CW: depression, executive dysfunction, masturbation, childhood punishment (isolation), insects (cockroaches), self-hatred, self-harm, religion, OCD thought patterns, glossolalia, public humiliation, sister complex, targeted online harassment, suicidal ideation, violence

Since the almost-meeting with Llau, Luskonneg had added a new and uncomfortable feeling to his never-ending rotation of weirdly specific affects, like a library of rare cartoon sound effects on shuffle, to distract himself from.

He wanted a snack he couldn’t get from his mold-speckled cupboard, or even order online.

He had checked, of course - the first time it had struck him like a miracle, an opportunity to make one of those small, momentarily delicious changes to his routine by which he could feel time inch forward - but the cafe he’d now stopped in twice, and gazed across the magiglass display case twice, and eaten from only a tantalizing once of those two times, did not do delivery. Somewhere he had read that Winter City served less delivery than any other city in its Ecclesiastic category; it couldn’t support the bikes and trams that brought food to people in unfamiliar locations, but its spiderweb-thorough and magically heated public transit reliably brought people to food in familiar ones. Long ago he had tried to affect some civic pride, but he couldn’t pretend to any more.

Now that there was no way to get it, the resentment that he couldn’t go outside - which he hadn’t felt for almost a year and a half - had something to piggyback on, and its independent cycles made the original hunger easier to notice and harder to get rid of.

He would suddenly drift back into memories of being young and grounded in his room for the first time, and it would feel like his life since then had been a dream. Thinking he would be in that room forever, like he predicted when his mom forgot to tell him when to come out.

She came for him, after supper when the inside of the window was beginning to shine with the reflections of the light inside, closing him off from even that narrow view like a wound scabbing over, and he had refused to go, insisting it was a trick. He hadn’t come out until the next morning, when everything was so much the same he could pretend it hadn’t happened, except a haunted, relinquished look in his mother’s eyes.

One of a few victories he had won against her, and every one cut off a piece of his humanity he couldn’t even remember what it felt like to have afterwards.

There was something calming about imagining himself as an armless, legless charred lump, unable to move. It made the hunger for distant food - and for movement itself - pass easier.

Because it was that, too, wasn’t it. After confirming that the place - November Thistle, he knew the name by heart now even though he hadn’t noticed it either time he went in - didn’t do delivery he had looked for equivalents to everything on their menu. He had only had the burger the first time, but he’d been planning to get something else - maybe the chocolate matcha cornet, he couldn’t remember why that had freaked him out so much now. Chocolate matcha cornets you could order in a cardboard dessert box that would give you like a dozen of them, all wrapped up in plastic packages. Cornets, of course, did not last very well in packaging; these would be a lot softer and less flaky. So he searched other local bakeries, cafes; there were quite a number of chocolate cornets, even a white chocolate one, and a caramel, but the matcha seemed to be a local specialty.

This morning he had caved and ordered one of the white chocolate ones from Grony’Brou, a somewhat famous patisserie downtown he might even have visited on a field trip as a kid, with an immediately recognizable facade of thin, airy white plaster arches. It had looked delicious on their site; vanilla-sugar-dusted, sealed off at the open end with a glaze. It had been dropped off shortly after 11:00 in a little paper box with silver foil illumination in the shape of frost patterns. If he made a habit of things like this it would maybe almost feel like living in a city.

But then, it could backfire.

The box had sat undisturbed next to his pillow for the last three hours.

A roach was perched on it, not even moving but wiggling its antennae teasingly like one of the bridge drone girls in their jumpsuits in the Galactic Hive Wars ED.

Well that was what he got for looking at something in the room that closely for that long. He flicked them off if they tried to get on his keyboard – he could snap them all the way across the room like a catapult, it had been fun when he was first getting good at it – and sprayed them furiously if they crawled on any of his most important posters. If he was staring at the ceiling he could sometimes watch them move over it and pretend they were spaceships on a white void. The rest of the time, he didn’t have any reason to look at them. They lived here more than he did. They cared more about the walls, the floorboards, the shadows; the discarded cans and crushed paper cups; the crumbs hardened to mineral; the origami tissues; the shining slivers of torn packages. These were a world to them; to him they were the ever-shifting curtains of his world, the screen; a permanent blur of brown and grey, an abyss above and below the patchwork pantheon of posters.

But then, wasn’t that what a world to a cockroach was? The antennae wiggling as it poked its head over the edge of the box and then retreated, unable to map whatever smell it was tracing to space. Until he opened it, of course. All this room was to them was a blur of different food-signals, a boring phone game with overlapping clouds instead of pixels. Even the posters meant nothing to them. The screen itself, worlds within worlds within worlds, just a square of light. The pastry in the box – maybe that was special. It was at least a flavour they didn’t get often, might have never detected in their lives. (They? Was this one even aware of others outside itself? Or did they have a hive mind or something? He knew absolutely nothing about actual insect cognition. Maybe he would look it up when he wasn’t staring this one down – right now it would just be uncomfortable.) But it couldn’t understand everything he had imagined while hovering his cursor over the image on the order page – the texture, the way the hard flakes would slip onto his tongue and crack before his teeth sank into the soft buttery warmth, the cracking and melting of the icing, the way it would coat the roof of his mouth for minutes or an hour afterwards, the fear he had of it being disappointing, the fear of the hours without another one, the memory he was using it to replace.

Staring at it, watching its antennae prod at the prize it was too stupid to appreciate or get at, but he was too scared, Luskonneg felt his superiority as a human in a way he never had before. The mere awareness of it – was that why people hated cockroaches so much they went to such lengths to keep them out? (His mother had hired an exterminator the last time she had visited – two years ago – and after the exterminator had made him stand outside for two hours, which he’d refused to spend more than a few feet from the door of the building, shuffling and staring at the meme folder on his disconnected phone, he’d screamed at her to never do that again until she disappeared behind the tram door without a word.) Not to mention ants, earwigs, beetles, the other insects he saw occasionally or in seasonal surges – ones he couldn’t identify even with the Bugspotter app on his phone.

No sooner could he think this than he had to recoil from the thought. If that was what made a roach worthless, after all, what did it make him? An intrepid navigator on the wired, perhaps, but his own room, the claim disputed between him and the roaches, was nothing to him that it wasn’t to them, this grey nebula where he couldn’t let his gaze focus anywhere for too long without it feeling like pressing his palm against a rusty blade, cloudburst by needs that he felt and fulfilled and forgot in moments.

