, let’s go.” Mentally he shoved those thoughts in a box and sealed it shut. He wanted to be a good ref, and a good ref was impartial and balanced. He would deal with this later.

Chapter Text

     Julia ground her teeth and fumed as she drove down the country highway. Her radio was off and all her windows rolled down, the wind tangling her hair. She snapped her headlights on as the sun finally dipped below the treeline, casting the road in shadows. It had been several hours since she’d been ejected from the game, and she’d been driving the entire time. She’d initially headed for her apartment, but arrived there far too soon. So she headed for her dad’s, but he’d known she had a bout and would want to know why she wasn’t there, so she drove past. The whole town seemed too small, so she left city limits.

     Neighborhoods turned to industrial districts turned to farms turned to just countryside. She hadn’t seen a car for several miles, and finally she began to breathe a little easier. Not that she wasn’t mad, oh no, she had a list. Enemy number one was definitely Lup. That smug bitch deserved more than what Julia had been able to get in before she was so rudely interrupted by enemy number two. Where did that bastard Magnus get off? Flirting with Lydia, and now defending Lup. She gripped the wheel a little harder and went a little faster down the two-lane road.

     Yes, she was fighting. And yes, technically , fighting was not allowed in the league bylaws. And yes, the punishment for fighting was expulsion... But she was still mad!

     Her attention was drawn away from figuring out the scathing remarks she could make about Magnus when her little old car sputtered, shook, and started decelerating.

     “Oh, no,” she whispered, pressing on the gas pedal. “Nonono, please.” The car moved forward, but she watched in horror as the speedometer continued to drop. As it reached zero, she turned off to the side of the road and came to a shuddering stop. She stared catatonic as a few moths lazily buzzed through the glare of her headlights, the realization of her colossal stupidity welling up through the floorboards. With a groan, she slumped forward, her forehead on the horn. The sound echoed across empty fields.

     She stayed like that for several minutes, trying to come to terms with everything but failing. Eventually, she sat back up and turned the car off. With the headlights extinguished, the true dark of the countryside came crashing in. She waited for a minute, half-way hoping that a car would magically appear on the road.

     Taking her keys with her, she got out of the car and looked up and down the road. There was no one. From how clearly she could see the stars in the sky, she realized just how far from civilization she had driven.

     “Okay,” she said out loud, finding that talking to herself was sort of comforting. Her breath left little puffs of fog in the night air. “Okay, okay. It’s gonna be fine.” She looked back up and down the dark empty road again, her minimal comfort evaporating. The memory of the time Carey made her go see Scream three summers ago suddenly jumped to mind.

     “Goddammit, Carey.” She clenched her fists and jumped up and down a few times, trying to shake the memory away.

     She paced across the road a few times, debating whether it would be better to wait with the car or try to walk to somewhere with a payphone. The very very empty road, and the completely rational thought that there might be a crazy serial killer in the ditch, made her choice for her. She grabbed her purse, jacket, and after a moment’s thought, grabbed her wrist guards. She set off down the road, strapping her guards on. If she had to punch for her life, she wasn’t going to sprain her wrist doing it. Besides, she was fairly sure that she was only a few miles out from Wave Echo, or at least she hoped she was.

 

     “This hour of music has been brought to you by the Foundation for Ali Forney Centers, dedicated to providing homes and help to LGBT youth. Next up is Stuart Weisman with another hour of jazz-”

     Magnus leaned forward and snapped the car radio off. For some reason he was only able to pick up the public radio station, and a man can only handle so much smooth jazz in one sitting. He still had another hour of driving before he got to the hotel Isaak had put him up in. Magnus yawned a little and shook his head, forcing himself to keep vigilant. It was hard on the dark country roads, no other cars in sight. Just the hum of the road, whistle of the wind, and whatever music he chose to put on. And right now his choices were public radio or the Kool & The Gang cassette that had been stuck in the deck for the past four months. So Magnus chose silence.

     But in the silence, his mind wandered back over the events of the day. The rest of the bout had been fine; the Rad Robes had taken the Bureau to the cleaners. The team seemed really off their game after the fight and subsequent ejection of their captain. Magnus let out a long breath. He’d done a good job of boxing up those feelings… till now.

     ‘Why are you telling me this?’ her voice echoed in his mind. He gripped the steering wheel and gritted his teeth a little, edging his van left as he passed an abandoned car at the side of the road. He knew why, a small part reminded him, but the much larger part wasn’t quite ready to open that door. He was afraid if he did, he wouldn’t be able to close it again.

     He’d been in love once before, or at least he was pretty sure he had, and it had seemed as if his world surrounded her. If he opened this door, everything would be Julia. Every song, every movie, every person he saw on the street would be Julia.

     Wait.

     Magnus slammed on the brakes, his van coming to a screeching halt in the empty road. He looked into the sideview mirror; surely it was just a coincidence that that hitchhiker looked like…

     “Julia?” he called, shifting the van into park and leaning out the driver’s window. Many yards back, dimly lit by the brake lights was a figure. He got out of the van but stood by the driver’s side door, ready to jump back in if the situation went south. The figure jogged a few yards forward and Magnus was glad that he wasn’t hallucinating hitchhikers in the form of Julia. But now worried that it was actually Julia.

     Julia, on the other hand, wondered what she had done to accrue such bad karma. She’d been pleading internally for help, any help, for the past 30 minutes. Now she had half a mind to just keep walking past Magnus and his stupid airbrushed van. Safety be damned. Magnus walked to the back end of the van, the red brake lights giving him a sort of devilish halo. She sighed, and waved, not taking her hand out of the pocket of her jacket.

     “Hi, Magnus,” she said, dejectedly, not walking forward.

     “What are you doing out here?”

     “Fishing for lake trout,” she replied, sarcastically. Magnus frowned, and stopped walking towards her, standing a few feet away.

     “Do… you need a ride somewhere?”

     God, there he went again with the stupid questions. “Oh, no. The magical taxi that I called on my non-existent cellular phone should be here any minute.”

     Magnus stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “Alright, see you at the next bout.” He turned and started walking back towards his van. She let him go a few steps to see how committed he was to his bit, but when he opened the driver’s side door, a panic quickly overwhelmed her.

     “No, wait, WAIT!” she yelled, running a few steps forward. She ran her hands over her hair and blew out a huff. “My car ran out of gas. I just need a lift to the nearest payphone.” Magnus didn’t reply, so she added, “Please.”

     He turned back to look at her and waved her over with his chin. “Get in,” he said, jumping up into the cab. Julia quickly ran around to the other side of the car and hopped in before he could change his mind.

     Neither of them said anything for the first few miles. Julia was very grateful to be going faster than a snail’s pace again, even if it took enemy number two and his weird spaceship van to do it. She surveyed the interior. There was the usual: fast food wrappers, Walmart bags, skate gear. Also, the very unusual: stacks of wooden planks, a dress shirt on a hanger. She wasn’t entirely sure in the dark cabin, but it seemed like there was a fish tank installed in the front dashboard. She almost asked him about it, but decided not to out of principle.

     She then noticed that she still had on her wrist guards; great, he probably thought she was weird now. She tried to surreptitiously pull them off, but the velcro gave her away.

     “May I ask why you’re wearing your wrist guards?”

     Julia frowned. “I was worried about… serial killers,” she said quietly.

     “What?”

     She pursed her lips and quickly said, “I was worried about serial killers.”

     “Serial killers?” Magnus repeated, a smile in his voice. “You realize that you were in more danger from deer than from Freddy Krueger?”

     “Look, when you’re alone on an empty country road with no phone and no gas in your car, logic is not the foremost thing on your brain.”

     “So what was your plan with Ghostface? Gonna give him the ol’ 1, 2?” Magnus punched the air a little and laughed, looking over at her. Julia looked out the window and didn’t reply. “Hey come on… sorry. I’m sorry. But you gotta admit, that’s a terrible plan.”

     Julia looked back at him. “It would have worked,” she insisted.

     “Right. If it’s you and your wrist guards against Jason, my money’s going to be on Jason.”

     “Of course I’m not going to win against Jason, no one can win against Jason. But I could totally take your garden variety serial killer.”

     “Well, if the state of Lup’s face is anything to go on--” Magnus immediately stopped, the grin disappeared, and he turned abruptly towards the front again. Julia looked down at her wrist guards clutched in her lap. Another mile dragged by in agonizing silence.

     “Was it bad?” Julia asked quietly.

     Magnus nodded. “You broke her nose. She didn’t skate the whole bout.”

     Julia couldn’t help but feel a little pleased. “Good.”

     Magnus glanced at her. “Bureau still lost though. 119 to 57.”

     She frowned, avoiding his gaze. “...I don’t usually… it’s just, there’s just something about her that makes me...” she shook her head. “Not that it matters now. I let the team down.” She propped her elbow on the windowsill and rested her head in her hand.

     Magnus glanced at her. “Yeah, you did.”

     “Wow, thanks.”

     “Now, let me finish. I may not know you and your team all that well. But even still I know that you guys love and support each other...” He searched for the right word. “...Fiercely. More than any other team I’ve seen. You’re like a family. And family supports, protects, and even fights for each other, despite what the league bylaws say. They’ll forgive you.” Julia looked over at him and he smiled a little.

     Julia nodded slowly. “You know you’re very wise for a person who still drives a ‘77 Dodge.”

     “Hey, if you’re gonna knock Rail Splitter, I will pull over and you can walk the rest of the way to Wave Echo.”

     Julia chuckled a little. “Sorry, sorry. But just a quick question, what is this?” She tapped the glass of the tank in the dashboard.

     “It’s a fish tank.”

     “Oh. Of course it is, how silly of me.” She leaned forward and peered into the dark water. “Seems to be lacking in fish… did a shark eat them?”

     “Since it’s a tank, wouldn’t I be able to see a shark?”

     “...It’s a glass shark. He ate all the fish.”

     Magnus chuckled. “Damn, those lil suckers didn’t have a chance.”

     “So besides the glass shark, what got them?”

     “I ran into some issues with climate control last winter.” He grimaced and shook his head. Julia actually laughed at that. “It’s not funny, I felt really bad about that.”

     “I’m sorry, but what did you think was going to happen? It’s a van, not a house.”

     “I just needed a couple more hot water bottles and then it totally would have worked.”

     “Right, sure. You’ll have a fish tank in your dashboard, and I’ll fight off the Zodiac Killer with my wrist guards.”

     Magnus grinned, then looked at Julia and made a mock tough face. “You could take him.”

Chapter Text

     “So why are you all the way out here?” Julia asked, unbuckling her seat belt. She pulled on the handle to the door, but it didn’t open.

     “Oh, yeah, hold on. That’s busted.” Magnus slammed the driver door shut and jogged around to the other side of the van. He opened the door and held out his hand to help her down. She took it and hopped to the ground, reaching back for her purse and slipping it over her shoulder.

     “My boss has me working a job here in Wave Echo this week,” Magnus explained, his hands shoved in his coat pockets as the pair walked towards the front door.

     They had stopped at the first open place they found, which turned out to be a 24-hour diner just outside of Wave Echo city limits. It was a small, greasy spoon type place, and the whole building was shaped like a felled log for some reason. The bell over the door rang as Magnus and Julia entered; there was only one other customer and a very sleepy looking skeleton crew. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” played quietly over tinny speakers. Julia quickly headed off to the payphone by the bathrooms, and Magnus lumbered into one of the booths against the front wall.

     The phone was ancient, the coin slots marked for dimes and nickels. Julia fished a handful of change from her purse and stacked it on the shelf. She slipped in a few dimes, picked up the receiver, and reached out to press in a phone number, but paused. Who should she call?

     She didn’t want to call her dad because then she’d have to explain the whole fight story, plus running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, and he’d feel the need to lecture about responsibility and that wouldn’t do either of them any good. Lucretia would usually have been next, but Julia felt like she shouldn’t be asking her for any favors after the game. So she punched in Taako’s number. It rang a few times.

     “Come on, come on, Taako. Pick up,” she said under her breath.

     “Hey champ, you’ve reached Chez del Taako. I’m not here right now, but if you leave--” Taako’s answering machine came on after a couple rings. Julia hung up and the dime clattered into the coin tray. She picked it up and tried Killian and Carey’s number. She let the phone ring for a couple minutes, but it became increasingly obvious that no one was coming to the phone. She tried Sloane next, then Hurley, and finally Noelle. No one picked up. She put the receiver back and glanced at the Ovaltine clock above the door. 11:21, it said. Maybe they were all still out after the game. She quickly dialed in another number; it rang twice.

     “Refuge Pub, this is Ren speaking.” There was loud music in the background of the call. At least someone was enjoying Karaoke Saturdays.

     “Ren? It’s Julia.”

     “Oh, hey girl, I heard about the game. Tough luck.”

     “Yeah.” Julia rubbed the back of her neck. “Hey listen, is any of the B.o.B. there? Anyone?”

     “Lemme check.” Julia drummed her fingers on the coin shelf till Ren returned. “Nope, sorry. They were here earlier but they must have left.”

     “Really? I tried their houses…”

     “You okay?”

     “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. I’m just trying to find a ride. If I can’t find one by last call, I’ll call you back.”

     “Okay, let me know.”

     “Alright, bye.” Julia hung up the phone glumly. She picked up her small stack of change and went to sit in the booth with Magnus.

     “You get ahold of anyone?” he asked, putting the menu down. Two brown plastic glasses of water had appeared on the table while she’d been at the phone. Julia shook her head.

     “No, they’re out somewhere. I’ll give it 30 minutes then try again. Maybe someone will be home by then.” Magnus nodded and picked back up the menu, perusing its limited offerings. “Thanks for the ride, but you don’t have to wait with me. You’ve probably got an early start tomorrow.”

     Magnus frowned, “No, I’ll wait with you. It’s not a problem.”

     Just then the waitress walked up. “What can I get for you?” she said in a disinterested tone, pulling the pencil from behind her ear.

     Magnus smiled winningly up at her. “I would like the Lumberjack Special with scrambled eggs, please, Hannah.” He nodded to her nametag.

     The waitress scribbled it down and looked at Julia. She glanced at the menu in a panic. “Uh… I’ll… I’ll have the same.”

     The waitress grabbed the menus and turned on her heel for the window to the kitchen.

     “What did I just order?” Julia asked, leaning forward a little.

     “Pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, and four slices of toast. All for $3.99.”

     Julia nodded, “That actually sounds amazing. I haven’t eaten since before the bout.” She took a sip of her water, distant noises of cooking drifting out of the kitchen. “So what kind of job? Like…” she paused. “What do you even do?”

     “I’m a carpenter.”

     “Really? That’s still a thing?”

     “Yes, in a way. Isaak, the guy I work for, he does more contracting, but I do the woodwork.”

     Julia nodded. “So you’re… carpenter-ing something in Wave Echo?”

     Magnus chuckled at the word ‘carpentering’. “Basically, yes. The country club on Wave Echo Lake is building a new restaurant-clubhouse thing. They need wainscoting in every room apparently.”

     “Well, long-time members Brenda and Glenn Jones will accept nothing but the best,” Julia said in a jokingly posh manner, leaning forward on the table with her arms crossed. “After all, they have a reputation to uphold.”

     “Exactly. Though I’m not complaining, hotels are fun to stay in and I’ll be right by the lake.”

     “Sounds nice, kind of like a half-vacation.”

     “Yeah.”

     Julia looked out the window as a semi drove past. “My dad and I used to come up to Wave Echo lake. One of his bosses had a house and would let him borrow his fishing boat occasionally. We’d leave our house before dawn and be on the lake all day. Never really caught anything at all.” Julia smiled a little, turning back to look at Magnus. “And Mom would literally hose us off in the backyard when we’d get back, claiming we still smelled like fish and lake water.”

     Magnus was interrupted when the waitress returned with their orders. The plates took up most of the table, and everything smelled mouth-wateringly delicious. He quickly dug into the stack of pancakes.

     “Now I realized something while you were at the phone,” Magnus said around a mouthful. “If your car just ran out of gas, we could get one of those little portable tank things and I could take you back to your car.”

     “Oh… well…” Julia shook her head. “I mean, we’d have to find one of those things at midnight in Wave Echo , and then it’s an hour back to my car, and you’d have to drive another hour back here. I don’t want to put you out like that.”

     Magnus looked at her for a moment. “But you’d put one of your teammates out like that?”

     “Well, yeah, they’re my friends.” Julia took another bite of bacon, before she realized what she had implied. Magnus wasn’t looking at her anymore. “Shit.” The waitress stared daggers at Julia from behind the counter. “I mean, I just know them--”

     “No, no. I get it.” He shrugged and shook his head. “I did eject you from a game just this afternoon. It’s fine.”

     It was very obviously Not Fine. Julia sighed and shrugged. “Well, there is that, but that’s not even the problem.”

     “What is the problem?” Magnus said, a sudden intensity in his gaze that snapped to her face. “Because it really feels like you’ve had something against me since the moment we met. And if there’s something wrong, I’m the kind of person that likes to right it. What, did you really like the old ref or something?”

     Julia scoffed. “Gundren? God, no. He was terrible.”

     “Is it something I said? Did I look at you weird?”

     “No,” Julia said, rolling her eyes a little.

     “So what is it? What’s your problem with me?” Both of their tempers were starting to simmer.

     “Gundren was a total slimeball, and when you first came I thought you were exactly like him,” Julia snapped, leaning forward in her seat.

     “Well, I’m not.”

     “I know that!”

     “Good!”

     “Fine!”

     They both sat back in the booth and realized that they had an audience. The waitress was actively leaning across the counter in rapt attention. Julia went back to silently eating, but Magnus wasn’t satisfied.

     “But you still have a problem. And it’s not just ‘cause Gundren was a jerk,” he said, low enough that the whole diner wouldn’t hear.  

     “Fine, it is because you are the ref,” Julia said, matching his volume but her tone sharper. “And frankly, being friends with the ref has always seemed like a real dick move in my book.”

     “That’s ridiculous. I was friends with players at my old league.”

     “Yeah, well, that league is not this league.”

     “Well, maybe you need to give people a chance!”

     “Maybe you need to stop living in the past!”

     The audience was back. This time both Magnus and Julia turned back to their food. The rest of the meal was spent in silence. When she finished, Julia scooted out of the booth and headed back for the payphone.

     She dropped two dimes into the slot and punched in Taako’s number. Her foot tapped rapidly on the floor. The phone rang four times, then, miraculously, he picked up.

     “Yello?” Taako drawled.

     “Taako? Oh, thank god. It’s Jules.”

     “Hey, slugger. Where you been? We missed you tonight.”

     “I’m… stuck, Taako. I need a favor, a pretty big one.”

     “Ooh, I could always use a pretty big favor from my dear friend Julia.”

     “Ah, nooo. This would be in repayment for last summer’s JNCO debacle.” Taako didn’t say anything. It was so quiet that Julia wondered if she’d been disconnected. “Taako?”

     “We both said we’d never speak of that again.”

     “Uh, you said that, I said no such thing.”

     “My word is law, Jules, everyone knows this.” He sighed dramatically, but she could hear his smile. “Fine. What do you need?”

     “I need a ride. My car ran out of gas.”

     “Oh, sure. No problem, I can leave right now. Where are you?”

     Julia paused and screwed her eyes shut. “Wave Echo.”

     “Did you just say Wave Echo? Julia, that’s like two and half hours away.”

     “I know.”

     “Julia, it’s past midnight!”

     “I knowww. I’m sorry. That’s why it’s JNCO scale.”

     “Were you angry driving?”

     “...Yes.”

     “You gotta start doing that in city limits, babe.”

     “Yeah, someday I’ll learn. I’m sorry.”

     “Where are you right now?”

     “That diner that’s shaped like a log.”

     “Listen, would you be okay staying there till morning? I have to work tomorrow, so I can’t spend 5 hours driving to the ends of the earth and back tonight. But I’m delivering a cake for a retirement party at the Wave Echo country club tomorrow at eleven.”

     Julia sighed, “I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”

     “Did you call Lucretia? She’s probably still awake.”

     “I can’t call her, Taako,” she said in a small voice. “Not after the stunt I pulled at the bout.”

     “That’s true. I’m so mad I missed it. Hurley did a particularly vivid reenactment during half-time though. She might have a future in show business.”

     Julia smiled a little. A voice on the phone informed her that she only had 30 seconds remaining on her call. “Hey, I gotta go. But you can’t miss the diner, on the left as you hit city limits.”

     “Okay, see you in the morning.”

     Julia hung up the phone and paced a little bit. She didn’t want to head back into the seating area and face Magnus again, not when she knew that he was right. She sighed and waited another minute before leaving the small alcove, making sure that she at least wasn’t going to bite his head off again since she wasn’t quite ready to make nice.

     Magnus was at the counter, paying the bill. He was groping around in the pockets of his cargo shorts for the tip.

     “Here, let me.” Julia pulled out her wallet and put a couple of bills down on the counter. The waitress took the money but didn’t walk away, obviously wondering what other juicy details she could get from the mysterious couple.

     Magnus walked towards the door, and turned to face Julia. “So it looked like you were able to get ahold of someone,” he said, not really looking at her. She nodded.

     “Uh, yeah. Taako is going to pick me up here tomorrow morning.”

     Magnus looked back at her. “Tomorrow morning?”

     “Yeah, he has to deliver some cake to the country club tomorrow, so we’ll get it all sorted then.”

     “What are you going to do in the meantime?” His dark brows furrowed.

     She shrugged. “Wait here, I guess. I don’t have any other choice.”

     Magnus’ jaw flexed a few times: he seemed to be weighing some options. But he finally said, “Look, Isaak put me up in a motel for the week. It was really cheap, and they probably still have vacancies. I can give you a ride over there so you can get some sleep. And then,” he shrugged, “if you want you can come with me to the country club tomorrow and meet Taako there.”

     Julia’s first instinct was to be suspicious of how nice he was. But she beat that back and simply nodded. “That… would be really nice. Thank you.” She looked cautiously up at him.

     He nodded matter-of-factly. “You’re welcome.”

 

     The motel had obviously been built, like the rest of Wave Echo, during a long since past heyday. A very overdone nautical theme decorated the room, complete with a water bed for some godforsaken reason. But it was still better than a diner booth all night.

     In the morning, she still felt like she needed to make amends, so when Magnus arrived at his van, she was already there with two cups of coffee in hand.

     “Morning,” he said, his eyes squinted in the early morning sunshine.

     “Morning,” she held out the cup. “Two creams, and sugar, right?”

     He took the cup and smiled a little. “Thanks.” They both took a sip of their coffee and Magnus immediately grimaced. “Ugh, no. No, no.”

     Julia looked up at him. “What?”

     “Uh, thanks for the coffee, but this is terrible.”

     “It is?” she took another sip. “Tastes fine to me.” Magnus blinked at her. Twice. He poured the coffee into a nearby sewer grate and then tossed the cup in the trash.

     “You deserve better coffee. But we gotta get going.” He opened the door for her, and then headed around to the other side of the van. Julia finished her coffee as they pulled into the country club.

     Manicured lawns and tanned people in linen slacks surrounded them. Everything was Greek revival, and simply reeked of old money. Julia felt very conspicuous in her slept in jeans, old derby bout t-shirt and leather jacket. Not even taking into account the very obvious racial divide.

     “You ever forget how rich other people are?” Magnus asked as he parked his van next to a Land Rover. Julia slowly nodded. A man in a tux at eight in the morning scurried out of the main building and informed them that they’d need to move their vehicle. They ended up parking under some tall pine trees right next to the restaurant under construction.

     Magnus set up shop on the back porch of the restaurant, pulling large planks of walnut from the back of his van, and Julia decided to take a walk by the lake. She had all morning to kill so she wasn’t especially speedy about it.

     She returned back to the restaurant after a couple hours. The sun had fully risen and the day was quickly turning into a warm one for March. Julia had shed her jacket, not caring the looks she got.

     She watched a very shirtless Magnus exit the building through one of the open French doors. He whipped a tape measure off his belt and quickly measured a plank of wood standing on some saw horses. He marked the measurement with the pencil from behind his ear, then he took it over to the miter saw he had set up a few feet away.

     What was that phrase from that movie she had watched with Angus? Oh, right. Rippling pectorals. Mentally she kicked herself. Stop being gross. Magnus looked up from his work and waved her over. Great, he caught her staring. Again. As she walked over, she noticed that in addition to the muscles and the classic Americana tattoos, he had several scars, long, lighter colored slashes on his sides. She wondered what they had come from. Magnus picked up a rag and wiped the sweat from his face.

    “It’s gonna be a hot one,” he said, taking a breath and tucking the rag back into one of his pockets. Julia nodded, not quite sure what to say. She turned to look out at the vista so she would stop looking at the many glistening facets of Magnus. “You want something to drink?”

     “Uh, sure.” She took the water bottle he was offering. As they looked out at the lake, a flock of birds took off and swooped against the blue sky. “It’s like a postcard.”

     “Yeah, wouldn’t mind having a view like this someday,” he said, looking at her. But she didn’t notice. “So, what you been doing?”

     “Oh, just walking. Scaring old people playing golf, you know. The usual.” She smiled up at him. Then the smile disappeared; she bit the inside of her lip and looked away. “Magnus, you were right.” Magnus looked at her, his eyebrows furrowed again. She sighed and looked back to him. “About… how I treated you. I never gave you a chance to prove yourself as someone different than Gundren, and then you did anyway, and… I was just being stubborn. I’m sorry, and I hope that you’ll forgive me.”

     Magnus smiled, and nodded. “Of course.” He took another sip of water. “Does this mean we’re friends now?”

     Julia pretended to think for a moment. “Well, you have been carting me all over hill and dale today, so I guess so.” She smirked at him, a teasing twinkle in her eye.

     Just then she saw another van roll up the long driveway, “Sazed’s Bakery” emblazoned on the side, and a Brandy song blasting out of the open windows. It pulled up in front of the main entrance, and the song suddenly stopped. Taako hopped out, looking very professional in checkered pants and chef’s jacket, though he still wore his round iridescent blue sunglasses. He quickly gave some directions to a couple of the staff that came out, then headed over towards Julia and Magnus.

     “Well, I guess that’s my ride.” Julia took a few steps. “Thanks, Magnus, you… you really helped me out. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

     “Hey, what are friends for?” He grinned.

     Julia smiled and nodded. “Right. See you later.” She turned and went to meet Taako. Taako flicked down his shades, and gave Magnus a wink and a finger gun before turning to walk back with Julia towards the van, which was surrounded by club staff.

     “I see you got my note at the diner,” Julia said.

     “You didn’t tell me you were with Magnus,” Taako said in an accusatory tone once they were out of earshot.

     “Yes, I did.”

     “No, you didn’t.” Taako shook his head, pushing his shades back up his nose and surveying the staff. “Hey,” he snapped his fingers and pointed at a suddenly very frightened staffer. “You drop that cake, you owe me $1200.”

     “Yes, sir!” The staffer carefully scurried away.

     “Anyway, you did not tell me you were with Magnus.”

     “Oh, well, he found me at the side of the road, he really helped me out.”

     “Plus, he’s pretty easy on the eyes.” Taako smirked at Julia, quirking an eyebrow.

     “Oh my god.” She rolled her eyes.

     “Oh, come on. I know your type, sweet cheeks.” He looked back over his shoulder where Magnus had returned to work in the distance. “And he is one prime specimen of Your Type.”

     “It’s not like that. We kept fighting all night, but... I think we’re friends now.”

     “Mhmm.” Taako smirked a little, going around to shut the van door now that the cake had been safely delivered. “Think what you want to think, but I better be goddamn invited to your wedding.”

     “If you keep making jokes about it, you won’t be.” She walked around to the passenger door and jumped into the van. Taako got into the driver’s seat and started it up. The Brandy song immediately resumed at deafening levels.

     “I changed my mind. I want to be wedding coordinator,” he said over the song, pulling away. “I like being in charge.”

Chapter Text

     Magnus whistled as he drove through the rain. It’d been a good week’s work, and he’d given Isaak’s card to a few folks, too, with his name written on the back of it. Rich people loved handmade furniture.

     He rolled back into town. It was late afternoon, so people were out and about despite the rain. He took a sharp right, laughing when a couple of kids in raincoats fled from the splash.

     Where should he park the van tonight? He usually put it in an empty lot by the train tracks, but it had a really bright streetlight nearby that made it hard to sleep. Maybe he could hang up some kind of blanket fort.

     He paused in that line of thought. On the sidewalk just ahead--was that Carey?

     She wasn’t wearing a coat, just a t-shirt. She was hunched over a backpack, hugging it close to herself, short hair plastered to her forehead. Magnus pulled up beside her, reached over the passenger seat, and cranked open the window.

     “Hey, do you need a ride?” he said.

     She raised an eyebrow. “You mean you haven’t heard? Drowned Rat is the new look.”

     Magnus chuckled. “Well like, I don’t want to get in the way of fashion.”

     “Ah, what the hell.” She yanked open the door and plopped her backpack on the floor of the passenger side.

     Magnus fished a towel from the back. “Sorry, it’s kinda… covered in sawdust.”

     She took it anyway and rubbed off her face and head. “I’m dusty from work anyway.”

     “Where we headed?”

     “Ugh, other side of town. Sorry.” She buckled her seatbelt and rolled up the window. “You know where Moonview is?”

     “Yeah, it’s cool. It’s not like there’s going to be a lot of traffic.”

     Carey snapped her fingers. “Right, Killian said you moved here from Neverwinter.”

     Magnus laughed. “It’s actually kind of nice when across town means fifteen minutes no matter which way you go.”

     “For sure.” Carey held up the towel. “What should I…”

     “Oh, just toss it in the back.”

     Carey did so. She spent a moment observing the back’s contents, and then knocked on the empty fishtank. “What’s this for?”

     “Fish.”

     “Why, though?” She picked at the seal around the tank. “Is this from a glue gun?”

     “I just wanted some company. It didn’t work, though. Lost a lot of good fish.”

     “Their sacrifices will not be forgotten,” said Carey.

     Magnus glanced over at his passenger. He couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not. “How’d you get caught out in the rain?”

     “Eh, I walk home most days. I didn’t know it was going to rain. I ought to sue the weatherman.”

     “Across town’s a long way to walk,” Magnus commented.

     “Well, sometimes I skate.”

     It was still something like five miles, Magnus didn’t say. He got the feeling that Carey and Killian didn’t have much. They fell into silence.

     Magnus took a left, and immediately ran into what was considered around here to be a traffic jam. Six cars were ahead of him, all waiting behind the flashing lights and striped arm of a railroad crossing. A train was passing through.

     “Aw, man,” he said.

     Carey leaned back and rested her feet on the dashboard. “Might as well get comfortable. We have to cross to get there.”

     He pulled up the emergency brake. “At least you don’t have to wait in the rain.”

     “Yeah, as far as I’m concerned, this is a good day.” She spotted something in the door of the passenger side; it was his tape collection in a clear plastic case, unopened for months. “We could put on some music. What do you got?”

     Magnus sighed. “Don’t even bother. The same tape’s been stuck in my radio since September.”

     Carey took her feet off the dash and started fiddling with the tape deck. “Has it?”

     “‘Fraid so. You know any good radio stations around here?”

     “The local station’s pretty good after like, 3 p.m. The DJ does a country music hour that most people like. Lasts ‘til seven or so.”

     “A four hour hour?”

     She laughed. “Pretty much, yeah.”

     “I don’t know, I’m not a big country fan. Especially not the newer stuff.”

     “Ha! It’s a local station, you think they play anything new?” She clicked a button or two on the deck, but Kool and the Gang refused to budge. “There’s also an okay Spanish station, in case you’re feeling nostalgic.”

     “Oh, god, with the oompa music?”

     “Yeah, that good polka rhythm!”

     Magnus laughed. “I’ll remember that if I ever feel like blasting my neighbors’ party music at two in the morning. Why is it always two in the morning?”

     “Oh my god, we must have somehow lived next to the same people,” said Carey. She was sticking her fingers in the slot now.

     “Did you grow up in Neverwinter too?”

     “Nah, I’ve been here my whole life. My party neighbors were next to… let’s call it my childhood home.” With a clunk , the cassette slid free of the deck. Carey pulled it out, trailing a little tape behind it. “Voila!”

     “Holy shit .” He took it from her. “This goddamn thing has been stuck in there for so long . I just figured it was my life now.”

     She grinned. “Glad to be of assistance. I may have messed it up though.”

     “I don’t care. I don’t ever want to hear ‘Celebrate’ ever again,” he said. “How’d you do that?”

     She pulled the tape case from the passenger door and popped open the latches. “I have a very specific set of skills left over from some stuff I did as a teenager. Now what do we have here?”

     Magnus took the pencil that was still behind his ear and used it to reel in the tape. “I’ve got some good stuff in there. None of this new crap.”

     “Good stuff, huh? I’ll be the judge of that. Let’s see, Earth Wind & Fire? Sure, who doesn’t like ‘September.’ KC and the Sunshine Band… Lipps Inc… Isley Brothers… Stevie Wonder… the Bee Gees… Stevie Ray Vaughan… Derek and the Dominos… Parliament Funkadelic… Cream… Led Zeppelin… more Kool and the Gang.” She shot him a look. “Somebody likes the seventies. And disco.”

     “Disco’s great,” said Magnus, sliding the tape into a space beside Grand Funk Railroad.

     “Listen, you’re preaching to the choir here, I’m just saying that some people think it’s a major character flaw.” She picked up a tape and slid it in the deck. The end of “Las Vegas Turnaround” played. “You don’t like any new music? What about like, Indigo Girls?”

     “Who are they?”

     “Who are they,” she scoffed. “Indie rock.”

     “You mean punk’s ugly stepsister?” said Magnus.

     “Ohoho! You want to take this outside, my man?”

     Magnus grinned. “Yeah, let’s fight in front of a train.”

     Carey laughed. “You know, I like you. Killian said you were cool.”

     “She did? I didn’t think you guys liked me very much.” He rubbed the back of his head. “Especially since I threw out your team captain?”

     “Rules is rules,” said Carey. She put on a smug smile. “It was almost worth losing just to see the look on Lup’s face.”

     The song ended and another one came on with a quiet steady beat. Carey looked at the radio. “Oh hell yes, I love this song.”

     “You sing?” asked Magnus.

     “Not well…”

     “C’mon, sing it with me. Hall to my Oates.”

     Carey chuckled. “Well, if I get to be Hall.”

     “Yeah!” said Magnus, and sang along with the tape:

Everybody's high on consolation

Everybody's trying to tell me

What is right for me, yeah

My daddy tried to bore me with a sermon

But it's plain to see that they can't comfort me

     “Now you,” he said, and Carey jumped in:

Sorry, Charlie, for the imposition

I think I got it (got it added Magnus ),

I got the strength to carry on, oh yeah

I need a drink and a quick decision

Now it's up to me, ooooh what will be .

     She was at least karaoke good. “Yeah! Get it!” said Magnus, and they sang the next bit together:

She's gone, she's gone

Oh I, oh I

I better learn how to face it

She's gone, she's gone

Oh I, oh I

I'd pay the devil to replace her

She's gone, and she's gone

Oh why, what went wrong?

     “Why the hell are you going for the high part?” laughed Carey.

     “It’s the music in my soul!”

     “Oh, hey, look,” said Carey. The train rattled away, and the striped arm began to lift.

     “Sweet,” said Magnus, putting the van back into gear. “Must be convenient, not changing the pronouns for songs by guys.”

     “So you change the pronouns for songs by girls?” asked Carey.

     Magnus considered. “No, but when I don’t most people just think it’s funny.”

     Carey scowled. “When I don’t change pronouns people think I’m being cute.”

     “I bet Killian thinks it’s cute,” Magnus offered.

     Carey’s scowl fell into a smile. “Fine, cheer me up.”

     “How long have you guys been together?”

     “Five years. God, I love her.”

     Magnus smiled. Was there anything better than people in love?

     His thoughts tried to drift over to Julia. He pulled them back in.

     “So Julia says you’re a carpenter,” said Carey.

     Goddamn, had she read his mind? “Yeah, that’s right.”

     “You know those um… what are they called. Puzzle boxes? You ever made one of those?”

     “Yeah, I’ve made a couple. They’re a lot of fun.”

     “All right, riddle me this: is it possible to make one in the shape of a duck?”

     Magnus laughed, but stopped when he saw she was serious. “Uh yeah. It’d take some tricky design work, maybe, but I don’t see why not.”

     “I was afraid of that,” mumbled Carey.

     “Wait, what?”

     “You ever think of the most perfect present ever?” said Carey. “Killian’s birthday is coming up--and you know, she’s so good, she’ll like whatever I get her, but a duck-shaped puzzle box would be the best . But I’m pretty sure I can’t afford that shit.”

     “I could make you one,” said Magnus.

     “Yeah okay, for how much?”

     Magnus shrugged. “Make me an offer. I have enough scrap wood to make a small one just out of the stuff in this van.”

     “Hmm.” Carey rubbed her chin. “You live in this van, correct?”

     Magnus bristled. “Did Avi tell you that?”

     “It’s not that hard to extrapolate, hombre . No shame. But why?”

     He set his jaw. “Up until a couple weeks ago, I didn’t have a job. It was cheap.”

     “I’m serious, no shame. Relax.”

     He tried his best. “Now, though, I just can’t find a place. Apartments are in high demand around here. Angus said there was an opening at your complex, right? But when I went and asked about it, the landlord said they were full up.”

     “I mean, that could just be him being a dick, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It is a college town.” She thought for a moment. “All right, you tell me if this is a fair trade for a puzzle box. I happen to have an in at a complex called Raven’s Roost. I know the super, and he’s always got a few extra places open, but he’s an absolute dinosaur when it comes to advertising them. I could send you his way.”

     “Hell, that’d be--”

     “Before you say yes,” she said. “I cannot stress enough how crappy Raven’s Roost is. It’s falling apart in a big way. But the rent is the cheapest in town.”

     Magnus shrugged. “You know what? That sounds good to me. You’ve got yourself a deal.” He extended a hand.

     “Hell yeah!” She shook it. “This is going to be the best present ever.”

Chapter Text

     “All right, all right, line up, everyone,” said Hurley to the half-dozen tumbling gradeschoolers. They scurried into a line, some of them taller than her, wearing borrowed gi and tousled from practice. “Judo is about respect, and about wisdom. After every practice, you are to bow to and thank the master. Like this.” She demonstrated. “Now you.”

     “Thank you, Master Hurley,” they chorused.

     “You’re dismissed,” she said. The line dissolved as the kiddos went to the bathrooms to change.

     Hurley strolled into the waiting room, where a few parents were doing some paperwork. Let’s see. Six parents, but two of them looked married. That was disappointing; this was a free beginner’s class, and parents were more likely to sign up if they saw what their kids were learning. The parents said hello, turned in paperwork, asked questions about billing and belts, while the kids filed out and they began to leave. As she suspected, there was one left, a tiny towheaded girl. She didn’t seem overly concerned.

     “Your name is Kaitlyn, right?” asked Hurley.

     The girl nodded.

     “Do you know who’s picking you up?”

     “My dad. He’s coming.”

     As if summoned, a man who barely fit through the door carefully entered the dojo. He was the biggest person she’d ever seen, bigger than Killian. Hurley tried to stand up straighter.

     “Daddy!” said the girl.

     “Hi, Pumpkin. Did you learn a lot?”

     “Mmhmm.”

     “She did very well, especially for her first time,” said Hurley. “Would you demonstrate, Kaitlyn?”

     The little girl smiled and put down her backpack. She fell forward, rolled, and landed back on her feet.

     The man nodded. “That’s very good.”

     “Are you interested in signing up for a class?” asked Hurley hopefully.

     “With respect, Miss…”

     “Master Hurley,” she said, before he could patronize her any more. With respect .

     “Right. Master Hurley. If I wanted her to go to a tumbling class, we could try the recreation center. I think we’ll pass.”

     “Awww, dad!” protested Kaitlyn.

     “If I may, sir? Would you join me on the mat?” Hurley gestured through the waiting room.

     He frowned. “What for?”

     “We start with falls because we do a lot of falling in this class. I want my students to be safe. But I can show you what she’ll be learning.”

     The man considered. “All right. I’ll bite.”

     She led him to a mat. Kaitlyn followed, wide-eyed.

     “Now Kaitlyn,” Hurley said, squaring up her stance, “do you think I could beat up your dad?”

     Kaitlyn giggled. “No.”

     “Why not?”

     “‘Cause he’s so big and you’re so small,” said Kaitlyn.

     “Be polite,” said the man automatically.

     “No, she’s right,” said Hurley, throwing Kaitlyn a smile. “I am really small. Now sir, if you would be so kind as to put a hand on my shoulder?”

     The man hesitated. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

     “Don’t worry, you won’t.”

     He reluctantly held out a hand.

     She took hold of his shirt and, using her leg as leverage, pulled him over her hip and to the ground before he’d touched her.

     “That’s called the harai goshi. It’s one of many techniques Kaitlyn will learn. It just takes time.”

     From the floor, a little hoarsely, the man said, “I’m convinced.”

     Hurley smiled and offered a hand, pulling him into a sitting position. “I’ll get you the paperwork.”

     In a few minutes, he was signing his name. Hurley accepted the form with a smile. “I’ll see you two next week.”

     “I’m glad someone in this town is interested in teaching girls self-defense,” said the man. “I suggested it to a committee I’m on and people laughed.”

     “The martial way is for everyone,” she said, looking over the paper. “Oh, I need your first name, sir, not just your title.”

     The man grimaced. “Captain is my first name.”

     Hurley’s eyes went huge. “ You’re Captain Captain Bain? I just turned in my application to the police training program!”

     Captain Captain Bain raised an eyebrow. “I’ll be on the lookout for it.”

     The door opened again, and Sloane entered. Hurley grinned. Good things just kept coming. “Thank you, sir.”

     Sloane waited until they left, then sauntered over and leaned down close to Hurley. “Good day?”

     “That was the chief of police,” said Hurley. She tilted her head up and stood on her toes to peck Sloane on the lips. Sloane crinkled her nose. ADORABLE. Hurley grinned. “I threw him to the ground.”

     “I thought you wanted to be a cop, not beat a cop.”

     “Cops have beats, right? I was practicing.”

     They giggled. “You ready for date night?” asked Sloane.

     “Just need to get changed.”

     “I can’t believe you bought a dress,” said Sloane in mock derision.

     “I may have modified it,” said Hurley, more than a little pleased with herself.

     “Oh, really?”

 

     Hurley swaggered into the Olive Garden in her new pantsuit. Sloane still hadn’t forgiven her for buying a dress, but Hurley took solace in the fact that she could feel Sloane checking out her butt.

     “Excuse me?” she said, peeking over the top of the hostess’ podium. “Table for four, for the Bureau?”

     “Oh, yes, the rest of your party has arrived.” Hurley saw the hostess’ hand hover over the kid’s menu for a split second before taking two regular ones.

     Carey and Killian were already in the booth waiting, talking about something in low voices. Carey had on a men’s suit that looked like it was from the seventies, while Killian looked like a vision in a red dress. They waved.

     “Nice suit, Hurley,” said Carey.

     Sloane sighed. “It is, isn’t it?”

     Hurley grinned.

     The waiter appeared. “Good evening, ladies. This looks like fun. Business meeting or girls’ night out?”

     “Double date,” rumbled Killian.

     The server’s smile froze. “Er. Of course! Can I get you all something to drink?”

 

     Hurley snorted at a particularly bad pasta pun. “Alfre-don’t get started,” she said.

     “Yeah, spaghett-er not,” replied Sloane.

     “Boo,” said Carey. “What is it with you dorks and puns?”

     “It’s called a shared interest,” said Hurley. “Like you two and your gymnastics or whatever.”

     “At least team sweet flips is good,” said Killian through a smile. “Puns are the worst. This is worse than training has-been football players.”

     “I’d think they’d be easy to train,” said Sloane.

     “No, they think they still got it,” said Killian, rolling her eyes. “They don’t. And then they spend the whole session talking about their high school glory days.”

     “What must it be like to have high school glory days?” wondered Hurley.

     “I don’t know, my high school days were fun,” said Sloane.

     “Mm, let me guess,” said Carey. “You were a big deal in shop class, because most of those boys had never even seen a girl before.”

     “Like that would have mattered to me,” scoffed Sloane. “I’ve always known who I’m into. Anyway, I wasn’t talking about school.”

     “You’re not the only criminal, Carey,” said Hurley.

     Carey was shocked. “No way. Not you.”

     Sloane shrugged, looking a little pleased with herself.

     “What was it, shoplifting?”

     “As if,” said Sloane. “Carjacking.”

     Carey smacked her palm to her forehead. “You own a garage, of course you were a carjacker.”

     “Did you ever get caught?” asked Killian.

     “No. I was lucky. And fast. No use in stealing slow cars.” She shrugged. “And you know, I never tried to sell them, I’d just ditch them somewhere.”

     “I caught you once,” said Hurley.

     “Citizens arrest doesn’t count,” said Sloane, sticking out her tongue. “And I didn’t jack that car, it was just one from the garage.”

     “You were lucky,” said Carey, picking at a breadstick. “I got another application rejected today.”

     Killian gritted her teeth. “It’s ridiculous. Why do you have to have a perfect record to work at a damn music store?”

     Hurley snorted. “Record. Music pun.”

     “I keep telling you, I’ll give you a job,” said Sloane.

     “I don’t know anything about cars,” mumbled Carey.

     Sloane hesitated. “You could do billing?”

     “No. Thank you, Sloane, but it’s really okay. At least I’ve still got the pawn shop.”

     “Okay, everyone!” The server appeared with a massive tray full of plates of pasta and began to pass them out. “Carbonara, seafood alfredo, and two ravioli with pesto.” He smiled, and leaned on his tray. “Now would you lesb--ladies like anything else?”

     “No thank you,” said Carey. The poor server looked mortified; he hurried away.

     “That poor man has never seen so many gay people in his life,” said Killian. The other three laughed.

     “A gay-splosion,” said Hurley.

     “A lesbonado,” returned Sloane.

     Carey held up her hands for silence. “A hurri-gay-ne?”

     “Oh, no, not you too,” groaned Killian, as Hurley and Sloane dissolved into giggles.

Chapter Text

     The first practice back after Julia Did a Hit, as it would come to be called, was rough for Julia. Not only was it an endurance practice, she could hardly bring herself to look Lucretia in the eye. Afterwards, she sat in the locker room, waiting for the rest of the team to leave so she could talk to Lucretia privately, while feeling both bone tired and incredibly anxious. She looked at the clock on the wall. Noelle had been the last one out, and she left over 10 minutes ago. Lucretia hadn’t come back for her purse or shoes, so she hadn’t left the building yet. Julia heaved a sigh; there was no sense in putting this off any longer. She stood up.

     Ow.

     Sitting down was not the smartest idea, as the muscles in her thighs were now complaining. Loudly. She picked up her already packed skate bag and headed for the locker room door.

     Julia always kind of liked the rink at night. The arcade was quiet and there weren’t 80s pop hits blaring from the speakers. It seemed like the place was holding its breath. She didn’t see Lucretia in the darkened lobby or flat rink, and some of the lights above the banked track were still on. It sounded like someone was casually looping around the track. Curious, Julia walked closer to the track.

     “Come on, come on. 27 in 5. You can do this.” A voice seemed to be talking to itself. Julia stopped at the very edge of the light pool, and the breath leaked out of her.

     Lucretia was crouched, like a jammer at the start of a jam. At the sound of a silent whistle, she took off, speeding around the track. Her statuesque form bent low and her face focused, determined. It had been so long since Julia had seen Lucretia on the track as anything other than a coach, she forgot how ...lethal she always looked. Her strides were long and powerful, extracting the precise amount of momentum she needed. Julia watched the clock as the five minutes ticked by, keeping tab of how many laps Lucretia did around the track. She found herself clenching her fists, enraptured and silently cheering Lucretia on. She was so close--

     But it wasn’t enough. 5 minutes arrived and Lucretia had barely made it 20 times around. She stood up and let her momentum carry her around the corner, her hands on her hips. She squatted and ended up sitting on the track, scooting another few feet before arriving at a stop. She buried her face in a hand and didn’t stand back up. Julia wavered, not sure if she should let Lucretia have some privacy. But she found herself approaching anyway.

     Lucretia looked up when Julia jumped up onto the track. She obviously hadn’t known that she had an audience. Her dark brown eyes were tinged with red and she looked down at her lap.

     “I thought everyone had gone home,” she said quietly. Julia set her bag down and dropped onto the floor next to her. “How... How much did you see?”

     “All of it.” Julia looked up at the ceiling, noticing an oddly shaped water stain. Lucretia was silent for a minute, then shook her head.

     “I stretch... I train... I practice... and it’s still not enough. It’s not even close to what it used to be.” Julia looked at her. “If I push any harder, the knee starts to hurt and--” she stopped and looked down again, biting her lip.

     “And you’re afraid you’ll lose what you do have,” Julia finished for her. Lucretia nodded. She glanced at Julia, then quickly looked away.

     “I’m happy to be your coach. I’m so proud of every one of you guys.” She took a shuddering breath. “But I’m only 34... I should still be skating.” A brittle laugh bubbled out of her. “Hell, I probably could have been sponsored and on a travelling team.” Julia reached over and took Lucretia’s hand. “Get to the fuckin’ Olympics of roller derby.” She looked at Julia with a melting smile. It took her a minute to speak again, after she had swallowed hard a few times. “That’s why I’m tough on you, Julia.” She met her gaze, a different softer look in her eyes. “You remind me so much of myself at your age. You have the potential to be amazing, but if you don’t start thinking a couple steps ahead… It can destroy you.”

     Julia’s bottom lip quivered and she looked away, nodding quickly. “I’m really sorry... about the bout. I shouldn’t have--”

     “It’s okay, it was just a game. But I worry…” She stopped and squeezed Julia’s hand. “I don’t want you to make the same mistakes that I did.”

     Julia looked up at her. “You know the injury wasn’t your fault, that Rad Robe--” Lucretia shook her head.

     “There’s a lot I haven’t told you.” She let out a long breath. “I’m not the best about opening up to people, even people as important to me as you.”

     Julia smiled a little, “Yeah, same.”

     “Maybe we can work on that. Being more open and honest with each other.”

     Julia nodded and sniffled. “Well, let me start by saying that you should know that you’re the best goddamn coach I’ve ever had. None of us would be half the athletes we are without you. And most of us would be lost to the world without this team.”

     Lucretia slowly nodded. “Thanks.”

     “And if you ever want someone to train with, I’m here.”

     “Even after endurance practice?”

     Julia smiled. “Yeah, even then.”

Chapter Text

     “Alright, listen up!” Lucretia’s voice cut through the pre-practice chatter of the team. They were all in the middle of stretching. Carey had to spin around to face her coach. “Got a couple of announcements before we get going. First up, Killian wants me to tell you all that Angus’ school fundraiser is happening next week.”

     “Ooh, are they doing the buckets of cookie dough like last year?” Hurley asked, stretching her arm over her head and holding her elbow.

     “Nah, wrapping paper,” Killian answered. Everyone groaned.

     “Anything is better than the lotions from two years ago. That smell still hasn’t come out of my rug,” Sloane said, leaning back on her hands.

     “Agreed,” Lucretia said, looking back at her clipboard. “Ah, Merle is claiming that the smell from the locker room is growing too noticeable again, and I have to agree with him. Remember, weekly vinegar baths of your gear will keep away the derby stank. We don’t want a repeat of last summer.”

     “Yeah, Carey,” Taako accused, batting her shoulder with the back of his hand.

     “Hey, in my defense I didn’t know that those pads were at the bottom of my locker the whole time.”

     “And finally, you might notice that we have a visitor in the audience tonight.” She gestured to the stands behind the team. They all turned to look. “Wave hi, Kravitz.” Kravitz waved from his seat in the empty bleachers. Taako smiled, but it faded when he saw the waggling eyebrows and shit-eating grin that Carey was giving him. “I’ve known Kravitz for many years, and he’s a documentary photographer who’d like to do a piece about our team. So he’ll be at our bouts, and most of our practices for the rest of the season. He may get into contact with a couple of you to do more with you outside of the league, but don’t feel obligated to participate in that part if you don’t want to. Ah, did I miss anything, Kravitz?”

     Kravitz had walked down and he rested his elbows on the edge of the track. “Um, if it’s okay with you M… Lucretia, I’d like to do quick preliminary interviews with each of the players? Just one at a time, name, age, occupation, that sort of thing.”

     “Sure. Julia, you go first. The rest of you, line up on the jammer line. We’re doing agility drills.” Lucretia blew her whistle and the girls hopped up onto their feet. Julia skated over and hung onto the railing.

     “Here, I’ll make this quick. Julia Waxman, 26 years old, part-time bartender and part-time student. We good?”

     Kravitz looked up from the notebook he was scribbling in. “Oh, I have a few other questions. You might want to sit down.”



     Killian tapped on Taako’s shoulder. “I think you’re the last one,” she said, pointing back to where Kravitz was standing at the edge of the track.

     “How’d yours go?” Taako asked.

     She shrugged. “Fine. He’s nice… kinda a dork though.”

     “Yeah,” Taako replied dreamily. He took a minute to smooth out his tank top before skating over to Kravitz.

     “So how did it go?” he asked, sitting on the edge of the track, his skates swinging back and forth. Kravitz looked up from his several pages of notes and looked to be brimming with excitement.

     “This is incredible!” he enthused. “The stories these women have, and the diversity of everything: race, socioeconomic background, careers. This is amazing!”

     “Yeah, we are a pretty wild bunch.” Taako leaned back on his hands.

     “And these were just preliminary interviews. Oh man. I knew this was going to be a good piece, I could just feel it, but wow. I had no idea.” He shook his head and watched the pack roll by. Taako was studying Kravitz’ face.

     “You really get a kick out of this, huh?”

     Kravitz looked back to Taako. “This is my favorite part of documentary.” His eyes lit up with the fire of a man who had found his life’s passion. “Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a story. And I love getting to share people’s stories with a much bigger audience than who otherwise would have heard it. It’s just… humblingly incredible.”

     Taako didn’t think it was possible for Kravitz to become any more handsome than he already was before, but he was wrong. He looked away, a half-smile on his face.

     “So who do you think you’ll do further interviews with?”

     “I’m actually not sure.” Kravitz picked up his notebook and flipped through the pages. He tapped a long finger on his upper lip as he reviewed his notes. “Lucretia really has an incredible story, but I don’t know if she’ll let me publish it…” he mused. “Noelle is fascinating. Skating with the prosthetics, AND the engineering work she’s doing. But then Sloane and her car shop… Oh, Carey mentioned someone named Angus?”

     “He’s a neighbor of theirs, lives with his grandpa. Kinda a little brother of the whole team.”

     Kravitz wrote that down. He shook his head. “It’s going to be hard to decide on just a couple of subjects.”

     “Well, I really underestimated how fierce the competition was going to be,” Taako mused, watching Noelle artfully jump over Killian.

     “Actually, I’d really like you to be one of the main subjects, Taako. If you’re willing.”

     Taako smiled back at Kravitz. “I thought you’d never ask.” He spun around and rejoined the practice.

     Kravitz watched him go. He was both certain that Taako would make a fascinating documentary subject, and worried that his own interest in him was already extending beyond just telling his story.

Chapter Text

     Noelle rode in the passenger seat of the truck, opening and closing the hooked tongs on her prosthesis methodically. The arm was fitted to use the muscle movement of her shoulder and bicep to manipulate the tongs. When she first got it, it took a lot of practice to use, but now she tended to flex as an unconscious tic, especially when she was nervous.

     “Hey, Lucas? You still haven’t told me what this machine’s primary function is supposed to be.” Noelle gestured to the mechanical monstrosity in the truck bed with her good hand.

     “Who’s the P.I. here?” asked Lucas.

     “What’s a P.I.?”

     “Primary investigator. My research. I’m in charge.”

     “Well, you are, then, but your setup looks downright--”

     “Look, do you want the extra credit or not?”

     “Yeah, but--”

     “Then shut up and try to learn something.”

     Noelle quieted. She hated people telling her to shut up, but it wasn’t exactly a new sensation. What had Killian said? Trust her instincts? Right now her instincts were telling her that this teacher’s assistant was crazy, but a B in Fluid Dynamics meant she could keep her scholarships, so maybe she should go with it? Lucas was a grad student, studying something in theoretical physics. She had no idea what this machine of his was for, but she was pretty sure some of the wiring was faulty.

     “I’m sorry, I’m just very nervous,” Lucas said. “This is the first field test of my invention. It could be big!”

     Noelle said nothing. It had better be big. She was missing derby practice for this.

     “You uh, wanna know what it does?”

     “That’d be helpful, if I’m going to assist you.”

     “Right, so you’re familiar with the electromagnetic energy that neurons use to fire thoughts?”

     “As much as an engineer can be, I think.”

     Lucas pulled to a stop. Noelle looked up. They were somewhere familiar. Was that the rink in the distance? This must be the woods behind it. She slid out of the car, gathering the frizzy fluff of her hair with the end of her hook and twisting it through the elastic on her wrist with her good hand. They were on a dirt road. Up ahead it crossed the railroad tracks. She could hear a dog barking in the distance.

     “Help me carry it over there,” said Lucas. He hauled the thing to the edge of the bed. It looked like the lovechild of an engine block and a switchboard, and had a bunch of quartz crystals wired into one side for no discernable reason. Exposed copper wiring, backwards switches...Noelle half expected to be electrocuted just looking at it. Nevertheless, she put her arms underneath it as he dragged it out, ignoring the sharp corners digging into the skin of her good arm and scratching the plastic of her prosthesis.

     They placed it in a small clear spot among the brush. He pulled some wires that seemed to be attached to golf tees out of the top of the thing and handed her two. “Walk them out at a right angle. Make sure they’re taut.”

     Noelle winced. “These aren’t going to be live, are they?”

     Lucas gave her a look of incomprehension. “What?”

     “Never mind.” She took the wires and walked them out about ten feet. They were lying over brush. Please, please don’t let them be live.

     “Hello, Miss Noelle!”

     She looked up. Angus was up ahead, and he had Lucretia’s dog, Miyagi, with him. She waved. “Hi, Angus.”

     “Are you doing science?” He approached, the dog following behind. Miyagi was some kind of English bulldog-pitbull mix, dense and muscled and ugly as hell.

     “Probably,” said Noelle, sticking the golf tee into the ground. “Do Carey and Killian know you’re here?”

     “Yes. Don’t worry, I’m staying off the train tracks.”

     Noelle nodded and followed the wire back to the machine so she could measure a right angle. Angus and the dog followed her. “What sort of science are you doing?” he asked.

     “Theoretical physics, I think. Angus, do you have a book with you?”

     “Yes.” He handed her a ratty paperback. She used the bottom corner to measure the angle and then handed it back and walked out the other wire.

     “Excuse me, Noelle, who’s this?” The scorn in Lucas’ voice was palpable.

     Noelle suppressed a sigh. “This is Angus. He’s a friend of mine. He won’t be any trouble.”

     “Hey, can you maybe get your dog away from my machine?” Lucas snapped. Noelle looked up. Miyagi was sniffing the contraption.

     “Miyagi, heel,” said Angus solemnly. Miyagi abandoned his investigation to go sit by Angus’ feet.

     “What were you saying about electromagnetic energy?” asked Noelle.

     “Right! Yes.” Lucas stood up from fiddling with his machine. “In keeping with the laws of thermodynamics, that energy from the brain is not lost and cannot be destroyed. Even with death.”

     An uncomfortable feeling started bubbling in Noelle’s gut.

     “It’s my hypothesis that the observable phenomena attributed to the supernatural is in fact lingering electromagnetic energy, and thus, I have built this machine to detect it!” He looked over the horrible thing with the pride of a new mother. “Isn’t it magnificent?”

     “Lucas, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, can you be straight with me?” asked Noelle.

     “Yeah, sure.”

     “Are we ghost-hunting?”

     Angus gasped. “Ghosts! Wow!”

     “If you want to put it crassly, sure,” said Lucas. “But that’s a little reductive, don’t you think? Typical engineer.”

     “And we’re probably here because of Tharden Rockseeker, right?” said Noelle.

     “The town’s not exactly drowning in prominent deaths. It’s disappointing, really.” Lucas bent down to make more adjustments.

     “Who’s Tharden Rockseeker?” asked Angus.

     “He died out here in the woods, many years ago,” said Noelle. “It was very sad .”

     Lucas didn’t notice this. “All right, we’re ready.”

     “Lucas, do you mind if I just adjust some of the circuitry?” said Noelle. “If it’s wired wrong it could explode.”

     “It’s not wired wrong, it’s perfect,” said Lucas. “Now I’m going to switch it on.”

     Noelle felt a surge of panic. She turned to Angus. “Why don’t you go run back to the rink?”

     “But I’d like to see if it detects anything, Miss Noelle.”

     She put a hand on his shoulder. “That thing is basically a bomb and you need to get clear now.”

     Angus’ eyes widened. He said, “Come on, Miyagi,” and took off running.

     Lucas was scribbling in his notebook. “Test 1. Rockseeker location. Here we go.” He flipped a switch.

     Noelle watched, edging backwards. Nothing happened. Lucas stepped back and tapped his pencil to his chin. “Huh. Maybe if we--”

 

     Magnus carefully fitted the new board into the hole. It was snug, but he didn’t have to force it. Perfect.

     “How’s it going?” said Merle, from outside the cupboard. Magnus scooted out and sat up.

     “Pretty good,” said Magnus. “I should be all done before derby practice. I just need to nail it in.”

     “And there’ll be no more warping?”

     “Nope. You said there was a leak there last year?”

     “Yeah, should all be fixed now. Piece of shit rink.”

     Magnus frowned. “Why do you own the place if you don’t like it?”

     Merle shifted uncomfortably. “I inherited it. Can’t seem to get rid of it.”

     The back door slammed open and Julia booked it inside. Magnus felt a pang of happiness as he realized he could say hi to her, since they were friends now. He raised his hand. “H--”

     “Can’t talk! Late!” Julia shouted as she blew past.

     Suddenly, from the still-open door, came a low echoing BOOM , immediately followed by something that sounded like shattering glass.

     All three of them froze. Julia turned a wide-eyed look at Magnus. She looked petrified. “Angus.”

     Magnus jumped to his feet. Merle reached into the cupboard and pulled out an old army kit bag with a red cross on it. Together, the three of them ran out the back door.

 

     Noelle’s ears were ringing. She very carefully sat up.

     The machine was smoking heavily. She could see from the way the brush under the copper wires was going brown that it was only a matter of time before the woods caught fire. She staggered upright, stepping carefully through shards of broken crystal, and hit the switch on the machine. A faint electrical buzz stopped.

     Lucas groaned. He was on the side of the machine that hadn’t been studded with unnecessary quartz, so it didn’t look like he was cut at all, just thrown backward.

     “Medic! Medic coming through!”

     Noelle looked blearily toward the rink. Three figures were coming through the trees. The one shouting “medic” was Merle. He hurried over to her, kicking shards of crystal out of his way. “Here, sit down. Let me look at you.”

     She dropped to her knees, puzzled. He checked her eyes with a tiny flashlight and her pulse at the same time, so quickly that she hardly realized it was happening. “Good thing that didn’t get you in the flesh leg, huh?”

     She looked down at her leg prosthesis. There was a five-inch crystal shard sticking out of it, just below the place where her actual knee ended.

     “You stay here a minute, I’m going to look at this guy.” Merle hopped over a wire to Lucas.

     “Noelle?” Julia was suddenly there, hand on her back to steady her. “What happened?”

     “I tried to tell him the wiring was faulty,” she said. She couldn’t hear her own voice.

     “What the hell are you doing out here?” demanded a third voice from over by Lucas. The ref? Magnus?

     “Noelle, do you know where Angus is?” said Julia.

     “He ran,” she whispered. “He’s okay, I think.”

     “Do you hear me?” said Magnus. He was crouching next to Lucas, who was sitting up now, getting the same medic treatment from Merle. “Who are you?”

     Julia scowled. “Oh I know you. Lucas Miller, right? Always complaining about the noise level at Refuge?”

     “‘M in the midst of a very... very important experiment,” he mumbled.

     “You’re pretty well concussed is what you are,” said Merle. “If you throw up, try not to do it on me.”

     “He said if I helped him, I could get extra credit,” said Noelle.

     “Help you do what exactly?” said Magnus. He snapped his fingers, trying to get Lucas to focus his eyes. “Hey, you better tell me right now.”

     “Electromagnetic sensor,” mumbled Lucas.

     “Hello?” came a fourth voice from the woods.

     “Over here, Lucretia,” called Julia. “Noelle, you said you knew it would do this?”

     “He wouldn’t listen,” Noelle replied.

     With a nearly inaudible fwoomp , the machine burst into flames. All five people drew back, but the flames were covered in a thick white foam almost as soon as they appeared. Lucretia was brandishing a fire extinguisher.

     “What the hell’s this Angus tells me about a bomb?” Lucretia said, in a tone so level you could have hung shelves on it.

     “‘Snot a bomb,” muttered Lucas. “Very sensitive instrument.”

     “Yeah, real sensitive,” said Julia.

     Lucretia crossed her arms. “Well well well. Lucas Miller. Experimenting in the woods, just like when you were a kid.”

     “I’m a serious scientist,” he groaned.

     “Uh huh. Noelle, how do you know this boy?”

     “He’s a teacher’s assistant for my Fluid Dynamics class,” she said.

     “Didn’t you say something about extra credit?” prompted Julia.

     Lucretia raised her eyebrows. “Are we exploiting undergrads, Lucas? Putting people in danger?” She tsked. “What until your mother hears about this.”

     Lucas’ head rocked back. “You can’t tell her.”

     “You bet your ass I can. Noelle, why don’t you come back with me? Julia, Magnus, help this idiot take out his trash.” She gestured to the wrecked machine.

     Julia helped Noelle to her feet. Noelle accepted the shoulder to lean on from Lucretia and limped away. Julia could hear Lucretia saying, “You know, that crystal in your leg looks kind of New Age. You should keep it.”

     Julia started yanking up the wires that were stuck in the ground for whatever reason. She lifted the machine itself, hoping that whatever this foamy stuff was, it would come out of her blouse, but only managed to pick it up a few inches.

     “I’m going to need your help with this,” she said to Magnus. He was gathering crystal shards using the front of his shirt as a basket.

     “Yeah, hang on,” he said. “Where should I put all these?”

     Julia pointed. “That’s his truck, throw them in there.”

     “You need to go to the hospital,” Merle was saying.

     “I’ll drive right there,” said Lucas, getting unsteadily to his feet.

     “Uh, no you won’t,” Merle shot back. “You’re in no condition to drive.”

     Magnus dumped his shirtful of crystals in the truck bed and crouched down to help Julia. “Ready? One, two--” They hoisted the machine up and carried it to the truck.

     “Do you have anyone you can call? You can use the phone in the rink,” said Merle.

     “Um. Yeah.” Lucas staggered forward.

     “Hang on, Merle,” said Magnus. He shot a look at Julia; Julia got the impression he was asking for backup. She followed him.

     Magnus took a handful of Lucas’ shirt and lifted him up. “Listen to me. If you endanger people’s lives like that, you’re not a scientist. You’re reckless and stupid.”

     Aha, this was the play. Julia stepped up, sticking a finger in the boy’s suddenly terrified face. “How dare you bring Noelle into this? How dare you use that thing even when she told you it was dangerous? With a child around?”

     “If we ever see you around here again, we will not hesitate to kick your ass,” growled Magnus.

     “And you better give Noelle that extra credit you promised, or we’ll be after you,” Julia added.

     Magnus put him down gently. Julia brushed some dust off his shirt. “Now get lost,” she said.

     With a wild-eyed stare, Lucas turned and teetered off toward the rink.

     They watched as Merle steadied him on his way. Julia glowered at his back. “Punk.”

     “You said he calls noise complaints on Refuge?”

     “All the time. What did he expect living by a pub?”

     Magnus nudged her gently with his elbow. “That was some good teamwork just now.”

     Julia glanced at him. “I’d kick ass with you any day, Burnsides.”

 

     Noelle was quiet all the way to the rink door. Lucretia was just talking soothingly, filling the space with noise.

     “I forgot to ask, did you ride here with him? We can bring you back if you did,” said Lucretia. “You could even join us for part of practice, if you’re feeling up for it. Your skate bag is here, right? And your other leg?”

     Noelle opened her mouth to say something, but all that came out was a sob, and then the floodgates were open and she was crying in front of her derby coach, dammit.

     Lucretia didn’t seem bothered. “Ssh. It’s okay. You can sit this one out.”

     “I don’t want to,” Noelle blubbered.

     “All right, then we can find a spare jersey. No need to be sad.”

     “I’m not sad,” said Noelle damply. “I’m--I’m mad! The one time I get to be involved in research and it’s a stupid ghost-hunt that ends in an idiotic accident. Nobody takes me seriously in the engineering program, and the one time someone does--” Another sob surfaced and choked out any more coherent words.

     They were at the rink now. Lucretia stopped in front of the door and looked Noelle in the eye.

     “You have every right to be angry,” said Lucretia. “And so help me that boy is going to get a three-hour crash course in scientific integrity, if I know his mother. He won’t get away with that again. Okay?”

     Noelle nodded, trying to reign in the crying.

     “But in the meantime, how about you bring that anger with me? I know something we can do with it.” She pulled open the door.

     Inside, the girls and Taako were gathered around Angus, who was saying, “And then Noelle said it was basically a bomb, so I--”

     “Noelle!” said Sloane, and the party broke off to skate over to her. “Are you okay?”

     “Way to make an entrance, bubele,” said Taako.

     “Holy crap, your leg,” said Hurley, reaching out to touch the crystal.

     “Enough,” said Lucretia. “She’s gearing up for practice. The rest of you run some warm-up laps on the flat rink, I think they’re still fixing the bank track. We’re practicing push blocks today.”

     “Yes!” said Killian, pumping her fist. “I love pushing people into people.”

     “Noelle here needs more practice on blocker.” Lucretia patted her shoulder. “Now get to it!”

     The team skated off to the flat rink. Lucretia gave Noelle’s shoulder one final squeeze and followed them.

     Noelle took a deep breath and managed a small smile.

 

     Angus hung off the half-wall of the flat rink as he watched their practice. Miss Noelle hadn’t come out of the locker room yet. She had seemed so shaken after the explosion, which made a lot of sense. If he was honest, it had scared him too and he was halfway to the rink when it blew. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t exciting. He’d definitely have the best story on the playground tomorrow. The back door opened and in walked Miss Julia and Magnus. He smiled and waved at them, traipsing over.

     “Oh, Angus, there you are,” Julia said with a relieved sigh. She jogged up and knelt in front of him, taking his head in her hands. Magnus stood close behind. “You’re okay, right?”

     “Yes, of course, Miss Julia. Miss Noelle sent me and Miyagi away in plenty of time to get out of the blast zone.”

     Julia laughed a little, and rubbed his cheek with her thumb before letting him go. “It really scared me.”

     “Both of us,” Magnus said, crouching down to be on their level.

     Angus smiled and looked between them. “I’m fine, really. You don’t have to worry about me.”

     Julia pulled him in for a hug, Angus’s face on her shoulder. “We’ll always worry about you,” she assured him. “That’s what you do for people you care about.”

     Miss Julia’s hugs were always the best. She smelled like flowers and her arms were soft and homey. Angus turned his face so he could see Magnus, who reached out and ruffled Angus’ hair. Angus grinned at him as Julia let go.

     “I gotta get to practice. You sure you’re okay?” she asked again. Angus nodded. “Alright.” She stood up and both Angus and Magnus watched her go.

     “Well, little man, you want a hot dog? All this danger has made me hungry.” Magnus patted his stomach.

     “Yes, sir!” Angus said, racing off for the concessions stand.

Chapter Text

     Kravitz always liked how someone’s home reflected who they were as a person. He had an ongoing series of photos, a project that he suspected would never be completed, of just showing people inside their homes. So when Taako invited him over to try some homemade pasta, Kravitz asked if he could bring his camera to continue the series.

     Usually by the time he went to a subject’s home, he had a pretty good idea of what to expect behind the front door. Japanese minimalism, or Shabby Chic, or stacks of newspapers and old tuna tins. But as he pressed the buzzer to Taako’s loft over the travel agent’s office, he realized he had no clue what to expect on the other side.

     “Yello?”

     “It’s me… uh, Kravitz.”

     “Hey my fella, come on up.”

     The front door buzzed and opened and Kravitz walked inside.

     There was a small landing, on which a sagging shoe rack with a truly astonishing collection of footwear was located, and then an immediate flight of stairs upwards. Kravitz took off his shoes as Taako appeared at the top of the staircase.

     “Come on up.” He winked, and then disappeared back into the apartment. Kravitz walked up the stairs, the old wooden boards creaking under his sock feet.

     It was a studio, and from the top of the stairs, Kravitz could see the whole apartment. It was an older building: the floors were wooden and the walls were brick. A small kitchen, in which Taako was stirring several different pots at the same time, was to his right. There was a large wooden table that seemed to act as both an island and a dining room. Mail and a small collection of cacti and herbs sat in the sunbeam at the end of the table. Taako’s bed was shoved in the opposite corner from the kitchen. It was piled high with pillows of all colors and shapes, a collection that really shouldn’t work together yet somehow it did. A lime green couch was pushed up to the foot of the bed and there was an old TV in front of that. However, the most dominating feature in the whole space, the thing that took up a solid third of the floor plan, were the clothes.

     Taako had racks and racks of clothing that he had arranged to form little aisles up against the right wall. Kravitz couldn’t help but immediately wander over and investigate. The clothes were of all sizes and eras. There were hoop skirts and kimonos and royal robes. He saw a costume that looked like it would inflate and turn into some sort of dinosaur. There were accessories too, button boots and Jackie O pocket books and Ancient Egyptian headdresses.

     “Holy crow,” Kravitz said quietly, whipping his camera off his shoulder and beginning to take a few shots. “This is incredible. Do you wear all these?”

     “Hm?” Taako turned away from the stove for a minute, setting up a cutting board on the table. “Oh, gracious no. Some of them, but not all of them.”

     “What are they for?” Kravitz said, focusing on some beautiful jewel-toned embroidery on a sleeve that seemed to be hand-done.

     “Costumes, of course.” Taako peeled an onion and began expertly dicing it on the cutting board.

     “Like for Halloween?” Kravitz asked, his head poking up from one of the aisles.

     “Well, I did have an excellent Scarlett O’Hara one last year, but not just that. I help out with the local community theatre.” Taako scraped the onion into a steaming pot, then turned to pinch a leaf off a basil plant. Kravitz stepped out from the aisle and snapped a shot of Taako in his kitchen. Taako looked up at the shutter sound. “Hey, I thought you wanted to get pictures of the apartment.”

     Kravitz shrugged his shoulders. “You are as much a part of your space as your space is a part of you.”

     Taako half-smiled and turned back to the stove. “Well I’m a chef, not a model. So I revoke my permission if I look bad.”

     “That’s impossible,” Kravitz said, kneeling down to get a different angle on the kitchen. He took the picture, then realized what he’d said. Very professional. Luckily, Taako didn’t seem to hear him so he breathed a sigh of relief. “How long have you been involved in theatre?” he asked in a louder voice.

     “I’ve worked with the troop in town ever since I moved here, so like… 5 years? But I did theatre in high school too.”

     “Did you start in costuming or…?” Kravitz took a seat at the table.

     “I started on stage, but apparently they don’t like it when you improvise your own lines.” Taako grinned over his shoulder, and turned the heat off under a pot. “But the costumer was always nice to me, and she taught me everything I know.”

     Kravitz nodded and snagged some carrot slices from the salad bowl. “So you didn’t grow up in town? I guess I just sort of assumed you did.”

     Taako leaned away from the pot of boiling water he was straining in the sink. “Nope. Grew up in New Elfington.”

     “Wow, you’re a long way from home.”

     Taako shook out the noodles in the colander, and then grabbed two plates from a cabinet, setting them on the table. “Nah, here is home.” He snapped his fingers at Kravitz. “Stop sneaking carrots.”

     “Sorry.” Kravitz said, smiling sheepishly. Taako pushed the cutting board over towards Kravitz.

     “Here, chop those bell peppers. Sauce is almost done,” Taako said, turning back to the stove. Kravitz picked up the knife and started chopping the vegetables, careful to keep the seeds separate. “How about you? Where’s home for you?”

