CW: alcohol, sexual intercourse (very explicit), religion, religious gender roles, blasphemy (Catholic sacrament), dubious consent, child sexualization, pornography, slurs (homophobic), stimulant abuse/addiction, doxing, controlling parents, humiliation

Braz glanced at the window, thick and glazed and bumpy between its criss-crossing cast iron, but familiar enough that she could make out the world on the other side as a collage of light. Normally. It was raining too hard for her to leave now, even if she wanted to. In fact if it kept raining at this rate she might stay the night. She hadn’t stayed the night here since she had become Commissioner, though she still visited. This inn, Contour, was the kind of place her subordinates were supposed to frequent in her stead now. She wondered if any of them had as strangely fond associations with it as she did. She raised the hookah from the soapstone table (engraved lightly with coiling dragons) to her lips and coated the inside of the window with a sigh.

Nobody but the innkeeper, Uñuez, would recognize her. The Commissioner was not a public figure. Even in parades she, like other high-ranking soldiers and clergy, wore a diaphanous veil. But there was nobody Uñuez would recognize like her. That was, in theory, why she was there, and not one of her subordinates. No one could replace their years of rapport; years that had begun when Braz was a military academy student in her twenties, before she was even doing the kinds of missions that brought her here. Despite this reasoning - which sounded better and better the longer she sat there unable to leave - until the rain had made her decision for her, she had been sitting there, counting down to the next deadline (15 minutes, half an hour), at which she’d decide whether to stay, or whether she’d decided.

She wondered if she could explain that fondness if she were to ask anyone. There was no more perfect example of Eastern C’harn architecture, its mix of brutality and lushness, in Crach-Houarnez than Contour. She had to remind herself to call it Elthazan, even on official business; she was happy to, she harboured no reactionary schemes, but her family had raised her with C’harn; her family had belonged to C’harn, more, they always insisted, than the other way around. The Pious Alliance of Humanity’s unified naming scheme wasn’t a real language, they didn’t sound like real words, they sounded like something from a fantasy novel. Too clean, millennia of linguistic speciation scrubbed away. At least “Winter City" captured something of the spirit of Ysvenn, although it was so blatantly pandering to the tourist industry. The tables were slabs with rough-hewn edges jutting out from the masonry of the walls into piles of plush cushions and intricately woven carpets, translucent silk layered over rough northern fibre, deep beet reds and rotting carrot orange and strands of that locally produced shining green thread, patterns overlapping, draped up one side and down the other of the seats which were themselves no more than rectangular stone blocks. Torches on the walls and candles in glass tortoiseshells on the tables, manually magically warded to not send the whole firetrap up in smoke by the maids, nodding their heads to the side and jerking their hands in the preserving gesture that had been regional tradition since the castles of the Warring Era. And the wards against unauthorized magic on this place exceeded most military installations. (Except the ones Braz had personally instructed to fork a spell procedure from mage-for-hire extraordinaire and Contour regular Ithaz Arzhur, at least.)

But that was the least of what it meant to her. Someone who was unromantic in all things, and especially about evil, had found one place in the world that lived up to the romance, the guiltiest hopes a twelve year old might have about this kind of work. The people who frequented Contour weren’t exactly on the right side of the Crown, but they weren’t racists, weren’t rapists, wouldn’t come up to you popping on quartz and try to tell you the same jerkoff story about their all expenses paid vacation by their secret employer three times in one night. And they were actual experts in their subjects. They knew about things the Academy didn’t, about magic or fighting or parapolitical history, that they had just figured out themselves, sitting in an arrowslit apartment in the dark collecting a fraudulent disability check. Nobody here was a Dark magic user, but everybody knew one, because there was always something the Darks were doing nobody else was up on and for whatever motive whose weight was both borne like a lady’s favour and sacredly private, they had to be in on it.

More or less, it made her work fun, so she’d always clung to it. And she increasingly worried that no-one else would even think to ask about this “Seer-In-The-Half-Light" here, even if that person might be more ideally unbiased about it.

She glanced across the neighbouring tables, empty until three tables down, and one person at the bar. It was the third day of the week. Easier to get a private audience with Uñuez without attracting attention. But had she felt this lonely last time she was here? Something indeed had shifted about her ability to inhabit a space like this. And there was her maid coming, and she was going to order the big mountain-spiced buffalo steak she had to pay for to get Uñuez to talk to her. And until then if she couldn’t see things the same even here, she was just going to fade the light with a subtle squint and hookah vapour until she could.

After she finished the steak, Uñuez was still at the bar, talking to the same person. Contour was a traditional gender-segregated erotic bar, a holdover from caravan stops loopholing infidelity laws for nomadic merchants, and at a seaport like this a convenient way to avoid mixing men and women from countries with different gender roles. So the person was probably a woman, but it wasn’t obvious from their build or their bearing. There were people who were understood as having the right to go in and out of both halves of the bar - anyone could if they were willing to put in the performance of their half and be read by the rules of that performance, and if their performance was distinctive all the better.

It wasn’t obvious from their robes either - those were priestess’ robes, but made of latex, and priestess’ robe drag was more arch than one usually saw in here. The black silhouette broadened sharply, elegantly, at both the hips and the shoulders (it might have been partly the way they were sitting, bent backwards, shoulders turned towards the bar, raven-black hair pulled up behind their head in a wide jade clip, one forearm flat on the bar supporting them as their legs trailed languidly to the floor vanishing within the robe’s fishtail of pink ruffled underskirts). As Braz stared their head swivelled so smoothly and suddenly it reminded them of an animatronic, like it was supposed to be a jumpscare in some sort of haunted house. They locked eyes for almost three seconds - they counted in lost breath - the eyes were grey-blue and slanted in a face that was pale but kind of shiny, pearlescent, in the way that wasn’t makeup or sweat but just something about what light did on the subtle grain of skin.

Then they went back to looking at the bar, as if nothing had happened, and Braz had to blink back a sense that nothing had until Uñuez clued in to her gaze and waved her over.

Uñuez was wearing a traditional C’harnian black embroidered dress and lace coiffe. Tiny oval glasses sat just beneath eyebags ringed like tree-stumps that puckered as they focused in and out on Braz. (The coiffe hid exactly how much her hair was greying but her solid, shield-shaped face didn’t look that old except for those eyes. Braz’s parents would have used them as a cautionary tale about reading by torchlight - which was something Braz had seen Uñuez do on more than one occasion. Magic theory, religious devotions, romance novels.)

Her eyes flickered back to the stranger without her face moving. “This is my friend… Ingo Brul," she introduced Braz. It wasn’t a name Braz had heard before - Uñuez always made these up on the spot. “Ingo, I’ve just been getting to know…" there was a pause. It was always an interesting sign if Uñuez paused in making up a name for someone.