There were things that were disgusting about roaches that weren’t about him, at least. Roaches moved, endlessly, pointlessly, itching at any arrangement of space, a tedious 3D distraction like sweat or touch. But then, if he compared himself to the other things surrounding him - the posters, the shoes with their soles mostly peeled off, the ramune bottle with the broken neck, the spilled constellation of lime-mint candies, the fanning spread of character postcards from Sunny Heartbeat Antidepressant Witches, the plastic pieces of a self-assembly office chair he’d given up on, translucent bug corpses - this calendar of fossils, these things that never moved - what was the point of all these movements he made anyway? Sitting up, lying down - scratching his ballsack - balling up a shirt and throwing it in a corner and replacing it with one that smelled more like dust than body again - flicking an empty beer can back and forth against his mattress - slamming his laptop shut to recover from a Feed argument - what was the difference between that and a roach that didn’t know how to enter a box twitching its antennae for no reason?

His finger hovered. All he had to do was flick it away, forget this pointless series of existential musings, and enjoy his croissant. Before he didn’t. Or something else got it.

He flipped the paper lid up.

There it was. He paused to take it in. The chocolate didn’t… shine as much as on the website photo, but it had melted and reformed into bulbous chipped waxy shapes along the edges, while over the rolls of the croissant it was consistent and delicate. It was so small. He couldn’t zoom in on it. The sugar dusting had a sort of gritty pockmark look where it stuck into the icing. He reached out -

And the cockroach had fallen right on top of it, popping up and down no less confused than before.

Something roared through him like a jet engine.

The next thing he knew he was leaning back on his wrists, with one foot out, trembling in its half-off sock, having kicked it to the other side of the room, where the box spun off a (tall, open, mostly-empty) bottle of milk tea and deposited the croissant on top of a pile of dirty socks.

The cockroach emerged from the pile of socks and scurried unbothered up the wall.

So did another.

Luskonneg gritted his teeth.

He didn’t know how to cry - at least not anymore. He hadn’t since Grade 9, when he’d resolved to condition himself out of the humiliating habit with a razor blade, and the crying just stopped on its own as soon as he realized how boring that was. (The scars where no one including himself would ever see them, across his diaphragm, which he already hated how it stuck out like a starving child’s.)

Right now, that block felt like a kidney stone.

He covered his head in his grey, stained, threadbare blankets to retreat from existence, forget that any of the elements of what had just happened existed in relation to each other, and instead it just felt like his empty mouth had become a cavern around his body.

But if he came out, any encounter with the cockroach, any cockroach, would feel as terrifying as if it was his own size and bearing down on him, as if he had been turned into one, as if it was the himself that had been turned into one.

The edge of the blanket had fallen past the edge of his mattress, over the crushed berry-milk bottle. What could be hiding under there? He grabbed it, shoved it through the blanket into the outer chaos.

(As if he was the Goddess, surrounded by the Serpent. But he didn’t know how to dance. So he didn’t know how to parry its advances nor lead it in harmonious movement. The Serpent would be violating him aimlessly in every orifice if any part of it was allowed to poke the slightest dark hole through the phosphorescent curtain of the heavens.)

A blasphemous image he was strangely sure he had imagined once as a child, in church hearing the Cosmogonic Quatrains of Yama Maya, and been filled with a fear and pleasure so deeply intertwined he held in vomit until the end of the service.)

Nothing, except two-thirds of the circular wrapper of a sucker, and a pen cap, which he was pretty sure he had been given in high school.

And a pile of aromatic brown grit. What was that?

He faintly remembered brushing it off his skin when he woke up - dragging a pile of it in a crescent with the pen whose cap was all he would ever find again.

He had gone through this routine about three times. (Once, since, without his mother - without telling her a word.) But things had been too weird lately to allow that again. He would probably just let it go.

Until when?

Was he happy? He didn’t think of himself as happy - he wasn’t happy - but he couldn’t imagine himself as happy living any way other than this.

The more he stayed under the covers, though, the more he found his eyes darting to every shift in the light - was there one in here? - why was he suddenly scared of a thing he had learned to live with? - why was he suddenly living with a scary thing? - if there was a scary thing, even in here, there was nowhere to hide now. It would all come crashing in until it compressed him into a spiky ball of meat. This was the first wave of the final invasion. This world that had been created to torment him would tickle him to death.

There would be no ‘inside’ except the inside of his own body any more.

And because he had dared to invite… ‘outside’ in here. He had broken his one and only taboo.

(He had the sudden awareness that if he combed this space from top to bottom, cubic inch by cubic inch, which wouldn’t even be a bigger waste of time than half the things he did, he would find everything he had ever lost in the past five years.

Nothing was ever lost in here - wasn’t that what he’d wanted in the first place? And yet he knew he could never catalogue this space that thoroughly, or something he needed would be lost about it - he needed endlessness, he needed to lose things, too.)

In that case, what would be so different if he did go outside?

Maybe that was all he had to do. Maybe if this was punishment, it was just for being so silly about this for so long. Since when could he literally not go outside? He’d never made a taboo. He just… hadn’t. In- well, a little less than a week now.

Since that first time, when he had gone out to that restaurant, it had been two years and six months and -

Huh. Since he had last tabulated the number, he had forgotten. He had never missed it before, and immediately lost track.

It felt like he was in a clearing of light. He wondered for a second whether he was dissociating again - or was this the opposite of that?

Could he trust himself in this state?

Light that corroded people’s souls and made them feel compelled to construct an alien fractal as if it was the dictate of their own moral conscience - that was the premise of another one of Shunny Naïjda’s masterpieces, Shadow Rangers Kliphot.

Squeeze, squeeze your eyes shut, until it felt like darkness again-

But now, with a sudden self-consciousness he heard in his mother’s voice for the first time in maybe longer than since he’d left the room, he was being ridiculous.

Nothing was stopping him from leaving his room. Why did he feel, day in and day out, like there was some force field around him? There was nothing he wanted to do out there, and nothing for him out there, no work, and no friends, and a million stressors worse than the occasional roach or dragging the occasional stinking black bag of garbage to the chute at the back of the hallway. So that would be enough - he wouldn’t start living suddenly. He would just walk three or four houses down the street, pop into the cafe, buy a… matcha cornet, because there was no reason he couldn’t buy a matcha cornet either, and walk back home, and not throw out the one he’d wasted for another three days because he still didn’t want to think about any of it.