     Kravitz frowned as he chopped. “I’m not really sure these days. I grew up in Neverwinter, even went to school in the city. But now I only go back there for holidays with Mother.”

     “That sounds nice. Holidays with the family.”

     “It’s not.” Kravitz scooted the pieces to the side of the board and started on another pepper. “My mother’s parents and siblings come and bring their families. Last Christmas they spent the whole dinner arguing about whether Bush or Hatch was going to get the party nomination. They even agreed with each other and they were still shouting.” He shook his head and dropped the peppers into the salad bowl. “A couple years ago, I was in Mongolia at Christmas and couldn’t get home in time. That was the best.”

     “That’s usually what I do at the holidays.” Taako took a plate from the table and dished out a generous serving of pasta. “Stay in, have some wine. Sometimes Julia invites me over, her family is a hoot.”

     “You don’t go back to New Elfington?” Kravitz asked as Taako switched the plates.

     “Nope,” he said simply, dishing out more pasta. He set the plate back on the table and turned to open up a very crowded cooking utensil drawer, snatching a ladle from the depths.

     There it was again. That feeling like there was something very large and very obvious that Taako very much didn’t want to talk about. Normally Kravitz would prompt a little and give enough space for his subject to feel comfortable to open up. But Taako was already different than any other subject he’d worked with. And the more time he spent with him, the further and further they seemed to drift away from the relationship Kravitz had set out to form and into very different waters. So instead he said nothing.

     Taako turned around and set the second plate on the table.  “Look, Kravitz. I think the project you’re working on is really swell, and I’m happy to participate, and I like spending time with you.” He took a breath, and the clipped tone came back to his voice. “But the things that you are wanting to know… are not easy for me to talk about. I’m not saying that I won’t ever speak of them… but I- ...I need time. I’m working on it. I promise.”

     Kravitz shook his head. “No, that’s fine. There’s no rush. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

     Taako smiled and nodded. “Well, then. Now that that’s out of the way, how much sauce do you like on your noodles?”

     “Whatever the chef thinks is best. I put myself in your hands.”

     Taako grinned wickedly. “Wise choice, buckaroo.”

Chapter Text

     Magnus took a gulp of his beer and winced, not at the beer, but at Avi’s rendition of “Come on Eileen.” Come to karaoke night with the B.o.B., he’d said. It’d be fun, he said. Magnus didn’t realize it would involve hearing Avi strangle every member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners one by one. Was anyone good going to sing?

     At least he was there with friends. He threw a glance at Julia, who was talking with Hurley and Killian. Yeah. Friends.

     “What really gets me is the passion,” said Johann. He was watching Avi like a man at an art gallery. “Truly karaoke is an expression of the deepest parts of our psyche.”

     Magnus laughed. “If you say so.”

     “Hey Magnus!”

     It was Hurley, and she was standing on a chair, her cheeks flushed. She leaned over the table toward him. “You don’t look like you’re having much fun.”

     “I don’t think I’m drunk enough for karaoke,” he said.

     “I’ll say you’re not!” said Killian. “You’re drinking beer . Lemme get you something else.”

     Magnus shrugged. “I’ll take it if you’re buying.”

     “This time,” promised Killian, and left for the bar.

     “What have you got against karaoke?” said Hurley, leaning close enough that even in the dimness he could see her freckles. “You some kinda Asian racist?”

     “I don’t know--”

     “‘Cause it’s Asian,” said Hurley.

     Julia stifled a snicker. “Like Sloane?” she provided.

     “Sloane!” Hurley tottered back upright on the chair. “I love Sloane. Love her. Where is she?”

     “Over there?” Magnus pointed to the bar.

     Hurley stepped up onto the table--Magnus hastily moved his beer--and grabbed his face. She looked him dead in the eye. “Thank you.” Then she kissed him gently on the nose, released him, and fell forward off the table.

     “Oh god!” Magnus reached out to catch her, but he needn’t have bothered; she landed in a roll, sprang up, whirled around, gave him some finger guns, and hustled over to the bar.

     Magnus’ eyes were huge. He turned to Julia. “And she’s drunk?”

     “Wasted,” said Julia. “She teaches Judo.”

     “Does Judo give you supernatural powers?” Magnus demanded. Julia laughed. Damn, she was beautiful when she laughed.

     “So what’s the story?” she asked. “How come you don’t like karaoke?”

     “I don’t really like hearing drunk people sing bad music.” He took another swig of his beer and shrugged.

     Julia paused. “Wait, bad music? It’s ‘Come on, Eileen.’ Who doesn’t like ‘Come on, Eileen?’”

     “I’ve heard the same riff in like, six other songs from the same era,” said Magnus. “It’s repetitive. And boring.”

     “It’s common because it’s good ,” said Julia. “ Catchy .”

     “It was the first twenty times I heard it,” scoffed Magnus. “There hasn’t been a good original song since 1982.”

     Julia looked personally offended. “All right, wise guy. What’s a good karaoke song? Any era.”

     He finished off his beer and thought. Good songs. Quality songs. “Hmmm…’Layla.’”

     “‘ Layla ?’ By Derek and the Dominos? Hell no!”

     “It’s a good song!” Magnus protested, impressed. Most of the time he had to hum songs for people.

     “It’s seven minutes long! And the last three minutes are instrumental.”

     “What’d you suggest, then?” asked Magnus. “Nirvana or some shit?”

     “No, you’re missing the point,” said Julia. “Crowd favorites don’t have to be new. They just have to be good. And have enough words that you don’t have to dance if you can’t.”

     “I can dance,” said Magnus.

     “Brave words,” she said. “Seven minutes is a long time.”

     Saving him from trying to come up with a comeback, Killian arrived and put a glass down in front of him. “Drink!”

     He picked up the glass. “What is it?”

     “Rum and coke,” said Killian.

     Magnus tasted it. He sputtered a little. “This is not rum and coke.”

     Killian grinned. “C’mon, Burnsides.”

     Magnus paused. He shot a glance at Julia. She was stone-faced.

     He’d be damned if Killian got the better of him in front of Julia mid-argument. He took a drink. What was this, Long Island iced tea? “What were you saying?”

     A devilish smile crossed her face. She poked his chest with one finger. “I’m saying you wouldn’t know a good karaoke song if one bit your ass.”

     Magnus drew himself up. “Oh yeah?”

     “Yeah.”

     Goddammit, it was a challenge now. “Fine. Catchy, right?”

     “Yeah, something catchy.”

     He stood up, downed half of the drink, and walked up to the DJ. Well, shit. Now he had to actually come up with a good song.

     Let’s see. Maybe he should avoid love songs. Of course that took most music off the table. What was both platonic and catchy?

     “You got a song request or what, buddy?” asked the DJ.

     “Uh, yeah. You got any Earth Wind & Fire?”

 

     Julia waited, not bothering to hide her grin anymore. If he was going to be their friend, this was where he’d prove himself. She nudged Johann, who was congratulating Avi on a truly soulful performance.

     Magnus took the microphone and swaggered up the step to the stage.

     “Whaaaattt,” murmured Avi. Johann put his fingers in his mouth and whistled.

     The music played, and Julia knew the beat immediately. Her mouth fell open.

     Saxophones blasted, Magnus threw out a hip and sang--

Yeahhh, Hey!!

When you wish upon a star,

Your dreams’ll take you very far, yeah,

But when you wish upon a dream,

Life ain’t always what it seems .”

     What had she been expecting? Classic rock maybe, but not this. He wasn’t half bad. His claims of dancing were suspect; mostly he just moved his hips, but he could move ‘em.

     The other girls had caught on and were cheering and catcalling too. Killian was losing her mind.

     Julia threw back her head and laughed.

 

     Magnus sneaked a peek at the table. She was laughing again.

     He threw his hand out to the table, to Sloane and Hurley at the bar, to every member of the B.o.B. he could find, singing,

You’re a shining star

No matter who you are

Shining bright to see

What you could truly be

     The pub went nuts. Magnus tried to hit the highest harmony on the last part. His voice cracked, but no one seemed to notice. The song ended, and he shouted into the mic, “Good night Refuge!”

     Magnus rode the applause down the stage and swaggered back to the table. “How was that for catchy?”

     Julia was still in stitches. “That’s pretty good!” she managed.

     “Now you gotta do it, right?” said Avi.

     Julia stopped laughing. “What, me?”

     “Yeah, you’re a good singer!” said Avi. “Haven’t you actually taken classes for singing?”

     “Have you?” said Magnus, delighted.

     She rolled her eyes. “I figure if I’m going to take twice as long to get my degree I might as well take some fun classes. I’m not going to sound good, though.”

     “Nobody sounds good at karaoke, Jules,” said Killian. “C’mon, give us something good!”

     “I’m not going up there unless one of you goes with me,” she said, staring them down.

     Avi, Johann, and Killian eyeballed each other for a few seconds.

     “I’ll do it,” said Magnus in the silence.

     They turned to look at him. “Oh really?” said Julia slyly.

     “As long as you choose something good,” he said.

     “Something catchy?” she said.

     “Yeah.” Magnus grinned. “Or would you not know a good karaoke song if one bit your ass?”

     “Oh, all right, I see how this is.” Julia stood up. “A duet, I assume?”

     “Of course.”

     “Wait here,” she said, and sauntered over to the DJ.

     “You’re in for a treat,” said Johann. “She’s a very good singer.”

     “I bet she goes with Elton John and Kiki Dee,” said Avi.

     “Oh, god forbid Elton John,” said Magnus.

     “Carey says you love those high notes,” said Killian.

     Julia looked back at them and waved Magnus over. He made his way toward the stage and took the proffered microphone. “What’d you pick?”

     “Just roll with it,” she said, and hopped up the steps to the stage.

     Magnus braced himself, but as soon as the music started he relaxed. “Good call,” he said.

     “You’re gonna miss your cue,” she said, and he almost did, but he started just in time:

Listen, baby,

Ain’t no mountain high,

Ain't no valley low,

Ain't no river wide enough, baby…

     Magnus thought his voice wasn’t bad, but he was legitimately shocked when she sang.

“If you need me, call me,

No matter where you are

No matter how far …”

     She was good, damn. He was so impressed he missed his line, which didn’t seem to make a difference, because now they had the attention of the bar. He joined her on the chorus, singing the high part, and damn if she didn’t harmonize.

Oh baby there ain’t no mountain high enough

Ain’t no valley low enough

Ain’t no river wide enough

To keep me from getting to you, baby…

     They went back and forth gleefully on the verses. Magnus started to get into it, dancing a little--she tried to mimic his movements, keeping her distance but swaying with him, curls flying.

     He felt his heart melt as she sang,

“My love is alive way down in my heart,

Although we are miles apart…

     Oh, he was screwed.

Chapter Text

     Steven settled onto a bench, munching on popcorn. That Robbie guy smelled like weed, but he didn’t skimp on the butter. Probably because he smelled like weed. Steven hoped he could see the action from here. He’d forgotten his glasses.

     He tapped his foot, not steadily like he usually did when he was sitting still, but erratically. He always got nervous watching Julia’s bouts. He tried very hard not to be the sort of father who locked up his daughter in a tower, but the casual approach to danger put him on edge anyway. Julia had mentioned how friends or competitors got injured. She hadn’t yet herself, but still…

     Even if he couldn’t make himself come to every bout, it was a treat to watch her play. Her look of determination as she passed the opposing team’s blockers on jammer or slammed into someone on blocker...it reminded him of her mother.

     Steven smiled to think of Ella, their adventures together. Like that time before Julia was born, when they were young still, and Ella brought him out to the frozen lake. She’d pulled him out onto the ice to try and walk on it, and they’d both ended up knee deep in frigid water, running toward his truck with shuddering jaws and cranking up the heater all the way.

     He chuckled to think of it. Young and foolish. If Julia wanted to be young and foolish for a bit, he could hardly fault her.

     “Is anyone sitting here?” asked an unusually rich voice.

     Steven scooted over on the bench. The man thanked him and sat. He was linebacker-shaped with an unruly beard and an almost comically small briefcase, and he was wearing a suit he looked stuffed into. He loosened his tie and took off his jacket, folding it neatly and placing it on the bench beside him.

     Steven’s eyes wandered over to the center of the track. Julia was giving a pep talk to her players. He nudged the man beside him. “‘That’s my daughter.”

     The man did a double-take. “Jule Be Sorry is your daughter?”

     “Yep,” Steven said, a little smugly.

     “I’m such a fan! She’s the best captain they’ve had since Destroy Her.”

     Steven frowned. “Who’s that?”

     “The coach there? She used to be amazing.” The man pulled an orange out of his briefcase and started to peel it in one long strip. “Bad injury laid her out in ‘92, but she’s still a good coach.”

     “You’ve been following the team for a while,” said Steven.

     “Oh, yeah, the B.o.B. is easy the most interesting team in the league. They always keep you guessing.” The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Klaarg, by the way, Klaarg Daniel.”

     “Steven Waxman.” He shook the man’s hand. “Julia--Jule Be Sorry--says they’re doing well this season?”

     “I’d say so, yeah, won four out of six bouts. The new ref is something though, calls a lot more penalties.” Klaarg carefully rolled the orange peel into a ball and took a bite straight out of the orange.

     Momentarily unsettled, Steven found himself unable to look away as juice dribbled into Klaarg’s beard. “Uhh...that’s…”

     “It is safer for the players, of course, but there aren’t near so many fights.”

     “Are there usually fights?” asked Steven. Julia neglected to mention…

     “It depends on who they’re playing. It’s just the Rockport Riot today so most likely nothing too crazy. Not like when they played the Rad Robes.” He reached into his briefcase again and pulled out a thermos and a cup. “Tea?”

     “No thanks.” Steven watched in horrified fascination as Klaarg finished off the orange with another bite, poured a steaming cup of tea from his thermos, and sipped it daintily. The man was huge, but more than that, there seemed to be something about him that took up more space than most people.

     “I love a good Oolong, don’t you?”

     “I mostly drink iced Lipton,” said Steven.

     The chant started, the one that the players began and the crowd took up. Steven started stomping and shouting along. Who are we? The B.o.B...

     The announcer called out the names, one of which made Klaarg snort into his tea. “Jess the Behead-her? I thought she skated for Goldcliff.”

     The skater in question was a densely built woman who looked like she could lift Steven bodily. Klaarg leaned forward. “Oh, this will be interesting.”

     And the bout began.

     The Riot took an early lead in points. The boy, Taako, was their starting jammer while Julia waited and watched.

     After three jams where Taako was held back by the opposition’s wall, Julia traded off with him. There it was, that look of determination, just like when she was little. This was going to be good.

     The whistle blew, and Julia took off, neatly lapping the track far ahead of the opposing jammer. The Riot’s blockers formed up a wall again, but the tall one, Beauty and the Beast, took hold of Julia and whipped her straight through it. Like a cannonball, she broke through their line, her blockers following fast behind. She weaved through the Riot like a dart, narrowly dodging each one. The Behead-her barrelled toward her to hip check her--but lil’ Diablo pushed the short one, Battling Ram, into the Behead-her, and the two of them hit the rails. With an extra burst of speed, Julia sailed around the curve as the two minutes sounded.

     “It’s a grand slam, folks!” said the announcer. The crowd burst into cheers.

     Steven shouted, “That’s my girl!”

     Klaarg clapped politely. “Very impressive! Very well done.”

 

     After the half, the Riot stopped depending on the wall so much, and the bout turned into a back-and-forth of points. Steven was on the edge of his seat. Now Julia and Noelle were trading off on pivot, and between Julia’s skill, Taako’s fancy footwork, and Noelle’s preternatural ability to see every player at once, the B.o.B began to pull ahead. That Jess the Behead-her, though, seemed to make it her personal mission to bring down the jammer. Steven winced as she knocked Julia down for the third time.

     “If this ref is so good at calling penalties, why won’t he call them on this Behead-her character?” Steven grumped.

     “None of her hits have been illegal yet,” Klaarg replied. “If I know Jess, though, that won’t last long.”

     Klaarg’s words could have been prophecy. A new jam began, with Julia as the jammer; she lapped the track and began weaving in between the blockers. Taako was shouting something from the center, something Steven couldn’t make out, and drifted onto the track.

     It happened in quick succession. The whistle blew to stop the jam--too many players on the track--Taako jumped back into the center, and from one end of the track, a crack .

     Steven looked just in time to see Julia slump to the ground beside the rail on the outside edge of the track, Jess the Behead-her standing over her. One of the volunteer refs, the one with the mullet, was mid-spin; he’d been facing away. The crowd started to shout. Steven jumped to his feet.

     The head ref ran over and knelt next to Julia. She sat up, holding her head. Steven released a sigh.

     The refs held a quick conversation. The mulleted ref was shaking his head.

     “He didn’t see it?” demanded Steven. “What happened?”

     “I believe Jess threw her into the rail,” said Klaarg.

     “Is she okay? Julia!”

     The refs exchanged a few words with Jess. Steven couldn’t tell from here if she looked guilty or not. Lucretia and Taako skated onto the track to help Julia up. She made it fairly easily to her feet, using Lucretia’s arm to steady her. As she made her way to the center, she searched the stands with her gaze.  

     Steven waved, in case she was looking for him. She was; she held up a thumbs-up, and then a hand palm-out.

     All right, she was okay, didn’t need immediate help. He sat down and looked to the refs. They signaled for no penalty.

     “Ladies and gentleman, it looks like the referees have determined this to be an accident,” said the announcer, and he was immediately drowned out by boos and catcalls from the audience, and from the B.o.B. members on the track as well.

     Steven shouted, “Oh come on, ref!”

     “Bad form,” commented Klaarg. “There’s very little chance that was an accident.”

     Steven was filled with boiling fury. “Where does that guy get off?”

 

     “I’m fine . I can go back in!” Julia was reaching for her helmet.

     “Not with a goose egg like that you can’t,” said Lucretia, holding it just out of her reach. “You might be concussed.”

     “What the hell is wrong with Magnus?” demanded Carey.

     “He didn’t see it,” muttered Julia. “What was he supposed to do?”

     “Grow a pair maybe?” said Sloane. “That was a shitty call.”

     “Why are you defending him?” snapped Hurley.

     “I’m not! It doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m going to keep playing.” She stood up, a little unsteadily, paused, and gagged.

     “That does it.” Lucretia snatched the panty off Julia’s helmet and tossed it to Taako. “Throwing up means concussion.”

     Taako caught it. “Don’t worry, sweet cheeks, we’ve got this.”

     Julia sat back down and tried to swallow back the bile. “Fine. Just--Diablo, Jenicide, keep an eye on Jess. Don’t let her pull that shit again? Right?”

     “Right,” said Carey.

     “Good. Who are we?”

     “The B.o.B!”

     “Let’s go.”

 

     It was a close thing, but with Julia on the sidelines looking alternately very disoriented and out for blood, the B.o.B maintained a growing lead and finished things 85 to 69. Jess had tried to pick a fight, but her teammates pulled her off.

     Just as well, Magnus thought, as he made his way toward the cupboard under the track, feeling like he’d swallowed a billiard ball. He didn’t trust himself to be fair right now. It had been a bad call, letting Jess get away with hurting Julia. He’d known it was a bad call when he was making it. But at the time--

     He yanked off his whistle, angry at--at who? The Behead-her? Jess hadn’t made the stupid call.

     Angry at himself. Julia was hurt. Maybe not badly, but still, hurt. And in the moment all he’d felt was fear for his own reputation, that someone would accuse him of showing favoritism. His ego, dammit.

     He put the whistles and hats inside, and searched for injury paperwork.

     “Hey, Avi?”

     Avi’s head appeared above him, looking over the rail of the track. “What’s up, boss?”

     Magnus gestured inside the cupboard. “Where do we keep injury forms? I thought they’d be in with the ref supplies.”

     “Injury forms? What are those?”

     Magnus looked up. “You know? Records of incidents? So the players can’t sue or press charges or whatever?”

     Avi looked mystified. “Is that a thing?”

     “My league in Neverwinter did it,” said Magnus, more than a little horrified.

     “We’ve never done that.” Avi shrugged. “Small town league, man.”

     Magnus settled back on his heels. “Jeez, how is this place still functioning?”

     Avi made a gloomy face and said in his best Johann, “It’s the passion.”

     Magnus didn’t laugh. “I should at least touch base with Julia, then, make sure she’s not seriously hurt.”

     “You’re too late,” said Noelle. She was on her way to the merch table with a box of shirts on each shoulder, still wearing her skate prosthetic. She rested on her other foot, which was skateless at the moment. “She already went home.”

     “Oh. Great.” Magnus stood up and slammed the cupboard shut. “No accountability anywhere.”

     “You want accountability?” said Noelle. “What about calling out Jess?”

     “She’s got a point,” said Avi.

     “I know!” he shouted. “I’m sorry! It was a bad call!”

     “Dude,” said Avi, quietly.

     Noelle was looking at him wide-eyed. She was scared. Magnus deflated. “I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you.”

     She swallowed and looked away. “It’s okay.”

     Magnus took a deep breath. “Was Julia seriously hurt?”

     “Lucretia thinks she’ll be better in time for practice on Monday,” said Noelle quietly.

     “Good. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

     She nodded, balanced herself on her skate prosthetic, and pushed off toward the merch table.

     “Just so you know,” said Avi, “if you ever yell like that around Noelle and one of the other ladies hears, they will kill you.”

     “I’d kill me too, probably,” grumbled Magnus.

     “You’re really taking this to heart,” said Avi. “Everyone makes a bad call sometimes.”

     Magnus sighed.

 

     “I’m fine, Daddy, really.” Julia tried to hold still as Steven squinted at her head. “That’s why we wear helmets.” They were out in the parking lot, out of the noise, which was a mercy. Her head was aching.

     “All the same, I’d like to make sure you get home. Where’s your car?”

     She made a face. “Busted. I walked. It’s only a half a mile if you cut through the woods.”

     Steven looked a little pained. “Do you often walk a half mile through the woods after bouts?”

     “No, Dad, I get a ride.” Usually. “I know you’d kill me if I was murdered.”

     His face cracked a smile. “I would, too. I’ll drive you back, how about that?”

     “That’d be nice. Thanks, Daddy.”

     He walked her over to his truck. “Need a boost up?”

     “I’ve got it.”

     They hopped into the rattly old pickup. Steven pulled out of the parking lot.

     “How long’s your car been busted?”

     “A week or two. My friend Sloane is fixing it, it’s no big deal. It’s just taking a while.”

     “You getting to school on time and everything still?”

     “Yes, Dad. Don’t you worry about me.”

     Steven couldn’t help it. “Somebody ought to get that ref a pair of glasses,” he muttered.

     “Somebody ought to get you a pair of glasses,” she said back. “Where are they, by the way?”

     “I can see just fine without them.”

     “Then why’d I get you that special welding visor that fits over?” she teased.

     He hid a smile. “This is why I can’t come to these things.”

     “I’m glad you came today. I’m just sorry it was to see me play for only half the bout .”

     “You’re very good, you know. Do they have Olympics for this stuff?”

     “I’m not that good.”

     “Don’t sell yourself short.”

     Julia leaned her head against his shoulder. “I love you, Dad.”

     “I love you too.”

Chapter Text

     The waiting room was empty save for the receptionist and Lucretia. She flipped the pamphlet that she’d been glazing over to the back side. ‘So long as we live, they too shall live on inside us,’ she read, and rolled her eyes. Yeah, okay then.

     “Lucretia?” the large dark wood door opened and a short man stepped out. She put the pamphlet down and smiled at her therapist, Dr. Davenport. “You ready?”

     She nodded, and picked up her purse before following him back into his office.

     “Thank you for being willing to reschedule,” he said, walking over to his desk.

     “It’s no trouble,” she assured. Her footsteps were muffled in the thick carpet. “Your assistant mentioned some sort of conference?” She sank down in between two cushions on the couch, folding her hands on her lap.

     Dr. Davenport chuckled. “Yes, their keynote speaker had to cancel last minute, and the organizer is an old friend of mine. So I helped her out.”

     He picked up the notepad he always used, and pulled up the chair on the other side of the coffee table.

     “Actually, I was able to go to some very interesting seminars. So it was a productive weekend.” He sat down in the chair, and jotted the date quickly at the top of the page. “So how have you been?” He looked earnestly at her.

     “Fine, you know, life as usual. Derby, work, dog, sleep. That sort of thing.”

     “And how is Miyagi these days?”

     Lucretia smiled. “He’s good. He got out of the yard last week, still haven’t figured out how he managed that. Found him a couple hours later, just having a grand time on a porch with some old ladies. They made me sit down and have a lemonade with them before I could take Miyagi back home.”

     Dr. Davenport smiled. “And the team? Are you whipping them into shape?”

     She nodded. “We didn’t get any new players, so we’ve been able to really focus on honing skills and techniques. They’re really doing a good job.” She shrugged. “We might have a real chance at the championship this season.”

     “When was the last time the B.o.B. won?”

     Lucretia blew out a breath. “We won a couple back when I was still playing, but since then it’s been… kind of a dry spell.”

     “Does that frustrate you?” he asked. Lucretia’s mouth twitched to the side and she thought about it for a moment.

     “No, it’s still rewarding even when we don’t win. For me, derby’s always been about more than just winning.”

     “Winning would still be nice though,” he replied, a slight smile on his lips. Lucretia chuckled and nodded.

     “Yeah, winning would be nice…” She frowned a little and sighed. “...playing again would be nice too.”

     “How is your knee doing?”

     “Not any more trouble than it usually is.” She looked down and frowned deeper. “...I went to go see a specialist again last week...”

     “And what’d they say?”

     She sighed, and shook her head. “Same thing as they said five years ago… it’s too far gone. Replacement surgery is the only option.”

     “And you don’t want the surgery?”

     “No.” She looked up at him and shook her head quickly. “I’d-I’d take the surgery in a heartbeat. It’s just I started my current job with the bum knee… and insurance is claiming it’s a pre-existing condition. It’s ridiculous.”

     “They won’t cover it?”

     She shook her head. “And I’ll never be able afford it otherwise.”

     “Physical therapy won’t work either?”

     “Wouldn’t get me back up to the level where I could join the team again…”

     Dr. Davenport was quiet for a moment. “That’s a frustrating situation to be in,” he said.

     Lucretia let out a long breath. “It’s my own damn fault--sorry.”

     Davenport waved a few fingers. “It’s fine, continue. Why do you think it’s your fault?”

     “Well, because it is. I came back too fast after the first injury. Blew it out all over again...” She pulled over a pillow and put it on her lap, smoothing out the fringed edge. “If I’d known then…” She shook her head. “Just add it to the pile of poor life decisions, I suppose.”

     “Do you feel you’ve made many of those?” he asked, looking up from his notepad.

     She chuckled without smiling. “I’m basically limping evidence of poor life choices.” She twisted the pillow’s fringe around a finger. “I mean, on the surface, I like my life. I do. I have good friends, an okay job, a fun hobby. ...Just… I wonder if I couldn’t have liked it more if I’d taken a few other turns… if just a few things ended differently.”

     Dr. Davenport nodded slowly. “It’s perfectly normal to wonder what might have been, but it becomes a problem if you end up spending too much time wondering.”

     She nodded. “Yeah, I know.” She heaved a sigh. “It’s just hard not to with everything that’s happened.”

     Dr. Davenport regarded her for a moment. “You know, I think I might have something to help with that.” He stood up from his chair and went back to the desk. “One of the seminars I went to was about coping methods.” He opened up a drawer and pulled out a canvas totebag. “The doctor giving the talk was saying that her patients had found a good deal of success in--ah.” He rifled around in the bag, and then pulled out a black leather book. “Journaling.” He held the book up and headed back to his seat.

     “Like a diary?”

     He nodded and sat down, holding the book out to Lucretia. “Precisely.”

     She took the journal, and flipped through the empty pages. The scents of leather and paper drifted upwards.

     “Really, any method of self-reflection is helpful when dealing with loss. She was specifically a grief counselor, but that’s not too far off-base for you.”

     Lucretia nodded. “Yeah, makes sense.” She looked back up to Dr. Davenport. “So you want me to keep a diary?”

     “If you want to.”

     “What should I write in it?” she frowned at it.

     “Could be a daily record, or important events or memories from the past. Really it’s what you want to make of it. If it ends up not being for you, we can find something else. But I think this might help you. Give you a chance to look over everything and weigh it out.”

     She looked at him. “Will you read it?”

     He shook his head. “Only if you want me to.”

     Lucretia slowly nodded, and ran a hand over the cover.

     “Yeah, okay. I think I can do that.”

Chapter Text

     “Good work today, kids. It’s the end of class.”

     The kiddos lined up and bowed. “Thank you, Master Hurley,” they chorused.

     “Thank you . You’re dismissed.”

     The class swarmed out of the class to meet their parents. As usual, little Kaitlyn stayed a little while after putting on her shoes. She pulled a video game thing out of her backpack and sat down in the waiting area.

     Hurley kept half an eye on her while she made some notes for class. Some of these kids were ready to advance. She’d have to make an announcement for an advancement ceremony... order some new belts…

     The door opened. “Hi, Daddy,” Kaitlyn said. Hurley looked up.

     “Hi, Pumpkin. Evening, Master Hurley.” Captain Bain waved from the doorway. “Ready to go?”

     “Yep,” said Kaitlyn, putting her game back into her backpack.

     “Oh, uh, Captain Bain?” Hurley hopped out from behind the desk. “I was just wondering. How long does it usually take to hear back about training program applications?”

     He frowned. “You haven’t heard back yet?”

     “No, sir.”

     “How long has it been since you turned it in?” he asked.

     Hurley did a mental count. “Two months? And a week?”

     “You should have heard back within six weeks.”

     She scowled. “I see.”

     “Here. Uh.” He pulled a small notebook out of his pocket. “You have a pen?”

     Hurley snatched one off the desk and handed it to him. He wrote something down.

     “This is the officer in charge of the desk down at the station. Tell him I sent you. I’ll let him know you’re coming. Can you spell your last name?”

     “O-apostrophe-S-H-A-G-H-E-N-N-E-S-S-Y.”

     Captain Bain looked up. “Maybe you should just tell him when you get there.”

 

     “Excuse me?”

     Hurley could just see over the tall front desk of the station. A soft sort of guy was sitting behind the desk. He spent a few seconds looking straight ahead before looking down. “Oh, hello.”

     “Hi. I’m here to check on the status of a training application?”

     He snapped his fingers. “Yes, right, the captain said someone would be coming. What’s your last name?”

     “It might be easier if I write it down. Starts with an O-apostrophe-S, though, if you want to start looking?”

     “Right. When did you send it in?”

     “Nine weeks ago.”

     The man slid a piece of paper and a pen over to her and swiveled his chair to open the drawer of a file cabinet. “Oh apostrophe ess. O’Shea?”

     “Nope.”

     “Hmm.” He closed one door and opened another, flipping through the paper inside. “O’Sullivan?”

     “Here.” Hurley stood on her toes and held out the paper.

     He looked at the paper and froze. “Uhhh... hang on. Redmond?” he called over one shoulder.

     “Yeah?” came a voice from the hall behind the desk.

     “Can you get me an application from the...other file?”

     “Sure, whose?”

     The guy looked at Hurley. She said, “Oh shawn essee.”

     “O’Shaghennessy?” repeated the man.

     “Oh, is that how you say that? Sure thing, Luca.”

     The guy looked unaccountably nervous while they waited. Another man, one who looked very similar but bearded and fatter, appeared with a familiar sheet of paper. “God, this is one of my favorites.”

     “Redmond…” said Luca.

     “I mean, they’ve got to be joking, right? The height and the name--”

     “ Red mond.”

     “A prime example for the joke file.”

     “REDMOND.”

     “What, do they think we’re going to hire a--”

     “A what? ” asked Hurley sharply.

     Redmond noticed her now. She glared at him. He floundered. “You know…”

     “Say it,” she spat.

     He gulped. “A leprechaun.”

     What Hurley really wanted, more than anything in the world, was to fly screaming over the desk at this bitch. She also wanted to work here, though. Assault charges would probably make that difficult. What did Sloane always say? Quiet was scarier than loud. She breathed in and out slowly, through her nose.

     “Does the Faerun Police Department make a habit of straight up ignoring applications to their training program?” she said, as calmly as she could manage.

     “Listen, obviously there has been a big misunderstanding,” said Luca. “We’d like to apologize. It’s just...you know, it sounded kind of ridiculous.”

     “Does it?” she said. “Does it really ?”

     “Now see here, ma’am--” Redmond began.

      She pushed herself up taller, legs dangling off the floor. “No, you see here. I’d really really hate for Captain Bain to hear about this--what did you call it? A joke file? Now I’d like to be treated as a regular applicant, if you don’t mind !”

     Luca held up his hands. “I’m afraid it’s too late.”

     “What?!”

     “Our training program only runs twice a year,” he said. “You can always apply at the academy in Neverwinter if--”

     Hurley let herself thump to the ground. “I already have. Thanks for that.”

     “Ma’am, I’m so sorry--”

     “You’re gonna be! Where’s the captain?”

     Redmond leaned back. “I don’t think we need to bother the captain.”

     “Bother me about what?” Captain Captain Bain appeared from the hall and handed Luca a file. “Oh, hello, Hurley.”

     “Hi, Captain,” said Hurley, talking faster. “Did you know your officers sometimes treat applications like jokes and put them in a joke file without processing them?”

     Captain Bain narrowed his eyes and turned to Luca and Redmond. “Is this true?”

     “Sir--” Redmond began.

     “Yes,” said Luca. Redmond shot him a betrayed look.

     “I’ll speak to you about this joke file in a moment. At length .” Both men flinched. Captain Bain turned to Hurley. “You have every right to be angry. Trust me, I’m angry too. But I found out this morning that the training program is two weeks in, and we can’t admit you now even if you qualify. So what would you like me to do?”

     Give me five minutes alone in a room with these yahoos, she thought, but what she said was, “When I reapply in six months, I don’t want to pay the fee.”

     “That’s reasonable. Luca, make it happen.”

     “Yes sir,” groaned Luca.

     “I’ll see you both in my office. Now.”

     “But sir, she’s a--” Redmond attempted, but Captain Bain held up a hand.

     “There is no minimum height requirement. And that woman could kick your ass. Now get to my office. Good day, Master Hurley.” He turned down the back hall.

     Redmond punched Luca in the arm. “You idiot.”

     “Why am I the idiot?”

     Hurley turned on her heel and left.

 

     “A leprechaun, Sloane! A leprechaun!”

     Hurley laid with her head in Sloane’s lap on her couch. Sloane was running her fingers through Hurley’s hair. Sloane had just showered, so she smelled like that peppermint essential oil she used.

     “What a couple of douches,” Sloane murmured.

     “They used to call me a leprechaun in school,” growled Hurley.

     “So you kicked their asses.”

     “No, this was pre-judo. I just yelled a lot. Didn’t stop them.”

     “I would have kicked their asses,” said Sloane.

     “You couldn’t kick a fly’s ass, you beautiful flower.”

     “You have a fly’s ass.”

     “You have a fly ass.”

     Sloane snorted. “Thanks, Curly Hurley.”

     “You’re welcome, my long, lean love machine.”

     Sloane kissed her, and Hurley tasted peppermint. She sighed, let Sloane’s fingers pull the tension out of her neck for a minute or two.

     “Do you think they’re right?” said Hurley morosely, after a while. “Do you think I’ll ever be a cop?”

     “If you aren’t, we’ll have to become famous street racers.”

     Hurley smiled, just a little. “Still illegal, babe. Carey said don’t do crime.”

     “She should be a spokesperson for like, public service announcements.”

     Hurley took on a raspy sort of voice. “Hey, kids. This is Carey Fangbattle saying, ‘Don’t do crime.’”

     Sloane laughed and mimicked the voice. “Hey, kids, this is Tom Carey Brokaw Fangbattle.”

     Hurley cackled.

     The egg timer in the kitchenette dinged. Hurley jumped up. “Oh good!” She snatched the hotpads off the counter and pulled the pan of roast potatoes out of the oven. “These are gonna be so good.”

     “Thanks for skipping the chicken, babe.” Sloane pulled a couple of plates out of a cupboard.

     “I couldn’t eat chicken in front of a vegetarian. Especially not my favorite vegetarian.” Hurley put the pan on the counter and shut the oven door. “If I’m honest I really like the potatoes better.”

     “You are painfully Irish.”

     Hurley shot her a dark look.

Chapter Text

     Kravitz took a deep breath and stared out his windshield. He’d been sitting in his parked car for the better part of a half hour, working up the nerve to leave it. In his mind, he ran over what he wanted to say once again. Preparation always helped him feel more calm and collected, though his fingers still tapped erratically on the steering wheel. He knew that all the preparation in the world wouldn’t make what he wanted to say any easier. But it had to be said. They could not continue like this any longer.

     The light above Taako’s yellow front door seemed brighter in the dark and rain. He should just go for it. If he sat in the car any longer he was in danger of never leaving it. Thunder clapped and the street momentarily was bright as day. Taking the plunge, he finally opened the car door.

     Immediately, he was soaking wet. He jogged across the street and stepped onto the stoop. Here goes nothing , he thought and raised a hand to knock on the door, but it suddenly opened. Taako was standing there in a yellow rain jacket, a look of surprise on his fine features.

     “I was just coming out to meet you,” Taako said.

     “Taako, there’s something I have to tell you,” Kravitz began hesitantly.

     “Yeah, me too.”

     “I should go first.” Kravitz stepped a little forward, put Taako stopped him with a hand to his chest.

     “No, let me.” Taako moved his hand and looked at the ground. “I think I’m finally ready to tell you about my past. I was--”

     “Wait. Don’t. I have to tell you I’m…” His stomach twisted into a million knots. “I think that you shouldn’t be one of my documentary subjects anymore.” The words fell out of him and splashed in the puddle on the stoop.

     Taako took a half-step back and blinked a few times. “Why? Was it something I said?”

     “No! No, of course not. It’s not you, it’s literally me. It’s just...” Kravitz paused; his heart felt like it was beating a million miles a minute. But it was now or never. “The way that I feel about you and think about you is not a respectable way for a professional documentarian to be.”

     Taako looked away and appeared to be processing through this information.

     “And I don’t want,” Kravitz continued, rubbing the back of his neck, “for the documenting process to make you open parts of yourself to me that you wouldn’t have otherwise. That doesn’t seem fair or right, especially when I feel this way about you.”

     Taako looked back to Kravitz’s face, and Kravitz couldn’t read his expression. The hovering panic began to set in full bore. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, y-you would have made an amazing subject. But you turned out to be such an--” Kravitz gesticulated wildly with his hand, his speech speeding up as he kept going, “An interesting person that I just kept thinking about you and I wanted to talk to you and spend time with you. And I’m a selfish enough person that I would like to be more to you than just… what we are… right now… if you’ll have me.”

     Kravitz bit his tongue to keep himself from talking anymore. Taako’s expression was still unfathomable. As the silent seconds ticked by, it began to feel like the floor was dropping out from under him.

     Until Taako finally said, “Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

     Kravitz’s eyebrows raised sky high, and a dopey smile spread across his face. “Really?”

     Taako smiled too. “Of course. I liked you from the moment I saw you.”

     “I think I did too… I was just too stupid to realize it,” Kravitz said. Taako laughed a little and Kravitz felt like he could float away. “Um… I would very much like to kiss you now. If I may.”

     Taako stepped out onto the stoop, and smoothed the lapels of Kravitz’s wet suit coat.

     “I thought you’d never ask.” He grabbed the lapels and pulled Kravitz down for an earth-shattering kiss.

 

     The storm had finally ceased, but gentle rain still pattered against the windows of Taako’s loft. Taako’s eyes were open, staring at the ceiling as he laid in bed. He could never sleep when it was raining, not for many years now. Somewhere in his costume stores a mantel clock that he could never find chimed 2 am. He turned to see the dark slopes of Kravitz’s back, slowly rising and falling with each breath as he slept on his side next to Taako. Kravitz had pulled his dreads into a topknot, exposing the back of his neck. Taako rolled over and placed a kiss at the nape, draping an arm across Kravitz’s middle.

     “Are you awake?” Taako asked, curling up behind him. “I can’t sleep.” Kravitz let out a half-conscious mumble, but stretched and put his hand over Taako’s, their fingers intertwining.

     “...not usually the little spoon.” he mumbled, his voice still groggy and deep.

     “Everyone likes being the little spoon, makes you feel safe.”

     Kravitz hmm’d. Taako liked the way he could feel his voice reverberating solidly in his chest. He rested his cheek against the back of Kravitz’s shoulder.

     He took a deep breath. “I know that you don’t want me to be part of your documentary because you felt like it wasn’t fair to me, or it was manipulative… but you once said that you share people’s stories with audiences that wouldn’t hear them otherwise. And I think… I don’t know… maybe my story might help some people…”

     “You’re shaking,” Kravitz replied. He turned over towards Taako, but his face was covered in shadow. Taako looked down anyway, gripping his hands together to hide the tremors.

     “Taako.” Kravitz put a hand on his shoulder. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to tell me or anyone. That’s okay.”

     “I am though. And I want you to know this before we go any further, but I…” He took a quivering breath. “I haven’t told anyone this before.”

     “What about the derby team?”

     “No… not yet. I will someday but it’s… hard.” He sat up in bed, cross-legged, and shook his hands out. Kravitz sat up across from him, cautiously searching his face. Taako took a shuddering breath, and tried to pick a place to start. Then Kravitz reached out and took his hands.

     “If you really want to do this now, that’s fine. I’m here,” he said calmly. Taako nodded.

     “I mean, you may have already put two and two together,” Taako began, that clipped tone returning to his voice. “I told you at the pottery shop that I did derby because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a family.” He swallowed hard, “Uh, I wasn’t… ah, exaggerating. Outside of derby, I don’t have one anymore. Mine… I was kicked out,” he finished in a hoarse whisper, gripping Kravitz’s hands for dear life. Kravitz didn’t say anything for several minutes, just let Taako get a hold of himself again.

     “How long ago?” he asked quietly.

     “I was 17.”

     “Whoa,” Kravitz breathed.

     Taako continued, “A kid in my class outed me to my parents and they said I could either leave or, uh, get… therapy. So I left.”

     “Is that when you were at the shelter?”

     “I found the center a couple months later, yeah,” he nodded. Kravitz’s head tilted to the side.

     “Where’d you live in between then?”

     Taako shrugged his shoulders, trying to appear casual. “Nowhere.”

     “Really? Your friends, they just let you be--” An indignant tone started creeping into his voice.

     “Kravitz, it was ‘87. You remember how scared everyone was back then.”

     Kravitz was quieted and he nodded, rubbing his thumbs over the backs of Taako’s hands. “That doesn’t make it okay.”

     “It wasn’t so bad,” Taako said. He was trying to maintain that casual exterior, but it was slipping quickly. “New Elfington had a lot of parks with some nice trees, and I found a gym that I could keep some things in a locker at. It was only really bad when it would rain at night…

     “Anyway, so the shelter got me off the streets, and I was able to get my G.E.D. I met other people like me… learned that even in my situation I was one of the lucky ones. At least I wasn’t…” Taako couldn’t even bring himself to say the word. Faces that he’d never forget danced in the back of his mind. He pressed on. “But in the end derby is what really saved me.” He looked out the rain-splattered window, but Kravitz watched Taako’s face.

     “Why?”

     Taako’s gaze drifted to his lap. “Because… it’s hard to want to keep going if your only goal in life is just survival.” He gnawed on his bottom lip. “Derby gave me something to aim for... even if it took me another six years before I was in a place to actually join.” He nodded a little and finally looked back to Kravitz. “And those wild girls have become my family in the years since.

     “So, uh… I want my story told because,” he sighed, “I don’t know, when I was younger if I could have seen that someone else could be in my situation but somehow make it out or through it, ‘cause it really feels like so few of us did… that would have been good.”

     Kravitz slowly nodded and squeezed his hands. “May I ask a question?”

     Taako nodded.

     “Have you talked to your parents since then?”

     Taako shook his head. “I haven’t even seen my parents or talked to my sister since that night.”

     Kravitz was quiet and Taako looked at him for a moment. “You have another question, don’t you?”

     “Just… is there a specific reason you haven’t told anyone before me?”

     Taako bit the corner of his mouth and looked down. “I guess I’m just worried that if I tell anyone, they won’t want to be with me anymore. It’s much more appealing to be friends with Taako the Glamazon than Taako the sad gay kid whose own parents didn’t want him.” He brushed at his eye with the back of his hand. “I know it’s irrational and stupid but… that’s why.”

     Kravitz was quiet for a moment, then whispered. “You are so much more than either of those things. You’ve always been fascinating to me but now you’re inspiring too. I just...” he shook his head. “Taako. You are incredible.”  

     Taako smiled.

     “Are you okay?” Kravitz asked. Taako nodded.

     “Yeah, I am now.”

     “You sure there’s not more to your story? Saving drowning babies from rivers? Curing cancer?” Kravitz smiled as Taako laughed.

     “Well, not yet.”

     They sat for a moment, still holding hands. “Can I kiss you?” Kravitz asked.

     “You know you don’t have to ask every time,” he drawled, leaning forward. Kravitz let go of Taako’s hands to cup his jaw.

     “Yeah, but I kinda like asking.” He leaned forward to press a kiss to one cheek and then the other.

     “I kinda like you ask--” he was cut off when Kravitz’s lips met his.

Chapter Text

     “Should we have gotten him those adjustable ones? He’ll grow out of these in a year.” Carey wondered out loud as Julia and Killian wrapped the box in wrapping paper covered in dogs wearing bow ties. She was walking around the locker room, giving each team member a conical party hat and noisemakers.

     “Those things are nothing but plastic death traps covered in Disney branding,” Hurley said from her spot on the bench as she swung her legs back and forth, two party hats on her head. It gave her a sort of goat-like look.

     “And he’ll like that these look just like ours,” Taako assured her, snapping the elastic band of the hat under his chin.

     “Let’s hustle, ladies-and-Taako. I know we have a special occasion, but we’re still going to get in a full practice,” Lucretia warned as she left the locker room.

     “Okay, everyone ready?” Julia asked, the present tucked under her arm. They all nodded back and they snuck out of the locker room, the only sound the whirring of their skates.

     It was mid-week practice, so there were just a few skaters over on the flat rink. And there was only one person in the stands, Angus McDonald. He was in the very first row with his nose was buried into some children’s fantasy novel so he didn’t notice as the entirety of the team snuck up behind him.

     Killian held up her fingers. 3, 2, 1--

     “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANGUS!!!” They all cried and blew the noisemakers. Angus’s book flew out of his hands to the floor, and his surprise immediately turned to delight.

     “Oh, wow! You remembered??” he said, his eyes all lit up. Carey skated around and snapped a party hat on his head.

     “Of course, we did, little man. How could we forget the birthday of our favorite fan?” Taako said, sliding along the bleachers to sit one row behind him.

     “Well, you have a lot of fans.”

     “Ah, but you’re our favorite,” Sloane said, sitting beside Taako, smiling fondly at Angus.

     “We all chipped in and got you a present. We’re pretty sure they’ll fit,” Julia said, setting down the box on Angus’ lap. He just looked at it for a moment, his hand running over the colorful paper.

     “Aren’t you going to open it?”

     He looked up and snapped out of his reverie. “Oh right!” The colorful paper quickly disappeared and Angus lifted the lid off the box, and he stared open mouthed at the contents inside. Even with each team member chipping in just $10, the skates they got were practically top of the line. They looked exactly like the ones the team wore, black leather boot and bright blue laces. He picked one up and spun one of the wheels, staring at it in awe.

     “Oh, wow,” he said in a hushed tone. “Thank you so much! I love them!” He smiled so big it seemed like his face might burst.

     “Here, here, take off your shoes and we’ll help you lace ‘em up,” Julia said, taking the box from him and sitting on the bench. Angus quickly threw off a worn tennis shoe and then the other. Julia made a mental note to get some new socks for the poor boy as both of his big toes were sticking out of large holes.

     “Happy Birthday, Angus,” Lucretia said, skating to the edge of the track. “We’re very proud of you, but I’m afraid I have to take my team back. Let’s go!”

     Julia quickly helped him tie one skate and then the other as the rest of the team started practice. She pulled him to his feet.

     “Now, we don’t have outdoor wheels on those yet, so be sure to just use them here in the rink.”

     “Yes, ma’am!” He hopped up and down with excitement and quickly lost his footing, he staggered around and fell back into his seat on the bleacher. Julia smiled.

     “Hey, you’re already doing better than when I started,” she said, and she skated away. Angus took a deep breath and stood up slowly this time. His feet rolled back and forth, but managed to grip his way along the bleachers till he reached the flat rink where a poorly attended public skate was happening.

     He spent the entirety of the practice making very slow wobbly loops around the rink. More than once he fell on his front, his rear, his side. One time he ran into the wall. But it was without any real injury, and it did not deter his spirit. Eventually he was the only skater left. The team came to stand at the edge of the rink once their practice was done. Angus concentrated carefully to keep from falling over in front of them. He wanted to make them proud.

     “You’re doin’ great, buddy!”

     “Make sure to keep low, it’s easier to balance.”

     “Remember to fall small!”

     “Block with your butt!”

     He waved excitedly at them and lost his balance, flailing around a little bit before remembering to squat down. And he remained upright. The group cheered for him and he got so excited that he jumped back to standing and fell over anyway.

     “Keep at it, my dude!”

     “Hey, Angus, we’re gonna change, and then we’ll drive you home, kay?” Killian called across the rink.

     “Okay!” Angus said, picking himself up off the floor and starting back. The team disappeared into their locker room. Angus hoped that he could make it around a couple of more times before he’d have to stop. As he made it to the back corner, the back door to the rink opened.

     “Magnus, sir! Look what the team got me for my birthday!!” Magnus smiled and walked up to the edge.

     “Look at those hot rods! You’re a regular derby pro in those.” He let out a whistle. Angus laughed and came to an unsteady stop.

     “I’ve been practicing the whole practice, and I’m getting much better.”

     “Hey, that’s all it takes. Practice, practice, practice...and more practice.”

     “Could you give me some pointers? If you’re not too busy, I mean.”

     “I’ll do you one better.”

 

     Julia zipped up her skate bag and threw her hair up into a ponytail. It would probably need to be washed before tomorrow. Carey and Killian were going over some plays with Lucretia, so for the first time in a long time she wasn’t the last one out of the locker room. She waved to the three of them as she left, hoisting her bag over her shoulder. The lights over the banked track had been turned off, but the lights over the flat rink were still on.

     Julia smiled as she saw Angus still going around the rink, though he wasn’t alone. She recognized Magnus skating along next to him, sometimes coming around in front to skate backwards, always within arm’s reach. Even in just the fifteen minutes she had been in the locker room, Angus’ form had improved, as had his speed.

     She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but whatever pep talk Magnus was giving, it seemed to be working. She wandered a little closer and leaned against the half-wall of the rink.

     “Now you can’t let the fear of getting hurt stop you from trying,” Magnus said, skating along in front of Angus. “You gotta trust your gear to protect you, and you gotta trust yourself.” Angus skated a little faster, but leaned too far forward and started to fall. But Magnus was right there to catch him. “Hup, oh!” He set Angus back upright and tickled his ribs. “Though we should get you some pads, gotta protect those joints if you’re going to be a pro-skater.”

     Julia smiled as she watched the two of them, a warm feeling growing in her chest. Magnus was such a good guy with Angus, and really with everyone. Loyal, and friendly, yet upright and honest, very dependable and pretty handsome too-

     She stopped smiling and looked away.

     Oh, no.

     “Miss Julia! Look! Magnus helped me go faster!” Angus called as he passed by her corner.

     “Great form, hun.”

     Magnus came up and leaned against the wall next to her. Her breathing became shallow and all the nerves in the arm closest to him felt sparkly. They just watched him make his way down the length for a minute.

     “It’s really nice of you,” Julia began. Magnus turned to look at her. “To teach him, I mean.”

     Magnus smiled at her. That warm feeling from earlier grew a little bigger, dammit. “He’s a good kid. Though I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get him out of those skates ever again.”

     Julia laughed, a little too loudly. And she immediately looked away.

     “I gotta go.” She picked up her skate bag and quickly turned for the door, silently berating herself as she left.

     Magnus watched her go. He hoped that she hadn’t noticed how just standing near her had given him goosebumps.

Chapter Text

     Julia checked her watch again. She was definitely late now. For as small as the downtown was, one would think that parking wouldn’t be much of a problem. But she had still ended up circling around twice before finding a spot that was three blocks away from the coffeeshop. She jogged the last couple of steps and held the door open as a mom pushing a stroller left the shop.

     “Bye-bye!” the toddler waved from his perch. Julia smiled and waved back before going into Pour Joe’s.

     The place was fairly crowded for a Tuesday afternoon, but it was always popular. Tantalizing scents of coffee and cinnamon wafted around, accompanied with the hiss of the espresso machine. The brick and plaster walls were covered with sharpie drawings and quotes.

     Taako waved from one of the two seater booths along the side wall. Julia hurried over and dropped her purse into the seat before sitting down herself.

     “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she sighed, dropping her elbows on the table and running her hands through her hair. “Parking was a nightmare.”

     “It’s fine. I already ordered for you.”

     “Ooh, did you get--”

     “A large mocha latte with cinnamon? Yep.” Taako smiled and nodded. Julia sat back.

     “I can be kinda predictable, huh?”

     “Nah, I just know you.”

     The barista appeared with two large cups and saucers. “Mocha latte for Julia, an americano for Taako,” She set the two cups down, and then grabbed a dozen sugar packets from her apron pocket. “And sugar for Taako. Can I get you guys anything else?”

     Julia shook her head.

     “I think we’re good, Rachel, thanks.” Taako said. “Hey, how’s your mom?”

     “She’s feeling much better.” Rachel put her hands in her apron pocket. “Oh! She wanted me to thank you for the cupcakes. She said the orange creamsicle one was her favorite.”

     Taako grinned. “Glad to hear.” Rachel nodded and returned to the counter.

     Julia picked up her mug and took a sip, immediately burning her tongue. “You know Rachel’s mom?”

     Taako tore open five sugar packets and delicately stirred them into his coffee. “Rachel’s mom,” he said in a conspiratorily low whisper. “Owns half of downtown. If I ever want to own my own bakery here, I gotta be on her good side.”

     “So you’re bribing her with cupcakes?”

     “I’m not a heartless monster.” He took a sip of coffee, frowned and tore open three more sugar packets. “I also care that she had the flu last week...and I care that she sees how delicious my baking is.”

     “You sly fox,” Julia said, shaking her head. She took a tentative sip, still hot but manageable now.

     “Anyway, my business dealings is not why I called a meeting of The Brain Trust.” Taako put his hands flat on the table. “I have news.”

     Julia’s eyebrows raised. “Do tell,” she said in a faux English accent.

     “You know Kravitz.”

     Julia’s eyes narrowed as she mentally rooted around. “That’s...the documentary guy, right? He wanted you to be one of his main subjects.”

     “Yes, correct. Full marks. And what else?”

     “Gah, no one told me there was going to be a pop quiz today.” She took another sip. “Ummm...you hung out at the pottery shop, he came and took pictures at the bakery, you made him pasta, and....oh oh,” Julia snapped her fingers. “Last week you saw that Heath Ledger movie together.”

     “ 10 Things I Hate About You, yes, which you should see. I think you’d like it a lot.” Julia pumped her fist. Taako smiled at her. “Alright, so you are completely caught up with everything...except…”

     “Except?” she leaned in.

     “He came by a couple nights ago and...we kissed.”

     Julia’s eyes went wide. “What?”

     “And he spent the night,” Taako gushed.

     “What?! I thought he was keeping things super professional.”

     “I mean, he was but I kind of wondered…? But I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to say anything ‘cause I was afraid I’d jinx it.”

     “So are you two dating now?”

     Taako took a sip of his coffee-flavored sugar solution and shrugged. “We haven’t officially said so. But he said he wants to take me to dinner tomorrow, soo…” he smiled.

     “Oh my god, Taako. That’s awesome. Where’re you going?”

     “27 Springs.”

     Julia made an impressed face to echo Taako’s. “Wow. Fan-cyy!”

     “Right? I keep forgetting that he’s not completely broke like the rest of us.”

     “He can like actually wine and dine you.”

     “He can support me in a manner to which I am not accustomed but definitely could become so.” They both laughed and sighed. Julia watched an unconscious smile slip across Taako’s face as he swirled his cup.

     “You must really like this guy,” she commented, taking a long sip.

     “Is it that obvious?”

     Julia shook her head. “No. I just know you,” she said, repeating Taako’s tone from before. Taako smiled and nodded.

     “I do, Jules. I really do.” He sighed. “I honestly like him so much I’m scared I’m gonna mess it up somehow.”

     Julia shook her head. “Not possible. As long as you’re honest with each other, be open and communicate about what you’re feeling and what you want.”

     “Well, that’s easier said than done.”

     “True. But even if it doesn’t work out, he obviously didn’t understand what a good thing he had with you. And you say the word, and I will come after him with a baseball bat.”

     Taako chuckled. “Thanks.”

     “No problem.” Julia finished off the last of her latte, and set the cup back down with a clink.

     “So what about you?”

     “What about me?” Julia replied. Taako leveled her a look.

     “The Brain Trust is not a one-way street, The Brain Trust goes both ways.”

     Julia tilted her head. “Do you know what a Brain Trust is?”

     “I heard it on the news and it sounded cool. Now stop avoiding the question, Senator Waxman. How’s Magnus ?”

     “He’s fine, I guess. I don’t really know because we’re friends. Just friends.”

     “Friends, huh?”

     “Yep.”

     “Totally platonic.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “So you’re telling me that seeing six feet of hunky Mexican muscle tutoring Angus at the rink did nothing to stir up a lil somethin-somethin deep inside?”

     Julia tried to keep a dead-pan stare locked on Taako, but she had to drop her gaze. “Shit.”

     Taako rapped his knuckles on the table. “Ha! I knew it.”

     “Okay, but we are just friends! Just because I might, I don’t know...like him as something a little more, doesn’t make us any more than just friends.”

     “ For now.

     Julia rolled her eyes. “Oh, boy. This was a mistake.”

     Taako chuckled and rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything to him. It will be fa-ar too much fun to just watch this play out on its own.”

     “Nothing’s gonna happen.”

     Taako shook his head. “Nah, girl, I have a feeling.”

     “Uh-huh.” Julia said, sounding very unconvinced. “Wedding coordinator right?”

     “Yes. Right now, I’m thinking a nice navy with lemon yellow and coral accents.”

     Julia thought about that for a second. “I don’t actually hate that.”

Chapter Text

Sloane stared at the invoice. Hell yes. Finally, proof.

She yanked it off her desk and stormed out of her office. “Marvey!”

Marvey rolled out from under a ‘89 Subaru Legacy. “What?”

“Come here.” It was a power move, and she knew it, but she wanted everyone to see this.

Marvey stood up, took his sweet time getting there. Sloane stayed stone-faced. She held out the invoice. “What’s this?”

“An invoice, boss,” he said.

“You weren’t finished with that sentence,” she said. “You mean to say that it’s an invoice on which you overcharged someone for a new transmission. In fact, you charged them double, Marvey.”

He shrugged. He had a smug little smile on his face, which was absolutely infuriating, but Sloane knew that the moment she showed how angry she was was the moment she lost, and now the other mechanics were watching. “That’s just good business, boss.”

“Huh. Strange. I remember saying something about this kind of ‘business.’ Do you remember what that was, Marvey?”

“Can’t say that I do.” His smile was starting to fall.

“I believe it was something to the effect of, if you pull this shit again, you’re fired.” She folded the invoice neatly and put it in the pocket of her overalls. “Guess what, Marvey? You’re fired.”

He went from uncertainty to rage in less than a second. “You can’t fire me!” he barked.

Sloane raised her eyebrows. “Oh. I can’t?” She snapped her fingers at another mechanic. “Little Jerry. What does it say on the sign out front?”

“Kim’s Cars, boss,” yelped Little Jerry.

“Oh does it? And Little Jerry, what’s my name?”

“Sloane Kim?” he said.

Sloane smiled. “Huh. Look at that. I can fire you.” She dropped her smile. “Now get your ass out of here.”

Marvey snarled, looked like he was ready to punch her. Sloane didn’t even blink. He growled and stormed out.

“You shouldn’t have done that, boss,” said Little Jerry. “Marvey’s into some bad stuff.”

Sloane shot him a murderous look. “Not badder than me.”

She stalked back into her office, closed the door behind her carefully, and exhaled, resting her head against the door. She hated that Dragon Lady shit. Why couldn’t they just do their jobs?

She sat down at her desk and opened a drawer, fishing around until she found a small brown bottle labeled “Lavender Oil.” She unscrewed the cap and took a deep breath.

“Relax,” she whispered to herself on the exhale. “It’s going to be okay.”

Sloane wished she could put some on her wrists, but she was afraid the mechanics would smell it and figure out she’d been scared. She put the cap back on, took a couple more deep breaths, and left her office again.

The Subaru needed her attention, which was honestly a bit of a relief. She’d been doing the books all day. Time to get some real work done.

“Excuse me?” A woman had wandered into the garage, clutching her purse in both hands. “I’m um, looking for Kimberly?”

Sloane stopped herself from rolling her eyes. “I think you mean me. I’m Sloane Kim.”

Business continued.

 

Sloane slid out from under the Subaru and wiped her forehead with a rag. Done. And in record time, too. The other mechanics had long since gone home, but she was feeling good about the repair and wanted to finish it. It was only...oh, two hours after closing. Oh well.

She put her tools away, grabbed her purse and jacket from her office, and locked that door, and then the garage doors. She’d walked to work this morning. Better for the environment, she’d thought. Now, though, it was dark, and she was regretting it. Only a mile to her apartment, she told herself. Let’s go.

The street was quiet. It was an industrial part of town, so nothing was open. No people, except a guy leaning against the office building across the street, smoking a cigarette. Sloane ignored him and started walking.

She had to pass through the three blocks that were downtown to get home. Sometimes she stopped at Sazed’s Bakery to buy a slice of carrot cake and chat with Taako, but at this point it’d be closed. Shame, that, Taako would have loved the story of her firing Marvey.

The echo of footsteps sent a shiver up her spine. Sloane sneaked a glance; the guy across the street was keeping pace with her.

Probably nothing, she told herself, but she tightened her fists anyway. What had Hurley taught her? Thumbs outside the fist, not sticking out past her knuckles. Use your knees and elbows. Use your teeth. Don’t get scared, get angry.

Sloane took a deep breath and kept walking. As she passed Sazed’s, she snuck another glance. The guy across the street passed under a streetlight just in time for her to see that it was Marvey. Of course it was Marvey, that prick. He probably just wanted to scare her. She got angry.

They walked for a few minutes more before Sloane heard a metallic thunk, and then the rattle of something being dragged along the sidewalk. She felt her blood freeze in her veins. Very carefully, trying not to move her head more than she needed to, she slid her gaze over to him.

Oh, god, he was dragging a tire iron. Sloane glanced wildly up and down the street. Something had to be open. Anything. A pottery shop, an art gallery, a coffee house, no, no, no--

There, there was a light on in a florist’s shop. The sign said closed, but she darted toward it anyway, filled with relief when the glass door yielded to a push. The bell above the door rang, and she slipped inside and put her back against the wall, panting.

“We’re closed,” said a voice, one that was strangely familiar.

“I know, I’m sorry, can I just--” She paused when she saw the man rooting around in a refrigerator full of boutonnières. “Mr. Highchurch?”

It made sense. She’d always seen Merle as kind of a hasbeen flower child, long gray hair and balding on top and perpetually wearing Hawaiian print shirts. Of course he was a florist. He was always complaining how the rink made no money.

He looked up, one bushy eyebrow raised, and waved a hand at her vaguely.

“You’re one of the derby girls. Uh. . . Jenicide?”

“My name’s Sloane.” She tried to look out the door. Marvey was still across the street, but he looked like he was about ready to cross. “Can I just stay in here for a minute? I fired a guy today and I think he’s after me.”

Merle frowned. He closed the fridge and strolled over to where he could get a look out the door. His frown deepened. “I see him. Yeah, come on over here.”

Merle showed her to a chair behind the cash register, out of direct line of sight of the door. He himself opened the register and began counting cash.

“That’s a bad idea,” she warned.

“Relax,” he said, a little too flippantly for her taste. He seemed to have lost his grumpy demeanor. Sloane shifted in the chair.

The bell above the door rang, and Marvey came in, the tire iron gripped in his hand.

“We’re closed,” said Merle, in a tone that suggested benevolent boredom more than anything else.

“That’s fine,” said Marvey, leveling a finger at Sloane. “I’ll just take my friend and go.”

Sloane was more afraid than she’d ever been, but she managed a glare at Marvey. He would not see her scared.

“Nah, sorry, pal,” said Merle. “Like I said, we’re closed. If you wouldn’t mind leaving.”

Marvey pointed the tire iron at Merle. “Don’t fuck with me, old man. I’ll kill you too.”

“Hmm.” Merle reached under the counter and almost casually pulled out a revolver. He opened the cylinder, which was full, then closed it again. “Listen, buddy. I’m already going to call the police. All you’re doing is helping me decide whether I do it before or after I shoot you.”

Marvey lowered the tire iron, face contorted in a snarl. He spat, “This isn’t over,” to Sloane, and then threw open the door and left.

Merle snorted. “Yes it is, you moron.” He pulled a cordless phone out from under the counter and dialed. “Go see which way he’s going.”

Sloane realized he was talking to her. She jumped up and looked out the door. “He turned left. Uh, south.”

“Hello? Yeah, I had a guy just now trying to rob my store and threaten one of my customers. Pan’s Blooms, 365 Main. He just left, he’s headed south on Main. Yeah, my customer knows him. His name is…” Merle looked up.

“Marvey Norris,” Sloane provided.

“Marvey Norris, she says. Yeah, we’ve got him on tape.” Merle pointed at a dried bouquet on a shelf behind him, which was very poorly concealing a camera. Sloane grinned. Merle may have smiled back. “Yeah, we can wait around.”

He hung up the phone. Sloane breathed a sigh of relief. “God damn. Thank you, Mr. Highchurch.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, sliding the gun back under the counter. He offered her the phone. “You should probably stay with a friend tonight.”

“Good idea.” Sloane picked up the phone and dialed Hurley, who picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Curly Hurley, it’s me. Could you come pick me up?”

“Yeah, what’s wrong? Where are you?”

“Pan’s Blooms? Downtown? It’s a long story, I’ll tell you when you get here.”

“Sure, Sloane Ranger. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Hurley hung up, and so did Sloane, more slowly. She was shaking, she noticed.

“Boyfriend?” asked Merle.

“Girlfriend,” said Sloane, preparing herself for an uncomfortable conversation. She heard a police car siren in the distance. The police station was only a few blocks away.

“No, this Marvey guy.”

“Oh. No, I told you, I fired him today.”

“What’s a gorilla like that do?”

“He was one of my mechanics. I own Kim’s Cars.”

Merle looked properly surprised. “So, you’re Kim Sloane?”

“Sloane Kim,” she corrected him. She clasped her hands together, trying to stop shaking.

“Here.” Merle reached for the dried bouquet in front of the camera and pulled from one stem a couple of buds of lavender. He held them out to her. “Grind this up and smell them.”

Touched, Sloane accepted the buds and rubbed them in between her fingers. “Thank you.”

“I’d uh...appreciate it...if you didn’t mention this to your friends on the derby team,” he said, waving his hand to indicate the shop. “Especially Lucretia. I have a reputation to uphold.”

Sloane shrugged. “Least I can do.” She of all people understood the importance of reputation.

The bell above the door rang, and Sloane froze, but it was just a cop. She relaxed.

“Evening,” said the cop. “We were called about an attempted robbery?”

“That’s right,” said Merle. “This is the customer he tried to assault.”

The cop pulled out a notebook and a pencil. “Right, and you said you knew the assailant?”

“I could give you the bastard’s W-2,” said Sloane. Next to her, Merle chuckled.

Chapter Text

     Angus screwed up his face in deep concentration. This was it. He’d practiced for several weeks now and he was ready to do a lap on the derby track.

     The bank of it made him nervous. Even the little ramp that led up to the concession stand made him nervous. But Magnus said he could be a ref someday, if he learned to skate, so he had to try.

     He carefully stepped up the stairs in his skates, swung open the little gate in the rail, and took a deep breath. He’d just roll down to the center for starters, and then try to go fast around the inner edge. No big deal. He put one foot forward, ready to take the plunge.

     “Hey, get off the track!”

     Angus started, lost his balance, fell on his backside, and skidded down the bank to the center.

     “Aw, what the he--heck.”

     “Ow,” said Angus, and pulled himself to his feet on one of the benches. Merle appeared at the top of the track stairs.

     “Take off your skates and get up here,” Merle snapped. “This area is for players.”

     “Sorry sir! I thought it would be okay since the bout doesn’t start for--”

     “Listen kid, I said you could use the rink when free skate was closed,” said Merle. “Don’t push your luck.”

     “Sorry,” Angus said again. He plopped down on the bench and yanked off his skates as quickly as he could.

     Merle left the stairs as Angus shuffled up the bank in his sock feet. He was surprised to find two kids in the stands, a girl with glasses and a dirty tow-headed boy. The boy was playing a red Gameboy furiously. The girl was watching Angus with interest.

     “You’re in my math class,” said the girl. “You’re Angus. They say you’re a genius.”

     “I don’t think I am,” said Angus, exiting the little gate and sitting on the steps to get his skates back on. “Your name is Mavis, right?”

     She looked a little self-conscious. “How do you know me?”

     “From when you were called up to the board last week.”

     She made a face. “Don’t remind me.”

     Angus tied his laces carefully. “You got the right answer. I don’t know why Mr. Jenkins got so upset. Just because you did it a different way.”

     Mavis smiled a little. “Yeah. How’d you get to be in Pre-Algebra, anyway? You’re not even a sixth grader.”

     “I told my teacher I was bored in fifth grade math.” He tightened his laces and stood up carefully. “It’s hard, but I like the challenge!”

     “You raise your hand for every question, though,” said Mavis. “You mean you don’t always know the answers?”

     “Sometimes you can learn more from being wrong,” he said.

     The boy groaned, still pushing buttons in a frenzy. “I don’t want to talk about school. I thought this was going to be fun.”

     “Some people like school, Mookie,” said Mavis. “They don’t cause trouble and not do their homework.”

     “School’s dumb. When do we get to see people beating each other up?”

     “You can’t beat people up in roller derby,” said Angus. “At least not anymore. Magnus will kick you out of the game.”

     “The whole sport seems kind of dumb to me,” said Mavis. “Racing around in a circle. Like football on skates.”

     “It’s pretty interesting once you know the rules,” said Angus. “Do you want to watch together?”

     Mavis shrugged. “Okay.”

     “Can I use your skates?” said Mookie.

     Angus felt a pang of terror. “Umm…”

     “Dad said to stay put,” said Mavis.

     Mookie stuck his tongue out at her. Angus was relieved.

 

     “What about the one with the striped helmet?”

     “That’s Noelle. She’s the pivot. A pivot keeps an eye on the movement of the pack and calls plays. She can even become a jammer, if she has to. The jammer just has to pass the...helmet cover with the star on it to the pivot, and suddenly she’s the jammer!”

     Mavis watched with a frown of concentration. “So they could do that if the jammer couldn’t get through.”

     “Yeah!”

     Mookie whooped as Sloane knocked a Goldcliff Golddigger out of bounds. “Hit ‘er again!”

     “That would be a penalty,” said Angus.

     “But it would be awesome ,” said Mookie. “Hey, how did Noelle get her arm and leg cut off?”

     “She says they were lost in a terrible accident,” said Angus. “She doesn’t talk about it much. But she built her leg herself!”

     “Dad has a fake arm, and he hates it,” said Mookie.

     Angus hesitated. This sounded like the sort of thing that was none of his business, but he was curious. “Mr. Highchurch has a prosthesis?”

     “Yeah, from here down.” Mavis indicated the midway point of her upper arm. “He lost it in the army.”

     “Was he in a battle or something?” asked Angus.

     “We don’t really know,” said Mavis. “He doesn’t want to tell.”

     Mookie snickered. “I know.”

     “No you don’t.”

     “Do too! I heard him tell Mr. Boyland once.”

     “What’d he tell Mr. Boyland?”

     Angus felt uncomfortable. This conversation wasn’t for him, but he didn’t feel as though he could politely leave--

     “He said it rotted off!”

     “Eeewww, no he didn’t.”

     “He did! He said if he wasn’t such a cuss cuss moron, his cuss arm wouldn’t have rotted off.” Mookie looked thoughtful. “He was real angry.”

     Mavis looked horrified. “Why?”

     “I don’t know. I went back to bed.”

     “Poor Mr. Highchurch,” said Angus. Mavis and Mookie seemed to remember he was there. Angus panicked. “Sorry, I--”

     “It’s okay,” said Mavis. “Dad is weird about stuff.”

     Angus decided not to pursue the vagueness of this comment and instead turned his attention back to the game. “Oh, look!”

     Julia was caught between two of the Golddiggers’ blockers and out of bounds, with Killian and Hurley off after their jammer just ahead and Carey knocked down somewhere behind. Noelle was coming in fast on the other side of the Golddiggers’ blockers. Julia hung back for a split second, yanked the panty off her helmet and passed it.

     With one fluid motion, Noelle took it with her good hand, slid it over her helmet, and took off past the Golddiggers.

     Mavis, Mookie, and Angus cheered and clapped. “Lookit her go!” crowed Mookie.

     “Hey kids.” Merle scooted between the benches carrying two hot dogs in paper boats. “Behold! Your dinner!”

     “Thanks, dad,” said Mavis, accepting one. Mookie took his with grabby hands and stuffed half of it into his mouth before saying, crumbs spewing, “‘Nks.”

     Angus tried to ignore how good it smelled. It had been dry cereal for dinner today. He watched as Killian plowed through two Golddiggers blockers, then clapped and tried to whistle with his fingers, like Johann did. He succeeded in getting spit on his fingers.

     “Look at that, Mavis,” said Merle. “Would you want to be strong and tough like her someday?”

     Mavis swallowed a bite of hot dog. “Not really.”

     Angus looked at Merle, curious to see what his reaction would be. Merle looked worried. “Why not, sweetheart? You could play on the derby team. You’d have lots of friends.”

     Mavis shrugged. “I don’t really want to play derby.”

     “Oh. Okay.” Merle really did look worried. Angus didn’t understand why. If he’d had a kid, he’d be more worried if she wanted to play derby. Unless she was big and strong like the derby girls were, and “big and strong” weren’t words he’d use to describe Mavis.

     “Do you kids want any drinks?” asked Merle.

     “Can I have a pop?” asked Mookie.

     “Sure, Fireball. Mavis?”

     “I’m okay.”

     “All right.” Merle shot a suspicious look at Angus and left them to watch the rest of the game. Magnus blew the whistle for the half.

     “That’s Magnus, right?” said Mavis.

     “Yes.”

     “It would be so cool to be a referee for this,” said Mookie. “Smash! Bang! All the time.”

     “I want to be ref,” said Angus. “Magnus says if I get good enough at skating I could be.”

     “You know enough about the rules,” said Mavis.

     “What’s he staring at?” said Mookie.

     They looked. He was speeding pretty quickly along the side of the track, looking at the center.

     “I think he’s looking at Miss Julia,” said Angus. And then, “Uh oh--”

     Magnus crashed into Merle, who was coming back with a soda. The soda burst, splashing them both.

     “Aww, my pop!” said Mookie.

     Magnus apologized and hurried away, looking like he was trying to sink into his own skin.

 

     The bout ended with a Golddiggers win, but a narrow one, 64 to 65. Overall a good game, Angus thought. It wouldn’t be too long until Carey and Killian were done in the locker room. Probably not enough time to skate, unfortunately.

     “I see why you like this game so much,” said Mavis. “I think you’ll be a great ref someday.”

     Angus beamed. “That’s so nice of you, Mavis.”

     “Hey, kids.” Merle waddled over to them, carrying a push broom. “We’re leaving just as soon as I sweep up. Why don’t you two go grab a candy from the concession stand?”

     “So late at night?” Mavis asked, but was drowned out by her brother shouting, “Can I have two?”

     Merle chuckled. “Okay, two. Small ones, though, not those big old licorice ropes.”

     Mookie whooped and ran off. Mavis ran after him, saying, “Mookie, wait!”

     Merle turned suddenly on Angus. “Okay, kid, what’s the deal?”

