Midnight City had to have its share of ghosts, didn't it?
From the furnace of the daily sunshine to violent doings barely visible underneath fitful gleams of moonlight and neon, there was reason enough for any number of citizens that went boo. Then there were the zappier trolls - it wasn't infrequent that they'd explain a bit of obscure knowledge or a sudden grimace as resulting from a spectre, and while the world had no shortage of liars, the numbers could support a few honest joes.
Diamonds Droog considered that was where he'd gone wrong; his eyes narrowed in a way that anyone would have been identified as dangerous, if he weren't alone in a conspicuously empty hideout. The rumours hadn't sounded like they could be true. If they were true, it was easier to believe that they were about a dead man, seen by those with consciences to speak of.
An exile fresh from the desert - after decades? What kind of universe glitch would see fit to spit one of those out now, when all the rest of them had been cast out at the same time?
With denial and dismissal taking the lead, Droog had let his shred of unease go unheeded. Especially because Slick was a reactionary guy, he acknowledged now, as he tapped ash from his bitter-tasting cigarette and sat up more rigidly on the couch. When Slick had wanted to careen off and go hunting after the rumours, Droog had deliberately steered the Crew as a whole away from it because he'd thought it best to manage the balance of his associates' actions.
That ended up with him left him at their home base, waiting, alone, the ashtray five cigarettes' worth of ash deep. Slick hadn't yet made himself sick of hunting and tearing up everything along the way without a pause. Clubs might be jittery and nervous enough that he hadn't left his private pad at all, or he might be ready to light a fuse to half of downtown with the cheerful idea that explosions solved every problem. Boxcars was almost certainly hitting up bar after bar, distracting himself into big grins and dancing, and there would be troll-heavy bars on the line-up so he could get invested in yelling at everyone who got into quadrant displays in public.
Nobody was going to do a thing about the Aimless Renegade - and it wasn't hard to draw lines running back to very old days of having to sneak past the watchful eyes of the Authority Regulator - except Droog.
He ground his teeth too hard and split open his cigarette, and jumped up in frustration at his own rookie mistake. More dried leaves spilled on the couch and floor, as well as his suit jacket, until he gave up and swallowed the whole thing like he was fresh from the desert himself and ready to eat anything. Bitter and hot, it was a better wakeup than a slug of java. He'd better acknowledge this idea that kept unspooling through his head, smoke after smoke: nobody else was going to do a thing about his associates being endlessly agitated. There was only him.
The others would keep going off ineffectual and dumb, starting and ending fights that could have been handled better ways, messing with their city worse than even a Regulator locked into being a hide-hardened, wild-eyed Renegade could manage. If the Felt caught wind of their current panic and the way it had them all out alone night after night? Disaster.
Boxcars had made his opinions about quadrants known too frequently and at too loud a volume for Droog not to be aware that there was a popular theory that carapacians were suited to trolls' quadrant system. Humans were supposed to be too soft, or too prone to vacillate like metronomes to make it work most of the time, but carapacians had the social rigidity and attitude to violence that went hand in hand with quadrants.
Boxcars had also been too annoying over the sound of too many perfectly decent records playing for Droog to voice opinions about the pale quadrant. Its applicability to his own life. The way society needed more of that kind of watchfulness, even one like Midnight City's microcosm. His associates' clear need for...
He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked on his feet a couple of times, agitation bleeding through while there was no one to see. Damned if they didn't need different things. Balance. Soothing. Perspective.
It would be easy to get started off on making it happen with just a telephone call.
Droog was walking over to make that call before he knew it.
It was going to be a long night.
"Easy, big guy," Droog said, and made a show of taking out a match and a cigarette and then putting them away again. "I forgot. Can't smoke in a hospital."
Boxcars gulped hard enough that the carapace on his neck shifted visibly, the gleam of them shifting under the ward lights. "That so?"
"It's no good around the recovering. The vulnerable." Droog let that easy statement rest long enough for comfort and discomfort to tangle together, then stood and rolled up his sleeves with brisk motions.
"Now, it's a busy weekend night. The emergency ward is all filled up, the nurses running around to take care of all the stabbings, the broken limbs, the hearts that won't keep beating right on their own, the breaths that don't come easy as breathing."