His room around him, as he stood up, the blanket falling like a molted shell around his ankles, still in his PJs, but he wasn’t going to change before leaving either, just to prove a point to himself, felt like an illusion, part of a map in a video game.

He couldn’t stop playing, couldn’t wake up from the illusion, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t do things it let him and enjoy it.

In refusing to get changed, Luskonneg almost forgot his wallet, which he doubled back from the half-open door to dig out of the last pair of pants he had chained it to (no, not those ones - not those ones - ohhh, those stink). His PJ pants had pockets but its weight would probably drag them down enough to reveal his ass crack, so he just clutched it in his left hand, knuckles flexing against the fraying leather. (His PJ pants were covered in chibi faces of a girl from a show he didn’t even like any more sticking out her tongue, one unrolling right to the edge of his fly opening, but there were too many identical ones for it to be obviously lascivious. His oversized shirt draped almost a foot past his crotch anyway.)

He focused on nothing but the light at the end of the hallway.

Fine, let it corrode my soul.

Luskonneg was swaying gently from side to side at the cash register, but otherwise not acting strange, as far as he could tell.

“Sorry,” he apologized quickly before speaking,for treating this space for real people as part of his video game world. In fact the second he had walked in the sense of irreality had dissipated and he was still pretending it hadn’t - the mere gazes of the half dozen people inside, only one or two on him, had a solidity no object in his room had. Moving felt like hacking through underbrush. Yet pretending was working, and he was doing it with the same dissociative calm. “Sorry, can I have a, uhhhh… ch-choco… chocola… chuck-” (why did he keep going back to the beginning of the word. he wanted to get one through perfectly but was just making it worse.) “chocula- um- can I - can I uhhh -“

“Chocolate matcha cornet.” The cashier’s eyelids didn’t budge.

He nodded enthusiastically, mouth sealed like a plastic bag, eyes garrotted by laugh lines, scanning as much as he could the soft-green cursive-font letters behind the glass for proof there was nothing else he could have been starting to say.

There were, in fact, at least two other choco-chuck-chocula products behind the display glass and that wasn’t counting the choc-board swaying above, different sized loops strung cryptically across a nebula of eraser smears. Maybe the matcha cornet is just the most popular product here or something. But he could feel a familiar static around him now. Something told him he had to get out of sight.

He whipped around and pulled up his shirt around his ears, narrowing the lens of his vision to the free table he had identified, and once he pulled up a seat let it bore into the grain of the wood.

He suppressed the spiralling implications of what had just happened by using the grain of the wood as razors on his eyes.

He got absorbed in it long enough he didn’t even leave before the cornet came. He reached out for it without looking before the server had pulled his hand away and in his startled recoil he caught the exasperation and disgust in the boy’s face.

What was he? Outside, in physical space, he felt like some kind of big floppy anemone, some tumbleweed rolling through the world. He didn’t feel fully animate.

But as he sucked his breath in and out, his hunger came roaring back.

He fell on the cornet. His hands tensed to crush the whipped cream out of it as he bit down and he didn’t care. Its flavour raced around the inside of his mouth like a fire in a million shades. His eyes were closed. He ran his tongue through his stubble to clean up anything he missed.

It was probably better than the other one. But this didn’t relieve the longing for the other one. The ‘probably’ nagged at him. He wanted them to compare. And what if one didn’t make the other redundant in either direction? What if they were both good in irreducible ways? What if every single cornet was good in an irreducible way? What if he was immeasurably wasting his life in every second he didn’t spend eating cornets -

Oh for crying out loud, this was philosophy class in high school.

Why was he back in philosophy class in high school? Why was the skylight above strobing with those magic crystal ceiling lights -

He blinked.

A correction.

The light was different.

Softer - decayed.

Had none of this happened? Giddy with relief, he speculated how far he could unroll events, attempting to reconstruct them as he did.

His mouth was mushed into the unrolled remains of the end of the cornet, which was now soft with drool.

The noise was different - a family, with kids, was talking loudly somewhere on the balcony between him and the (now amber) skylight.

Never mind. Blacking out from overstimulation was a completely normal thing that happened to him, so unremarkable that he simply hadn’t considered the possibility of happening here.

(Online, it gave him a sort of mystique as if he actually did have a social life of some inscrutable kind for all his relatable complaints about isolation - dropping out of an argument for six hours, returning with “sorry, afk” as if nothing had happened.)

In fact, it had happened there (in high school), too.

He now recognized the distinct impression of having gone through several loops of the flashback that had been vexing him in his dreams, none of them productive, until he had simply exhausted himself awake.

He scraped flecks of lotus whipped cream out of his whiskers with the side of his finger and debated whether to eat the rest of the cornet.

He felt he didn’t need to leave here with a complete success - almost, that it would be wrong to, or to pretend he had.

He stood up. Somebody at the cash turned - a woman with beaten bronze features, hair pulled back in a twist of braids - and startled at him. He had been here so long they had changed shifts! Did she even recognize him - from the Feed page or when he had come in?

“Hey do you want anything else?”

He said nothing as his mouth began to twitch and his face began to redden. He pulled his shirt collar up around his nose. A clump of icing shook down from the curve of his ear onto his collarbone. Being a cryptid, at least, gave him some framework for interacting with this space without the pressures of being a human.

A giant roach.

Of course the normies who ran and frequented this cafe, at least, should have the wherewithal to call an exterminator.

Luskonneg stepped out into a sudden wet squall of snow - the sky flashing slick blue-silver behind the rooftops - the frayed hem of his shirt strafing his bellybutton. He hadn’t even thought about the weather when he had come here. The short distance, the exertion of steps and the weight of thoughts had been on the way enough to completely drown out any sensation of temperature. As soon as it had even the slightest advantage over his attention, however, it set in like a mania.

He ducked back in, leaning on the doors as he held them shut, screwing up his eyes, trying to tense himself out of existence.

“Hey do you need a coat or something?” The cashier leaned on the glass. “There’s one in the kitchen someone left here before they left a job and we haven’t found anything to do with it.”