     Angus cringed. “I’m sorry about the track, sir, I really thought it would be okay--”

     “No, not--what are your intentions toward my daughter?”

     “Oh…” Angus searched his intentions. “Um. Nothing? Friendship, I guess?”

     Merle’s eyes narrowed. “How old are you, anyway?”

     “I just turned eleven, sir!”

     “So you don’t go to school with either of them?”

     “I’m in Mavis’ math class, sir.”

     Merle’s eyebrows shot up. “Is she that behind in math?”

     “No, sir. If she keeps passing math classes, she’ll be in Calculus in high school.”

     Merle leaned on his broom. “I see.” He looked back at Angus. “Smart kid, are you?”

     Angus shrugged. “People keep telling me so, sir.”

     Merle considered this, looking Angus over. “All right, tell me something. Why doesn’t Mavis want to join the derby team?”

     Angus screwed up his face in concentration. “From what I’ve observed of her, sir, she isn’t very aggressive. She’s more sensitive.”

     “Sensitive, huh?”

     “Yes, sir. She cried in class last week, sir. But in her defense, Mr. Jenkins is not a very patient teacher.”

     Merle sighed. “How’s she ever going to be tough if she cries about math?”

     Angus hesitated. This could get him in trouble. “Why does she need to be tough, Mr. Highchurch?”

     “Because.” Merle shifted the broom under his other arm. “There are people who’ll hurt her. She’s gotta be tough to survive it.”

     “What people, sir?”

     Merle opened his mouth to answer the question, and then shut it again. He glowered at Angus. “Mind your own damn business.”

     He steered the pushbroom away, muttering under his breath. Angus watched him go, kicking his legs under the bleacher seat.

Chapter Text

     Taako opened his yellow front door and smiled widely as he saw Kravitz waiting on his stoop. He always looked so put together, even in just some jeans and a plain navy t-shirt. Plus he was drop dead handsome too. Damn , Taako thought, wondering how he got so lucky.

     “I just expected you to be in the car,” Taako said, turning to lock the door behind him.

     “My mother always said that only barbarians and yankees honk at the curb. And she didn’t raise me to be either,” Kravitz replied with a smile, holding out his hand. Taako happily took it and they walked down to the car. “Is this okay? You said it was casual.” Kravitz pulled on the front of his shirt. Taako nodded.

     “It’s perfect.”

     Kravitz opened the car door for Taako and after he got in, jogged around to the other side.

     “Now before we get there,” Taako said, turning in his seat to face Kravitz as they pulled away, “there are some things you should know.”

     “...okay.”

     “B.M.G.B.N. is more than just a bowling night. You are going to be part of an elite team of masterminds, you are getting a chance to commune in our inner sanctum.”

     “Carey said that you all drink cheap beer, eat nachos, and then Hurley always wins.”

     “Well...I suppose technically that is what we do. But I just want you to be prepared. You’re not going tonight as Kravitz the documentarian. You’re going tonight as Kravitz, Taako’s new boyfriend.”

     “Ohhh.” Kravitz nodded slowly. “You could have just said that.”

     “That would be far too boring. Now attend, I love my friends. But they’re weird and pushy so I’m sorry ahead of time if they give you the third degree. Be prepared for questions about us, your time in college, your romantic past, your medical history, your intentions towards me, etc.”

     “My med--?” Kravitz looked, wild-eyed, over at Taako as he pulled into the parking lot.

     “Oh, and while this is a very decidedly gay Bi-Monthly Gay Bowling Night, you will be the first date I’ve ever brought with me. So there is that. Let’s go!” He opened the door and jumped out. Kravitz put the car into park and got out. Taako was already at the front door.

     “You coming?” he shouted back.

     “Yeah, hold on. I have to grab my bag.” Kravitz popped the trunk and pulled out his monogrammed bowling bag.

     “You have a bowling bag?” Taako asked when Kravitz finally joined him at the door.

     “You don’t?” Kravitz asked, holding the door open.

     “There you guys are!” Killian said, looking over from the old Paperboy game she was playing. She ran into some virtual bushes and the screen dissolved into green-tinted, ‘You lost. Try Again?’ screen. “We’re over there.”

     The rest of the group already had the end-most lane claimed. Sloane and Carey waved when they saw them. Hurley was dutifully typing in players’ names into the computer.

     “Heads up!” Sloane said, tossing a pair of shoes to Taako. “Size 11’s incoming.” Taako caught one but the other went astray.

     “We weren’t sure of your size, Kravitz.” Carey said. “So we guessed...12’s?” She held up a pair.

     “That’s actually correct.” Kravitz smiled. “But I already have my own.”

     Carey’s eyebrows raised. “People can own their own bowling shoes?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

     Kravitz bit the corner of his mouth, feeling a little self-conscious. “Uh, yeah.”

     “Wow! Cool.” She looked down at his bag. “Here, here, I can put your ball on the stand.” She took the bag from him, and set it down on one of the plastic seats. Carey let out a low whistle when she pulled the ball from the bag. It was black but had streaks of a rainbow of colors in it.

     “Nice, it’s like a goth Pride ball.” Carey said, adding it to the stand.

     “Alright!” Killian clapped her hands together and jumped down the half-step into the chair area. “Beer and nachos are ordered, AND I beat my high score on Dig-Dug.”

     Taako looked up from tying his shoes. “So you got to the third level this time?” He grinned.

     “Still two more levels higher than you, mon frere.” She pointed down at Taako. “I can feel it. This is my night, the night I finally defeat Hurley.”

     Hurley looked up from the keyboard. “In your dreams.” She made a fierce face, then laughed. “Kravitz, what do you want your bowling name to be?”

     Kravitz looked up at the screen. Hurley hadn’t put in any of their actual names, or even their derby names. There was The Hot One, The Good One, Aloha Suckers, Baddest Puta, and a Garryl. He blinked up at the board a few times.

     “Uh...I’m not sure.” he said, tying a double knot on his laces.

     “Well, it can’t be Kravitz. That’s boring.” Carey said. “And one of the rules of B.M.G.B.N.”

     “Ooh, ooh. How about Fancy Feet?” Sloane suggested.

     “Nah, it’s gotta be badass.” Hurley said, drumming her fingers on the plastic console.

     “But you always make mine The Hot One.”

     “‘Cause it’s true, babe. You’re so hot it’s scary.”

     Sloane narrowed her eyes at Hurley, but she blushed anyway.

     “Agent of Death!” Killian declared.

     “Ooh, I like that one. You okay with that, Kravitz?”

     “Yeah, sure.”

     Taako scooted over a seat. “I like it. It’s dangerous...but also sounds like you might wear a tie.”

     “Let’s play ball!” Hurley said, hitting a key. The machine at the end of the lane started up and dropped the pins down.

     Sloane stood and grabbed her ball, lining dutifully up to the lane. Three long strides and she threw the ball down, and it went directly into the left gutter. She twirled around and took a bow as they all clapped for her.

     “Thank you, thank you!” After a minute, she lobbed another gutter ball and then sat down next to Hurley. “We’re off to a great start.” She grinned and kissed Hurley’s cheek.

     “So Kravitz, did you bowl a lot back in Neverwinter?” Killian asked, standing to take the two beer pitchers from the waitress. Hurley was taking a while lining up her shot at the lane.

     “Kind of, I guess. After college, I was part of a league with a couple friends. We were pretty heavily invested there for a couple years, then we all got busy.”

     “Were you good?” she asked, pouring a cup for everyone.

     Kravitz shrugged. “I was okay.”

     Hurley made a spare, and she moon-walked back to the seating area. “The Good One will reign supreme!”

     “Not for long!” Killian took a quick swig of her beer and then hopped up to the lane to take her shot. 6 pins, and a gutter ball. “Okay, so maybe you will,” she said, sitting back down. Carey took her turn and also did a pretty poor job.

     “You may have already guessed, but all of us here suck at bowling. But on Tuesdays it’s $3 for a pitcher and the nachos aren’t half bad,” Killian explained as Taako stood up to take his turn. Double gutter ball for him too.

     “Your turn, Agent Reaper,” Taako said as he passed Kravitz, dragging a hand across his shoulders. Kravitz flexed his hands a few times; they were always cold, but they became frigid if he got nervous. Not that he should be nervous; they were all just there for drinks and a good time. He picked up his ball, and watched the machine release the pins and disappear behind the cosmos patterned wall.

     Deep breath. 1, 2, 3 steps and a smooth release. The ball sped down the lane and hit the 3rd pin. Strike.

     When he turned around, they were all clapping and cheering for him. He sat down next to Taako, who squeezed his shoulder.

     “I was okay,” Killian said in a terrible impression of Kravitz that for some reason had a British accent. She chuckled.

     “You better look out, Hurles. Looks like there’s a interloper aiming for your crown,” Sloane said.

     “We’ll see about that.”

 

     “So how did the B.M.B.G.N. start?” Kravitz asked, reaching for a chip from Taako’s plate.

     “Hey, get your own,” Taako said, pulling his plate away. But Kravitz’ arms were longer, so he still easily snagged a chip.

     “You mean, B.M.G.B.N.,” Sloane corrected him.

     “...yeah. That,” he said, around a mouthful of processed cheese and jalapenos.

     “It was by accident, right?” Carey chimed in.

     “Last year, was it?” Taako said. Killian nodded. “It was supposed to be a bowling night for the whole team, but everyone ended up bailing except for the five of us. We ended up having so much fun that it just sort of became a thing.”

     “Yeah, plus it’s just kinda nice to be with people who understand because, you know,  they’ve been there too,” Carey added.

     Hurley sat down in her seat after her turn and huffed out a breath. It was the fourth frame, and Kravitz was already leading by almost 30 points. Hurley was in second, and the rest of the group was trailing far behind. She was trying to be a good sport about it, but it obviously bugged her.

     “Ooh, I have a fun game!” Carey drummed her hands on the chair seat beneath her. “It’s called, The One Who Made You Realize.”

     Hurley and Taako laughed.

     “Realize what?”

     “Krav, you’re at the Bi-Monthly Gay Bowling Night,” Taako explained.

     “Oh, right.” He smiled sheepishly.

     “I’ll go first,” Sloane said, raising her cup as if for a toast. “1986, Demi Moore. I saw About Last Night when I was way too young. But that’s when I realized.”

     “Gay as hell?” Carey asked.

     “Gay as hell.” They clinked their glasses and giggled.

     “Gillian Anderson,” Killian said, looking off into the middle distance as she waited for her ball to return. “I was obsessed with X-Files, mostly Scully , and I didn’t even realize that not everyone felt that way. It wasn’t till I was talking about it with a friend that I realized that she didn’t see it at all like I did.”

     “Man, you didn’t know till 1993?” Hurley said.

     “I mean, there’s knowing and then there’s knowing , you know?” She turned to take her turn.

     “How about you, Hurley?” Carey asked.

     “There was a girl at a Catholic summer camp I went to in junior high, Andrea Ricci. She made me a friendship bracelet, and we kissed behind the pool shed on the last night. Never saw her again.”

     “ The Outsiders , Rob Lowe,” Taako offered. “The flannel shirt, and the gel. Whew, still gets me.”

     Carey snickered. “Mine was Lynda Carter. Watched Wonder Woman reruns every day after school for three years. Finally realized why in fifth grade.”

     “Alright, Kravitz, you’re the last one.” Killian sat down in Carey’s seat as she left to take her turn.

     “Well, I didn’t have a clue till college. And I just looked over at my freshman year roommate one day and realized that I liked him as more than a friend and had for some time. I never said anything, and he’s married now with three kids. Wish him all the best, but...he was the one.”

     “So are you out?” Carey asked, rejoining the conversation.

     “To my mother, yeah, and friends,” he said, sipping his now lukewarm beer. Taako stood to take his turn. “I don’t know about the rest of the family. They’ve probably already figured it out, but I just haven’t dated anyone that I liked enough to bring him home for them to meet.” He turned to watch Taako take a spectacularly awful turn and he smiled a little. “Well...till now,” he said quietly.

     Killian and Carey still heard and they smiled knowingly at each other.

 

     “Now, wait a second, wait a second,” Kravitz said, leaning forward in his seat and looking intensely into each of their faces. “You’re telling me that not a single one of you has e-mail?”

     It was the 8th frame, and Hurley had managed to narrow the gap between her and Kravitz. He was still several points ahead, but it was within the realm of possibility for her to still win. She was laser-focused on the game. Kravitz, however, was very distracted with the news of Taako and his luddite friends.

      “It’s kind of hard to have e-mail when you don’t have a computer,” Carey said, as she sprawled across several chairs and put her head in Killian’s lap.

     “But-but the internet is the future,” he insisted.

     Killian chuckled. “Come on, the web is neat and all, but it’s just a fad.” She was kidding, but Kravitz didn’t seem to realize that. He sputtered for a few seconds, much to the amusement of the rest of the group.

     “A-...the….It’s not a fad. I mean...it’s just a matter of time before the internet is everywhere.”

     “What would you even do if it was everywhere?” Sloane said, matching Killian’s tone.

     “Everything! You could look up and access all the information that humanity knows! You could connect to friends and family across the globe in an instant! You could shop online! Businesses can sell their goods on the web.”

     “That seems sketchy,” Taako commented.

     “Well, now it’s risky. But the day is coming where that will be the norm. And the businesses that are on the forefront of this wave will benefit from it. Like Sloane, your shop.”

     “No one’s gonna want to buy cars on the web,” she said.

     “Maybe not, but your business should have a website. A portal for a broader audience of potential customers to find out about your shop, get your contact information, and hire you.”

     She scrunched her mouth to one side. “I don’t know if i want just anyone to know about my garage.”

     Taako returned to his seat. “Your turn, Krav.”

     Kravitz sighed and went up to take his turn.

     “Is he okay?” Killian asked Taako quietly. “Usually he’s so mellow.”

     “Oh, yeah. There’s just a couple things that get his feathers all in a bunch. You just happened to find one. Isn’t it adorable?”

     Killian chuckled, and noticed the expression on Carey’s face. It was her thinking face. “Nacho chip for your thoughts?”

     Carey looked up after a moment. “Well, I was just…” Kravitz returned, having bowled a very distracted and terrible frame. “Kravitz, you know who you should talk to about this whole website stuff?”

     “Who?”

     “Magnus. You know, the ref?”

     “I’ve seen him around.”

     “He’s a carpenter and works for a contractor in town. The whole ‘broader audience’ thing would probably appeal to him. Make sense in his line of work. I’ll mention it to him next time I see him.”

     “Okay, yeah! ...Well, anyway point is, you should all get e-mails.” He picked up his beer again. “The day is coming when that’s going to matter more than your home address.”

     “Listen to this crazy man,” Killian joked. “Next thing we know he’ll be saying that everyone’s going to have to have a cellular phone in the future.”

 

     It was the final frame. Hurley had just broken 200, and the rest of the group hadn’t even reached 100. But Kravitz was still yet to bowl. He was just five points behind Hurley’s final score. He flexed his hands a few more times, before picking up the ball.

     “Come on, Kravitz!” Killian cheered.

     Deep breath. 1, 2, 3 steps and a release. However the ball rolled off to the right, and only knocked down 4 pins.

     “Yes!” Hurley hissed, fist pumping.

     “Oh, come on, Hurles. He just has to knock over one more pin, and he hasn’t thrown a gutter ball this whole game,” Carey reasoned as Kravitz waited for his ball to return.

     “Taako, can you help me out here?” Hurley asked.

     Taako glanced sideways at her. “I don’t think that would be very ethical if I did.”

     “B.M.G.B.N. isn’t about ethics, it’s about rules. And rule number 1 is Hurley. Always. Wins. It’s in the bylaws,” she insisted. Kravitz picked up his ball and lined up his shot.

     “What will you give me if I help you?”

     “A medium sized I.O.U.”

     “Make it a large. I am betraying my boyfriend.”

     Kravitz took a deep breath and took his first step.

     “Fine! A large! Please!” Hurley held out her hand, and Taako shook it.

     “HOT BOY!” he called in a loud echoing voice at the last moment. It was just enough to startle Kravitz and the ball fell from his hand. Kravitz turned around to look at Taako, but the rest of them watched the ball roll down the lane. It started down the middle, but then slowly curved to the right and fell into the gutter.

     “YES!! HURLEY. ALWAYS. WINS!!!!” she jumped up and down in the seat several times, jumped off into a somersault and hopped back up. “WOOHOO!”

     Kravitz chuckled and shook his head, coming to stand next to Taako and out of the way of Hurley’s continued celebration. “Hurley always wins, huh?”

     “Sorry, Krav, I don’t make the rules.” Taako shrugged. Kravitz smiled and gave him a kiss.

     “Hey, good game, Hurley,” he held out a hand, which Hurley shook enthusiastically.

     “Yeah, yeah. Good game. Sorry about pulling out the nuclear option there at the end, but you know, all’s fair in love and bowling.”

     Kravitz laughed, and bent down to take off his shoes.

     “Well, what now?” Taako asked. Carey and Killian were putting up the bowling balls.

     “We’re probably gonna head out,” Killian said. “I have an early shift at the gym tomorrow.”

     “Yeah, same for us,” Sloane said, changing her shoes.

     “Aw, come on,” Hurley said, her celebration finally winding down.

     “No, you said that you had to go in early to fill out the insurance paperwork, remember?”

     Hurley sighed. “Fine.”

     “Well, how about you?” Taako said, turning to Kravitz. “Do you have an early shift at the photo...store?”

     Kravitz zipped up his bag and shook his head. “Nope. You want to get some food? We could take it back to my place.” He slipped an arm about Taako’s waist as the group headed for the door.

     “Kravitz, I’m going to be honest with you, and say something that might be hard for you to hear. But it’s only because I like you so much....your apartment makes me sad.”

     Kravitz held open the door. “Why?”

     “Because it’s a beige box of nothing.”

     “It’s not nothing...I have some art...that I haven’t hung up yet...and my iBook...yeah you’re right. It’s terrible.”

     Taako nodded and waved to Carey and Killian as they got in their car. Sloane honked twice as they pulled away. Taako took Kravitz’s hand as they walked to the car.

      “I think I have some leftover rice and a salmon filet, ooh! I could make kedgeree.”

     “So how did I do?” Kravitz asked, opening the passenger side door. “Will I be invited back to the inner sanctum of B.M.G.B.N.?”

     Taako smiled and leaned on the top of the door. “You did perfect.” Kravitz let the door swing a little further open and kissed Taako, brushing his jaw with the backs of his fingertips.

     Taako pulled away after an extended moment, and had to take a deep breath. “That… hmm… yep. Good.” He cleared his throat and sat quickly down into the car, a large smile spreading across his face. Kravitz had a similar one on his own face as he shut the car door.

Chapter Text

     ‘The minds of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertoov rejected this style of working in the mid-1920s, and developed the Russian (or Soviet) Montage.’ Julia stopped typing on her electric typewriter for a second and reread the sentence.

     “Crap,” she whispered. She’d misspelled the last name. She pulled the page out of the carriage and grabbed her wite-out pot. She delicately painted over the extra o and blew on it to dry. This would be so much easier on a computer , she thought for the 18th time that hour. But she had a whole paper to write for her Film Theory class and she didn’t want to spend the entire night in the lab at the college. It always smelled like old Cheetos in there. She put the paper back in the carriage, scrolling it to the correct spot and tried to pick up her train of thought again.

     ‘The point was to draw attention to the camera work, the actors, and especially the editing, all through the juxtaposition of images through the use of montages.’ There was a tapping sound on her window. She looked at it, but there was nothing there. She ignored it and turned back to her paper.

     ‘To an uneducated audience, those who were well trained in watching invisible editing,’ Another plink against her windowpane. Still there was nothing there, so she kept typing. ‘watching Battleship Potemkin was a jarring experience.’ Another tap at her window, and Julia turned to look just as another small pebble came up and tapped against the glass.

     Furrowing her brow, she stood up and went to the window. She raised the blinds and looked down to see Magnus, arm raised and ready to throw another pebble. She smiled and waved, opening the window.

     “What are you doing?” she asked, folding her arms and resting them on the sill.

     “I wondered if you wanted to go to Chi-chi’s?” he asked, dropping the pebbles on the ground and dusting off his hands.

     “You could come to my front door, like the grown-ass adults we both are,” she said, smiling.

     Magnus nodded and put his hands in his pockets. “Honestly, that thought never occurred to me.”

     Julia laughed, and left the window, shutting it behind her. She grabbed her keys and a few bucks, slipping on her converse as she rushed out the front door. Magnus was waiting around the corner of the building, swinging his van keys on his finger. He dropped them when she came into view.

     “Alriiiiight. Chi-chi’s, let’s go!” he stooped down to pick up his keys.

     “I’m technically supposed to be working on a paper.”

     “So just time for the one Chi, got it.”

     Julia laughed, and shook her head. “You’re weird.”

     “But loveable.” He finger-gunned her and winked. Julia looked away and felt her cheeks grow warm. “So you wanna drive?” he asked.

     “Actually, do you know the back way?”

     “There’s a back way?”

     Julia grinned and started walking around the back corner of the building. “Follow me.” There was a gravel parking lot, if one could call it that, behind her apartment building. Then a field of tall grass, which ended in some woods. Julia headed straight into the treeline.

     “Kinda feel like you’re going to murder me now. They’ll find my body in three days and my tongue will be missing or something,” Magnus said, his foot slipping off a rock and catching himself on a tree.

     “Oh please,” Julia said, stepping over a fallen tree and sounding a little too casual for comfort. “If I wanted to murder you, they’d never find the body.”

     The woods ended suddenly, as space had been cleared for the train tracks that ran through town. “Welcome to the back way.” Julia pointed right. “Down that way is the rink.”

     “Oh, these are the tracks that run behind it.”

     Julia nodded. “Yup. And Chi-chi’s is this way.” She started to the left, her footsteps crunching in the gravel by the tracks. “It’s only about half a mile when you go this way. Me and my friends would do this all the time in high school before any of us had cars.”

     “So you’ve been here for a long time?” Magnus asked, falling into step beside her.

     “My whole life.” She reached down and picked a Queen Anne’s Lace as she passed by. The sun was setting behind them, painting the sky with pinks and oranges and just the faintest hints of navy. “When I was a kid, I always thought that as soon as I graduated I’d get out of this little podunk town. You can see how well that happened.”

     “What stopped you?”

     She picked a bit from the flower and let it flutter to the ground. “Money, mostly. And right when I graduated, my auntie, who was like a second mom, she got sick. So I stayed around to help take care of her.” Julia noticed the look of concern on Magnus’ face. “Oh, she’s fine now. Been in remission for, what, 7 years. Plus she met her husband in the cancer ward. So it all kinda turned out for the best.”

     “Except you’re still here.”

     “For now, yeah. Next year I’ll have my degree, finally. I’ll figure out what I want to do then.”

     “So let’s say that money is no object, what would your dream job be?”

     Julia thought for a moment. “Can I say heiress?” She grinned and laughed at her own joke. Magnus rolled his eyes, but smiled too.

     “Fine, I was just trying to start some interesting conversation--” he said in mock exasperation.

     “No, wait wait wait, I got it: a witch who lives in a gingerbread house in the forest. But instead of eating the children, I just feed them a bunch of candy and send them back to their parents all sugar high.”

     “I’m ignoring you,” Magnus said, walking faster. Julia jogged to keep up, grabbing his arm so he’d slow down.

     “Alright fine, you tell me yours and I’ll try and think of an acceptable one.”

     He looked at her with eyes narrowed, before snapping into an excited expression. “Okay, I think I’d be a pretty good knight.”

     Julia stopped in her tracks. “A knight? Like with swords and armor and stuff?”

     Magnus nodded, smiling earnestly. “Yeah! Knights are so cool, they save people and fight for justice. Get to ride around on horses and...you know...other knight stuff.”

     Julia started walking again, “What about something from this century?”

     “Hey, I said money was no object. Knight is a valid answer.”

     “Knight is as valid as candy witch.” She pointed a finger up at him. He sucked in the corner of his mouth.

     “Well...if I can’t be a knight…I’d probably be a carpenter.”

     “But you are a carpenter.”

     “Yeah.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “And I like being one.”

     Julia looked up at him, her eyebrows furrowed. “You really like it here, don’t you?”

     Magnus nodded, looking down at her. “Of course. I have a steady job, a roof over my head, good friends, a fun hobby, and you...gurt.” He winced but powered through his thought, “What more do you really need in life?”

     Julia looked away, and thought about what he said. “Huh.” She continued walking. Magnus fell back into step with her.

     “You didn’t say what job you wanted.”

     “Oh, right.” She tossed the remaining stem to the ground. “Money’s no object, right?”

     “Right. Sky’s the limit, spread your wings and fly away .” He snapped his fingers and sang in a purposefully awful R. Kelly impression. “ I believe I can sooooarrrr, I see me running through that open doo-o-o-or!

     “Oh, god, please, no,” she said, laughing at his falsetto attempt. He grinned and took a bow.

     “Okay, sorry, I’ll stop goofin’. So what’s the dream?”

     “If I could be anything...I’d want to be like Billie Holiday.” She nodded and smiled a little.

     “Who’s he?” Magnus asked. Julia looked at him with a shocked expression.

     “Billie Holiday? You don’t know her? She’s one of the most influential jazz singers of the 20th century.”

     “Ohhh, yeah, I don’t listen to a lot of jazz.” he offered. She shook her head.

     “You should. Jazz is the only truly American music style.”

     “What about disco? That was pretty American.”

     “I’m not sure that even qualifies as music,” she teased, crossing the tracks and heading for the sparse woods on the other side.

     “Hey! Them’s fightin’ words!” he called after her, before running to catch up to her.

     Chi-chi’s was the only fast food Mexican joint in town. It was a crumbling corporate pueblo-styled building from the early 80s that had mauve sombreros and other horrifying mashups decorating the interior. But it had 75¢ tacos and long business hours, so it remained open.

     Magnus and Julia stayed till the employees asked them to leave. They’d spent hours talking, but it felt like no time had even passed.

     “I still have my whole paper to write,” Julia groaned as they reached the stairs to her apartment. She stood on the first step and leaned back against the railing. Magnus leaned against the other railing.

     “Just tell your professor that your friend Magnus couldn’t go get tacos alone and you had to keep him company. That’s a very reasonable excuse, I’m sure she’ll understand.”

     They both laughed and sighed. When their gazes met again, the moment suddenly changed. It felt like the few feet between them was somehow both a mile wide and a hair’s breadth apart. Every hair follicle was thrumming with anticipation. Magnus broke the moment when he blinked and looked away, clearing his throat.

     “Well, you should ...probably get to your paper.”

     “Yeah, right,” she replied, suddenly finding herself out of breath. She swallowed hard and took the next step up. “Good night,” she said, waving a little and jogging up the stairs.

     Magnus waited till she was safely indoors before he turned and headed for his van. He ran a hand through his hair and took several deep breaths. He had to start keeping a better lid on those feelings; he almost did something really stupid just then at the stairs. Besides, she doesn’t even think of you like that, he reminded himself as he started the van and drove away.

     Julia watched Magnus’ van pull away through the crack she’d pulled in the blinds. She let them snap back into place and stood in the dark of her room for a second. Surely she hadn’t misread that moment on the stairs. It hadn’t just been her that time, right? Did he feel something too? Don’t go mixing up what you want with what’s actually happening, she told herself, flicking on the light and sitting down to write again.

Chapter Text

     Julia shimmied and jumped around her childhood bedroom, trying to pull the top of her pantyhose up to an acceptable location. The fishnets she wore for games never gave her this much trouble, she thought as she stopped to catch her breath. She went for one final tug, and her hand slipped off, smacking a picture frame off the dresser.

      “Crap,” she said quietly, picking it up and replacing it. It wasn’t broken, which was both good because Auntie Josephine wouldn’t fuss over it, and bad because it was a particularly awkward photo of Julia. Twelve years old, a mouth full of braces, hair very frizzy from the at-home Farrah Fawcett treatment she’d tried, and proudly displaying a short story she had written. A story about horses.

      “Everything okay in there?” Josephine called from the other side of the door.

     “Yes, just a second.” Julia pulled the skirt back into place on the dress, and slipped into the heels she was wearing. She stopped to look in the mirror on the back of the door. The entire outfit was borrowed. The shoes were Auntie Josephine’s, the necklace and earrings came from her neighbor, and the dress was, at one point, her mother’s. However, her mother had been a bustier woman than Julia was, so Julia ended up fussing with the cowl neckline, trying to get it to do something that would be acceptable in public. The black velvet was not complying.

     “I’m coming in,” Josephine said, pushing the door open.

     Julia jumped back out of the way, then held out her arms a little. “What do you think?” She twitched her mouth to the side.

     Josephine brought a hand up to her mouth. “You look as pretty as a picture,” she said, smiling broadly. “What you gonna do with your hair, baby girl?”

     “Um, leave it like this…?” Julia had let her curls simply lay where they fell. Josephine made a shocked face. “Or let you do something with it?”

     Josephine nodded, heading over to the table that was part desk, part vanity. Julia sat in the chair and picked up a few bobby pins, holding them up for her aunt to reach. Josephine chuckled a little.

     “Reminds me of when your daddy brought you over that first time.” Josephine finger-combed Julia’s hair back and away from her face. Julia smiled.

     “Dad had no idea how to braid my hair.”

     “I said, ‘Steven, you’re my brother and I love you. But you need help with this baby’s hair. She’s gonna look like a wild child if we don’t fix this now.’” They both laughed a little. But Julia’s thoughts drifted to the plans for the evening, and she began to frown.

     “Nervous?” Josephine asked, looking at Julia through the mirror and sweeping the hair up with a deft twist. She took a pin from Julia’s hand.

     “A little. I don’t know if Johann and I have practiced everything enough. Plus, you guys are making such a big deal about this.” Julia’s head rocked forward as Josephine anchored another pin in the twist. “It’s just Uncle Arnie’s club, it’s not Radio City Music Hall.”

     “Honey, for this town, my Arnie’s club is Radio City Music Hall. Hold your breath.” Josephine quickly blew on a layer of hairspray, then pulled a few hairs around Julia’s face out from the sweep. “What you think?” Julia turned her head side to side; Josephine had pulled her hair up into a very sophisticated french twist. It made her neck look longer. Julia smiled.

     “I look like Whitney Houston.”

     “Whitney Houston wishes she looked like you.” Josephine leaned over and opened on of the drawers. She pulled out a small bottle, and handed it to Julia. “Here. Your grandma’s perfume always helped me when I got nervous before a show.”

     Julia spritzed a little on her wrists and neck. She rubbed them together and inhaled the lavender scent. Memories of baking snickerdoodle cookies together, caring dutifully for baby dolls, and reading Dr. Suess books in that old rocking chair immediately sprang to mind. She smiled.

     “Better?” Josephine asked, smiling too.

     Julia nodded.

     “Are you decent?” Steven called from down the hall. “We better be heading out soon, or we’re going to be late.”

     “Come see your baby girl, Stevie,” Josephine yelled back. Steven cautiously entered the room, and Julia stood up. His eyes immediately teared up, and he nodded. He coughed and laughed a little hoarsely.

     “She looks so much like Ella,” Steven said. Josephine nodded and they shared a smile. Julia turned back to the mirror. Her relatives were always saying that she looked like her mom, but Julia never really believed them. She always remembered her mother as much prettier than Julia had turned out to be. Though in this moment, in this dress, she could almost see it. Steven came up behind her. “She’d be very proud of you.”

     “Dad, you promised you wouldn’t cry.”

     He smiled and nodded. “And I’m not. We should be leaving now; Arnie doesn’t like it when his performers are late.”

     Steven and Josephine left the room, but Julia took another minute in front of the mirror. Deep breath; she could do this.

 

     Uncle Arnie’s club was right in the middle of the four blocks of downtown their little city boasted. It had a bright blue neon sign above it that just said, ‘Jazz’ in looping font. You had to immediately walk down a flight of stairs, but then it opened into a large room with darkened lighting, red leather booths surrounding the edge, round tables scattered across the floor and always a crowd of customers. There was a band already on the stage when Julia, Steven, and Josephine arrived, and a large crowd in the audience. A very large crowd, most of whom Julia both recognized and looked like.

     “Did you invite the family?” she asked, turning back around to Josephine.

     “I may have mentioned it and they wanted to be here.”

     “Auntie Josephine, I didn’t tell anyone ‘cause I’m worried it’s going to be bad. And I wanted to embarrass myself in front of the least amount of people.”

     “Hey, Julia!” Uncle Arnie said, appearing at Josephine’s side. He pressed a kiss to her cheek, and helped her with her coat. “We got a big crowd of people just for you.”

     “Is there a way we could call the Fire Marshall or something? I mean, surely this is too many people at one time.”

     “You could ask him, he’s right over there.” Arnie held up a hand. “Hey Paul.” Paul waved back.

     Julia frowned and shoved her hands in her jacket pockets, realizing that there was really no way out of this situation, only through it.

     “Oh, Julia, two things. One, you’re on after this act. And two, does that skinny white boy in the $400 suit belong to you?” Arnie pointed over to the bar, where a jumpy Johann was nursing something in a tall glass. Julia headed over towards him.

     “Be sure to take off your biker jacket before you sing!” Josephine called after her as she left.

     “Hey,” Julia said, sitting next to Johann, who immediately looked relieved.

     “Oh, you came. I was so worried.”

     “Of course I came. Why, how long have you been here?”

     “Since it opened at four.” Johann nodded quickly, taking a drink. Julia nodded slowly, looking out over the crowd. She waved at some cousins.

     “My entire family is here,” she said, smiling but with a panicked look in her eyes.

     “Hey that’s great! I invited everybody else.”

     “What do you mean everybody else?” She turned abruptly to look at him.

     “Friends from derby. Though I think I only got one person who said they’d come see me perform. So it’s good your family’s here. Nice to have fans in the audience.”

 

     Magnus pushed open the door to the club, and walked down the stairs. The band on the stage finished a loud chord and the whole place broke out in applause. He scanned the large room, but didn’t see Johann or even a single person who looked vaguely familiar. He’d dubiously accepted Johann’s invitation; it seemed like the sort of thing friends do, though Magnus definitely expected more of a coffeehouse open mic night if Johann’s karaoke skills were anything to go on. This place was classy and the band sounded downright professional.

     He took a seat at one of the few open tables that was off to the far right. A waiter came by and he ordered a whiskey as the band left the stage. He drummed his fingers on the table and continued to look for Johann. There was no sign of him. Magnus decided that if he couldn’t find him by the time he’d finished his drink, he could call it. No use sitting in a club by himself all night.

     “Alright, alright, let’s hear it one more time for Neverwinter Jazz Quintet.” A lanky man in a dapper navy suit hopped onto the stage, holding a microphone, as the audience applauded again. “Thanks for coming out here tonight, fellas. And thank you to all of you for joining me here at Arnie’s. I am, of course, Arnie.” He smiled a charming grin and winked. The audience laughed and there were a few whistles. “And I have a spectacular line up for y’all tonight. To kick it off, we have our first act. Now, I’ve known half of this act for quite a few years now, ever since I married her aunt Josephine.” He pointed into the audience and winked as there was a ‘whoop’, probably from Josephine. “And the other half, I had the pleasure of meeting this evening. But I can already tell you this is gonna be a good one, folks. You ready?” The audience gave a loud cheer, and Magnus took a sip of his whiskey. “Alright, appearing for the first time at Arnie’s, it’s Johann and Julia!!”

     Magnus spat part of the whiskey back into the glass, and inhaled the other half. He coughed as the audience clapped and cheered. Julia and Johann walked out on stage, and Magnus’ mouth fell open. Arnie whispered something in Julia’s ear and she nodded, taking her place behind the microphone next to the piano. Johann sat at the keys and looked up at her. She nodded to him, and he immediately launched into a jazzy upbeat tune.

     Magnus couldn’t take his eyes away from Julia. She was always beautiful to him, but the way she looked right now, he didn’t have the words to describe. She smiled shyly at the audience and brought a slightly shaking hand up to the mic.

The way you wear your hat,

The way you sip your tea.

The memory of all that

Oh, no, they can’t take that away from me.

     He could tell she was nervous, but as she continued, she got more confident and her tone grew smoother. Her voice was rich, and warm. He knew she was a good singer from karaoke, but that didn’t even compare to how she sounded now. Magnus never wanted her to stop singing. His toes kept curling inside his shoes and he had to remind himself to breathe more than once. Right now, it was more than just that she was the most beautiful woman Magnus had ever seen. She was radiant, glowing with confidence and joy.

     She beamed and her shoulders visibly relaxed as the song finished and the crowd cheered.

     “Say, that was pretty good, Johann,” she said.

     “You think so?” he said, fanning his face in an exaggerated way. “I feel red as a to-mah-to.”

     She shot him a look. “Do you mean to-may-to?”

     “That’s what I said, to-mah-to.”

     Julia pulled a face. “You know, I don’t think this is working, let’s call the whole thing off.”

     “Well not before we sing about it,” said Johann.

     The audience laughed, and Johann began to play and sing,

You say to-may-to

I say to-mah-to

You say po-tay-to

And I say po-tah-to

     Julia took it over:

To-may-to, to-mah-to

Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to

Let’s call the whole thing off.

     Johann’s voice was a little whitebread for the style, but they worked well together, harmonized great. Magnus was hardly a jazz aficionado, but it was easy to tell Julia’d had formal training. Or maybe she was just that good.

     They sang a few more songs, sometimes with jokes in between. They seemed to be keeping things deliberately playful and not romantic between them; when Julia sang love songs, she sang them to the audience. Break-up songs, on the other hand, they sang together, playing up awkwardness.

     “ I thought I’d found a man I could trust ,” sang Julia at one point, and Johann feigned a look of grave offense.

What a bust!

This is how the story ends,

I’m gonna turn him down and say

‘Can’t we be friends.’

     The whole bit had the audience in stitches, Magnus included. He’d always liked the aesthetic of jazz. He’d had this book when he was a kid, just a crappy pulp novel he’d found in a library’s cast-off pile, about a noir detective and a lounge singer.

     God, he hadn’t thought about that for a while. Maybe he still had it somewhere. Or no, his mom had taken it, because she’d cracked open to a random page and--

     Oh, yes. It had been that kind of pulp novel. Thirteen-year-old Magnus had found it very educational. Funny that he should think of it now.

     “We’ll be taking a little break after this next song,” said Julia, “but first, look around you. Find someone you love. This song is for you.”

     Her words drew him in. He finished off his whiskey and listened intently.

     Johann played something slow and quiet. Julia closed her eyes, swaying a little, and sang,

After one whole quart of brandy

Like a daisy, I'm awake

With no Bromo-Seltzer handy

I don't even shake...

     Magnus nearly fell off his chair. That was the song, the song from the book!

Men are not a new sensation

I've done pretty well I think

But this half-pint imitation

Put me on the blink.

     Magnus felt the blush creeping up his neck. Now he remembered all kinds of things he’d imagined as a teenager, himself as a manly, mysterious noir detective, meeting a sexy lounge singer in the dead of night...

I'm wild again, beguiled again

A simpering, whimpering child again

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered

Am I ...

     And now, suddenly, the lounge singer had a face, a voice, a--oh god--a body. Mortified, Magnus covered his mouth with his hand and stared at the table for the remainder of the song.

     Johann’s last note died away, and the club burst into applause. Magnus buried his head in his hands. Of all the places, for all the people, why did he have to have such a vivid set of images in his mind now?

     “Magnus!”

     Magnus looked up. Johann meandered over from the stage.

     “Thanks for coming,” said Johann. “It’s nice to have a familiar face in the house.”

     Magnus would have paid big money to see no familiar faces ever again. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

     Johann looked at him quizzically. “Are you okay?”

     “Great,” Magnus yawped.

     “Cool, cool. Hey, Julia will want to know you’re here. I’ll bring her over.”

     “No!”

     Johann blinked. “Why not?”

     Magnus got up and ran, calling behind him, “I have to go!”

     Johann looked after him, mystified, and then looked at his empty glass on the table. “Hey!” he yelled. “Magnus, did you even pay your bill?”

     But Magnus was gone.

 

     Julia tore herself away from a cousin reunion when Johann came back to the stage. “How much time do we have left?”

     Johann checked his watch. “Another minute or two before the second set.”

     “Great, I can say hello to whoever came from the B.o.B.” She stood on tiptoes and scanned the restaurant. “Who did you say it was?”

     “Oh, Magnus.”

     Julia froze. “...Magnus is here?”

     Johann shrugged. “He was. He just left.”

     She turned to face Johann. “What? Why?”

     “I don’t know. It was kind of weird.”

     Julia sputtered. “Well, did he say anything?”

     “No, he just ran out. Stuck me with his bill, too. Why does he keep doing that?”

     “Johann.” She grabbed him by the shoulders. “This is very important. Was he upset? Angry? Bored? What?”

     Johann leaned away from her. “I don’t know! He didn’t seem bored--”

     “Give me something, Johann, anything!”

     He furrowed his brow in concentration. “I don’t know, maybe he looked kinda--” Johann’s face fell into an epiphany-- “turned on?”

     Julia’s jaw dropped. “I’m sorry, what ?”

     “Time for you to go back on,” interrupted the cheerful voice of Uncle Arnie. His smile dissolved when he saw the looks on their faces. “You two having problems?”

     Julia released Johann. “No. No, we’re fine.”

     Johann brushed the wrinkles out of his suit. “We’re ready. Come on, Julia.”

     “But--”

     “The show must go on,” Johann said, as though intoning sacred text. “We can deal with Magnus later.”

     “ We ?” Julia squeaked.

     He was already sitting back down at the piano. Julia stared wild-eyed at the stage. She couldn’t possibly--

     No. No. She had to. She would finish the set. She would completely ignore this turn of events. Julia took her place onstage. She could do this. Focus. Focus.

     “Julia?”

     Her head snapped up. “Sorry?”

     “I said,” said Johann, “you seem distracted.”

     The audience laughed. Julia took a deep breath. “Sorry, I was far away.”

     “Must’ve been pretty far,” said Johann.

     “It was. A little place called Birdland.”

 

     Magnus leaned against his van and watched the stars come out. Maybe he’d wait a little longer.

     He’d started by dumping a bottle of water on his head, which helped. Then, of course, his good shirt was all wet. He’d tried to dry off with a towel from the back, which only meant that now he was damp and covered in sawdust. And embarrassed, don’t forget embarrassed.

     It was probably for the best he couldn’t go back in, he reflected. So he’d wait out here. He had to at least tell them he’d enjoyed their act.

     Maybe not specifically how much he’d enjoyed their act, but still.

     Unfortunately, when Julia emerged, it was in a group of family members. He sighed. Oh well. He’d just talk to Johann tomorrow.

     But as he opened the door of his van, he heard Julia say, “Hey, I’ll catch up with you guys.”

     He turned. She was coming toward him. He tried his best to look nonchalant. “Hey.”

     “Hi.” Julia, for her part, tried to look him in the eye instead of at the ridiculous dusty shirt he was wearing. Had he worn that inside? “Um. You’re still here.”

     “Yeah,” he said sheepishly.

     “Johann told me you’d left?”

     Magnus stopped himself from saying something stupid. “I uh, spilled something on myself.”

     Julia glanced at his hair, which was wet. “On your head?”

     “Yeah…”

     They were quiet for a moment, neither looking at the other.

     “It was a great show,” he said. “The first half, anyway. You’re a really good singer.”

     Julia relaxed a little. “You think so?”

     “Yeah,” he said, relaxing himself.

     “I was so nervous,” she said.

     “After the first song, I couldn’t even tell.”

     She smiled, and Magnus’ heart danced. Well, it was now or never. Time to rush in.

     “Hey,” he said, “I was thinking--”

     He was interrupted by Julia’s hand on his neck, pulling his head--his lips--to hers in a kiss.

     He wrapped her in his arms and kissed her back.

     The stars were out now.

     After a moment that seemed both too long and never, never long enough, Julia released his neck.

     “I should… get to my family,” she said, her voice breathy and low.

     “Okay,” he managed, even though he felt like all the air had been sucked out of the world.

     She laughed, softly. “You’ll have to let me go, then.”

     He dragged his arms to his sides, and then brushed a curl from her face. “That was…”

     “Yeah,” she agreed.

     “I’ll, um.” He swallowed. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

     “Yes. Oh! Yes. At practice.”

     “After practice?”

     She smiled, and his knees went weak. “After practice.”

     She left. Magnus fell back against his van and ran his hand through his hair, and laughed.

Chapter Text

     Julia kept a straight face. She kept it when she rejoined her family around the corner. She kept it through the celebratory drink they took her out for afterwards. She kept it the whole ride home. She felt like cracks might be forming in her face as she said the quickest good-bye possible, claiming homework and important practices and work in the morning, anything to get her back into her apartment.

     But soon enough she was pounding up the stairs, her hands shaking as she argued with the lock on the front door. It took her several tries to get it open. Then she slammed the door shut behind her and finally --FINALLY-- she was alone.

     In the quiet dark of her empty apartment, she took a deep breath and kicked off her heels. Wow. That had actually happened. She had kissed Magnus Burnsides. And Magnus Burnsides had kissed her back. All at once the emotions she’d been keeping a lid on since the kiss suddenly sprang forth. Letting out a joyful shriek, she lept into the air, and spun around in a circle, like she was in a damn tampon commercial. She had kissed Magnus. And Magnus had kissed her. She walked quickly around her small living room for several minutes, shaking her hands and smiling so wide that it felt like her face might combust. She felt like she could run forever or jump to the moon. She’d kissed Magnus! Magnus had kissed her! She had to talk to someone.

     She grabbed the phone and quickly typed in a number with shaking hands.

     “This is Lucre-”

     “MAGNUS AND I KISSED,” Julia interjected, not able to contain herself any longer.

     “Wait, what??

     “We kissed! We kissed! We kissed!!! Magnus and I!! We kissed!” Julia practically sang, jumping up and down in her kitchen. Every time she repeated it, her heart grew brighter.

     “Okay, calm down,” Lucretia said, laughing.

     “Calm?!! I can’t be calm!! Did you hear me?? We kissed!” She plopped down to sit on the floor of her kitchen, keening joyfully. She slipped her stocking feet back and forth against the linoleum, and slapped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from repeating the words over and over again.

     “So, do you want to tell me the whole story?” Lucretia said in a very amused tone.

     “Yes, please!” Julia launched into the story of the whole evening, sparing absolutely no detail. Every moment, every emotion, every breath was carefully combed over and examined. Lucretia listened, asking just the right questions, and graciously letting Julia just giggle for several minutes in a row. When she finished, Julia let out a breath and fell over the rest of the way onto her floor. The cool linoleum and the fact that she’d finally been able to tell someone was helping her calm down.

     “I just… I’m really happy right now,” she said, a large smile still on her face.

     “So you really like him, huh?”

     “I do… I haven’t felt this way in a very long time, if I’ve ever even felt this before.”

     “Magnus is a good guy.”

     “Yeah, he is,” she repeated dreamily.

     “When are you going to see him next?”

     “After practice.”

     Lucretia chuckled. “So I guess you have some phone calls to make if you’re going to tell everyone before tomorrow evening.”

     “Actually, I figured I would just have to call one more person.”

 

     There were a lot of things about Taako’s apartment that Kravitz really liked. Taako had the softest sheets he’d ever felt in his life. When he’d stay over, Taako would bake scones in the morning and they’d eat them while watching reruns of old Looney Tunes on his staticky television. And it always smelled nice, like pomegranates and eucalyptus and flour. But if there was one thing that Kravitz would change about Taako’s apartment, it would be the fact that he kept his phone right by the bed. And that phone had a habit of ringing at odd hours of the night.

     So when it started ringing at 12:17 in the morning, Kravitz had half a mind to toss it out the window and gleefully watch it smash into oblivion on the street below. But Taako was faster than he was; Taako had leapt half across Kravitz and was now lying perpendicular on Kravitz’s stomach, the blasted phone already in hand.

     “Yello?” he said, sounding much more awake than Kravitz felt.

     “Taako, I can’t breathe,” he mumbled. Taako waved a hand to shush him.

     “Jules, can you repeat that?”

     “Tell Julia to call back in the morning,” Kravitz said, pulling the pillow up and over his head. Why couldn’t people call at normal times of the day? Surely nothing was that important.

     “You WHAT?” Taako shouted, pushing himself up to sitting. Kravitz let out an ‘OOF’ as he suddenly had Taako’s hand where his diaphragm used to be. “OH MY GOD, I KNEW IT. I called it! I totally called it. Kravitz, tell her I called it!” He took the pillow off Kravitz’ head and held the phone out. He grumpily put it up to his ear.

     “I’m sure whatever it is, Taako did in fact call it. Goodnight, Julia.” He hung up the phone and put it back on the nightstand.

     “Wait, what are you doing?” Taako scrambled across Kravitz and picked back up the phone, hitting redial and turning on the lamp. Kravitz groaned and pulled the pillow back over his head. “Julia? Sorry about that, Kravitz is not a morning person. Now, tell me everything. I want every infinitesimal detail.”

     Somewhere in the next 45 minutes, Kravitz ended up drifting back off to sleep, which was pretty impressive, given how Taako was pacing about the apartment, alternately tripping over shoes and yelling with Julia. From what he gathered before he fell back asleep, Kravitz guessed that Magnus and Julia had finally bitten the bullet and gotten together. Bully for them , he thought, now let me sleep .

     However the sound of Taako’s keys jingling woke Kravitz back up. He cracked an eye open to see Taako in a very old red skort with a 1992 Neverwinter Pride button on the butt, and an unbuttoned faded tropical print shirt. Taako was shaking out a paisley patterned blanket, and the keys fell out and smacked onto the floor.

     “Ah-ha!” he said, quickly grabbing them and heading for the stairs to the front door.

     “Where are you going?” Kravitz asked, sitting up and fully awake now.

     “I have to tell everyone!” he said, rushing down the stairs and out the door. Kravitz jumped out of bed after him.

     “Taako! You don’t even have on shoes!!”

 

     Magnus hopped into his van. He tapped the steering wheel manically with his thumbs. That had really happened. That had really happened!

     He pumped his fist. “YES!”

     He could jump off of buildings. He could break bricks with his head. Anything was possible because Julia had kissed him, and he’d got to kiss her back.

     He leaned into the steering wheel, laughing breathlessly. He had to do something! Anything! Something dumb, maybe! Going home to his depressing, cold apartment was out of the question.

     He started up his van and drove to Avi’s.

     The van flew as if powered by the glow in his own chest, and he only almost got into a wreck once.

     He leapt up the walk to Avi’s front door and pounded. “Aviii!”

     Avi opened the door quicker than Magnus expected, wearing sweatpants and no shirt. “Magnus? What’s wrong?”

     “Nothing’s wrong, nothing could be wrong, ‘cause--”

     “Sssh!” Avi stepped out onto the stoop and closed the door most of the way behind him. “Tony’s sleeping.”

     “Who’s Tony?” said Magnus.

     “Have you never met Tony?” Avi looked perplexed. “Do you ever assume that all your friends know each other? I’ll have to introduce you later. But anyway--”

     “Julia kissed me,” Magnus blurted. “She kissed me! I never thought--like I didn’t even hope --but she likes me!”

     “My man!” Avi slapped him on the back. “We should go out right now .”

     “What about Tony?”

     “I’ll leave her a note. We’ve gotta celebrate this!”

 

     Refuge didn’t have set closing hours; Ren tended to kick everyone out by sometime around 1am, although she’d stay open for special occasions, like when Magnus burst in and declared he was buying a round.

     The ten people left in the pub cheered. Ren rolled her eyes and pulled out more glasses.

     “Tell me how it happened,” said Avi, scooting onto a chair at the bar. “Oh, look, there’s Sloane.” He waved.

     Sloane was turned toward the wall of a booth. She waved, and then turned back inward.

     Magnus hesitated, kept his voice low. “I’m kind of worried what the B.o.B. will think. They’re so protective, and--”

     “I would not worry about it, dude,” said Avi. “They have a betting pool.”

     Magnus was both relieved and offended. “They thought we’d--”

     “We all did, man, it was really just a matter of time.”

     Magnus considered. “Who won?”

     Avi shrugged. “Probably Killian. She always wins.”

     Magnus took a long drink of his beer. “I just can’t believe we kissed.”

     “You did WHAT??” Hurley appeared behind Sloane, face covered in Sloane’s lipstick, clambering over her girlfriend to the bar. “I knew it! I KNEW IT!”

     Sloane followed her and smiled sweetly at Magnus. “Thank you, I just won the pool.”

     “Ohhh no you didn’t,” said Hurley. “I won. It’s like two weeks over your date.”

     “It’s still way closer than your date,” said Sloane.

     “I thought we were doing Price is Right rules!”

     “We have never done that.”

     Avi raised his glass to Magnus. “See? Even her friends like you.”

     “Ren!” The door burst open again, and Taako ran in half-dressed to the bar. “Ren you’ll never guess--”

     “Magnus and Julia kissed,” said Ren. “Oh my god, Taako, where are your shoes?”

     “Taako!” Kravitz appeared in the doorway in grey silk pajamas and Oxfords, holding a pair of flip-flops in the air. “For the love of god--”

     Taako spotted Magnus, Avi, and the bickering Hurley and Sloane. “What the hell, guys, I wanted to tell everyone!”

     Magnus was overwhelmed. Julia’s friends, who cared about her so much, thought they were destined for each other. He wrapped Taako in a hug. “I didn’t know you cared!”

     Taako stiffly patted him on the back. “Uhhhhhh the drama, my dude. I love the drama. Now maybe don’t…”

     Mangus released him, and Kravitz moved in, shoving the shoes into his stomach. “I swear, if I wasn’t here, you’d run around naked--”

     “Thanks, babe.” Taako said, holding onto Kravitz’s shoulder as he slipped on the flip flops. Kravitz looked moderately satisfied and sat down next to Hurley at the bar.

     “Gin and tonic, please, Ren.”

     “Taako, tell Hurley I won the bet,” said Sloane.

     “It depends, are we playing Price is Right rules?” said Taako.

     She threw up her hands. “When have we ever done that?”

     Magnus sat back down, watching his friends, feeling a high that wasn’t just from Julia, although--god, Julia. Holy shit , Julia . But this was something else, too, something he hadn’t felt in a long time.

     This felt like home.

Chapter Text

     It was well past 3 am by the time Magnus’ van rumbled into the parking lot of his apartment complex. Despite the late hour, and the celebration he’d just left, he knew he’d have trouble sleeping. A smile slipped across his face as he shut the van door and jogged to the stairs. He whistled a jaunty tune and swung his keys around his pointer finger as he walked to his front door.

     “Hello, Magnus,” a cool voice came suddenly from the darkness.

     “ Puta madre! ” Magnus practically jumped out of his skin and he looked around wildly. It took a moment, then he spotted her. Lucretia was sitting in his neighbor’s plastic lawn chair by the front door. She seemed very out of place on the sagging porch of his apartment. She quirked an eyebrow at him.

     “Careful, you might wake the neighbors,” she said in that same cool tone.

     He cleared his throat. “Um, what are you--how did you… how long have you been waiting?”

     She shrugged. “Not that long.”

     “...How did you know where I live?”

     She smiled slyly and looked away. “I heard about you and Julia,” she replied instead. At the mention of her name, that warm feeling returned again, though it was accompanied by confusion and, if he was honest with himself, a little fear. She looked back at him and seemed to notice his confused expression. “Taako called me from Refuge.”

     “Oh.”

     “But Julia called me even before Taako did.” She stood up and crossed her arms. Somehow she seemed even taller than he was in this moment. “Which is why you and I need to have a little chat.”

     He relaxed a little. Oh, that’s what this was about. “Sure.” He nodded and unlocked the door. “Come on in.”

     Lucretia waved him ahead. “After you.” Magnus paused, but went in anyway. Lucretia shut the door solidly behind her. “Have a seat.” she said, clicking on a lamp. It felt weird to be taking, well, orders in his own house, but he sat down on the futon that he’d gotten from Goodwill the week before.

     “Sorry, I don’t have much in the way of furniture.”

     Lucretia pulled up the end of the coffee table and sat down across from Magnus. She rested her elbows on her knees and steepled her fingers, calmly studying Magnus’ face. Magnus tried to match her gaze, but found that he couldn’t hold it for very long without breaking into a sweat.

     “Look, I… I think I know what this is about,” he began cautiously.

     “Do you?” she asked, not breaking her gaze.

     “Yeah, this is the ‘she’s my best friend, if you hurt her, I’ll hurt you’ talk. Right?”

     “Is it?”

     Magnus tried to search her face for any shred of a hint, but it was a poised mask. He began to feel like he was wrong, but he pressed on anyway.

     “Well, yeah. I don’t know what other reason you’d have for showing up at my house at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

     Lucretia blinked and smiled a little. She stood up and began to slowly walk around the room, which somehow Magnus found more unnerving than her sitting still. He swallowed and continued, “I’ve dated girls before, I know what the talk is. I promise, hurting Julia is the last thing I would ever want to do. I really like her.”

     “That’s nice to hear, Magnus. And you’re not completely wrong,” she said, looking at the three books Magnus had on the built-in shelf. “Julia is my best friend. And there will be consequences if you hurt her.” She turned around to face him, crossed her arms and leaned back against the shelf. “But I should tell you that if such an occurrence happens, I will be second in a very very long line.” She was quiet for a moment, looking at him expectantly. “Do you know who will be first?”

     Magnus thought. He was pretty sure Julia didn’t have any brothers. “Her… dad?”

     Lucretia closed her eyes and shook her head. “Julia,” she said.

     “Oh.” He looked down, a little confused. This wasn’t how the talk usually went.

     “Now, I know you two just kissed this evening, and it’s all still very new, and you might not even like the term dating.” She rolled her eyes a little. “But before you dare to take one more step down this path with my best friend, there are some things I need to make sure you understand.”

     Magnus nodded. “O-okay.”

     “I have known Julia for almost a decade; in that time do you know how many men she has decided to go on a second date with?”

     Magnus slowly shook his head.

     “It’s five. She’s not a person who pursues romance with just anyone, and that tells me that you must be pretty special.” Magnus blinked a few times. This wasn’t so bad. “In fact, she called me in what can only be described as a tizzy after your kiss.” Lucretia paused. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”

     He smiled and ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck where he could still faintly feel her fingers. “Yeah, I feel about the same.”

     “Have you ever been in love, Magnus?” Lucretia asked, moving back towards the coffee table.

     “Um, maybe once before, but I’m not sure.”

     She shook her head as she sat down on the table across from him again. “Then you haven’t. When you’re in love--and I mean real love, not the stuff that those dopey songs and perfume commercials are about--you know.” For the first time since she’d been there, the placid mask slipped a little as she looked away from him and frowned.

     “...And you have?” he asked quietly.

     “What?” She blinked as if being brought out of deep thought.

     “You’ve been in ‘real love’ before?”

     Lucretia nodded. “I have,” she said, smiling though her eyes still looked solemn, even sad. “And I think that you and Julia have a very good shot at getting there too.” She sat up a little straighter. “Now I’m not saying that you and Julia will get married, have 18 children, and die in each other’s arms.”

     Magnus chuckled a little.

     “But this has the chance to become something real. And that is not to be taken flippantly.” Her dark eyes seemed to bore in Magnus. “A relationship like this will take everything you have, every ounce of courage you possess. You have to be brave enough to be completely honest with her, to open up and leave yourself vulnerable. Because if you try to protect yourself, if you try to hide, if you try to run, if you keep yourself closed from her, it will not work. The relationship will shrivel and die.” She paused and shook her head. “It is the scariest thing a person can possibly do in this whole lifetime.

     “But if you can find it, if you can be brave enough for it…” she looked away from him, a far-off look in her eye, “Nothing else will compare. It is… as close as we get to Heaven on this side.”

     Magnus thought deeply for awhile in silence. “...That seems… dangerous.”

     She looked back to him and nodded slowly. “It is. You will get hurt. There’s no way around that. The only way to keep yourself from being hurt would be to keep yourself completely closed off. And that’s no way to live life, let alone a relationship as special as you and Julia.”

     He nodded, and looked up when Lucretia put her hand on his shoulder.

     “So my challenge to you, Magnus, is to decide if you are ready for something real. You need to take stock and figure out if you have enough to give Julia the chance she deserves. Take some time, and really think about it. Because Julia is ready. And if you’re not, you’d both be better off if you ended it right now.”

     She nodded and gave his shoulder a solid pat. She stood up and left the apartment.

     Magnus heard her car start after another minute and it drove away. He didn’t move for a while, till finally he stood in a daze and clicked off the lamp.

Chapter Text

     Angus frowned and untangled his fingers from the string once again. Mavis had made it seem so simple on the playground that afternoon.

     “Hold it tight between thumb and pinky,” he said under his breath, jostling a little as Killian’s car turned a corner. “Then one pointer, and another.” He slipped his pointer fingers under the string, which was actually an old shoelace, and pulled it across. He was about halfway to a Cat’s Cradle, or maybe a teacup since he was just playing alone.

     “So what do you think’ll change?” Carey asked, sitting cross legged in the front seat.

     “What do you mean?” Killian brought the car to a stop in front of a cross walk, glancing at Carey.

     “Well, he can’t go on being the ref, now can he?”

     “Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that.” Killian signaled her turn. “This’d be a pretty big conflict of interest, huh?”

     Angus looked up from his failing and tangled string game. “What do you mean ‘conflict of interest’?”

     “It means when someone wants two things but they can’t have both at the same time.” Carey offered.

     “I know what it means, I meant what do you guys mean? Why can’t someone be the ref anymore?” Carey and Killian made eye contact and had one of those silent conversations that adults often have around children. “Did something happen to Mr. Avi? Or Magnus?” his voice was rising a little in panic.

     “No, nothing happened to them. They’re both doing fine.” Killian consoled him.

     “Magnus is doing more than fine,” Carey said under her breath and smirking a little. Killian gave her a look. “Sorry.”

     “Um… how do I say this?” Killian said, as they pulled into The Adventure Zone parking lot. She unbuckled her belt and turned around in her seat. “Magnus and Miss Julia are… dating.”

     “Kinda,” Carey added.

     “Yeah, kinda. Nothing’s official yet. It’s really new for them.”

     Angus smiled and nodded, carefully putting away his string. “I see now.” They all got out of the car, and started heading for the door. Angus looked at the grassy field behind the building and got an idea.

     “Actually, um, is it okay--can I um, play in the field today?” he asked.

     Carey and Killian looked at each other. “You’ll stay off the train tracks?” Carey asked.

     “Oh, of course.”

     “Not too long, alright? You come inside before it’s dark.”

     Angus nodded quickly, “Yes, ma’am!” and he ran off to the field. Carey and Killian shook their heads and went into practice.

 

     Julia stopped at the water fountain, bending low for a long drink. Practice went well, they were going to be more than ready for the bout that weekend. But even better, practice seemed to fly by and she was expecting Magnus any minute. She smiled at just the thought of him, but first she’d better go get changed. She spun around and almost tripped over Angus, who was standing right behind her.

     “Whoa, didn’t see you there, buddy,” she said, steadying herself on his shoulders. “Gotta watch out where I’m going.”

     Angus, however, seemed to be concentrating on something. He had his hands clasped behind his back, and his little mouth was squished into frown.

     “Are you okay?” she asked, leaning down to his eye level. “Everything okay at school?”

     Angus nodded. “Oh, yes. I just… wanted to give you this.” He held out a bundle of wildflowers that he’d tied into a small bouquet with a shoelace.

     “What’s this?” Julia knelt down and cupped his hands in hers, leaning forward to smell the flowers.

     “Miss Killian and Miss Carey told me about you and Magnus,” he explained. “And my grandpa says that when you’re happy for someone, you should get them flowers.”

     Julia’s heart melted. “Oh, Angus.” She pulled him in for a tight hug, rocking side to side a little. “Thank you.” She placed a kiss on top of his head and sat back. “It means a lot to me that you’re happy for us.”

     Angus’s whole face lit up when he smiled. “Of course I’m happy for you, Miss Julia. You and Magnus are some of my favorite people.”

     Julia smiled. “Well, you’re one of mine.”

Chapter Text

     Magnus drove up to the back door of the rink. Did he have time to wash his face in the rink sink? He wished he’d managed a shower after work.

     He’d been thinking in turns about Julia and about what Lucretia had said about Julia. She was ready for something real. He turned off his van and tapped his thumbs against the steering wheel. Something real, something that took serious courage. Well dammit, so was he. This was just the first step. Time to go for it.

     He swung himself out of the van just as the rink’s back door opened. Julia exited, holding a tiny bouquet of wildflowers tied up in a shoelace; she caught his eye and smiled. Magnus felt weak. He picked up his pace--

     “Magnus! I’m glad I caught you.” Johann appeared between him and Julia.

     “Oh. Uh. Hey, man, what’s up?” Magnus glanced at Julia, who was now meandering over to him. So much for rushing in.

     “I wanted to talk to you about last night. You know, put everything on the table.”

     Magnus dragged his gaze back to Johann. “Whuh… what do you mean?”

     “I mean it was pretty obvious what you were thinking about when I talked to you.”

     Magnus was stunned into silence. He felt the blush creeping back up his neck. He shot a mortified glance at Julia, who was now within earshot and listening with amused interest.

     “Hey, it’s okay,” said Johann. “Music does funny things to us sometimes. I get that better than anyone.”

     Julia looked like she was suppressing a laugh. Magnus sputtered, “Listen, I--”

     “You don’t have to explain.” Johann patted him on the shoulder.

     Magnus exhaled. “That obvious, huh?”

     “Yeah, it’s cool. I just wanted to make it clear where I stood.”

     “Um. Okay.”

     “It’s not that I’m not flattered--”

     Julia’s hand flew to her mouth. Magnus’ jaw dropped.

     “--and actually, thinking about this helped me come to terms with some things.” Johann frowned at the ground. “A lot of things, actually.”

     Magnus attempted words. No words came. Julia’s face was turning red with quelled laughter.

     “I have to say I’m indebted to you for it,” said Johann. “Like I know myself a little better now. But I don’t think this--” Johann pointed to himself and then Magnus-- “could work out right now. My heart lies with someone else.” He sighed expansively and looked into the distance.

     Magnus managed an, “Oh.”

     Johann gave him a look of deep and totally unwarranted understanding. “I’m sorry, man. I’m sure you’ll find a good guy someday.” He patted Magnus on the shoulder.

     At this point Julia rescued him. “Hey, guys, what are we talking about?”

     “Julia! Hey.” Johann dug around in his pocket. “I wanted to give you your half of the gig money.”

     “Oh, you don’t have to do that,” said Julia. “It was a favor for my uncle. You played the whole time.”

     “Listen, I play jazz on the piano? That’s just background music.” He pulled a neatly folded stack of twenties out of his pocket and handed it to her. “And I know my voice is better suited to other genres. You made the act, Jules.”

     She took it. “Well, thanks, Johann.”

     “Thank you for my first real gig. I’ll see you later.” He looked Magnus in the eye and raised a fist in a sort of “be strong” gesture. Magnus just nodded, unsure what else to do.

     As Johann circled the building and left, Julia dissolved into a fit of snickers. Magnus sagged.

     “Should I tell him?” he said. “I feel like I’m lying!”

     “Don’t you dare,” she said. “You heard how much it means to him.”

     “I just don’t want him to think I was faking or something, now that you and I--”

     “He’ll figure it out, don’t worry.” Julia looked at the wad of cash in her hand. “Um. Do you want to get something to eat? I’ll treat.”

     He laughed. “Sure. Hey, what’s with the flowers?”

     “Angus gave them to me.” She offered them to him for a sniff.

     He sniffed. “Ah, man, I can’t compete with class like that.”

     “Well, they’re kind of for both of us. He said we’re some of his favorite people.”

     “Jeez,” chuckled Magnus. “I love that kid.”

     Julia gave him a look of such sweetness that Magnus’ heart sped up. He wondered what he’d done to deserve it. Right! This was a date. “Uh, hi, by the way.” He spread his arms for a hug.

     She put the flowers through the buckle of her skate bag and squeezed him. “Hi.”

     He sighed contentedly. God, it was like holding the sun.

     Her arms relaxed and he let her go. “So,” she said. “Chi-chi’s?”

     “Yeah.” He offered her a hand, which she took, her tiny soft hand in his. “How was practice?”

     “Tough one today. We’re playing Phandolin on Thursday and they totally trounced us last year.”

     They walked down the street together.

 

     “Okay, how did you get this scar?” Julia said, brushing her fingers over her own eyebrow.

     “Oh, that?” Magnus’ hand floated to the notch in his forehead. “That’s not even a good story. It was a bar fight.”

     “How is a bar fight not a good story?” asked Julia.

     “I don’t know, I was drunk. Some guy was trying to pick a fight, and I was feeling like fighting myself. I used to be a real punk-ass kid.” Magnus rubbed the back of his head. “I was just angry. I didn’t know he had a knife.”

     Julia winced. “Jeez. You could have been stabbed.”

     Magnus hesitated. “At that point I was kind of looking for trouble. My parents had just died.”

     “Oh.”

     Magnus took a rattling sip from the last of his soda. He seemed very far away. Julia put her hand on his. His look softened.

     “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” she said.

     “No, it’s okay. I just… still miss them.”

     “How did they die?” Julia said softly.

     “Drive-by.” He swallowed. “My old neighborhood… there was this guy. A gangster. He had the whole place under siege, basically. Needed a place to run drugs and we were lucky enough to be it. People got caught in the crossfire all the time.”

     “That’s awful.”

     “It’s better now, but yeah. It was awful.”

     Julia traced a knot in the table with the hand that wasn’t on Magnus’. “My mom died too. Car crash.”

     Magnus moved his hand so their fingers were interlaced, tracing the tendons of her hand with his fingers. “How old were you?”

     “Eight. My dad and I were with her in the car. We were thrown clear, but--” her voice broke. She turned her face away.

     Magnus brought his other hand to enclose hers. They sat in the silence for a while, each in their own thoughts. She sniffed and cleared her throat. “Anyway. Just a bar fight?”

     “Yeah. Guy was tweaking. You’re right, though, I could have died, or at the very least lost an eye. It was sobering in more ways than one. The next day I joined the neighborhood watch.”

     Julia met his eyes again. “That sounds like the start of something.”

     “It was, yeah. We started youth programs and stuff. Trying to keep kids out of Kalen’s gang. And we’d keep an eye out in dangerous areas. Watching out for each other. It worked pretty well. ”

     “Sounds like real community.”

     “For sure.”

     Julia’s brow crinkled. “Then why did you leave?”

     “Ha. Well.” He let go of Julia’s hand. “I saw Kalen in an alley once when I was walking home from work. I decided to follow him. Turned out he was down there for an execution. I saw him shoot someone.”

     “God,” breathed Julia.

     Magnus shuddered. “It wasn’t great. But I called the cops, and they caught him with the gun. I got to testify, put him away forever.”

     “But that’s good,” said Julia.

     “Sure, until his cronies started hunting me down.” Magnus clenched his jaw. “They almost got me a couple of times. None of ‘em left without bleeding, but I was getting tired of watching my own back.”

     “The cops--” Julia began.

     “They couldn’t do anything, they said.” Magnus shrugged. “So I left.”

     Julia leaned back in her chair. “Damn, son. You’re a man on the run.”

     “Not really. I was more like low-level target practice, I think. So I told everyone I was moving to New Elfington, and then I came here instead.”

     Julia whistled. “Who knew I was dating the guy from Die Hard ?”

     Magnus laughed. “Nah, I’m nowhere near as cool as John McClane.”

     She frowned a little. “I thought it was Bruce Willis.”

     “Yeah, Bruce Willis plays John McClane.” He gave her a searching look. “Are you trying to tell me you’ve never seen Die Hard ?”

     She shook her head, laughing. “Should I have?”

     “We need to rent it sometime. You’d love it.”

     “Oh would I?” she teased. Magnus laughed, and she smiled.

     They were both quiet for a minute. Magnus spoke first, quietly: “Did you say dating?”

     Julia’s smile dropped. “If that’s cool. Sorry, I kind of just assumed--”

     “No, that’s totally cool. That’s… you know, that’s what I want to do. Is date you.”

     A little flustered laughter escaped her mouth. “Good. ‘Cause that’s what I want to do too. With you.”

     They looked at each other at the same time, and then burst out laughing.

     “So,” said Julia, when they’d collected themselves. “ Die Hard . Not just your typical explosions-and-bad-dialogue action flick?”

     “Psh. Who do you think you’re talking to?” Magnus waved a hand. “Easily the best Candlenights movie there is.”

     “Oh no, hang on,” she said. “Candlenights movie? Is there a heartwarming message about the true meaning of Candlenights in it? Because otherwise it’s just a movie set at Candlenights, like the end of Jumanji .”

     “Of course there is,” scoffed Magnus. He paused. “Well, I mean, it depends.”

     “Depends on what?” she demanded, cackling.

     “I mean…”

     Chi Chi’s closed at ten. They were there up until the teenager behind the counter threatened to lock them in.

Chapter Text

     “Come on, Marnie. You have to give me something.” Kravitz said, pacing around Taako’s apartment with his cell phone pressed to his ear. “You and I both know these are powerful stories.”

     “They are. But you know the board. They’re skittish around these kinds of… things…”

     “What kinds of things?”

     “ You know .”

     “No, Marnie. I really don’t. So why don’t you save me and you a whole lot of time and just spit it out?”

     “Fine. They don’t like the… gay stuff.”

     Kravitz stopped in his tracks. “What?”

     “They were fine with the rest of your pitch, but they didn’t like the parts about the girls having girlfriends… and you know, you dating the one male subject.”

     “You must be joking.”

     “They said if you took that stuff out, then maybe they’d be interested in buying the story.”

     “That stuff is one of the major components of the whole piece! Taako’s story alone doesn’t make sense if it was just omitted!” Kravitz said, resuming pacing.

     At the mention of his name, Taako looked up from the dress he was sewing, pins in his mouth. He’d never seen Kravitz angry before; he was always so calm and collected. If he was honest, it was kind of hot. But he kept that observation to himself.

     “Hey, hey, don’t shoot the messenger. I’m just telling you what they told me.”

     Kravitz pinched the bridge of his nose, and took several deep breaths.

     “If you want to leave that stuff in, maybe try a different magazine. Like Out. They might be interested.”

     “These stories are deserving of a national audience.”

     “Well, you’ll have to try someone else’s. Sorry, Kravitz.”

     And Marnie hung up. Kravitz pushed the antenna down and then threw the phone at the bed, making a deep dent in one of the throw pillows.

     “Hey, easy on the merchandise, broseph,” Taako said, looking over his shoulder. Kravitz looked back at Taako, and the storm passed when he let out a breath.

     “Sorry.” He clenched and unclenched his fist several times. Taako turned around in the chair.

     “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked, sliding pins into the cushion.

     “No.” Kravitz paced into one of the costume aisles, and then paced back out. “It’s just…” He clenched his fists again and paced into the aisle, and out again. “Why are people stupid?”

     “I take it they weren’t interested?”

     “No! It’s just, agh--” he rubbed his hands over his face. “I know this’ll be a good story. An important story! But all the magazines I’ve talked to have their heads stuck too far up their asses to even give it a chance!”

     He glowered and dropped down onto the couch. When he looked over at Taako, his hand was covering the bottom half of his face.

     “What?” Kravitz asked, grumpily.

     “Nothing, nothing, sorry,” Taako said, pulling his hand away and trying to maintain a calm expression.

     “No, what?”

     Taako smiled a little at him. “Just… you’re very cute when you’re angry.”

     “Hmph,” Kravitz retorted, crossing his arms and slumping further on the couch, a deep frown on his handsome face.

     The phone rang from deep inside the pillow pile, and Taako turned back around to his sewing machine. Kravitz grumbled but hauled himself off the couch to go answer it.

     “Kravitz speaking. ...Oh, hey, Bill. Thanks for getting back to me. Did you have a chance to look at the proofs I sent you?”

     Taako finished the seam and cut the trailing strings. He turned it inside right and held it up. The director at the theatre had been hinting she was going to do Oklahoma that fall, so he’d figured he better get a jump on all the prairie garb. It wasn’t his best work, but it would do for a chorus member.

     “Wait, wait. Say that again.” Kravitz said, standing stock still. Taako turned around to look at him. He looked like someone had just punched him in the gut. Taako stood and hung the dress up, keeping an eye on Kravitz, whose face continued to fall.