“Aeeth. Lacriz Aeeth."

That name wasn’t from here. It sounded… Silmenonian?

Uñuez also looked taken aback, even if she corrected too rapidly for anyone but Braz to notice. As if she hadn’t expected that name to come out here, at least not so soon.

Uñuez, of course, knew the real names of everyone who stayed at Contour, even if she didn’t necessarily give them to each other. The guestbook locked in her desk ran a rare and questionably legal spell that both encrypted and decrypted True Names from the government database. It was in large part the combination of these two capacities that made Contour so respected in certain circles.

“You’re a regular," Aeeth asked, in the tone of someone confirming they’d just met a celebrity. “What’s the best wine here?"

“She hasn’t told you that?"

“She was giving me a long list, and you know, I’m not a wine-taster."

“Then try the Bolduc Sapphire Wine. I guarantee you’ve never had anything like it, and you have to at least once in your life."

“All right. One bottle Bolduc Sapphire, for all of us."

Braz’s eyes narrowed. “What brings you here, on a mid-week night, on your own, and willing to try the finest wine on the house?" Her gaze crossed over to Uñuez. “Do you know each other?"

“The wine’s on the house." Uñuez’ gaze was steady. “They’re… someone who used to come here. Before your time, even. Someone I was expecting to see back here even less than you. But like I was just telling you I double-drew the Reunion card this morning."

“Those kinds of things aren’t real magic, which is why I always say when they work, something real is afoot. And important." Aeeth nodded slowly, while an ice-blonde maid who had crept in behind Uñuez opened a cabinet in a hollowed out stump with a tiny silver key.

“But if there’s no rule to how important it is - how can that be the work of the Goddess, and not Chaos," Braz pressed. It was a perfectly innocuous take and Braz didn’t mean to come off rigidly orthodox, but she felt there were still things she wasn’t being told about this old regular - what had they used to come here for? - and prodding for heretical views was one of her first routines here.

Especially when someone came in wearing a priest’s uniform.

“You know, I’m wearing this outfit for pleasure, but I was a real priest for a while. During the time…" Aeeth slowly took a sip of their wine, maintaining their gaze perfectly level with Braz. “…that I wasn’t coming here. And the way I see it is, if the Goddess is perfect order, would we - as a manifestation of Chaos - be able to fundamentally understand Her methods? I don’t mean that in an irreconciliationist way, I mean - intuitions are also part of the vision of order She gave us, because they’re part of treating our whole experience as an ordered system, even if we don’t understand it… from the bottom up, like magic."

I nodded. “Esquiez said something like that, right?"

“Right! So you’re familiar. The very existence of magic suggests that the Goddess’s order does not have the rigidity of the laws of matter, and there could be infinite layers of more fluid orders…"

“Like the Goddess of Many Folds at Tartus. If you don’t mind my asking - how did you stop being a Priest?"

“Celibacy." They crossed and uncrossed their legs, tensing and relaxing the latex sleeve around them. “You see I first became interested in the Priesthood when I read The Red Light of the Moon. I was like ten!" They laughed like a bell. “I was fantasizing about like, the old Priesthood, you know, the Carnal Confession, when I was… too young to even know what that was, to say the least. But it’s what got me interested in the whole profession! I figured, as I got older, that this wasn’t important to me any more, but eventually I came to realize I had never really been called to celibacy - or the version of the Priesthood that included it. There were people I knew who felt the same and were willing to challenge that rule in the Ecclesia, go through all the different steps for theological referendum, but I can’t imagine myself playing that sort of long game. I quit and now… I do the same thing, except without an official Priesthood. Which is how I ended up at a place like this."

Braz nodded slowly. “And what did you do at a place like this before?"

“Are you kidding? It’s a great place to go if you’re a Priest in training. You learn about magic. You learn about sin. You learn about Order and Chaos."

Braz’s skepticism - of what, she hadn’t been sure - or rather, simply her sense that there was something she didn’t understand in this situation - inverted in an instant. No - I understand this person perfectly - no, not just that - they understand me.

A rattle rose from the wall like a brush on a snare drum. A round of applause from the auditorium of Braz’s soul. Scattered waves of darkness blinked across the bright blue-grey of the windows. “That’s the worst hail this year, at least," Uñuez remarked.

“Supposed to go from rain, to hail, to snow."

“Last snow of the year."

“Makes one tempted to run off to Winter City. There it’ll last another month. But I couldn’t reject your hospitality."

When they went upstairs an hour later - it was amazing that it had taken as much as an hour, it had felt like an hour on some drug other than alcohol, an hour in such complete focus that time lost its barren continuity - they found a ward facing them on the inside of the door of Aeeth’s lodgings - a pickled eyeball in a triangular magiglass case with decorative beaded chains hanging from its vertices. The eyeball moved on a track connected to a pendulum that swung in time with a central Regulator (the same function as a Preserver but mechanical, requiring a human Preserver to animate it in a regular ritual) somewhere in the inn. The openness of the ward - the equivalent in a military installation would be concealed, because there were adversaries who knew how to shut them down unnoticed, but it hadn’t happened in Braz’s time - wasn’t a problem, because any damage done to it would rebound through the connection to the regulator and, if Braz recognized this mechanism correctly, knock out everyone in the room.

The reason it was out in the open like this, however, was so they could turn it off if they wanted. A couple of rooms had this function. There were things people liked to do in inn-rooms involving magic. Braz didn’t think she would be doing any of the obvious ones - except perhaps the most obvious. Without revealing anything compromising, Braz had impressed upon Aeeth that she was someone important and closely watched, and Aeeth had volunteered to submit to a memory-wipe spell for their interaction. It felt fundamentally wrong to use a memory-wipe for the precious exchange that was going to pass between them, but it made it too safe to pass up, and otherwise passing it up was going to be torture. Several needs Braz hadn’t imagined possible to fulfill in one. Braz waited until the pendulum was at the middle of its arc and pulled. The eyeball turned around in its case, revealing the bronze filigreed cup holding it in place, the ornate mandala centred where the optic nerve would have been.

Aeeth had reached out at the same time as her, and instead of letting their hand fall away as Braz’s reached the pendulum first, let their fingers rest on her wrist.

The hail rolled in waves across the windows - a rattle as if the glass itself was about to shake itself apart, then a gentle whisper like a tide retreating over pebbles - there was no reason to believe the hard and soft intervals had a rhythm, and it wasn’t like Braz was counting, but she believed they did, that their rhythm was inside its rhythm, or that it was with it, as hers was with Aeeth’s, and they were synchronizing into one, as she kneeled into the sanctuary - the confessional as it was in the old subterranean cathedrals of sweltering Silmenon - (Silmenon wasn’t that hot, it was just south of C’harn, but Braz was that kind of C’harnian) - of Aeeth’s pink latex ruffles.