He had now relied on others’ kindness two out of three times he had been here. What was happening? Nobody would ever have let him get away with this in elementary, or middle, or high school. And none of the people, nothing of the world outside had changed. From his digital window that much was abundantly clear. On Feed a third of his follows were random normies, just to give him a clear and accurate image of the social world outside his room - with screenshots - to complain about. So if the laws of the universe were capable of changing on him, they were not laws at all but an agential will changing deliberately. The Serpent was in fact the Goddess - or was the Goddess in fact the Serpent? There were conditions to their behaviour, but not conditions he could manipulate, because the complete humiliation of his attempts to manipulate, or even negotiate with them was the primary condition.

He swung around on a torn heel, leaning as much forward as he had when he was leaning on the door.

“Why do you want to give me a coat.”

Luskonneg, shirt no longer hiding his face, smirked from under his hanging bangs, over his exposed collarbone - as if he had just exposed them.

“…because you’re gonna be cold?”

“And how does my being cold or not affect you?”

The whole store was staring now. A middle-school-aged girl leaning over the back of the chair of the matriarch at the family table struggling with their camera. “… it doesn’t? You can be cold if you want? But it doesn’t affect me to lose that coat either.”

“There is no neutral, arbitrary action! Everything is directed by interest, in one direction or another!” Would anyone here know he was quoting Shadow Rangers Kliphot? “From this rhetorical dishonesty alone, I can tell how ashamed you must be of your ulterior motives.” He turned back and slammed the doors open.

The cold caught him in a vice grip.

How had he not noticed it when he walked out here? How was he noticing it so much now? These spontaneous inconsistencies in the sensitivity of his physical senses had always been a thing - thinking back to that philosophy class, how he’d had to be moved from a seat next to the radiator because the way it moved the air distracted him too much to finish tests, only to be called into the office and accused of faking it because the same didn’t happen with a fan in another room that he hadn’t even noticed existed for five months.

He pulled the doors closed again reflexively. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t accept the coat after what he had just said. But it wasn’t going to get any warmer. Even if the snow stopped. The sun would be setting in about an hour, two? Its light was already smearing the sky.

The sky through the wide glass doors was too much to look at. He couldn’t look away and couldn’t think while looking at it. It contained all the cold and all the stares and questions and sweet things. It was like a whole other internet of light he couldn’t access mocking him.

He slumped down against the wall in the antechamber between the doors, put his head in his arms until the grey of close shadow took him and pretended not to exist.

The door pushed against him as someone tried to enter.

Why didn’t it shatter and completely destroy him. He wanted it to hurt. It clearly wanted to hurt him.

Why didn’t he go out in the cold if he wanted to be hurt. That was a different hurt. A hurt that was indifferent, incomprehensible to him.

It wasn’t so much a hurt as an impossibility. Himself freezing up. Overloaded by the sky. A webpage loading.

Overdose. Shutdown. If he opened his eyes, he didn’t know if he would see anything.

No, he knew he would see the same world, as if he was stuck on a loading screen. He was trying to click out and it wasn’t going anywhere.

The door pushed into him again, deliberately this time like he’d wanted, and surprise, he didn’t want that either. “Hey. Get up. Pain in the ass.”

“Just let me wait. Just give me time to wait.” Was waiting something people didn’t do in the normal world? How did anyone get through the day without doing it? Ever? It seemed as absurd as never eating or masturbating.

“Hey, are you OK? Should we get someone?”

The good cop-bad cop voices filtered down from above.

Get someone. The ultimate solution. No longer relying on others’ kindness, simply their sense of necessity. Being plowed away like a snowbank. It had happened to him a few times before. Each time it had felt reassuring in the moment but he had sworn it would never happen again.

He would simply accept it like the light moving in and out of his room. Nothing around him was human. It couldn’t hurt him. Geological forces moving. It would happen with or without him. He would never have to do anything again. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, and opened -

Not Feed. What it someone saw that and connected him to his account. Human again.

In fact, if someone came, and connected him to his mom -

He looked up.

He didn’t realize until he did that he had recognized that voice. He somehow had just assumed anyone who talked to him would have the same voice, like it was the default selection in a computer voice bank.

What he recognized, though, he hadn’t even noticed the first time. The cloud of taupish hair. A cloud, not only in that it billowed out - not on top but as it floated down around the shoulders, blending with the rough white-and-black fur of a coat collar - but in that he couldn’t seem to make out where it ended, its soft tips keeping almost static distance and spreading out together into a vague, rounded halo, an edge made only of light.

The face itself flinched away into its own shadow the second his eyes made contact.

The shadow of the nose, surprisingly harsh, almost hooked - but he had only been focusing on its texture back then.

The woman who had paid his bill the first time he had come here turned away and pushed the doors open.

Laughter rose up from somewhere.

He swivelled his phone around. He couldn’t let her just disappear. Why had he come out here, this was the world where anything and anyone could just disappear, where everything disappeared as soon as it started to matter to him, the world constantly playing a game of fort-da where nothing ever came back, and at the same time the sun and the snow and the cold floor and the laughter wouldn’t disappear no matter how much he wanted them to - but he didn’t belong to that world, he belonged to the world where you could save things and get them back whenever you wanted, and close the window and make them disappear. He had only come out here because that world wasn’t working to let him order a fucking glazed croissant -

His phone disappeared from his hand.

He had never even thought to download a safety app - there were ones that magically generated a three-dimensional model of your surroundings in a five-foot radius, ones that emitted a stunning curse - he, the last person who would ever need one. And of course it wasn’t his laptop. If he were to somehow make it home, without any tether in the world he belonged to… but then it would still be gone. He stood up. How long after receiving it had he stopped resenting the phone’s existence as a redundancy? It had only been meant to replace his laptop when he did… what, this? Even his mother knew he wasn’t going to start doing things like this regularly. But he had come to find it useful in the same sense as a redundant set of arms. It let him scroll in places, positions where the laptop would be hard to position comfortably. He used it to fire off posts and comments while watching something on his full screen. He had whole separate accounts on it he used to evade bans. All in all, it had come to be trivially his second most precious possession. The only one even in the same category as his first. His laptop’s doting little sister. Like one of those little sister characters that woke him up in the morning when he was too sleepy to open the laptop, to focus his eyes through the slant of light shadowing the screen and making the galaxies of dust stand out. And there, a vortex of numbness in his agony, an agony that belonged to neither world, that hand was tearing her away like a stranger in the market. What hand. Whose hand. Who would dare. But there was a hand. A shadow over him. No - a silhouette under him, as he stood up, swayed. A few inches shorter than him, and that was enough to feel like he was looking down from a skyscraper. To be honest, he wasn’t sure she was even awake; he hadn’t charged her in days. But wasn’t she adorable, always sleeping like that?… He forced his hand down from the ether of dissociation into pulsing green-white nauseous hellfire and reached out; hit skin, hair, follicle, pore, bone. What did the hand look like. What had taken her from him. Pale, more disgustingly pored and haired than the woman had ever been, like some fucked up medicinal plant in a sidebar ad, with painted fingernails, iridescent purple. He hadn’t cut his own fingernails in over a week. He hadn’t dug the dried cum, the cockroach shit out of them. He dug in, pulled, until he heard a yelp, and felt a pull that almost sent him reeling off balance. Another disgusting pale hand slammed into his shoulder and re-balanced him. Now the hair was coming into view - yellow and red, that same hero cut from earlier. He was pivoted and pressed back against the wall.