     “But there must be-- ...No… I understand.” he said, in a quiet and hollow voice. “Thanks for trying… yeah. Bye.” He hung up the phone, and numbly placed it back on the stand. He just stood and stared at the wall for a while.

     “Kravitz?” Taako asked gently.

     “I... just got fired...”

     “What?” Taako walked closer to him. Kravitz dropped down on the bed, and leaned his elbows on his knees, his hand covering his mouth. He stared at the ground in shock.

     “How can you be fired?” Taako asked. Kravitz blinked a few times and looked up at Taako like he was noticing him for the first time.

     “They… my biggest client has decided that my work does not ‘reflect the family values that they hold as an institution,’” he quoted bitterly. “And they don’t want to do business with me anymore.”

     “They can’t fire you for that… can they?”

     Kravitz looked back down at the floor and shrugged. “They can do whatever they want. I’m just a freelancer and there’s a million excuses for why they won’t use me anymore… even when we both know the real reason.”

     “I’m so sorry.”

     Kravitz shook his head slowly. “I just… I thought they knew.” He met Taako’s gaze; his eyes looked tired. “I thought they didn’t care.”

     Taako sat on the bed next to him and rested his head on his shoulder. Kravitz reached over and took Taako’s hand, intertwining their fingers. Neither of them said anything for a long while.

     “I should probably go,” Kravitz said finally, squeezing Taako’s hand before letting go. “I need to make some calls.”

     Taako stood up and followed him down the stairs to the door, helping him find his shoes amongst the throng. “Krav? Will you be okay? Like money-wise?”

     “That’s what I need to call about,” he said, slipping into the second shoe. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He gave Taako a distracted kiss and quickly jogged out the door. Taako watched him get into his car and pull away before he shut the door, a sinking feeling forming in his gut.

 

     “And so I check her air conditioning compressor, it’s working just fine. Fuses are just fine. Plenty of coolant. But there’s still not a puff of air coming out of the vents, and a slight clicking noise from under the dash.” Sloane said, before taking a sip of her drink.

     “So what was it?” Julia asked as she cleaned a glass. Across from her at the bar were Sloane and Taako, who was absent-mindedly stirring his piña colada. The rest of Refuge was pretty empty. “A mouse?”

     “Almost. The cabin air filter. It was so full of gunk that it had fallen out of its place and was stopping the fan. I’m telling you, there’s no way that it was changed in the entire 13 year lifetime of the car.”

     “Ew. Gross.” Julia said, setting down the glass.

     “Yeah, there was dirt and leaves and feathers. It was disgusting. Worst I’ve ever seen.”

     Julia thought for a moment. “...has mine ever been changed?”

     “Yeah, I got you a new one last time you came in for an oil change.”

     “Oh good,” Julia said. She looked over at Taako, who had been quiet the whole time, just staring at the top of the bar. She and Sloane shared a look. “Earth to Taako. Come in, Taako.”

     “Hm?” He looked up and between them.

     “Are you okay?” Sloane asked. “You’ve been kind of out of it the past couple days.”

     “More so than usual,” Julia added with a wry smile.

     “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine…” He looked down at his drink with a frown.

     “Oh yeah, you seem great,” Sloane said, finishing her drink. “Come on. Spill.”

     Taako looked between the two of them. “I’m fine, it’s just… Kravitz.”

     “You guys fighting?” Julia asked.

     “Hurley and I fight sometimes, it’s not a big deal as long as you make up.”

     “I wish we were fighting; I’d know what to do then.” Taako shook his head. “He… He’s been trying to find a magazine interested in publishing his story about us. But every single one he’s talked to has said no and, even worse, his biggest client ended their contract with him because of it.”

     “Whoa,” Sloane said.

     “They didn’t like the derby story that much?” Julia asked.

     “They didn’t like the gay people in the story that much,” Taako said, bitterly. “And they don’t like Kravitz now since he’s dating me.”

     “Taako, that sucks.”

     “And the worst part of all of this is Kravitz has fallen seemingly off the earth.”

     “What do you mean?” Sloane asked.

     “After he got the call that he’d been essentially fired, he said he had to go make some calls and that’d he’d see me the next day. But that was four days ago, and I haven’t seen him since.” Taako tapped his thumb against the tabletop. “I stopped by his place this morning, just to check on him, and he’d left a note that he had to go out of town for a couple days and I shouldn’t worry.”

     He looked back and forth between the two. But they didn’t seem to understand.

     “Don’t you guys see?” he said, his voice rising in pitch.

     “I mean, I don’t,” Julia said. Sloane shook her head as well.

     Taako sighed. “He’s going to dump me.”

     “Oh, now, hey.” Julia and Sloane started at the same time.

     “That’s ridiculous.”

     “You guys are great together.”

     Taako counted his reasons on his fingers. “He’s become emotionally distant. He just left a note, instead of telling me in person. And we have only been dating two months, and--and--and already I’ve cost him his job! Imagine what I could do with more time! I could, I don’t know, kill a beloved family member!”

     “Alright, hold on a second.” Julia grabbed Taako’s wrist. “Take a breath, you’re spiraling.”

     Taako took a quick breath.

     “Okay, so point of order, you did not cost him his life’s work. Him being gay is what cost him his life’s work, which, admittedly, is not great. But at least it’s not you,” Julia offered.

     “They would have never found out if he hadn’t started dating me,” Taako countered.

     “You don’t know that!”

     “But I do know that!”

     “Hey, hey! Shut up!” Sloane said, smacking the bar top and silencing Taako and Julia. “As the only person in this group who has had a relationship that’s lasted longer than a loaf of bread, maybe I should say something, hm?” She looked between the two of them. She put a hand on Taako’s shoulder. “Now. I know you’re feeling insecure about the relationship, but right now, you shouldn’t focus on that. If you’re feeling like this, imagine how Kravitz is feeling. He just lost his job. Even if there are no financial repercussions, that kind of change can rock a person at their core.”

     Taako blinked a few times and looked down. Why hadn’t he thought of that?

     “He needs you right now,” Sloane continued. “More than ever. You need to be there for him. This is part of being in a mature relationship. You put the other person first. And he’ll do the same for you when your time comes.”

     “You’re right,” Taako said, nodding slowly.

     “Course I am,” Sloane said, sitting back in her seat. “Seven years with Hurley is nothing to sneeze at.”

     Taako stood up quickly, pulling a couple dollars out of his pocket. “I have to go, guys.”

 

     It was still two more days till Taako spotted Kravitz’ car outside his apartment when he was driving back from work. Taako quickly slammed on the brakes and pulled into the Pegasus Fields parking lot. With Sloane’s words echoing in his mind, Taako knocked on the door.

     Maybe he should have gone home and changed first. At least he wasn’t in his uniform, but he was practically coated toe to tip in powdered sugar. There had been an incident . But when Kravitz opened the door, Taako was floored to realize that he was the better dressed of the two of them.

     “Oh, hey,” Kravitz said. His eyes were bloodshot, and he had several days’ worth of scruff on his face. His t-shirt was wrinkled and his socks didn’t even match. Taako had never seen Kravitz in a state even close to this before.

     Taako blinked a few times, before managing. “H-hey. ...I got your note.”

     He looked confused for a moment, then he remembered. “Oh right. Good. Here, come on in.”

     Even the apartment was different. Normally it was a beige box with a few pieces of landlord-supplied furniture, impeccably clean. But now there were bank statements and spreadsheets scattered over the kitchen table. Several groupings of moving boxes were in a couple corners, and some large wrapped pieces of art were leaning against the walls. Luggage and camera equipment were haphazardly strewn across the floor.

     “Here, let me--” Kravitz stepped around Taako and picked up a tripod and a sweatshirt, setting them on top of a box. He cleared some room on the couch so that at least one of them could sit down.

     Taako looked warily at Kravitz. “Are you okay?” he asked him bluntly.

     Kravitz looked around at the apartment and frowned. “This looks pretty bad, doesn’t it?”

     “For a normal person, this would be pretty bad. For you, this,” he gestured to the mess, “is catastrophic.”

     “I’m sorry.” Kravitz said, rubbing the back of his neck, “This past week has been… not great.”

     “No.” Taako picked up a bounce board and set it against the wall so he could walk into the room more. “Don’t apologize. Just… let me help. Tell me what happened, where you’ve been… what you need.”

     Kravitz sat slowly down on the couch. “I hardly know where to begin.” He looked up at Taako for a moment, then dropped his head and sighed. “I have spent the entirety of my career developing contacts, fostering relationships, finding avenues to tell the stories that I found. Very nearly a decade of work… and it’s just gone.”

     “I thought it was just the one,” Taako said, picking up a stack of mail from the floor and setting it down on the kitchen table.

     “I think Bill told people… or everyone else just arrived at the same conclusion that he did. I’ve had four more magazines say that they don’t want to work with me anymore.”

     Taako attempted to organize the papers on the table, at least sort them into useable piles. He noticed that in addition to the bank statements and spreadsheets, there were several monthly itemized budgets written in Kravitz’s exacting handwriting.

     “I kept trying to find ways to make it work still,” Kravitz continued, resting his face against his hand. “But the phone just kept ringing. And eventually it became clear that it would not work at all.”

     Taako turned back to look at him. “So what did you do?”

     “Well, initially I left to go to Neverwinter and close out my apartment, ‘cause I certainly can’t afford that rent anymore. If things don’t change, I won’t even be able to afford this place soon.”

     Taako stepped over a moving box and picked a lens bag off of the floor, setting out of harm’s way.

     “And then while I was there, I ran into an old college friend who was going to Pretoria to cover the presidential changeover. She wanted to know if I knew anyone who could be a second shooter for her, and I… I had to take it. Two weeks ago, I would not have even looked twice at a job like that. But now--” he shook his head, boring a hole into the floor with his gaze. “It’s like the last decade of my career never even happened. I’m 31 years old, and I’m back at square one.” He covered his face with his hands.

     Taako let him be for a few minutes and continued to try and provide some order to the space. Move boxes out of walk ways, make sure expensive equipment wasn’t in danger of being stepped on. It certainly wasn’t up to Kravitz’ normal standards, but at least it was better than when he had arrived.

     “...I probably should have called you before I left the country,” Kravitz said after a while. “Shit.”

     “Hey,” Taako said, coming to stand in front of him. “Don’t even worry about that. The floor was dropping out from under you, you did what you had to. If anyone understands, I do.”

     He sighed and shook his head. “It’s like… I don’t even know who I am anymore. I mean, who am I if I’m not--” he glanced up at him. “Oh, Taako… why are you even with me?”

     Taako looked down at him for a moment. “Kravitz, I’ve dated… a lot of different guys. And not one of those relationships lasted very long. They all ended up being selfish, or immature, or, you know, just interested in a hook-up. And over the years, I came to the conclusion that that would be the best that I could do, the best that I could hope for. But then, out of the blue, you came along. And you’re handsome, and talented, and passionate, and charming, and kind, and we get along well, and you like my weird friends, and we both enjoy dim sum and farmer’s markets and Julia Stiles.”

     Taako approached Kravitz, tilting his chin up with one hand and running the other over his hair. His voice lowered to a whisper. “And I’ve told you things about my past that I’ve never told another living soul, and you still accepted me.” He paused and carefully regarded Kravitz’ face. “I’m with you because I have waited my whole life for someone like you, and I never thought that I would be so lucky as to meet anyone who could be half of what you are. You are so much more than what you do. And no matter what you end up doing next, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m with you, for you.”

     Kravitz stood and wrapped his arms around Taako, pulling him in for a surprisingly tender kiss. It was long and slow, enveloping. Kravitz rested his forehead against Taako’s, their eyes still closed. The only sound was their intermingling breaths.

     “Taako?”

     “Yes?”

     “...Thank you.” Taako opened his eyes to find Kravitz’ already open, and looking at him with such tenderness that it made Taako’s heart skip a beat. “With everything that’s going on… I’m just so grateful you’re with me.”

     A smile escaped Taako’s lips, and he had to look down to try and contain it.

     “Well, you’ll have to try a lot harder than this to get rid of me.”

     Kravitz chuckled quietly, a slight smile on his face. Then he grew solemn, and brushed the back of his fingers against Taako’s cheek. “I hope I never am.”

     “...I hope so too.”

Chapter Text

     Carey hopped up onto the counter and grabbed the peanut butter from the high shelf. “Why do you always put it all the way up here?”

     “It’s fun to watch you get it down,” said Killian, offering a hand. Carey took it and leapt back to the floor. Killian leaned down and kissed her. “I’ll get the jelly.”

     Carey pulled a knife out of the silverware drawer, twirled it once just because she could, and started spreading peanut butter on bread. “I wish we had something more substantial.”

     “What are you talking about? PB&J is a classic picnic food.”

     “So is fried chicken,” said Carey wistfully.

     “I get paid on Wednesday. We’ll go to KFC or something.” She put the jelly down on the counter and twisted off the lid for Carey.

     “I wish I still had my mom’s recipe. I could make some.”

     “Maybe there’s a good recipe in a book at the library.”

     “Not like my mom’s,” said Carey. She scraped off the peanut butter knife on the jar and dipped it into the jelly. “What else do we need?”

     “I’ve got some apples and carrots, and cookies. And thiiis.” When Carey looked over, Killian was waving a bottle of whiskey.

     Carey snorted. “What kind of picnic are you taking me to?”

     “A fun one.” Killian smiled and put the bottle into the canvas bag that was serving as their picnic basket. “It’s such a good idea.”

     “A little cheesy, maybe,” said Carey. “You said it was Avi’s idea?”

     “Yeah, he wants us to meet the girlfriend.”

     “Oh yes, the mysterious Tony.” Carey closed the sandwiches and wrapped them in Saran wrap. “I guess it’s cheaper than a night out at Refuge.”

     “And if we’re lucky we’ll get just as drunk.”

     Carey laughed and added the sandwiches to the bag. “In that case, let’s go.”

     Killian handed Carey her windbreaker. “Let’s.”

     Carey traded her for the bag and slid it on. As soon as she flexed her shoulders, it split up the back. Carey froze. “Shit.”

     Killian laughed. “You’re so buff you broke your jacket!”

     Carey pulled it off and looked at the ripped nylon with disgust. “This was my only jacket!”

     “I’ll keep you warm.” Killian wrapped her arms around Carey and lifted her around the middle. “Ready to go to a picnic?”

     “Put me down,” laughed Carey, squirming.

     “Must! Keep! Girlfriend! Warm!” Killian carried her out the door and closed it behind them.

 

     It was chilly for June, but not too humid or windy, just right for a picnic. The McElroy Memorial Park wasn’t much more than three blocks in the middle of a neighborhood, but it had a little playground and some nice shady trees. Avi was already there, laying out a blanket under a particularly lovely maple. A woman about their age leaned against the tree trunk, holding a proper picnic basket.

     Killian insisted on carrying Carey to the blanket, so they approached their friends the same way they left the apartment, with Carey dangling from Killian’s arms.

     “Hi Avi,” said Carey from her perch. Killian put her down carefully on the blanket.

     “Hey guys,” said Avi. “This is Antonia!”

     "Hi!” she said brightly. Antonia was petite and on the plump side, with tawny skin and a flat nose. She didn’t look at them, more past them.

     “The tall one is Killian and this is Carey,” said Avi. “They’re on the team.”

     “Avi!”

     Magnus and Julia appeared. It was Magnus who shouted. Avi introduced them as well while Carey and Killian settled into the blanket. Killian leaned back on the heels of her hands and Carey sat cross-legged beside her, one hand on her knee. “Pst. Look at Jules.”

     Killian looked. Julia was talking to Antonia, but she and Magnus were holding hands shyly. Killian giggled. “They’re so cute.”

     “Johann’s around here somewhere,” Avi was saying. “He’s walking his dog.”

     Magnus gasped hugely. “There’s a dog ??”

     Julia laughed and plopped down onto the blanket beside Carey. “How are you two?”

     “It’s so nice to have a Saturday off for once,” said Killian. “Both of us having Saturday off at the same time is damn near a miracle.”

     “I could’ve used the hours, though,” sighed Carey.

     “Your boss cut your hours again ?” said Julia.

     “Yep. I don’t know why he doesn’t just fire me,” Carey growled. “I mean, I’m glad I still have a job, but I’m sick of wondering if my paycheck will cover rent.”

     Killian ruffled her short hair.

     “You said you applied to some new places, right?” asked Julia.

     “Rejections. Across the board. No one wants to hire a thief.”

     “You’re not a thief anymore,” said Killian.

     “Tell that to my rap sheet,” said Carey. “I’m tired of talking about this. Let’s talk about something more important.”

     “All right, like what?” said Julia.

     “Something absolutely crucial.” Carey glanced at Magnus. “Julia, have you hit that yet?”

     Julia’s mouth dropped open. “God, Carey!”

     Killian threw back her head and laughed.

     “Seriously, though, how’s it going?” said Carey.

     Julia relaxed and lowered her voice. “Really well. Like… really well. He’s just… I’ve never been in a relationship with someone so easy to be around.”

     “That’s key, right there,” said Killian. “If you’ve got to work while you’re just hanging out, it’s not worth it.”

     “It’s certainly nice to date someone who doesn’t care if I can’t go out because I have homework,” said Julia. “That Finance class nearly killed me, I swear. I’m so glad the semester’s almost over. Oh, look, Lucretia!”

     Lucretia approached with Miyagi on a leash and a bag from McDonald’s under her arm. “Hey, everyone.”

     “Dog!” said Magnus, abandoning a conversation with Antonia and dropping immediately to his knees to scrub Miyagi behind the ears. “Hello, puppy! Who’s a good dog?”

     Miyagi, for his part, looked delighted by the attention and immediately started licking Magnus’ face.

     “I’m happy to see you too, Magnus,” said Lucretia, taking a seat beside Killian. “This is Antonia?”

     “Yeah, pleased to meet you,” said Antonia, again looking past them. “Sorry for the lack of eye contact. I’m pretty blind.”

     “Here, let’s sit down.” Avi offered a hand, which Antonia took, and led her over to join the circle. “I don’t want to brag or anything, but this is a great day for a picnic.”

     “Sure is,” said Killian. “So Antonia, what do you do?”

     “I do air traffic control, same as Avi,” she said. “Now let me see, Avi’s told me so much about all of you. Killian, you’re a personal trainer?”

     “That’s right,” said Killian.

      “And Carey works at a pawn shop,” she said.

     “Yeah,” said Carey, bristling a little. Easy, she thought, easy.

     “How did you two meet?” she asked.

     “Oh, man, that’s a great story,” said Julia.

     Killian laughed. “Oh god, how long ago was that now?

     Carey grinned. “Five years.”

     “Yeah, we had this promotion thing at the gym where I work, an hour of free training. Kind of get people hooked so they hire us on for longer. We don’t do that anymore, thanks to Carey.”

     Carey nudged her shoulder. “You’re getting ahead of yourself, babe.”

     “Right, so Carey comes in for that free hour of personal training.”

     “Really just trying to mooch off free stuff,” said Carey, shrugging. “I did not expect to meet the love of my life.”

     “We hit it off, though, big time,” Killian said. “Not that Carey needed any training, like she was already a spectacular athlete. But after that hour I was like, on my knees praying that she would sign up to be trained.”

     “I couldn’t afford that,” said Carey.

     “But you came back anyway, and I swear, you had a shawl and a beauty mark and a freaking French accent.”

     “No way,” said Antonia. Avi started laughing.

     “I mean I was going for more of a Belgian accent, but yeah,” said Carey. “I managed to convince the guy behind the desk that I was a different person.”

     “So you got another hour of free training?” said Antonia.

     “Damn right I did,” said Carey. “I was afraid I was being a creep, though, so I tried to stay disguised for Killian too.”

     “I saw right through it,” said Killian. “Your handstand technique is unmistakeable.”

     “So you got her number,” said Antonia.

     “No, I thought she was just trying to scam the system,” said Killian. “I just let her do it because I liked her. And then she came back again.”

     “Oh my god!” Antonia was delighted. “How many times?”

     Carey shrugged, laughing. “Like, seven or eight?”

     “The last time it was just your normal clothes and a fake mustache,” said Killian.

     Magnus looked up from rubbing Miyagi’s belly to say, “That’s the goddamned funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”

     “They wouldn’t let her in, but I managed to run out after her and finally get her number,” said Killian.

     “We’ve been together ever since,” finished Carey, looking at her girlfriend fondly.

     Antonia laughed. “That is a great story.”

     “Hey guys,” said Johann’s voice from behind Carey. He joined the circle between Antonia and Magnus, trailing a scruffy black mutt on a leash.

     “TWO DOGS!” said Magnus. The black dog bounced over to Miyagi and the two investigated each other briefly.

     “Aw, c’mon, Void,” said Johann, trying unsuccessfully to pull her away.

     “Now that we’re all here, let’s eat,” said Avi, and everyone spent the next few minutes passing food and offering to share. Magnus and Julia put a bag of chips in the middle of the blanket, and Carey added their apples and carrot sticks. Antonia started pulling out enough tortillas and taco filling for everyone.

     “That smells amazing,” said Magnus, sneaking a bit of ham and cheese sandwich to each dog. He had Miyagi in his lap and Void stretched out by his leg.

     “You’re welcome to have one,” said Antonia, holding out a taco in his general direction.

     He took it and took a bite. “Mmmm, gracias. Eres un sol.

     Antonia frowned a little. “I don’t speak Spanish. I’m Filipino.”

     “Oh!” Magnus swallowed. “Sorry. Bad assumption.”

     “It’s okay, I actually get that a lot.”

     Carey chewed a PB&J thoughtfully. “My Spanish is pretty rusty. Did you call her a sun?”

     “Yeah, it means like…” Magnus waved a hand. “A dear, or a doll. Like saying you’re a peach.”

     Antonia smiled. “Well thank you.”

     “You know who’d like that?” said Julia. “Taako.”

     “He probably already knows it,” said Magnus. “It’s pretty common.”

     “He doesn’t speak Spanish either, Mags,” said Julia.

     Magnus paused mid-chew. “Really? He looks Latino. You call him Taco.”

     “Yeah, ‘cause it’s his name,” said Avi. “T-A-A-K-O. It’s Turkish or something.”

     “Huh,” said Magnus. “All this time I thought it was just a nickname.”

     “That’d be kind of a racist nickname,” said Carey. She considered. “Although if anyone could pull it off, it’d be Taako.”

     “What about you?” Magnus asked Carey.

     “I’m fourth generation, hombre ,” said Carey. “I picked up what I know from my grandparents. And most of it’s swearing.”

     Magnus finished off the taco and rubbed the two dogs’ heads. “I’m not used to being the only one who speaks Spanish.”

     Johann looked up. “ Hablo español. Conversacionalmente.

     Most of the circle exclaimed in surprise. Magnus threw out a hand. “Look at this gringo!”

     Carey laughed.

 

     After lunch and a few shared drinks in Dixie cups, Avi pulled a frisbee out of the picnic basket and most of the group spread out to play catch.

     Carey wasn’t in the mood, and Antonia couldn’t play anyway, so Carey sat with her. Lucretia stayed as well.

     “Sucks that you can’t play,” said Carey, watching Killian take a flying leap and catch a bad throw by Avi. What a babe.

     “It’s okay,” said Antonia. “I’m not really an athlete anyway, not like you all.”

     “Gosh, I hope you don’t have to be an athlete to play frisbee,” said Carey.

     “I used to have one with a beeper in it, so I could hear it,” said Antonia. “I broke it last summer. I should get another one.”

     “If you don’t mind me asking,” said Lucretia, “how does air traffic control work with being blind?”

     “I have a really big magnifying glass and a good memory,” said Antonia. “I’m not totally blind. Most blind people aren’t.”

     “I didn’t know that,” said Carey. “What can you see?”

     “Anything within about an inch of my face,” she replied, demonstrating with her hand. After that everything’s just unfocused and blobby.”

     “Sounds like my life,” said Carey, and Antonia laughed.

     They watched their friends play for a little bit in comfortable silence. After a while Magnus threw the frisbee to Void, who ran off with it. Johann and Magnus both ran after her; Magnus got to her first, and wrestled it out of her mouth. Void’s tail was wagging the whole time.

     “I wish I had a dog!” shouted Magnus gleefully.

     Johann said something inaudible. Magnus replied, “Dogs are the best people! I think dogs should vote!”

     Carey, Antonia, and Lucretia all laughed. Carey said, “I hope Julia’s a dog person.”

     “They do seem pretty crazy about each other,” said Lucretia.

     “You and Killian seem pretty crazy about each other too,” said Antonia.

     “Oh yeah,” said Carey. “We’d have gotten married years ago if we could.”

     “Maybe someday,” offered Antonia.

     “In this state?” said Lucretia. “Not likely.”

     Antonia looked uncomfortable. “You could move, I guess.”

     “Nah, this is home,” said Carey. And anyway, her criminal record would follow her. “We’re already about as married as we can be anyway.”

     Antonia chuckled. “I can’t believe she recognized you by your handstand technique.”

     “I’ve seen it,” said Lucretia. “It’s pretty distinctive.”

     “How so?”

     “Well, here.” Carey curled up into a ball, put her hands on the ground, and pushed herself up into the air, uncurling from the waist.

     Antonia squinted, and then her eyes widened. “Oh my god! I wish I could do that.”

     Carey grinned at Antonia’s upside down face and rebalanced herself onto one hand. She pretended to clean the nails of the other. “No big deal.”

     Antonia laughed. “Amazing. You know there’s this adult gymnastics class at the rec center. You should do it!”

     Carey lowered herself to her back and rolled up, facing away from Antonia. She knew of the class, and the registration fee was too expensive. “Not really my thing. I prefer roller derby.”

     “So sexy!” shouted Killian from the middle of the park. She’d been watching Carey. Carey blew her girlfriend a kiss.

     The frisbee players were recongregating around the blanket. Killian offered a hand to Carey and pulled her to her feet.

     “Join me for a little walk?” she asked.

     “Sure,” said Carey. They walked away as the rest of their friends spread out lounging on the blanket.

     “You seem kind of upset about something,” said Killian as they passed the little playground.

     “Do I? I don’t mean to be.”

     “I don’t think anyone else noticed,” said Killian. “You okay?”

     Carey was silent for a while. “I don’t know. It seems like everything today is trying to remind me how poor we are. The jacket. The fried chicken. Even the fact that we’re both off today.” Carey squeezed Killian’s hand. “I know it’s stupid and ungrateful, but I’m so sick of being poor.”

     “Mmm. It frustrates me too.” They reached the end of the park and turned back around. “But it won’t be like this forever.”

     Carey looked up at Killian’s face. “How do you know?”

     “Call it hope. But I’m sure things will change.”

     Carey leaned in, resting her head on Killian’s arm. “I’m glad you have hope. I’ll try to have hope too.”

     Killian stepped in front of her and caught her under the chin. “Good.”

     Care stood up on her tiptoes and kissed her, long and slow.

     “And in the meantime,” said Killian, when they broke apart, “the things that really matter are totally free.”

     “Things like what?” said Carey.

     Killian gestured at the sky. “This beautiful day. You and I getting to be together.” Killian turned and kept walking, back toward the blanket. “And our family.”

     “There you guys are!” said Avi, who was laying flat on his back and looking at them upside down. “We’re looking at clouds!”

     “I haven’t done this forever,” said Julia, who was snuggled up next to Magnus.

     “It all looks terrible to me,” said Antonia, who was greeted by a chorus of laughter.

     “Sounds like fun,” Carey said. Killian stretched out on the grass, and Carey laid down too, her head resting on her girlfriend’s stomach.

Chapter Text

      “Hey, babe, can you take a look at this?” Kravitz said, sitting cross-legged on the lime green couch in Taako’s apartment. He was frowning at the screen of his iBook.

      “Sure.” Taako scooched up to the end of the bed, and took the blue and white computer from him. He scrolled down on the webpage, glancing over the text. “I thought you said Magnus was still on the fence about the whole website thing.”

      “He was last time I talked to him, but I figured if I had something more concrete to show him, maybe I could convince him that this idea will work.”

      “That makes sense. He’s very much a work-with-his-hands-and-what-he-can-see kind of guy.” Taako shrugged. “These chair pictures are nice.”

      “Yeah, I figured it would make sense to put in pictures of his work.” Kravitz took the computer back. “I didn’t have anything he’d done though, just got some shots of a chair from my kitchen.”

      “I think he’ll like it.”

      A knock came from the front door down the stairs. “God, I hope so.” Kravitz stood to go answer it.

      “Magnus!” Kravitz smiled widely as he opened the door. Magnus looked visibly relieved.

      “Oh, good. I’m at the right place.” Magnus said.

      “Yes, the one with the yellow front door.”

      “Hail Magnus!” Taako’s voice floated down the stairs. “Are you hungry?”

      “Yeah, I could eat.”

      “Come on in,” Kravitz said, stepping aside.

      Magnus let out a low whistle when he stepped inside. “That’s a lot of shoes.” he said, taking off his work boots. Kravitz’ mouth twisted into a smile.

      “Oh, just wait.”

      Magnus stared open-mouthed at Taako’s costume collection, which was fine because it gave Kravitz a moment to set up at the kitchen table.

      “Alright, now as you can see--Magnus?” Kravitz asked, trying to get his attention back. He blinked and looked over.

      “Huh? Oh, yeah.” Magnus sat down in one of the kitchen chairs, and Kravitz scooted the computer over to him.

      “Now I know last time we talked you were a little unsure, so I went ahead and built a mock-up just so you have a clearer image of what I’m talking about. Feel free to read, click around. Let me know when you’re done.” Kravitz left Magnus with the computer, went to go tidy up magazines on Taako’s coffee table. Magnus dutifully examined every corner of the website, and Taako rummaged in cabinets.

      “How does cilantro-lime chicken thighs with black beans and rice sound?” he asked, reaching down to pull a large skillet from the back of a cabinet.

      Magnus looked briefly up from the computer. “That sounds fantastic,” he said, before returning to the website.

      Kravitz sat on the couch, his heels bouncing quickly, and he tried to look like he wasn’t observing Magnus’ every move, even though he was. Magnus sure was taking a long time. That was a good sign though. Or was it?

      Magnus looked over at Kravitz. “I’m done.”

      Kravitz popped up like he was spring-loaded. “Great!” He joined Magnus at the table, turning the computer so they could both see it. “So what did you think?”

      “Well--” Magnus started.

      “ Merde .” Taako said, looking at a cabinet. They turned to look at him. “I’m out of chicken broth. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed his keys from the TV stand and a few loose dollars. “Try not to have too much fun without me.” He gave Kravitz a quick kiss on the cheek before jogging down the stairs, his flip-flops thwapping with every step, and out the front door.

      “So, thoughts?” Kravitz asked, folding his hands on the table.

      “...So is this a weblog?”

      “No, it’s a true website. Multiple pages, unique address. Completely customizable if there’s something you don’t like.”

      “Well, it looks great. I mean, if I saw this, I’d hire me.” Magnus smiled. “You made this IKEA chair look damn fantastic. Do you think you could do that with some of my pieces?”

      “Oh, definitely. Yours will look even better; they have actual craftsmanship.”

      Magnus nodded slowly, scrolling down the page again. “Do you really think this will work? I mean… it’s the information superhighway, how’s it going to help me?”

      “First, no one calls it that anymore. And second… honestly, I don’t know that this will work. But I’m dedicated to giving this site the best shot that I possibly can. Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe it’ll take off and having a Burnside coffee table will be the new status symbol amongst upper-middle class white couples.” Magnus laughed. “There’s really no way to tell. It’s kind of crazy out there on the web right now. We’re all still figuring it out.”

      “Alright. I’m in.”

      “Really?” Kravitz’ face lit up.

      “Yeah.” Magnus shook his hand. “I just wish I could pay you for this. You’ve already put in a lot of work.”

      “This is as much an advertisement of my services as it is of yours. If I can prove this concept, I could take this to other businesses, larger businesses, and hopefully get back on my feet again.”

      Magnus looked over at Kravitz. “How’s that going by the way? Are you alright?”

      Kravitz sighed and closed the computer. “I’ve been able to get some jobs helping out on other friends’ shoots. Looking at going back to portraiture, and this web design work was Taako’s idea actually. Maybe if I just keep throwing enough spaghetti at this wall, something will stick.”

      “I take it the roller derby story is officially a no-go?”

      Kravitz frowned. “Yeah, probably so. I just don’t think anyone will want to publish it.”

      “Well, why don’t you?”

      Kravitz looked back at Magnus. “Why don’t I what?”

      “Publish it.” Magnus pointed to the computer. “Like on the internet.”

      Kravitz looked back at the computer, a thought slowly forming in his mind. “...I hadn’t thought about that before.”

      “It probably wouldn’t be like publishing it in a magazine, but, you know, at least the story would be out there.”

      “That’s… an excellent idea, Magnus.” Kravitz’ mind was slowly picking up speed as he chased down this thought. “I need someth-ah!” Kravitz stood and snatched a legal pad, immediately starting to write rapid notes on the page. Magnus watched him in curiosity for a few minutes till Taako returned from the store. He smiled bemusedly at the frantically writing Kravitz.

      “So what’d you tell him?” Taako asked, opening up the package of chicken.

      “I asked him about the derby story, and he said he’d probably not find someone to publish it. So I suggested he publish it himself on the inf-internet.”

      Taako looked impressed. “A pretty face, and brains. I see why Julia likes you.”

      Magnus laughed.

 

      Taako took in a sudden deep breath, and found himself awake. Unfortunate. He blinked a few times. The sheets next to him weren’t slept in, but the clock said 4:18. He didn’t remember Kravitz leaving. He leaned up and rubbed an eye.

      The apartment was completely dark, save for some lights from the street lamps through the windows, and Kravitz’ computer at the kitchen table. Oh there he was, fast asleep, his head on the keyboard. Taako smiled and got up, picking up a blanket and throw pillow from the couch.

      He draped the blanket over Kravitz’ shoulders, carefully tucking it so it wouldn’t fall down. Delicately, he lifted the computer up, and snuck the pillow in before letting his head rest back down. And he still slept on. Taako went to shut the computer, but he stopped to see what Kravitz had been working on.

      It was a website, if Taako was using that word correctly, titled, Everyone’s Story. Or maybe it was a weblog, he realized as he scrolled down the first page. There was a simple black background, with a wide white bar and some fill-in text. Some parts didn’t seem to be working properly yet, but it was an impressive start for just a couple hours. The one link on the page that did seem to be working was to an About the Author page. Taako checked to see if Kravitz was still sleeping before he read,

      I have failed as a documentary photographer. I defined my success by my ability to publish stories, to get them in front of national, international audiences. I defined my success by how many awards I had won, how many cover pages had my photos, how many people wanted to interview me. And now by all my own definitions and most everyone else’s, I have failed.

      Somewhere in the past decade of my career all these other things came to matter more than what should have always been first: the people telling their stories.

      That is why I’m starting this project, Everyone’s Story. Once a week, I’ll post a person’s story that they’ve shared with me here on this blog. I hope you enjoy hearing them as much as I have.

      Every person that I have ever met has a story. Big or small, wise moral or personal reflection, ongoing struggle or past triumph, everyone has a story to tell. And I’d love to share them with you. My name is Kravitz Sinclair, and this is my story.

Chapter Text

     Noelle looked away from the computer screen and scrunched her eyes shut. The stupid lunar bot was due tomorrow. It was so close to being perfect, and most of the project team had left for the night, but she just knew the prof would take five percent off if it kept pulling to the right, so she’d stayed to fix it. Unfortunately, so had Gerald.

     “Before you say anything, picture this with me,” he said in that squeaky voice of his. “On Friday, after finals are all finished, you and I, on a date.”

     “Friday I have--” Noelle began, but Gerald kept talking.

     “We could go to the park, grab something to eat. There’s that really good food truck there, they do those street tacos.”

     “They only serve--”

     “Then, we go for a walk in the park. Nothing high pressure. Nothing fancy. Just you and me, getting to know each other.”

     He wasn’t going to listen to her anyway. She turned back to the computer and kept checking the code.

     “Well? What do you say?”

     “Oh, you’re going to listen to me now?” mumbled Noelle.

     “What is that supposed to mean?” said Gerald.

     There was another typo. Amazing how many there were even in functioning code. By her fifth read-through she should have gotten them all. Still, that shouldn’t be causing these issues.

     “I mean, Gerald, if you had asked me a single question about who I am as a person, you would know exactly what I think about this date idea of yours.” She corrected the typo.

     “What are you talking about?” he scoffed.

     She reached the end of the code and entered the “save” command. “First of all, Friday I have a derby bout. We’ve been practicing a lot and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’m really excited about it, actually.”

     “Then we could do this another day,” he said.

     “No, we can’t. That food truck? I know the one you’re talking about. Sure smells good, but they only serve pork. I can’t eat pork.”

     “Can’t? Oh, Noelle, you don’t need to worry about your figure.” He oozed condescension.

     Noelle gritted her teeth. “Okay, won’t, then. Because I’m Jewish, Gerald. It’s not kosher.”

     “We’ll have something else, then,” he said. “There’s a little cafe over there too. We’ll pick up something after our walk.”

     “Oh, yeah, that’s another thing.” She turned in her chair, so he could see her prosthetic leg under her knee. “I know it doesn’t look like it, but this thing is tough to haul around. I can do it, if I have to, and I don’t get tired easy, but a long walk would be really uncomfortable.”

     Gerald looked genuinely concerned. “I should have asked. I’m awfully sorry.”

     The annoyance bubbling in her gut settled a little. She sighed. “I accept your apology. Would you go up on the catwalk and see if she drives straight now?”

     “Yeah.” He hopped up the stairs. The engineering workshop was set up so that students could work on tall or awkwardly shaped projects from about any angle. The catwalks criss-crossed the ceiling. The bot itself was on a little track outlined in yellow tape. Noelle picked the controller up off the desk and carefully eased it into forward motion while Gerald watched. He shook his head.

     “No good,” he called. “Still pulling to the right.”

     “Ugh.” Noelle let the bot roll to a halt. Gerald hopped down the stairs and rolled it to the reset.

     “Maybe it’s a mechanical problem,” Noelle said, putting the controller back down on the desk and massaging her forehead.

     “Nah, I doubt it. Our mechanics are spot-on. Maybe check the code again?”

     Noelle felt her eye twitch. Of course it was possible she’d missed something. And it was possible that snow would fall on graduation day, too. She knew what this was really about. The team had barely let her touch the actual bot. You’re the best at coding , Merrick had said. Leave the mechanical stuff to us .

     “Maybe we both need a set of fresh eyes,” she said carefully. “Why don’t you check my code, and I’ll check your mechanics?”

     “Okay, but you’re not going to find anything,” said Gerald.

     She got up to let him sit down and strode over to the machine. “Neither are you,” she murmured, and laid down to look at the axles.

     “So not a walk, and not Friday, and somewhere kosher? We can do that,” said Gerald, his face lit by the glow of the monitor.

     “I think you’re maybe missing the point,” said Noelle, examining one of the crownwheel fixings. Was that what she thought it was?

     “Listen, you’re nervous. I understand. It’s hard to believe that you’re beautiful sometimes. Especially… you know. With the arm and the leg.”

     Noelle sat up. “ What ?”

     “But you are beautiful.” He wasn’t even looking at her, just scrolling through her code.

     “My arm and leg are none of your business,” she said.

     “Sorry to bring it up, it’s just--”

     “No. Stop. Just--stop.” She’d interrupt him now, see how he liked it.

     “Listen, I don’t get why--”

     “No! You listen!” She was shouting now, sitting on the floor shouting at someone who wouldn’t even look at her. “I was in a bad accident, okay? Really bad, but the alternative to that bad accident is me being dead.”

     He looked up now, struck silent for once , thank God .

     “I am…” she swallowed, suddenly nervous, but no, he had to hear this. “I am perfectly happy with who I am. I don’t care who thinks I’m beautiful, okay? I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t want to go on a date with you!”

     He frowned. “Jeez. Rude much?”

     “Rude?” she snapped. “You didn’t even ask me! You just told me! And furthermore--” she jabbed her hook at the axle. “This bevel pinion is stripped. How’d y’all miss that? Did you just assume it was my coding?”

     He rolled his eyes and got up to look. “It’s not stripped.”

     She stood up and let him lay down. He was quiet under the bot for a minute.

     “Well?” she said finally.

     “It’s not that bad,” he grumbled.

     “It’s enough to make it pull to the right,” she said, marching over to the toolbox. “Get a new one. We’ll replace it.”

     “We’ll have to take apart the whole rear axle setup!” he protested, pulling himself out from under the bot.

     “You want to lose that extra five percent or what?” She hauled the toolbox over. He huffed and headed for the scrap pile.

     Noelle put the jack under the bot and pumped the lever. Gerald joined her in a minute with a new bevel pinion. She handed him a wrench and they went to work.

     “So who is it, then?” said Gerald after a few minutes.

     “Who’s what?” asked Noelle.

     “What guy are you into if not me?”

     “No guy,” said Noelle. “It’s nothing special about you.”

     His eyes went wide. “You hang out with all those dy--”

     “Don’t you say it,” she said, pointing a wrench at him.

     He leaned away. “Lesbians. You’re into girls, then.”

     “No! I’m not into anyone!”

     “Hey, it’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s actually kind of sexy.”

     “Do you hear yourself talk sometimes?” she demanded. “I’m not a lesbian, and even if I was--”

     “Then what’s the answer?” he said. “Boys or girls? C’mon, Noelle.”

     She snatched the bevel pinion from his hand with her prosthesis. “I’m into science.”

 

     Noelle stood at the back of the group, trying to keep from falling asleep, while the others demonstrated the bot to Professor Hudson. It wasn’t pulling to the right anymore, and the code was perfect, and that was all that mattered.

     “You’ve made a lot of improvements,” Professor Hudson said, looking at her clipboard. “I see you finally found that mechanical issue.”

     “What mechanical issue?” said team leader Merrick.

     “The one that was screwing with the steering,” said Gerald.

     “Did you fix that last night?” Merrick asked.

     “Yeah, yeah,” said Gerald, who looked as though he’d been drinking coffee for days. Noelle blinked a few times. Something about this was important.

     “So you found the issue?” Professor Hudson asked Gerald.

     Pay attention, Noelle, pay attention.

     “Yeah, we uh--”

     “It was me!” she piped up.

     Professor Hudson looked at her for what may have been the first time that semester. “I’m sorry?”

     “I found the issue,” Noelle said. “It was a partially stripped bevel pinion on the back axle.”

     “Really?” She raised one eyebrow. “What took you so long to find it?”

     “I was focused on the coding, ma’am,” she said. God, she must be out of her mind, speaking up like that. It was probably the sleep deprivation.

     The professor turned her gaze on the team. “And the rest of you? Why was it only last night you discovered this?”

     “We thought it was a problem with the coding,” mumbled Merrick.

     “Why would you build a bot with a partially stripped bevel pinion in the first place?” asked Professor Hudson.

     None of the boys knew how to answer. Noelle didn’t either. She’d been asking herself the same thing when she occasionally drifted into lucidity. Professor Hudson glanced at her. Was it Noelle’s imagination, or had the professor just looked sympathetic?

     “Some of your design choices are a little impractical, and you’re just at the threshold of what I consider a reasonable weight to launch into space, but overall, well done.” She scribbled something down on her clipboard and passed out four pieces of paper. “Have a good summer.”

     “Eighty-seven? Hell yes.” Gerald high-fived Merrick.

     “God, I’m so glad that’s over,” sighed Merrick.

     Noelle looked at her paper. At the bottom of the sheet, on the “Final Grade” line, it said, 92%.

     She hugged the paper to herself and smiled.

Chapter Text

     Merle dropped his keys on the counter and flipped on the radio.

     “--and welcome one and all to the country music hour. I’m Hekuba Roughridge, and--”

     Merle switched it off again and went to the living room instead. His record player sat on a shelf. He put on Willie Nelson and went back to the kitchen.

     The little message recorder by the phone was blinking. He held out a hand to push the playback button, but hesitated and glared at the radio instead. “You can wait, you nag.”

     Instead he pulled out a frying pan, some butter, some eggs, and some spinach, and made himself a veggie omelet.

     “ I just never took the time ,” he hummed along with the record, whisking the eggs. “ You were always on my mind …”

     He poured out the eggs and watched it sizzle. It needed to sit a minute. Better bite the bullet. He reached over and pressed the playback.

     “ Beep . Merle? It’s Hekuba. Next weekend I’m going to a conference. You’ll have the kids an extra day. I swear to god, if I hear they got to swim lessons late again, there’ll be hell to pay.”

     “Mehh, hell to pay,” Merle mimicked. Mavis must have told her about last time. It seemed Mavis hadn’t told her why, though, or he’d be getting an entirely different lecture about fire safety. Merle wondered what she thought happened to Mookie’s eyebrows.

     “ Beep .”

     Oh, a second message today? Probably the United Way or something.

     “Hi, Mr. Highchurch? It’s Charlie Boyland.”

     Huh, that was weird. Merle flipped over his omelet and slid it onto a plate. Why would Boyland’s oldest be calling him?

     “I, uh. I’ve got some bad news. Dad’s in the hospital. It’s uhh. It’s not looking good. He’s been in and out of lucidity all day but he was just asking for you and I thought you might want to see him before… well he’s in room 205 at St. Jude’s. It’s about… 3:30 in the afternoon right now.”

     Charlie went on talking, but Merle had already put down his plate, switched off the stove, and picked up his keys again. The door slammed shut behind him.

     In a minute, the record quietly ran out.

 

     Merle knocked at the hospital room door. It was closed, and all the blinds were drawn. Charlie was the one who opened it. His eyes were red.

     “I’m sorry, Mr. Highchurch, you’re too late.”

     Merle didn’t recognize his own voice saying, “No, I can’t. I can’t be too late.”

     Charlie nodded sadly and opened the door.

     The room was full of Boyland’s family, which wasn’t difficult; the man had nineteen sons and two daughters. Despite this, the room was quiet. Six or seven of the boys were crying, being comforted by other boys. The two daughters, who were eight and eighteen, were holding hands silently on the floor by their mother. Barbara Boyland was the only person in an actual chair, cradling Boyland’s youngest, who was two years old and asleep.

     All this centered on an empty hospital bed. Merle tottered inside, hesitantly. He was an intrusion in this place, an unneeded old man in a room grieving another old man. It felt like stepping into church.

     “Hi, Merle,” said Barbara softly.

     Merle nodded a hello, unable to tear his eyes away from the bed. The sheets weren’t even stripped off yet. He’d been right here.

     “How did it happen so fast?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

     “A stroke,” said Charlie.

     “And how long--”

     “About an hour now,” said Barbara. “Not long after Charlie called you.”

     “If I’d gotten the message sooner--”

     “You wouldn’t have been able to talk to him,” said Charlie. “He was delirious for a pretty long time.”

     “Could’ve… seen him. At least.” Merle reached out to touch the sheets. His throat felt thick. “You bastard.”

 

     The funeral was three days later.

     It was really more of a memorial service. Boyland hadn’t seen the point in coffins and ceremony, but nevertheless the service went on for hours. Each one of his children spoke, oldest to youngest, starting with Charlie.

     “I wouldn’t be in medical school if it weren’t for dad,” said Charlie.

     “He came to almost all of my swim meets,” said Beebee, “even the ones where we had to get up at four in the morning to drive there.”

     “Dad showed me how to change a tire,” said Andrew. “I teach people all the time now.”

     “Daddy quizzed me all the time for mathletes,” said Tyler. “I’d never be state champion without him.”

     “He taught me how to make a paper plane,” said Henry, and then demonstrated.

     “Daddy always drew pictures for my stories,” said Rissa, showing off a handmade book. “He said they weren’t good, but I liked them.”

     “What do you love about Daddy?” Barbara asked little Patrick.

     “He makes sprinkle pancakes,” he said, with all the solemnity a two-year-old can muster.

     Merle thought he’d be bored, but he was struck by how much time Boyland must have spent with each kid. The man had never even hinted. Merle used to think Boyland was just a homebody. It turned out he was working hard on the nights he wouldn’t go for a drink with Merle.

     “Thank you for giving us all a chance to speak.” Barbara addressed the audience, which was considerable. “We only have one more person left, a man who knew my husband the longest.”

     Merle’s turn. He hadn’t wanted to speak, hadn’t known what to say, but Barbara was right. He’d known Boyland for years, and it seemed only fitting. He stood up and took the podium at the front of the church.

     “I’m Merle Highchurch,” he said. He cleared his throat. There were a lot of people in this room. Merle looked at the back wall, trying to ignore the weight of the listening silence. “Uh. Boyland hated this story. Truth be told I don’t like it either, but I think… I think it should be heard. The story starts by saying that Boyland’s the reason I lost my arm.

     “He and I were in ‘Nam together. Some of you might know, he was a sergeant, and a good soldier. I was a medic, and a pretty terrible soldier. I had tried to dodge the draft, unsuccessfully. Wasn’t even really good at that. But I’d had a year of nursing school, so they put me in charge of helping folks.

     “We weren’t in the thick of the fighting. We never got the worst of it, and we always had backup. It came as somewhat of a shock when the Kong attacked our camp one night. Set off a shrapnel bomb right near my medical station. I took a shard of metal to my arm.

     “We managed to beat them back, only had a few casualties, but there was no one to pull the shrapnel out of my arm, so I had to do it myself. Did a pretty rotten job of it. I missed some.

     “Over the next few weeks it got pretty badly infected. I was really sick, but trying to hide it because I just knew they’d chop off my arm, and I’d be another sad case of a war-ravaged veteran back home. It got worse and worse.”

     Merle cleared his throat again, remembering. He brought his attention back forward.

     “I made myself pretty damn unlikeable on principle. I was a big hippie then, or I thought I was, and I made a big deal of not wanting to be there. People avoided me, or if they noticed I was sick, they thought I was faking to go home. It was Boyland who ordered me to take off my jacket and shirt to see it, and it was Boyland who dragged me over to another medic’s tent. There was gangrene, and it stank to high heaven. Much longer and I would have died. Boyland’s the reason I lost my arm, but he’s also the reason I’m still here today.”

     Merle paused, lost in thought for a moment. He hadn’t planned this part, but he was going to say it anyway, he supposed.

     “If there’s one thing we can learn from Boyland, let it be to pay attention.”

     He stepped down. The preacher said, “Thank you, Mr. Highchurch. Please stand and join in singing the departed’s favorite hymn.”

     The organ struck up, and it was all fiddling with programs for a moment to see the words. Merle pulled his out and stared through it, mouthing along rather than singing.

Encourage my soul

And let us journey on

For the night is dark

And I am far from home

     “I never knew that about him,” whispered Barbara, leaning over to Merle. “Thank you.”

Thanks be to God

The morning light appears.

The storm is passing over…

     Merle felt himself choke up.

 

     “Next up, I’d like to play a song in honor of a friend of mine who passed away this week.”

     Mavis opened the back door and slid across the backseat. Mookie followed and slammed the door behind him. Merle checked the rearview mirror to see if they were putting on seatbelts.

     “Hi Dad,” said Mavis. “Is that Mom on the radio?”

     “Yep,” he said. Hekuba had approached him at the funeral, and they’d had their first civil conversation in about six years. She’d asked him what song Boyland would have liked her to play. He’d forgotten; Boyland was her friend too.

     “You don’t listen to Mom usually,” said Mavis, a little accusatorily.

     “Maybe you’re just not around when I do,” said Merle.

     “It’s ‘cause she’s gonna talk about Rissa’s dad,” said Mookie. “Rissa said so.”

     “--loved by his children, his wife, and his friends. He will be missed.” The song began to play as Merle pulled out of the rec center parking lot. Merle wasn’t sure Hekuba would actually play it--she’d made such a face when he suggested it, but there it was, Johnny Cash singing “These Hands.”

     “Rissa went to lessons?” said Mavis. “Henry and Tyler didn’t.”

     “Yeah, but she went to the locker room halfway through and didn’t come back.”

     “It’s so sad,” said Mavis.

     They were quiet for a little while, listening to the music play.

     “Don’t die, okay?” said Mookie, looking furiously at the back of Merle’s head.

     Merle felt something hard in his chest melt right away. “I’ll do my best.”

     Merle stared at the road, thinking about twenty-one kids with memories of their father, and one old man who should take his own advice. He hesitated, but not for long.

     “So. Mavis. How were lessons?” he asked haltingly.

     Mavis looked up at him, surprised. “Um. Good, I guess. I learned the breaststroke.”

     Merle nodded. “Good. Good. How… did it go?”

     Mavis squinted. “The way you kick is weird. I don’t like it as much as backstroke, but it was okay.”

     “Good. How about you, Fireball?”

     “Zack B. peed in the pool.” Mookie made an ugly face, and then relaxed it. “But I found a cockroach in the deep end.”

     Merle chuckled. “What did you do with it?”

     “I traded it for a Pokemon card. See?” Mookie pulled something yellow and blue out of his pocket.

     “Now what the heck’s Pokemon?”

     The song on the radio ended, and was followed by a commercial for a tire place, and the three of them went home.

Chapter Text

     “Practice is over, Angus,” Lucretia called over the half-wall around the flat rink.

     “Aw, beans,” said Angus, who was trying to skate backwards.

     “Hey,” she said with mock sternness. “Who taught you how to swear?”

     Angus giggled and skated to the wall.

     Lucretia smiled a little and turned to leave. Merle intercepted her. “Lucretia,” he said. “Question for you. Don’t suppose you’d give up coaching for a while to be a ref.”

     “What do you think?” she said.

     Merle sighed. “Didn’t think so. Damn, where am I going to find new refs?”

     Lucretia paused. She’d heard about Boyland. “Refs plural?”

     “Magnus just told me his next game will be his last,” Merle said. “Conflict of interest or whatever.”

     Lucretia raised her eyebrows. “Did he now? Well I’m not going to have any less of a conflict. You know I’ve played here for years.”

     “I know it,” grumbled Merle.

     “Can we borrow refs from other rinks?” she asked.

     “I’ve already called around. They’re all volunteer refs too, nobody’s willing to make the drive.”

     “Is the B.o.B going to have to forfeit?” asked Angus from the half-wall at the rink.

     Merle shrugged. “If it comes to that, maybe. And there goes my most popular attraction at this place. You don’t know anyone who could help?”

     Lucretia considered. “I’m meeting a friend on Thursday who might have something. I’ll let you know.”

     “I appreciate it.” Merle nodded and walked away.

 

     Lucretia thought about what Merle had said all week, which was only a distraction, and she didn’t need those. She’d been trying to buy flights for her boss, and today in particular the airline was being a pain.

     “You’re certain those flights are full up?” she asked the phone in her right hand, jotting down the times with her left. Brian was going to kick up a fuss about having a layover. “Even first class?” She sighed. “Yes, of course. All right, one seat on the four fifteen, then.” She set the phone in the crook of her neck, passed her pen to her right hand to keep writing, and reached for Brian’s flight info with her left. “Last name is Schwarze-Spinne. Yes, with a hyphen. S-C-H-W-A-R-Z-E. Spinne with two n’s and an e.”

     The little light on her phone that was the bane of her existence lit up. Brian wanted her attention, and immediately. She sighed and tried not to channel her vitriol into this conversation. “Yes, that information is correct. Thank you. Yes. Thanks.” She traded her pen back to her left hand, very carefully hung up and did not slam down the phone, and then she picked up a clipboard and opened the door to the boss’s office. “Yes Brian?”

     “Ah, Lucretia,” Brian said, steepling his thin fingers. “Yes, I need to look you in ze eyes and make sure that you’re going to get my lunch order right.”

     Lucretia held her pen at the ready. “Of course, Brian.”

     “Right, I vould like a sprout sandvich, yes? Bean sprouts, turkey, and zat good cranberry spread zey do. Please get it right zis time.”

     Lucretia tightened her jaw. “And if they don’t have the cranberry spread?”

     “I’m sure you’ll figure somesing out.” He waved a hand. “Zat’s all.”

     Lucretia didn’t budge. “Sir, have you given any more thought to the raise I asked you about?”

     Brian gave her a look of sad condescension. “Lucretia, you are doing adequate work at a job zat is really not very hard. Maybe if you show some more initiative I’ll consider, yes? But not at zis time.”

     “Yes, sir.” Lucretia took this as a dismissal and left the office. She made sure the door was closed behind her before she said, “Eurotrash.”

     “Pardon me?”

     Lucretia looked up. There was a man waiting at her desk, a fairly good-looking guy with a long but tasteful ponytail and some serious cheekbones. He looked maybe Native American. He was holding a clipboard too.

     “Hello,” she said, putting on her most professional voice and taking a seat at her desk. “Do you have an appointment?”

     “No, I’m actually here to see you,” he said. “You’re Lucretia Moreau?”

     “I am.” She frowned. “What’s this about?”

     “Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong,” he said. “My name is Brad. I’m from H.R. I’m just here to ask you a few questions.”

     Lucretia checked her watch. She had lunch at 12:30, and if she wanted to get Brian his precious sandwich with time to have a full break, she should leave now. “I’ll answer questions, but do you mind if we walk and talk?”

     “Not at all,” said Brad.

     Lucretia grabbed the company credit card and left her blazer behind--it was too hot out to look professional in a deli--and walked through the office. Brad followed.

     “So Miss Moreau--”

     “Mrs.”

     “My apologies. Mrs. Moreau, you’ve been working here for three years now, is that correct?”

     “Yes, that’s right.” Stairs or elevator? Maybe elevator today, her knee had been acting up this morning. She strode over to the doors and hit the down button.

     “Based on our records, you were hired out of a fairly limited pool of applicants.”

     Lucretia wasn’t surprised by this. As far as she’d been able to tell when she applied, the position was cursed.

     “I’m going to be frank with you,” said Brad, looking under a paper on his clipboard. “Based on your resume, you were not expected to do well.”

     Ah, yes, her resume, which consisted of her high school diploma, a smattering of college classes, and a large chunk of time when she was unemployed, followed by a minimum wage job at a roller rink. Not exactly a business professional ideal. The elevator arrived, and they stepped inside. Lucretia pushed the button for the ground floor.

     “Thing is, though, you are doing well. Extremely well.” Brad let the paper fall flat on his clipboard. “I don’t need to tell you that Brian is very difficult to work for.”

     “You’ve got that right,” Lucretia muttered. The elevator dinged and the door opened; Lucretia crossed the lobby of the office building and pushed her way through the revolving doors. The Clinton Building was the biggest buildings downtown, and the only one with more than three stories. Lucretia always thought it was pretty ugly, a dumb pseudo-skyscraper in what was otherwise a comfortable downtown area. It was, however, right next door to the deli.

     Brad followed her out the door, waiting to speak further until they were in line at the deli. “I’ll also tell you that you hold the record for the longest lasting P.A. since Brian began as regional director in ‘87. No one else has lasted longer than a year, especially right before you applied.”

     “Get to the point, Brad,” said Lucretia.

     “I suppose what we’re all wondering--that is, everyone over in H.R.--is how you do it. How do you put up with that guy?”

     Lucretia considered. “I’ve been here two years longer than anyone else?”

     “That’s right.”

     “Huh. Hold that thought.” She smiled at the deli worker. “Hi, I was wondering if you had that good cranberry spread today?”

     “Sure do,” said the gal behind the counter.

     “Great. Could I get eight ounces of that spread, and a turkey and sprout sandwich with it as well?”

     “You got it,” said the woman, and went to work. Lucretia allowed herself a sigh. No more fits over lack of cranberry spread, not if she had anything to say about it. How was that for initiative, Brian?

     Ha, that was the answer, then. “You know, Brad? I think I stay on out of spite.”

     Brad looked concerned. “Spite?”

     “Yeah. That, and I probably need the job more than most. Oh, thank you.” She accepted the small plastic container and the sandwich from the woman and handed over the company card. “I mean, let’s be honest. You’ve seen my resume. What else am I going to do?”

     “You might be surprised,” he said. “Time as Brian’s P.A. carries a lot of weight.”

     “Really? It’s not like I could get a good reference from him.”

     The woman handed back the credit card and a receipt. “Thank you, have a nice day!”

     “You too,” said Lucretia. She and Brad exited the deli.

     “You know,” Brad said. “If you couldn’t get one from him, you could get one from me. It’s truly astounding. You’re a little bit famous.”

     Lucretia straightened a little. She liked the sound of that. “I just channel all the rage into roller derby.”

     “What’s roller derby?” asked Brad, as they entered the revolving doors.

     Lucretia looked to him, and smiled wickedly.

 

     “I can’t believe you told H.R. that you stay at your job out of spite,” cackled Maureen.

     “It’s true, though!” said Lucretia.

     “I wouldn’t have believed this from anyone but you,” she said.

     They were sitting at Pour Joe’s, sharing a pot of tea over their sack lunches. They tried to do this once a month, although it was tough with Maureen’s teaching schedule and Brian breathing down Lucretia’s neck.

     “What else, then?” asked Maureen. “How’s your knee?”

     “Holding me back, as usual, but no worse than normal,” said Lucretia. “How’s your son?”

     Maureen scoffed. “I swear, you let a kid move out and suddenly he’s convinced he’s the adult in this relationship. Yesterday he tried to lecture me about how a serious scientist shouldn’t have her derby team picture in her office.”

     “Did you tell him that a serious scientist doesn’t blow up undergrads?” said Lucretia.

     “Something to that effect. He’s learning, though. The part-time job is good for him. He’ll be a more humble scientist when his suspension is over.”

     “Where did he get this ghost-hunting idea from anyway?”

     “Who knows? That damn fool sci-fi show he watches, maybe. With Moldy and the scullery maid.”

     Lucretia thought about this. “Are you talking about X-Files ?”

     “I thought that was a comic.”

     “No, that’s X-Men.”

     Maureen shrugged and poured herself more tea. “Who can keep track? Not me.”

     “I actually wanted to ask you about derby. We lost two of our refs this month.”

     Maureen grimaced. “I was at Boyland’s service. What a shame.”

     “And the other one started dating one of my players, so he quit.”

     Maureen took a long drink of her tea, eyes narrowed. “I don’t like that at all. We had a name for boys who helped with roller derby just to get in the girls’ pants. Do you remember what it was?”

     “Dicks?” said Lucretia, chuckling. “Yeah, but this one’s okay. I’m more concerned that we’ll have to start forfeiting.”

     “So what do you want me to do?” asked Maureen. “Be a ref?”

     “If you’re up for it.”

     “And why wouldn’t I be up for it?” she said haughtily. “You think just because I’m getting on in years that I can’t still outskate any of you whippersnappers?”

     “I don’t know,” wheedled Lucretia. “It’s been a long time since you were coach. Even longer since you were a player.”

     “Do yourself a favor and don’t write checks your body can’t cash, gimpy,” said Maureen. Lucretia laughed, and Maureen smiled. “Anyone still on the team that I know?”

     “Beauty and the Beast and Jule Be Sorry are still there. Everyone else is new.”

     “I can’t wait to call them on every single penalty,” said Maureen. “I’m in.”

     “Great! I’ll tell Merle.” One down, thought Lucretia…

Chapter Text

     Angus thought hard about what Merle had said, about needing new refs. It was a puzzle, for sure. Who was enough of a fan of roller derby to come to every bout? No one, except him maybe, and he still couldn’t skate well enough to do a good job. Also he was eleven. He wasn’t sure that was allowed.

     He thought about it when he walked to the elementary school, where there was a Summer Program for Children Twelve And Under. He thought about it during Free Play on the playground. He thought about it during Indoor Quiet Play inside, when most of the kids were playing board games or reading. He did not think about it, however, when it was time for Team Play. He thought about how much he really hated Team Play.

     Lately they’d been playing basketball, and it was mandatory. The component parts of basketball were easy enough. Angus could shoot at a hoop and make it most of the time, provided he was standing still. Basketball rarely included standing still, though. When they actually played, Angus was usually picked last for teams and only actually had to get on the court when Coach Roswell made them play the bench.

     Unfortunately, today Coach Roswell made them play the bench.

     “Come on, Angus,” shouted the coach. “Get hustling!”

     Angus picked up his pace a little. Now that he was skating all the time it was easier to keep up with the action, but that didn’t guarantee anyone passing him the ball. He was supposedly playing point guard, but it was hard to do much guarding when everyone was faster and taller than him.

     The other team’s offense got the ball, so back Angus ran to guard his basket. If he was lucky, the ball would stay on the opposite side of the court and--

     Oh god, oh god, it was coming right for him, oh god, he caught it, oh god--

     “What do I do!” he wailed.

     “Pass it!” said a voice, and he did, blindly, a solid chest pass toward the voice--

     Pwunk . The ball hit someone’s face.

     Coach Roswell blew their whistle. “Time-out! Hang on!” They jogged to the middle of court. Angus didn’t dare look.

     “Ow,” someone said. Well that didn’t sound so bad. Angus snuck a peek.

     “Oh god!” he said, because he’d hit June, and now her nose was gushing blood.

     “I’m all right,” June insisted.

     “That’s enough for today, everyone,” said the coach. “It’s the end of the day anyway. June, let’s get you to the nurse.”

     The volunteer who escorted them from place to place had them line up and led them back to a classroom. Angus felt terrible.

     “Good job, foster kid,” said someone behind him, and someone else snickered. Angus wondered if it was possible to burst into flames from humiliation.

     The end of Team Play was the end of the day, but the thought of walking past all those kids waiting for their parents was nearly unbearable, so Angus stuffed his things in his backpack and escaped to the school library, which was mercifully open all summer.

     Just walking inside calmed him. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of books.

     Caleb Cleveland, kid cop, would never have hit someone in the face with a basketball. He might have been hit in the face with a basketball if it was a clue, but he was much too clever to panic in the midst of a basketball game.

     “Psst.”

     Angus opened his eyes. It was the librarian. She looked left and right theatrically, and then revealed from under her desk a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban .

     Angus’ face lit up. “You got it?”

     “Been saving it for you all week,” she said, and handed it over. “Go ahead and put your name in there.”

     Angus dug a pencil out of his pocket and put his name down on the card inside the book, along with the date. He accepted the book reverently. “Thank you!”

     She winked. “It’s a good one. You can’t tell me how it ends, though, I haven’t finished it yet.”

     Angus ran his hand along the spine. Ron might hit someone in the face with a basketball. He’d be sorry about it, though. Harry might, if he was being especially introspective at the time. Even Hermione might, although she’d probably do it on purpose.

     “Thank you,” he said again. “I think I need to go.”

     “Enjoy that book,” said the librarian, waving as he left.

 

     By the time Angus got outside, most everyone had left, which suited him. He opened the school doors to find June, holding a wad of paper towels to her nose. He hesitated.

     “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”

     “I know,” said June. “It’s okay.”

     “Does it hurt?”

     June shrugged. “The nurse said my nose wasn’t broken. I just need to wait for it to stop bleeding.”

     Angus grimaced. “Did you miss your ride because of me?”

     Again, she shrugged. “I hate that bus anyway.” June was a foster kid too, and all the foster kids went to the Summer Program.

     Angus had another question, but he paused. They’d been in the same group home, before… well before things got better for Angus. June had had to stay. There were times when they’d banded together back then, for survival, but they weren’t ever really friends. June was tougher than he was.

     Aw, heck it. “Do you want to walk home together?”

     “You don’t live there anymore,” she said.

     “I don’t live far away.”

     “It’ll take a long time to walk there.”

     “Only about thirty-five minutes.”

     June made a face. “We’d have to walk through the gross part of town.”

     On this matter, she was right, but Angus shrugged. “I walk through there almost every day. What are you going to do otherwise?”

     “Wait two hours for them to pick up the kids from soccer practice.” She grimaced. “Okay, let’s go.”

     They set off down the street, not saying anything for a bit. After a few minutes, Angus asked, “Do you still read Caleb Cleveland?”

     She smiled a little. “Yeah. Did you read the one with the murder on the train?”

     “And the lockbox with the handprint scanner! That was a good one.”

     “How quick did you guess the bad guy this time?”

     Angus smiled. “Page 34. A new record.”

     “Wow. I didn’t get it until the thing with the hands.”

     Angus made a face. “Gross. Have you read Harry Potter?”

     “The first one. I can’t find the second one anywhere.”

     “That’s ‘cause the new one just came out and everyone’s trying to catch up. The librarian has a special copy. She let me borrow it. I’m sure she’d let you too, if you asked.”

     “Thanks, Angus.” June smiled, wad of paper towels still stuffed up against her nose.

     They were quiet for a while longer.

     “Do you like living with your grandpa?” she asked.

     Angus nodded. “It’s not like we used to talk about. You know. With parents. But it’s better.”

     “Good.”

     They walked a little farther.

     “What about the home?”

     June had a determined look on her face. “It’s not as bad as it used to be.”

     “Well good.”

     “Hey! Hey, you kids!”

     They both turned to look across the street. Coach Roswell was coming towards them on a pair of skates. Coach Roswell was tall and quite fat, but Angus had never seen them out of breath in all the years they’d been his P.E. teacher and Team Play coach. Seeing them on skates was like seeing a living balloon.

     “Hi, Coach,” said June.

     “What are you up to?” they asked.

     “Walking home,” said Angus.

     “Do you live around here?” Coach seemed alarmed. They were well into the gross part of town by now, although Magnus lived nearby, Angus was pretty sure.

     “No, we’ve got a little ways to go,” said Angus. “It’s okay, though.”

     Coach capitulated for a moment or two. “It’s not really safe for you two to be walking alone through here. Do you mind if I…god, I don’t know. Make sure you make it to the other side of Elm Street at least?”

     Angus looked to June. She gave a curt nod. “Okay,” Angus said.

     They carried on, Coach gliding along in the gutter beside them. “I didn’t know you skated, Coach,” said Angus.

     “It’s a hobby,” they replied.

     “I’m learning how to skate too,” said Angus. “If I get good enough I could be a ref for roller derby.”

     “Where have you seen roller derby?” asked Coach. “TV? Do they put that on TV now?”

     “No, Coach, I watch my friends play about every week. At the Adventure Zone.”

     “At that crappy--” Coach checked themself. “They have a league?”

     “Yeah, a small one,” said Angus. A thought occurred, a very good thought. “They need a referee. Really bad. Someone to keep the players safe.”

     “Do they.” Coach rolled along. “You know, Angus, you could play roller derby yourself.”

     “I don’t think I’m tough enough,” said Angus. “And anyway, we don’t have a boy’s league.”

     “They’ve got one in Neverwinter,” said Coach. “I’ve played both leagues."

     “I just think it’s more fun to watch,” said Angus.

     “Are the refs volunteer? Do you know?” asked the coach.

     “Yes,” said Angus, “except for the head ref, I think, but the head ref just quit.”

     “Huh.”

     They were quiet for a little longer. June pulled the paper towels away from her nose, dabbed a couple times, and then crumpled up the towels in her fist. “So I found an old book you’d like. Encyclopedia Brown .”

     “Is it a detective story?” asked Angus.

     “It’s short stories, and they’re all really good. You have to solve the mysteries yourself.”

     They continued on, Coach Roswell listening silently beside them.

 

     Merle shuffled the papers in front of him and stared at the calculator. Nope. No way this place was staying open without derby, and no more derby without at least one more ref. He’d even tried calling the league in Neverwinter, but they had exclusivity rules about unofficial leagues. They’d offered to call some people for him, but they didn’t sound optimistic.

     He put down his calculator and took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes. No more. He had to clean the hot dog machine and clear out free skate.

     He stumbled out of the tiny office. Maybe it was for the best. It wasn’t as though he’d asked for this. The flower shop was what he really loved, what made money, what relaxed him. This place had been foisted on him against his will. It was just a…

     Sloane and her little girlfriend, Hurley, entered through the back door. They waved when they saw him and headed to the locker room. Angus was skating along the wall of the rink and gave him a, “Hello, sir!” as he passed. Lucretia was putting on her skates in the center of the derby track. She nodded when he caught her eye.

     This was a community, that’s what it was. Ah, hell, he couldn’t give up just yet.

     Merle went to the gate in the derby track and let himself in. “Lucretia, you talk to your friend?”

     “I did,” said Lucretia. “You remember Maureen Miller?”

     Merle raised his eyebrows. “She founded the league, ‘course I remember her.”

     “She said she’d like to be a ref. Here, ask me after practice, I’ll give you her number.”

     “Thanks,” said Merle, surprising himself with how much he meant it. He felt considerably lighter as he strolled over to the DJ booth and announced that free skate would be over in ten minutes.

     As all the skaters but Angus left the rink, Merle headed over to concessions. Robbie was packing up.

     “I’ll close today,” said Merle. “I’ve got to stick around for derby practice anyhow.”

     “Oh, jeez, thanks,” said Robbie, poorly concealing a boat of nachos behind his back.

     “Yeah, yeah, don’t mention it.” Merle took the last two hot dogs out of the machine with the tongs and pulled out the good scouring brush. Robbie not-so-subtly took them, laid them on top of his nachos, and pulled down the grate in the window of the concessions stand.

     There was something sort of zen about scrubbing down the hot dog machine. Merle had been at it a few minutes when he heard someone say, “I don’t get why you’re mad at me.”

     It sounded like Magnus’ voice, floating through the grate. Merle shouldn’t eavesdrop.

     He tried to scrub a little more quietly.

     “I’m not mad at you.” That was the team captain, Julia. Oh boy, was she lying. Merle had heard that tone before.

     “Are you sure? Because that’s what it feels like.”

     “All right, I’m a little mad. I wish you would have told me!”

     “What would that accomplish? I’d still have to quit.”

     “That’s not the point.”

     “I mean, I’m trying to do the right thing here.”

     “I know. As usual.” She sounded a little resentful.

     Merle could practically hear Magnus gritting his teeth.

     “You want to actually talk to me?” he said, and his tone wasn’t combative so much as pleading. “Please? I’m trying to understand.”

     “I don’t know! I don’t know.” She huffed. “I know you can’t really ref anymore. That’s fair. You’re right. But this is how we met! I don’t want to lose this. You know?”

     “Yeah. Okay, that makes sense.”

     “Does it?” This wasn’t combative either, she was genuinely asking.

     “Yeah, yeah. In that case I am sorry. I didn’t know it meant this much to you.”

     “I guess I didn’t either.” She didn’t sound upset anymore.

     Merle stopped scrubbing. Had he ever had a conversation like that with Hekuba? One that ended in understanding?

     “I’ll still come to every bout. I wouldn’t miss seeing you play.”

     “It’s not the same.”

     “I know.”

     “Julia, you’re late.” This was Lucretia’s voice.

     “I know, I’m sorry.”

     “Go gear up. Magnus, I’m glad I caught you. I need to take on an assistant coach. Are you interested?”

     There was a moment of silence. “W--yeah, I mean, yes. Absolutely.”

     “You mean it?” said Julia’s voice.

     “I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while, as it happens,” said Lucretia. “The girls and Taako all like you. It just works out.”

     “Okay, sure! When do I start?”

     “Right now, if you’ve got skates.”

     “Yeah, I’ll go grab them.”

     Merle smiled to himself and kept scrubbing. He wasn’t the only one who was suddenly having a good day, it seemed.

     He was about halfway done, hearing the rattle of skates on the track and the background noise of practice when he heard someone say, “Hey, Angus?”

     “Oh, hi, Coach!”

     “Hi. Who’s in charge of this place?”

     “Mr. Highchurch is! I think he’s in the concessions stand. Are you here to ask about being a ref?”

     “We’ll see. Thanks, Angus.”

     The day just kept getting better and better. Merle tried to brush the black burnt flakes off his shirt and turned around. “Hi there, what can I--” He paused.

     The person on the other side of the grate was the roundest person he had ever seen. They filled the window. “Good evening. I was told you might have a volunteer position open for refereeing roller derby?”

     “I certainly do, sir.” The person frowned, and Merle panicked. “Uh--ma’am--”

     “Coach will do. Or Roswell.”

     “Right. Coach. Let me join you out there.” Merle hung up his scouring brush. Unconventional, that was the word he was thinking. Just like everything else in this league. How fitting.

Chapter Text

     Kravitz typed in the numbers in his calculator and he frowned at the result. He pulled off the long strip of paper from the top of it, and double-checked his inputs. He had been accurate, and that was the problem.

     He scratched at the top of his head and took a deep breath. It’s fine. Just think about it logically, he reminded himself. What could be cut? He already didn’t have cable, but he needed to keep the phone and dial-up for his job, or rather his attempt at one. He frowned some more and then scratched off the ‘Eating Out’ line of his budget. Maybe if he went to that discount grocery store instead, he could cut another $50 out of his grocery budget. Thank goodness he’d paid his car off last year, or that would have been a major headache. But gas prices were ever rising. Faerun was relatively small, he could walk. He looked over his shoulder at a bag of lenses still on the moving box from where Taako had placed them. Or maybe he could sell some equipment and get a bike. But what if he needed the gear in the future? Okay, we’ll come back to transportation .