Between Aeeth’s legs was a slightly ruffled gate, beaded with sweat or lubrication, furred lightly enough that the black hair, which tracked up their stomach past where their robe was lifted and seemed to bristle slightly, was translucent to the pale skin beneath. The only clue Braz had had to this was their mention of the old Silmenonian romances, which rarely featured priests with penises (regardless of gender). The polished wooden ceremonial wand they had handed Braz before the ceremony - engraved at its tip with the Spiral Flame, which pressing up against the engorged, unusually large clitoris that separated the hairs, Braz couldn’t help but notice resembled a clitoris itself, something she’d have to ask if they were taught about in the mysteries as they lay together after the Communion.

The Spiral Flame represented Chaos in its most positive aspect, of perfect harmony with the Goddess and her rotating dance. But it was an old symbol - it did not represent the Goddess and the Serpent Chaos as the present Church did, approaching Her from the fringes of the universe. It began from the centre and spiralled out - a movement that in contemporary iconography would have represented the first sin, the Serpent kicked away into the outer abyss by the Goddess’ heel in punishment for attempting to usurp her leadership of the dance. But here the flame emanated out. Perhaps Aeeth would tell her this was the arcane meaning of the clitoris itself. The serpent, of course, was both the masculine partner in the Great Arcanum and symbolically phallic; the clitoris was the phallus emerging from the vulva, the flame from the centre of the universe, and in this implement it empowered the phallus itself, the outside granted the authority of its own counterpart from the inside. Braz had always counted herself good at parsing religious symbolism, a skill that despite the third of military exams dedicated to it (albeit strictly in contemporary, orthodox forms, not antique curiosities like the Carnal Communion) she had always felt was wasted on her.

Braz held the wand between hands clasped in a prayer position. The light of the room filtered in dim curtains through the pink latex (and shadows of black) around her. It parsed a hotter reddish on her skin - as if illuminated through blood vessels.

Aeeth’s sinewy legs trembled - as if they weren’t quite used to standing like this, with a confessor’s lips so close to them, in a precise and unflinching 42 degree arch. The arches of their feet - where again the gentle bristly hairs rose from their otherwise bare legs - faltering beneath them.

“Your name," Aeeth’s voice filtered through the dark above the gate.

A shiver struck Braz like lightning, from the top of her head to the shifting pink-gold-red floor.

If Aeeth had bared themselves - if she was going to - she was going to have to bare herself entirely.

If she was even going to confess what she had come to confess here.

“Rraihha Braz."

The confidentiality of the confessional, in theory, trumped military confidentiality. Even the highest state secrets could be revealed to one’s confessor - hence why military priests were typically recruited from highly secluded monastic orders whose very existence was often a secret. But Braz knew - because she oversaw some of the operations that filtered information through them - that this confidentiality was not sacred as far as operations as sensitive as hers were concerned. Her own priest almost certainly monitored her on behalf of higher authorities - the Ecclesiastical Council, possibly Shaïgnar.

So there were things she’d never told him. And for someone like Braz, who had diligently confessed every hint of a sin since she was capable of understanding the concept, such a secret felt like a bolus of spit growing in her throat.

“And what secret burns in the void at the centre of your heart."

As someone who worked with secrets, she had no concept of that kind of secrecy. The secrets she was privy to she spent half her time talking about - the people who knew them did nothing but talk about them. They were secrets that existed to be talked about - they would not have existed if people didn’t talk about them.

That wasn’t, she had realized at some point, what the word secret meant to the rest of the world.

Even in an ordinary church, the confession booth felt something like this - the light through ruffled pink and red curtains - the trapped eddies of air - the priest’s face unseen, only their hands reaching in - the bowl of red-tinged salt water and the bowl of pure - it was supposed to represent the inside of a heart, though a womb made as much sense. The place where you were only yourself. The place where you were in secret. Visiting that place for the first time as a child implanted the very idea that you had one, that your secrets weren’t some sort of anomaly, a tear in reality that might eat everything precious to you.

Braz had secrets everybody talked about, and secrets she couldn’t even bring to the inside of her own heart.

“I love…"

She faltered.

Was it even true? Was she projecting some intrusive thought, some perverse what-if, into the inner sanctum of her self? Her psychological training had primed her to detect any such internal confusion and dishonesty, but the habit of denial rose in her from the sanctuary of time. She hadn’t been here, really been here, in the confessional, in her heart, since… she had been here, at Contour…

“Push." Aeeth’s voice muffled by the layers of latex between them.

She opened her mouth, faltered, and lifted her hands. The hollows on the inside of Aeeth’s thighs tightened in anticipation. Their clitoris raised its head proudly as their lips widened. The spiral flame, alone, had disappeared. Braz closed her mouth again, and pushed. The head disappeared, and a breath shuddered through Aeeth, the latex shifting subtly as they swayed. Wetness already glistened on the wood when Braz pulled back. Braz exhaled, and when she next lifted it, couldn’t help but slip one of her hands out of its prayer position, running her soft but thick fingertips along the goosebumped edge of Aeeth’s labia as they peeled back, slipping into velvet and honey, as Aeeth’s knees began to bend, and that clitoris like the prow of a ship descended towards the tip of her nose…

Wet on the tip of her nose.

Hair brushing.

Letting her eyelids close to a curtain.

The flex those muscles forced down into her knuckles, the heat of her palms on the wood itself an erotic contact.

Short, deep grunts from above, as those rising and falling hips forced air from her like a bellows, squatting on her pump.

“You love." This time it comes from above like an order.

Bubbles of vacuum were being pushed between them. The words she wanted to say, not yet even formed, like a bolus from her stomach, were being pushed out through her. She’d never understood why she’d pleasure the Priest in this stage, instead of letting the confession be pleasured out of her. Most novels these days wrote it that more intuitive way anyway - they weren’t written for people who cared about accuracy. And yet, Aeeth was able to make it work the way it did in the novels in spite of it. They were taking her confession and her wand as if they had been trained to.

“I love…"

Still. Could she really say it?