He sent over a companionable smile for the poor joke and tricked an answering smile out of Boxcars. His voice would have echoed in the ward of the abandoned hospital, but for his quiet, even tone. Maybe it sounded more threatening than soothing, but their familiarity with each other could off-set that. "So the nurses have left me with instructions, see? And all this equipment. So I know how to steady your vitals. Wrap up your wounds. Take your temperature."
"Droog, I don't know - what the hell kind of game is this, really? I know I was all set to play along, but we could go back to me teaching you the Lindy Hop..."
"After that nasty spill you took on the dancefloor? Probably knocked half a kneecap loose, good God, man. You lie back. Be a good patient."
Boxcars watched him snap on medical gloves. They'd watched enough trashy human and troll shows over burning noondays to recognise the signal. When Droog opened up a roll of bandages, explaining how carefully they'd been kept sterile, Boxcars finally sat back.
The bed creaked but held. Droog's called-in favours had paid off in a big way - it hadn't looked great at first, with the decay of the rest of the abandoned hospital, but they'd cleaned up this big ward well and provided solid-looking accoutrements. The illusion would be easy to maintain.
"Got nothing to worry about," Droog murmured. "Hold this under your tongue for me, huh? No crunching the thermometer, now, I need to know how sick you are, and this will help. Got it?"
Boxcars watched like a patsy as Droog started bandaging his leg. It wasn't as easy as he'd have expected - but when he fumbled at the start of it, Boxcars let out a pathetic imitation of a cough.
A wonderfully pathetic imitation. He sounded like the distillation of three sad human orphanages. "Just a minute," Droog said as he started the bandaging again. "I'll fluff your pillows. For someone like you, that kind of thing is vital to recovery. Comfortable rest. It always does a patient good."
"Dunno what I'd do without you, doc," Boxcars rumbled at the end of it. He'd sunk deep against the pillows and looked something like he was drunk. "I just ... I ain't never felt so good. This is..."
"You know, sometimes a thermometer feels like it just ain't the best way to measure a temperature." Droog leaned forwards to rest his lips against Boxcars's forehead for a long moment. He barely pulled back to say, "You're going to be just fine."
The only problem with that whole tactic was that it cost three neat whiskeys and another three cigarettes worth of reassuring Boxcars that their game would remain private knowledge. But by then they were both sacked out on the hideout couch and Boxcars kept grinning in tired satisfaction, and they shared the cigarettes. Droog didn't push, but when he dropped a hint towards the Renegade problem into the conversation once it started wandering, Boxcars grinned wolfishly and began bragging about his own feats of strength. No worries at all, or an attempt to hide from them.
He sighed with satisfaction and then chose a moment to plug up the bragging by pushing the cigarette into Boxcars's mouth.
It was with trembling hands and bared-tooth snarls that Slick answered Droog, making clear the scope of what the Aimless Renegade had done. Police lockers across the city raided of weapons - underground dens of any species of gang cleared, ransacked, and left behind to be reclaimed - hobby shops shamelessly denuded of skateboards, and once, a hang glider.
The old adherence to law, Dersite or instinctive: abandoned.
The future for Midnight City: a question mark.
It was with a chilly glance and a shrug, resettling his suit jacket more comfortably on his shoulders, that Droog made clear his own questions, meticulously detailed. Why the sour disaster of the fear-and-also-fuck-you scent was thick enough to cling to the air and every absorbent surface, if sense was involved in picking these groaning and broken bodies to litter the ground with (who were showing enough smarts to crawl away while there was a moment), what the seadwellers would say about their precious dockside being dirtied up for the first time in a couple of years.
"Yeah, well, there are traditions about what a decent hive of crime's docks are supposed to look like!" Slick yelled.
"No, the old traditions don't count anymore, like we squared with the bunch of mermaids. We get a load of good calamari for it. Don't pretend you don't like watching the little tentacle-fights Clubs stages over his plate."
An articulate screech of rage rejected that, and also everything in the known universe.
A speaking look swept across the docks, leaving out the submersibles and the artistic mosaics that had come after the renovations, geared towards the network warehouses that still had a furtive look, the sleek black cars that Slick's victims were trying to get back into. Beyond that, the city skyline, jewel-studded with its lights.
The past of Midnight City: that it was Slick's from the start.