     Maybe if he signed a year-long lease he could get a reduction on his rent. Month-to-month was always more expensive. Or maybe he should move. Rent in Neverwinter would be more expensive, but there might be more job opportunities there. But Taako was here, as was Lucretia and the rest of the team. Oh, he was getting bogged down in possibilities again. He set the pen down and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was getting more and more difficult to make budget cuts logically when reality kept being tied to emotions.

     He glanced at the clock. If he left now, he could make it over to Sazed’s before they closed. He wanted to see Taako; just the sight of him always lifted Kravitz’s mood. Hacking the budget could wait.

     The heat fell like a heavy wet blanket on him as soon as he opened the door. Sweat immediately started gathering on the backs of his knees. Even still, he took off walking. It was only half a mile away.

     Three blocks later, he very much regretted his decision. The downtown sidewalks were deserted, everyone rightfully inside to avoid the oppressive mugginess. He passed by The Pothead and the former King Crab Jewelers, now long since closed and boarded up like a lot of the stores in the downtown area. A sign in the window of 27 Springs across the street caught his eye. Help Wanted. He stopped and looked at it for a minute, before crossing the street and going inside.

     Kravitz pushed open the door to Sazed’s Bakery and an electronic chime sounded. Three people turned to look at him with absolute delight on their wrinkled faces.

     “Taako, your boyfriend is here,” the one with the bejeweled cat eye glasses called.

     “Yes, Joan. I can see him too.” Taako stood up from behind the baked goods display. He waved at him with a smile. Oh, these were the ladies from the pottery shop.

     “How are you today, Kravitz?” asked the one that Kravitz was pretty sure was Tracy. Her nails were a bright red, and this time her sweater read ‘Yes, I do have a retirement plan. I plan on knitting.’

     “I’m well, Tracy,” he replied with a smile. She tittered to Grace on her left.

     “Are you here to see Taako?” Grace asked. She was obviously the youngest of the three, her face round and eager. “You two are such good good boys together.”

     “Well, I'm happy you think so,” Kravitz replied, chuckling a little.

     “Our Taako is quite taken with you,” Joan teased in a sing-songy voice.

     “Alright, you three.” Taako quickly taped a baked goods box shut and pushed it across the counter. “Here’s your order. Now scoot, don’t make me call your children.”

     They chorused good-byes, and each gave Kravitz a solid once over before they left with their box in tow. Taako laughed and leaned on the counter.

     “Just as I remembered them,” Kravitz commented, coming up to stand in front of Taako.

     “Yeah, they’re a hoot.” Taako looked up at Kravitz and smiled. “Hi.”

     “Hi. ...is it okay if I kiss you?”

     Taako looked over his shoulder, and turned back. “I think Sazed’s in the back, so yeah.” Kravitz leaned down and gave him a kiss, his fingers gently brushing his cheek. Taako smiled when Kravitz pulled away, his eyes still closed. “Mmm. Well. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company on this fine Wednesday afternoon?”

     Kravitz shrugged. “No reason. I just wanted to see you.”

     “What’s that?” Taako nodded to the folded piece of paper in Kravitz’s hand.

     “What? Oh. Job application.”

     “To where?” Taako asked, deftly snagging the paper from Kravitz before he could protest. “27 Springs? Seriously?”

     “Yeah, they had a help wanted sign in the window.”

     “No, I meant, are you seriously thinking about doing this? What about the websites?”

     Kravitz heaved a sigh and looked away. “The websites are a sort of long term solution, that may or may not even solve anything. But ...I’m starting to have some immediate cash flow issues.”

     Taako frowned. “I didn’t know it was so bad.”

     “It’s not yet, honestly,” Kravitz assured him, putting his hand over Taako’s. “I still have some savings left, but if something doesn’t change in the next month… it’ll get there.”

     “Krav, if you need money, I can help. I have some savings.”

     “No. That’s for your--” he stopped, checked around for Sazed and then mouthed ‘bakery.’ “I couldn’t take that from you.”

     “It’d just be to tide you over. It’s not a big deal.”

     “No, I won’t.”

     “Kravitz.”

     “Taako, I swear to God, if I see your money anywhere near my bank account, I’m marching it back over to yours and depositing an extra $100.”

     “You don’t have an extra $100.”

     “Exactly.”

     They kept up a fierce staring contest for a minute, till Sazed came in from the back.

     “This is a place of business, not a social club,” he grumped, sliding a tray of croissants into the display.

     Taako blew out a quick breath, and smiled sympathetically at Kravitz. “Is there something you wanted to buy?”

     Kravitz frowned and looked at the display. “What do you have that’s cheapest?” he asked in a low voice. Taako picked up a sugar cookie and put it in a bag. When he rang Kravitz up, he quickly added his employee discount and thankfully Kravitz didn’t seem to notice.

     “I get off in a little bit. I’ll give you a ride to my place.” Taako said quickly. Kravitz nodded and left the bakery.

 

     Taako stirred the onions around in the sizzling pan, and huffed a breath. Kravitz was filling out the application at the coffee table. Neither of them had really said anything since they met back up, and drove to Taako’s apartment. The quiet was almost palpable.

     Taako didn’t know how bad of financial straits Kravitz was in. But if he was willing to entertain becoming a waiter, it definitely wasn’t good. And he wasn’t helping anything by stubbornly refusing help.

     “Can I put you down as a personal reference?” Kravitz asked, his voice cutting through the tense silence.

     Taako quickly chopped a celery stalk, his knife slapping back down on the board.

     “Taako?”

     “If you must,” he answered tersely, swiping the celery into the pan and giving it a stir.

     Kravitz set down his pen with a sigh and walked over to stand across the kitchen table from Taako.

     “Do you want to tell me what the problem is?” he asked, gently.

     “ I don’t have a problem.”

     “Fine. Will you tell me what my problem is that is making you act this way?”

     Taako turned around to look at Kravitz. “You won’t let me lend you money.”

     “Taako,” Kravitz began, rolling his eyes a little.

     “Nope, I’m not done yet.”

     Kravitz set his mouth and looked at him.

     “And you won’t tell me why,” Taako finished.

     “I already said why. Because you have been saving that money to open your own bakery. It’s your hard-earned savings. I’m not going to take that from you.”

     “Stop being noble.” Taako shook his head. “You’re to the point where you’re applying for minimum wage jobs, but you won’t let me lend you money. You--you built an entire website for Magnus, but you won’t let him pay you. Kravitz, why won’t you accept our help?”

     “Because I don’t need help,” Kravitz insisted. “I can do this on my own!”

     “But you don’t have to!”

     “But I need to!”

     “Why?”

     Kravitz struggled for a minute, then shut his eyes and admitted, “Because I already feel like a failure. I don’t want to be a charity case too.”

     “Well, tough. Because you already are one,” Taako replied, unsympathetically. Kravitz’ head snapped back up and he blinked at him a few times. He sputtered a few responses. Taako turned the fire off under his pan and turned back around to look at Kravitz, who still seemed to be spinning his wheels emotionally speaking. “Look, Krav. I know that this is a difficult time for you, but you are making it so much harder for yourself.”

     Kravitz didn’t reply, just sat down into one of the chairs. A hand covered the bottom half of his face and he stared at the table top.

     “Every single one of us has been a charity case at one point or another in our lives.” Taako continued. “You know that your not being one till now doesn’t make you better than us.” He reached out and tilted Kravitz’ chin up so he had to meet Taako’s gaze. “But being one now doesn’t make you any less either. You know that right?”

     Kravitz looked down and slowly nodded.

     “So swallow your damn pride and accept a helping hand. Life is a whole lot easier if you do.” Taako crossed his arms and looked down at Kravitz, who, thankfully, seemed to understand what Taako why trying to say.

     Kravitz opened his mouth as if to speak, but ended up just letting out a long breath. “...well, what do you think I should do then? Because I am- ...lost and I don’t know how to proceed.”

     “Well, for starters, I don’t think you should take that waiter job. Trust me, it will eat up your entire schedule and if something better comes along, you might not have time to pursue it.”

     “That makes sense.” Kravitz nodded slowly. “But that doesn’t solve my budget issue. I’m still in the red.”

     “I wasn’t done…” Taako paused and took the plunge. “I think you should also move in here with me.”

     “What?”

     “You’re here all the time anyway. And the rent would definitely be less than what you pay right now. Really this is more for my benefit than it is for yours, splitting my current rent in half would go a long way to help me save for my bakery. Plus I’m selfish and want to see my boyfriend more than I currently do.”

     “You’ve thought about this before,” Kravitz said, looking surprised. Taako didn’t answer that question, but kept laying out the plan he’d been thinking about for a couple weeks.

     “I could take some of the costumes to the closet on Maple, make room for you to bring your gear and get a desk. We could split the food budget, and utilities. ...It makes a lot of sense, for both you and me.”

     “Are you sure? You have a pretty good setup here, I don’t want--”

     “Don’t you try to nobly excuse your way out of this, we both know this is a good idea.”

     “But--” Kravitz started but Taako held up a finger.

     “The only excuse I will accept... is that you don’t want to.” He pursed his lips and held his breath. Kravitz looked down at the table top.

     “No, I want to… I just wish it could have been in better circumstances.”

     A wave of relief washed over Taako. “We can’t change the circumstances, only how we deal with them, my fella.”

     Kravitz nodded. “Well put.”

     “That’s a Taako original.” Taako smiled a little, and Kravitz returned it.

     “Okay then. I’d be happy to move in with you.”

     “Good.”

     “Yeah, good.” Kravitz stood and walked back over to the coffee table. He folded up the application and tossed it into the trash can.

     “Something’s going to come up, Krav. I can feel it. You just need to keep yourself open for the opportunity.” He turned back around to continue cooking. He heard footsteps and then Kravitz’ arms wound themselves across Taako’s middle, and he rested his chin on his shoulder.

     “Thank you.” Kravitz said quietly. Taako squeezed his hand.

     “Don’t mention it.”

     Kravitz pressed a long kiss to the skin just below Taako’s earlobe, which made Taako’s toes curl.

     “Ah-hah. If you keep that up, dinner will be ruined,” he said, clearing his throat a little. Taako could feel Kravitz’ chuckle resonating in his chest. Taako gave the now sizzling pan a vigorous stir.

     “I love you,” Kravitz said simply.

     Taako stiffened in shock and turned a little to look at Kravitz, his eyes wide. Kravitz was already looking at him tenderly.

     “You--? I’m--...what?” His voice rose in pitch.

     “I love you,” Kravitz repeated again, as if it was the easiest thing in the world for him to say. Taako gaped and grappled around mentally. “It’s okay if you’re not ready to say it...”

     “No! J-just you have to warn a person before you say things like that!” Taako said, looking up at Kravitz. Kravitz reached around him and turned the fire back off, then folded his hands around Taako’s waist. Taako’s hands finally fluttered to a resting spot on Kravitz’ chest. Taako expected to feel his own pulse racing, but when he looked up into Kravitz’ dark eyes time seemed to slow. And the world was at blissful peace for Taako. He smiled up at him.

     “...I love you too.”

Chapter Text

Steven squinted at his hand. “Two, I guess.”

“All right. Garfield?”

“Just one for me,” Garfield uttered.

“Cassidy?”

“Three.”

Leon took two cards for himself. “Place your bets.”

The four of them sat at a large round poker table in Leon’s study, which was a cozy wood-paneled room lined on one side with bookshelves full of antique volumes and curios. The table itself was likely antique too, but the felt had been replaced recently and was now home of their glasses, cards, and the stacks of quarters that they used for chips.

“I’ll bet three,” said Steven, moving three quarters to the center of the table.

“Mmmm! What an interesting choice!” proclaimed Garfield. “I’ll raise you to twelve!”

“Boy howdy, that there’s too rich for me,” said Cassidy. “I’m out, fellers.”

“Me too,” sighed Leon.

Steven eyeballed Garfield. The man was a fax machine salesman, and a damn good one. He knew how to bluff, and he’d been doing it for the last three hands. Garfield grinned like a cat.

Steven squinted at the pair of fours in his hand. “All right, I’ll call. One pair.” He laid down his cards.

“Isn’t this a happy coincidence! I just happen to have a pair of fives!”

The table filled with groans.

“You cain’t go bluffin’ every dadgum hand,” groused Cassidy.

“Have a little respect for the game,” said Leon.

“Maybe you should respect this game! Boo-yah!” Garfield pulled the quarters to his steadily increasing pile.

The doorbell on Leon’s little house rang. “It’s open!” he called. “Your deal, Cassidy.”

Isaak entered the close room, along with a young guy Steven didn’t recognize. “Howdy, folks,” Isaak said, taking the seat beside Cassidy. “This here’s Magnus, my carpenter.”

“Howdy!” said Cassidy, shuffling the deck. “You two’re jest in time to deal in.”

“I’m not great at poker,” said the kid. He sat between Leon and Steven.

“Mmm, you don’t say?” said Garfield.

“Be nice,” said Leon.

“This here’s Leon,” said Isaak. “He’s in the antiques business. This is Steven, he’s a welder. That’s Cassidy, she does demolitions for me sometimes.”

“And I’m the best there ever was, too,” she said, passing cards around the circle.

“Sure as shit,” agreed Isaak. “And that there’s Garfield, nobody knows what the hell he does.”

Garfield smiled brightly. “The world of electronic correspondence holds a magic none of us can comprehend!”

“Glad to meet you all,” said Magnus.

“We only got one rule at this table,” said Isaak. “No shop talk. Most of us work together in some capacity anyhow, so no need to perpetuate that.”

“Cain’t we lift the restriction this once, Isaak?” asked Cassidy. “Ain’t never met a proper carpenter before. How long you train for something like that?”

“I apprenticed with a guy named Bauer for about three years,” said Magnus, picking up his cards and rearranging them in his hand.

“What do you specialize in?” asked Steven.

“I do pretty much everything, but I like making furniture.”

“A time-honored tradition, furniture-making,” said Leon.

“Those good good sitboys!” said Garfield.

Magnus laughed. “Sitboys. I’m going to use that.”

“All right,” said Isaak, “cut the yapping and let’s play.”

“New kid first,” said Cassidy. “How many you taking, sonny?”

“I’ll take two. So you all know each other from work?”

“More or less,” said Steven. “Isaak contracts out to me and Cassidy sometimes, as you know.”

“I go to pretty much all of you for repairs at some point or another,” said Leon. “Many a turn-of-the-century wrought-iron garden bench would be much the worse for the wear without Steven. Four please, Cassidy.”

“I’ll take two,” said Cassidy. “What for you, chief?”

“Three,” said Isaak.

“None of you work with me!” said Garfield. “Cassidy, do be a dear and give me one?”

“No, but you’ve tried to sell us all one of your damn-fool contraptions at one point or another,” said Isaak.

“A fax machine might help your business,” said Steven. “You have a lot of contacts. I’ll take two, Cass.”

“I’ll get a fax machine when somebody proves they got more lasting power than an 8-track,” said Isaak.

“The march of progress continues!” trilled Garfield. “You don’t want to fall behind, do you?”

“All these new things,” grumped Isaak.

“It always does surprise me what has lasting power,” said Leon. “Take the world wide web, for example.”

“I think they call it the internet these days,” said Magnus.

“Just another fad,” said Steven. “What’s the point of it?”

“Connecting to people, I guess,” said Magnus. “You get to talk to people you’d otherwise never get to.”

“Who wants to talk to someone they’ve never met in person?” said Steven.

“Maybe it’s for the purpose of makin’ communities based on shared interests,” said Cassidy.

The men shot her a variety of looks, ranging from Magnus’ delighted to Isaak’s perplexed.

“What’s y’all’s problem?” demanded Cassidy. “I know about things. Place yer damn bets.”

“Uh, fifty cents?” said Magnus, pulling a roll of quarters out of his pocket and cracking it open on the table edge.

“I’ll match that,” said Leon, tossing in two as Magnus struggled with the roll.

By the time Magnus got his quarters into the pile, it was Garfield’s turn. He smiled slowly. “I will raise… to ten quarters!” He slid a stack.

All but Magnus groaned. Steven threw down his hand. “Can’t you let someone else play?”

“Uh, I’ll call that,” said Magnus.

“Don’t encourage him,” said Isaak.

“Fold,” said Leon.

“Me too,” said Cassidy. Isaak put down his hand and crossed his arms.

Garfield grinned and leaned toward Magnus. “I raise to twenty.”

“Listen, kid,” said Steven. “You seem like the type who doesn’t back down from a challenge. I’m telling you right now you can’t win this.”

Magnus frowned. “Twenty-five.”

“Mmm, I’ll be calling that, young man,” said Garfield. He laid his cards on the table. “What do you say to my three queens?”

Magnus spread his cards. “Straight.”

Garfield’s smile fell and the others burst into hoots and hollers. Magnus smiled.

“You said you were bad at this game!” crowed Cassidy. “You lil scamp!”

“My dad used to say there were two things you should always lie about,” said Magnus, taking his quarters. “Your friend who’s on the run, and your skill at poker.”

The table laughed, and Isaak collected the deck. “Y’all shouldn’t have underestimated him. I don’t hire stupid people.”

Steven elbowed him. “I like you, kid.”

Magnus smiled. “Thanks.”

“All right, folks, ante up.” Isaak passed out a new hand.

Chapter Text

     Julia’s eyes blearily blinked open. The blinds cast shadows across the ceiling from the rising sun. She rolled over to check the time. 8:32, the red display read. She should probably get up and get going. But surely another 5 minutes wouldn’t hurt. She settled back into the nest she had created in her sleep and started to drift off again. But the sound of her sheets rustling snapped her awake again. What the-- She reeled over, but relaxed when she saw Magnus, fast asleep. Right, he had come over for dinner and the evening had gone well.

     Very well.

     She smiled; his face looked so peaceful. His broad chest rose and fell with each slow and deep breath. She reached over to trace the flying eagle tattoo on his left pectoral, but as soon as she touched him, he woke up. He blinked a few times, and rubbed at his eyes, before noticing her next to him.

     “Good morning,” he said, his voice still thick with sleep. She smiled, and rested her hand over the tattoo, faintly feeling the beating of his heart.

     “Morning.” Her smile kept growing wider as she looked at him, and she hid her face in the pillow.

     “What’re you doing?” he asked, smiling now himself and turning over to look at her. She peeked an eye out, the corner of her mouth still turned upward.

     “Last night was pretty great,” she admitted. Magnus chuckled.

     “Y-yeah.” He nodded, reaching out and wrapping one her long curls around his finger.

     “Do you have to work today?” she asked, turning her face from the pillow.

     “Not till this afternoon. How ‘bout you?”

     She frowned. “I have class at ten. Test today.”

     Magnus looked up to the clock. He sighed. “We should probably get going, huh?” He didn’t sound very convinced.

     Julia groaned, but rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. She pulled her hair over one shoulder, and began running her fingers through it to work out the tangles. She did that for a couple minutes--there were a few more tangles than normal--then noticed that Magnus hadn’t moved. He was still lying in bed, just watching her.

     “What are you doing?” she asked, feeling a little self-conscious. He shrugged.

     “It’s not everyday that I get to look at something as beautiful as you. It’s important to appreciate these moments.”

     Julia rolled her eyes. “Oh, please,” she said, but was smiling when she turned back around and stood up to walk to the dresser.

     Magnus watched her prepare for the day. Before he’d wondered if it was something that she did, or some product she used that had made her so pretty. But when she returned from the bathroom, face freshly scrubbed and a toothbrush hanging out of her mouth, she was every bit as beautiful as she ever was. Maybe even more so, which he didn’t know was possible. She snagged a hand towel from one of the drawers, and winked at him as she left the room again.

     Magnus hopped up and put back on the shorts he’d worn over the night before. He practically skipped into the kitchen. If they had to go, that was fine, but he was gonna at least make them some breakfast to start the day off right, not that anything could make this day go wrong. Julia’s fridge was mostly empty, but there were some eggs and a stick of butter.

     “Perfect,” he said to the empty kitchen as he retrieved the ingredients. He opened up a few cabinets, looking for a pan. Dishes, nope, take out menus, nope, ah, pots and pans. He twirled then slapped the frying pan on the stove as he hummed a little tune. Man, today was just the best day.

     He cracked an egg into a bowl as the phone rang. Without thinking about, he quickly wiped off his hands and grabbed the receiver from the stand in the living room.

     “Youuuu’ve reached Julia’s residence,” he said. But there was silence on the other end of the line for a long moment. “Hello?” Julia suddenly appeared in the short hallway, half dressed in jeans and a bra.

     “What are you doing?!” Julia asked.

     “.........Magnus?” Carey’s voice came from the other end of the line, sounding incredulous.

     “Gimme the phone!” Julia ran at him, jumping over the back of the couch and onto him.

     “MAGNUS!?” Carey’s voice crowed from the receiver as Magnus dropped it like it burned him. “OH MY GOD, DID MAGNUS STAY THE NIGHT?!” The receiver hit the floor and rolled away.

     “Shit!” Julia scrambled to grab it, accidentally kicking it towards the front door.

     “OW OW!! HEY KILLIAN! KILLIAN!”

     Julia finally grabbed the phone and held it up to her ear. “ThanksforcallingCarey, I’mawakenowgoodbye.” She hung up as Carey cackled. She groaned and leaned back against the door. Magnus stood frozen in the middle of the living room. “Oh gooooddd, I forgot I asked Carey to give me a wake up call for my test.” Shaking her head, she put the phone back on the stand.

     “I’m sorry…?” he said, grimacing.

     “No… it’s not a big deal, just…” She blew out a breath. “Prepare yourself.” She pulled his shoulder down to give him a kiss on the cheek before disappearing back down the hall.

 

     That afternoon, Julia pushed open the door to The Adventure Zone, her senses on high alert. She had no idea what Carey would be planning, but there was no way that she wouldn’t be planning something. However, the rink looked like business as usual. A few skaters at the flat rink, Robbie at the concessions stand. Lucretia was in the middle of the banked track, writing something on her clipboard. But the unassuming quiet just made Julia more suspicious. So when someone touched her shoulder, she reflexively almost punched them.

     “Whoa! Hey!” Magnus said, stepping back. “Easy.”

     Julia let out a sigh and dropped her fist. “Sorry. Thought you… never mind.” She kept looking over her shoulder, ready for any sort of sneak attack.

     Magnus looked at her with a concerned face. “Are you okay?”

     “No! Carey hasn’t done anything yet, and it’s killing me.” She looked back at him, the look of a conspiracy theorist in her eyes. “This is the most likely place for her to strike, but I don’t see anything.” She spun back around, tapping her fingers rapidly on her chin. Magnus reached around and took her hand, squeezing it comfortingly.

     “Maybe she’s not planning anything,” he said, starting to walk towards the locker room. Julia dragged a few steps before coming alongside him.

     “Nooo. There’s definitely something. Last time they found out I slept with someone, there was a cake after practice that said ‘Congrats on the sex’.”

     “Well… at least you got to have cake,” he offered, stopping near the locker room.

     “Yeah.” She frowned. “It was pretty tasty. I think Taako made it.”

     Just then Carey left the locker room, followed closely behind by Killian. They were holding some sort of paper banner between the two of them, which they quickly whipped behind themselves when they saw Magnus and Julia.

     “What’s on that banner?” Julia demanded, marching over.

     “What banner?” Carey asked, rolling up the banner behind her. Julia reached around to grab it, but Carey held it away. “Killian, go long!” she shouted, spinning around with Julia and holding the paper roll just out of her reach. Killian jogged past Magnus.

     “I’m open, I’m open!” she cried.

     Carey tossed the banner, it sailed past Julia, and Magnus snatched it deftly from the air.

     “Naw, beans,” Carey said, snapping her fingers in an exaggerated ‘aw shucks’ motion. Magnus let the creased banner unfurl onto the floor. ‘CONGRATS ON THE SEXY TIMES!’ was in bright pink marker. There were a few illustrations of balloons as well.

     “No cake this time?” Magnus asked, actually sounding a little disappointed. Julia quickly picked up the other end of the banner and crumpled it up.

     “Taako was too busy today.” Killian shrugged.

     “Bummer. I really want cake now,” he said. Killian nodded in agreement.

     “Alright, haha. We all had a good laugh,” Julia said, wadding up the banner tighter and tossing it into a nearby garbage can. “Now can we please never speak of this again?”

     “Oh, come on,” Carey said. “It’s funny.”

     “No, it’s not,” Julia said, putting her hands on her hips. “It’s only funny when there’s a sort of back and forth of teasing, but I didn’t even know Carey when you got together it was so long ago. And you’ll never break up because, you know, you’re perfect for each other. And adorable together. And a good team, and I’d never ever want you guys to break up even if it meant I’d get to tease you about relationship firsts. And! ...and! ...and I lost my train of thought.” She huffed. Carey and Killian looked to each other.

     “We love you, Jules,” Killian said, going over and hugging her at the same time as Carey.

     “Love you too, whatever,” she grumbled. “Losers.”

     They laughed and went back into the locker room.

     “Chi-chi’s after practice?” Magnus asked.

     “Sure thing.” Julia blew Magnus a kiss and followed behind them.

 

     Practice was a doozy. Lucretia hardly gave the girls, and Taako, time to think, let alone catch their breath. Even Magnus was wiped at the end of it; he almost nodded off as he waited for Julia to return from the locker room afterwards. She ruffled his hair and he snapped back up.

     “Wake up, sleepy head.” she said, smiling. He grinned sheepishly.

     “Do you want to walk to Chi-chi’s?” he asked, taking her hand as they walked out of the back door. The sun had set but the sky was still only half-dark, a few moths buzzed around the parking lot lights.

     “Please, no.” She shook her head. “I don’t even want to drive.” She waved to Hurley and Sloane as they pulled out of the parking lot.

     “I can drive.” He pulled his keys out of his pocket as they reached his van.

     “Can I put my gear in the back?”

     “Sure, sure,” he said, unlocking the side door and rolling it back. As soon as he opened it, the sound of something, or rather many small somethings, falling out and hitting the asphalt met their ears.

     “What the--” Magnus said, leaning into the van. Julia bent down to pick up one of the things that had fallen. It was a small, mostly flat, square-shaped package with a raised circle in the center. As soon as she picked it up, she knew exactly what it was.

     “Goddammit. They got us,” she said, clutching the condom in her fist.

     “How did they have so many? It’s literally full of condoms.” Magnus leaned back out, clutching a handful. Julia stormed around the front of the van. Headlights immediately flicked on and momentarily blinded her.

     “That should keep you going for a while!” Carey said, leaning out the passenger window of her car, a big smug grin on her face.

     “Banana flavored?! REALLY!??” Julia shouted, throwing the condom at their car, and hearing the satisfying thwack of it hitting the windshield.

     Carey started laughing, but stopped when Julia started running for them. “Shit, Killian. Go drive! Go go!”

     The car peeled away as Killian shouted back, “No babies this season, you two!”

     Julia skidded to a stop and watched their car race down the road. She shook her head, but a laugh bubbled out of her. She walked back to Magnus and the van, he was picking up the ones that had fallen on the ground.

     “Figured we shouldn’t just leave these. Kids come here,” he said, tossing them in the back of the van.

     “Good call.” Julia picked up her bag and put it in the back. “Was it really completely full?”

     “Actually, seems like they used a couple planks to make a sort of dam… for condoms.” He grinned and shook his head. “...My life has gotten a lot weirder since I moved here.”

     “Weird in a good way, I hope,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist.

     “Weird in a ‘holy cow how did my life get so amazing’ way,” he said, smiling as he wrapped his arms around her and gently brushed his lips against hers.

Chapter Text

     Julia scooped up the last bit of chili from the bowl. “Thanks for dinner, Dad.”

     “Thanks for bringing cornbread. That was really good with the jal-open-os in there.”

     She pointed her spoon at him. “You and I both know it’s pronounced jalapeño.”

     Steven leaned back in his chair, pleased with himself. “No idea what you’re talking about. You want some ice cream?”

     “Sounds great.”

     He stood up and took her bowl to the kitchen. She could hear him rinsing it in the sink, and from the radio in the living room she could just hear the sounds of Hekuba Roughridge’s Country Music Hour on the local station. She stretched and flexed her shoulders, gaze wandering around the familiar room, with the china cabinet and the small dining room table. Her eyes coasted automatically over her mom’s collection of bird plates--the robin, the bluebird, the cardinal, and her favorite, the chickadee. No dust on them, her subconscious registered. Huh. Dad must have dusted them recently. She remembered the Great Culling that happened a couple months after Mom died, where they got rid of her clothes and her knitting basket and her untouched toothbrush, but they had agreed to keep some of her things in their places of honor. Her books and paintings, and these plates.

     “So,” said Steven from the kitchen, “we’ve talked about work and friends for both of us, and school for you. What else is there?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Chickadee, I raised you. I know what you look like when you’re keeping a good secret.”

     Julia nodded cautiously. “Well I did have something I was saving for last.”

     Steven appeared with two bowls of rocky road and handed one to her. “All right, spill it.”

     “I’m dating someone new,” she said. She was tempted to gush, but her dad was funny about these things. He was never overprotective, not in a way Julia ever felt smothered by, but she’d never dated anyone he’d liked. He had high standards, sometimes unreasonable standards. Usually Julia just tried placate him as best she could, but this time she didn’t want to. It was important that he like Magnus. The thought surprised her when she’d had it, but it rang true. And hell, if Magnus didn’t meet his standards, who on earth did?

     Steven took a bite of ice cream and nodded. “Someone good, I hope,” he said around the mouthful.

     “I think he’s pretty good,” Julia said. “You’d like him, Dad. He’s a craftsman too.”

     Steven raised his eyebrows. “He treat you right?”

     “Yes, he’s extremely respectful.”

     “I like to hear that. Do I know him?”

     “I don’t think so.” Julia ate a bite of ice cream and tapped the spoon against her chin while she swallowed. “I met him through derby. He used to be the head ref before we started going out.”

     Steven’s lip curled in disgust.

     “What’s that face?” asked Julia.

     “What face?”

     Julia copied the look. “That face. What are you thinking?”

     Steven chewed for a good long time on what must have been an especially nutty spoonful. “I’m thinking,” he said deliberately, “that this ref was the one who let you get hurt in that game a couple months ago.”

     Julia tried to remember what he was talking about. “Who were we playing?”

     “Rockport, I believe.”

     Oh, the concussion scare. “That? That wasn’t anything, Dad.”

     “If I recall, he didn’t stand up for you on a call where he should have,” said Steven.

     “He made one bad call. The rest of the time he was a great ref--no. You know what, it doesn’t even matter because he’s not our ref anymore. He’s my boyfriend.”

     “If he doesn’t stand up for you in a game, how’s he supposed to stand up for you as a boyfriend?” He poked at his ice cream. “I know you can take care of yourself, baby girl, but relationships are about taking care of each other, too.”

     “Well duh, Dad. I know that.”

     Steven shrugged. “I know you know it in your head, sure. But your last few boyfriends--”

     “What boyfriends? I haven’t dated anyone in two years!”

     “All I’m saying is I see a pattern.”

     Julia gritted her teeth. “You mean the pattern of me meeting someone and you deciding you don’t like him on principle?”

     “Hey now, when have I ever--”

     “No, you never say it, you just make it perfectly clear that you don’t approve, and yeah, I know you’re trying to be supportive or whatever but it grates on me, Dad.”

     “Am I doing that now? I’m not doing that now. I’m sharing my concerns!”

     “Concerns about a guy you’ve never met! A guy you’ve seen once do one thing!”

     Steven threw up his hands. “What do you want from me? He hurt my daughter!”

     “Another skater hurt your daughter, Dad, in a sport she chooses to play of her own free will, and dammit, I’m going to date this man of my own free will too!”

     “Why not? You’re an adult! Do what you want!”

     “I will!” Julia stood up. “I have to go.”

     Steven leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Fine, go ahead and storm out.”

     “I have a goddamn paper to write, Dad.” She snatched her jacket off the back of her chair and stomped out of the room.

     “Watch your language!” he called after her.

     “I’m a fucking adult!” she shouted back, and slammed the front door behind her.

Chapter Text

     Kurtze brought a stack of trays from on top of the trash can by the door and dropped them by the register. “Here are these.”

     Lucas pulled a face. “You can’t just put them back on the stack. You have to wash them.”

     “We never have before.”

     A look of horror crossed Lucas’ face. “I’ve eaten here before!”

     “It never touches the food,” said Kurtze, shrugging.

     “That’s disgusting. Go wash them.”

     Kurtze rolled his eyes and picked up the stack. “Whatever.”

     “And quit dragging your feet, that’s no way to make money.”

     “You know what else doesn’t make money, Lucas? Physics.”

     Lucas glowered. “I am going to be a famous inventor one day, dammit. What are you going to amount to, Kurtze?”

     “Dunno yet. See, I haven’t been suspended from graduate school, so the world’s still full of possibility.” Kurtze took the trays back to the dishwasher and listened to Lucas’ stammering with more than a little satisfaction.

     By the time he’d finished loading the dishwasher, a couple of new customers were waiting. Was it that hard to hop on a register, Lucas? Where was he, anyway?

     Kurtze attempted a smile at the customers, but he needn’t have bothered. He groaned internally. It was Them, and as usual They were in their own little world.

     “I mean, you don’t exactly come here for authentic Mexican cuisine,” the girl was saying. She had a ton of curly hair, tied back in a bandana; very pretty, Kurtze thought.

     The guy laughed. He was big and pretty built; he looked like he fought trains for a living. “If I wanted authentic Mexican, I could just make some.”

     “Amazing,” she said in mock disbelief. “What would you make for me?”

     He considered carefully. “Spaghetti.”

     She grinned. “All right, what’s the punchline? How is that authentic Mexican food?”

     He gestured to himself grandly. “Because an authentic Mexican would be making it for you.”

     She punched his shoulder playfully. “Boo. Terrible joke.”

     “You still laughed.” He smiled and finally noticed Kurtze. “Oh, hi, can I have like, eight tacos?”

     Kurtze took their orders, noting that this time the guy paid. They took turns. The two of them took the best table, as per usual, and settled down to talking.

     Kurtze turned toward the kitchen to make the tacos when he heard a pst !

     He looked under the counter. Lucas was crouching under there, wringing his hands.

     “They can’t know I’m here,” he hissed. “They can’t see me, especially like this.”

     “Ugh. Okay, why?”

     “They said the next time they saw me they’d beat me senseless!”

     Kurtze was surprised. “What’d you do? Hit on his girl?”

     “It was for science!”

     “You hit on his girl for science?”

     “Look, it doesn’t matter, just help me hide.”

     “I can’t, I’ve got to go make their food. And someone’s got to watch the register.”

     “I’ll make the food.” Lucas crawled across the floor to the kitchen.

     Kurtze allowed himself a sneer. Sucker. The register was boring, but at least it was easy.

     He settled in to wait for customers. There were only a few people in here right now, what with it being 7:30 on a Tuesday, and all but Them were just eating quietly. Because there was nothing else to occupy his brain at the moment, he heard the guy say, “Johann’s doing a coffee house open mic next week. We could go to that.”

     “Sure,” said the girl noncommittally.

     “Maybe that one guy with the beat poetry about horses will be back.”

     The girl didn’t respond. The guy looked unsure of himself.

     “Are you okay? You seem distracted.”

     “Hmm? Oh. Sorry. Yeah. I’m fine.”

     “Nothing you want to talk about?”

     She was facing away from Kurtze, so he couldn’t see her face when she said, “It’s my dad, I guess.”

     “Is he okay? What’s wrong?”

     “He’s got some issue with you.”

     “ Psst.

     Kurtze looked up from the conversation. Lucas was holding out a tray of tacos from the kitchen; from here, it looked like a disembodied hand. Kurtze took it with an eyeroll and brought it out to Them, since there was nothing better to do.

     “Enjoy,” he said half-heartedly.

     “Thanks,” said the guy, not taking his eyes off the girl. “I don’t understand. He’s never met me.”

     “He hasn’t met you, but he’s seen you,” said the girl as Kurtze walked away. “You remember that bout against Rockport?”

     When Kurtze got back to the counter a family with a bunch of kids had arrived. He spent the next few minutes helping them with their order and accepting food from the Floating Hand of Tacos. By the time things quieted, Their conversation had just got interesting.

     “I can’t believe you’re taking his side!” said the girl.

     “I’m not,” he said, his face buried in his hands. “I’m just saying I see where he’s coming from.”

     “You know you can’t protect me from everything, right?” she said.

     “I know, but I should at least be able to protect you from my own ego!”

     “We weren’t even dating yet,” she said. “I understand why you did it. I forgive you! You need to forgive yourself.”

     He looked up and gave her a pained look. “What is this? Pop psychology?”

     “Try common sense.” Kurtze wished he could see her face.

     The guy said nothing, only averted his gaze.

     “Magnus?” she said softly. “Do you feel guilty like this all the time?”

     He looked back up at her with the most helpless look Kurtze had ever seen.

     “Yo! Curtsey!”

     Kurtze’s head snapped forward. Oh, great. It was those kids from school. Chaz was grinning like an idiot. “There he is. We were afraid we’d lost you, space cadet.”

     Kurtze snarled. “Can I take your order or what?”

     Sometimes Kurtze resented the way adults talked about teenagers, and sometimes he agreed with them that teenagers were the worst. It took almost twenty minutes to wrangle a set of three-dollar orders from eight teenagers before they settled at the opposite end of the restaurant. Kurtze tried not to admit to himself that he wanted to hear the end of Their conversation, before giving in and glancing over there.

     The guy’s head was down on the table, resting on his arms. Kurtze couldn’t see his face. The girl was rubbing his head gently, comfortingly. It was strangely dissonant, seeing such a private moment in such a public place. It kind of ruined it knowing that the table hadn’t been wiped for two or three days. Kurtze looked away.

     After a while he heard the guy say, “When do we get to talk about your tragic character flaws?”

     Kurtze glanced over. The guy was wiping his eyes with his thumbs.

     “Never. I don’t have any,” the girl said. He burst out laughing. “But seriously,” she added, “you know how stubborn I can be.”

     “Ambitious,” he said. “And independent. I like those things about you.”

     She leaned forward. “I like that you’re responsible and protective.”

     “Mm, do you?” He leaned across the table too, and kissed her.

     Kurtze rolled his eyes and looked away. God, did they have to make out in the restaurant? They were so weird. Why would you want to make out with someone right after they’d been crying? He couldn’t imagine being that… vulnerable.

     He glanced over again. Man, they were really going at it, weren’t they?

     An idea occurred. Kurtze suppressed a sly smile.

     “Hey, Lucas?” he called back into the kitchen.

     “What? Are they gone?”

     “Nope, still here. You’re the manager, right? I have a question for you.”

     Lucas’ face appeared, looking suspicious. “What is it?”

     “What’s our policy on PDA? We’ve got a couple of customers causing trouble.”

     “PDA?”

     “You know. Public displays of affection.”

     Lucas still looked confused.

     Kurtze sighed. “Kissing and junk. Making out.”

     “Oh! That’s very inappropriate! Make them leave.”

     “Okay.” Kurtze made sure no customers were coming and then meandered over Their table. He knocked on the tabletop, and they broke apart.

     “The management requests that you leave,” said Kurtze.

     “What? Why?” asked the guy.

     Kurtze rolled his eyes. “Because you’re making out in a restaurant? Duh.”

     “Sorry,” said the girl. “We’ll behave.”

     “He still wants you to leave,” said Kurtze, sliding the half-truth in seamlessly.

     “But if we stop--” said the girl.

     Kurtze shrugged. “Sorry. I’m just the messenger.”

     “Let me talk to this manager,” said the guy, standing up.

     “Magnus, don’t bother,” said the girl. “It’s probably a race thing. We’ll just go.”

     “All the more reason to talk to them!” said Magnus, marching up to the counter.

     Kurtze rubbed his hands together. This was gonna be good . “I’ll call him over for you.” He hopped behind the counter and stuck his head into the kitchen. “Lucas? This gentleman wants to speak to the manager.”

     Lucas took a pair of gloves off and exited the kitchen, the picture of a man who was definitely not hiding. “What gentleman?” He saw Magnus and froze.

     Magnus’s eyes narrowed. “Lucas.”

     Lucas’ hands floated up. “Hey. I--I don’t want any trouble.”

     “Then why are you trying to kick us out?” growled Magnus. “Can’t I enjoy your crappy tacos with my girlfriend?”

     “Did you say Lucas?” The girl was coming up behind him. She crossed her arms. “Well. I heard you were kicked out of grad school. And now you’re here. Justice is real.”

     “I’m allowed back at the end of next semester,” he mumbled.

     “Huh.” She shrugged. “So you want us to leave?”

     “No, no, you can stay, I don’t care,” he babbled.

     “Speak your mind, Lucas,” she said, almost sweetly. “We don’t want to go where we’re not wanted.”

     “It’s fine. It’s fine! Stay. Or go. Whatever you want.”

     “That’s good of you, Lucas. I think we’ll stay.” She smiled at him, a smile with teeth, and sashayed back to the table.

     The guy stayed, but took a break glaring at Lucas to address Kurtze. “Could I get two more tacos, please?”

     “Don’t even ring him up, I’ll get them,” Lucas said.

     The guy shot Lucas a look of utter contempt. “You think I’m going to blackmail you for a couple of seventy-five cent tacos? God.” He pulled two dollars out of his pocket and handed them to Kurtze. “Thank you.”

     Kurtze rang him up, almost disappointed. He was hoping to see Lucas get punched. Insufferable moron. Watching him squirm was pretty fun, though.

     The guy and girl sat back down, picking up a conversation about music or something. It wasn’t so interesting anymore. There were no new customers right now, so Kurtze wandered into the kitchen to watch Lucas make the food.

     “So, when you hit on that girl for science, was it before or after you’d seen her boyfriend?” he said, picking at his nails. “Because that guy could destroy you.”

     Lucas sprinkled some cheese and groaned. “I hate this job.”

Chapter Text

“So hang on hang on hang on.” Magnus waved a hand. The team was at Refuge. He knew he was pretty tipsy, but they had just won a decisive victory against the Felicity Wild Women, and he was surrounded by friends, and Julia was beautiful and also sitting on his lap. “You betted… you bet on all of this? Like all of it?”

“I will say, the beginning of your relationship was pretty hotly contested,” said Taako, leaning back with his chair on two legs. He’d promised to drive everyone home, so he was not partaking. “One of our more interesting wagers, to be sure.”

“That seems unethical,” said Kravitz from beside Taako. He looked amused nevertheless.

“Mmmmm nahhhh.” Carey was draped over Killian’s shoulders like a cape. “We bet on shit all the time. All the time.”

“I don’t usually play,” said Julia dreamily. “It’s not… nice?” She blinked a few times. She’d been matching him for drinks.

“Nahhhhhh, noooo, Jules,” said Carey. “You don’t play ‘cuz you never win.”

“I always win,” said Killian, who had also been matching Magnus for drinks and looked none the worse for wear. “You’re just bad at it, Jules, no shame in that.”

She pouted. “I won once. ‘Gainst Carey.”

“Did not,” said Carey.

“Did too, ‘cuz Killian was arm-wrestling and you bet against her.”

Killian looked hurt. “You did? When?”

Julia squinted into the middle distance. “Do you remember Ash? The telemarketer? Their cousin.”

“That guy? I beat him easy,” said Killian. “Carey, why’d you bet against me?”

“Babe, he was massive. What was I supposed to think?”

“How massive? Like me massive?” asked Magnus.

“Nooo, no no no,” said Julia. “Baby no, he was seven feet tall. But Killian won, ‘cuz Killian always wins.”

Magnus considered. He wasn’t thinking super clearly, but a thought was forming in his head. He tried it out loud.

“Killian. Your legs.”

His friends all looked at him blankly. “What?” said Killian.

“‘Cuz you skate? That’s most of your strength. Your legs. Not your arms.”

“Is this going where I think it is?” Taako let his chair thump to the floor.

“I think…” Magnus looked at his right hand for a moment, and then put his elbow on the table. “I think I could take you.”

Killian raised her eyebrows. “You? Oh hell no.”

Taako rubbed his hands together. “Hoo, boy, this is too good. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets!”

“What’s up?” said Sloane from the next table over.

“Magnus versus Killian, arm wrestling match of the century! Who will triumph?”

“I got five on Killian,” said Sloane.

“Mm, five on Magnus, then,” said Hurley.

A few others called out bets--Magnus stopped listening to who after Hurley, until Julia slid off his lap and leaned in front of Kravitz toward Taako.

“Ten. On Killian,” she cooed. “Sorry Mags, Killian always wins.”

“You’re a brilliant woman and I reflect your choices,” said Magnus. He blinked a couple times. “Respect.”

“Nuh-uh, Killian is really dr-hic. Drunk.” Carey pulled herself off Killian and rested an arm on Taako’s shoulder. “Ten on my best friend Magnus.”

“Isn’t this just the juiciest?” Taako grinned. “All right, beach hunks. Get ready.”

Killian slammed her arm onto the table and grabbed Magnus’ hand. “Let’s do this, rough boy.”

Magnus grinned. “You’re on.”

“A-ready? A-set?” Taako made ‘em wait for it. “Aaaaaa-go.”

But for the sudden strain and focus on both their faces, Magnus and Killian appeared not to move. The only sign they were actually trying is that in a minute or so they both began to sweat. The pub went quiet, and got quieter.

Carey reached over Taako’s head and poked Julia in the arm. “Magnus is gonna win.”

“Is not,” said Julia, poking her back. “Killian beats everyone always.”

“She’s real drunk, though, one more drink she passes out,” Carey insisted. “It’s Magnus’ game.”

“Magnus is not as strong as Killian. Sorry, babe. He’s just not. I’m sorry, you’re wonderful.”

“Thanks, Jules,” Magnus said through gritted teeth.

“You don’t know Killian like I do,” said Carey.

“Well, you don’t know Mags like I do.”

“Yeah? Well… watch this.” Carey leaned back over to Killian and started whispering in her ear. Killian and Magnus’ locked fists shifted, almost imperceptibly, in Magnus’ favor.

“Hey! That’s cheating.” Julia whacked Taako on the arm. “That’s cheating.”

“I’ll allow it,” said Taako gleefully.

Julia scowled. She swooped over beside Magnus and whispered into his ear.

The fists shifted not so imperceptibly this time, very clearly in Killian’s favor.

“Hey!” Carey snapped. “Magnus, get it together.”

“You get it together,” said Julia.

Carey shot her a dirty look, then turned back to her girlfriend with a smile that meant trouble. She scooted a little closer and pressed a kiss to Killian’s cheek. It made no difference, and so Carey’s kisses continued down Killian’s neck.

Killian’s eyes went wide and she made a tiny sound. Magnus took a small lead.

“Nope.” Julia turned back, determined. Placing her hands upon Magnus’ shoulders, she lifted herself back into his lap, completely blocking his view of the contest. Before he could say anything, Julia ran her fingers through his hair and kissed him. Hard.

For just a second, it looked as though even this wouldn’t faze Magnus, before Killian slammed his hand down on the table.

Julia broke off for a second to say, “Ha! I wi--ope.” Magnus pulled her back.

“Not cool,” groaned Carey.

“I’ll be collecting on these bets now!” said Taako. “Jeez, you two, get a room.”

There may have been other jeers and jibes, but Julia could no longer hear. Her world had narrowed significantly in the last few seconds, and now consisted mainly of warm lips, close breaths, and trying to see if it was possible to fuse her face with that of the man beneath her. It was sloppy and tasted a little too much like cheap beer, but it was a taste she was very quickly acquiring.

She felt someone give her a little shove from behind and heard ”Get a room!” once more. With a deep breath Magnus broke them apart. “Jules we should… we should go…” he panted, his eyes still locked on her lips. “We should go right now. Immediately.” He nodded dumbly.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” She took another breath.

“Oh my god, you guys, stop,” laughed Killian.

Julia could feel the heat flushing her cheeks, but she was too busy trying to extract herself from Magnus’ lap enough to let them both out of the seat to come up with any kind of reply.

By the time they had untangled themselves and scooted into the open, Magnus was already fed up. “Here we go!” he exclaimed, hoisting Julia without warning into his arms. Julia gave a little shout, which was echoed by most of her friend’s cheering. The cheering turned to laughter as Magnus took one step, nearly tripped over a chair, and had to transfer Julia to lay over his shoulder in order to keep his balance. “Byeguys!” he yelled back as he made a beeline for the door.

Laughter and catcalls followed the couple, and Julia threw all of them the bird from her perch on Magnus’ shoulder before disappearing into the night.

“God damnit, Magnus!” shouted Ren from the bar. “Pay your bill, you animal!”

“You’ve got to stop selling that guy drinks, Ren,” said Taako.

Carey leaned down and kissed Killian’s cheek. “You want another drink babe?”

“Nah, you’re right. If I have another I’ll pass out.” Killian patted her girlfriend’s face. “Maybe we should head home toooo?” she drawled.

“I was gonna drive everyone in Rail Splitter,” said Taako.

Kravitz was peeking out the window. “You might want to wait on that.”

Taako shrugged. “No rush, I guess. How long ‘til those crazy kids move in together?”

“I bet they decide to once they’ve been dating four months,” said Killian at once.

“I’ll take that bet,” said Carey.

Taako grinned and spread his arms. “Any other takers?”

Chapter Text

Magnus woke up to water dripping on his forehead. He grunted, ham-handedly wiping it away. It was the ceiling leaking again. Dammit, no matter where he moved the mattress on the floor that was his bed, it always seemed to get him right in the face.

Raven’s Roost apartment complex was a wreck. The super was a ghost or dead or something; he never fixed anything. The rent was cheap, though. Between that and the orders starting to trickle in thanks to his brand new furniture website, Magnus’ savings account was thanking him. He had big plans.

A soft snore turned his head. Julia lay on her side beside him, curls splayed everywhere, one hand resting on the pillow by her head.

Magnus’ face broke into a smile. Big plans. He watched as one curl floated in and out with her breath.

He pushed himself up a little to look behind her, to the alarm clock on the floor. In about forty minutes it would go off for him. Julia had class in an hour.

“Jules,” he said softly. “Jules?”

She didn’t even stir. He didn’t really want to wake her. This was so much better.

A drop of water dripped onto her hand, and another fell on her nose. Still, she remained motionless.

“Really? Nothing?” he said, keeping his voice low. He leaned his head down and gently kissed her fingers. They flexed, very slightly, and then relaxed.

“We’re being attacked by aliens,” he whispered.

Nothing.

“This hellhole is being cleansed by the wrath of God.”

Still nothing.

He chuckled. “I could say anything I wanted, couldn’t I?”

Inhale. Exhale.

He hooked a finger under her unresisting fingertips and ran his thumb along her knuckles. “The other day I was thinking about building a bedframe, and I realized I was wondering what kind of mattress we would get, what kind of designs you liked.”

Inhale. Exhale.

“I love you, Julia.”

Inhale...exhale.

He’d finally said it out loud. Not to her face, like a stupid coward, but at least he’d admitted it to himself. And he meant it, from the deepest parts of himself, he meant it. God, though, they’d only been dating for two months. He didn’t want to scare her.

“Julia?” he said a little louder. “Julia!”

Her eyelashes fluttered and she inhaled sharply. “Mmmwhat?”

“You’ve got class in an hour, babe.”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “Want to get rid of me so soon, huh?”

“Nah, never,” he said.

She burrowed in closer, against his chest. He wrapped an arm around her.

“I don’t want to go to Business Ethics,” she mumbled into his collarbone. “I want to stay here.”

He kissed her hairline. “We could.”

“You’re a bad influence.”

“Cough cough. Oh no, do you feel that? It’s a cold coming on. Better stay in.”

The feeling of her laughter at his neck was delicious. “I can’t miss it, we’re going to have a quiz.”

“Your professor just doesn’t understand.”

She kissed his jaw sweetly. “I’m going to shower. Are you going back to sleep?”

“No, I’ll make breakfast.” He lifted his arm.

“Can’t wait,” she said, and rolled off his mattress.

Magnus sat up and yawned hugely. He rubbed his face. Wake up. “I was thinking about your dad,” he said.

“When, exactly, were you thinking about my dad?”

Magnus blinked a couple times before he got it. “Aww, already with these jokes?”

He could hear her laughing from the other room. “What were you thinking?”

“Well,” said Magnus, stretching his shoulders and back, “it seems like we could fix this whole bad impression thing if I just met him.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. He never likes anyone I date.”

Magnus stood and stepped off the mattress. “At least if I talk to him, he won’t like me because of who I am as a person instead of one mistake.”

“No, it’s just… no I don’t think so.”

He paused. “Why not? Maybe he’ll come around.”

“I don’t want him to get used to you.”

Magnus froze. In slow motion, the billboard in his head that said “Big Plans” came crashing to the ground. No. Surely he’d misunderstood. “What?”

“You know, I want it to be immediate.”

“It’s uh. It’s a little late for immediate. He’s already got an opinion of me.”

“I know, but I want more than just him to tolerate you. I want him to like you.”

Magnus exhaled. He’d misunderstood. Stay cool. He took some sweatpants from his closet shelf and slipped them on.

“Mags?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you okay?”

“Sorry, the way you phrased that had me worried.”

“Phrased what? I don’t want him… oh! Jeez. I’m sorry.”

A weight lifted. He sighed in relief and padded to the kitchen as the shower turned on. Let’s see, he had pancake mix, and those blueberries were probably still good. Blueberry pancakes was a good meal to feed your girlfriend, he reflected. Wholesome and delicious. Just like him. Dammit, why wouldn’t Julia’s dad like him? He took out a bowl and the Krusteaz and flipped on the stove.

Ah, yes, because he’d seen her physically injured and blamed him for it. Right. Magnus whisked some water into the pancake mix. Let it go. He took a deep breath and let it out.

Pull out the good skillet, put away the mix, take out the blueberries, run them under the sink. Truth be told, he wanted Julia’s dad to like him, too. Being on bad terms with in-laws only worked in sitcoms.

He turned off the sink and paused. He’d just thought the word “in-laws.” As in marriage. As in marrying Julia.

He could see the billboard in his head again, and this time it didn’t just say Big Plans. It proclaimed, “I’m going to marry this woman.”

A smile crept over his face. Yeah. He sprinkled the blueberries into the pancake batter and poured out a few spoonfuls on the pan. He turned the thought over and over in his mind. It only got sweeter.

He stared at the backsplash, grinning like an idiot. In a few minutes Julia appeared, tying her hair back in a bandana.

“It’s not that I think he’ll hate you or anything, I’m just scared, you know? I don’t want my family to be at odds with my boyfriend.”

He put a hand on her hip and pulled her gently over to him, wrapping his arms around her stomach and kissing the back of her head. “I know. I understand.”

She turned her head until she could see him in one eye. “You’ll meet him soon, I promise. I just. Want to be ready.”

“I’m okay with that,” he told her curls.

“And for the record, I definitely do want to keep you around. Everyone’s gonna be used to you if I have anything to say about it.”

He laughed, found her hand, and spun her out like they were dancing. “Thanks, Jules.”

She beamed. “So. Pancakes?”

He glanced down at the pan. The pancakes hadn’t cooked at all. He let go of Julia’s hand and flipped the switch on the stove once or twice. The little light that indicated a burner was on did not light up.

He sighed. “Broken. Of course it is. Want some cereal?”

“Depends. Do you got any Lucky Charms?”

“Actually I do.”

Julia laughed. “Where are the bowls?”

He pointed to a cupboard and opened the fridge.

“You could move, you know,” she said behind him. “This place is the worst.”

“I’m saving up,” said Magnus, trading the bowl of pancake batter for the milk. “When I move next it’ll be into a house. A real house, with a yard and a garage and everything.”

“That sounds really nice,” said Julia wistfully.

An image crossed Magnus’ mind: the two of them on a porch swing he’d built himself.

“Yeah,” he breathed. “It does.”

Chapter Text

Kravitz’s car bumped over another pothole in the gravel road, and he silently cursed. His car was not meant for driving on anything other than a smooth asphalt surface. But thankfully, the directions that Magnus had scrawled on the back of a receipt were delivering him to the correct destination. The workshop was larger than Kravitz had expected, red corrugated siding and one large door that was propped open.

Kravitz parked next to Magnus’ van and a scarily old Ford truck. As he got out of his car, the sound of power tools met his ears. He picked up the camera bag from the backseat and approached the opened doorway.

Magnus looked up from the power-sander he was using and waved to Kravitz. He turned the machine off and pulled off the mask he’d been wearing.

“You found it,” Magnus said, coming around the work table and giving Kravitz a sweaty hug.

“Yes, your directions were perfect.”

“Aw, man, I got you all covered in sawdust.” Magnus brushed off some of the more egregious spots. Kravitz chuckled.

“It’s fine, I figured I’d get a little messy one way or another.” He hoisted the bag further of his shoulder. “This isn’t it, right?” Kravitz asked, looking at the project Magnus had been working on.

“Hm? Oh, no. This is a banister for a house Isaak is building.” Magnus walked to another work table, Kravitz following carefully behind. The table had something on it covered in a dusty sheet. “This is what I wanted you to see.”

Magnus pulled the sheet off with a flourish, the sunlight catching dust as it flew into the air, revealing a mission style coffee table. Kravitz gave a low whistle and ran a hand over the top. The finish was as smooth as silk, and a rich reddish brown. There was expert carving on the top and the legs. Kravitz walked slowly around it to inspect it from every side.

“This is the third order I’ve gotten from that site you made me, but this is the first one that I really liked, you know?”

“Magnus, this is a masterpiece.” Kravitz said. He stopped as something that wasn’t sawdust and wood glue met his nose. “Do I smell… lavender?”

Magnus nodded eagerly. “Yeah! I infused the varnish with lavender.”

“Wow.” Kravitz slowly nodded his head. “Yes, we definitely need to document this before you ship it off to the client. When’s the latest you can send it?”

“I have a couple days before I need to get it to the shipping company.”

“Good. I can take it back to my place today, get the photos, and you can have it back tomorrow afternoon.”

“Sounds good. Oh, and Isaak let me set up a phone line out here for the site, I can get you the number after we finish with this.”

“Wonderful. Here, stand next to it and I’ll get your picture real fast.” Kravitz said, putting his bag on a bench and opening it. Magnus dusted off his Bee Gees t-shirt and propped an elbow up on the edge of the table, he smiled extra wide. Kravitz snapped the 50mm onto his camera. “Oh jeez, did I forget--nope. Brought an extra roll, we’re good to go.” He picked up a film cannister and set it next to the bag and a longer lens on the bench.

“So where’s the table going, out of curiosity?” Kravitz asked, as he held the camera up to his face. Magnus was too dark, the light coming from the door behind him was overpowering the work lights. Plus, he was making that terrible face Magnus always made when photos were being taken. Kravitz would have to find a workaround for that too. He jogged around and slid the door shut.

“Neverwinter. To this really fancy school.” Magnus said, trying a different pose next to the table, this time holding his hands in front like a bodyguard.

Kravitz chuckled as he returned to his original spot. The lighting was better this time, the pose was still awful. “Wouldn’t happen to be Neverwinter Academy, would it?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

Kravitz stopped adjusting his focus for a second and lowered the camera. “Wait, it really is Neverwinter Academy?”

“Yeah. Apparently they’re redecorating their offices and the interior designer found the site.” Magnus relaxed and leaned on the table.

“This is crazy. I went to Neverwinter Academy, and my mother is friends with the president, Istus Kader. Wow.” Kravitz brought the camera back up to his face and focused again.

“Must be fate.” Magnus said, laughing a little. Kravitz snapped the picture. “Oh, wait, I wasn’t ready.”

“No, trust me, that was a good one.”

“Okay, how about this time I do this?” Magnus quickly pushed up the sleeves of his shirt and flexed his biceps while making a macho face. Kravitz laughed and took another picture.

 

Kravitz parked across the street from the apartment and popped the trunk of his car. He grabbed Taako’s dry-cleaning from the hook in the backseat, and the bags of groceries from the trunk. It was a bit of a struggle, but he’d be damned before he took two trips. He kicked the trunk shut and jogged across the street, right as the mailman walked up.

“Afternoon, Will,” Kravitz said, as he tried to pull his keys from his front pocket and not drop the milk.

“Hey, Kravitz. Do you want the mail in the box, or…?” Will looked uncertainly at Kravitz.

“Here, just drop it in the bag.” Kravitz held out the grocery bundle and Will slipped it inside.

“Have a good one!” Will waved as he walked down the street. Kravitz deftly opened the door and hip-bumped it shut behind him. He kicked off his shoes and hung up the clothes. He noticed the answering machine was flashing with a new message, he made a mental note to check it in a minute after he finished sorting the mail.

A new Penny Saver, a couple credit card offers, several other pieces of junk mail, all of which Kravitz threw away. He ended up with one final piece, his bank statement. He frowned at the white envelope and put it down on the table, unopened.

He was a responsible adult. He kept a diligent record of every cent that went in and out, mostly out, of his accounts. But still, seeing the record on official stationary just seemed so much more foreboding. Moving in with Taako had helped, and finally Magnus was starting to see a couple orders trickle in from the site. But it hadn’t changed the overall trajectory of his account. By his most recent calculations, he had about 2 weeks left of budget in his account. Then he officially would be at the end of his rope.

The envelope stared at him menacingly as he put away groceries. It was even worse when he finished. He’d done all the errands for the day, tidied the apartment, and it was still only 1:30. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop. Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad, he quoted his mother’s favorite movie to himself. Run mad indeed.

He snatched up the envelope and walked over to the small filing cabinet he had moved into the apartment. He dropped it, unopened, into the hanging file marked, ‘Financial Records’. He paused, looked back at the clock, checking that somehow three and a half hours hadn’t passed in the blink of an eye. 1:32. He pulled the drawer out all the way, and pulled a crumpled and then smoothed paper from the very back file. He grabbed a pen and sat down at the kitchen table, and began filling out the application for 27 Springs.

He’d tried waiting, he’d done everything in his power to try for something better. But he was two weeks from the precipice, and it terrified him to be so close to the edge. So he filled in his name, birthdate, social security number. Jotted in his work history. The word ‘overqualified’ kept drifting through his mind as he wrote it.

The phone rang and Kravitz literally jumped in his seat. He clutched a hand over his chest and tried to catch his breath as he let the call go to the answer machine. It rang twice more, then the machine beeped.

“ ‘Yello, you’ve reached Chez del Taako and… Krav, that’s where you come in.’

‘It is? I thought I was the beep.’

‘No, you say your name and for them to leave a message after the beep.’

‘Oh, okay. I’ll get it right this time, I promise.’

‘You’re lucky you’re so pretty,’ ” the machine said and then beeped. Kravitz’ lip twitched into a smile.

“Hey, Kravitz. It’s Magnus… Ah… I-um, well. I don’t really know how to explain this on a message. So maybe just give me a call back when you get a chance.” Kravitz stood and quickly looked around for the phone. “Nothing’s wrong, promise, just um… it’s the site. I’m not sure I’m looking at it right…? Anyway, when you get a chance--”

“Magnus?” Kravitz said, finally finding the phone by the TV and picking up.

“Oh, Kravitz, hey.”

“Sorry, I screened you.”

“Not a problem, I do that all the time too. Julia says that I should just pay for caller ID, but it just seems so needless, ya know?”

“Yeah… so there’s a problem with the site?”

“No, just… I was at the library this morning, and I was looking at the page that shows how many people visited the site and the numbers were... up.”

“Up?”

“Way up. Can you look at it?”

“I mean, I’d have to hang up on you and turn on the modem.”

“Right. Well, two weeks ago when I shipped that coffee table off, I checked the numbers and there were 9 hits on the page. And I think most of those were me reloading it. But just since Saturday, there have been 498 hits.”

“Whoa.” Kravitz stopped in his tracks for a second. “Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure, because when I got to Isaak’s workshop Monday morning, the answering machine had run out of tape.”

“Wait, people called the number?”

“Yeah, I have almost a hundred orders for that coffee table! And that’s just the ones that called before the tape ran out.” Magnus’ voice sounded concerned.

“Magnus, that’s amazing!”

“No, it’s not!

“Wait, why not?”

“I-I don’t have the materials to make a hundred tables, or the time to output them fast enough, and then shipping’s always a--”

“Wait, wait, Magnus, take a breath. You said they’re all calling about the coffee table?”

“Yeah, all the messages I started making order forms for were all asking for the table. I think they all saw it at some benefit for the school and wanted one too.”

Kravitz chuckled. “Well, this is very simple. Write everything down for all the orders, and then just make a waiting list.”

“A waiting list?”

“Yes. Rich people love waiting lists. It makes them feel exclusive. And if they saw your table at Neverwinter Academy, then they are very rich. Just estimate how many you can make in a month, and let people know how long they’ll have to wait.”

“But… some of these people will have to wait like 9, 10 months.”

“They’ll love it.”

“They will?”

“Yes. Trust me.”

Magnus heaved a sigh. “Well, I guess you’ve been right so far.”

“You could also think about raising the price too.”

“I mean, it’s already not a cheap table.”

“You don’t have to, but they’re in demand. So you should take that into consideration.”

“Yeah, I’ll think about it. Though even with the current price, by the time I finish the current orders I’ll have enough money to… Man, I don’t even know. Buy a whole house. Hell, buy two.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“Oh, and several of them also wanted to know where I got my website, so I passed on your name too.”

Kravitz froze.

“You did?”

“Yeah, figured it’s the least I can do. Or would you rather I don’t?”

“No, no. Please. Yes. Thanks. ...thank you, Magnus.”

“No, thank you.” Magnus laughed. “Well… I guess I have some wood to order. See you at the bout Saturday.”

“Yeah, see you then. Bye.” Kravitz hung up the phone. He slowly turned towards the answering machine, and the little red light was still flashing. Oh gods. He’d always thought the answering machine greeting with him and Taako was cute. He never thought that someone interested in hiring him might call and hear it. He took a deep breath and pushed the play button with a shaking hand.

“You have 18 new messages. First message, July 28 at 9:04AM,” the machine said.

“Hi, this is Oriana Bishop. I’m calling for Kravitz Sinclair. My law firm is looking for someone to build a site, and I saw your work for the carpenter, if you could give me a call back--”

Kravitz skipped to the next message.

“July 28 at 9:27AM.”

“If this is the Kravitz Sinclair that built the website for Magnus Burnsides, I’d appreciate it if I could get a call--”

“July 28 at 9:43AM.

“I’m trying to reach Kravitz Sinclair in hopes of hiring him to build a website for my--”

Kravitz staggered back as the messages continued to play, one after the other. They’d heard the greeting, they’d heard Taako and him flirting. They’d all heard it and they didn’t care. A wide smile spread across his face and he ran his hands over his dreadlocks. There were law firms, plastic surgeons, boutique stores, even someone from the Mayor’s office of Neverwinter. There was enough work on the machine right now for an entire year. A laugh bubbled up from inside him. He cast a look at the half-finished application still on the table. With an air of elated finality, he balled it up and tossed it into the trash can across the room. He knew exactly where he was taking Taako to dinner that night, and Kravitz would pay.

Chapter Text

8:30 am

Johann woke up bleary-eyed to the sun. He could have sworn the curtains were closed.

“Let your goddamn dog out, I’m not gonna keep doing it for you.”

Johann blinked a couple of times. What was Avi doing in his room? “Come on, you can’t wake me up like this.”

“Just did.”

Johann leaned himself up on his elbows. “You’re in a bad mood.”

“No I’m not. Now let Void out. I’ll see you later.”

Johann laid back down, just for a minute, mumbling, “Come back, baby, we can talk this through…”

 

10:30

Cold nose. Johann jerked awake. Void was nosing his hand and whimpering.

Johann dragged himself out of his bed and through the hall to the kitchen. He opened the back door. Void rushed out gratefully. The glass door was cold. Johann rested his forehead against it. Felt good.

He stayed like that for a minute before his eyes snapped open.

“Oh god, I called him baby…”

 

10:45

Johann ate the rest of a leftover burrito he’d bought from 7/11 a week ago, standing in the kitchen. Void wagged her tail and watched the burrito.

“I mean, he probably didn’t hear me, right?” he asked Void.

Void did not respond, except with a small drip of drool.

“He can’t know. It’d be… no, we’ve been friends for too long.”

He took another bite, chewing through the stiff tortilla.

“You were there,” he said. “Did he seem wigged out by it?”

Void licked her chops.

“Bark once for yes, twice for no,” he said. “Ready? Speak!”

Void slobbered a little more.

“You spoke for Magnus yesterday,” he pleaded. “Come on, speak.”

She whined.

“I’m gonna take that as a no,” he said.

 

11:30

Johann turned the tap in the shower. It shuddered a couple times before turning on, but at least it didn’t make that horrible low groan anymore. Offering to pay for repairs really got their landlord moving. He cleared his throat.

“Do re mi fa so la ti do. Do, mi re, fa so, ti la, do do do. Do ti la so fa mi re do.”

He squirted some shampoo directly on his head. Now let’s see.

“If you change your mind, I'm the first in line
Honey I'm still free
Take a chance on me
If you need me, let me know, gonna be around
If you've got no place to go, if you're feeling down…”

 

11:46

“La donna e mobile
Qual piuma al vento
Muta d'accento

E di pensiero.

Sempre un a mabile
Leggiadro viso,
In pianto o in riso,
Mensognero…”

 

12:01

“Wicky wild, wicky wicky wild wild wild west,
Jim West, desperado, rough rider
No you don't want nada
None of this, six gun in this, brotha runnin' this,
Buffalo soldier, look it's like I told ya
Any damsel that's in distress
Be out of that dress when she meet Jim West…”

 

12:14

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
Yeah you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine…”

Outside the door of the bathroom, Void howled.

 

12:23

Aw, what the hell, the hot water was running out. Johann scrubbed the conditioner out of his hair as fast as he could manage. Cheap piece of junk water heater.

 

12:24

Johann rubbed the towel on his head, tied it around his waist, and then took out his toolkit: a comb, a hairdryer, and the gel. He took a moment to visualize what he wanted.

There it was. All he had to do was reach out and grasp it.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s hair would be his.

 

1:15

Exhausted, his hand shaking, he carefully adjusted his bangs and whispered, “Yes.” This was it, the masterpiece. There was real artistry in hair styling. If anyone had ever asked, Johann would say he didn’t have bad hair days, but if he was honest with himself, then a bad hair day was when his hair refused to do this.

God, his hand really was shaking. He held it out flat and watched it. Was this the price you paid for perfection? To spend yourself so thoroughly that you were little but a husk, weak, lending all your strength to your art?

His stomach growled. Oh, okay.

 

1:20

Johann stood in his towel, eating Trix yogurt with a spoon that was too big for the opening. He’d carved out most of it, but there was a little left at the bottom.

He jiggled the container until it was mostly loose from the sides and knocked it back like a shot, but it hit is throat in a way he didn’t expect. Coughing and trying not to choke, he bent over the sink.

Void licked his ribs. He shied away with a yelp. “I’m too ticklish for that, girl.”

The sentence gave him pause. It sounded kinda...

 

1:30

He gave the mirror his best finger guns. “Hey girl. Did it hurt? When you fell from heaven?”

No. Terrible. He tried again.

“Hey girl, are you an angel? Because you… look like Della Reese.”

He scowled. What? No.

Maybe if he…

Finger guns. “Hey boy, are you from Tennessee?”

Boy? No.

“Hey man. My man. Are you from Tennessee?”

Yeah, not bad.

“My dude? Are you from Tennessee?”

Eh. It sounded more gay when Taako did it. Really, everything did. This whole… Johann didn’t want to put words to it, in case a label was a promise… thing was new. He was still getting used to the idea. He couldn’t go comparing himself to Taako. The guy was practically a professional.

He leaned in to the mirror. Finger guns? No finger guns. He met his own gaze. “Hey, Avi, did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”

Damn, that felt good.

 

1:40

Johann rooted through the pile of clothes on his floor. Was this the clean pile or the dirty pile?

Void sniffed happily alongside him. Johann scratched her head. “Good girl. Very helpful.”

He picked out a shirt with a neon orange and yellow squiggle pattern and gave it a sniff. He frowned, and sniffed it again.

“When did I have curry?”

 

1:45

He finally settled on a gray tank with a peach-and-green floral shirt over the top. As an afterthought he added one of those bead necklaces from that girl Avi worked with. What was her name? Antonia? He liked her, she had good taste in independent music.

Johann picked up his guitar and sat down on the floor. What was it he’d written last night? It had been really good.

Void nosed his hand and barked.

“What?” he said back, with the same tone and timbre.

She growled a little, trotted to the door and waited for him to follow. He scoffed. “I don’t have time for this, Void, it’s music time.”

She barked again. He swore she saved the highest pitched barks for him.

“Oh wait, have I fed you yet?”

 

2:02

Kibble was in the bowl, and he could hear Void crunching happily in the kitchen, so he again sat down on the floor with his guitar. He pulled his notebook off his bedside table, where he kept it in case the muse struck in the middle of the night. Good, he’d remembered to write it down.

He strummed through the chords he’d written. It was kind of a weird progression, but he could remember thinking it was absolutely groundbreaking. Playing it now it just sounded discordant.

He played through it again. No. It was an absolute mess. He tore out the page in his notebook and tossed it into an overflowing wastebasket. It bounced off and landed in his laundry pile.

He’d thought of something better anyway while he was in the shower. Pen. Where was a pen? He snatched a pencil nub from off the bedside table and started writing.

 

2:28

This was too good. A work of genius. He strummed through the chords, did a little finger-picking, too. This would be so choice on an electric guitar…

Wait a second, something was familiar about this. He played through it again.

Johann loosed a groan. “Dammit, I rewrote ‘Killer Queen!’”

He let himself fall to the floor, his guitar resting on his stomach. Void wiggled over and licked his face. Johann let it happen.

“You’re the only one who understands my suffering, Void.”

He stayed like that until Void lost interest, then sat up and laid his guitar in a corner. If he couldn’t write, then he should partake in the one thing that was guaranteed to inspire him.

He went to the living room, clicked on the TV, and slid a tape into the VCR. He had to rewind it first; he listened to the hum impatiently, then fast-forwarded through the commercials at the beginning.

The slow sepia shots began, and he hummed along to the vocalist as the screen announced, “Paramount Pictures presents: Titanic.”

 

3:48

“Jack,” said Kate Winslet, with accompaniment by Johann, “I changed my mind.”

He stared, hardly blinking, at the best scene in cinematic history. The trick was not to think about what happens on the second tape, or else--

Oh no, now he was crying. Well, he was going to be crying anyway, and this wasn’t the earliest it had ever happened. Sometimes he cried at the opening credits.

“I’m flying, Jack!” breathed Kate Winslet. God, he wanted to be her.

 

6:26

Johann woke up from a nap he didn’t know he was taking to the sound of Void barking and the door opening. “Johann? Tony’s here. Hope you’re dressed.”

Johann looked to check. He was. The TV screen was black, humming softly. He switched it off. “Hey, Antonia.”

They appeared from the front hallway. Antonia waved. “Hi Johann.” She was facing the right direction but looking past him.

“She’s coming to the derby bout. I hope that’s okay.”

“Sure, yeah.” Johann was mildly disappointed. He enjoyed the time he got to spend with Avi on the way to bouts. Avi loved derby so much, and Johann loved--well. Loved.

But Avi needed time with friends, too, and Johann was willing to give him that. Anyway, Antonia was cool.

“Uhh…” Avi stood in the living room. “I wanted to um. Make something for you before we left but with traffic and all… I don’t want to be late for the bout. They’re expecting me.” He looked paralyzed by indecision.

Johann looked at his watch. It was pretty late. “Why don’t we just grab some Wendy’s or something on the way?”

Avi looked annoyed. That was strange. “I don’t really want to--”

“Come on, I’ll treat. For all of us.”

“That’s so nice of you, Johann,” said Antonia. She elbowed Avi. “Don’t you think?”

“Yeah. I guess.” Avi picked up his keys from the table where he left them. “Fine. Let’s go.”

Johann picked up his wallet. “What’s this mood you’re in?”

“He’s been like this all day,” Antonia muttered. “All jumpy.”

“I’m fine! Nothing is wrong! It’s gonna be great!” He walked out the door.

“I’ve never seen him like this,” Antonia whispered. “Is he okay?”