“I love the [Taboo Preserver]." She pushed. “He who it is my duty to protect… to isolate from the world… from any kind of disturbance or change." As if she was punishing the Priest for daring to ask, to know, to force from her these secrets for which she had come to him, because in the Goddess’ religion the first sin was a secret. “That should be fine. I love him as I found him; as he is. His motionless self." That was why the Priests took it - proved they could take it - proved they couldn’t be broken by it, the way it broke you - “If I could just tell him that, and not change things by doing that, it would be fine." Now it didn’t feel like it was pushing against anything - it was entering, and leaving as quickly as it had entered - feeling the touch of its own movement, the river. “If loving his peaceful self meant my feelings were peaceful." The clitoris was bobbing, rearing up and down, pressing out even further, like… it was getting hard. “But they’re not. So I can never tell them." Like Ymañn’s penis if she was pushing the wand into him - she gasped. Had Aeeth coaxed that secret out of her too? “So I…" She left off, gasped. Aeeth, inner thighs now vibrating, had taken their last payment of secrets. Wetness that wasn’t sweat or Aeeth’s juices was now pouring down her face. The mesh of lashes in front of her eyes was flooded. Her eyes were filled with a deeper release than any other part of her body, even her shoulder muscles now blurred with exertion. It was hitting something at the back now, beating a drum. The latex tent felt like it had been given a gust of fresh air. Her shoulders shook as they thrust. Eventually the resonations came into dissonance, they juddered to a stop and left the wand filling up Aeeth all the way as they sobbed.

The latex rolled back down over her hair, folded back up in front of her, as Aeeth kneeled down in front of her and reached out a vinyl-gloved hand to stroke her shoulder. Their blue-shining raven hair leaned into her soaked cheek.

After caressing her until her tears stopped, they slowly pushed Braz down, their jaw looking more square from beneath, their smile spreading across it like a hairline fracture. They swept their skirts behind them from all the way over their hips, undisguisedly pale now in the blended light. Another hand down around her belt buckle; brushing against the unforeseeably short and curly hair beneath her panties. Pressing her legs apart until they stretched the cloth.

“Are you prepared to accept forgiveness for your secret?"

The Spiral Flame pressed up against her inward flame like a question.

The next hour passed in pulsing fire. A worm tunnelling through a sun. She wasn’t even sure what was happening. Parts of her body she was barely on speaking terms with knew but were communicating with each other in their own language. She was happy listening in - as if it were the sound of rain. And every time Braz turned her sweaty cheek over onto the pillow, she faced the black nightlight of the window and watched large uneven pancake snowflakes, blue-purple and yellow-green in the light of different unseen lamps on either side, twinkling in and out of visibility and piling up on the sill.

Still, she managed to set an alarm spell before going to sleep, with Aeeth’s head in her breasts and her arms around their shoulders.

When she woke up, the windows were just starting to tingle with light, and Aeeth was still asleep, the pillow pulled awkwardly under their neck and chin and arms stretched out to the corners of the raised slab bed they had barely used. As if storing up tension instead of releasing it - it would certainly be satisfying to wake up from sleeping like that, literally pulling oneself together. It was also seductive. She almost jeopardized the whole routine by leaning in to leave an imperceptible kiss on a groove of shoulder muscle.

Braz stretched out herself, lowering her arms until her fingertips touched the floor, and began to circle the bed counterclockwise on all fours, sweeping their fingertips out in arcs to the side and ahead of her weight. They had both been too exhausted to do the memory wipe before sleeping but it hadn’t concerned them; no one was allowed to slip out while a ward was deactivated here. Braz, however, was too careful to let Aeeth use their own memory wipe. They hadn’t specified, so it wasn’t exactly a breach of trust; when Aeeth woke up, they would assume they had done it, and go about their day. Braz would be gone, but they would assume they had said good-bye to her. They wouldn’t even remember her face; they would assume they had been too in the mood, had done one more repetition than they needed of the spell or something, or had just been drunk on top of it.

There were ways to cheat on a memory wipe spell without even someone like Braz knowing, if you knew what you were doing. And there were ways for people like the black ops of the Ecclesia to retrieve “backup" memories from most of the spells someone like Aeeth would know.

If nothing else, she was keeping Aeeth safe. There was no way they had known exactly what they were getting into. No way they could have.

Yet they had taken it well. So well Braz almost wondered if it was necessary to do this. No shock; no disgust; no starblindness, either. No frisson at forbidden love. Just accepting everything; even before they’d started spying on her, she’d never felt a priest accept her so fully.

A week later Luskonneg got his Feed back. He’d been on the chans and boorus so much in the meantime he forgot he even had it for another day and a half. He’d been bingeing the entire works of a doujin artist of two generations ago he’d found out had died - methodically making sure to jack off to every single cumshot. At the end he felt like a mummified corpse, ready to die. He spent half the day in bed waiting for death to take him, imagining all the different personifications of it he’d seen - one of this own artist’s signature creations was a little girl in a bell-shaped dress that tolled for thee - with a soft, impotent eroticism that sank into his flesh and smoothed him out into a putty. Then he realized it wasn’t going to come - at least, not without the usual amount of pain and boredom he had decided years ago he wouldn’t be able to bear.

So he ordered two gallon-packs of energy drinks. That would be enough to revive him.

In the meantime, half-awake, he clicked through all the tabs he hadn’t closed in the past month, and accidentally discovered his Feed was active again.

He had over the threshold of notifications at which the Feed UI stopped telling you how many notifications you had and just showed the radiating-arrowed Ecclesiastic “Many" symbol. He knew he wouldn’t be able to scroll through them without a significant infusion of energy drinks, which were still… 20 minutes away? But beneath the “Many" symbol was a “1" he barely ever saw. A DM notification.

Curious, bordering on perturbed - was he being cancelled again? - he clicked on the envelope icon.

1:35 PM yesterday

omfg thank Goddess you’re back! was worried you’d got perma’d finally. would be the worst timing - you won’t believe it but I’m finally gonna be in Winter City this coming weekend. I’d love to uhhhh hang out if I can get some time away from my parents. please don’t think I’m a creep or anything I am only gay for cute traps.


Who was this again?

He tried to place the avi of the beaver mascot from the magical girl/mons crossover show that was also a lowkey tourism advert based on the culture of Western C’harnian mountain country.

Oh right, he’d told this reply guy he would watch that show two months ago and never gotten past the second episode because it was too kidsy.

He had assumed he would be hated for life for that. He had had a whole episode about it.

Needing to get away from parents to hang out, being unironically into Gentle Highland Ranger Patrol Lucielle… was this a minor?

He felt a frisson first in his dick then in the pit of his stomach. There was zero percent chance he would even reply if his extensive doxing skills proved this to be the case, of course, so he felt already distanced enough from the scenario that he knew he could to map it onto a number of his most extreme and guilty doujin scenarios to avoid killing himself over the injustice. It was probably a honeypot anyway, there were full-time trolls who went around trying to do this to people.

Then he remembered this guy had barraged him with magically 18+ locked fanfiction - not doujins, prose fanfiction - of Lucielle after he’d said the first episode sucked ass.

(Between the typing style and the fucking prose erotica, was he sure this guy wasn’t a cute trap himself? Yes, obviously, nothing like that would ever happen to him, but he’d be sure to fantasize about it a bunch to compensate for not meeting up or however this would fall through.)