“What’s your problem. Yeah no shit we know you, that chocolate matcha cornet video from last time got us on Punkin Patch. Do you know the kind of obnoxious customers we have to keep out when a video is on Punkin Patch.”

Punkin… he was on Punkin Patch? Of all the weeks to not check it! He hadn’t been on since he had found Seer In The Half-Light’s page, still too shaken from his own reaction to dig deeper and see if they had any entries on there, but knowing he would if he gave himself the chance. The infamous website had started as a sort of online Klauxion’s Funniest Home Videos until it had specialized into something more like an informal, anonymous intelligence network keeping tabs on the most mundane details of anyone they found funny - embarrassing - cringe. At least that was the official story. An aficionado of online mysteries like Luskonneg, of course, had in his time stumbled across at least one of the vanishing download links to the site’s original baffling repository of information on the life of a single ur-lolcow, concentration gaming obsessive Kogoe Paunkin, which had been wiped by the government following Punkin’s suicide almost forty years ago.

“Going in there and scaring people when everyone knows the Dark is more active than it’s been in a lifetime. You think our regulars need that. Thinking someone is trying to put a curse on them.”

Luskonneg reeled. That was it. He would never attempt this experiment again. This was the most rapid and total humiliation yet - an indisputable sign from the Goddess he’d long ago decided not to believe in rather than feel so humiliated by. (The way Elphantom was humiliated in that Seer In The Half Light’s analysis… so was it true, then? Could people be - this was a heresy, he couldn’t remember which one, they had a disclaimer about it in every other article - Dark against their will?)

Its namesake had not been the only suicide to its reputation, but the government had never gone after Punkin Patch like that again, letting it do what it had originally done on an unforeseen scale, a scale it had grown to partly thanks to its brief sanitized period. Luskonneg had no doubt this wasn’t an oversight. The government was happy to let them do what they did - it only bothered the kinds of people who might make problems for them - including, famously, Dark sympathizers before they did anything seriously illegal. At that point the admins strictly complied with their obligation to report to authorities - authorities who would have never otherwise noticed many of these isolated, random actors. As to why they had gone to so much trouble to erase Kogoe Paunkin and what had happened to him - a thousand-page archive Luskonneg had yet to essay in full - he could read about theories all night.

The kid grabbed his shirt collar and pushed him up against the glass. Luskonneg didn’t move. The cold was like going underwater. He was envisioning reaching out and tearing this kid’s ears off, pulling his jaws open, dragging his crushed eyes across his teeth. He was also envisioning the same happening to him - a massive crowd descending on his Dark body like crows.

“No really. What is it? What’s my problem?”

The kid’s grey eyes were like molten metal being churned in some immense factory process. “I don’t care, you can’t film people in here! You know there are shapeshifters out there collecting biometrics to steal people’s identities now!”

“But you’re telling me someone did it to me!”

“Well, maybe they looked like they knew how to be human doing it!”

…ahhh. So they didn’t think he was a cultist, they thought he was something pretending to be human.

Come to think of it, he’d seen some headlines about shapeshifter alerts in Kamann.

“Hah. So you normies are feeling it for the first time, huh.”

“…feeling what?”

“Not knowing if anyone you see can be trusted. Not knowing how or what they’re thinking. Not knowing if they even are thinking, the same way as you are. Reconstructing them from scratch with every new piece of information. Even if they do everything you expect, knowing they might just be waiting for a chance to hurt you. Not knowing why they would hurt you, or if there needs to be a reason. That must be almost as bad for you normies as losing internet for a few days was for me, huh? I’m not Dark, but I can almost see the fun of it if it makes you people seethe like this. Of course then it makes me hate them even more, because it just makes you feel special for something I’ve gone through every day of my life. Since I knew other humans existed, since I knew their faces looked like mine. Goddess, I’m on a roll today. It would be trivial to post something like this, but I didn’t know it could just come out of my mouth too. Unless… uhhhhh… uhhhhhhhhhh

The boy’s face was twitching with confusion as Luskonneg redirected his focus from the construction of words to the sound of his voice and realized nothing was coming out. Nothing had been coming out - how far back? “uhhhhhh…. uhhhhhhhhhhhh…” a strangled moaning. Like the Unwilling Vowed in The Tongueless Monastery (a classic of Silmenon religious exploitation, its battle with the censors opened up the entire doujin field after it…)

That was it. People were staring staring. The city guards had to have been called minutes ago.

They would come to his place, even if he managed to stagger back across the street. They would contact his mother.

Was there some easy way he could die before they did?

Whether he was hurting them, or they were hurting him - there was no way to resolve that besides not thinking about it any more. That meant either dying or getting his phone back.

He still had a survival instinct, huh.

He pulled back on the wrist holding it, fingernails digging in until they drew blood. But it didn’t move.

He wasn’t sure if he was moving his own arm. Nothing was connected. How could it be without his phone? Without the internet?

What connected anything in this world? Pain.

It didn’t count. He hadn’t even felt it. But the panic in the kid’s eyes counted. It was stabbing him with a million memories of eyes that had stabbed him. Eyes hurt more than hands.