“He used to get like this sometimes during college,” Johann said, letting Antonia leave before him and locking the door. “Especially during finals. He’s nervous about something. Watch the step.”

She put her hand on the rail. “What could make him this nervous? I’ve seen him land planes in thunderstorms.”

Johann shrugged. “He’ll tell us when he’s ready. You think this is bad, he used to just drink when he got anxious.”

Antonia winced. “He’s told me about that. It worries me that he still carries the flask around.”

Johann glanced at Avi’s retreating form--good butt, his brain registered--to check his back pocket. “He doesn’t have it with him now.”

“Well that’s good, right?”

 

6:52

Johann led Antonia to what was in his opinion the best seat in the house.

“Like, sometimes you miss what’s happening on the end of the rink, there, but you can really see the passion on their faces.”

Antonia laughed. “Is that why you come to derby? The passion?”

“I come for a lot of reasons,” he said, watching Avi skid across the track toward Roswell.

“You’re going to have to describe what’s happening for me anyway, passion or no,” she said. “I know the rules, but it’s hard to understand without seeing.”

“I was going to say, I’m kind of surprised you wanted to come at all. Avi’s said you’re not big into sports.”

“It’s one of Avi’s favorite things, so I thought I should give it a shot,” she said.

Down on the track, Julia pounded on the bench. “I hereby call this session to order. WHO ARE WE?”

“THE BUREAU OF BADASS!”

“DAMN STRAIGHT!”

Johann leaned forward. “It’s starting.”

As the call went up, and the crowd started chanting, Johann felt the tears come. This was his work as it was meant to be.

“Johann? Are you crying?”

“This is the only place in the world I’m appreciated,” he sobbed.

 

9:45

It took a long time to tear themselves away. The B.o.B had won 77 to 74 in a tight game against the Phandolin Fireworks, and the crowd would not stop celebrating. Soon, however, Johann and Antonia met a sweating Avi near the door.

“Do you guys want to go to Refuge?” said Avi, maybe a little too loudly. “You can meet some more of my B.o.B friends, Tony.”

“I’d love to,” she said.

“I’m always up for Refuge,” Johann said.

They wandered down the street and ducked inside. Johann looked around for a place to sit. “It’s really full in here tonight.”

“Hey, Antonia!” called someone from the bar.

“Oh my god, is that Rowan?” Antonia squinted. “Hey!”

Two guys at the bar turned and waved. Antonia turned to Avi. “I’m going to go say hi. I’ll be back.”

“Sure!” blurted Avi.

Antonia winced. “Are you okay? Do you want to go home?”

“I’m fine!” He was not fine. His skin looked gray.

“If you say so.” Antonia reluctantly left for the bar.

Johann laid a hand on Avi’s shoulder. “Seriously, I don’t want to be an enabler or whatever, but do you need a drink?”

“No.” Avi shook off his hand. “That would spoil it.”

“Spoil what? What gives, man?”

“You’ll see,” said Avi. “It’ll all be over soon.”

Johann drew back a little. He’d heard talk like that. He’d said talk like that. “Come on, Avi. You’re not alone.”

Avi looked down. He took a deep breath. “Thanks. I needed that. Can you do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

“Would you play something on the piano?” Avi gestured to the stand-up in the corner. “Something romantic?”

Johann felt as though he’d been electrocuted. He said, barely breathing, “Yeah. Yeah, all right.”

He floated over to the piano, waited for the jukebox to stop playing “Fly Like an Eagle,” and stretched his fingers.

“My Heart Will Go On.” It had to be. It was a sign. He’d watched Titanic that day.

Nah, but Avi didn’t like the movie as much as Johann did. He cracked his knuckles and played, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”

Avi looked a little better. He marched over to Antonia and took her by the hand, brought her to the center of the pub.

Johann frowned, but kept playing. What was going on?

“Attention everyone--friends, family, guests,” said Avi, in a voice that wobbled. The pub quieted down. “I need to ask Antonia a, uh, a very important question.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box. A ring box. He knelt, took out the ring, and put it in her hand. “Antonia, will you marry me?”

Johann played a wrong note. Plonk. The world froze.

Antonia’s face spread into a smile as she felt the ring. “Yes!”

The whole place exploded in cheers, and everyone mobbed the couple.

Everyone except Johann, who sat stock-still, hands still frozen on the piano.

 

10:12

It was… a sort of numbness. He once fell off a horse when he was little, broke his arm. He remembered thinking it didn’t hurt so bad. It was shock, the doctor had said. It would hurt plenty later.

Now he was just remembering things he’d willfully ignored. The way that Antonia always stayed late when she came over. How they moved around each other, how often Avi talked about her. Had Avi ever said the word “girlfriend?” Yes, he had, and now Johann’s brain was providing him numerous examples.

And you thought it didn’t matter, his brain said, like Avi was just biding his time before he confessed his love for you.

Johann made himself stand up and stagger over to the center of the bar, where Antonia and Avi were still receiving congratulations. Now that Johann was looking, he saw friends from all the groups Avi hung out with, the whole place packed to the brim with celebration. Avi must have wanted everyone to be there.

Avi turned and saw him. “My man!” He wrapped Johann in a hug. “Thank you, that was perfect.”

Johann managed to say, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You suck at keeping secrets,” laughed Avi, letting him go. “Sorry, I’ll make it up to you. Will you be my best man?”

Johann looked over to Antonia. She was talking to the B.o.B. ladies, shaking hands with Noelle. “Uhh…”

“Come on, you have to. You’re my best friend.”

Johann must have nodded, because when he looked back, Avi was smiling. “Thanks. You’re awesome, you know that?”

“Avi!” Magnus appeared, lifting him bodily in a bear hug. “Congratulations!”

Johann wandered out of the pub.

 

11:16

Johann walked around the block for the fifth time.

Now it hurt.

And the worst part was that he was happy for Avi. The man looked elated, and despite the hurt, it made Johann happy to see it. He just wished…

Johann ran a hand down his face. He suspected that he was not a very good friend. Avi didn’t deserve him. Of course he deserved Antonia.

The least he could do now was be there for Avi. He rounded the corner again and opened the door to Refuge.

The place had calmed down a bit. Johann recognized Avi’s groups of friends mixing and mingling. Magnus was at the bar with that Rowan guy. Work friends and derby friends together.

“Johann! There you are!”

Avi put his hand on Johann’s shoulder. Johann tried not to shudder. “Hey, Tony and I are taking off. Are you riding with us?”

The thought made him feel physically ill. “No, I’ll catch a ride with someone else.”

“Cool.” Avi smiled. “See you later.”

Johann sat at the bar, a chair down from Taako and his boyfriend, and called Ren over. “Ren, can I get like, a vodka or something? On the rocks?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How many have you had?”

“You haven’t even opened my tab yet,” he said.

“Okay.” Ren didn’t stop looking suspicious until the drink was in his hand.

He nodded thanks and took a sip. “Hey Taako?”

“What’s up, homie?”

“Is Avi gone?”

Taako looked lazily around the bar. “Yeah.”

“Great.” Johann took his drink to an empty booth, the seat of which was sticky with beer. He climbed in, curled up into a ball, and sobbed quietly.

 

12:34

Taako slid into the booth across from Johann, followed by Kravitz. “Hey, my dude, we’re taking you home.”

“Leave me alone,” he said, his voice muffled in his knees.

“What’s your malfunction, Johann?” demanded Taako. “Is it Beethoven or what?”

“I said, leave me alone.”

“Is it about your friend Avi?” asked Kravitz quietly.

Johann looked up, glaring. “Don’t. Just don’t.”

“What, are you upset to be losing a friend?” said Taako. “He’s getting married, he’s not dead.”

Kravitz gave Taako a pointed look. “That’s not what I mean.”

It took Taako a minute. His mouth formed a small o. “I uh. I didn’t know you played for our team, kemosabe.”

Johann blushed furiously and rolled back into a ball.

Taako leaned back in the booth. “You didn’t know either, huh?”

“I don’t want to talk to you about this.”

“We should take you home, though,” said Kravitz. “Pretty much everyone else is gone.”

Johann looked around the bar warily. He was right.

“I already took care of your tab,” said Kravitz. “Just let me give you a ride. You don’t have to say anything else about it.”

Taako looked as though he disagreed, but he didn’t say so.

Johann wiped his nose on his sleeve and climbed out of the booth.

 

12:44

It’s funny, Johann thought, how you don’t realize that all of your friends’ cars are pieces of crap until you find yourself in a car that actually works. Kravitz drove a ‘95 Chevy Malibu that looked like no living human had ever sat in the backseat. The only sign of life was a nearly untouched box of tissues.

Johann gave some terse directions and fell silent. He was so thirsty.

“Did you ever tell him?” asked Taako finally.

“Taako,” scolded Kravitz.

“What? Is he just gonna sulk back there forever?”

Johann picked at the exposed threads on his seatbelt. “No. I never told him.”

“Really missed the boat there, didn’t you, bubele?”

“Taako!”

“He did though!”

“I thought it would ruin our friendship!” Johann protested.

They were silent for a while.

“Are you going to let this ruin your friendship?” asked Kravitz.

Johann thought about Avi’s arms around him. You’re my best friend. He rubbed his forehead and sighed. “No. I just don’t know what to do with the pain in the meantime.”

“Shit, you’re an artist, you should know,” said Taako.

Johann scowled. “What should I know?”

“You gotta use it.”

 

12:52

Avi’s car wasn’t in the driveway. Johann unlocked the door and stepped inside. Void scrambled to meet him and then rushed to paw at the back door. He let her out.

There was big smudge on the glass where he’d rested his forehead that morning. He put his forehead there again. Still felt good.

He managed to down some water in one of those plastic cups from the kids menu at Fazoli's before Void was back at the door.

He let her back in and then wandered to his bedroom, plopped himself down on his bed.

Use it. Huh.

He picked up his guitar and his notebook, and started writing.

Chapter Text

     Killian checked the backseat in the rearview mirror. She was driving Angus to the summer program thing he did so he didn’t have to walk. He’d be about half an hour early, but at least he’d be under someone’s supervision instead of wandering town. He’d been uncharacteristically thoughtful the whole ride.

     “What’s got you so quiet?” she asked him.

     “Did you know that two-thirds of the Netherlands is susceptible to flooding?” he said.

     “Woah, what?”

     “From the ocean. So they have all these dams built up along the coast. They have a story about a boy who noticed a hole in one, so he plugged it up with his finger to keep his town safe and he saved everyone.”

     “Oh, really?” Killian smiled to herself.

     “Yeah, a boy at the program said it was important to know, so I got a book about it. I just don’t know why.”

     “It’s probably important to the Dutch,” said Killian. “Is this boy Dutch?”

     “I don’t think so, he just said I should know about dikes.”

     Killian’s heart sank. “Angus, I… I don’t think that’s what he was talking about. Some people use that word as a mean name for lesbians.”

     “Oh.” Angus frowned. “That makes a lot more sense in context.”

     Killian snorted. “I should tell that pun to Hurley and Sloane.”

     “If it’s a mean name you shouldn’t,” Angus said earnestly.

     “Eh. Maybe you’re right.”

     Killian stopped at a stoplight and waited for no cars to go by. Honestly, this was the most useless intersection to have a light at. She glanced at Angus again. He didn’t look thoughtful now so much as uncomfortable.

     “Do they make fun of you a lot?” Killian asked quietly.

     Angus nodded. “That’s kind of normal, though. I don’t like it if they make fun of you.”

     “Don’t you worry about me,” she said. The light turned green, and she pulled forward. “Nobody’s ever called me a mean name and hurt my feelings.”

     “Never?” said Angus in disbelief.

     “Nope,” she said.

     “How do you not get your feelings hurt?” said Angus, leaning against the strap of his seatbelt.

     “Hmm. Good question.” Killian thought about it for a moment. “Usually people say that I’m too tall, or not skinny. Or a lesbian. But I am all of those things, aren’t I?”

     Angus nodded. “I guess, but people are so mean about it.”

     “Sure, they’re trying to be mean. They try to say that me being tall is a bad thing, right? But it’s not a bad thing. In fact, I like that I’m so tall. It’s almost like they’re doing me a favor by reminding me of things that give me value.”

     Angus considered this. “But what if they say things about you that aren’t true?”

     “Like what?”

     Angus averted his gaze. “Like if they call you a geek.”

     “Well, what’s a geek?”

     “Someone who’s smart.” He frowned. “But also bad at relating to people. I’m good at relating to people.”

     “So it’s not true. They’re misinformed. At the very least, they’re reminding you that you’re smart.”

     He nodded. “I think I see. The things that are… are you , that make you good… that doesn’t come from other people.”

     Killian grinned. “That’s right. Other people don’t get the privilege of telling you who you are. That’s your job.”

     Angus nodded. “I’m going to try that today.”

     “Good.” Killian pulled up at the elementary school. “Have fun today.”

     “Okay.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and grabbed his backpack. “I love you! Bye!”

     “I love you too!”

     She watched him hop down from the car and scurry inside before she drove away. What a good kid. Man, he was used to getting made fun of? The very thought made her blood boil. Where did kids get off, calling her Angus names?

     She drove out to the edge of town, where her gym was, next to the last Arby’s before Rockport and across the street from a whole lot of nothing. The location wasn’t great, but it was the only gym in town, except for the one at the university, and it did pretty well for itself.

     She looked down the road to Rockport. She hadn’t been back in a while. She should go visit her parents. They were finally used to the idea of Carey, so maybe they could go together, make a weekend of it or something. It’d be better to go when her siblings were there, of course, but they were kind of scattered to the four winds these days. Maybe Thanksgiving.

     She felt a pang of guilt as she pulled into a parking space. That was something she hadn’t told Angus. It was a whole lot easier to brush off mean names when you and your siblings were all called the same things. And her siblings had always been there to sympathize or laugh with her. Up until senior year of high school of course, but--

     Killian stopped that thought before it started. There was no need to think about that. It wasn’t who she was now.

     She locked the car and hurried inside, before any other ugly thoughts decided to rear their heads.

     The schedule behind the desk told her that she had a packed day, so she wouldn’t be able to pick up Angus from his program or Carey from work. She would get home just in time to grab a bite to eat, though, and drive them all to derby practice. The thought made her smile. Oh, and a new client! What a good way to start off the day. The first session was usually just introductory stuff, but if she was lucky they could get half a workout in. She waited by the desk and watched people pass through for a few minutes.

     A short squat woman approached the desk. She had that self-conscious look some first-timers have, as if she was ready to be judged. She told the desk guy, “I’m here for an appointment with Killian?”

     “That’d be me.” Killian jumped in and stuck out a hand. “You must be Brogden.”

     Brogden did a rather poor job of hiding her disappointment. She shook Killian’s hand. “Oh. Yes, that’s me.”

     “Come on in to my office,” said Killian, and led her into the gym proper. She brought Brogden to a corner opposite a couple of meatheads lifting and sat her down on a bench.

     “So you’ve signed up for six weeks,” said Killian. “That’s a pretty big commitment. Have you done much physical training before?”

     Brogden shook her head. “Not for a lot of years. I’ve been to the gym before, but I feel like I never know what I’m doing.”

     “We can definitely fix that,” said Killian. “One of my favorite things is working myself out of a job.”

     “Huh.” Brogden looked distracted, kept glancing back at the front desk. Killian watched her for a minute.

     “So I’m thinking I’m not what you expected?” said Killian.

     Brogden’s eyes swiveled forward guiltily. “Uhh, no, no, it’s just--you know, they said you’ve been a personal trainer a long time.”

     Killian nodded. “Six or seven years now.”

     “So I wasn’t thinking… oh, never mind.”

     Killian looked her right in the eye. “Go ahead. You’re not going to hurt my feelings.”

     Brogden sighed. “I didn’t think you’d be fat like me.”

     Killian nodded. This happened pretty often, especially coming from the women. “Most of the time, when you think of a woman personal trainer, you think of someone supermodel-shaped.”

     “I’m sorry,” said Brogden miserably.

     “Nothing to be sorry for,” Killian assured her. “It’s a common misconception. Can I ask you a question?”

     Brogden nodded.

     “What do you want to get out of our time training?”

     Brogden took a deep breath. “I just want to look good in a swimsuit.”

     Killian chuckled. “All right, but I have to tell you, that’s not something we can do here. That’s something you have to do up here.” She tapped her temple. “No amount of body sculpting is going to change the way you see yourself.”

     “Oh.”

     “Listen, I can’t teach you to like your body, but I can teach you how to take care of it. I’m looking at your biceps and something tells me you’re an athlete.”

     Brogden glanced at her arms and smiled a little. “I used to be a swimmer. I could bench more than any other girl on the team.”

     “That’s what I like to hear! We can get you back using that upper body strength. How’s your aerobic endurance?”

     “Not great. I get winded going up stairs.”

     “We can work on that too. We’ll get you a little stronger, a little leaner, a little more confident. How does that sound?”

     Brogden smiled. “Sounds good.”

     “Good. Now let’s get you on a machine and see where you’re at now.”

 

     Killian wiped her face with a towel and checked the clock. Perfect, time for lunch. She had a good long lunch break today, which was good, because she needed to get some toothpaste and toilet paper pronto. Neither she nor Carey had had time to run to the store the last few days and things were getting desperate.

     She tossed the towel into the laundry basket and headed to the front desk, where her lunch was kept in a little cupboard with the rest of her stuff.

     “Hey, Killian,” said a customer, passing her with a gym bag.

     “Oh, hey, Jeff! How’d the season end?” Jeff was the coach for the high school girls’ basketball team.

     “Not bad, not bad at all,” he said with a smile. “We even made it to finals. One round anyway.”

     “Excellent!” Killian slapped him on the back. “Trying to reclaim that former glory, huh?” The team had won the state championship about ten years back.

     “It’s all the parents will let me think about,” he said. “Still, this class of juniors was pretty promising. We might have a good season next year.”

     “Glad to hear it.”

     “Say.” He stroked his chin. “You’re about the right age, and I’ve seen you play basketball. You weren’t on the championship team, were you?”

     Killian laughed. “No, I wish. Maybe I could have gotten a basketball scholarship. I played for Rockport.”

     “Oo, didn’t they beat Rockport in the first round?”

     “Sure did.”

     “Tough break,” said Jeff. “You’d have been amazing in the WNBA.”

     Killian laughed. “Who watches the WNBA?”

     Jeff laughed and waved goodbye. Killian picked up her lunch from the cupboard and meandered out to her car.

     She hadn’t thought about that game for so long. It had been such a disappointment, she remembered, to lose to Faerun High of all schools. And then afterward, at what was supposed to have been a party by the lake but ended up being a rather morose gathering, when Brad had asked her out--

     Killian shuddered. No. Not who she was, not what defined her. Ignore it.

     She sat in her car and pulled a sandwich out of her bag. Peanut butter and jelly. Surely one of the most important foods in a healthy diet. She chewed and watched the wind move the trees in the woods across the street.

     She hadn’t ever told Carey about Brad.

     The bite of sandwich sat on her tongue like a lump of paste. She forced herself to swallow and started the car. Forget about it. It hadn’t been a big deal then, and especially didn’t matter now!

     She stuffed the rest of the sandwich in her mouth and pulled out of the parking lot in a huff.

     Think of anything else. Anything at all. Her clients. Brogden had a lot of promise. She’d do well. Slowly, Killian relaxed.

     She was relaxed as she entered the grocery store and picked up a tiny basket from the rack by the door. She was relaxed as she picked out the tp and the toothpaste and a couple of chocolates for her and Carey for a treat. She was relaxed up to the moment she turned a corner and caught sight of Brad peering into the dairy fridge.

     She whirled back around the corner and flattened herself against the cereal selection. No. There was no way. It was her imagination. Like when you start thinking about your friends in Neverwinter and then you think you see them on every street corner. It couldn’t be Brad.

     She peeked back around the corner. Nope. It was Brad. He still had that dumb ponytail, although it was longer now. Where had he come from? Had she fucking summoned him?

     Killian could feel her heart thudding against her ribcage. She tried to calm herself down. Now. It was okay. They’d dated for, what, two or three months? The worst they’d done is a little terrible kissing. Their break-up had been almost mutual and definitely a relief. It was okay. Nothing to worry about.

     “Killian?”

     Indescribable terror. She turned her head just a little to the right. Brad’s face was lighting up with recognition.

     “I thought that was you. Do you remember me?”

     “Brad?” Killian managed.

     “Yeah!” He was pretty handsome, and one of the few people in the entire world taller than her. “Gosh, it’s been like, ten years. How have you been?”

     Killian managed a shrug. “P-pretty good.”

     “Swell. Have you lived in Faerun long? I just moved here recently. I’ve been commuting from Rockport for a couple years and I just decided it was silly to keep it up.”

     “I’ve been here a pretty long time now,” Killian mumbled.

     “Do you know of any good bars in town? I’ve been trying to make friends and I haven’t had a lot of luck.”

     “Uhh.” Something in her brain clicked into motion. “Me and my girlfriend really like Refuge.” No! Dammit, why did she say Refuge? Now he would go there.

     “Girlfriend?” he said, eyebrows raised.

     Shit, shit, shit, shit . “Yeah.”

     He chuckled a little. “You too, huh?”

     She frowned. “What?”

     He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “You were… you were kind of a last-ditch attempt for me. I’m not… straight.”

     Killian blanched.

     “I actually kind of admitted it to myself after we broke up,” he said.

     From deep within, a manic little giggle escaped Killian’s mouth. “Both of us?”

     “Funny, right?” Brad laughed too. “When did you know?”

     Killian tried to control herself. “It took me a little longer.”

     “You and your girlfriend--how long have you been together?” he asked.

     “Five years.”

     “Amazing,” he said. “That’s the kind of commitment I’d like to find someday.”

     “I’m sure you will,” she said. A little intimate for the cereal aisle, huh Brad? He’d always been like this, though, going straight for the real stuff.

     “That’s real sweet, Killian. You always were so kind.” He smiled. “Anyway, I’d better get going.”

     “Me too,” said Killian. “Uh, good seeing you.” She beat a hasty retreat, leaving him to stare at jars of peanut butter.

 

     “So what did you do today, Ango?” asked Carey, as Killian drove the three of them to derby practice. Killian tried to pay attention. She’d been thinking about Brad all day, which was more than she’d let herself think about him in about ten years.

     “I practiced not being bothered by what people say about me,” said Angus.

     Carey whistled. “That’s a tough habit to get into. How did you do it?”

     “I tried to be the only person who told me who I am.”

     “Aha, the Killian method.” Carey shot her a smile. Killian tried to smile back. “How’d it work?” Carey asked.

     “Not so good.” Angus looked very tired. “Geek I didn’t mind. Or nerd. Or dork. Those were okay. But then they called me an orphan.”

     Killian winced. Carey sucked in air through her teeth. “Oh no.”

     “I’m not an orphan,” he said carefully. “At least, I don’t think I am. I haven’t heard from my mom or dad in a long long time, but still. So I tried to find the good thing in the thing they were saying, like Killian said to, and um. I couldn’t find anything.” He sniffed a little. He wasn’t looking at them. “It just made me sad.”

     Carey reached her hand into the backseat. Angus took hold of it and held it. Carey cleared her throat. “Sometimes the things that make us who we are are things we don’t have any control over. You don’t have to like them, but it’s important to acknowledge them.”

     “Acknowledge them how?” said Angus.

     Carey thought about this for a minute. “Okay. I went to juvie. I was there for a few years, and now I have a felony on my permanent record. That’s bad, right?”

     Angus looked up at her and nodded.

     “But I also know that if I hadn’t been caught when I was, if I hadn’t been sent to juvie, then I would be into some much worse crime now. I might have been caught or I might not, but I wouldn’t be with Killian, and I wouldn’t have you or any of my friends in my life. And that’s not so bad, is it?”

     “I guess not.” He smiled a little.

     “That’s not always the case, of course,” said Carey. “Sometimes our pasts just suck. But they do shape us. You’re the only person who gets to tell you who you are, but you have to tell the truth.”

     Angus nodded solemnly. Carey squeezed his hand and let go. “Do you have anything to add, Miss Sticks-and-Stones?”

     Killian shook her head, suppressing a sigh. “No. That was just about perfect.”

 

     It was later that night, practice over, Angus delivered to his apartment downstairs. Carey was doing the dishes from dinner. Killian leaned silently against the counter, fidgeting with her duck puzzle box.

     “Why so quiet?” asked Carey.

     Killian was startled out of a train of thought. “Hmm?”

     “You haven’t said a single word since the end of practice.”

     “Oh. There’s a lot on my mind.”

     “Tell me all about it,” said Carey.

     Killian was silent for a long moment. She put the box on the counter behind her. “Do you have any regrets?”

     “You mean, besides all of my choices between the ages of fourteen and seventeen?”

     “I’m serious.”

     “So am I.” Carey rinsed off a plate and put it on the rack to dry. “You know me, Killian, I’m a ball of regrets.”

     Killian sighed. “I guess so.”

     Carey waited for her to speak and, when it became clear she didn’t intend to, said, “Do you have any regrets?”

     “I didn’t think I did,” said Killian. “Til today, anyway.”

     “And now?”

     Killian buried her face in her hands. “I have two regrets. One is not telling you about my regret.”

     Carey wiped off her hands and joined Killian, leaning against the counter. “You know you can tell me anything.”

     Killian stiffened as their shoulders touched. “You know back when we first started dating. How we were talking about who we’ve dated before.”

     “I said five or six, depending on if I was actually dating Teresa,” Carey said. “And you said--”

     “One,” finished Killian.

     “Right.”

     Killian looked away. “I lied. It wasn’t a girl. His name was Brad.”

     Carey tried not to look as surprised as she felt. “Oh. Okay.”

     “He asked me out when we were seniors, and all the other girls were into him, so I thought I should be too, you know? So I said yes, even though none of it felt right, and… like nothing ever happened. He didn’t… he didn’t pressure me or anything. I just… yeah.”

     Carey examined Killian’s face. She was really messed up about this. But high school… that was before Killian had known. “I’m trying to understand, babe. Why didn’t you want to tell me?”

     “It wasn’t who I wanted to be,” Killian said, her voice cracking. “I was…”

     “Ashamed?” Carey guessed.

     “Yeah.” Killian wrapped her arms around herself.

     Carey pursed her lips. This was the kind of crisis she’d usually have. What would Killian say to her?

     Carey carefully took hold of her girlfriend’s hand, and faced her. “Do you remember what you told me? About how you figured out you were gay?”

     Killian nodded slowly. “I talked to Maureen and Lucretia and the girls on the team. Things started to make sense.”

     “Because not everyone felt the way you did about boys, right?” said Carey. “And because of Gillian Anderson?”

     Killian’s lips twitched into what may have been a smile. “Yeah.”

     “Do you remember what you said to Julia? You told me the story, remember? That night after a bout, when you finally knew?”

     “I said it was a relief,” said Killian quietly. “I was afraid I’d be alone forever.”

     Carey nodded. “Were you afraid of that because of the way dating Brad made you feel?”

     Killian looked like she was holding back tears. She nodded.

     “Listen. You weren’t alone then, and you’re certainly not alone now. I’m here, okay?” Carey looked her in the eye. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

     Killian’s loosed a sob and curled around Carey. Carey threw her arms around her.

     “Ssh. I’m here. You’re okay.” Carey smoothed her girlfriend’s hair, running a hand down her braid. “You’re okay.”

Chapter Text

     “Saw you at the library, Cassidy,” said Magnus. “I’ll take two, Garfield.”

     “So conservative! Such an interesting choice! Here you are, my good man.”

     Steven rolled his eyes. Everything was a big to-do when Garfield was the dealer.

     Cassidy glared at Magnus. “What were you doin’ followin’ me around, sonny? You some kinda stalker?”

     Magnus was surprised. “No, I was just there for a book.”

     “Were you up to something worth stalking, my dear?” asked Garfield, leaning forward.

     “Why don’t you mind yer own damn business?” Cassidy snapped.

     “Leave her alone,” said Leon. “She doesn’t want to talk about it, we won’t make her.”

     “It seems we’re all down in the dumps today!” said Garfield.

     “Ain’t down in no dumps, I jest want you mindin’ your own,” grumped Cassidy.

     “Come on now, Poker Time is Sharing Time!” said Garfield. “What’s upsetting you, Isaak?”

     Isaak hadn’t said a word since he’d come inside. He hadn’t even asked for cards, he’d just held up fingers. Steven couldn’t read him behind his usual stoney demeanor.

     Now Isaak surveyed the room through narrowed eyes. Finally, he grunted out, barely audible, “Kidney stone.”

     A sympathetic groan went up from the table. Garfield patted him gently on the back. “Can I offer you the comfort of a card or two?”

     Isaak held out three fingers. Garfield dealt them. “Now how about you, Leon?”

     “Cards, or what’s been bothering me?”

     “Both!”

     “Three, then. And...oh my god.” He massaged his temples. “I had a beautiful 1885 NCR cash register. All the original buttons and plating. It wasn’t even tarnished. Do you know how rare that is?”

     “Haven’t the foggiest,” said Steven.

     “I’ve never seen it before!” Leon waved a hand helplessly. “It’s impossible. It’s a miracle. And do you know what happened? Some… some… some person. Walks into my shop. Has the nerve to call me ‘my dude.’ Leans on that incredible 1885 NCR cash register and knocks it to the ground. And then. And then! He just… leaves! Walks out the door!”

     Magnus frowned. “Was this guy kinda… pretty?”

     The table’s attention shifted. Magnus didn’t seem bothered.

     “Now that you mention it, yes,” said Leon.

     “Jeez. I know him. I’ll talk to him for you.”

     Leon sighed. “Don’t bother. The damage is… well, more than I feel comfortable asking anyone to pay. I might as well take his firstborn.”

     “You wouldn’t get any return on that,” muttered Magnus. “Unless they adopted.”

     “I’ll break even. It was just…” Leon shook his head sadly. “So beautiful.”

     “Now what’s young Magnus’ difficulty?” Garfield oozed.

     “I don’t know. My apartment is a dumpster fire. I’m in love with a girl. It’s a roller coaster.” He shrugged. “There’s so much right now that’s up in the air, stuff I have to wait for. I hate waiting.”

     “Shoot, does she love you?” said Cassidy.

     Magnus smiled a little. “I think so.” His expression morphed into a worried frown. “I hope so. I mean I know she likes me. But does she love me.”

     Steven elbowed Cassidy. “You made it worse.” Leon and Garfield laughed.

     “You’ll know soon enough if she do or don’t, I wager,” said Cassidy. “Jest gotta wait and see.”

     “Fantastic. More waiting.” Magnus sighed.

     “Time to place your bets, everyone!” said Garfield. “Don’t be shy! If we’re lucky, Steven will share after he bluffs!”

     “I’ll do four,” said Steven, pushing the quarters into the center. “I don’t know, it’s not entirely my business.”

     “All the more juicy to know!” said Garfield. “I’ll match your four, sir!”

     “Well… my daughter started dating this guy. Can’t say I care much for him. I worry about her, choosing guys who are mediocre. She could have anyone she wanted.”

     “She’s young,” said Leon. “She’ll learn.”

     “Don’t much understand why young girls don’t hold out for the best,” said Cassidy. “I’ll raise to five.”

     “I’m no young girl, but the movies certainly make it seem more exciting to date a bad boy!” said Garfield.

     “It’s certainly a strange phenomenon,” said Leon. “Magnus, have you noticed this?”

     “Tell you the truth, most of my women friends are lesbians. I don’t think it applies.”

     Leon raised his eyebrows. “I guess not.”

     “I’m probably not the best person to ask, anyway,” said Magnus. “I’m kind of on the other side of this. My girlfriend’s dad doesn’t like me much.”

     The table protested.

     “Who could possibly disapprove of their daughter dating you?” said Steven. “I’d set you up with my daughter if you both weren’t taken.”

     Magnus grinned sheepishly. “Thanks. I’ll uh, I’ll fold this round. I’m pretty sure it’s just a misunderstanding.”

     “Hell of a misunderstanding,” said Steven.

     “Do you think he’ll come around?” asked Leon.

     “I don’t know. I hope so.” Magnus shrugged. “I think we’ll work it out soon, but in the meantime, more waiting.”

     Isaak slid five quarters into the pile and nudged Leon. Leon said, “I raise to six. What have you got against this boy anyway, Steven?”

     Steven sighed. “More of a feeling, really. Like she’s distancing herself from me, because of him. I’ll do six.”

     “That could be bad,” said Magnus, “but it could just be a feeling.”

     “I guess you’re right.”

     “Look at us, working through things!” said Garfield. “I’ll do seven! Teen! Seventeen!”

     Cassidy eyeballed him. “You don’t scare me, feller. I’ll take it.”

     “So brave, dear Cass!”

     “I seen scarier things than you in my breakfast,” she muttered. Isaak put his cards down, shaking his head.

     Leon sighed. “I’m going to regret this, I think. I’ll call.”

     “I’m out,” said Steven.

     “Let’s continue revealing deep dark secrets, shall we?” cooed Garfield, and showed his hand. “What do we have here? A straight?”

     Leon groaned and flipped his cards. “Beats my three eights.”

     Cassidy slapped down her cards triumphantly. “Full house! Take that you yeller fax machine peddler!”

     Leon and Steven laughed. Magnus slapped her on the back. “That was great.”

     “It seems being upset makes you better at poker!” said Garfield, taken aback.

     “You’re pretty good at reading people, Garfield,” said Magnus, passing his cards to Steven to shuffle.

     “It’s the magic of sales!”

     “Cain’t read me though, ‘cause I ain’t upset,” said Cassidy, sliding the quarters into her pile.

     “Something’s got you all in a tizzy,” insisted Garfield. “My powers of observation are never wrong!”

     She flexed her jaw and stared him down.

     “Hmm. Do I detect the slightest hint of a blush on your person, Cassidy? I don’t suppose--could it be true--our Cass has reentered the dating game?”

     Her eyes narrowed. “Damn you.”

     “You’ve never been shy about it before,” said Steven. “Meet someone nice?”

     “Not as such. Givin’ something new a try.”

     Magnus looked up. “Is that what you were doing at the library?”

     “How do you date at a library?” said Leon, mystified.

     “Online,” said Magnus. “You know. On the internet.”

     Leon and Steven shot Cassidy horrified glances. Garfield’s usual unsettling grin went downright manic.

     “That’s not--isn’t that dangerous?” stuttered Leon. “Scammers and malcontents and that.”

     Steven shifted uncomfortably. “And it’s kind of… weird though, right?”

     Cassidy snarled. “What do you bastards know about dating in a modern era anyhow? Know for a fact you two haven’t been on a date with anyone ‘cept yer wives in more’n twenty years! And Isaak, you ain’t never been innerested in such things nohow!”

     Isaak nodded in concession of the point.

     “And you ‘specially ain’t got nothin’ to say about this,” said Cassidy, poking a finger in Garfield’s chest. “You told me yesterday you cain’t find anyone who’s not driven off by yer horrifying voice!”

     “It’s true, it’s a big turn-off!” said Garfield, still grinning. “Don’t get me wrong, Cassidy, I think your forays into the world of electronic romance are downright inspiring!”

     “Yep.” Isaak spoke at last, just above a murmur. “Good for you, Cass.”

     “Damn straight.” She turned to Steven. “You dealin’ or what?”

     Steven shuffled the deck. “I guess I am. Ante up.”

     They were quiet for a while as Steven passed the cards. Leon finally spoke up when they were examining their hands.

     “So does it work? Online dating?”

     Cassidy looked as though if there were a spittoon, she’d use it. “I got two dates next week.”

     “How about that?” said Leon.

     “Two of your finest cards please, Steven,” said Garfield.

Chapter Text

     Taako untucked the heather grey turtleneck and pulled it smooth. He turned in the locker room mirror. No, that looked terrible. Tuck it back in. But that looked terrible too. Maybe the problem was the pants. He should try the jeans again. Or maybe a skirt. No, not on a first impression.

     He glanced up at the clock. They’d need to leave soon to make it there by 8. But they couldn’t go anywhere when Taako looked like a disheveled wreck.

     “Taako?” Kravitz called through the door, while knocking gently. “Are you almost ready to go?”

     “Just a second! A few last minute touches and I’ll be done!” he yelled back, pulling off the terrible turtleneck and grabbing the white button down shirt instead. Tuck it in, roll up the sleeves, brown belt, did he forget to pack those oxfords? Nope, here they were. Taako frowned as he checked himself in the mirror again. It was okay… but was it ‘Hello, I’m the man dating your son’ okay? Would anything be??

     The door creaked open and Lucretia poked her head in.

     “What you’re wearing is fine, Taako. Now let’s go.”

     “Are you sure?” Taako asked, throwing the scattered selections from his wardrobe back into the duffel.

     “Yes. Ms. Sinclair will care more if we’re late than what you’re wearing. Trust me,” she assured before shutting the door. He didn’t feel very reassured. Taako zipped up his bag, fixed his bangs and left the locker room.

     Lucretia was standing over by the door. She looked very smart in a black dress and heels. She had a peacock blue cardigan draped over her arm. Kravitz was waiting outside by the already running car.

     “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Taako said, tossing his bag into the opened trunk and wringing his hands.

     “Hey.” Kravitz caught Taako’s chin and gave him a quick kiss. “It’s all going to be fine.”

     Taako’s heart was still beating a million times a minute, but now at least there was more than one reason for it. He tried to take a deep breath as he got in the front seat.

     Lucretia briefly looked up from the magazine she was reading in the back seat and gave a tight-lipped smile to Taako.

     “It’s okay to be nervous,” she said, flipping the page. “Ms. Sinclair is scary.”

     “She is?” Taako asked, turning in his seat. Lucretia looked up without moving her head.

     “Where do you think I learned it from?” she replied flatly. Kravitz got into the front seat.

     “Neverwinter, here we come!” he said, turning on the radio and pulling away. Taako smoothed the front of his shirt and calmly wished that a hole in the ground would open up and swallow him whole.

 

     The three and a half hours to Neverwinter passed by all too quickly. As they drew closer to the large city, Taako felt his general unease gain a new level. Kravitz navigated the busy streets of downtown with practiced ease, and they came into a very nice neighborhood next to a large park. Kravitz stopped at the gate to Astral Acres and entered the key code, and the wrought iron gates slowly, majestically opened. French country and Greek revival houses rolled past. This just keeps getting better and better, Taako thought to himself.

     “I thought she moved?” Lucretia said, slipping her heels back on.

     “She was thinking about it, but she said that she liked her neighbors too much,” Kravitz said, pulling over to the curb behind a long line of cars. Very nice cars, Taako noted. “Since we’re a little late, I figured we can just leave bags in the car and get them after all the guests leave.”

     Lucretia nodded and got out, slipping her cardigan on in one smooth motion. Taako took another minute, one last deep breath, before joining them on the sidewalk. Lucretia walked a few steps ahead and Kravitz took Taako’s hand. Kravitz’ hand was cold, like it always was, but it was still comforting. And he’d take every scrap he could get as they approached the house.

     It was more modern in style than its neighbors, with immaculate landscaping and strategic outdoor lighting. Every light in the house seemed to be on; laughter and music wafted out of the large opened windows and across the front lawn. Lucretia’s heels echoed on the slate walkway. Kravitz opened the front door and the show was on.

     The ceiling was two stories high, and a grand staircase swept through the entryway. Groups of crisply dressed people passed through the lobby, on their way to the kitchen, or the living room, or the sitting room. Golden-toned wooden floors and oriental rugs effortlessly complimented the modern clean lines of the furniture. There was an honest-to-God jazz trio in the room to Taako’s left. Just perfect .

     A short woman with long curling white hair and fine lines around her mouth like parentheses looked up from her glass of chardonnay as they entered.

     “Oh, Kravitz! You came!” she said, quickly grabbing him in a one-armed hug.

     “Hello, Mrs. Kader,” Kravitz said, smiling brightly down at her.

     “And you brought friends, how nice. Your mother will be so pleased.”

     “You might actually-- do you remember Lucretia?” Kravitz said, stepping to the side.

     “Oh, Lucretia Simon, of course.” The woman held out her hand.

     “Actually, it’s Lucretia Moreau,” she gently corrected her.

     “Oh, well. Congratulations.” Lucretia’s smile froze a little. “I’m Istus Kader, president of The Neverwinter Academy.”

     “Pleasure,” Lucretia simply replied.

     “And this is my boyfriend, Taako Peynirci,” Kravitz introduced.

     Istus took Taako’s hand in a warm embrace. “Welcome, Taako. That’s an interesting name. Is it Greek?”

     “Turkish, actually,” he managed. She smiled at him before turning back.

     “Well, I think your mother is in the back. But come and see me before you leave, won’t you dear?” She patted Kravitz’ arm before waving at another group of people and heading into the living room.

     “Shall we?” Kravitz asked, waving an arm down the hall. Lucretia headed towards the back of the house, and Taako and Kravitz followed. There were more people back here too. Waiters in black suits wandered around with platters of caviar and crème fraîche tartlets and pâté toasts. An actual oil painting of a young Kravitz and Ms. Sinclair hung over the fireplace.

     “There’s my mother.” Kravitz nodded towards a pair of people standing in front of the open french doors. “Now the man next to her is her long time friend, Pan Duin. He’s been the leading tenor in the Neverwinter Opera the last 13 seasons, so he expects everyone to know who he is. I’d recommend just going along with it. Hello, Mother!”

     Raven Sinclair turned and smiled serenely at her son. “Welcome home, dear,” she said, setting down her empty wine glass before taking him in a hug. Though she was obviously over 50, she was still almost as tall as her son. They shared the same warm brown skin tone and insightful dark eyes. Taako admired the burgundy dress, with dyed heels to match, that she was wearing. “I’m so glad you could make it.” She squeezed his hands before turning to see Lucretia standing just behind him.

     “Oh, Lucretia. It has been far too long.” She hugged her too.

     “Hello, Ms. Sinclair. It’s good to see you again.”

     “Mother?” Kravitz came and stood next to Taako, placing two hands on his shoulders. “I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Taako Peynirci.”

     The gaze she turned on him made Taako instantly understand why Raven Sinclair was one of the top attorneys in Neverwinter. It wasn’t unfriendly, but he suddenly had the impression that she knew . Knew what even he wasn’t sure. But she definitely knew. Taako held out his hand.

     “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Sinclair,” he said, attempting a smile. “Kravitz has told me so many things about you.”

     “Good things, I hope,” she replied, taking his hand and smiling coolly. Her hand was cold, just like her son’s. Behind her, Pan chuckled, the chain on his waist jacket jingling a little.

     “Of course,” Taako said.

     “You may already know Pan--”

     “Duin, yes,” Taako finished, extending a hand to the large man. Raven looked suitably impressed. “I saw you in Cyrano de Bergerac and you were excellent.”

     “Well, thank you, young man.” Pan’s hand completely encompassed Taako’s. “It’s always nice to see young people interested in the height of man’s artistic achievement--opera.”

     Taako smiled blithely and nodded a few times.

     “There’s a bar in the front room, and waiters are all around with food. I have to go talk to Mayor Sterling for a minute, but I’ll come find you three after that,” Raven said quickly, before walking away.

     “I’d say that went pretty well,” Kravitz said as they headed towards the bar.

     “About as well as could be expected,” Lucretia said, crossing her arms.

     “Oh, I had no idea you came to the opera.” Kravitz turned to Taako.

     Taako laughed. “I don’t. I don’t have that kind of money.”

     “Well, how did you know Pan was in Cyrano last season?”

     “You said he was a tenor, right? I figured in 13 seasons he had to play the role at some point.” Lucretia and Kravitz stared at him in shock. “What? I know things.”

     “You never cease to amaze me,” Kravitz said, chuckling and squeezing his hand.

 

     Kravitz seemed to know almost everyone at the party, and they were all curious to meet his significant other. After almost an hour of having the same conversation 14 times, Taako decided he needed a break.

     “I’ll be back in a bit,” Taako said quietly, patting Kravitz’ arm and stepping away from the conversation.

     “Are you okay?” he asked, his eyebrows raised with concern.

     “Yeah, yeah. I just want some air.” He smiled and walked into the back room and out the open french doors.

     The night air was still surprisingly warm for September, but at least there was a breeze out on the back porch. Taako set his glass down on the wide stone railing and rested his elbows against it.

     “Catching your breath?”

     Taako looked over his shoulder to see Lucretia. She swirled a very full wine glass delicately in her hand before taking a sip.

     “Trying to,” he said, turning back to face the dark garden. She stood by his side for a moment, taking another sip.

     “You want to see my hiding spot?”

     Taako looked up at her. “Of course.”

     She smiled slyly. “Follow me.” She walked quickly down the stairs and headed to the left across the grass. Taako followed behind her, and she almost reached the back corner of the yard when she ducked behind some tall rose bushes. Taako followed, pricking himself a few times but emerging in a cleared area between the tall bushes and the back fence. Lucretia sat down on a small stone bench and patted the spot next to her. She crossed her long legs and leaned back against the fence, drinking more of her wine. Taako sat down next to her.

     “We would come here when Ms. Sinclair would have parties that I had to be at,” she said, smiling a little. Taako got the impression that she wasn’t really speaking to him, though. “We’d sneak away… Kravitz would come and find us if she started looking for us…” Taako looked over at her, but she was looking up at the house next door. “...Do you ever feel that no matter how far you run, you’ll never escape the past?”

     “Yeah.”

 

     Kravitz checked around the upstairs. No sign of Taako, or Lucretia. He even checked behind the closed door of his old bedroom, but they weren’t there either. However, he did find his mother at the top of the stairs.

     “There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she said, setting her glass down on the small table against the wall. She quickly adjusted the painting above the table, making sure that it was hanging perfectly level.

     “Sorry, I was just looking for Taako… or Lucretia. Have you seen either of them?”

     “Not since I last saw you. You’ll find them, they can’t have gone far.”

     “True.” Kravitz nodded slowly. “Well, while it’s just the two of us, I want to say congratulations, Mother. The Tellinson’s quite an achievement.”

     She smiled softly at him, rubbing his cheek with her thumb. “Thank you, dear. It means a lot to hear it from you. And since it is just the two of us, tell me about this Taako. How’d you meet?”

     “He does roller derby. He’s on Lucretia’s team.”

     “She still does derby? Good for her.”

     “Yeah, she coaches now.”

     “That makes sense. So what does he do?”

     “He works at a bakery in town. Someday he’d like to own his own shop though. He’s working on that.”

     “In Faerun?”

     “Yes, in Faerun. He grew up in New Elfington, but Faerun’s home now.”

     She nodded, and Kravitz noticed her lips purse ever so slightly. He sighed. “Mother, don’t.”

     “I’m not--”

     “Yes, you are.”

     She started to protest again, but they both knew he was right. “Alright, fine. Maybe I am.”

     “You’ve said a grand total of 10 words to him. You don’t know him.”

     “Honey, what makes me so good at my job is that I can read people. And I know the whole mysterious secret thing seems sexy--”

     “Oh my god.”

     “--at first. But trust me, it does not work out in the long run.”

 

     “Kravitz told me… that you ice skated… and… were married,” Taako said, drawing a pattern in the mulch with the toe of his shoe.

     “He told me he told you.”

     Taako smiled softly. “That sounds like him.”

     “I’ve known Kravitz a long time. He’s good people.”

     “Yeah, I definitely lucked out.”

     Lucretia looked at Taako. “Hey, don’t let the oil paintings and the BMW’s and the personal relationships with the Mayor of Neverwinter blind you. They’re just people, just like you and me.”

     “Oh, please. Take a look around us. This is like a whole other level of people.”

     “That’s just the nerves. Taako, everyone’s nervous when they meet the parents. I know I was. And Kravitz will be too when he meets yours. It’s the circle of life.”

     Taako didn’t answer, just finished off his drink in a large gulp. Lucretia looked at him, her eyebrows furrowed.

     “My parents…” he started, “Aren’t exactly a part of my life anymore. I doubt they’d want to even meet me, much less Kravitz.”

     Lucretia frowned and looked at the ground. “Wow, I really stepped in that one.”

     “It’s okay.” He looked down at his empty glass. “It’s taken me a long time but I… someday soon I might finally come to terms with that.”

     She also finished her glass, and set it down next to her. “You have any tips on how to do that? Asking for a friend, of course.”

     Taako smiled a little at her. “Honestly, just finally telling someone was what made the most progress. I told Krav the whole story when we started dating. I think part of me wanted to see if I couldn’t scare him off… but he’s still here. It’s just nice that someone else knows the whole story.”

     Lucretia was silent for a while, then took a deep breath. “Listen, this may be the four glasses of pinot noir I’ve had, or the fact that I’m literally surrounded with memories in this house, but…” She paused for so long that Taako wondered if she’d even finish her sentence. “Can I tell you about Cam?”

Chapter Text

     Raven shut the double doors to the master suite behind her and pinched the bridge of her nose.

     “Will you, please, sit down?” she asked. Kravitz paced wildly across the large room.

     “No!” he insisted. But at the face his mother made him at least continued in a quieter tone, “What is this about, Mother? Really? Is it about that I brought home my boyfriend instead of a girlfriend?”

     “No, I don’t care about that. I love you, Kravitz, and I don’t care about the gender of your chosen partner.”

     “Well then, what is the problem? I have chosen Taako! And I like him enough that he’s the first man I’ve dated in 13 years that I’ve wanted you to meet.”

     “I know! I know. And Kravitz, believe me I wanted to try and be warm and welcoming, I promise I did.” She shook her head.

     “It didn’t feel like much of a try,” he said, crossing his arms. “You found out four facts about him and immediately wrote him off.”

     “Honey… were you listening to yourself when you said them?” she sat down on the bench next to the door. “He wants to own a bakery in a town with less than 50,000 people in it. That is his life’s goal.”

     “And what’s wrong with that?”

     “Kravitz, you were born in Neverwinter, you’ve spent your whole life living in the Astral Acres, you graduated top of your class at The Academy! Did this Taako even go to college? ...Did he even graduate high school?”

     “You don’t like Taako because he’s not rich?” He looked at her with eyes wide. “Are you mental?”

     “You were both born into very different worlds. And those kinds of differences are extremely hard to reconcile.”

     Kravitz clenched and unclenched his jaw. Ah. There it was. Finally. He made sure to choose his words carefully, “Taako and I… are not you and Dad. And hang on, even if we were… wouldn’t Taako be you in this crazy scenario?”

 

     Lucretia settled more on the bench, and heaved a deep breath.

     “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent in Neverwinter, but it’s not very aptly named. There was a small duck pond in the park across from my house, and it would be frozen solid about four months out of the year. All of us children from the neighborhood would slip and skid across the ice. My mom found me a pair of used Barbie skates from the Goodwill down the road. And I would skate there any time I wasn’t at school.

     “When I was in fifth grade, there was an after school program run by the district. A way to give the poor kids some… cultural enrichment. They took us to the ice rink a couple times a month. Ms. Sinclair had skated in college, but now that she was a wife and mother, she needed more to do. So she taught classes down at the rink, and volunteered with the program. She tried to teach us all how to do a single toe loop. I ended up being the only one who could land one by the end of the day. She showed up at my parents’ house the next week--I still have no idea how she tracked me down--and said that she would personally train me in figure skating.

     “I spent almost all of junior high and high school either at the rink, or at this house. I was terrible in school, but I was excellent at skating. We all knew that that was my ticket to a better life. And by high school, I was qualifying for Nationals, and the Olympics were in our sights. And that’s when Cam and his family moved in right next door.”

     Lucretia stopped telling her story and looked over the high fence. Only the tall peaks of the roof next door could be seen from their angle. Taako found himself sitting on the edge of the bench, completely enraptured.

     “Cameron Moreau was…” she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, “the sweetest boy I’ve ever known. He was clumsy, he would have forgotten his head if it wasn’t attached.” She laughed a little. “He had curly brown hair and blue eyes and freckles across the bridge of his nose. His favorite movie was The Karate Kid. He was a devoted fan of the Flyers. And we fell in love like only 16 year olds can.

     “We knew everything about each other… every hope, every fear. We talked several times of marriage, even though we were both just fresh out of high school. Our parents tried to convince us to wait at least until he was done with college.

     “But we eloped June 17th, 1985, and we returned to the rink and classes the very next day. I was training full time then, and I had just missed the games in Sarajevo. Calgary would be my last shot. Cam was studying to be a doctor, and he joined an amatuer ice hockey league at the rink. He said that if he was going to spend so much time there for me, he might as well get some exercise too. He wasn’t very good,” she laughed. “He had this showboating habit where he’d yell, ‘shot!’ before he’d take one. Other team always knew when it was coming. I loved it though… and I loved him.”

 

     “That is not what I’m saying.”

     “No, that’s exactly what you’re saying,” Kravitz shot back, taking up pacing again. “I-I can’t believe this! Do you hear how illogical you’re being?”

     Her nostrils flared. “I… I’m your mother. I’m allowed to be,” she countered.

     “No, no. There’s a difference between being protective and being wrong,” he said, his mouth forming a hard line. “Just because things fell apart between you and Dad, doesn’t mean that the same thing will happen to Taako and me.”

     “I know-”

     “And even if there may be some similarities between our initial backgrounds, you, of all people, should not be rooting against Taako in this.”

     “But--”

     “No! There is no but. I intend for Taako to be a part of my life on as permanent a basis as the government will let us.” She stared open-mouthed at him. “He’s smart and funny and compassionate and he’s my biggest cheerleader and he hoards costumes and he’s loyal and I... ...I love him, Mom.”

     “I… didn’t realize things were that serious.”

     “I didn’t tell you because I thought you might freak out if I let you know… I now realize that was a fool’s errand, you were going to freak out no matter what I told you.”

     Raven looked down at her lap. Kravitz sighed. He sat on the bench next to her and took her hand.

     “Look, I know this probably brought up some old fears that you didn’t even know you had. But I promise you, you will like Taako if you just give him a fair chance. You actually have a lot in common. You’re both the strongest people that I know.”

     She scoffed a little, but replied after a moment, “I will, I promise. I’m sorry I didn’t before. I just… well, you already said it yourself.” She looked at him and patted his cheek. “Oh, my little boy. When did you get so smart?”

     “I had a very smart woman who raised me,” he said, smiling.

     “That you did.” She kissed his forehead and stood up. “I should probably go check in one last time with everyone before they start heading out. And you need to find Taako and Lucretia, wherever they went.”

     “Actually, I think I just figured out where they are.”

 

     Lucretia stopped when they heard the bushes in front of them rustle. Kravitz’ head popped out of the roses. “Thought you might be here.” He smiled at both of them. “I brought the necessary gifts to enter Moreau-via.”

     “You brought Pudding Roll-Ups and a six pack of light beer?” Lucretia asked, sounding thoroughly impressed.

     “Ah, no. But I did steal a bottle of wine from the bar, and I grabbed a whole tray of cucumber sandwiches.”

     Lucretia pretended to think for a moment. “That is acceptable, you may enter Moreau-via.”

     Kravitz passed off the bottle of wine and sat down against the corner of the fence. He refilled their glasses, and they all had several cucumber sandwiches.

     “These are amazing. What’s in here?” Taako asked, pulling one open and examining the spread.

     “Lemon zest,” Lucretia and Kravitz said at the same time. They laughed and she clinked her glass against his bottle.

     “It’s Ms. Sinclair’s secret ingredient,” Lucretia added with a wink.

     “So what were you guys talking about?” Kravitz asked, before popping another sandwich in his mouth.

     “I was telling him my life story,” she said, relaxing back against the fence again.

     “The short or long version?”

     “It was pretty long… we were just getting to ‘88 Nationals.”

     “Oh wow.”

     “You are both slowly murdering me with suspense right now. I just thought you should know,” Taako interjected. Kravitz grinned at him.

     “So you want me to keep going?”

     “Lucretia, I have never wanted anything more in my life. I’m sorry, Kravitz, but it’s true.”

     Kravitz laughed. “I understand. It’s an incredible story… maybe someday she’ll let me publish it.”

     Lucretia swirled her glass, “Maybe someday. But not today… So, where was I?”

     “You eloped, Cam was on a hockey team, and you loved him,” Taako gushed.

     Kravitz laughed. “Shot!” he said.

     Lucretia smiled and nodded. “Right. Now Nationals is how a US skater qualifies for the Olympic team. And in 1988, Nationals was held right here in Neverwinter. My short program went well, and I just had the free-skate left. I was supposed to skate next. Then Ms. Sinclair’s pager went off.”

 

     Ms. Sinclair read the message ticking across the small screen and frowned.

     “Isn’t this like the fourth skater using Clair de Lune?” Lucretia said, twisting side to side on the bench. “Like at some point, they are going to have to stop using that song, you know?” The sequins on her leotard sparkled as she jumped up to balance against the half wall and swing her leg back and forth. “Though Debi totally stole my Carmen piece.”

     Lucretia looked over at Ms. Sinclair when she didn’t answer. She was frozen, reading the beeper over and over.

     “What is it?”

     Ms. Sinclair looked up from the beeper, just stared at her for a minute. Lucretia could practically see the cogs working in her brain. “...Cam's going to the hospital,” she finally admitted.

     It felt like the ground shook beneath her skates. “What? Is he okay?”

     “...I… I don't know.” Ms. Sinclair shook her head. “It doesn't say.”

     “He… he could be fine, right? I mean, he was there just last week 'cause he sprained his wrist.” The skater finished her piece with a flourish and the crowd cheered. Lucretia’s heart rate sped up to a million beats a minute. “...What do I do? Ms. Sinclair, what should I do?!” She panicked, reaching out and grabbing the arm of her windbreaker. Ms. Sinclair just looked at her.

     “I can't tell you, Lucretia. This… only you can decide.”

     The announcer called her name, and Lucretia stared out at the ice as the crowd cheered for her. Somewhere in the stadium, her parents were there for her. News crews for waiting for interviews after her performance. The very Olympics hung in the balance. But ...Cam.

     “...If I skate, can we leave as soon as I'm done?” She turned back to look at Ms. Sinclair.

     “Of course! Yes, yes.” she let out a breath and smiled widely.

     “Okay…” Lucretia slowly nodded, a heavy weight settling in her stomach. “It's only 4 more minutes, right?”

     “Right. Exactly. We’ll leave the moment you’re done.” She put her hands on Lucretia’s shoulders and leaned in close. “Now, you can do this. Put it all aside and focus. This is your moment. Do it.”

     Lucretia attempted a deep breath and removed the guards from her skates. She stepped out onto the ice as the crowd cheered.

 

     Lucretia released the corner of her cardigan that she had been twisting around her thumb. She was decidedly not looking at either Taako or Kravitz. “I think it was because there was so much going on that I just mentally shut down and relied completely on muscle memory. I don’t have any memory of how the routine actually went, I don’t even know if I took a bow. We didn’t even wait for the scores, just ran out of the stadium and raced to Memorial. But we…”

     Her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. “He’d had an aneurysm. Just collapsed out of nowhere. He hemorrhaged, and was… dead by the time I got there.”

     She stopped and took a deep breath. Kravitz was looking down at the ground, his face melancholic. Taako wasn’t entirely sure what he should do. Kravitz reached out and Lucretia took his hand. He could see her knuckles whiten as she continued with her story.

     “I quit the next day, refused my spot on the Olympic team. I never said why and a lot of people in the league said I was rude and ungrateful. But I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care about anything. In those months, I was so lost and volatile. I was just as likely to scream and throw things as I was to stare at the wall for hours upon end. I pushed everyone away… the only one who wouldn’t allow it was Ms. Sinclair. She refused to let me board up and waste away… I hated her for that.” She smiled a little.

     “I could hear you through the floor,” Kravitz mused. “The walls were shaking.”

     “It made me so mad that I decided to leave Neverwinter. I packed half a bag and just started driving. Broke down in Faerun, and I met Maureen while I was waiting at the mechanic. I joined her team two weeks later.”

     “Derby saved you too,” Taako said quietly. Lucretia nodded.

     “At the very least it was a place to take out my anger, and it gave me people I had to look out for. It wasn’t just about me, I was part of the team. We did the best when we trusted each other… I had to relearn that.”

     Taako nodded, and there was silence between the three for a minute. She reached over and squeezed Taako’s hand.

     “Thank you for listening.”

     “Thanks for telling me.”

     “I don’t know if I feel any better,” she said, biting her bottom lip.

     “Give it time,” Taako assured.

 

     The last guests left around midnight, and Ms. Sinclair put the three of them all up for the night so they wouldn’t have to drive home. Taako got enormous joy from the pictures of young Kravitz and Lucretia that were scattered about the house like little treasure troves. He wished that he had a camera because he was certain Ms. Sinclair would notice if one went missing.

     The next morning, Taako woke up before Kravitz, like he almost always did. It was still early; the sun was just barely rising. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself as this was definitely not his house, but Kravitz wasn’t stirring. He slipped on some leggings and a large t-shirt he’d bought at Lilith Fair the summer before and ventured out, hoping he could find some leftover food from the party.

     But the house was pristine. Not so much as a spare champagne flute was left out in the front rooms. It didn’t even look like anyone at all had been there the night before, let alone several dozen. Maybe the food had been stored away in the kitchen. Taako padded down the center hall.

     He about jumped out of his skin when he saw Ms. Sinclair, sitting at the table in the window. She calmly looked over to Taako.

     “Morning.” She had a monogrammed bathrobe on over coordinating pjs. She delicately sipped her steaming cup of coffee. “You’re an early riser,” she said, setting down the newspaper she had been reading.

     Taako quickly ran a hand through his hair, trying to seem at least a little presentable. “Y-yep,” he croaked.

     “Can I get you some coffee?”

     “Yes, please,” he said, still standing in the doorway. Not sure if he should help or not. Ms. Sinclair poured his coffee in a mug that matched hers and set it down at the table before sitting back down herself. Taako sat down across from her and added several large scoops of sugar from the china bowl to his coffee.

     Now that it wasn’t dark outside, Taako could see that the trees in the backyard were just beginning to turn shades of red and orange. A robin hopped in the grass, leaving a trail in the dew, before taking off.

     “I like the early mornings.” Ms. Sinclair said, also looking out the window. “A little patch of quiet before the day begins.”

     Taako nodded. “I completely agree.”

     They were quiet for a minute, before Ms. Sinclair spoke again. “Taako, I wanted to say I’m sorry if I seemed… brusque last night. It wasn’t my intention.”

     “No, you’re fine. It was quite a party. Congratulations, by the way.”

     “Thank you.” She smiled. “Kravitz tells me you’re from New Elfington, where about?”

     “I grew up in a suburb about 20 minutes south of the city.”

     “So did you leave for school, or…?”

     Taako took a sip and considered for a moment. “No… just… needed a change of scenery. I spent a couple years here in Neverwinter, but I really like it in Faerun.”

     “You and Lucretia both. There must be something in the water.”

     Taako chuckled a little. “There probably is. But I think it’s more that… it’s not as important where you live, but who you live with. We’ve found good people out there.”

     “I think Kravitz feels the same,” she said reflectively, tapping her thumb on the handle of her mug. “I had hoped that he’d return to Neverwinter,” she looked up and met Taako’s gaze, “but I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

     Taako looked down at the cup and took another sip. He wasn’t sure how to reply.

     “But that’s parenthood. If you do it right, you work yourself out of a job… I’m happy that he’s so happy,” she continued. “He’s been sort of… wandering these past couple years. It seems now that he’s found his feet again. Thanks, in no small part, to you, I’m sure.”

     Taako smiled down at the mug before looking back to her. “He… Honestly, I didn’t know that I could be as happy and fulfilled as I am with him,” Taako said, the clipped tone coming to his voice. Ms. Sinclair smiled and pressed the back of a finger to the corner of her eye.

     “Gracious. Look what you’ve done,” she laughed quietly. “So… tell me about yourself. What do your parents do?”

     Taako moved his jaw side to side, but said, flatly, “My father was a plumber. And my mother was a secretary at the church.” He looked up at her, she was studying him intently. “We’re… not really in touch anymore. Haven’t been in years.” He hadn’t thought he’d end up telling that story so many times this weekend.

     Ms. Sinclair reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Come here,” she said, standing up and pulling him up too. Without even asking, she wrapped him in a hug. At first he stiffened, he was very not good at hugs. Particularly with people he didn’t know well. But this hug was different, it wasn’t the hug of a partner or a friend. It was decidedly the hug of a mother. Oh. He hadn’t realized how much he’d still needed that. He swallowed hard, and hugged her back.

 

     “Now don’t be a stranger,” Ms. Sinclair said to Lucretia, holding her hands in the curved driveway later that afternoon. Kravitz was loading their bags into the trunk of the car “If you’re ever in the city, you know you have a place here, right?”

     Lucretia nodded. “And, if you want, we have a bout--a game two weekends from now. We’re going to crush the Felicity Wild Women.”

     “That’s sounds fascinating. Taako, tell me.” She wrapped an arm across Lucretia’s shoulders. “What’s Lucretia like as a coach?”

     “She’s terrifying,” Taako said, from where he was leaning against the hood of the car.

     “Good girl.” She hugged Lucretia as Kravitz shut the trunk and came around the front.

     “Ready to go?” he asked, pulling a stray dreadlock out of his face.

     “Not yet, not yet,” she said, releasing Lucretia finally. “Now you two, I will see you at Thanksgiving.” Kravitz started to protest, but Ms. Sinclair gave him a look that instantly made every muscle in Taako’s body clench. Scary, indeed.

     “Fine,” Kravitz sighed. “Bye, Mother. I love you.”

     “I love you too, dear.” She kissed his cheek and gave him a hug.

     “Good-bye, Ms. Sinclair,” Taako said. She gave him another hug too, much to the surprise of both Kravitz and Lucretia.

     “I look forward to seeing you again, Taako,” she said, smiling broadly at him. “Take care of Kravitz for me.”

     “I will.”

     She stood in the driveway and waved to them as the car pulled away and they started for Faerun.

     “Don’t worry, I’ll find a way to get us out of Thanksgiving,” Kravitz said as they left the neighborhood.

     “Oh, please, don’t,” Taako said.

     “You mean you want to spend Thanksgiving with my crazy family?” he asked incredulously.

     “There is literally nothing else I would like more.” Taako smiled. Kravitz looked at him in concern for a while, before turning back to the road and pulling out into traffic.

     “Wonders never cease.”

Chapter Text

     Johann stood by the vet table, stroking Void’s head. “It’s gonna be okay, girl. Nothing to worry about.”

     Void whined. She hated the vet, and Johann didn’t blame her. Usually he was able to keep her calm, but not today. Today she must be picking up his own nervousness.

     A woman in a white coat entered the exam room. “Hi, Johann. I haven’t seen you for a while.”

     “Hi, Sydnee.” Johann shook her hand. “We haven’t needed to come to a vet, I guess.”

     Sydnee scratched Void under the chin. “Hey, girl. What seems to be problem today?”

     “She’s been acting really weird. Kind of… clingy? More affectionate than usual. And then for the last couple of days she’s thrown up like every morning.”

     “Well that’s not good,” said Sydnee. She pulled out her flashlight and began examining Void’s eyes and ears. “How’s she been eating?”

     “Normally, I guess. I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.”

     “Hmm.” She put her stethoscope in her ears. “Saw your mom the other day.”

     “Yeah?”

     “Brought Trull in for his check-up.”

     Larsen’s Trullbus Succotash was his parents’ prize-winning Belgian shepherd. Johann’s family had bred dogs for almost a hundred years. Mom and Dad had almost died of shame when he picked Void from a random animal shelter.

     “He looks very good,” said Sydnee.

     “Of course he does,” said Johann, a little bitterly. “He’ll probably take the title in New Elfington this year.”

     “Well Void looks healthy too.” Sydnee moved the stethoscope down her belly. “Hmm.”

     “What is it? Is she sick?” pleaded Johann.

     “When’s the last time she’s been around other dogs?”

     “Uhh… I mean we go to the park pretty regularly. Sometimes with my friend’s dog. I brought her to my parents’ house last month, so she’s been around Trull, but if he’s not sick--”

     “Last month?” said Sydnee.

     “Yeah. Oh, god, what’s wrong with her?”

     “I have an inkling. It might be nothing, but… well, here.” She opened the door to a closet and pulled out a contraption with a screen on a cart. “Would you have her lay down?”

     “Down, Void,” said Johann. Void licked his face. “Aw, c’mon.” He pushed down gently on her back until she laid down, head on her paws.

     “Good girl,” said Sydnee, scratching at Void’s belly. “Now just turn a little bit… there we go. Could you hold her head down, Johann? Keep talking to her.”

     Johann mumbled affirmations to his dog as Sydnee smoothed back some of the fur on Void’s belly and put on something that looked like petroleum jelly. She switched on the contraption.

     “An ultrasound?” said Johann.

     “Yep. And… look at that.” Sydnee moved the wand over Void’s belly. “She’s pregnant.”

     “She is?” Johann looked at Void. “You are?”

     “You said it was about a month ago she was around Trull?”

     “Yeah, yeah.”

     “Unless your friend’s dog isn’t fixed, I’d say he’s the most likely culprit. Which, can I just say?” Sydnee grinned. “Hilarious.”

     “How many puppies?”

     “Hard to say this early. I count at least five. Probably more, though.” She towelled off the jelly. “You can let her up now.”

     Johann released her and gave her belly a good scratching. She let her tongue loll out of her mouth. “Look at you! You’re going to be a mom!”

     “Larsen’s Trullbus Succotash and Void,” said Sydney, wiping off her hands. “What would you even call the breed?”

     “There is no dog more deserving of the flower of motherhood than you,” said Johann, rubbing her face with both hands.

     “Her build says labrador, her ears say shepherd, her coat says spaniel, and her coloring...well who knows.”

     “You are a Lady Godiva among peasants. Dog peasants.”

     “And her with a champion dog. It’s a regular Romeo and Juliet.”

     Johann gasped. “You’re the Jack to his Rose!”

 

     “It’s just a splinter,” said Magnus, sitting on the floor of his apartment, arm outstretched. “I get them all the time. OW!”

     “It’s in there really deep,” said Julia thoughtfully. She sat cross-legged in front of him, digging into the meat of his palm with a pair of tweezers.

     “It’ll come out in a little bit,” he assured her.

     “You said it’s been in there for two days. It’s going to get infected.”

     “I’m fi-- shit , Jules!”

     “Quit squirming.”

     The phone rang. Magnus reached behind him and picked it up. “Magnus speaking. Oh, hi, JohhaaaaAAAAUGH JEEZ, JULIA.”

     “Almost got it.”

     “No, Johann, it’s fine, she’s just--no we’re not busy. Yeah, really. What’s up?”

     “Splinter’s the size of a fence post.”

     “She is ? Congratulations! You’re like a grandpa now!”

     Julia shot a look over shoulder. “What?”

     Magnus’ jaw dropped. “Really? You mean it?”

     “Mean what?”

     “Then yeah! Hell yeah! When?”

     “Weirdo.” Julia turned back to her task.

     “Yes! Thanks, Johann. Seriously, you’re the best.” He hung up the phone.

     “What was that about?”

     “I need to buy a house in three months.”

     “You what ?” Julia pulled the tweezers out of his hand.

     “ HIJO DE PUTA .” Magnus yanked his hand away.

     Julia held up the tweezers. “Got it!”

Chapter Text

     Taako slammed the oven door and shook the flour out of his apron. The last cakes of the day were now on the cooling racks, a set of German chocolate cakes that, if he was right, would be the most moist cakes that ever existed. It was a shame they were all going to people’s picnics and potlucks and meetings, to be untouched because, moist or no, they were still German chocolate cakes.

     He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. After these cooled he could go home, unless Sazed--

     “There you are,” said Sazed, passing through the kitchen. He was on his way out, putting on his jacket. “You’re only getting those out now?”

     It took all of Taako’s considerable self-control to keep his eyes unrolled. “Yeah.”

     “The front is a mess. Fix that up before you leave.” He left via the back door.

     “Sure,” said Taako. He waited for the door to click shut before he said, “I’d like to see you get those cakes out of the oven after making six custom orders in a single day. Oh, wait, you couldn’t. Which is why you hired me. Asshole.”

     He snatched up a broom and a rag to clean the front, which was not a mess, but needed to be wiped down anyway before they closed, and started sweeping behind the counter. Someday this would be just a memory while he worked his own place. His bakery, where he’d be a real baker instead of some kind of cake monkey, and he would actually throw out eggs that were recalled from salmonella instead of using them and letting his employee take the fall for the Salmonella Incident of 1997, Sazed .

     There was a streak of dried frosting on the floor. Taako grabbed a paper towel and a spray bottle from under the counter and crouched down to scrub.

     The electronic bell on the door chimed. He looked up; from his place on the floor he could see the door opening and closing, but nobody seemed to come in.

     “Hello?” he called. A thought occurred. “Hurley?”

     There was no answer. Spooky.

     Taako crumpled up the paper towel and pulled himself halfway up on the counter. A pair of eyes met his on his way up.

     “Augh!”

     “Hello, sir!”

     Taako stood the rest of the way up. “Jeez, Angus.”

     “Sorry, sir. I thought I’d surprise you at work!” He grinned. The little guy looked fresh from school, backpack and all, which was weird, because it was almost 5:30.

     “Well you did that.” Taako tossed the paper towel in a trash can. “What are you doing here, little man?”

     “I came to ask for your advice, Mr. Taako.”

     “Well, depending on what exactly you’re looking for, I might be vastly unqualified,” he said, picking up the broom again. Advice, huh? The little guy didn’t have many men in his life, Taako knew. From what Carey and Killian said about his grandpa, the old man was verging on senility. Oh god, what if he wanted The Talk or something? This was parent stuff. Taako could barely parent himself.

     “Me and this girl at school--”

     “Hold it right there, buddy, maybe this is a question for… Magnus or somebody--”

     “--are doing a project for Civics. Why would I ask Magnus?”

     Taako clutched his chest. “Oh thank god. No, it’s fine, sorry. You can ask me.”

     “Okay, well, it’s a presentation, and the teacher said we could get extra credit if we add a little pizzazz.”

     “Angus.” Taako leaned toward him on the counter. “You have absolutely come to the right place. What kind of pizzazz?”

     “That’s what I’m here to ask you,” said Angus. “We don’t know. June says some kids are doing home videos or songs. We can’t really sing and we don’t have a tape recorder.”

     Taako picked up his broom again and started sweeping. “What’s your project on?”

     “Why people have national pride. We were lucky, the teacher assigned us America.”

     “So why do you think people have national pride here?”

     “A history that focuses on personal freedoms and independence. We’re going to talk a lot about history.”

     Taako shot him a look. “Did you do most of the reading for this project?”

     “Yes. But I have more time to, and June’s going to do most of the presenting, so it’s fair.”

     “History, huh?” Taako swept the detritus from the floor into the dustpan and dumped it into the trash. “I might have something for you. You like costumes?”

     Angus smiled. “Like costumes to present in?”

     “Yeah, if that works with your presentation.”

     “That’s perfect! Where do you keep the costumes?”

     “Oh. Um. Hmm. They’re at my apartment. Uhh.” Taako rubbed the back of his head. He needed an adult. “Who brought you here?”

     “I walked.”

     Taako frowned. “From where?”

     “From school. It wasn’t too far.”

     “Ango, that’s almost four miles.”

     Angus shrugged.

     “So no one knows you’re here?”

     “I wrote a note to my grandpa this morning.”

     Taako pinched the bridge of his nose. “What exactly does that note say?”

     “That I’ll be with a friend all afternoon. Why?”

     “Did you mention me specifically?”

     “No. I don’t understand, why don’t you want him to know I’m with you?”

     Taako laughed nervously. “Hoo, boy. Hatchi matchi. How do I put this?” How to explain to an eleven-year-old how it looked if a grown man took a child home… “I’m not… a great adult. Do you see? Like I am barely competent.” He put his hands together and pointed them at Angus. “Children need… supervision. From adults. Preferably more than one adult at a time.”

     “You have a job and a house and a boyfriend,” offered Angus. “What else do you need to be an adult?”

     “We’re just asking all the big questions today, aren’t we?” he said. “Maybe I could call Carey or Killian?”

     “They’re both still at work,” said Angus.

     “Aw, jeez.” Taako covered his face. “Well this is just a doozy of a situation we find ourselves in.”

     “It is?” said Angus.

     The chime on the door rang, and Taako’s salvation entered, covered in car grease.

     “Hi, Taako,” said Sloane. “Oh, hi, Angus.”

     “Sloane! Great. I need a favor.”

     Sloane gave him a dry look. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it for carrot cake.”