His finger hovered over the reply field.

He tried to click away to another tab.

Goddess damn it he couldn’t. He didn’t have the energy. He would have to sink himself completely into something else to forget the insanity of this whole scenario, and he didn’t have the energy drinks in him yet.

OK, I’ll just sit on this until the energy drinks get here. Maybe I’ll check out his dox anyway.

He opened his info trawling program. He instantly found a link to an account on Domesday, the Ecclesia’s magically-verified real-name social media platform, which Luskonneg himself hadn’t used in five years. Llau de Xiau was in fact the same age as himself - no, almost a year older, just with a birthday at the opposite end of the year. He was the heir to a moderately prosperous merchant family in a wealthy satellite of Crach-Houarnez that still lived the old-fashioned lifestyle of half-year trips between the coast and the mountains where Lucielle was set, so that explained that. Most of his Domesday was hiking photos with his parents. He only had 25 friends, and almost all of them were a generation older than him. There was no hint on Domesday of the interests Luskonneg knew from Feed, except a photo of him hugging a plush of the same beaver mon in a tourist shop. The only employment record was an internship at his parents’ business that had barely lasted three months.

Luskonneg felt a brief flush of a superiority he liked to affect to win online arguments. If nothing else, he did not live in his parents’ basement. He didn’t understand why anyone would in a country that provided universal basic housing. Just move out, what, are you scared to lie in your room completely alone every day, watching the light move over your ceiling like a cleaning robot. Then he would briefly remember his mother pushing him out of the car, telling him he couldn’t make such a scene at this age, desperate bargaining, hiccuping sobs, promising he’d gratefully put up with things he’d sworn to never take from anyone again once he was out of her power at ten, threatening suicide and being threatened back with the same. And then he would close his eyes, and forget what he had been thinking about.

There was also a startlingly old account on the video streaming platform Panopticon, with videos of Llau as a prepubescent child, delivering poorly lit commentaries prepared like oratory exams on some of the first internet drama Luskonneg had ever witnessed.

Luskonneg rolled back and closed his eyes to think. @Suburbophile - he didn’t have permission to think of the Feed account by name yet - was someone whose replies were hard to tell if they were ironic or serious. What if he was being trolled, or worse if @Suburbophile hadn’t even contemplated the concept that he might take it literally?

(What chance he might take it literally? There was no chance of that - of him taking up the offer, that is. But he’d feel bad about himself for not taking up the offer if he took it literally.)

On the other hand, @Suburbophile was a true blue reply guy. His posts were over 70% replies, and most of them to the same half-dozen people, including Luskonneg. So it wasn’t impossible.

He passed out with his eyes closed, thoughts chasing each other’s tails across his eyelids.

When he woke up the energy drinks had arrived on his mail-shelf and he needed one and a half to wake up.

By the time he remembered the message, it had been in his inbox for more than a day.

The wait itself made him take another hour to write his reply. Almost the entire hour was spent staring straight at the text field.

With every second the voices got louder: You waited too long. Do you really want to spend the next two days staring at a sent checkmark until you finally accept it? If you can accept it without hurting yourself or something - remember what happened in high school. Remember all those nights awake staring at your phone. Remember your mom crashing into your room, telling you there was nothing there, you’re losing sleep over this, losing your studies over this, waiting for nothing, you will always be waiting for nothing -

Something shook in his mind like a flame.

Or maybe it felt more like a TV channel giving out in a burst of static.

The all-too-familiar thought was interrupted by a sudden disorientation.

What am I doing?

He remembered a meditation program he’d downloaded at 3 AM one night in high school, trying to calm his nerves. “Ask yourself: what are you doing? Don’t ask in a mean or suspicious way; ask as if you were asking a friend."

He’d spent the next week asking himself that in the meanest possible ways he could think of, just to spite the program for thinking it could help him. Imagined it in his mom’s voice, his dad’s voice, his principal’s voice, each of the cool gothic lolita girls’ lunch table’s voices.

But he wasn’t doing that now.

It didn’t feel so much like the intimacy of a friendly question, either; it was like he was floating in an endless white space over himself.

Oh, I guess I’m dissociating, huh? Is that what’s happening? And the space answered by becoming his body, huge and alien around him.

It felt like an abandoned factory complex, inert, waiting for him to do something, waiting for him to move. He could wander around, press buttons.

- like what if I just pressed this one that said “Send" -

He snapped back to reality. Wait wait wait wait - WHAT the fuck did I just do?!

It took another five agonizing minutes - spent curled up in a fetal position under the covers, bargaining with some light or darkness to take him - to even look at the message he had sent. It wasn’t good, but he felt strangely resigned to that after sinking so much energy into the anticipation. It cut off midsentence and had a word truncated from where he’d been trying to replace it:

yeah I’d be god for, any tiem basically, I don’t exactly do anyth

He knew, from the “K-hole art commission incident", that Feed didn’t let you delete DMs. He’d just have to do damage control - or hope @Suburbophile (Llau? could he think Llau?) wasn’t looking at his DMs any more.

In that sense, he had solved the problem of the fear, at least.

He was still leaning back on his wrists, breathing, and processing that thought when the “typing" ellipsis popped up in the bottom of the inbox.

Luskonneg’s face could only have been done justice by the rubberiest of comedy manga.

His fingers, stiff as rigor mortis and shaking like leaves, hovered over the keys, hoping to pre-empt something, but couldn’t decide what.

The reply popped out, in its rounded bubble with its rounded notification ding, almost disgustingly, like an egg from the desexualized cloaca of some mon creature. oh wow cool! me neither dw I feel you fr fr. lemme link you my schedule just a sec


The link that popped up next clicked through to a detailed spreadsheet that broke down all the way to fifteen-minute blocks, on a weird site Luskonneg had only seen used for illegal file sharing that allowed you to duplicate and fork files from a more popular cloud hosting service, which happened to have its own calendar function. The forked account was different from the account on the forking site, although they were both under the name “Llau de Xiau". Most of the three days were already filled up; the first day the Waterfall and the funiculars, and the Sidi cathedral at the highest point of the plateau; the second the jacuzzis, the great library, the rinks, blocked out hour by hour so he would have to be checking his clock everywhere he went. They were colour-coded “with parents" or “alone"; there were restaurant reservations “with parents" every night, but most of the days the parents seemed to be unoccupied except for the most dramatic sights - the funiculars, etc. - which were mostly clustered in the mornings, or evenings after dinner. Luskonneg narrowed his eyes and clicked back to the Feed tab:

Do you have any idea what would work better for you? he typed. I have no idea how to pick between these.

you don’t necessarily have to pick! we could hang out as soon as we can, and then… see what you’re up for.