Pain was the most unique thing you could do in this world. Well, he knew everything anyone needed to know about how to hurt people in the other - he hadn’t calculated it yet like he’d been meaning to do, but he was pretty sure he could troll any random stranger with almost 80% efficacy, judging by replies and subFeeds after people blocked him - but there was always a guessing game, like there was in all words, he was good at it and that was why he was good at guessing, but a guessing game never gave the satisfaction of a fist to the face-

which somehow never gave quite the satisfaction he wanted, either, because despite his most obnoxious years as a kid (5-10) he’d barely ever gotten it himself, and the couple times he had felt like he’d somehow missed it.

No point, not worth the -

How much worse could this situation get?

He tried to imagine the future, and he couldn’t. He was already suspended over a precipice.

Multiple people were bumbling up now from their tables and dusty light, indistinguishable, like a forest moving.

Luskonneg pulled on the hand with the phone fast and hard enough to drag his assailant off balance, staggering suddenly towards the glass he was leaning against - still holding the phone out of reach even as his other hand stabilized him against the wall of the magiglass antechamber - he was real he was real oh god he had to explode stop being real he would kill himself as soon as he got the phone back and could say good-bye to her -

The boy’s weight fell away backwards from where Luskonneg was lifting his own shoulders into it, and he stumbled forward into a curt sweep of wind as the door swung open, his assailant’s shoulders first, then the hand of someone whose other had grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him half tripping over himself into the door’s loading window of light.

The stiff ribbons of a cheap C’harnian headdress, like one you’d get at a tourist trap except with ultramodern lace styling and subculture pastel accents suggesting an actual designer, maybe from a street market, floated in front of him, holding her frizzy bronze hair behind her head. The almost blue darkness of her skin and sharp-slanted blue-green eyes suggested an origin in the archipelago of Klauxion. Less determined by what Luskonneg understood of the phenotype from endless ethnic banter threads, she was short enough that she couldn’t have clotheslined the boy across the neck, as he now gathered she had, with her leather-booted feet less than a foot off the ground. As he fell into the street he found himself facing her (she had turned around)…. jaw broad and square, a black-flashing gap between her front teeth, laughing eyes closed. He instantly memorized the character design.

They both fell halfway to their knees to be pulled up by their own collars in her hands, heads hanging parallel to hers.

“Who the hell are” - the boy stuttered as she let him go and he pulled away. His phone! Where was his phone? Luskonneg saw it clutched in the hand that had just let go, held at full length away from him.

“Journalist, crown accredited. Do you want your face in my story?” She flashed a camera in her other hand.

“What story - could you possibly write - about this?” His words muffled as he shielded his face and backed up the pavement, his jacket - some white, stiff, reflective hypebeast shit - dragging off his wrist as he pulled away. He didn’t even grab back as it fell into the journalist’s loose hand.

Crown-accredited (accredited, by extension, by everything else) journalists were powerful - their vows to the Ecclesia and Alliance gave them similar privileges to military, municipal guards and clerics, though they were simultaneously considered civilians insofar as their loyalty was assured by boards of censors outside their own professional bodies which had arisen independently. They could invoke a number of legal exceptions in the explicit pursuit of an approved story, but - there couldn’t possibly be one here. The boy was just scared.

Of this tiny woman’s physical presence. Luskonneg was too.

“Tell me where to drag you,” she said as she turned to Luskonneg with a predatory, yet dignified smile, like if a hawk could soften the set of its beak. “I won’t write anything you don’t want me to write. The story isn’t about... what happened back there, per se.”

He let his legs fall into a walk cycle as if she wasn’t there and dragged himself - the streetcar too far off when his boots clicked on the ice-black metal to get himself run over - across to his side of the street, but suddenly realized in that same blink of distant emptiness that she still assumed for some reason he was going the wrong way, and he had never gone further up the street than November Thistle. A tangerine tear in the mattress-fluff of the sky - he was heading West, the sunset changing something of the character of the light on each new block he squinted at ahead.

Something weighed on his back. Her shadow? - she had fallen behind him - but he was facing the sun - did he not even remember how shadows worked. It was the coat.

A texture so different from anything he had ever felt he didn’t know how he would describe it when he talked to himself. Like wireframe folding around his shoulders.

Her Marque wouldn’t give him any right to keep it. If the owner went looking for it, went to the guards, explained what happened… He remembered he did have a coat, at the bottom of a bin he hadn’t opened in years, and had been throwing things into. If there were roaches, that was probably one of the places they were, gnawing and fucking and laying eggs and dying and piling up on top of each other with nothing to show for it.

He knew he couldn’t stay out here forever. Eventually he would have to turn back and reveal his deception. He didn’t have what it took to be homeless. There were almost no true homeless people in Winter City; there were free state hostels just up north where the river met the main metro line. Only a few dedicated schizos made a point of avoiding being dragged off there, usually LARPing as itinerant prophets from the Warring Age or something. He wasn’t one of those any more than he was a Dark cultist. He wasn’t cut out for the hostels either, with their loud canteens, shared bathrooms at the end of an echoing hall, inescapable blank plaster walls. Of course it had occurred to him once or twice.

But he wanted to get something out of this excursion. A glimpse of something new. It had been so long since he had seen light like this. In waves over everything, a sculpted mesh. And what was she. This character broken into reality, this walking tear in the border of his world, a worse collapse than the cockroach, inside and outside now feeding back into each other. “Who are you. What do you want from me.”

He waited to hear if his voice would be intelligible.

Her head turned.

“I mean it kind of was because of whatever happened back there, but I don’t mean that story is newsworthy in itself, don’t worry. People will forget about it, except maybe that guy, but he has his own problems, probably.” Her voice was short-breathed and staccato with excitement in a way that reminded him of eroge voice acting but not because the comparison was particularly close, just nothing else he could remember hearing was closer. “I’m a freelance journalist. Culture journalist. I do... human interest stories, but like serious ones. I uhhh… I have this Royal Marque, investigative degree from Yn Dahh’t journalistic monastery, twelfth degree theological clearance, but it hasn’t gotten me work yet, and I guess my journeyman pay’s gonna run out soon.” Crown-accredited and on journeyman pay? Luskonneg didn’t know much about how any institution or career path worked, but he knew this was weird. “I saw you on… well you heard, didn’t you. Punkin.”

He started hitting himself in the middle of the road, and she kept walking as if he wasn’t, so he followed.