 

     Sloane watched, fork in hand, as Taako adjusted the length of Angus’ sleeves. He was wearing a long-tailed blue coat with a patterned vest and short pants.

     “You’re lucky,” said Taako through a mouthful of pins, “that our Jefferson was about your size. Scrawny kid.”

     “What play did you say this was from?” asked Sloane through a mouthful of cake.

     “ 1776 . Our local theater did a truly awful rendition of it.” Taako finished pinning the sleeve and moved on to the coattails. “The costumes were choice, though.”

     “People used to wear this every day?” said Angus.

     “They sure did,” said Taako. “All this and wool stockings too.”

     “No wonder the Continental Congress was so miserable and hot,” Angus said.

     Taako stood up and looked over Angus. A curly-haired freckle-faced boy of ambiguous ethnicity in a Revolutionary War-era costume.

     “You know, it’s strange,” said Taako thoughtfully, “but something about this just seems right.”

     Angus smiled.

     “All right, you can take the coat off. It’ll just be a couple of stitches and it’ll fit just fine.”

     Angus slid off the coat and handed it to Taako. “Thanks, sir! It’s perfect.”

     “You are talking to an expert here, Ango,” he said, hanging the jacket over one arm. “Now this friend of yours, is she taller or shorter than you?”

     Angus considered. “Uhh, this much taller?” He held out a hand just above his head.

     “What is that, an inch and a half?” Taako tapped his chin. “And is she thinner or fatter than you?”

     Angus shifted and looked away. “It’s not very nice to--”

     “I promise I won’t tell her.”

     “Um. About the same, I guess?”

     “Well that’s convenient. Angus, how would you feel about being a dress model?”

     Angus considered. “You wear skirts sometimes.”

     “That I do,” said Taako solemnly.

     “Then I think it would be okay.”

     “All right, then.” Taako turned to one of the costume racks and shuffled through the selection. “How about a yellow?”

     Angus nodded. “I think that would look nice. She’s got dark skin.”

     “Brilliant.” Taako handed him a dress. “Go ahead and put this on. You can just put it over your shirt and jeans, it should fit okay either way.”

     Angus took the dress to the bathroom.

     Sloane swallowed a bite of cake. “You’re really into this stuff.”

     “What? I am?” Taako sat down at a table with a sewing machine and switched it on. “I thought I just kept all these clothes around for kicks.”

     “Don’t you sass me,” said Sloane.

     Taako laughed.

     Angus appeared from the bathroom, pulling the voluminous skirt up so he wouldn’t step on it. The back of the dress was only half-buttoned over his t-shirt. “I couldn’t reach the rest,” he said.

     “That could be a problem,” said Taako. “Now that I think about it, all my dresses require some doing to get into.”

     “I could help her,” said Angus. “I don’t mind.”

     “Would she mind, though?” said Taako.

     “It’s only three buttons.”

     Taako nodded. “All right. If you’re sure. Here, step up on this stool for me.”

     Angus did as instructed and released the skirt. Taako buttoned the last three buttons on the back of the dress and knelt down to start pinning the hem.

     “How did people move in these things?” asked Angus.

     “Killian says you can do anything in a skirt if you’re not a coward,” said Sloane.

     Angus laughed. “I guess I’m not very brave, then.”

     “It takes practice, is all,” said Taako.

     “Wouldn’t catch me wearing a dress ever,” scoffed Sloane.

     A sound from the bottom of the stairs made Taako look up, the sound of a key in the door. “Mm! That’ll be Kravitz.”

     And yes, Kravitz’s voice floated up the stairway. “Taako?”

     “Up here, darling.”

     Taako heard footsteps coming up the stairs. “Oh. Uh. What’s this?”

     Taako caught Angus’ eye and winked. “This is my son, Agnes.”

     Angus put a hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh.

     “Your son--did you say Agnes?”

     Sloane snickered.

     “You didn’t tell me you had a son.” Kravitz’ tone was so soft it made Taako look up. He had the gentlest look on his face.

     “Yep, he’s our boy,” said Sloane, taking a bite of cake. “Bought him fair and square.”

     Kravitz’s face fell into confusion. “Wait. You two--”

     Sloane choked on her cake.

     “I believe Killian and Carey mentioned someone named Angus McDonald?” said Taako, before Kravitz could chase that rabbit. “This is the man himself.”

     Angus smiled. “Hello, sir! I’ve heard a lot about you!”

     “I’ve heard a lot about you, too,” said Kravitz, his face settling into a look of comprehension.

     Sloane coughed in the background. “I’m fine,” she croaked. “Don’t worry about me.”

     “Actually,” said Kravitz, sitting down on the floor beside them, “I’ve wanted to interview you for some time, for this blog project. I gave Killian a release form for your grandpa to sign…”

     “Oh! I have that in my backpack.”

     “Did he sign off on it?”

     Angus paused. “It’s signed,” he said carefully.

     “Ango, did you forge your grandpa’s signature?” said Sloane.

     “If I didn’t, nothing would get signed,” said Angus.

     “Maybe it’s just better if I ask you some questions off the record,” said Kravitz. “Is that okay with you?”

     “I think so,” said Angus.

     “You still need me?” asked Sloane, polishing off the last bit of cake.

     “It would be helpful to have another adult present,” said Kravitz.

     “There’s more cake in the fridge, killer,” said Taako, pinning up the next bit of hemline.

     Sloane shot him a finger gun and strode over to his kitchen.

     “So Angus,” said Kravitz, “How long have you known Killian and Carey?”

     “Since I moved in with my grandpa,” he said. “So, since I was eight.”

     “That’s three years,” said Taako.

     “Right. Do you know why they take care of you?”

     “That’s a very easy question, sir. They love me, and they’re good people.”

     “Do they tell you they love you?”

     “Yes, sir. With both their words and with what they do.”

     “We all love Ango,” added Taako, reaching up to ruffle his hair.

     Kravitz smiled at him. Taako felt sort of melty.

     “So what are we doing here?” said Kravitz. “Uhh… exploring some… things?”

     “It’s for a school project,” said Angus.

     Kravitz frowned. “What kind of school project?”

     “The dress is for his friend,” said Taako.

     “That’s right,” said Angus. “We’re just the same size.”

     Kravitz rubbed the cloth between two fingers. “Looks kind of princessy.”

     “It was from a high school production of Beauty and the Beast , I think,” said Taako, placing another pin. “I’ll take out some of the more ridiculous flounces. It’ll pass for period dress in no time.”

     “Did you volunteer to help with this?” asked Kravitz, a little amused.

     “I asked him,” said Angus. “I knew he could help.”

     “How did you know?” asked Kravitz.

     “He’s good at pizzazz, sir,” said Angus solemnly. Kravitz’ mouth twisted into a smile. “And he always looks out for his friends.”

     “Does he, now?” said Kravitz, a little secretively.

     “Yep. Sometimes he pretends he doesn’t care, but he always does.”

     Taako felt a little affronted. He pointed at Angus. “Stop giving away my secrets, little man.”

     “Sorry sir, but it’s true.”

     Kravitz laughed. “You care about the derby team an awful lot, Angus.”

     “Yes, very much. It’s only fair, sir, since they care about me.”

     “Tell me something. You’re not living with your parents, is that correct?”

     “That’s right, sir.”

     “Do you feel like you have a family anyway?”

     Angus pondered this for a moment, then nodded.

     Kravitz nodded too. “Can I tell you a secret, Angus?”

     “Okay, sir.”

     He theatrically held up his hand to exclude Taako in the secret and said, in a stage whisper, “Taako does too.”

     Angus beamed.

     “Would you two quit baring my soul to each other?” grumbled Taako. “I’ll have no credibility by the time you’re done.”

     Kravitz placed a cold hand on Taako’s knee. Taako stuck a pin into the hemline before reaching down and squeezing his boyfriend’s hand. “All right, Ango. Stand up on your tiptoes for me?”

     Angus did. The hemline hit just where it should.

     “Perfect. You can take that off now. I’ll get started on sewing.”

     “Can you do the buttons?” asked Angus.

     Taako undid the first three or four buttons and, once Angus had done the rest, helped him pull the dress over his head. Kravitz stood up. “I wanted to let you know, I got a call from a friend who needs help with a story for the Post , so I’ll be in Neverwinter for a couple of days.”

     “Is this the investigative reporter?” asked Taako, taking the dress and the jacket over to the sewing machine.

     “That’s right, and I figured it’s an easy paycheck.” Kravitz picked up his camera bag from its place on his desk and unzipped it to check inside. “Anyway, I owe her a favor.”

     “What’s the story, Wishbone?”

     “Dogfighting,” said Kravitz. He shot a panicked look at Angus and said, “I mean--”

     “That’s how Grandpa lost his seat in the senate,” said Angus.

     Taako threw a look over his shoulder. “Your grandpa was a senator?”

     “A state senator,” said Angus. “Before I was born.”

     “Golly,” said Kravitz, in lieu of anything else. “Um. Right. So.” He collected himself and stood up straight. “I’ve only got a few minutes before I have to leave.”

     “Get over here, you big lug,” said Taako, reaching out to him.

     Kravitz hesitated. “Is this… appropriate?”

     “He hangs out with Carey and Killian all the time,” said Taako. “You think it’s anything he hasn’t seen before?”

     “You can kiss in front of me,” said Angus. “Oh, unless that makes you uncomfortable.”

     “Angus, would you go ask Sloane if she wants to stay for dinner?” Taako asked.

     Angus nodded and left for the kitchen.

     Kravitz chuckled. “That kid is so polite.”

     “He’s a good kid,” Taako agreed. “Now kiss me, you fool.”

     Kravitz did, wrapping his arms around Taako for a good long moment before releasing him. “I’ll be back on Sunday. We can go out for dinner.”

     “That sounds exceptionally good,” said Taako.

     Kravitz paused. “You ever think about that? Kids?”

     “I don’t think I’d be a very good dad, Krav.”

     “I disagree.”

     For once, Taako didn’t know what to say.

     “Anyhow.” Kravitz kissed him again. “I love you. See you soon.”

     “Bye,” breathed Taako, as his boyfriend walked down the stairs. God, he loved that man.

     Sloane stuck her head out of the fridge. “How am I supposed to eat dinner when you’ve stuffed me full of cake?”

     “What if I made bibimbap?” asked Taako, joining them in the kitchen.

     She narrowed her eyes. “With my dad’s no-meat meat sauce?”

     “Oh Sloane. Sweet Sloane. There is no other way to make bibimbap.”

     She crossed her arms. “All right. I guess so.”

     “What do you say, Ango?” said Taako. “Is your grandpa expecting you back for dinner?”

     “Nope. What’s bibimbap?”

     Sloane mussed his hair. “You’re in for a treat.”

Chapter Text

     Hurley hopped up onto the barstool and let her legs dangle as Carey, Killian and Taako greeted her. “Hey, guys.”

     “Where’s Sloane?” asked Carey.

     “She’ll be here in awhile. Said there was a repair she wanted to finish. Where’s Kravitz?”

     “On a photography job,” said Taako. “Taking those good photos, telling stories.”

     Killian laughed at the dreamy look on his face. “Look at this guy.”

     “Hey, Hurley’s here,” said Julia, coming up from behind the counter and taking out a shot glass. Hurley always ordered shots. “What can I get for you?”

     “What’ve you got that’s new?” said Hurley.

     “Um, well, Ren went and visited a cousin in Montana and brought back some kind of huckleberry vodka.”

     Hurley pointed. “Yes, shot of that, please.”

     “Coming up.” Julia pulled the bottle from the rack behind her.

     “No Magnus today?” asked Hurley.

     “No, he’s out househunting,” said Julia.

     “Oh yeah, he told me about that,” said Carey. “How’s it going?”

     “It’s going okay, I guess. Here you go.” Julia put the shot down in front of Hurley.

     “Just okay?” said Carey. “He said he found a few places that were strong possibilities.”

     “Welllll.”

     “Hmm, trouble in paradise, Jules?” said Taako. “Dish.”

     Julia hesitated. “Don’t tell him I said this, okay?”

     “Lips sealed, sweet cheeks. Right everyone?” Taako leaned forward. “So spill.”

     “It’s just… ” Julia bit her lip. “How do I say this? I want to be supportive, right? But he keeps asking me all these questions. How many bedrooms? How big should the yard be? What do I think of this layout, or this other layout? And I’m like, I don’t know?” Julia looked pained. “This is a big deal for him, but it’s getting annoying. It’s his house. Oh, hang on.”

     Julia was called away by other customers. As soon as she was out of earshot, Hurley threw out a hand. “I’m not the only one seeing this, right?”

     “Seeing Jules being totally oblivious?” said Taako. “No, no you are not.”

     “Magnus moves fast,” commented Carey. “Asking to move in after what, four months?”

     “Barely even that,” said Killian.

     “Except he’s not asking, he’s just--” Hurley waved a hand-- “beating around the damn bush!”

     “Who bet it’d be four months?” asked Carey.

     “That’d be me,” said Killian. “If she keeps this up, though, I might lose.”

     “We have to tell her, right?” said Hurley.

     “Don’t do it,” said Taako. “You’ll ruin the bet. She’s got to figure this out herself.”

     “I’ll ruin the bet ? This is our friend we’re talking about here!”

     “Listen, tough stuff, I’d like to help her overanalyze every aspect of her relationship too,” said Taako, “but what if we’re wrong? This is Magnus we’re talking about. For all we know, this could be completely about dogs.”

     “We could ask him,” Hurley began, but Killian held up a hand.

     “No middle school shenanigans here, Miss O’Shaghennessy,” Killian said. “Let them be adults.”

     “Who’s an adult?” Noelle appeared and took the seat beside Hurley.

     “Hey, Noelle,” said Carey. “Joining us at the big girl bar?”

     Noelle smiled. “I’m just here for the company today. And the food.”

     “Luckily, we’re serving up both,” said Julia, reentering the conversation. “What would you like?”

     “Fish and chips. And a lemonade.”

     “You got it.” Julia jotted down the order and brought it back to the kitchen.

     “What were you guys talking about?” asked Noelle.

     “Middle school shenanigans, I guess,” mumbled Hurley. “I don’t like watching my friends be dummies.”

     “Then what are you doing here?” asked Taako, which was greeted by laughter.

     Julia returned with a glass of lemonade. “This is what sucks about hanging out while I’m working, I miss all the good jokes.”

     “It was just the timing,” said Taako. “Now what were you saying about Magnus?”

     Julia shrugged. “I don’t know. I think I’m just being oversensitive about this househunting thing.”

     “Househunting?” said Noelle. “Are you two moving in together?”

     Hurley’s face broke into a grin. The others stared at Noelle, and then at Julia.

     Julia, for her part, looked dumbfounded. “Honestly… the thought has never occurred to me.”

     “Not even once?” said Noelle. “But y’all are so good for each other.”

     “Sure, but… moving in? That’s a big deal.”

     “Yeah, but if anyone could pull it off, it’s you two,” said Noelle.

     Julia shook her head. “That’s fast, though, that’s so fast.”

     “Well no one’s asking you to, I just wondered.” Noelle took a drink of her lemonade. “I wouldn’t be all that surprised, though, if you did. You always hear stories about someone’s parents or a couple of friends who like, knew each other for two months before they were married. I know you’re not supposed to strive for that kind of thing, but it does happen.”

     Noelle took another drink while Julia examined the bar with a worried frown.

     “What’s eating you about this, Jules?” said Killian.

     “I’m not sure.” She picked up a rag and wiped down the bar half-heartedly. “Am I--are we--ready for that? Is that even what he wants?”

     Julia’s audience exchanged glances. Killian said, carefully, “You’d have to ask him.”

     A bell sounded from the kitchen. Julia snapped out of it. “There’s someone’s food. Uh, I’ll be back.”

     She walked away. Hurley whacked Noelle on the arm. “What about the bet--ow!”

     “That’s the fake arm,” said Noelle. “What bet?”

     “I’m so gonna win this,” said Killian.

 

     Julia and Magnus sat at a table at the library. Magnus was poring over a newspaper. Julia was theoretically writing a mock budget for Strategic Management, but she was so distracted. Why did his constant talk about houses annoy her? It wasn’t because she didn’t know how to answer. He would have accepted “I don’t know,” and he had, many times. It was because he was making these plans without her.

     Not really without her. She was there, after all. But they weren’t her plans too. And she wanted them to be. The thought had struck her like a baseball bat. She wanted to be a part of this, and yet… there was still the persistent feeling that she had no right. He hadn’t yet invited her in, not properly. Maybe that’s what all the questions were about.

     God, if that was the case, it was too subtle for her taste. Why not just come out and ask her?

     Because they’d been dating four months, and they’d really only known each other for nine, and that was crazy, right? To move in with someone after that? To buy a house with someone? He didn’t want to scare her.

     If she was right about what was in his head. She could be dead wrong, and she was afraid to find out which one.

     He interrupted the train of thought with a sigh. He rubbed his face.

     “What’s wrong?” she asked, keeping her voice low.

     He laid his hand on the newspaper, matching her library-appropriate tone. “The problem is that I’m short a few thousand dollars. The houses I really want, the ones that I like the best… they’re just out of my range. Like this one.” He pointed to a listing. “Down payment of sixteen thousand. I have eight.”

     Julia’s accounting brain clicked into motion. “You have 8k? Like, liquid?”

     “Yeah.”

     “That’s not nothing. Immediate payment with no loan is a big deal. You could almost certainly talk them down further.”

     “Eight thousand further?”

     She hesitated. “Maybe not eight. But five.”

     “That’s something, at least.”

     They said nothing for a moment longer. A thought entered Julia’s mind: her savings account had just about three thousand dollars in it.

     She tried to drag her mind back to her project. The thought wouldn’t leave her alone.

     “What if,” she started, and then stopped. That wasn’t the place to start.

     “What if what?” he said, looking up from his newspaper.

     Right place or not, it looked like she was starting there. “What if I helped? I’ve got a little stashed away.”

     He frowned. “When you say ‘helped,’ what… ” He let the sentence trail off.

     Oh god. Okay. Now or never. “I mean… that I… I love you.”

     His eyes went wide.

     “And… and you know, if you… if you feel the same way…”

     Magnus’ face spread into the most radiant smile. He laughed breathlessly. “You. You love me?”

     The relief left Julia dizzy. She found herself mirroring his smile. “Yes. Yes!”

     “I love you, Julia,” he said, and it sounded like behind it was a wave of anticipation satisfied. Julia felt tears spring to her eyes.

     “Oh, god, am I crying?” she whispered.

     He covered his mouth with his hand and shook with silent laughter. She was laughing too now, inaudible, her gut aching from the effort of keeping it silent.

     “Hey,” she said, through tears, “sir, this is a library. Could you keep it down please?”

     This was it, the last straw. He guffawed out loud, and was immediately shushed by the other patrons. He slapped his hand back over his mouth.

     They were like that for several minutes, suppressing bursts of giggles and shushing each other. Finally they caught their breath.

     “I totally interrupted you,” he breathed. “We were talking about the house.”

     Julia tried to swallow back some of the mirth. “I was trying to say that if you’re up for it… I mean if you want, I could help you buy your house. Because then it’d be our house. Which I want, because I love you.”

     “Our house,” he murmured. “Yeah.”

     “Yeah?”

     “That’s all I want.” He reached across the table, took her hand. “That’s everything I want.”

     She pulled him toward her and kissed him, long and sweet.

     They broke apart smiling. Julia sighed. Everything he wanted. Everything she wanted too.

     “Tell me about our house,” she said.

     “How much richer are we?” he said.

     “Three thousand, two hundred, and seventy-six dollars.”

     Magnus grinned. “Well in that case…”

Chapter Text

     Steven looked at his hands, carefully folded on the familiar contours of the kitchen table. His house was so much quieter than usual. He’d turned off the radio, so the only sound was the tapping of his own foot. He looked at his daughter, searching her for any signs of change from the last few months, when all they’d had were terse phone conversations. She looked the same. Worried, but the same. For that matter, he was worried too. Ella always said he was a worrier, and months of radio silence had done nothing to soothe his fears.

     He said carefully, “You are buying a house.”

     “Yes,” said Julia. She was trying to be matter-of-fact about it, as if it was nothing. No big deal. Buying a house.

     “With your boyfriend,” he went on.

     “Yes.”

     “A man I have not met. That you have been dating for…” He did a quick calculation. “...Five months?”

     “Four,” she said, wincing.

     Then he’d understood her correctly. He was afraid of that.

     “And you’re giving him your savings,” he said.

     “We’re pooling our resources,” she countered.

     Steven unfolded and refolded his hands a couple of times.

     “I read an article recently about signs that someone might be in an abusive relationship,” he said. “If you’re convinced to give up your life savings, for example.”

     “I mean, it’s not my entire life savings, Dad, just what I’ve managed to put away while I’m in school.”

     “The article also mentioned isolation from friends and family.”

     “That’s not fair. I did that, not him.”

     “I’ve missed you,” said Steven. “I don’t like not being in your life.”

     “I know. I’m sorry. I was afraid… ” She sighed and buried her face in her hands. “You already didn’t like him, and I didn’t want to… to confirm your opinions of him or… or… this looks bad, doesn’t it?”

     “Yes.” Steven unfolded his hands again, drummed his fingers on the table. “Do you need help, Julia?”

     “No,” she groaned.

     “I can help you, if you need it. I’ll do whatever it takes. You can come stay with me for as long as you want if you feel unsafe.”

     “He would never-- never ,” she emphasized, “do anything to make me feel unsafe. I love him.”

     Steven felt his heart sink. The article had said that, too, that abused persons often protect their abusers. “Okay. Does he love you?”

     “Yes,” she said, with more confidence than he expected.

     “And he doesn’t… hurt you or--”

     “He doesn’t hit me, Dad, you know I know better than that.”

     “I’m not just talking about hitting you. He doesn’t ever make you feel… scared, or uneasy maybe? If you’d read the article--I have it around here somewhere--”

     “I know what abusive relationships look like, Dad. This isn’t one.”

     Steven backed off. “All right. All right.” He ran his hand through the graying fuzz of his hair. “I’m just… trying to understand. I can’t help but worry. I see you rushing in to who knows what--”

     Julia mumbled something.

     “What was that?”

     “I said, you did. Rush into things.” She leveled a stare at him.

     Steven sighed. “We’re talking about this, huh?”

     “You did , though. You can’t judge me for--”

     “I’m not judging you, Julia. It’s because your mother and I did what we did that I worry for you.”

     “What do you mean?” she said, settling her hackles a little.

     Steven leaned back in his chair. “We were both in college. We had bright futures, you know? Aspirations. And then we fell in love and got married and you came along… I’m not bitter about it, Julia. I wouldn’t do anything differently, but your life will be so much easier than ours with your education. I don’t want you throwing anything away.”

     “I’m going to finish,” said Julia reproachfully.

     “Will you? What if you get pregnant?”

     “I won’t.”

     “That’s what we thought too.”

     Julia scowled. “Okay, then what if I do? You ended up just fine.”

     Steven shook his head. “And then she died. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

     “No! Not at all!” Julia didn’t look angry so much as lost.

     “I see you getting all caught up with him, and it reminds me that Ella was everything to me. My whole world, Jules. And when she died--” His voice caught. He looked back at his hands, again folded on the table. “I was no kind of parent to you for a year. I was so wrapped up in her that I couldn’t take care of you properly once she was gone. Do you see?”

     He looked back at Julia. Her eyes sparkled with tears, but she said nothing.

     He cleared his throat. “If this man isn’t who you think he is, or if he isn’t as invested as you are, or God forbid, he dies--Julia, I don’t have the words to describe how much it will hurt.”

     They were quiet for a little while, and again, the only sound was the tapping of Steven’s foot.

     Julia swallowed. “But that’s always the risk, right? You open yourself up to the possibility of hurt. That’s what love is.”

     Steven grunted. “You’re not wrong.”

     “It’s just got to be for someone who’s worth it,” she added.

     “And you think this guy is?”

     “I know he is.” Julia had that look on her face, the look of determination. “I want you to meet him. You’ll see.”

     Steven spent a moment or two rubbing his forehead before saying, resigned, “I hope you’re right, Julia, I really do. When?”

     “We were thinking Friday. Just at Applebee’s. Nothing fancy.”

     He shook his head. “I’ll be there.”

     “Good.” Julia got up and kissed his forehead. “I love you, Daddy.”

     He wrapped her up in a hug. “I love you too, Chickadee.”

 

     Magnus tugged at the collar of his good shirt. Buttoned? Unbuttoned? Buttoned made a good impression, but unbuttoned meant he wouldn’t suffocate and die in front of his girlfriend’s dad. Magnus unbuttoned the top button and walked into the Applebee’s.

     He hovered for a moment in the lobby. She wasn’t here. She was supposed to meet him at the hostess’ counter.

     “How many tonight?” asked the hostess.

     “Uhhhh, three? It’s um, a table for Waxman?”

     The hostess smiled. “Ah, yes! One of your party has already arrived.”

     Magnus breathed a sigh of relief.

     “I’ll show you where he’s sitting,” said the hostess, stepping into the dining room.

     Magnus tried to take a breath, and found he couldn’t. He tugged at his collar again and followed her. Oh god. Oh, god, why did Julia have to be late? Usually he found it kind of a funny quirk but today she had doomed him.

     He tried not to panic as the hostess led him to a secluded booth. He’d met dads before. All they wanted was their daughters’ safety and wellbeing. That’s what he wanted too. Right? Right.

     None of this stopped him from feeling more scared than he had been in a long time. Julia said her last conversation with him had been intense. Dios mìo .

     With his thoughts racing, it took him a minute to register that the heavyset black man in the booth was familiar until he said, “Magnus?”

     “S-steven?”

     At the same time they said, “You’re Julia’s--” before stopping.

     Magnus turned to the hostess. “Waxman, right?”

     “That’s right.” She smiled. “I’ll leave you two to it. Your server will be along shortly.”

     Magnus took the first full breath of the evening and sat down in the booth. “Uh, so. I’m not going to lie, this is… about the best case scenario.”

     Steven leaned forward. “I’m confused. You’re dating Julia?”

     “Yes,” said Magnus. “Uh, yes sir.”

     “You have been for four months now.”

     “Has it only been that long?” said Magnus, starting to relax. “It feels like I’ve known her my whole life.”

     Steven considered this. “You told the poker game that you were in love with her about two months ago.”

     “I was. I am.” Magnus leaned forward. “I think I’ve loved her longer than that.”

     “And she loves you.”

     Magnus smiled. “Yes. She says so.”

     “She tells me you two are looking at buying a house together.”

     Magnus’ smile grew wider. “We sure are.”

     “You’ll be staying in town?” asked Steven.

     “This is home, yeah. This is where all our friends are.”

     Faster than Magnus expected, Steven grabbed a handful of his shirt, pulled him close, and whispered, “Because I really need to know if this is some sort of cult, where I’ll never see my little girl again, or maybe a scam, where you leave her heartbroken and penniless.”

     Magnus was close enough to feel Steven’s breath. Steven was shockingly strong. Of course he was, he was a welder. Magnus swallowed. He was suddenly grateful he’d unbuttoned the top button. “You know me, Steven. You know I’d never do that.”

     Steven released him, eyeing him. Magnus tried to smooth his shirt in as non-threatening a manner as he could.

     “How come you didn’t say anything at poker?” asked Steven.

     “I didn’t know you were her dad,” said Magnus. “Isaak never said last names. I don’t know any of your last names.” Magnus paused. “Did Julia never say my name?”

     Steven thought back. “Come to think of it, I don’t think she did. You know, that day at the rink, when I first saw you, I didn’t have my glasses on.”

     Magus grimaced. “That day at the rink--you know, I lost so much sleep over that call.”

     “It wasn’t a good call,” said Steven thoughtfully. “Why buy a house, though? Why not just move in together for a bit?”

     “To be honest, sir, I just wanted a dog at first,” said Magnus. “My friend’s dog is having puppies soon. And you remember how much my apartment sucks. I’m ready for something permanent. And then I started talking about it with Julia and… well we both liked the idea of home, home together.”

     “Julia says it’s going to take all her savings,” said Steven.

     “All of mine, too. But I have a steady job, and we pay more for rent between the two of us than we would a house payment. Julia figured it all out.” Steven nodded. Magnus took it as a good sign and went on, “And you know, this is just the beginning. I’m not planning on tying her to a house and leaving or anything.”

     Steven’s eyebrows raised. “Are you saying you intend to marry my daughter?”

     Whoops. Well, nothing for it now. “If that’s what she wants, then yes.”

     Steven’s expression was unreadable.

     Well, this couldn’t get any worse, so he might as well go for broke. “You did once say that you’d set us up if we weren’t both taken,” Magnus added.

     Steven’s expression was unchanged. “I did say that, didn’t I?”

     “We’re pretty taken with each other.”

     “Was that a pun, young man?”

     Could he make this any worse? No, this was it, this was the nightmare scenario. “Yes, sir.”

     Steven’s expression softened. “Funny.”

     Magnus let go a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

     “I don’t know too much about you, I guess,” said Steven, flipping open his menu. “Isaak says you’re a damn good carpenter.”

     “I’m glad he thinks so,” said Magnus. “I do my best.”

     “Where’d you grow up?”

     “Neverwinter, city proper.”

     “Family?”

     “Lots of cousins. My parents are passed on, though.”

     “You and Julia have no shortage of cousins,” said Steven.

 

     Julia flew into the Applebee’s. Late. Late. Late. Why did her shift have to run long? Why did nothing work out the way it was supposed to? Magnus would be on time, and so would her dad, confound them. She was surprised to see the restaurant wasn’t on fire or something.

     “Waxman?” she wheezed to the hostess, who led her to a booth. She was expecting nuclear fallout; she wasn’t expecting laughter.

     “Julia! There you are,” said Steven. “Late again, just like your mother.”

     “Oh is that where she gets it?” said Magnus, reaching out a hand to take hers. She let him, dumbstruck.

     “It’s a chronic problem on that side of the family,” said Steven secretively. “Julia, why didn’t you tell me that your boyfriend was the best damn poker player in this town?”

     She thumped into the booth and turned to Magnus. “This is a dream, right? I’m dreaming?”

     “I hope not,” he said, and kissed her on the head. “I ordered you a tea, is that right?”

     Julia let out a long breath. “Yeah. Just right.”

Chapter Text

     Magnus shut the front door behind him with his foot, flipping through the stack of mail he’d gotten from his mailbox.

     “How about this one?” Julia called from the kitchen. She was eating Lucky Charms at Magnus’ half-finished kitchen table, several newspapers spread out in front of her. “ Totally remodeled spacious home close to downtown. Hardwood floors, granite counter tops and custom cabinetry. Perfect for entertaining. Move-in ready.” She read for him.

     “Downtown is kinda far from the rink,” he said, tossing several fliers into the trash.

     “I mean, it’s Faerun. Nothing’s really far from anything.”

     “That’s true.” he tore a credit card offer in a couple pieces before throwing it away. “Are we the sort of people who do ‘entertaining’?”

     Julia thought about that for a moment. “Maybe we could become the sort of people, if we had this house.”

     Magnus laughed. After sorting out all the junk mail, he only had one piece of real mail left: a crisp envelope with looping calligraphy on the front.

     “Who’s that from?” Julia asked, nodding to the envelope. The return address had been written on the back.

     “Uh, Taako actually,” Magnus said, frowning in confusion. Julia’s eyebrows practically jumped off her face.

     “Is that the invitation?!” she said. Magnus opened it carefully. Indeed it did appear to be an invitation to a Halloween party. “What’s the theme this year!?”

     “Uhh…” Magnus looked over the folded card.

     “Oh, here here. Just--” She whipped the card out of his hands. “Roaring 20’s! Hell yes!! Oh my god, this is gonna be the best.”

     “Wait, what?”

     Julia gasped. “We should totally do a coordinated costume! We could be Gatsby and-and… whatever her name was. Dolly? No that’s too easy. We’ll never win with that.”

     “Wait! What is happening?”

     Julia looked at him blankly. “Oh, right! Sorry, babe. It just feels like you’ve always been here.” Magnus smiled a little and sat down, taking the invitation back from her. “Taako has done a huge Halloween party every year since he’s lived here. There’s tons of gourmet food, a costume contest. Like it’s a big deal.”

“So why is there a theme? Isn’t Halloween a theme?”

     Julia made a face. “Have you met Taako? The man does not do anything half-assed. This party is legendary. Two years ago, he was a scarily accurate Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.”

     Magnus slowly nodded. “What was last year’s theme?”

     “Literature. He was Scarlett O’Hara, white and green dress, hat and everything. Angus won the contest though, he was an adorable little Sherlock Holmes. He had a bubble pipe.”

     “What’d you go as?”

     “Madeline. You know, from the children’s books? My hat wouldn’t stay together though.”

     “So people really go all out, huh?”

     “Oh yeah.” She glanced up at the clock. “Ugh, I got to go. Be thinking about costume ideas, okay? I’ll do some research after class.” She pressed a kiss to his temple and picked up her backpack to head out the door.

     “Hey, wait,” he said, meeting her just outside. He cupped her jaw and gave her a proper kiss, languid and slow. “I love you.”

     Her eyes slowly drifted back open. “Love you too.” She stood on tiptoe and pulled him down to give him another quick kiss, partially disrupted by the smile on her face. “Okay, bye!”

     Magnus waved to her as she got into her car and watched her leave before going back inside.

 

     “I figured it out!” Julia yelled as soon as she got to her apartment that evening. Magnus was already there; sounds of something sizzling came from the kitchen. He poked his head out.

     “Figured what out?”

     “The costumes!” She kicked off her shoes, and threw her jacket over the back of a chair. “Or, at least mine. Did you have any ideas today?”

     Magnus was browning some sausage in a skillet. “Not really. Maybe like Al Capone? I don’t know. I didn’t really love it.”

     Julia hopped up on the counter next to him. “Well, I loved mine. Maybe we can find something to match. But-but-but,” she put a hand on his shoulder, “Are you ready for this?”

     He grinned at her. “Lay it on me.”

     “Billie Holiday! I’m gonna be Billie Holiday!”

     “Like the jazz… singer.” His expression dropped off for some reason, but she paid no attention. She clapped her hands together.

     “Yes! I mean, technically she wasn’t discovered till 1933, but it’s close enough and I really don’t care.” she continued to gush as Magnus’ face grew more and more scarlet. “Taako says he has some dresses I could try on, and Auntie Josephine said she knows how to do those little finger waves. Maybe I could learn one of her songs! No, wait that might be too much.” She drummed on the countertop, then she finally noticed Magnus’ mortified expression. “Why is your face all red?”

     Magnus tried to wrangle in his face, but it was a losing battle. “No reason,” he squeaked.

     “No, there’s definitely a reason. Come on. Spill.”

     He shook his head. She leaned in closer to him.

     “Magnus, we’re buying a house together and I’ve seen you naked, like a lot. I thought we were past the point of embarrassment by now.”

     Magnus heaved a sigh between clenched teeth. “…Fine.”

     “Yes.” Julia pumped her fist, but then quickly returned to a calm, listening expression.

     “God, this is embarrassing.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand.

     “Just do it quick then. Like a band-aid.”

     He took a deep breath but then said in a blindingly fast rush, “WhenIwasateenagerIhadadirtypulpnovelaboutadetectiveandaloungesingeranditwasreallyeducaationalformeinalotofwaysbutsincethenI’vealwayshadthatfantasy.”

     Julia took a minute to parse apart the words and make sure that she was understanding him correctly. When it all finally clicked, a smile spread across her face, but she tried to cover it with her hand.

     “I see,” she said, barely keeping a lid on her absolute delight at this discovery. He was staring a hole into the frying pan, his mouth scrunched together. “Wait…” something else clicked in her mind. “Is that why you ran out of the club that night I sang with Johann?”

     He nodded, still not looking at her. A little giggle escaped from her, but she tried to cover it with a cough. Oh this was delicious. Another thought came to her mind. She leaned forward, closer to him, a wicked smile on her face.

     “Does the thought of me as a lounge singer turn you on?” she asked.

     He didn’t move a muscle, then stiffly nodded again.

     “Aw, babe.” She kissed his cheek, before sitting back again. “That’s precious… and flattering.”

     He let out a breath. “Okay, so that’s over and done with and we never have to mention it again, right? Right.”

     She watched him turn distractedly to try and grope around for the can opener. She chuckled a little and pulled it out from the drawer behind her knees. She waved it out, and he sheepishly reached for it, but she pulled it away.

     “But first, I just have one more question: what was the title of this little book of yours?”

     Magnus didn’t answer for a while, tried to stare her down, but he sighed. “ To Kiss or Kill ,” he finally admitted.

     “Of course it was.” She held out the opener, and he took it from her to open a can of stewed tomatoes. “Okay, I promise that we won’t speak of it again, honey. But like,” she put a hand on his arm, “you don’t have to be embarrassed about this stuff anymore. That’s one of the perks of being in a relationship.”

     He nodded. “I know. It’s just… embarrassing ‘cause just the thought it is enough to… you know.” She noticed that the base of his neck started to turn pink again. She smiled, but didn’t say anything. They were not done with this, not by a long shot, but she’d at least give him some time to recoup his dignity. Though the beginnings of a plan started to form in her mind.

     He added rice to the pan, giving it a quick stir. Julia put the lid on it, and Magnus set the timer.

     “So how was the rest of your day?” he asked, coming to stand in front of her. Julia draped her arms over his shoulders.

     “Who cares?” she said, before giving him a long building kiss, running her fingers up through his hair. She smiled internally as he let out a throaty moan and pulled her by her hips to the edge of the counter. She then slipped her hands down his broad back and tugged at the bottom hem of his shirt, but he grabbed her wrists and pulled away. He blinked a few times to refocus his eyes.

     “We only have 25 minutes,” he said, trying to catch his breath.

     “We have 25 minutes,” Julia said back.

     “...Yeah, okay.”

Chapter Text

Angus marched into the rink, Carey and Killian behind him. Sloane was by the door, and her face broke into a smile when she saw him.

“Hey, buddy, what’s with the mask?”

Angus smiled, even though he knew she couldn’t see. “It’s for a school project, Miss Sloane! I did a presentation on kabuki theater for Civics.”

“He won’t take it off,” said Killian with mock frustration.

“I worked really hard on it, and I want to make sure everyone sees it before I have to throw it away,” Angus explained, which was mostly true.

“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” said Sloane solemnly. She paused. “That’s for the same class you did costumes for?”

“Mr. Griffin encourages creativity,” Angus explained.

Carey mussed his hair, which knocked his mask eskew. “Be careful skating in that thing.”

Angus readjusted it carefully. “Of course, Miss Carey.”

As the ladies made their way into the locker room, he hurried over to the flat rink, pulled off his shoes, and yanked his skates out of his backpack. While he was untangling the laces, Merle passed by, whistling and steering a push broom. Angus looked up, and Merle yowled, “What the hell--”

“Sorry, sir! It’s just me, Angus, your very good friend, sir!”

“Oh, god.” Merle put his hand on his heart. “I thought you were a demon.”

“No sir! I made this for a class project.”

“Huh. Say, that’s pretty good.”

“Thank you.”

“Let me see it.” Without waiting for an answer, Merle pulled it off.

Angus’ hands flew to his face. “No, wait, sir, please!”

“I just want to… Angus?”

Angus had both hands over his eyes.

“Let me see your face.”

“Please, sir, if you’ll just give me my mask back--”

“Come on, now.”

Angus started to cry. His hands fell to his lap. He knew the bruise around his eye was huge, and it sure smarted. He looked up, ready for Merle to be mad at him, but Merle’s expression held only horror.

“What happened?” asked Merle, more gently than Angus had ever heard him sound.

Angus shuddered and sniffed. “There’s--there’s a boy--at school--”

“Take your time.” Merle lowered himself to the floor.

Angus tried to take a couple of deep breaths before he started again. “There’s a boy at school who is. Um. Unkind.” Angus dragged his arm under his nose and sniffed. “It was just my turn, I guess, sir. He took my backpack. He would have taken my skates!”

“So you tried to fight him?” asked Merle.

“Yes, sir. I’m not very good at it, sir.”

“Well, you are pretty small. Did you tell a grown-up?”

“There wasn’t one around.”

“No, I meant…” Merle waved a hand. “Your… whoever looks after you.”

Angus looked at his hands. “I don’t think Grandpa would do anything, sir.”

“Well what about your derby girls? They’d show that kid--”

Angus looked at him wide-eyed. “They would murder him, sir.”

Merle huffed. “Someone should have helped you!”

“Oh! Someone did, sir! I’m surprised she didn’t tell you.”

“What?”

“Mavis, sir. After he hit me, Mavis walked right up to him and clotheslined him.” Angus threw out his arm to demonstrate, and added an explosion noise for effect. “And then she told him she’d do it again if she ever caught him picking on anyone else.”

Merle leaned back. “Huh. Mavis did that.”

“Yes sir.” Angus sat up a little straighter. “Your daughter’s very brave, sir.”

Merle seemed lost in thought. He tapped his finger on the kabuki mask.

“Um, sir? You won’t tell Miss Killian or Miss Carey or Miss Julia or anyone, will you?” Angus looked him dead in the eye.

“Mm? Oh.” He handed the mask back. “No, I won’t tell.”

“Thank you, sir.” Angus put it back on. Merle stood up and hovered for a second.

“Listen,” he said finally. “If you ever need an adult who… well, I’m a dad, so… so I’m not going to kill anyone, right? But I can talk to the principal or something.”

“Thank you, sir. That means a lot.”

“Right. Well.” Merle picked up the push broom and steered it away. Angus smiled, just a little, and finished tying on his skates.

Chapter Text

"You're telling me that all this time, you were dating Steven's daughter?" said Leon.

"That's what I'm saying," said Magnus, laughing.

"Maybe we need to be better about communicating," Leon muttered. Isaak chuckled.

"This is like a classic sitcom blunder!" Garfield uttered. "Seriously, can I borrow the story?"

"You writing a sitcom?" said Cassidy.

"I'm dabbling!"

"I guess if you want to," said Magnus. "Uh, is it my deal?"

"Sure is," said Cassidy, handing off the deck. “Where is Steven, anyhow?”

“He called and said he’d be a little late,” said Leon.

"So you and Julia, huh?" said Cassidy. "I hope you know, you’re a lucky kid."

"She is amazing," said Magnus seriously, shuffling the cards.

"She tends to get herself into sticky situations, if I understand Steven's distress correctly!" said Garfield.

Magnus passed out the cards, frowning a little. "I wouldn't say so. Uh, ante up."

"We've all known her for years, of course," said Leon, pushing his quarters into the center. “I’ll take two cards, Magnus.”

"Remember that time she came here all in a tizzy because she crashed her car into the Walgreens?" said Garfield.

"Y'all remember when she got into that fight with the football coach?" said Cassidy.

"Steven said fight," said Isaak. "It was an argument. Two cards, please."

"What kind of an argument?" asked Magnus.

"Something about the football team hogging the track, if I recall," said Leon. "She did cross country or track in high school. One of the two."

"Serves the damn coach right, I reckon," said Cassidy. "Football team ain't even won a homecoming game in twenty years."

"And she crashed into a Walgreens?" said Magnus.

"Jest a little," said Cassidy. “Only hurt her own car. She has run into more’n her fair share of deer, though.”

“Oh, she’s talked about that,” said Magnus. “I don’t get it. They seem to find her.”

“She’s secretly a deer witch!” said Garfield. “One card for me, if you please, Magnus.”

“Garfield,” Leon scolded.

Magnus chuckled. “Don’t worry about it, she’d probably think being a deer witch was funny. How many for you, Cassidy?”

“Three,” she said. “Now y’all are buying a house?”

“We’re going to try,” said Magnus, taking four cards for himself. “I know it’s fast, but--”

“Just about what we’d expect from Julia,” said Isaak.

“The girl can’t be stopped!” said Garfield. “I imagine she’s a force to be reckoned with in roller derby!”

Magnus smiled wistfully. “She sure is.”

Leon smiled. “I’ll bet two, I think.”

“Nice thing is, if you find a place that needs work done, you already know the best damn contractor in town,” said Cassidy.

“No need for flattery,” grumbled Isaak. “Raise to three.”

“That ain’t flattery,” scoffed Cassidy. “You know I don’t jest say shit.”

Magnus was still stuck on the idea of high school Julia. “What was Julia like? As a teenager?”

“Bit of a hellraiser,” said Isaak. “Not a bad kid, just didn’t think things through.”

“I’ll match your three,” said Garfield. “I’m going to be a little vulnerable here and admit that teenage Julia scared the living daylights out of me!”

“Scared Steven too, more’n once,” said Isaak.

“Well that’s the thing, isn’t it,” said Leon. “Most of these stories are filtered through Steven. They’re probably not as bad as they sound.”

“I’ll raise to four,” said Cassidy. “Now explain that, Leon, what’re you saying?”

Leon shrugged. “Steven worries too much. He has as long as I’ve known him.”

“How long have you known him?” said Magnus. “Uh, I’ll match four.”

“Since college,” said Leon. “Raise to five.”

“I fold!” said Garfield.

“You what?” said Leon.

“I should think I know when I’ve been beat!” said Garfield. “This hand’s just not my hand!”

Isaak shook his head and frowned at his cards. “This changes things. Gimme a minute.”

They sank into a brief silence. Magnus broke it.

“So, Leon, you knew Julia’s mom.”

The silence crystallized and turned fragile.

Leon looked up, and nodded, very slowly. “Yes. Ella was a good friend.”

They were silent for a moment more.

“Well go on, Magnus,” said Leon. “I know you want to ask.”

Magnus hesitated, but not for long. “What was she like?”

The table’s attention slowly turned to Leon as he pondered the question.

“There’s a lot of her in Julia,” Leon began. “Ella was… she was stubborn in the same way. Same sense of humor, too. She could always defuse a tense situation with a joke.”

Magnus smiled. That did sound like Julia.

“She wasn’t quite so…” Leon hesitated. “I suppose rough-and-tumble. As Julia. Steven doesn’t know where she got that. Ella was sweet. Really sweet. Very southern. And artistic.”

“Makes sense,” said Isaak. When the group looked at him questioningly, he added, “Seems like the sort of person Steven would go for.”

Leon nodded. “They were pretty crazy about each other, that’s for certain. Ella’s parents weren’t too pleased about it. She was white, you know, and it was the seventies, but Ella was adamant about marrying Steven.”

The table was quiet, thinking this through.

“She had a full three inches on him,” Leon added.

Cassidy laughed. “She didn’t either.”

“She did!” Leon smiled. “They cut a funny picture, that’s for sure. She was a gawky old bird. Watching her run after Julia…” He laughed. “Here’s little Julia, barrelling along to her next adventure like a juggernaut, and here’s Ella running after her like a chicken.”

Magnus grinned. The mental image was delightful.

“It was terrible, what happened to her,” said Leon, smile faltering. “A damn shame.”

They were quiet again for a little while.

“I know Steven don’t talk about her,” said Cassidy.

“I don’t think I would either, under the circumstances,” said Garfield, his usual manic tone missing.

Isaak pushed five quarters into the center. Cassidy folded. Magnus called. Isaak took the hand with three kings.

“Sorry, that was kind of a bummer,” muttered Magnus, handing off the deck to Leon.

“It’s all right,” said Leon, shuffling.

“I cain’t imagine what Steven must’ve been through,” said Cassidy.

“You can’t,” Leon agreed.

The front door opened in the next room. “Leon?”

“There he is,” Leon said as Steven entered the kitchen.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Steven, sitting down at the empty place between Cassidy and Magnus.

“You’re just in time to deal in,” said Leon, passing round the cards. “Magnus was just telling us that he was the boyfriend you didn’t like all along.”

Steven laughed. “Funny old world, isn’t it?”

“That’s for damn sure,” said Cassidy. “How’d you not recognize him?”

Steven shrugged. “I wasn’t wearing my glasses when I saw him first.”

“You’re not wearing them now, either,” Magnus commented.

“I left them at the shop,” said Steven, waving a dismissive hand.

“Be careful there, Steven!” trilled Garfield. “Magnus might tell on you to your daughter!”

“I don’t need glasses to play poker,” scoffed Steven.

“We won’t be able to tell the difference if you can’t see the cards anyway,” said Leon mildly.

The table Ohhh-ed collectively at the trash talk. Steven laughed. “You’re gonna eat your words, Leon.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Leon good-humoredly.

“How is everyone, anyway?” said Steven, looking over his hands. “Haven’t seen you all for a while.”

All but Cassidy gave general affirmations.

“Cass?” said Steven.

She shrugged. “Been a rough stretch for a bit.”

Steven hesitated. “Is it your web dating thing?”

“Guess we’re goin’ straight to the heart and soul of the matter, ain’t we?” she grumbled.

Steven winced. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s--” She stopped. “It ain’t nothing.”

“Don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want,” said Isaak.

“Ante up,” said Leon. “We’ve just been worried, is all. You see those stories on the news--”

“I ain’t a news story,” she said. “It jest ain’t working for me, is all. Met some mighty fine folks, but none I’d like to carry on with.”

“What a shame!” said Garfield. “I personally think you’re quite the catch!”

“Maybe I’m just too old,” she mumbled.

“Oo, don’t say that,” said Leon. “That means I’m old.”

“You are old,” said Steven.

Magnus laughed. “There’s someone out there for everybody, Cassidy. You’ll find them.”

“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled. “Are we playing or what?”

Isaak nodded. “I’ll take four, Leon.”

“Sure.” Leon passed him the cards. “Are you going to keep doing this web dating?”

“Haven’t decided yet,” she said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Two cards for me, good sir!” said Garfield.

 

There wasn’t too much parking space in the close little neighborhood where Leon lived, so Isaak and Cassidy had to walk down the street a ways to their cars.

“You all right?” Isaak asked her. She’d been despondent the whole rest of the evening.

“Reckon I will be,” she muttered. “Least I got good friends.”

Isaak nodded.

They were quiet up until they reached Isaak’s rusty old Ford. Cassidy raised a hand to wave goodbye and kept walking. “Evenin’.”

Isaak pulled out his keys, but paused. “Cassidy?”

She turned to look back at him.

“Would you…” He hesitated. “Would you ever consider… would you like to… maybe… maybe we could get a drink sometime,” he finished lamely.

Cassidy raised a perplexed eyebrow. “We went and got drinks together last week.”

He swallowed. “Well, this time it’d be a date.”

She frowned and took a few steps back toward him. “You feel sorry for me? That it?”

“Nope.” Isaak tried and failed to look her in the eye.

She looked him over. “Known you for years and you never once showed any interest. In me or anybody.”

“I’ve… I’ve always been…” He swallowed again. “I find I got to know somebody a while before I have any… strong feelings towards them.”

He finally managed to meet her gaze. She was frowning at him. He could practically hear the gears in her head working.

Finally she hocked some spit onto a nearby lawn. “Well, shit, I done dated everyone else in this town. Might as well date someone I know I like. See you Friday.”

She turned away to walk up the street.

Isaak turned back and unlocked his truck. Under his mustache, his lips twitched into a smile.

Chapter Text

Killian glanced over to look at her girlfriend. Carey was seething, ready to hit someone. Killian tried to focus on the exercise.

They were practicing push blocks again, with Hurley playing jammer. She wasn’t as fast as Julia or Taako, but she was a hard target to aim for, and that was kind of the point.

“Ready?” asked Killian.

“Just do it,” Carey snarled.

Magnus blew the whistle. Hurley took off down the track. Killian steeled herself--Magnus blew the next whistle, and she and Carey bolted.

It was all a matter of precision. The right moment to get within range of Hurley. The right moment to take hold of Carey’s shoulders. The right moment--and that moment was now--to give her momentum to Carey, to throw Carey into Hurley and knock her down. They’d done it a million times.

So why did Carey land on Hurley elbow-first?

It took a moment for Killian to register what had happened. Carey had landed on Hurley elbow-first, hitting Hurley under the ribs. Oh, god.

Hurley made a wheezing sound. Killian glided forward. “Oh my god. Ram, are you okay? Hurley?”

Carey was lying on her side on the track. Killian shot her a look of disbelief. “What was that?”

“What was what?” snapped Carey.

Killian knelt down beside Hurley. “Ram, say something.”

Hurley coughed a couple of times. “Did you get her license plate number?”

“See?” said Carey, getting to her feet. “She’s fine.”

Magnus appeared too, offered Hurley a hand. “Can you stand up?”

Hurley nodded, but when she got to her feet she was doubled over. “Goddamn, Diablo, that was a good hit.”

“Would you help her over to the bench?” Magnus asked Killian.

“Yeah, sure.” Killian had to bend down to offer Hurley her forearm.

“Thanks.” Magnus turned to Carey. “Diablo? A word?”

Hurley was taking very careful breaths. “Is she okay?” she rasped.

“Are you okay?” asked Killian.

“I’ll live.” She coughed a little more. Killian rested her on the bench and sat down beside her. The others were doing speed drills over on the flat rink; over the sound of their skates, Killian couldn’t hear what Magnus was saying to Carey.

Her arms were crossed. She wasn’t listening, or was trying not to. Magnus looked concerned, asking her questions.

Finally she threw out her hands, and Killian could hear her say very clearly, “Why don’t you leave me the fuck alone?”

“Hey,” he said, matching her volume, “I don’t know what’s got you so pissed off, but you don’t get to take it out on your team.”

Carey let out a roar of frustration and--oh god--threw a punch at Magnus. Killian jumped to her feet--

But Magnus caught her fist in his hand. “Don’t.”

For a moment, Carey looked so furious that Killian prepared to drag her off, but then… oh god… her face crumpled and she let out a low, choking sob.

Killian could see Magnus’ heart breaking from here. He let go of her fist, caught her under the elbows. “Hey. What’s wrong? Talk to me.”

“Oh my god,” rasped Hurley from the bench beside her.

“Do you ever--” Carey had to stop and cough, horrible, tearful coughs. Killian covered her mouth.

“Killian, do something,” said Hurley.

“I’ve been trying,” whispered Killian. “She needs this.”

“Do you ever feel hopeless?” Carey managed.

“What happened?” asked Magnus.

“My job.” She shuddered and sniffed. “I lost my job. Do you know… how long… I’ve been trying… to find another… job?”

Magnus nodded, very slightly. “As long as I’ve known you.”

“What am I going to do now?” she said, almost pleadingly. “What are Killian and I going to do? I can’t ask her to take me on as dead weight.”

“You’re not dead weight,” said Magnus, looking her dead in the eye. “She loves you.”

“Okay, but we’re going to starve,” Carey spat.

“That’s not true. We won’t let you. You have friends, Carey.”

She pulled away from him. “So I’m supposed to mooch off my friends for the rest of my life?” she said. Killian could nearly taste the bitterness in her voice.

“Don’t be stubborn.” Magnus put a hand on her back, gently. “Of course it looks hopeless if you try to do things yourself. I learned the hard way--you aren't supposed to go through life alone.”

Carey swallowed, didn’t respond.

Magnus patted her on the back. “And quit stabbing people. Your elbows are so pointy they’ll kill somebody.”

“Fight me, cabron.”

“No puedo luchar contra mi amiga.”

“Quit being so nice.”

“Never. Let me know if Julia or I can help.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Think while you skate. You’re running that block again. Hey Hurley!”

Killian and Hurley immediately joined the All-Star Ceiling Examination Squad.

“Ram, you okay to skate?”

Hurley looked up as though she wasn’t listening intently the whole time. “Huh? Yeah, I think I’m good.”

“Good. Run it again.”

 

Killian plopped down close beside Carey on the bench of the locker room. Carey seemed… maybe not okay, but more level. Killian never knew what to do when she would stuff feelings. Apparently the answer was to throw her at Magnus.

“How are you feeling?” Killian muttered, under the noise of the rest of the team.

“Not great.” There was no more bitterness in her tone, thank god. “But not like a time-bomb anymore.”

“Good.” Killian kissed Carey’s sweaty forehead. “You’ve got to talk to me.”

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” said Carey. “If I’d said… if I’d told you I felt like dead weight?”

Killian looked down. “Yeah. That would have hurt.”

“I love you. I’m sorry I exploded.” Carey rested her head on Killian’s shoulder.

“I love you too.” Killian wrapped her arm around her girlfriend and held her close. “Are you going to do it, then?”

“Do what?”

“Ask for help?”

“Eavesdropper.” Carey looked up. She wasn’t angry, just resigned. “I’m going to have to.”

“What are you going to do?”

Carey untangled herself from Killian’s arms. “Hey, Sloane?”

Sloane pulled her head out of her locker. “Yeah?”

“Is that job offer at your garage still open?”

“Uh, can you alphabetize things? Because none of my mechanics can, and don’t tell them, but neither can I.”

“Yeah, I can. I can keep books too.”

“It’d be nice to actually fix cars at work for once,” said Sloane. “Yeah, why don’t you come by tomorrow? We’ll work out the details.”

“Sure.”

Killian kissed the top of Carey’s head and mumbled into her hair, “I’m proud of you.”

Carey slid her arm behind Killian’s back. “Thanks, babe.”

Chapter Text

Magnus tucked the red flannel shirt into his jeans and took a moment to carefully roll up the sleeves to expose the white henley underneath. He’d probably be too warm at the party, but since he wasn’t even close to obeying Taako’s theme, he’d better go all out as much as he could.

In the weeks since the invitation had arrived, Julia and he had never settled on a 20’s costume for him. So he just went with what he usually wore at Halloween. He pulled the suspenders up over his shoulders and picked up the comically small toy axe he’d gotten from the dime store. Oops, can’t forget the beanie, which he’d borrowed from Johann. There. He checked himself in the mirror. He made a pretty good lumberjack if he said so himself.

There was a knock at his front door and Magnus checked the time. He wasn’t supposed to go pick up Julia for another hour. He shrugged and went to open it.

“Hey Kravitz,” Magnus said, surprised to find him on his doorstep. Kravitz smiled at him, still in his normal clothes, and slung the garment bag he was holding off his shoulder.

“I have been messengered here to deliver this to you.” He handed off the garment bag and another smaller box. Both were surprisingly heavy and there were several coat hanger heads coming out the top of the bag. “And to tell you that you’ll be wearing this tonight.”

Magnus looked at the bag. “...Okay?”

Kravitz shrugged. “I’d just go along with it,” he suggested, before heading for the stairs. “See you at the party.”

Magnus gave him a wave before going back inside. He put the box on the floor, and hung the bag over the bedroom door and unzipped it. A pair of black and white oxford shoes fell out the bottom. He picked them up, then delicately pushed open the bag a little. Was what he thought was in there, actually in there? He set the shoes down and pulled the bag open the rest of the way. His face lit up. No way.

It was a single-breasted black suit, with a white shirt and a deep burgundy red tie. Behind that was an honest-to-God camel-toned trench coat. He quickly tore open the box.

Inside was a fedora and a small leather notebook. Yes yes yes! He quickly ripped off the lumberjack costume, and pulled on the suit. It fit him well, surprisingly well. Had someone--Taako--snuck into his apartment and taken measurements while he slept? He buttoned up the suit jacket and stopped to look at himself in the mirror. The tailored suit made his shoulders look even broader. I look kinda like an upside down dorito, he thought. Not that that was a bad thing. He then swung the coat on and tilted the hat at a jaunty angle.

He tried to make a macho expression in the mirror, but it quickly dissolved into an excited grin. It was like he’d stepped out of every film noir he’d ever seen. He had an idea, and he checked around to see if anyone was watching in his empty apartment. He made a gun with his finger and held it up to the mirror.

“Hold it right there, punk!” he said, trying to sound like those old timey actors and not really succeeding. The rest of the hour flew by pretty quickly as Magnus enacted his favorite scenes.

“You know, with my brains and your looks, we could go places.”

“Maybe I’ll live so long that I’ll forget her. Maybe I’ll die trying.”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” he stopped to puff on an imaginary cigarette, “she walks into mine.”

He was about to launch into a scene from The Maltese Falcon when he noticed his alarm clock. Oh, no, he was late to go pick up Julia. He quickly grabbed his keys and wallet and ran down to his van, which really didn’t go with the aesthetic he was rocking but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. He raced across Faerun and stopped in a spot that definitely wasn’t meant for parking. He quickly jogged up the steps to her door, but there was a note taped to it.

‘Check the notebook,’ it said in Julia’s hand. He looked at it for a moment--oh--before remembering the notebook. He pulled it out of the breast pocket, and on the first page was written, ‘8 o’clock. 116 Broadway. I’ll be waiting. -J’

Well this was an interesting turn of events. He smiled and tucked the notebook back in his pocket and headed for the van again. Broadway was the main drag of the downtown, and if he hurried he could just make it in time.

 

When he reached the 100 block of Broadway, he was suddenly very sure what 116 would be. He hadn’t been back to Arnie’s since that wonderful night in May. He parked the van and headed up to the door marked 116, over which a blue neon sign reading ‘Jazz’ flickered. He walked down the flight of stairs, just as the piano began the opening chords to a very familiar tune.

He stepped into the packed club; whether it was because of the holiday or just to hear the singer on stage, he wasn’t sure. He looked around for Julia but didn’t spot her as the singer began.

“After one whole quart of brandy
Like a daisy I awake
With no Bromo Seltzer handy,
I don't even shake.”

Magnus’ eyes snapped to the stage, and there she was, dressed in a fitting floor length red sequined dress, with a slit that went up dangerously high. Julia looked like she had stepped straight from the pages of Magnus’ teenage imagination. His heart stopped and he practically floated to the bar.

“I'm wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.”

He stared at her, enraptured.

“Are you Magnus?” the bartender asked, pulling him out of his reverie.

“Yes?”

The bartender put a rye whiskey neat in front of him, the exact drink the detective from the book always drank. “Oh, I didn’t--”

“She said to give you one as soon as you came,” he said, nodding up to the stage. She must have spotted him from the stage because now she was singing straight to him, her warm brown eyes twinkling in the spotlight.

“I'll sing to him, each spring to him
And long, for the day when I'll cling to him
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered - am I

He's a fool and don't I know it
But a fool can have his charms
I'm in love and don't I show it
Like a babe in arms.”

Magnus found himself wishing that the song would never end. This moment that she had made surpassed anything from his imagination. Perhaps because he wasn’t a hard-boiled detective and she wasn’t a sultry lounge singer with a dark secret. They were just Magnus and Julia, and they were very much in love. And that was better than any other story to him.

After the song ended, she left the stage and headed over towards him. He was leaning against the bar in an obvious pose, sipping the whiskey she’d gotten him. She came up behind him.

“Don’t you look like trouble in a trench coat,” she quoted from the book, leaning on the bar next to him. He didn’t reply, just immediately pulled her over for a kiss, a very long and urgent kiss. After an extended moment she pulled away; they were still in public after all.

“I take it you liked it?” she said breathily.

“Of course.”

“You know, I actually found a copy of your book, tried to fit in as many details as I could. Did I do a good job?”

“You have… eclipsed the book in every way. You’re so much more than I could have ever imagined.”

She looked very pleased at that. “Well, you know,” she said, running her fingers up and down the arm of his trench coat, “we probably have time for one more thing before the costume contest ends at 9.”

“What?”

“Chapter three,” she said, quirking an eyebrow.

Chapter three? Was that the--oh, yes. Yes it was. She looked sultrily up at him and leaned in close. “Come along, detective.”

And she headed for the exit, her hips swinging. Magnus gaped after her for a few steps, then quickly tripped after her.

 

“Hurley, why are you dressed as small Hitler?” Avi asked, flipping down his aviator shades. Taako’s apartment was thronged with people. Antonia stood nearby, twitching her lip back and forth. The large fake mustache she wore as part of their 70’s cops costumes must have itched.

“Why does everyone keep thinking that?” Hurley asked, putting her bowler hat back on. “I’m--” she proceeded to walk a few steps, her toes completely out-turned and the ends of her long shoes flapping a bit. “Get it?”

Avi looked even more confused; he put his thumbs through the belt loops on his uniform.

“I didn’t see anything,” Antonia replied, grinning a little.

“I’m Charlie Chaplin!”

“Who?” Avi asked.

“Oh, never mind.”

“Sorry, hun,” Sloane said, putting a hand on Hurley’s shoulder. “People just don’t appreciate genius.”

“I didn’t think hippies were around in the 20’s,” Avi said, noting Sloane’s bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed t-shirt.

“And ChiPs were?” she asked back.

“Fair enough.”

A short blur in a white suit ran past them and over to where Taako and Kravitz were chatting.

“Taako, the pocket square won’t stay in,” Angus said, holding out the yellow handkerchief that coordinated with his tie. His hair had been greased down, but the ends were starting to curl back up to their normal place.

“You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to, little man.”

“No, I want to. At least until the costume contest ends.”

“Alright.” Taako knelt down and quickly folded it into a two peak square and tucked it back into the chest pocket of Angus’ white suit. Suddenly a very bright flash next to them went off, and Kravitz looked up from his camera. “I thought we agreed that gangsters don’t have cameras,” Taako said, looking up at him.

Kravitz shrugged. “I’m a rebellious gangster. Now get together and say, bee’s knees!”

Taako put an arm around Agnus. “Bee’s knees!” Agnus and Taako said in unison. The flash momentarily blinded everyone standing near by.

“Have you voted yet, Ango?” Kravitz asked, setting the camera down on a shelf. Taako was trying to get his Velma Kelly wig to stay on straight.

“Yes, sir! I voted for Killian, she promised me a piggy back ride if I did.”

“She promised everyone a piggy back ride, champ,” Taako said.

“Oh.”

“Speaking of--” Kravitz said as Killian sauntered up, wearing an old timey New York Yankees uniform.

“So, I think we can all agree that Babe Ruth--” she pointed two thumbs back to herself-- “has pretty well locked down the costume contest. Why don’t you just go ahead and announce me and I’ll take my fame and glory now?”

“There’s still a few minutes till the contest is officially over, Miss Ruth,” Angus said.

“I’ll go count the votes,” Taako said, sauntering away, the tassels on his dress swishing.

“So are you having a good Halloween, Angus?” Killian asked.

“Who’s Angus?” Angus said, trying a transatlantic accent. “Why, I’m Jay Gatsby, the richest man in West Egg, old sport!”

Kravitz laughed.

“He really charmed all the old ladies in our apartment building with that schtick,” Killian added. “He’s going to be sugar high for months.”

“There ain’t no party like a Gatsby party, because a Gatsby party don’t stop till someone’s dead in the pool and everyone is disillusioned with the Jazz Age as a whole,” Angus rapped, doing a little Charleston. He was probably already pretty sugar high.

“Did you read The Great Gatsby?” Kravitz asked.

“Of course!”

“Is that appropriate literature for 11-year-olds?” Kravitz asked, looking up at Killian, who was frowning.

“It was in the school library.” Angus shrugged.

Carey sauntered up and slipped an arm around Killian’s waist. “Hey Babe.” She winked at her. Killian laughed.

“Who are you supposed to be, Miss Carey?” Angus asked.

“Wait, wait. I know it, give me a minute,” Kravitz said, looking closely at Carey’s gelled hair and penciled-on mustache. He snapped his long fingers. “Dali!”

“Correct!” She gave him a high-five. “Have any of you seen Magnus or Julia?”

Angus and Killian shook their heads.

“I saw Magnus a couple hours ago before the party,” said Kravitz. “Taako had me deliver a costume to him. I think there’s some sort of plan afoot.”

“Taako’s plan or Julia’s plan?” Killian asked. Kravitz shrugged.

“May I have your attention?” Taako yelled out, standing on a chair above the crowd. Someone turned down the jazz music a little. Everyone turned to face Taako at the back of the apartment. “I’m going to announce the winner of the costume contest, as determined by a definitely rigged voting system.” Killian let out a ‘whoop!’ “But first, thank you all for coming, this has been the best Halloween party so far, my dudes! There’s still plenty of food, and once our younger guests head out here in a few minutes, the booze will start a-flowin’, so be sure to stick around!” The apartment shook a little with the cheers of the crowd, and no one noticed as the front door opened. “So now, without further ado, I am pleased to announce that the winner of the 1999 Roaring 20’s Halloween Spectacular Costume Contest is… drum roll please.” Everyone leaned down to pat their thighs, and Taako’s mouth dropped open. “HATCHI-MATCHI!”

Everyone turned to see what Taako was looking at behind them. Lucretia was standing at the top of the stairs in a purple body suit and a banana skirt. Her hair had been greased down into a swirl on her forehead and two on her cheeks, and she had Miyagi on a leash wearing some sort of cheetah-patterned sweater. She stared wide-eyed back at everyone else.

“All those in favor of making Lucretia as Josephine Baker the winner, raise your hand,” Taako said. Immediately everyone, including Killian, raised their hand. “Done. Lucretia is the winner!!!”

The floor seemed to shake with the cheer that followed and Lucretia was immediately swarmed with people asking a million questions.

“Do a dance, do the dance!!” Carey yelled, her Salvador Dali mustache smudged across her upper lip. Lucretia did a quick Charleston, then crossed her eyes and smiled goofily. Everyone clapped and yelled. “Yes! Yes!”

The music returned to full blast and the party resumed.

Killian and Angus met Magnus and Julia on the stairs as they arrived.

“Oh, did we miss the contest?” Julia asked.

“Yep,” Killian said, grinning at the two of them from behind Angus.

“Miss Lucretia won. You have to go see her costume!”

“Yeah, oh, and nice dress, Jules,” Killian said, ushering Angus out the door.

“Do they all know?” Magnus asked, walking beside Julia up the stairs.

“I mean, we are two hours late for a party,” she said, brushing her hair out of her face. “Taako only knows about the costumes though, everything else was my doing.” A chorus of wolf whistles and high pitched ‘ooo’s’ greeted them when they reached the top of the stairs.

“Give us a twirl, baby!” Carey crowed. Julia spun around in a little circle and blew them a kiss. “You too, Mags!” Magnus spun around quickly and the group cheered for him.

The crowd that still surrounded Lucretia ended up separating them. Magnus made a few loops around the apartment, taking time to say hello to everyone and admiring everyone’s hard work. Julia had been right, they really did go all out. Taako also seemed to have stolen several set pieces from some play as the apartment looked like it was straight out of a movie.

It was a little while later that Magnus finally found Julia again. She was talking animatedly with Noelle, dressed as a literal black-and-white movie star with her skin and hair dyed grey, and Killian. Magnus leaned back against the wall and just watched Julia for a bit. Wow. He was a lucky man that she had picked him. Taako approached and stood next to Magnus up against the wall.

“So did you have a nice Halloween?” he asked, a ‘cat who ate the canary’ smile on his face.

Magnus blushed but smiled anyway. “Yeah… thanks, Taako. These costumes are amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever worn something that fit so well before.”

“Keep it.”

“What?”

“I mean it,” Taako said. “It’s not like there’s a lot of guys running around out there with your measurements. If I need it, I’ll borrow it back.”

Magnus looked down at the suit and back to Taako. “I… I don’t know what to say.”

“Think of it as an early wedding present.”

“Oh! Oh, we’re not--I mean…”

Taako just leveled him a look. “Not yet,” he said, a sly grin on his face. He turned to walk away, but then turned back around. “Oh, but I will need Julia’s dress back. So try not to tear it, okay, detective?” He cackled as he sauntered away, leaving a blushing and sputtering Magnus in his wake.

 

The party lasted well into the night; Julia and Magnus got back to her place around 3 in the morning. Julia dropped into the bed already asleep. Magnus laid down next to her and stared at the ceiling, his fingers drumming lightly on his chest. Though he should have been rightly exhausted, he couldn’t sleep at all. Taako’s words kept going round and round in his mind.

He got up and went to the kitchen. Her backpack was on the table, a textbook and notebook opened beside it. He pulled a sheet out of the back of the notebook and found a pen in the drawer.

He sat down at the table and stared at the blank sheet for a minute. He was really doing this, it just felt right. He was ready to take the plunge. A shy smile spread across his face and he wrote at the top, ‘Proposal Plans’.

Chapter Text

Sloane oozed into Hurley’s kitchen, blinking in the bright fluorescent light.

“Goooood morning!” said Hurley, hopping down off the counter.

“Mmph,” said Sloane. She desperately loved Hurley, but there were a lot of reasons they didn’t live together, and this was one of them.

“Oh, sorry, babe, here.” Hurley pulled out a chair for her. Sloane stared at a spot on the table until a cup of coffee appeared in front of her. Sloane carefully took a drink and waited for the world to come into focus.

“Curly Hurley?” she mumbled.

“Yes, my long, lean love machine?”

“You have any butter?”

“On the table. You want some toast?”

Sloane located the butter, carefully scooted it toward herself, carved off a hunk, dropped it in her coffee, and gave it a stir. She looked up to find Hurley staring at her in horror.

“It’s good for you,” she mumbled, and took another drink.

“I love you,” said Hurley, still wide-eyed, “but that is weird as hell.”

“Mm.” Sloane focused on keeping her eyes from falling shut for a while. Hurley went back to whatever it was she was doing over there--making eggs, by the smell of things--and humming tunelessly.

“You’re in a good mood?” wondered Sloane aloud.

“That’s right!”

Sloane furrowed her brow. Why was Hurley in a good mood? She knew the answer to this. Cops. Something about cops.

“Because… today… is the last day of the training program,” Sloane attempted.

“Yep! And I’m finally going to be able to apply for jobs with police departments! My dream is coming true, babe! And then there’s the bout tonight, of course. This is a beautiful day!”

This was a lot of information. It took Sloane a few minutes to parse.

“What if… they don’t hire you?” said Sloane.

“I know you just woke up, so I’m gonna pretend you didn’t say that,” said Hurley, and now her tone had an edge.

Sloane considered. It was not a kind question, said a voice in her head that was considerably more awake than she was.

“‘M sorry, babe.”

“It’s okay. Eggs?”

“Yeah.”

 

Sloane leaned around the hood of the ‘89 Chevette. “Try it now?”

Little Jerry turned over the ignition. It purred. Sloane grinned and shut the hood.

“Nice work, boss,” said Little Jerry, shutting off the car. “I gotta admit, I had my doubts.”

Sloane tilted her chin up imperiously. “Never doubt. What’s next?”

They had a pretty big backlog today, but so far every repair was going smoothly, no surprises. Little Jerry pointed to a Dodge truck. “That one needs its starter replaced. I can do that. Then there’s the Cherokee that’s having electrical issues.”

“I’ll work on that, then,” Sloane said, brushing off her hands. It was so nice to be doing this instead of paperwork. Carey was a lifesaver.

Speaking of, the office door opened and Carey leaned her head out. “Hey boss?” she called out over the din. “I’ve got someone on the phone who wants to know if you work on European cars.”

“Do I look like a coward?” said Sloane. Her mechanics laughed.

Carey gave her a blank look.

“Yes, we work on European cars,” Sloane clarified. “That’s Barbara’s specialty, right Barbara?”

“Sure is!” said Barbara from under a Volkswagen beetle.

“Great, and then I have some more questions for you when you’ve got a second,” said Carey.

“Be there in a minute. Jerry, will you fill out the work order for this before you start on the Dodge? I’ll park her.”

Little Jerry handed off the keys. “Sure thing, boss.”

Sloane hopped into the Chevette, started her up--oh yes, mechanical poetry--and drove it into the parking lot before heading back to the office. She opened the door just as Carey was hanging up the phone.

“We’ll have an Audi 90 in here later today,” she said.

“Great,” said Sloane, replacing the Chevette’s keys on the rack. “What did you want to see me about?”

“It’s this backlog,” said Carey. “I’m starting to get calls from people wondering when their cars will be fixed.”

Sloane frowned. “We’re only a day or two behind.”

Carey shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell them, other than you’re working on it. You’re in high demand.”

“I ought to be, I’m the best mechanic in this town,” she said, leaning against the desk. “Keep telling them what you’re telling them.”

“All right,” said Carey. “You ever think about expanding?”

Sloane frowned. “Like, more mechanics?”

“Like another garage. Space is your big issue right now.”

“Ugh, no, I don’t want to have to run two places.”

“You wouldn’t necessarily have to,” said Carey. “Little Jerry’s pretty capable as a manager. He could run one location, you could run the other.”

The thought gave Sloane an unusual rush of panic. “No! Hell no. No.”

Carey frowned. “Are you okay?”

Sloane hesitated. Was she? “Yeah, just… no, I know this space. It’s mine, you know? ”

Carey shrugged again. “Your call, of course. I just think it would help your business.”

“Thanks for the suggestion,” said Sloane. “I’ll take it under advisement, I’m just… we’re good here.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Sloane snorted. “It’s still weird for you to call me that.”