What I’m up for. That was another thing Luskonneg had to think about - in ways he wasn’t sure he could explain. This guy certainly seemed to think they had similar reclusive tendencies, and from the friend count on Domesday maybe he was right, but living with his parents evidently had one advantage: they kept him used to going outside, seeing people, speaking out loud. If Luskonneg described the experience he’d had during the power outage, he felt sure Llau would smile and suggest the company would keep him from getting too caught up in his thoughts, but he had no idea if it would work that way. Focusing rarely worked for him; if he had to think too hard about one thing, like talking in real time!, it didn’t stop him from thinking about other things but piled on top of and collapsed them. His university entrance exams had been the most extreme example of this, and while it seemed absurd to compare that - the turning point of his life to date, the culmination of years of effort and crisis over whether he could make effort - to meeting a stranger off Feed he might never see again, this would be the most human contact he’d had since his first winter here.

Am I seriously considering this? I could just tell him I’m sick or something.

As for the possibility of just explaining it in terms of agoraphobia, social anxiety, OCD, the litany of diagnoses that had been thrown at him over the years… Luskonneg had come to Feed from an education on the chans (from such a young age he remembered it alongside his earliest formative experiences of real life). He had brought with him the knowledge that sounding cool is the way to win an argument where no one knows who you are. Be vague enough about your life, your self, but hint you’re more secure in them than your audience and people will just project anything onto you. Of course everybody knew Feed user @moephrenology was a shut-in and a virgin; but he came off like he was only those things because he didn’t care not to be. He cultivated the aura of a hidden dragon. That was probably why he had a reply guy like this.

If he particularly cared about having a reply guy like this, there was no way he would risk exposing his true self to them.

But with this guy, he found almost an impulse to do the opposite. After he had fucked up Luskonneg’s day with all this enthusiasm, why not come out to meet him with dried dribble down his unshaved lip, the smelly sweater he’d been wearing the whole week, dirty uncut nails, eyes darting, looking like he just woke up from a heroin coma.

He’d accomplish the same thing he knew he’d end up doing if someone got too close online - drive them away - and feel like he had tried something in the process. Feel something in the process. He’d have another box to fill in his imagination in the empty star chart that had been hanging, curling up and yellowing, since he moved in and his mother slapped it there.

Despite everything else about that one terrifying day, there was something about the afterimage of neon blue sky that had comforted him to come back to, to close his eyes and suspend over his screen or his food or his ceiling.

In that case, it was even more important not to tip his hand before making it out the door. Luskonneg drafted several messages with the precision of a professional email before defaulting to: sure.

at the Winding Bazaar then?

The Winding… wait.

He’d been on a field trip there once - he remembered dashing from one heating column to the next, putting his hands on each one as long as he could get away with, not paying attention to much beyond that - but he literally didn’t have a mental map of the city in his head back then, and obviously hadn’t had much need to develop one since. But… he had seen the cathedral on the horizon, so… he would have to take the local minirail to get to a main line, and then…

How long would that be? Twenty minutes? Forty?

He hadn’t been taking that into account. Having to be outside without even seeing anybody… without any reward to his fumbling… for that long… no, that wouldn’t be possible. Why hadn’t he taken that into account before even replying. Maybe there was some other way to do this, but that simply wouldn’t be possible.

He closed his eyes until it came to him:

oh man sorry I can’t make it that far. I have some kind of weird nervous thing in my legs

Would anyone believe that? It would be fairly easy to affect. He was already searching for more plausible details in another tab.

oh man - a real life sickly moe heroine! no homo. uhhhh what works for you

He didn’t think he could bear going much further than this street. There was the coffeeshop he had already gone out to - and humiliated himself at - that wasn’t ideal, but, if he went somewhere else he’d feel more pressure not to humiliate himself, and would probably humiliate himself more.

Was there anything else on this street? He hadn’t remarked last time he’d been out, and things had probably changed since his first year here. He opened the Elthazan Maps app. There was some kind of… antiques store? That was actually right next to him and he’d never noticed it. There was a bar, over on the opposite corner. That would make more sense if they were meeting up in the evening, but Llau’s evenings were all booked up. And there was an icemeat stand. A tourist might be into that, but it was usually too heavy for his palate. And an arcade, but a really normie one - Llau would know how much he fucking hated arcade games, considering he had even beefed with arcade Feed leading to one of his most memorable bans, but maybe ironically…?

The possibilities became white noise as they ran into each other. There was nothing, nothing Luskonneg hated more than that white noise. He couldn’t get anything out of it when it was there. Is that gonna be there when I try to talk to him? We’ll have so many things to talk about, and it won’t be like Feed where we just say whatever pops into our heads…

A silence that had to be filled in an instant was a silence that could stretch on forever.

Infinitesimal and infinite time were the same.

Silence and infinite screaming noise were the same.

Feed was a place he had come to - no, the whole internet was a place he had come to - because he never had to experience that silence, that noise, that time.

So until he could think again - until thought could happen to him again - he clicked away to another tab.

Hmmm, yeah, these figs for Ailurons ~Pilot Pussycats~ are not up to the standards of their old contractor. And what is this T-shirt, it looks like it was made by some 12-year-old at a walk-in screen printer? Somebody oughta tell the producers to stop stiffing collectors just to pander to phone game casuals… somebody with a whole array of sockpuppet emails for this exact purpose…

Oh yeah, didn’t they release a whole spinoff series of five-minute gag shorts I haven’t watched yet.

Wow these are bad! It’s part of the same degeneration of the franchise! Let me make an image macro comparing Catnip Soft to the decadent court of Silmenon in the fifth century of the Warring Era and post it in the general!

Refresh, refresh, refresh. Nice, this is really racking up replies. I’ll keep the momentum going by dunking on these butthurt consoomers defending their products. Maybe I should post this on Feed too…

Oh right, Feed.

Can’t think about that now.

Didn’t Caveman Girls In A Modern High School update a few days ago?…

Luskonneg had forgotten he had a thing where he couldn’t order that many energy drinks without drinking them all one after another.

Once he got into the flow of sipping something, picking it up, putting it down, noticing the dryness of his lips and responding to it automatically, he kept sipping, until there was nothing left. Normally his laziness and cheapness were all the negative feedback mechanism he needed to stop there, so it wasn’t a problem. But if he already had a whole crate of them sitting there…

He couldn’t remember how long it had been since he had slept.

His body now felt tired of having energy. The vibrations in his skin and nerves cancelled each other out. He felt leaden with static electricity, stiff and spastic at once. Almost as if he actually did have some kind of weird nervous disability.

And yet… he took another sip. Only one and a half more cans to go.

He’d read somewhere that people did actually die from this, but the possibility didn’t feel real to him - like he would be so lucky.