Fury overpowered the other scents in the air like unfashionable cologne; car doors slammed and tyres screeched as getaways were made. It poured out of Slick how - yes - he'd do anything to keep the city that way, to keep and mould it or damn it to nothing besides rubble, dust, and wasted tears before he let it be taken from him.
Droog let a grimace out.
First, he dragged a toe along the ground. The scent of blood it stirred up added nothing to the conversation, and Slick kept shouting. It really was a lot of blood. The mosaics absorbed nothing ... at least that meant no mud.
He crossed the emptied-out square. For a moment he used every inch of the height he had over Slick, challenge made clear. Then he sank to his knees.
He was Diamonds Droog, fanciest son-of-a-gun in town. The scent of blood soaking into his trousers said as much as hands held out, pleading, humbled as he could not be for anyone else.
Slick stared at him. Fire gone, just like that.
"Not yet," Slick tried.
"Yeah," Droog agreed.
He took hold of one of Slick's dangling hands, careful to exert no pull, and held it as a companion would. The look in Slick's eyes was helpless in surprise, after all their numberless years of uncompanionable shared existence, and Droog met it with cool certainty.
Slick pulled him up.
There was no challenge to it at all when Droog bent forwards to rest his forehead against Slick's, and Slick tilted his face up to meet him halfway.
Clubs split the difference on Droog's expectations of him by having hidden all his wallpaper behind neatly bundled stacks of dynamite. It was a lot less actively dangerous than it could have been and infinitely tidier.
"This is more of a frontier aesthetic," Droog said critically. Pale romance had room for that sort of thing, he was pretty sure - trolls did spend time out on the edges of known space. Still, he took a chiding role, as came naturally. "We don't have mines or train tracks to blow up."
Clubs cackled, the noise echoing from where he was upside down in a toolkit, his feet kicking. It wasn't the kind of thing you hoped to see in a host that assembled explosives.
"Listen, Clubs, you going to get out of there sometimes soon? I want to have a chat with you."
"Just a minute—"
"About your place in the whole scheme of things. How you see the bigger picture."
Clubs popped out like a cork and his mug assumed an expression of stunned gaping. Being taken seriously could do that to him, what with the novelty value.
"Oh my God," he said.
Droog should have felt smug. He'd been making a success of his night already. The grim determination he felt would do, though. All this traipsing across the city had better land him with a three-for-three.
"It's time for a real talk about this. About when to strike out on your own, and when to think again and make a consultation."
The next thing, he expected, would be for Clubs to get jittery about how he was always expected to follow orders and never got to execute his own plans, and never mind how they were awful. Instead, the guy yelled, "Oh my God!"
Droog narrowed eyes at him, at something of a loss. "Hey ... the clowns have two of those, right? Do not tell me you've had a chat with any clowns. Humans make a better atmosphere with that whole religion thing, as far as I can tell, if you really gotta."
"You're concerned with my look?" Clubs scampered over to cavort around him. He still got really damn Droll, sometimes. "What about yours?"
"I'm getting things done," Droog growled.
"Blood. Plaster dust. Ash..."
"You have to rub it in?"
Clubs balled his little fists. Enough determination came into his eyes to startle Droog.
"Absolutely not!" he declared.
The next thing Droog knew, he wasn't wearing any shoes or pants and he was in Clubs's bed.
"You're sure this counts as a pale thing?" Droog said.
"Counts as what you need!" Clubs cheerfully tightened the large silk scarf tying Droog's left ankle to the bedframe - the last limb to be tied. "You can't be running off doing all the caretaking on your own, right? So that's where I come in!"
"Go launder my damn suit, if you really want to help!"
"Sure! But first things first..."
The blindfold ... well, it turned out that it did something. Or, letting Clubs put the blindfold on him did something - Droog felt the small movements of his head, neck, and shoulders all too well as he allowed Clubs access with a final scarf. Each movement a decision, and each decision easier to make than the last, when the first had been surprisingly easy already. Clubs Deuce was the kind of guy to trust with this kind of thing - if you were Droog, anyway. Or Slick, or Boxcars.
Anyway, it was good silk. It was the least he could do.
Or maybe relaxing, shaking off the tension of a plan and the leftover creak in his well-trodden feet ... that was probably the least of it.
Droog had got more than he'd bargained for. But the Midnight Crew, he reckoned, was settled back together, and could take on anything.