“I don’t want your mechanics thinking you’re playing favorites,” said Carey.

“Carey, you are a model employee and a goddamn saint.”

She smiled. “I am pretty great, right? That’s all I needed from you, you can get back to work.”

“Have you got the work order for the Cherokee?” Sloane asked.

Carey pulled a sheet of paper from the top of a stack and handed it off. Sloane took it, grabbed the corresponding keys from the rack, and sauntered back out into the garage.

Expanding the business. No. Too many variables. Too many things out of her control.

The ‘95 Jeep Cherokee was already nestled in one corner of the garage. Sloane unlocked it and popped the hood.

Of course it would be nice to have more space, double the turnover. But then she’d have to hire more mechanics.

She grabbed a socket wrench off a nearby work table. With one hand, she snatched a rag out of her pocket and put it over the positive post of the battery, while loosening the nut on the negative terminal with the other.

And putting all those mechanics under Little Jerry? Terrible idea. The guy was likeable, sure, but could he handle the kind of shit a manager had to handle?

She pulled the terminal off, put the rag back in her pocket, and loosened the other nut. Then again, he wasn’t a scrawny Asian lesbian. He was small, but that mattered less when you were a man, she supposed.

Expanding the business. No. Terrible idea.

 

“Flying colors, that’s what Captain Bain said,” Hurley crowed, wiggling in her seat as she drove them to the bout in her ‘91 Ford Crown Victoria. Something about this car always made Sloane nervous. It was the same kind of car the Faerun Police Department used, for one thing. At least she wasn’t in the back seat.

“I always knew you were an overachiever at heart,” Sloane quipped.

“Ha, can you tell that to my third grade teacher?” Hurley grinned. “Captain Bain said he’d hire me himself if Faerun PD had an opening.”

Sloane frowned. “Wait now, there’s not a police job in town?”

“No, but that’s all right. I can apply other places.”

“Like where?”

“You know, Rockport. Ipré. Wave Echo. Even Goldcliff. There are lots of places hiring right at the moment. I might even look at Neverwinter, although I think they mainly hire out of their own academy.”

“Are you… ” Sloane shook her head, trying to stave off a sudden wave of panic. “Are you going to move, or what?”

“I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”

“Well you can’t commute for five hours a day,” said Sloane, more snappishly than she meant to.

Hurley shot her a glance. “I haven’t thought about it much. It’s my dream, Sloane, I’m just trying to go for it.”

Sloane crossed her arms. “And what happens to us in this dream of yours?”

“I told you, I haven’t thought about it much.”

Her blasè tone was infuriating. “I don’t think I can move,” said Sloane.

“Okay, well, we’ll work it out.”

“Because I’m thinking of expanding the garage.”

“Oh! Are you? That’s a great idea!”

Sloane dropped her arms, alarmed. “Really?

“Yeah, you should!”

The whole world was spinning out of control. “No, I shouldn’t! It’d be a ton of hassle, and I couldn’t be the boss over two places at once, and it’s too much to handle.”

Hurley pulled to a stop at a light and looked at her with concern. “I don’t get it. You don’t want to expand?”

“Why should things change?” demanded Sloane. “It’s fine like it is.”

“If you want more, though, shouldn’t you chase it?” asked Hurley. She smiled a little. “You’ve always been good at chasing, Raven.”

“No, I’ve been good at holding the lead,” Sloane countered.

The light turned green. Hurley pulled her attention back to the road. “What’s going on here? Are you mad at me?”

Sloane opened her mouth and realized she was going to say yes, she was angry that Hurley was pursuing her dream. “No,” she said instead.

“Then what’s wrong?” They pulled into the rink parking lot and Hurley turned to look at her.

Sloane took a short breath. “You know what? Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” She unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car.

“Sloane, hey, c’mon.” Hurley got out after her. “You know we play like shit when we’re fighting.”

“Are we fighting?” said Sloane bitterly, walking around to the back of the car. “Open the back.”

Hurley followed her around but made no move to unlock the trunk. “They’re gonna lock us in the closet again until we kiss and make up.”

“What’s there to make up? Open it, Hurley.”

“Come on, Sloane Ranger,” Hurley pleaded. “Talk to me.”

Sloane set her jaw and stared.

Hurley sighed and opened the back. Sloane snatched up her skate bag and went inside the rink.

 

Phandolin beat them soundly, 88 to 57. Hurley and Sloane weren’t the only ones out of sync; Noelle and Julia seemed off their game too.

The team went to Refuge, as they always did, but Noelle, Hurley, Sloane, and Julia were so morose that everyone else moved off to relax in another part of the pub. The four of them ended up at a booth by themselves, nursing drinks.

Hurley first stared carefully at and then downed a shot of fireball. She hated the feeling of sitting with miserable people, but she felt so miserable herself that there was something satisfying about it. And the day had started out so good, too.

She considered the empty shot glass in her hand, then looked to her friends. Julia was looking into her whiskey as if it held all the answers. Noelle stared into the middle distance above Sloane’s head. Sloane was glaring at her own folded hands.

An idea occurred to Hurley. She left for the bar and came back with four shots of vodka.

“All right, ladies, I’m about sick of this,” she grumbled, passing out the shots.

“Sick of what?” said Julia, seeming to wake up.

“We are going to drink alcohol, like adults, and then talk about what’s bothering us,” she said. “Like adults.”

Noelle hesitated. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want, but you do have to spill your guts,” said Hurley. “I’m going first. Are you ready?”

“Hurley, I--” said Sloane.

“Here we go.” Hurley knocked back the vodka. She took a moment, feeling it burn its way down her throat, and then said, “I’ve always wanted to be a cop.”

Noelle’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

“Yeah. I even completed the training program the police department does. But now that it’s really happening, that I have the qualifications to be hired, I’m afraid to actually do it, because I’m scared they’ll say no. And I realized that because I’ve been scared, I haven’t thought about what would happen if they did hire me. Like, what would happen to my judo kids?” Hurley waved the glass. “They could find another instructor, I guess, but I’d miss them.” She plopped down the glass. “So that’s me. Someone else go now.”

The three other women exchanged glances. Noelle straightened. “Fine. Fine. Okay. Um.” She took a deep breath, and then took the shot. Her face scrunched up and she coughed a couple times.

Julia patted her back. “You good?”

“Yeah,” she croaked. “Um.” She coughed again and wiped her eyes. “Last semester I tried to propose prosthesis design for a project. Like, I wanted to improve my skate prosthesis. They rejected it.”

“I remember that,” said Hurley. “That day we danced.”

“Yeah.” Noelle grimaced. “Julia, can I have a sip of your drink? It’s still burning.”

“Whiskey’s not going to to help that, hun,” said Julia, holding out her drink anyway.

“It might get rid of the aftertaste.” Noelle took a sip and handed it back. “I made the mistake of telling Maureen about it. She’s a professor, you know?”

“I didn’t know,” said Sloane. “Really?”

“Yeah, and now she wants me to bring back the proposal for my senior project. She says it’s a civil rights issue.”

“Civil rights?” said Hurley.

“Yeah, cuz I’m disabled, or a woman, or Jewish, whatever. Take your pick.” Noelle shook her head. “And I really want to do the project, but I can just as easily do it on my own time, you know? And like, I’d really rather not kick up a fuss. It’s just a project. But she won’t take no for an answer.”

“That sounds like Maureen,” said Julia, giving Noelle’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry.”

Noelle sighed. “It’s okay. I’ll try talking to her again… what if she’s right though? What if this is a civil rights issue?”

“Is the project good enough to be a senior project?” asked Sloane.

“Maureen thinks so, but she’s not an engineer.” Noelle folded her arms and rested them on the table. “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out, but I’m glad I told y’all.”

“We’re glad you did too,” said Hurley. “Now who’s next?”

Julia shook her head. “Okay, I’ll go.” She knocked back the shot, carefully, and swallowed with a wince. “Ugh.”

“What’s on your mind, Jules?” asked Hurley.

She put down the glass and shot a glance at the rest of the team on the other side of the pub. “One of my classmates saw Magnus drop me off at class yesterday and asked if he was my husband. And um.” She grimaced. “I kind of freaked out on her. And I feel really bad about it, ‘cause like, why did I freak out? It’s an honest mistake.”

“Does the idea of him being your husband freak you out?” asked Sloane.

“A little,” said Julia. “I mean, it was just--suddenly a whole lot to think about, I think. Ugh.” She rubbed her temple. “I don’t want him to know it freaked me out.”

“Why?” asked Hurley.

Julia thought about this. Her eyes went wide. “I want to marry him. Holy shit.”

Sloane and Noelle smiled at each other, and Hurley felt the mood lift considerably. She started to relax. “Good. This is good, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, this is good,” said Julia. “I just have to… I don’t know, process all this for a bit. Sloane, you go.”

Sloane’s smile collapsed. She hesitated.

“Come on, babe,” Hurley wheedled.

She frowned and picked up the shot. “Straight vodka is the worst.”

“That was vodka?” said Noelle. “I hate it.”

“You have better taste than Hurley,” said Sloane, and took the shot.

Her face didn’t even crack as she swallowed. She thumped the glass back down on the table and glowered at Hurley. “You didn’t think one time about how being a cop in another city would affect our relationship?”

Hurley was stunned. “No. I didn’t think about anything, Sloane, I was too scared.”

“How can you not think about anything?” demanded Sloane. “Doesn’t that make you feel out of control? Like you’re going off a cliff? How can you just not think?”

“If I think too hard, I never try anything,” said Hurley. “Nothing would ever change.”

“Why do things have to change?” Sloane wailed. “We’re already winning!”

“Maybe you are,” said Hurley. “I’m stalled out!”

“Woah, woah!” said Julia, holding up her hands. “I think we’re losing track of the argument here. You’re both feeling like you’re not each other’s priority, right?”

“Yes,” said Sloane. Hurley swallowed and nodded.

“Okay. So then… what is it you really want?”

Hurley and Sloane locked gazes, just staring for a moment.

“Here, you two talk about it, okay?” Julia scooted out of the booth. “Noelle, let’s give them some space.”

The two of them left, heading off toward the others. Hurley didn’t move. Sloane swallowed.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Sloane said, after a silence that lasted too long.

“You won’t,” said Hurley. “Ever.”

“But this dream of yours--”

Hurley looked down at the table. Well, fuck it. “Look, if my dream means leaving you, I’d rather never be a cop.”

“I can’t… I can’t ask that of you,” said Sloane. “I won’t.”

Hurley looked back up, and the look in Sloane’s eye was the fiercest she’d ever seen.

“Well I’m not moving unless you’re coming with me,” said Hurley. “And you can’t move away, right? You’ve got the garage, and that’s your dream.”

“It’s not, though, not really,” said Sloane. “I don’t dream big like you, Hurles. I love my garage, but you’re more important to me than that.”

Hurley had to look away or she was going to cry. She reached out and took Sloane’s hand in her own.

“Maybe…” said Sloane. “Maybe we can… compromise or something. You could get a job somewhere else, and wherever you go, that’s where I’ll expand my garage to. Our second location.”

Hurley looked up at her girlfriend. “You’d do that?”

Sloane’s eyes were glazed over. She was terrified, but nonetheless she said, “Yes.”

The offer was tempting. Hurley sighed. “No, if you’re going to expand, it’s got to be on your terms.”

Sloane sagged with relief. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure. I mean, we’d be leaving all our friends, too. And there’s no guarantee we’d end up somewhere good, either. Faerun is home.” Hurley ran her thumb over Sloane’s. “Why would I want to work anywhere else?”

“But they’re not hiring here,” said Sloane.

“They will be eventually. It’ll be good, give me time to find a replacement at the dojo.”

Sloane’s lip trembled. She wrapped Hurley in a hug.

Hurley hugged her back. “I love you, Sloane.”

“I love you too.” Sloane buried her face in Hurley’s neck.

Hurley smiled as she felt Sloane’s hands slide down to her hips. She ran her hand over Sloane’s hair and whispered in her ear, “Hey. You copping a feel or what?”

“More like feeling a cop,” Sloane murmured. Hurley threw back her head and laughed.

Chapter Text

“You’re sure you don’t want to go with me?”

Julia leaned over the bar and pecked Magnus on the cheek. “I trust your judgement.” Which was true, and she didn’t want to say that one puppy was pretty much the same as another to her. She was almost certain Magnus would break up with her on the spot.

“If you’re sure you don’t want to play with puppies,” he said, with half a smile.

“Trust me, I’d rather be doing anything than this stupid Strategic Management project,” she said, lifting some bottles by the necks to wipe the counter underneath. “It’s just crunch time now. Gotta get it done.”

“I understand, it’d just be more fun with you,” said Magnus. She looked up; he was being totally sincere, bless him.

“I love you,” she said.

He smiled broadly. “I love you too. See you tomorrow? You can meet the puppy.”

“So you are taking it back to your apartment?” Julia said. “I thought your super was totally against pets.”

“My super,” said Magnus carefully, “doesn’t need to know.”

Julia nodded, eyes narrowed. “Sneaking a dog, huh? Didn’t know I was in love with a criminal.”

Magnus laughed. “I’m a dangerous man. A man of many secret dogs.”

Julia feigned a hurt expression. “I can’t believe you’ve been keeping your seventeen dogs from me.”

“Them’s the brakes, cupcake,” he said in his best gangster impression. “I’m afraid my seventeen secret dogs and I are a package deal, see?”

She laughed. God, she loved him.

“Hey Magnus,” said Ren behind her. She set a box on the counter. “Here to pay your bill?”

Magnus paled. “Did I forget another one?”

Ren chuckled. “I’m teasing. Assuming you pay this one.”

“He already did,” Julia assured her.

Magnus stood up. “I guess I’ll let you get to work.”

“How ‘bout a kiss?” said Julia.

Magnus shot a glance at Ren. Ren just smiled. “Go on, young lovers.”

Julia pulled a face. “Ew, I don’t want to now.”

Magnus laughed and caught her under the chin. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she murmured, and kissed him.

 

Magnus knocked on the door of Avi and Johann’s house. Several yips and the bark of a full-grown dog replied. Magnus grinned.

Johann answered the door, opening it just a crack. “Hey Magnus. Careful, don’t let them escape.”

Magnus squeezed carefully through, puppies swarming at his feet. He shut the door behind him and crouched. “Oh my god!”

There were four puppies, little fluffy black pups. Void gave Magnus a thorough sniffing and then sat down by Johann’s feet. Magnus let the puppies run around and bark and nip.

“They’re so cute! Are you all good dogs? Yes, yes you are.”

“They’re a lot of work,” said Johann, patting Void’s head. “But good pups.”

“I thought you said there were six?” said Magnus.

“Two of them already went to good homes,” said Johann. “Here, c’mon, let’s go to the kitchen.”

Magnus stood up and followed, stepping carefully as the puppies scattered and tumbled after them. “Oh god, they’re beautiful.”

Johann had set up a corner of the kitchen as a sort of puppy corral, blocked off by chairs. He sat down in one of them. “I basically live in this room now. It’s a lot easier to clean up messes in here.”

Magnus plopped down on the floor and picked up all the puppies at once. “Look at them!”

“One of them’s already been claimed, but the rest are fair game.”

Magnus drew his attention away from the squirming pile of adorable in his lap. “I could walk out of here with three dogs?”

Johann shrugged. “Technically yes, but I should also mention that Julia called and said not to let you have more than one.”

Magnus picked up one of the puppies and looked it right in the eye. “Then I have a very important decision ahead of me.”

The puppy licked his nose. Magnus’ face lit up.

“You can take your time, if you need to,” said Johann, yawning. “I got nothing planned.”

“Cool.” Magnus moved the puppies to the floor and rested his head in his hands, watching them. “Which one is claimed?”

Johann watched them for a moment. “That one,” he said, pointing to one with blue eyes instead of black, like the rest.

“Hmm.” Magnus considered carefully. There was one with a small white spot on its chest, and the blue-eyed one, and one with a couple white spots on its paws, and one that was all black. “Every dog’s got a personality.”

“These ones sure do,” said Johann.

The totally black puppy was walking with its head cocked to one side. Magnus watched it carefully. It seemed to be permanent. He scooped it up in one hand. “Hey, lil guy. Does this one always walk like that, Johann?”

Johann nodded. “The vet said it’s probably a small neurological problem, but she’s healthy otherwise. I’ve been calling her Yorick.”

The puppy looked at Magnus and absentmindedly bit his thumb. Magnus ignored the pin-sharp puppy teeth and scratched her behind the ears. “Yorick? Like in Hamlet?”

“Yeah, you know, he was a court jester.”

“I thought he was a skull.”

“Eventually, aren’t we all?” Johann yawned again, oblivious to Magnus’ look of disbelief. “You can call her whatever, I know Yorick’s not a great name.”

Magnus put down Yorick/Whatever and watched her as she first investigated and then tried to untie his work boot. He smiled indulgently. “What a good girl. A smart girl.”

“Thanks,” said Johann sleepily. His eyes were closed, his chin resting on the back of the chair.

Magnus looked him over. “You okay, Johann? You seem exhausted.”

Johann lifted his head and blinked a couple of times. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“‘Cause of the puppies?”

“Not just that.” He rested his chin back down and stared glumly into space.

Magnus picked up the puppy with the white spot on its chest and handed it to Johann. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Johann accepted the puppy with a wry smile, and sat silent, scratching its belly for a minute. Magnus waited, dangling his fingers in front of the other puppies to watch them play.

“You and Julia are dating, right?” said Johann after a bit.

“Yeah.”

“So that night at Arnie’s… ”

Oh god. Magnus stiffened.

“When you were… shall we say… ”

He could feel the blush creeping up his neck. Please, please…

“Distracted?”

Oh thank god, that could have been so much worse. “Yes?”

“That wasn’t me, was it?”

Magnus swallowed. “It was Julia.”

“I thought so.” Johann almost sounded disappointed.

Magnus took a breath. Relax. “How’s uh… figuring out things about yourself… how’s that going?”

Johann put down the puppy and sighed, draping himself over the back of the chair. “Do you ever feel like you missed out on a crucial fact until it was too late, and now you can’t change your fate, and you’re destined to die alone, forgotten even by the ones you call friends?”

Magnus exhaled slowly. “I mean… not specifically that feeling maybe. But I think I know what you’re saying.”

Johann reached down to pet Void and sighed again.

“I mean, you and Avi are tight, right?” said Magnus. “What’s he say?”

Johann muttered something.

“What?”

“I can’t… I can’t talk to him. About this.”

Magnus frowned. “I’m sure he wouldn’t think it’s a big deal. He’s really understanding, you know. Accepting.”

Johann shook his head. “No you don’t… he just got engaged and everything. I can’t… I can’t.”

“…Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t have to be specific,” Magnus offered.

“I don’t think I can be anything else,” said Johann. “And it sucks. I feel like I’m hiding. But the last thing I want to do is complicate what he’s got with Antonia. They’re--” Johann grimaced. “They’re happy.”

Magnus nodded. This was… this was uncharted territory. Damn, Johann’s life was like a soap opera.

Magnus picked up Yorick/Whatever. “I think you’re the one,” he told her. “And I think I’m gonna call you Fish.”

Johann broke out of his reverie. “Fish? Why?”

“That way if my super asks if I have pets, I can tell him, just Fish.”

For this, Johann managed a chuckle.

“And it’s a funny name for a funny little dog,” said Magnus, holding Fish up to his face. “Isn’t that right? You’re a funny little dog.”

“She won’t be little for long,” said Johann. “You sure you’re gonna have enough space?”

“I won’t be in an apartment for much longer,” said Magnus. “You hear that, Fish? You won’t be a secret dog forever.”

Johann frowned thoughtfully. “That’s a good metaphor.”

Magnus looked up from high-fiving her little paws with his finger. “For what?”

“For me. Like… like I might have to hide for a while, but… I don’t know, maybe once Avi’s married and stuff… ” Johann nodded. “Yeah.”

Magnus shrugged. “I guess if it helps, man.”

Johann nodded. “It does. Thanks, Magnus.”

“Hey, thank you. You have no clue how excited I am to have a dog.” He hugged Fish to himself gently, ignoring her wiggling, and whispered, “You are the perfect dog, and have no flaws.”

“Cool, uh,” Johann stood up. “I’ll get you her vet records and stuff.”

“Oh, yeah, what shots does she need?”

“None right now. She’ll need a rabies shot when she’s a year old, but the rest are taken care of.” Johann shuffled through a stack of paper on the kitchen counter.

“Really? For all of them?”

Johann looked at him in surprise. “Yeah, of course.”

Magnus didn’t say the word he was thinking, which was expensive. Wasn’t Johann a musician? He couldn’t make that much money. “Well, thanks again, then.” He looked at Fish, and then at the other dogs. “I guess… I guess it’s time to say goodbye.”

Johann settled back into the chair and handed off some paper to him. “You can come visit Void anytime.”

“We will,” said Magnus. He didn’t get up.

Johann raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to stay and play with the puppies?”

“Can I?!”

Chapter Text

Magnus shut the driver’s side door and crossed the street to the small brick house with the daylilies out front, though they were all long dead now. He’d been over here a bunch of times before, for dinner or to watch a baseball game on a Sunday afternoon. But Julia had always been with him all those times. He walked up the stairs and pressed on the door bell, reminding himself that there was no reason to be nervous.

The front door opened and Steven smiled at him through the screen door.

“Well, hello, Magnus.”

“Hey, Steven.” Magnus tried to smile but somehow it felt like it didn’t come out right. “Um, may I come in?”

“Oh, sure, sure.” Steven opened the screen door and walked into the house, Magnus following behind into the kitchen. “I was just about to start on dinner, do you want to stay?”

“No, I don’t want to be any trouble, and I can’t stay long. We have practice tonight.”

“If you’re sure, then,” Steven said, looking back at him. Magnus nodded and looked around, his hand quickly bouncing against his pants unconsciously. “…Do you want to sit down?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Sitting. Fine,” Magnus said, sitting quickly down at the kitchen table. Steven sat across from him and folded his hands, resting them on his stomach. Magnus was leaning forward, his thumbs tapping the tabletop.

“You know, Magnus, you might as well come out with what you want to tell me, because I’m certain that what I’m imagining is a whole lot worse than what you’re actually going to say,” Steven said after a moment. Magnus looked at him and nodded.

“Well, uh… sir.”

“Sir? This must be important,” Steven replied, smiling a little.

“It’s not, well, it is. But you already know the most important part… already. So there’s no reason for me to be nervous… but I am… sir.”

Steven just nodded. Magnus took a breath.

“I’ve already told you that I love Julia, and I intend to marry her,” Magnus said, clamping down on his nerves. “And I wanted to tell you that I’m going to ask her once the season is over.”

Steven looked down and nodded a little. “Remind me how long you two have been dating.”

“It’ll be almost six months.”

“That’s not very long,” Steven commented. Magnus tried to see if he could discern what he thought about that, but his face was placid.

“It’s not, but… I was always taught that love is not so much a feeling as a choice to put someone else first. And when you find someone that you’re willing to make that choice for, and they the same for you… time doesn’t really matter then.”

Steven nodded. “Well said.” He leaned forward and put his hand over Magnus’. “I wish you both every happiness.”

“Really?” Magnus asked, a heavy weight instantly lifting off of him.

“Of course.”

Magnus let out a breath, a smile forming on his face. “Thank you, Steven.”

“So when are you going to pop the question?”

“Well, I have some ideas.” Magnus pulled a folded sheet of notebook paper out of his back pocket. “I definitely want to wait till after the season is done; the team has a really strong chance in the final tournament and I don’t want to distract from that. So after the tournament, but before Thanksgiving, somewhere in there.”

“Sounds like a plan. Do you have a ring yet?”

Magnus frowned. “I don’t, unfortunately. I’ve been trying to put some money away, but I also feel that every extra dollar I have should be put towards the house. But I don’t want to ask without something.”

Steven got a thoughtful look on his face. “Wait right here,” he said, getting up from the table and going down the hallway towards the bedrooms. Magnus waited there a few minutes, looking over his proposal plans. He put a line through ‘horse-drawn carriage’; probably wouldn’t be able to find one in Faerun.

Steven returned and sat back down. He put his hands on the table, and in them was a small ring box. He opened it and turned it towards Magnus. Inside on white velvet was a silver ring. There was detailing in the metal and a single small diamond rested in the center.

“This was Ella’s,” Steven said simply, setting it down closer to Magnus. “Couldn’t afford a ring when we first got married, but I saved up for a full year and got her this one just after Julia was born.”

“It’s beautiful.” Magnus looked up at Steven, and he nodded quickly. Magnus delicately picked up the box and extracted the ring.

“She didn’t get to wear it as long as I would have liked. But I think she would have wanted Julia to have it.”

Magnus nodded, his throat too thick to speak for a moment. “Thank you, Steven… It’s ah, it’s perfect.” He put it back in the box and snapped it closed.

“You might have to get it re-sized. I’m not sure if it’ll be too big or too small for her. Leon might be able to help you with that.”

“Thanks.” Magnus smiled at him.

“You know, my father-in-law never much cared for me for a lot of different reasons. And after Ella died we both went our separate ways. But I just want you to know, Magnus…” He moved his jaw back and forth. “Aw, hell. You’re a good man, son, and I know that you’ll be just as good for Julia as she is for you.”

Magnus smiled at him, and Steven wiped at his nose.

“I’d like to hug you now,” Magnus said.

“Alright.”

Chapter Text

Avi spilled coffee on himself. “Shit!”

The other people in the breakroom shot him some alarmed glances. Avi glared and grabbed a couple paper towels.

“Hey.” Antonia moved behind him, put a hand on his back. “You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what,” he snapped.

“You’re like a big old anxiety machine,” she said quietly, taking a paper towel of her own and dabbing his shirt beside but not on the coffee stain. The sight took his mind off the squirming snakes in his stomach. He guided her hand to the stain.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it.” He squeezed her hand.

“Are you nervous about the tournament tomorrow? Everyone says you’re doing fine as head ref.”

“Fine for The Adventure Zone maybe. But Roswell and Maureen know so much more than me.” He huffed. “I keep thinking how much more experience refs from other rinks will have. And this is kind of a big deal, you know? I’m going to be the final authority on calls.”

“If it was such a big deal, you’d be getting more than fifty bucks for it,” she said.

“You know what I mean,” he said.

“I know. You don’t want to disappoint your friends?”

He nodded. “I guess that’s it, yeah.”

Antonia smiled at him. “I got good news for you, Prince Charming. You couldn’t. They like you too much.”

Avi found himself smiling. “You think so?”

“How do you have so many friends and doubt that they actually like you?” said Antonia gently.

He shrugged.

“Trust me. I’ve never met someone so likeable. That’s why I’m marrying you.”

This made him laugh. “All right, if you’re the proof of this concept.”

She smiled. “Quick, give me a work-appropriate kiss.”

Avi smiled and did so, although it was on the long side for work-appropriate. She smiled. “I have to get back. Try not to drive yourself crazy, huh?”

“I’ll try,” he said. She left, leaving him to mop up the coffee on his shirt.

 

Avi and Antonia showed up at seven in the morning, an hour before the bouts would start. People were already settling in to watch. There would be six today, three semi-finals, two finals and the championship. Merle had set up a leaderboard on one wall, posters for each game set up like a bracket and little placards for each team. Avi picked at the one for the Felicity Wild Women. It came away with the rip of velcro.

“Nice touch, isn’t it?” said Merle, a little proudly.

“Sure is.” Avi put it back. “Why are all the i’s dotted with hearts?”

Merle kept his face expressionless. “My daughter made them.”

“I see. And all the hearts that have sad faces? With x’d out eyes?”

“My son helped.”

Avi grinned. “It’s good. Very professional.” Antonia giggled beside him.

Merle ignored this. “I’ll be your medic today, standing by to help, but you’ll be in charge on the floor. You’ve got eleven refs between all the teams. You can split them up how you like.”

“I’ve got a plan for that,” said Avi. Just like air traffic control.

“Good. They should be here in a few minutes. I’ll go tell the announcer to get the music started. Good luck.”

Merle strolled away toward the DJ booth, whistling. “He’s in a good mood,” Avi commented.

“From the sound of the crowd, this is probably his most profitable day of the year,” said Antonia. She kissed Avi on the cheek. “You have everything you need?”

“Yep,” he said.

“You ready?”

“Not remotely.”

“You’re going to do fine. This is fun, right?”

“Ha. Yeah.”

“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll drive over to the corner store and grab you something.”

Avi gave her an alarmed look. “You’ll what?”

“Joke. Blind joke.” She gave him a hug. “Good luck, Prince Charming.”

“Thanks, Princess.” He kissed her, and she left to sit in the stands.

Avi took a deep breath. Okay.

“Avi?” Roswell loomed into his field of vision. “We’re gathering over here.”

“Right.” He followed Roswell into a gathering of variously striped people, pulling a stack of index cards out of his pocket. Maureen was already there, laughing with a couple of men who looked about her age. He put on a smile. “Hello everyone. Welcome to the tournament. I’m Avi. Hey, uh, you. What’s your name?”

The man he addressed matched Avi’s smile. “I’m Tom Bodett. Volunteer for the Rad Robes.”

“Glad to meet you. Would you shuffle these please?” Avi handed him the index cards. “Tom’s going to pass these out in a second. They’re your game assignments. Each of us will ref two bouts, and we’ll have four refs to each bout. Four of us will be lucky enough to ref the final.”

“That’s not how we’ve done it before,” said a man with black and white sequins sewn into his ref’s cap.

“Right, and before we’ve had fights between refs as well as players,” said Avi. “Random means fair. Fair means better bouts. If I see any cheap calls or favoritism, I’ll trade you out with someone else. Cool?”

“What a good idea,” said Maureen. The man with the sequin hat looked as though he had something to say, but bit it back when Maureen spoke. God, it was so good to have someone with actual authority on your side.

“Cool. Tom, if you would?” said Avi. As Tom passed out the cards, Avi said, “Thank you all for coming. Without us, this tournament wouldn’t happen. Let’s all do our best to ensure a safe and fun day. Now if those of you who are head refs could send coaches and captains from your respective rinks my way, I’d be grateful. Roswell, if you would get the B.o.B?”

The group dispersed, except for Tom and Maureen. Tom held up the last two cards in confusion. “There’s an extra.”

“Nope, that one’s mine.” Avi reached out a hand.

Tom looked surprised, and gave one to him. “You mean you’re not going to choose which bouts you ref?”

“Wouldn’t be fair,” said Avi. His card said games one and six. Hoo boy, he was reffing the last one. Cool. Right.

“Huh.” Tom wandered off as well, looking at his own card.

“That was very well handled, young man.” Maureen nudged him. “About time we got some accountability.”

The constant fluttering in his stomach calmed down a little. He smiled. “Thanks.”

 

“Remember, there’s a good chance we won’t even be playing for an hour,” said Julia. Her team was putting the finishing touches on costumes, stretching, shaking out jitters. “Stay loose.”

“I hate waiting so much,” growled Hurley, rolling her neck and jumping up and down.

“You and me both, Ram,” said Magnus. “Just bring it all out on the track.”

“I still can’t believe we’re fourth in points!” said Carey. “We won most of the bouts!”

“We won just about half of the bouts,” said Noelle, “but the Rad Robes especially tend to destroy the competition rather than just win.”

“Take it from a scientist,” scoffed Taako.

“Whatever happens, you ladies have played a damn fine season,” said Lucretia. “Just don’t lose the first bout, or I’ll disown you.”

Killian laughed. “Who did you say we were playing?”

“The Wild Women,” said Lucretia.

“Ew,” said Julia.

“Least Lydia won’t be trying to steal your man this time,” said Sloane. “Oh, god, can you imagine her trying to flirt with Roswell?”

There was a knock at the door. “Everyone decent?”

“If you mean we’re clothed, then yes,” said Taako.

Roswell poked their head in. “The head ref would like to see coaches and captains.”

“Thanks, Coach,” said Lucretia. Roswell left. “Magnus, I’d like you to stay and review the Wild Women’s tactics with the team,” said Lucretia. “In ten minutes, head out to the rink. Come on, Jule.”

They headed to the space between the rink and the track, where Edward and Lydia were already waiting with a ref Julia didn’t recognize nearby.

“Edward. Lydia.” Lucretia didn’t make eye contact. Julia tried not to either, but Lydia’s sweet smile caught her eye.

“Good to see you again, Jule Be Sorry,” said Edward. “Lucretia, you’re looking well.”

“Are the rumors true, Julia?” asked Lydia. “Are congratulations in order?”

“What angle are you working now?” said Julia derisively.

“Angle? No angles.” Lydia waved a hand. “Just word of mouth.”

“Maybe you should focus on the game for once,” said Julia.

“I wouldn’t be so high and mighty if I was screwing a ref,” she trilled.

Ohh, that was the angle. Julia smiled. “Are you jealous, Lydia?”

“Enough,” said Lucretia, and Julia didn’t wait for answer. The look on Lydia’s face was payback a-plenty.

The other teams were gathering now, six in all. There was Lup and that bland-looking guy that coached the Rad Robes, first place in points; then the Phandolin Fireworks in second, the Felicity Wild Women in third, then the B.o.B., the Rockport Riot, and the Goldcliff Golddiggers, who were struggling this season. The first bout would be either third vs. fourth or fifth vs. sixth, depending on who won a coin toss.

Speaking of, here came Avi, and congregating around him were more refs than Julia had ever seen in one place. They must have had extra volunteers this year.

“Good morning everyone,” he said. “I’m sure you’re all anxious to get started on warm-ups and stuff, so we’ll keep this short. If I could get the captain of the B.o.B. and the Golddiggers to step forward please?”

“Point of order?” interrupted Edward. He held up a sheet of paper. “The Felicity Wild Women don’t have correctly tabulated points. We should be in second place, not third.”

Avi frowned. “You’ve had those final point calculations for like two weeks now. You should’ve said something earlier.”

“I only noticed it yesterday,” he insisted. “Please, I ask that we delay any decisions until you’ve taken a look.”

Avi hesitated. “I don’t think--”

“Wait a moment.” It was Maureen. She was adjusting her glasses. “Is that… is that Edward and Lydia Vogler?”

Edward flinched. Julia couldn’t believe her eyes. He flinched.

“Good grief, I haven’t seen you in years! How’s your brother? What was his name now… Keats?”

Edward didn’t say anything. Julia looked at Lydia--she was frozen.

“Oh. Silly me.” Maureen adjusted her glasses again. “That’s very unprofessional. Don’t worry, I’m not reffing your games. Do go on, Avi.”

Avi seemed to collect himself. “Right. It’s too late to review tabulation right now. You can be in third place or you can forfeit.”

Edward snatched the piece of paper away. “Fine.”

“Now, uh. Jule Be Sorry? Queen Sabine?”

Julia stepped forward along with the Golddiggers’ captain, a woman wearing a masquerade mask and altogether too much lace for Julia’s taste. She nodded to Julia.

“Queen Sabine, if you’d call it in the air,” said Avi, and flipped a quarter.

“Tails,” said Queen Sabine.

It bounced to the floor. Avi leaned down to look. “Tails it is. Do you want the first or second bout?”

“We’ll take first,” said Queen Sabine.

“Awesome. Good luck everyone. Please feel free to warm up. The bout starts in a half hour.” Avi gestured to one of the refs. “Would you change the bracket over there to reflect the game order?”

“Sure thing.”

Julia took a deep breath. Waiting was the worst part of the tournament, but at least now she could prepare herself and her team.

 

Steven put his wallet back in his pocket and walked into the Adventure Zone. Man, this place was packed. He’d promised both Magnus and Julia that he would come, and here he was, worrying. Ella would have laughed.

He surveyed the stands. There weren’t many open spots, but he did notice that that guy Klaarg was here, this time in jeans and a NASCAR t-shirt and still looking huge. He was arguing with--was that the white boy in the $400 suit? Not that he was wearing the suit now, but yes, it was that Johann fellow. Steven wandered closer.

“The B.o.B. has to win,” Johann was saying. “It’s not narratively satisfying if they don’t.”

“Narrative--what are you saying?” Klaarg said. “Listen, I love the B.o.B more than anyone, but you can only use the argument of narrative satisfaction if you’re certain whose narrative it is!”

Johann was taken aback. “But they’re the team with the most spirit, the most passion!”

“So you’ve hung out with all the teams, then, and come to that conclusion?” said Klaarg.

Johann sputtered. “Y-you know--you know what? Here. Angus?”

A kid hanging off the rail of the track looked up and hurried over. “Hi, sir!”

“Hi, Angus. Can you tell this man that it would be ridiculous for the B.o.B. to lose?”

“It’s pretty likely, actually,” he said. “The B.o.B. have some home-rink advantage, but if the Wild Women keep their cool, they may not even make it past the first round, and failing that, they’d have to play three more bouts to win. The farther they go, the less likely they are to win.”

Klaarg threw out a hand. “That’s what I’m saying!”

Steven stared. He knew who this kid was. “You’re Angus McDonald, right?”

All three of them turned to look at Steven. Johann spoke first. “Mr. Waxman?”

“Oh!” The boy’s face lit up in a smile. “You’re Miss Julia’s dad!”

“That’s right,” said Klaarg. “We met before. Would you join us?”

“Sure, yeah,” said Steven, stepping over the bleacher to sit down next to Klaarg. “Angus, I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you too, sir!” said Angus. “Magnus says you’re kind and a very good welder, and Miss Julia says you read books with the best funny voices.”

Steven smiled. “I haven’t done that with her for years.”

“It must have been very important to her then, sir.”

“Oh, I already like you,” chuckled Steven. “So if the B.o.B. isn’t the favorite, who is?”

“The Rad Robes have had their strongest season in several years, sir. They’ve won most of their games by very wide margins.”

“The Rad Robes can’t win,” scoffed Johann.

“I don’t understand your logic, young man,” said Klaarg.

“It’s not about logic,” Johann mumbled. “It’s the story.”

“It would make a very good story,” said a voice from behind them. It was that boyfriend of Taako’s, Kravitz. He smiled nervously when they all turned to look. “May I join you gentlemen?”

“Of course,” said Steven.

Kravitz sat behind Steven, beside Johann. “It’d just make this story I’m writing about them if they won the championship. From what I understand it’s been several years since they’ve done so.”

“They’ve been close a couple times, Mr. Kravitz,” said Angus. “Oh look, it’s starting!”

The music faded, and the announcer called, “Good morning, ladies, gentlemen, others--are you READY for the 1999 roller derby tournament?”

The stands burst into cheers. Steven and his friends joined in the hype.

“Your first bout of the day features the grudge match of the century. Captained by Jess the Behead-her, we have the Rockport Riot!”

The cheers were mixed with boos.

“Versus her former team, captained by Queen Sabine, the Goldcliff Golddiggers!”

The cheers were a little more sincere this time.

“Let’s seeeeee some derby!”

 

“Is Jess favoring her left leg a little?” said Sloane hopefully.

“No,” said Hurley. “She’s killing it, as usual.”

The team winced as she knocked down Sabine for the twelfth time that bout. “Why doesn’t Sabine let someone else be jammer?” said Noelle. “She’s going to get hurt.”

“Or Jess is going to get called on penalties, thrown out of the tournament,” said Killian.

The others oo’d at this idea. “I knew there was some bad blood there, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” said Sloane.

“This isn’t going to end well,” said Killian. “For either of them.”

“It’d be a lucky break if Jess got kicked out on penalties if we play them next,” said Hurley.

“She’s too smart for that,” said Carey.

A new jam started. Queen Sabine and the Rockport jammer raced around the track. The Rockport pivot called something out to Jess the Behead-her; Jess crossed to the outside of the track just in time to booty-block Queen Sabine into the rail.

The crowd groaned sympathetically. Queen Sabine tried to get up, but crumpled. The Rockport jammer zoomed past her, narrowly avoiding a similar booty block, and called off the jam after three points.

“That’s the end of the jam, with Rockport leading by ten, and Queen Sabine is still not on her feet,” said the announcer. Merle hurried onto the track.

“Jeez, Robocop, you’re psychic,” said Hurley, craning her neck to see. “What’s happening?”

Merle knelt next to her, felt her ribs. She gasped, so loudly the B.o.B. ladies could hear her.

“Shit, that’s not good,” said Carey.

Merle signaled to the ref and helped Queen Sabine back to the center.

“Looks like a cracked or broken rib, folks,” said the announcer. “There’s an end to the more intimate side of this grudge match. Will Queen Sabine’s team avenge her?”

“Not likely,” said Julia.

 

Magnus and Lucretia stood off to the side of the track a little, watching the team watch the bout. Lucretia thoughtfully stroked the divot on her upper lip. “I want them warming up fifteen minutes after the half,” she said.

“Sure thing,” said Magnus.

“Leave at least half the rink for the Wild Women, they’ll kick up a fuss if we don’t,” she added. “The last thing we need is those two trying any more delay tactics.”

“I wish I could have been there to see Avi shut them down,” said Magnus wistfully.

“With an assist from Maureen,” Lucretia said.

“Julia made it sound like she just distracted them for a minute.”

Lucretia rolled her eyes. “Trust me, she knew exactly what she was doing.”

They watched their team watching the bout for a few more minutes.

“They’re talking tactics,” said Magnus. “That’s good.”

“Very good,” said Lucretia. “By the way, speaking of Jules. This… plan of yours.”

He smiled, a little manically. “It’s good, right? It’ll be perfect.”

“Well… hmm.” Lucretia considered. “It’s good, certainly. I can’t imagine anyone saying no to a proposal like it. It’s just… a little complicated.”

“That’s why we’ll need the team’s help,” said Magnus. “If I just tell them--”

“We can’t tell them until the tournament’s over,” she said. “They’d be too distracted to play.”

“I know, there’s just not a lot of time before next weekend.”

“Does it have to be next weekend?” Lucretia asked.

Magnus capitulated. “The week after that is Thanksgiving. And then it’s Candlenights season.”

“I see your point.” Lucretia crossed her arms. “Call it the P.A. in me but I keep thinking over the logistics. I don’t even know if there’s a greenhouse in Faerun.”

“There’s a florist,” said Magnus. “Got to be a greenhouse somewhere.”

“And all the balloons?”

“Is there not a party store in this town?”

“No.”

Magnus frowned. “Then we’ll ask Taako.”

“Okay, fine,” said Lucretia. “And then the song--”

“That’s the easiest part,” insisted Magnus. “I have the tape already, and I’m sure one of us has a boombox.”

Lucretia sighed. “If you’re sure we can put this all together in a week.”

“This team can do just about anything,” said Magnus firmly.

Lucretia conceded the point. “Fair enough.” She smiled wryly. “It’s a pretty good song.”

“You think she’ll like it?”

“Magnus, I would never have agreed to help if I didn’t,” said Lucretia.

Magnus looked relieved. “It is a little disco.”

“It’s also a little jazzy.”

He smiled. “Thank you, by the way. It means a lot to me--and it will to Julia, I’m sure--that you think--that you approve--you know. That you’re helping.”

Lucretia nodded. “I’m glad you were ready for something real. I have a feeling you two will last.”

Magnus was touched. “I’d like to give you a hug.”

“Don’t push your luck,” she said, and left to sit by the team. Magnus grinned, and turned back to the bout.

Chapter Text

“The first winner of the tournament, moving on to the second round, it’s the Rockport Riot!”

Steven booed along with the crowd for this one. That Jess woman seemed to relish hitting people just a little too much, even for derby. Even so, the Riot fans in orange and black were losing their minds.

“We’ll be back in just a few minutes with the Felicity Wild Women versus your very own Faerun Bureau of Badass!”

“Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy!” said Angus, bouncing in his seat.

“Who’ll the B.o.B. play next, if they win?” said Kravitz, craning his neck to look at the bracket on the wall.

“Rockport, but not until after the Rad Robes and the Fireworks play,” said Johann. “Are they going to do my chant? I hope they do my chant.”

“Your chant?” said Klaarg.

“Yeah, I wrote it,” said Johann, watching intently as the B.o.B. skated to the middle of the track.

“You wrote the chant?” said Klaarg. “I’m a huge fan of your work!”

Johann froze. He turned his head slowly toward Klaarg. “Y-you are?”

“Heck yes!” said Klaarg, hand to his forehead. “Man, I can’t believe I’m meeting you!”

Johann’s eyes were huge. “This is the greatest day of my life.”

A bubble of chatter began at the B.o.B.’s bench, all the players talking over each other. Johann clutched his chest. “Oh, god, they’re doing it.”

Julia pounded her fist on the bench, louder than usual. “I hereby call this session to order. Who are we?”

“THE BUREAU OF BADASS,” the players shouted.

“Damn straight! All rise for a word from the Director!”

Steven leaned forward to hear Lucretia as the team jumped to their feet, but he needn’t have bothered. Today she made her voice echo.

“The Adventure Zone is your home,” she intoned, her words sliding into place like slabs of stone. “This tournament is your tournament. Let’s show these ladies some… hospitality.”

The cheer went up from the whole crowd, even from fans of other teams, and Killian started stomping. The chant started with the players and spread until the whole place was shaking with it. Who are we? The B.o.B. Who are we? The B.o.B. Who are we? The B.o.B…

“You heard it here first folks,” said the announcer, cutting into the chant. “Captained by your hometown hero, a Faerun legend, Jule Be Sorry…” the announcer had to leave off for a moment while the crowd cheered… “It’s the BUREAU OF BADASS!”

Steven thought he might go deaf from the cheering. He was certainly going hoarse.

“Versus a team that is artful in every sense of the word, last year’s champions… captained by WonderSlam, it’s the Felicity Wild Women!”

The thunderous cheering carried over for the Wild Women as they posed on the track.

“I’m getting the signal from the refs--yes, the bout will begin without any further ado. Get ready for some derby!”

 

Julia braced herself for a last minute taunt from Lydia as the two of them stood on the line, but none came. All business then, huh? That suited Julia.

The whistle blew, and they took off. Lydia outpaced her--jeez, no messing around today, was there? Julia picked up her own pace. They made it around the first time without incident, looped back, and hit the pack.

Their inside blockers were so tight. As soon as Julia thought she found an opening it closed again. She was behind--Lydia had already made it past Hurley and was gaining on Carey and Taako.

“Beauty! Inside!” said Noelle’s voice from up ahead.

Like a battleship, Killian appeared in front of Julia and hipchecked one of the Wild Women into another of the Wild Women, knocking them both into the center. Julia took the opening and zoomed past them and another blocker. She’d almost caught up with Lydia--

Lydia glanced over her shoulder and hit her hips, calling off the jam. The ref blew the whistle.

“That’s three points for both the Wild Women and the B.o.B., a conservative start,” said the announcer.

Julia growled. It was going to be a long bout.

 

The second half began, and the B.o.B. was down seven points in a methodical back-and-forth.

Steven threw out a hand. “It’s like they don’t even care about the points just so long as they’re still ahead.”

Angus nodded. “That’s happened a lot this season. The Wild Women won more bouts than Phandolin, but by fewer points.”

“Artful indeed,” said Kravitz, snapping a picture.

“There’s something wrong with their captain,” muttered Johann.

“What are you talking about?” asked Steven. “She looks like she’s doing a good job to me.”

Johann shook his head. “She’s distracted.”

The four men and one boy stared at her.

“I don’t see it,” said Klaarg.

 

“You’re sure?” asked Magnus.

“I swear it on my goddamned Irish ancestors,” said Hurley. “Lydia’s lip was trembling. She’s going to make a mistake.”

Lucretia nodded. “All right. Then let’s make it easy for her, switch things up. What do you think, Magnus?”

“Robocop, are you good for jammer?” Magnus asked.

“I think so, but if they hit me, I may not be able to keep my balance,” said Noelle.

“Then we’ll make sure they won’t hit you. Got it, Beauty?”

“Got it,” said Killlian.

“Okay.” Magnus nodded. “Abby and Jule, stay outside, just ahead of her if you can. Psych her out. You’ll be pivot, Jule. Your only job is to be faster than her.”

“Gotcha.” Julia traded panties with Noelle.

“And we’ll put Jenicide with you, Beauty. Ram, hold that center. Diablo can hold down the fort here on the bench. Everyone good?”

The team chorused a “hell yeah!”

“Who are we?”

“THE B.O.B.”

“Give ‘em hell,” said Lucretia.

 

Angus leaned forward. “Oh, boy, Noelle hardly ever gets to be jammer.”

“Will she be safe?” asked Kravitz.

“She’s been knocking people down all season,” said Klaarg. “She’ll be fine.”

The jam started, with Lydia easily outpacing Noelle on the first loop and attempting to pass Hurley again, but Hurley kept her walled with considerable grace until Noelle joined Killian and Sloane in the pack.

Hurley seemed to let Lydia slip past in order to take out a Wild Women blocker, hip-checking her in the knees, but now Lydia was trapped behind Taako and Julia, and Noelle had gained a point. The other opposing blockers converged on Noelle; Sloane, Killian, and Hurley headed them off, with Hurley taking a hit and falling so that two of them couldn’t get past.

Lydia glanced back behind her over and over again with increasing alarm. Her pivot shouted, “Call it!” Lydia lifted her hands to claim a single point--

Killian grabbed Noelle’s shoulders and flung her forward. She flew past the rest of the pack and Lydia, and slapped her hips to call the jam.

The boys jumped to their feet cheering as the announcer called, “That’s five points for the B.o.B. and one for the Wild Women. This is Robocop’s first five-point jam of her career--let’s hear it for her, folks!”

 

Noelle skidded back into the center with a huge grin. “Did you see! Did you see!”

“I saw!” Magnus gave her a high five. “Want to do it again?”

“Hell yeah!” Noelle shouted.

Lucretia said, “Then hurry! They’re trading out jammers. You did it! You broke Lydia!”

“Get out there, Diablo, call Ram in,” said Magnus.

“You got it!” Carey flew out of the center.

Lucretia allowed herself a small smile. “Don’t tell them, Burnsides, but I think we just won the bout.”

 

Final Score
Bureau of Badass: 75
Felicity Wild Women: 61

 

Both teams lined up for high-fives, and then the Fireworks and the Rad Robes took the track.

Though Angus and Klaarg both agreed that it should be a good bout, it consisted mostly of the Rad Robes brutally and mercilessly taking points from Phandolin. Fifteen minutes in, the Rad Robes were up by 34 points.

“This isn’t any fun,” said Klaarg. “I think I’ll get something to eat.”

“Mm, I’ll join you,” said Johann. “Kravitz? Steven?”

“Sure,” said Kravitz, getting up and stretching. “Might be good before everyone rushes in for lunch.”

“I’ll stay and save seats for now,” said Steven. The others wandered off to the concession stand, except for Angus, who looked thoughtful. “Angus? You’re not hungry?”

“No, I am,” he said. “I’m just thinking about a budget.”

Steven smiled. “A budget, huh?”

“Yes. I have five dollars to spend today.” He pulled a crisp five dollar bill out of his pocket, folded in half. “Four of it is for lunch and dinner, because hot dogs and nachos both cost two each, so I have one dollar left for a drink. And I’m very thirsty.”

“So what’s your dilemma?” asked Steven.

Angus pointed to the arcade. “There’s a gachapon machine in there that costs twenty-five cents.”

“A what?”

“The machine with the little prize capsules,” Angus explained.

“Oh, is that what it’s called?”

“Yes, and inside there’s a prize I really want, but it’s one of six. So if I spent my dollar there, I’d have a pretty good chance of getting it.”

“What’s the prize you’re after?”

“A temporary tattoo with Velma on it,” said Angus.

Steven held back a laugh. “Velma? As in Scooby-Doo?”

“Yes sir, she’s my favorite.”

“Really?” said Steven. This kid was great. “Why’s that?”

“She’s smart, sir, and she’s not afraid of ghosts.”

“Very good reasons.” Steven thought for a moment. “Here, I’ll tell you what.” He dug in his pocket and took out a handful of pennies and nickels and--good, they were still here--three quarters. He handed them to Angus. “I won these off a wily steel-willed fax machine salesman. I was going to use them for gum, but I think this is a much more important cause.”

“Gosh, Mr. Waxman, thank you!” Angus took them gingerly and jumped to his feet. “I’m going to go get my prizes right now!”

“Get something to eat first!” Steven called after him.

“Okay, I will!”

He was back in a few minutes with a hot dog in one hand, a drink in the other, and a pocket full of gachapon capsules. He sat down, took a bite out of the hot dog, and showed the capsules to Steven.

“Well, let’s see what you got,” said Steven.

Angus nodded and swallowed his mouthful before popping open one of the capsules. “A sticker with Tommy on it,” he said, a little disappointed.

Steven frowned at the sticker. “That’s an ugly baby.”

“Yeah. It’s okay, my friend Mookie likes that show. I’ll give it to him.” He carefully put the sticker back in the capsule and shut it, shoving it in his pocket and opening a new one.
“A parachute boy!” he announced, holding up the plastic figure. “I like these. This is a good prize.”

“No tattoo though,” said Steven.

“Maybe this one is it.” Angus held up the last capsule gingerly and opened it, revealing a ring made of green lanyard cord. “Aww.”

“Sorry, kiddo.”

Angus looked a little disappointed. “It’s okay, I guess.” He brightened a little. “This is my favorite color, at least.” He tried it on his ring finger, and when it slipped off, put it on his thumb instead.

“At least you’ve got a parachute boy out of it,” said Steven.

“Yeah! And a drink!”

The others were making their way back, hands full of food. It looked like Klaarg had dumped nachos onto a hot dog. “If the Robes play like this, the B.o.B. are going to have a hell of a time,” he said, gesturing to the track and taking his seat.

“They’re going to win,” Johann insisted.

“It’s a million-to-one chance,” scoffed Klaarg.

“Everyone knows million-to-one chances work out ninety percent of the time,” Johann said.

Kravitz squinted into the middle distance. “How…”

“Ooo, that’s going to leave a mark!” the announcer called. The men looked to the bout.

A blocker for the Fireworks was on the ground, clutching her knee, tears streaming down her face. Merle was already kneeling beside her. He said something to one of the refs.

“Getting word now… it’s a torn muscle, the medic says. Looks like Polly Block-it is out of the bout and on her way to a hospital. That’s cold, Rad Robes.”

“That’s not good,” said Kravitz.

 

Rad Robes: 117
Phandolin Fireworks: 59

 

“Your reward for winning this bout will be a one-hour break, and then another bout,” said Lucretia, addressing the team in the locker room. “And then, if you win that one, you’ll have a ten minute break followed by another bout. This will be the toughest test of stamina you will ever have. If the pressure lets up, it means you have lost.”

She let that thought sink in, regarding her team. Julia, Carey, and Sloane looked nervous, but determined. Hurley was greeting the challenge with a wicked smile. Killian had a look of intense resolve, and to Lucretia’s surprise, so did Noelle. Taako was doing the same thing she was, looking at everyone else, gauging reactions with his usual air of indifference, but his knuckles were white.

“Do not waste your energy unnecessarily. No showboating. Every action for a purpose. Now look around.”

Her team did so, meeting each others’ eyes.

“I know I’m not the only person who considers this team family. Out there, protect your family. Make each others’ lives easier. Make their lives harder. Rockport’s not as good as you, but they’re sure as hell not going to give up without a fight. This might be just the first leg, but make it count. Am I understood?”

“Hell yeah,” said Julia, and the others echoed her.

“I said, am I understood?”

“HELL YEAH.” The lockers rattled with the sound.

“Good. And now, a word from the captain.”

Julia stood up. Her eyes flashed. She put on her helmet. “Let’s fuck ‘em up, girls.”

The team left the locker room, suitably pumped up, Lucretia thought. They were going to do fine. She glanced up at Magnus, who’d been standing behind her.

The boy was looking after Julia with such contented admiration, she couldn’t help but smile.

She hummed the first few lines of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” quietly enough that only he could hear. He broke out of his reverie and looked at her.

She chuckled. He crossed his arms, game face back on.

Chapter Text

Rockport was giving the B.o.B. everything they had, with a frustratingly thick defense. The stress was beginning to show.

The team congregated in the center after a particularly disheartening jam. Hurley tore off an elbow pad and hit Sloane with it. “Hey, do you maybe want to warn me next time you toss a blocker in front of me? You know I can’t jump over them like you do.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t be a problem,” snarled Sloane, “if you would listen to the pivot instead of trying to do your own thing!”

Taako elbowed Julia. “Do we need to lock them in a closet again?”

“We don’t have time for this,” snapped Julia. “Guys!”

“I’m not looking for flying blockers, I’m looking for the goddamn jammer!” shouted Hurley.

“I can’t be responsible for your space and mine,” Sloane shot back.

“Hey!” Magnus stepped in, took them each by the shoulder. “We’re going to lose if you two don’t get your shit together now. Make up or I’ll take one of you out of the rest of the bout.”

Sloane and Hurley glared at each other for a full ten seconds.

Finally, without changing her expression, Sloane said, “Looks like we’re in a jam.”

Hurley made a bad attempt at a straight face before snorting. “Screw you.”

“Later,” said Sloane. “Get your pad back on.”

The team breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“Now that you’re back in sync,” said Lucretia, “Ram, I want you on jammer.”

“Hell yeah, tough stuff,” said Taako, handing her the panty. She didn’t put it on.

“Are you sure? I’m not fast--”

“I’m personally getting sick of dealing with their defense,” said Lucretia. “You’re fast enough to get the job done.”

Hurley gulped and slipped the panty on. “Looks like now I’m the one in a jam.”

“I’ve got your back,” said Sloane, kissing her helmet. “Let’s go.”

 

“What are they doing?” said Steven. Kravitz was snapping pictures like a madman as Hurley rolled up to the line.

“Something new!” said Angus.

“I’ve got to get down there,” said Kravitz, pushing past Johann out of the bleachers.

“This is why I like ‘em,” said Klaarg, throwing out his hand. “Always something different with the B.o.B.”

“Hurley’s only ever played jammer in practice!” said Angus.

The whistle blew, and Hurley and the Rockport jammer took off. Hurley lagged heavily behind, but no sooner did the Rockport jammer reach the pack then Carey knocked her down. Hurley caught up with the pack about the same time the Rockport jammer got to her feet.

“A slow start to the jam, but if I know the B.o.B., it’s all part of the plan,” said the announcer. “They’d better hurry, though. Time is running out!”

Hurley wasted no time. The Riot walled her in--she ducked under a blocker’s legs and slipped through.

“Woah!” said Steven. Angus looked absolutely delighted.

Hurley gained some ground past the pack before the Rockport jammer outpaced her again and circled around. This time the Rockport jammer maneuvered past Carey only to find Killian and Julia in her way. Hurley, meanwhile, had no sooner reached the pack and pulled in front of two blockers than one pushed the other into Hurley, knocking her down.

“Ouch,” said the announcer, “a solid hi--wait, wait!”

Hurley fell into a roll, landed in a crouch, and pushed off the track with her hands, back on her feet.

“Holy smokes!” said the announcer. “Battling Ram is a bit of a mountain goat!”

“Did you see that?” said Angus.

“Holy hell,” said Johann, transfixed.

There were more blockers ahead. Hurley stayed on their flanks, hovering for an opening. Sloane plowed through the line and gave her one, knocking down a blocker. Hurley darted forward, past Jess the Behead-her.

Jess didn’t let Hurley pass. She drew back for a hip check--

“Oh no!” said Angus, covering his eyes.

But the hip only clipped Hurley in the shoulder, sending her skidding off to the side, while Jess overbalanced and fell.

“Yeah!” shouted Klaarg.

Hurley tried to redirect herself. Julia caught her and pushed her forward, past another Rockport blocker, just as the whistle blew to end the jam.

“Some truly impressive jamming by Battling Ram,” said the announcer. “That’s four points for the B.o.B. against Rockport’s one, and with that, the B.o.B. has taken the lead!”

The boys in the stands cheered wildly. Klarg smacked Steven in the shoulder. “Didn’t I tell you they were the most interesting team in the league?”

Steven cringed. That was going to bruise.

 

“I’m not doing that again,” declared Hurley, panting. “Don’t make me do that again.”

“You were incredible!” said Sloane.

“Not doing it.” Hurley pointed at Lucretia.

“You don’t have to,” said Lucretia. “But now we’ve got them off their game. Let’s keep that up. Diablo, when’s the last time you played jammer in a bout?”

Carey’s face lit up. “Not since Taako joined. Are you saying we bring back team sweet flips?”

“Against my better judgement, yes.” She glowered at them. “Don’t you dare get injured out there.”

Killian pumped her fists. “Hell YEAH.”

“What’s team sweet flips?” said Magnus.

Lucretia shooed them onto the track. “You’ll see.”

 

The boys in the stands watched slack-jawed.

“She just--launched her!” sputtered Steven. “Into the air!”

Klaarg nodded.

“That can’t be a legal move,” Steven insisted.

“You can’t prohibit something that’s never been done,” said Klaarg.

“Titans,” whispered Johann. “Fucking titans.”

“I love derby so much,” said Angus, eyes like saucers.

“Listen everyone, we’ve had a lot of fun here today,” said the announcer, in a weary tone. “I just want to remind everyone that these derby players are trained professionals who have, and I cannot stress this enough, signed release forms. Please, please, don’t try this at home.”

 

Rockport Riot: 68
Faerun Bureau of Badass: 84

 

After good-game-high-fives were over, the B.o.B. retreated to their locker room, whooping and hollering.

“Oh, shit, sweet flips!” said Taako. “That was incredible!”

Killian looked Carey deep in the eyes. “I’ve missed that so much. Your agility is amazing.”

Carey returned her gaze. “You’re the strongest person in the whole world.”

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

Lucretia snapped her fingers. “Focus. We have one hour before we play Phandolin. Get something to eat and get hydrated.”

“I brought sandwiches!” said Magnus, pulling a cooler out from under a bench.

“Phandolin’s entire team could outrun us, even Abby, so we need to outthink them,” said Lucretia. “Let’s talk tactics.”

Magnus passed out the sandwiches, and they settled down to prepare.

 

Avi was draped over some bleachers, eyes closed, eating a carrot stick while Antonia rubbed his head.

“You’re doing great,” she said. “At least, I think you’re doing great. I haven’t heard any fights so far.”

“Everything’s going okay,” he mumbled through carrot. “Two more bouts to go, though.”

“Are the other refs giving my man the respect he deserves?”

“I don’t know about that. They’re listening to me, and I’ll take what I can get. Maureen is helping a lot. They’re terrified of her.”

“Yeah, didn’t you ever take her chemistry course in college? Dr. Miller nearly destroyed my GPA.”

“I took astronomy,” Avi mumbled. “You have magic fingers, Princess.”

“You know I do.”

“‘Scuse me?”

Avi opened his eyes. It was Merle. “Sorry to interrupt.”

“It’s okay,” said Avi, sitting up. “Thanks, Tony. What’s up?”

“I’ve been checking out the Fireworks, since so many of them were hurt,” said Merle. “I can only approve four of them to play.”

Avi’s eyebrows shot up. “Four?”

Merle nodded. “Two of the girls were already playing with injuries, and that last game only made ‘em worse. One of them I’m certain is concussed, and I’m pretty sure about another one. Then there’s the poor girl who tore her ACL… they’re going to have to forfeit.”

“Oh my god,” said Antonia.

Merle hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Their coach is going to tell you formally in a minute. I just thought you should be prepared.”

“Yeah. Uh. Thanks.”

Merle nodded again and left them. Avi felt a wave of panic. He’d have to rearrange the refs, which meant some people would be reffing less than others, he’d have to either move the final bout up or wait an extra hour, and people weren’t going to be happy. He reached for the flask in his pocket and unscrewed the lid.

“Avi,” said Antonia softly.

He looked at the flask. “Sorry. Old habits.” He screwed the lid back on.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said. “Just like air traffic, right?”

“Yeah, but if I delay a flight to Dallas, a jet full of people isn’t going to come to the tower and yell at me.”

“What do you need to do first?”

“Talk to Phandolin’s coach.”

“And then?”

“I’ll ask my refs if we should delay.” He considered. “We’ll take a vote.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Thanks.” He stood up. “A kiss for courage?”

“Always,” said Antonia, and kissed him.

 

“They what?” said Magnus, his mouth half full of sandwich.

“They forfeited,” Maureen repeated. “Too many of their players were injured.

“The Robes didn’t just beat Phandolin, they destroyed them,” groaned Hurley.

“What does that mean for us, then?” asked Lucretia.

“We’re playing the next bout at 4, so you have an extra hour to prepare,” Maureen said. “This bout will be for the championship.”

“At least it’s one less bout to win,” said Carey.

“Thanks, Maureen,” said Lucretia. “You’ll let us know if anything else develops?”

“Certainly,” she said, and left the locker room.

Lucretia clapped her hands together. “All right. Take a minute, everyone. Get used to the idea, grab another sandwich. Then it’s back to strategy.”

Julia picked up her water bottle and stood up. “Be back,” she said to anyone who was wondering, and headed off to the water fountain.

The audience had dwindled a little since the bout ended. They were still on the one-hour break, she supposed, off getting lunch, maybe, or their favorites had lost. More folks would come for the last bout. They always did.

There was so much time left to wait. The ache in Julia’s calves and thighs was enough to make her very glad they didn’t have to play Phandolin and the Rad Robes. Killian and Carey probably had some aspirin or something.

She held the button on the fountain and watched the bottle fill. It’d probably be quicker to have Robbie fill it, but there was a line at the concession stand and anyway she didn’t feel like breaking her focus trying to talk to a stoner.

“Do you ever get the strangest sense of deja vu?”

Julia very deliberately didn’t move her head. She knew the voice. She slid her eyes off to the side. Lup was leaning against the wall, water bottle in hand, examining her nails. Julia noted with some satisfaction the slight crookedness of her nose. Another Rad Robe hovered nearby and smirked.

“Wasn’t it right here that you lost your temper? Got pulled out of a game?” Lup looked at Julia. “Tell me, Jule. Was that your worst defeat of the season, or was it the next time you played us?”

“Wasn’t it right here that I broke your nose?” said Julia, screwing on the top of her half-filled water bottle, turning to leave. Don’t engage, she told herself. Don’t fight. They’re just trying to sabotage you.

“And yet, somehow, you’re still the ugly one. You and that jigsaw puzzle you call a team.”

Julia paused. No. Don’t. She forced herself to keep walking.

“Amazing they got this far,” said the other Rad Robe, snickering behind her back.

“Well, Brady Punch,” said Lup loftily, “that’s what happens when you fuck the refs.”

Julia stopped. She turned around, slowly, and took a couple steps back toward Lup. “What exactly do you want from me?”

Lup cocked her head. “You mean it’s not obvious?” She leaned in close, close enough that Julia could feel her breath. “I want to watch you crash and burn.”

 

Avi was sitting hunched over on the bleachers, taking long, slow breaths. Everything had gone way smoother than he’d thought. Antonia had been right, it would all be okay. He felt kind of dumb now, for being so nervous. The refs had accepted his decision to treat this bout like the fifth game, for the purpose of ref assignments, which meant he didn’t even have to ref again. Roswell and three other good refs were assigned to this bout. Nothing else to worry about.

Avi sat up straight and stretched his arms, trying to get some of the tension out of his shoulders. How did he ever make it through college?

Oh, that’s right, alcohol. He took his flask out of his pocket and looked at it. It was almost empty. It was always almost empty these days. Usually he could stave off the urge to partake with the fear that he might need some later. He put it back in his pocket. There hadn’t been a day this bad since… well, since he’d proposed to Tony, but before that, not for several years.

Things were not going to get less stressful in his life. He’d be married this time next year. Maybe… maybe he should get some help.

The thought made him more nervous. He sighed. Maybe he should just dump the flask out in the water fountain--

Uh-oh. A couple of the Rad Robes and Julia were nose-to-nose. Fight brewing--he stood up. Backup. He needed backup. No way he could pull apart two people who were taller and definitely stronger than him--

“Roswell,” said Avi, a wave of relief washing over him as they passed. “I need your help, come on.”

Avi hurried over, Roswell following without question, God bless them. “Ladies,” he said as he approached, “what seems to be the problem?”

“There’s no problem, Avi,” said Julia. “I was just leaving.”

“Oo, first name basis, huh?” said Lup. “You fuck him too?”

Avi frowned. “Miss, I’m going to have to ask you to lay off. This is unsportsmanlike.”

“What about that thing?” Brady Punch asked Julia, pointing to Roswell. This seemed to be too far even for Lup--her head snapped to snarl at her teammate.

Julia’s nostrils flared, but she did nothing. Avi’s head jerked to look up at Roswell. Their eyes were narrowed, but otherwise they didn’t seem all that bothered. “Avi, you’re the head referee. I’d like to make a somewhat unconventional call, with your permission.”

Well Avi sure as hell didn’t know what to do. “Permission granted.”

Roswell nodded. “Congratulations, Miss. You’re the first person I’ve ever penalized before the bout has even started.”

The woman’s jaw dropped. “You can’t do that!”

“I’ll allow it,” said Avi, shrugging. “If your coach has an issue with it, he can take it up with me. You’ll start off the bout with a penalty.”

“That’s not--you can’t do that!” said the Rad Robe. “Scream, tell them.”

Lup set her jaw. “They just did,” she said flatly.

“Yes,” said Roswell. “I recommend you rejoin your team.”

The woman looked like she might fly at Roswell, but instead she glared at Julia. “C’mon, Sour Scream, let’s go.”

The two of them stormed away. As they left, Avi could hear Lup saying, “You fucking moron, you don’t insult the refs--”

Avi exhaled. “Julia, maybe you should go back to your locker room.”

“Just leaving,” she said, and did so.

“Sorry about that,” Avi said.

Roswell shrugged. “It’s unfortunately common. Still, she should know better.”

“You might want to keep an eye on them during the bout,” Avi said. “They like to instigate.”

“I will,” Roswell promised.

Avi had a thought. He dug his flask out of his pocket. “Could you keep an eye on this for me too?”

Roswell looked puzzled, but they took the flask and put it in their own pocket. “I suppose.”

“Thanks.” Feeling no less nervous but considerably lighter, Avi walked away.

 

When Julia got back to the locker room, her team was arguing.

“Don’t play recklessly,” Magnus was saying. “We only have one extra player at any given time. If even two of you get injured, we’ll be screwed.”

“You saw what they were doing,” said Sloane. “The Rad Robes are out for blood.”

“We’ve got to be tougher than them,” said Hurley.

“Listen, tough stuff, we’re a scrappy group, but we can’t outmuscle them,” Taako shot back. “Not all of us are Beauty, here.”

“They’re way meaner than us,” said Noelle.

“Where have you been?” Carey asked. The team turned to look at Julia.

She shook her head. “The Robes tried to pick another fight.”

“Julia, you didn’t--” Lucretia began.

“I didn’t take their bait,” Julia assured her. “Brady Punch ended up insulting Roswell. She’ll start off the game with a penalty.”

“Hell yeah, serves her right!” said Carey.

“Listen,” said Julia. “I think that’s the answer. They’re not just trying to win, they’re trying to hurt us. They’re playing angry.”

“You’re supposed to play derby angry,” said Hurley.

“No,” said Lucretia. “You’re supposed to channel anger into derby. To build something where someone else has tried to tear you down. Right, Jule?”

The room went silent, eyes on Julia. She set her jaw, and nodded. “I think… I think all of us have something that gets us ready to play, right? Something we only think about when we need to focus on bringing someone down. You’ve all seen mine, when I fought with Lup the last time. I know most of yours.”

She hesitated. No one was meeting her eyes. She didn’t blame them. She wasn’t even sure she should be bringing this up right now--did they need to be thinking about their deep dark secrets, the sources of their rage, when they knew someone out there wanted them broken?

She realized Magnus was still looking at her. He was listening. Go on, he mouthed.

She pointed to the locker room door. “The Rad Robes have that too, except it’s not personal or private or shameful, it’s just hate, straight up hate, and they do it not because they know anything about us, but because it’s fun, and it helps them win. And you know, I’m tempted to hate them back, but mostly what I feel for them is pity, because they’re missing out.”

They were looking up again, listening again. What was it she was trying to say? Whatever it was, she better say it. She rallied her thoughts. “I don’t know that what we have is special. I don’t know that there’s anything special about us, other than the fact that we’re a bunch of weirdos, but I know that their hate can’t match what we have, what we feel for each other. That’s what we need to bring out onto the track. We can’t be meaner than them, so let’s not try. Let’s be better.”

There it was. Julia watched them chew on the idea. Noelle was nodding, Killian and Carey were holding hands.

Taako ducked his head and sniffed. “That was cheesy as hell, dude.”

“Are you crying?” said Magnus, concerned.

“No,” lied Taako.

“C’mon,” said Magnus, spreading his arms. “Bring it in.”

“Hell no!”

“Aww, c’mon Taako,” said Sloane, hugging him. “Group hug everybody.”

“God, no!” Taako protested, as everyone moved in. Julia ended up outside Carey and above Hurley, hugging her team, grinning. Lucretia watched, not even trying to hide her smile.

“This is it, this is my affection quota for the next ten years,” came Taako’s voice from somewhere inside.

“All right, all right,” said Lucretia. “Let him be.”

The team spread out, leaving Taako a little mussed and holding back a damp smile. “You guys are the worst,” he said.

“Julia’s right,” said Lucretia, once they’d all settled back down. “They have too much ego and too much anger. How can we take advantage of that?”

Chapter Text

Steven settled back onto the bench for the final bout. He’d taken a walk around the block a few times, to get the blood back flowing. His kingdom for a chair with a back.

“This is going to be very good,” Klaarg was saying to Kravitz. “The B.o.B. is bringing back tactics I haven’t seen in years. I think they’ll need them.”

“It’s not victory if it’s not hard-won,” said Johann.

Steven noticed a young lady slowly making her way around the track from the other set of bleachers. She didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular, but her head was cocked as if she was listening.

“I can’t wait to get these pictures developed,” said Kravitz. “There’s one of Hurley in particular that I’m very excited to see.”

The young lady had turned and was now passing in front of them.

“I want to see them, when they’re developed,” said Johann. “Photography is a fascinating art form.”

“I’m sure I do my best,” said Kravitz, obviously flattered.

The young woman turned her head toward them, looking more past them than at them. “Johann? I thought I heard you earlier.”

Johann seemed to go stiff. He didn’t look at her. “Hey, Antonia.”

“Hi. Um, do you mind if I sit with you and your friends? I’ve been having trouble understanding the bouts. Sometimes the announcer’s confusing.”

“I guess,” he said.

Klaarg smacked the back of his head. “Don’t be rude. Of course you can, young lady. Please, there’s a space right here.”

“Ow,” muttered Johann, rubbing a fresh goose-egg on the back of his head.

She smiled. “Thank you. I’m uh, pretty blind, so mostly it just looks like blobs on a blob.”

“Would you like us to describe it for you?” asked Klaarg.

“I’ll ask for clarification when I need it, if that’s okay,” she replied, settling beside Johann.

“Certainly,” said Steven. “Antonia, you said?”

“That’s right.”

The others introduced themselves. Turned out she was a friend of Julia’s and Taako’s, so she knew of both Steven and Kravitz.

“Sweet of you to come and see them play, even though you can’t see it,” said Klaarg.

“I’m also here for my fiancè. He’s the head ref,” she said.

“The boy with the mullet?” asked Steven.

“That’s him,” she said.

“That’s awfully supportive of you,” said Klaarg.

“He’s very supportive of me,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve spent at garden nurseries with him reading off labels to me.”

“I’m getting a snack,” said Johann abruptly, and left.

Steven frowned after him. “What’s wrong with that boy? Leaving you here with a bunch of strange men?”

“It’s okay,” she said. “When you’re with Avi you learn to make friends fast. Anyway if you’re Julia’s dad and Taako’s boyfriend, you’re probably good people.”

“Speaking of good people, where’s Angus?” asked Klaarg.

“That’s the little boy, right?” said Antonia. “He’s… someone’s son on the team.”

“All of them, I think,” said Kravitz. Steven laughed.

“I just saw him,” she said. “He found my wallet--I dropped it out of my purse, and he didn’t steal anything out of there, so I gave him five dollars. And then, it was the funniest thing, he said something about a gazpacho machine and ran off.”

“Oh, you just made that boy’s day,” said Steven. “There’s a gachapon machine in the arcade, one of those with the prize capsules.”

Antonia laughed. “That makes a lot more sense than soup.”

“Sirs! Sirs! Miss Antonia!” Angus came barrelling toward them with an armful of gachapon capsules. “Look, look!” He dumped all the capsules under his seat and yanked up his sleeve. Yes indeed, there was a tiny Velma Dinklage on his arm.

“You got one!” said Steven