He couldn’t even focus on the pages of… a fucking archive of a gag manga from the decade the last Dark Lord had surfaced. How had he ended up here? Running away from something. That same scratching in his skull again.

The light on the ceiling was peach-coloured. Soft, like a jazz chord in a doujin song.

What time was it? What day was it?

His eyes flickered over to the clock in the computer screen.

Evening. The last day of the week.

Well. One more night, and he’d have officially flaked out, wouldn’t he. If he hadn’t already.

The only problem was - he didn’t have it in himself to distract himself any more.

That meant it would be a matter of counting seconds. Dead time. He sighed. Curled up. War of attrition. Which would win - boredom or fear. Fear, obviously. It always did, how else would he live like this. At this point it didn’t even feel like fear so much as spite. Spite of himself, spite of anyone else for hoping to change him.

For another strange moment, that certainty felt completely arbitrary.

Fear - white noise. Spite - white noise. He folded up an accordion of tabs to click back over to Feed, vision so overexposed with energy it felt like his eyes were closed.

you there? flickered into focus. Five hours ago.

He swallowed a bellyful of air. He still hadn’t decided what to say. But at this point, whatever he said probably wouldn’t be seen anyway.

When he tried to imagine his regret, it just felt like another dull headache.

sorry. i didn’t wanna make you come out here. if you still wanna, i’m on Dannbrenn Street between Dwyr and Gwelhon. can you decide? idk

That was closer to his true self than he’d meant to show this early, but at this point he might not have another chance.

With a movement like a warrior sweeping an ancestral sword down from its rest on the wall of a dojo, he grabbed his last energy drink can off the top of the drawer - not even finishing the half-empty one leaning dangerously against his mattress - and chugged it all in one go, then stared into the light of the window as it splintered.

He started laughing, and no sound came out.

He slept white, and woke up a few hours later.

Noise that had no power over him.

When he woke up he was staring straight into his Feed inbox. The dark of his room and the dark of his Feed theme were identical - the blue bubbles of the messages facing him floated in midair, in milky indigo sea.

no dude dw I get it

I had no idea you would even respond

and making a decision on the spot like that… well, there’s a reason I let my parents schedule most of my trips for me

even though it means I never get to go anywhere I want like maid cafes or anything

there’s a maid cafe in the Winding Bazaar, I wanted to go there with you bc I wouldn’t have to tell my parents, I could just say I was walking around

but that’s fine. my point is I’m thinking about a post you made… last year? that was something like “a silence that has to be filled in an instant is a silence that could stretch on forever"

so it’s fine for you to go quiet for a while. I get that

how about we meet at the November Thistle Cafe. right on the corner of Dwyr

see you at 1:00



hope you see this

no homo

Luskonneg jerked his half-numb hand out of his pants: at this point these no homos were getting irritating.

So was this whole situation. The back of his throat was hellishly dry and so were his tear-ducts.

This faggot had picked the single worst place to meet up. (It hadn’t obviously struck him as the worst place to meet up before this faggot had picked it, but now that he thought about it the reasons were overwhelming.) It wasn’t the same day of the week, so hopefully the same cashier wouldn’t be there, but… even if nobody recognized him, how much time would he spend just looking over his shoulder. How would he manage a conversation while trying not to have flashbacks. How would he keep his food down.

How did this faggot know what he had meant by that post. (He had forgotten he had even posted that. It hadn’t even got any likes - not even from this faggot. Coward.)

He’d show this faggot what he’d meant by that post, if it meant throwing up all over the table.

His hands hovered over the keys and felt huge and weightless like nebulae.

sure. see you then.

The morning felt heavy. (The morning meant 11:45.) He was aware of the heaviness of things. Even the light. Everything felt slow but inevitable.

Everything was trying to weigh him down but it needed to do more than that to scare him.

Despite his initial reasoning, he put a modicum of effort into presenting himself for his meetup - he brushed his teeth, for the first time in a month. (One advantage of all the bullshit in energy drinks was they basically brushed your teeth for you, if the main thing you were concerned about was your teeth feeling fuzzy on your tongue. This time he was doing it mostly just to get the taste out of his mouth.) He put on a new T-shirt - the Slina one he’d left folded for half a year at the bottom of his drawer. He wanted to show it off, but it wasn’t T-shirt weather, so he added the thin open woollen cardigan his mom had sent him for Reciprocity Day.

It took him the full hour to do everything, but that made it easier. Facing his usual thoughts felt like grinding low level enemies before a boss fight. It was a fight he was simply resigned to, with a resignation he usually only managed in games - yes, even in games he felt the needles of anxiety, but he could deal with them. A decision in a game mattered and didn’t matter at the same time, enough to resign oneself to it. This time, he was resigned because… because that guy had said he’d felt the same thing, and gone and done this anyway. He couldn’t lose to - since when could he not lose to anything? No, there was nothing he couldn’t lose to, but he had to go out and lose anyway. Or he’d lose in a part of himself he hadn’t known he could lose in.

The heat was oppressive - a few degrees above zero. The snow trypophobic if you looked at it too close. Air tingly with evaporation.

He kept his eyes on the cafe without moving them, homing in and forgetting about his body moving outside his eyesight.

When he pushed through the door there were less people than there had been last time, for obvious reasons which he had forgotten to model. After scanning the floor and not seeing any likely candidates - but then neither of them had figured out any way of identifying each other - he shuffled, almost strafed into the nearest seat by the window, leaned his head on the glass and angled his body away from anyone.

With a sudden flash of inspiration, he shifted his cardigan open so he would be identifiable by the Slina T-shirt.

A bus passed by, paused on the opposite corner, and left without any alteration to the corner.

Maybe he wouldn’t even come. That wouldn’t even be losing, that would be -

From the direction in which the bus had made its next stop, a shape was fluttering down the end of the sidewalk.

There was another advantage to living with your parents - being able to dress.

Llau de Xiau (it had to be OK to think it now, right?) was wearing a brown leather jacket with a thick fur collar over a buttoned-up robin’s-egg-blue shirt and pale blue jeans. His light brown hair was bouffant and, in the barely-after-noon sunlight, a painterly gold leaf halo hovering over his somewhat long face with a wide but rounded jaw that fit a wide smile. His eyes were slightly asymmetrical, almost squinting, but Luskonneg grimaced unconsciously at how good he looked, until he got close enough - pressing a buttery forehead up against the window - to see he hadn’t shaved very well, there were uneven spots of stubble on his cheeks and chin. (Luskonneg, on the other hand, hadn’t shaved at all.)

Llau made a couple of silly faces in the window, then closed his eyes as Luskonneg stared dully, face frozen, then buried his head in his hands and backed away from the window.