“No, it’s not like there’s a lot of us there. Not enough, in my opinion. That’s what I’m trying to prove, I guess, and haven’t found a way to. Y’know, this is a peaceful era. People talk about the Dark Cold War or whatever, but that’s made up by the media, by culture journalists like me, to convince people anything’s happening, that they’re still part of some sort of narrative, and I don’t wanna play that game. I think people need to face the reality of this boring, stagnant world they live in, but I need a story that’s interesting to show that, and it needs to be something the government will approve of. So I lurk Punkin, and try to talk to fucked up people, and otherwise wander around looking for, well, things as crazy as today to happen. Because wherever they do I can probably find people who fall through the cracks even in this easy mode, perfectly designed world.”

“What do they know about me on there?”

“That’s the great part, nothing. The video’s not that funny, they didn’t even look.”

This stung as much as anything else so far, somehow.

“Are you going to give me my phone back.” The sun bobbed over a tile roof, with a wire running alongside its snow-lipped gutter, where a torn canvas shoe had landed somehow.

“If you let me put my number and email in.”

So two - three - steps outside his room and he already was what he had been to Class 7S again.

He didn’t even have the will to imagine this was a nightmare. It was a new stage of cruelty like the world had developed exactly whenever he had expected it.

“Did you… set this… up?”

It was the only way to explain this that wouldn’t have him frantically backreading curse threads on the /m/ archives for the next week. If that would be enough.

Laughter fell like a rain of diamond spit. “Why would you think that?”

It couldn’t be a nightmare. His nightmares were just montages of getting yelled at as a kid. Nothing interesting ever happened in them.

“Give it back,” he growled.

He planted his heels in the gravel. He wouldn’t be walking any further. Even that had been tempting… what? What was doing this?

“Huh? What did you just say?”

He had one chance to stop it.

He let all the menace everyone had projected onto him surge into his voice.

“So you’re… not scared… of me… too?”

“No, I just can’t make out a word you’re saying any more, either.” He knew she was lying - he could hear corners of his voice clipping off the walls of buildings, in a way he had never heard talking to himself inside, and which his brain would never have thought to fill in on its own. Besides, he had long since given up on trying to read faces, but she wasn’t even hiding it. Her smile was like looking straight into sunlight between two buildings. He closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure how he even remembered what that looked like. How many more things he was going to start remembering, the longer he stayed out here. “How about you put one finger up for yes, one down for no.”

What was he going to do? How was he going to prove her wrong? What if he really was Dark? What if he had forbidden magic that a Warding App wouldn’t recognize? He could barely do regular magic (party tricks like making emoji in smoke clouds and animating a holiday puppet, they didn’t teach you anything useful except theory because all the modern versions of spells were proprietary and taught on the job); it had been his worst class in school because he would keep getting distracted or self-conscious doing the rituals, “millipede trying to teach itself to walk”, but he knew the feeling. He had read those stupid Elphantom books too. He had read every “I’m a Dark user, AMA” thread he could save in the three minutes before the mods took it down. He wasn’t a Darkfag, but he couldn’t do magic so it didn’t matter if he was. Didn’t matter if he thought about it. Didn’t matter if he told Seer In The Half-Light ‘I get it’. All of that simulated darkness, what if he could concentrate it in one glare. One eye. A pupil that would swirl into a black hole as if brush strokes were constantly being added to deepen it. And one finger. Reaching out to carry all the Darkness concealed in the eye, the relation between the eye and finger the basis of the spell. The finger marked, perhaps, with the sign of the pupil. Was this from something? And when the pupil was deposited on the body, eventually it would explode. Oh right, this was a historic spell from the Dark war that had been conceptually neutralized so re-enactors could use now. But his threat didn’t have to be real. There was no real in the dark. Everything doujin. Non-canon. He was grey, faceless. Break leg. Tear clothes. Gouge eyes. Dig past eardrum. Gnaw cheekbone. Crush diaphragm. Penetrate orifices. Refuse existence.

“Great! Thanks!”

He looked down in cracking plaster on his trembling finger extended two-thirds of the way to her palm.

A comedy buzzer through his bones. Oh no, I zoned out again and actually did it???!!!

He whipped the finger back under his arm up to the wrist like it had almost been bitten off. His glare all the more furious for the dissipation of its power.

She pulled his cell phone right up to the collar of her coat, underneath her chin. “Perfect!”

Someone was pointing at them from the other side of the street. With another brisk movement she dropped the phone back in the slit breast pocket of this jacket that looked like a bad photo edit on him. “Shit. Tell me where you live and I’ll get you a private motorickshaw. I have the money for that. I - I do have the money for that.” She wasn’t facing him. He thought of trying to lash out again, but how much worse could things get? What had he even done in the first place?

He started walking. He waited to hear steps behind him - the Stalking God from When The Dragonflies Dance - and when he didn’t, started breathing so rapidly he had to force himself to glance back.

She was racing in the opposite direction as frantically as when he had left the restaurant the other day. Either he had really scared her, despite the martial arts skills, or - she hadn’t been prepared for any of this either. Which didn’t make him want to talk to her any more. If talking to someone else would be like talking to himself, well, then - how could anyone possibly justify it.

A streetcar roared past him and he squinted against the gust of noise and displaced snowflakes and only briefly opened them after it had stopped letting off mechanic exhalations to see her pull her silhouette up to the doors and disappear.

He thought about collapsing again, thought about what he would do if someone else tried to talk to him, and kept moving, so numb he could convince himself his eyes were too and he couldn’t even see his surroundings.

But it was all real.

It always had been - from the moment he had stepped outside - his attempts to deflect it, the ways he had tried to deflect it at other people, talking to them like shifting hallucinations, apologizing, soliloquizing, threatening, only deepened its absurdity.

The paradox had broken down his ability to move into infinite frames - but this person had just moved effortlessly across the border of his world. The world that existed so no one would have to see or think about him ever again.

And crushed him under it like a cockroach.

Once he was inside again he was able to open his contacts - read the name that had been typed there - and delete.

“Who in the fuck approved that operation.” Commissioner Braz was furious. “Who decided any of that was necessary.”

The Colonel-Inquisitor adjusted his tie. “Well, the bit where he almost released his powers in a cafe was - not ideal, but even the reports said it could have easily happened, you saw how many times he came close in there, and if he started going out again regularly… but we did what we had to do, we put our asset in contact.”