Oh come on, it’s not gonna be over this soon- not after we’ve come this far-

Why was he this surprised? Was this not what he had expected?

Then as Llau backed almost off the sidewalk, two more figures pulled up behind him. One laid a hand on his shoulder.

A tall man - genuinely tall, at least six feet - in a suit, with hair close-cropped on the sides and a kind of mullet, the same long face with bumpy, pockmarked jowls, a business suit with a purple silk bow in place of a tie. His hands were in his pockets as he leaned over Llau’s back. A woman - the one touching him - whose face and most of her gray-streaked-chestnut hair was concealed under a wide-brimmed hat, her body wrapped in a fur-rimmed white coat with pom-poms dangling from collar, sleeves, a C’harnian flag pin on her breast pocket.

Luskonneg of course recognized these.

Had they… recognized him yet?

He almost rolled backwards out of his seat, scuttling over to the counter.

The cashier blinked. He didn’t think they recognized him? But he probably looked out of his mind either way.

“I’ll have a…"

What did he have last time?

“spinach… burger…"

The door slammed open with a sweep of afternoon sun like a prison searchlight. He barely glanced over his shoulder for a split second but it was long enough.

“…you didn’t ask for his name?" Elan de Xiau was prodding incredulously at his son, who had shrunk visibly into the collar of his coat.

“I mean, it’s good you didn’t give him your name, but you should have asked for his," Har’cha de Xiau added, pulling at Llau’s elbow.

just let me handle this - Hey, was anyone here waiting for…"

Luskonneg didn’t wait for him to finish. Didn’t wait for the cashier to take his order. About a metre had now opened between Llau’s mother - the last in - and the door. He bolted around her and through the gap. (A moment of absurd accomplishment in the smoothness of his movement carried him - he felt like a kid playing Warring Era messenger again.) A soft gasp behind him as he angled his shoulder into the still-swinging door and out into the street. Some random guy stopped short to not run into him and he pivoted in the other direction. It was conveniently the direction of his apartment but he didn’t stop when he saw his door blur past him on the other side of the street.

He didn’t stop until he had made it four blocks down, the farthest he had been in… he didn’t bother to remember. He ducked into a convenience store, stumbled all the way down the narrow shelves to hide from the light of the door. The fluorescent light felt as strange as if it was night. He pressed his hand against the back wall, where glass protected a shelf of wines. His eyes lingered for longer than he would have expected on the colours of the bottles, black and auburn and sea-green, silver and platinum foil, foreign letters, wax paper rosettes. He did remember almost exactly a year and a half since alcohol - it just made him feel trapped and discarded in its fuzzy pocket, not a trap he could chart and pace like his room but numbness as obtrusive as sensation. But the temptation rose up from the back of his brain like a claw. His eyes were wide with need as he grabbed a Blood Bead Red. Sunlight blinked stupidly from the other end of the shelves. Until the cashier called out to ask if he was going to pay he stood and swayed.

And so @moephrenology disappeared from Feed for another several days after coming back from his ban (and barely posting). Despite his only having 743 followers, someone made a meme about it, implying he was too afraid to return to an argument he’d entirely forgotten about having. A comment implied that he must feel simply feel above the site by now, not bothering with the effort of coming back just to get banned again.

@Suburbophile’s messages sat in his inbox:


did you show?


not sure if that was you but man sorry

I didn’t plan for my parents to be there

they got access to my fork of the calendar somehow

they really wanted to meet you, it… might be best they didn’t?

I made up a bunch of stuff about you I was going to hope you just played along with


haha that sounds really stupid


I guess I am really stupid


now I’m worried they’ll get into my Feed

7:18 AM

I can explain more if you wanna voice call? I know we haven’t done that before either (maybe it’d make up for something?) but I just can’t put it in messages

feels like writing a book lol

He didn’t want to voice chat, he didn’t want to just give Llau the silent treatment either, but the more Llau kept piling on the harder it became to split the difference. Well, he did want to give Llau the silent treatment, humiliate him as much as he had been humiliated, but he didn’t want to lose him over that - not even as a trivial mutual. He wanted things to go back to normal without any effort.

Struck by the thought, he opened a new text post.

“Episodic shows aren’t my favourites but I wouldn’t mind my life being one, you know. Just go back to the status quo after every episode. My status quo is pretty stupid tbh but all my episodes are stupider."

Two minutes later - @Suburbophile liked your post.

Nothing more needed to be said.

Braz felt sick.

However much it might look they had gotten control of it, the cat was out of the bag. The toothpaste was out of the tube. There was no undoing entropy.

The Dark Lord’s magical powers, his raw strength, weren’t the only thing that made him the Dark Lord. The psychological manipulation of the Dark Lord had first been greenlit because even if it didn’t stop him from awakening, it might contain at least one of the things that made him dangerous. The Dark Lord commanded globe-spanning legions of selfish, fickle, unreliable Dark forces with the aid of an almost superhuman charisma. Handicapping this to the extent of allowing him to command attention even like a normal person would have been an impressive achievement, let alone what they had managed to do.

Or rather, that would have been impossible - it was possible to make him alienate people, or himself, but not to make him not attract them. Whatever balance thus achieved was irreducibly, non-linearly different from an ordinary person’s balance. They had achieved the former with such success that the latter, more or less since he moved out, was no longer a concern. When it had been, controlling him had been a much more expensive and delicate undertaking, requiring far more controlled environments, full-time actors and monitors and agents on call with hastily scrawled instructions from the [Taboo Preserver]. This had been before Braz’s time. She’d only once ever touched one of those Ninth-Coil-Sealed Post-It notes looped in green-blue glitter pen rounded and narrow with sudden crooked corners. Before she’d met Ymañn, she’d looked forward to handling those, or steadying the Preserver’s trembling voice, as the most exciting part of the job; but instead she’d found easy days, jealously guarded bleary moments, melodies half-remembered from the few unoccupied moments of sleep, drooping stubble and eye buried in dog’s haunch, brain teasers from an RSS feed. Now she’d get to experience that youthful dream and wouldn’t even be looking forward to it. Sometime in the next week she’d pull out of Crach-Houarnez to spend extra time in the tunnel-complex of the Preserver’s bunker and supervise gangstalking training maneuvers. Everyone would be buzzing with apprehensive whispers like the weekend the power had gone out, but for months, simultaneously not fully convinced the threat wouldn’t lift tomorrow and half expecting it all to end for good.

It wouldn’t be over soon, but she would have to tell herself it would be over.

Because that man was coming back. That someone with such a loyalty built up over a simple Feed follow hadn’t been screened until he was in Luskonneg’s DMs was already a major failure. They hadn’t broken feelings like that in a single incident. And Luskonneg’s loneliness… what if he started to feel it as loneliness again?