“You don’t” - Braz stood up and leaned towards the hollow centre of the table on her palms - “introduce a bunch of new destabilizing factors when you’re trying to solve containment decay. Especially not ones that create new communication vectors! Mages knew this centuries ago when dealing with a homunculus! Her social ineptitude itself is a relatability hazard. I take it this was you looking for glory then - and risking the safety of my country before anyone else’s?”

She watched the widenings and contractions of his eyes.

“She isn’t even my asset! But the way this has been handled... it’s not stable. Having no assets in contact has destabilized him. He can’t even go outside without getting into the kinds of encounters his powers might very well treat as life-threatening. This proves your strategy hasn’t been working!”

“That’s what this is about, huh? Your - of course not yours personally, but one of you guys’ assets - relaying you information so you don’t have to go through the [Taboo Preserver]’s reports. You’re playing internal politics at a time like this!”

“You are both right,” a soft deep voice rolled like a wave of dust through the round marble meeting room, as the silhouette enframed itself in one of the narrow doors that slid open between thin cobalt-striped columns, gem-encrusted birds nesting in fractal arabesques converging towards the top of the shallow dome, “and this is the problem. Multiple points of that excursion breached twenty deviations above the probability range the [Taboo Preserver] has maintained for as many years.” The man pulled himself into his chair, lifting his narrow feet off the ground. “And the number of times he’s broken containment of his own initiative recently suggests other spells might be weakening. This poses a problem for either strategy - relying on assets, or relying on simple isolation. Commissioner Braz, I commend your dedication to your strategy.”

“Th-thank you.” The Colonel-Iquisitor instantly evaporated into the background of Braz’s attention as she turned to face the voice. “Commander Shaïgnar.”

The man in Alliance uniform, half her height, wore his hair in a druid-style tonsure (even though it had been decades since he had defected from their orders) tied into a braid down his back. His long salt-and-pepper moustache trailed down to his collar. “Do not relax it for a second - but if it fails, do not hesitate to cooperate with our assets. As the closest to the [Taboo Preserver], if there is a chance you can find out anything we can’t from the reports and standard interviews, it’s your duty as a soldier of Elthazan, a noble of C’harn and a liaison of the Ecclesia to do so - even if your conversation is ‘personal’. In the worst case scenario, where he’s developing any sympathies - don’t think I forgot raising that risk at his selection - you may be the only person positioned to find out before it’s too late.”

His eyes met Braz’s, and suddenly she couldn’t hear anything else in the room, either. “If necessary - if your loyalty were guaranteed by some means beyond your vows, which it is merely my job to doubt - I would be willing to consider removing other professional barriers between you and the [Preserver] to facilitate this.”

“Wait what barriers do you think I” -

Glancing into the peripheral space that seemed hard to focus on for more than a split second, she realized they were alone and she had options what to divulge.

“Don’t worry, you won’t remember this part after you leave here.” The Colonel-Inquisitor’s face tightened from side to side. “And he won’t remember it at all.””

The rarely used meeting room was in the same complex as the [Taboo Preserver]’s cell, and accessible only to those with the highest level of clearance in matters pertaining to the Dark Lord, but Shaïgnar’s personal confidence was a level above that, and he alone had read/write access to the memory control field. It had been years since he had visited the complex in person. Besides Braz and the Colonel-Inquisitor, only two authorities had bothered to visit even in these dire straits, and had been mostly silent through the meeting, but this did not seem to bother him. If Shaïgnar had his way, the entire containment of the Dark Lord would be conducted directly by himself through secure psychic comms on a spell he himself designed. Braz understood that Shaïgnar’s schizoid, almost solipsistic self-confidence and paranoia of others was itself in theory a security liability, but still respected it over the punch-clock careerism of most of her colleagues. This respect of course was a large part of what put her in Shaïgnar’s privileged circle.

She still had never brought herself to confide in him the true nature of her feelings for the [Taboo Preserver], but took for granted they were taken into account in at least one of his models anyway.

“There really isn’t as much to know as you think there is. If you’re about to ask whether I mean about what he knows or what you think I want, I mean both.”

“I was afraid you’d say that. It’s worse than I thought then.”

Ordinary sound flooded back. “That operation was, of course, an unacceptable risk. If the magic restraints are weakening, who knows what happens if we put him in a fight or flight situation? However, the journalist might be an asset to our understanding of what exactly is changing. Especially if there are things the [Taboo Preserver] isn’t telling us. I recommend we don’t cut her off immediately - but escalate her to a Tier 3 Targeted Individual.”

“Tier 3?…” Now that sleepy Ecclesia representative, nursing their useless cup of a restricted ceremonial microdose tea, perked up. “Even his mother isn’t Tier 3 any more!”

“I had half a mind to upgrade Llau to Tier 3 too, and depending on how things develop, might yet. But it’s clear that right now we need a fractal security strategy. If I’m right about why, we’ll need to assume war footing.”

“That’s what… I was trying to do…” The Colonel-Inquisitor stuttered.

“Make no mistake, Colonel-Inquisitor. After this, if we go to war footing, you’re losing your clearance, and all your memories of it.”

Braz was still thinking about Shaïgnar’s remarks about her and Ymañn. She almost wanted to find out what exactly he knew - what his model was. But she knew if she gave a millimetre of vulnerability, he would take a mile.

Instead she took up his offer in the simplest possible terms. She alone left the meeting room through the half-height, triple-thickness door that led to the [Taboo Preserver]’s cell. Shaïgnar’s words echoing so vividly in her head she had to shake the fear that he had slipped some kind of monitoring spell onto her, though the security in the meeting room should have prevented even that. Selfish, unforgivable hope mixing with dutiful trepidation, marked by the same heartbeats.

When he looked up at her, he was sandwiched between two of the dogs. Red tracks of raw, wrinkled skin showed beneath his eyes.

It wasn’t treason. It couldn’t be. She would tell Shaïgnar that. Would he believe her?

“Hi Ymañn. I hear you’ve been having some interesting dreams lately.”

Ymañn groaned and one of the dogs shifted as he rolled over, draping his head over the other’s flank and letting it fall to look at Braz upside down.

“I hate not being able to do anything about it. Not in the dream, not outside it. And you know, he hates it too. He doesn’t want to leave, doesn’t want to change. Nobody wants any of this, so why is it happening?”

Braz sat down on one of the pillows. Tentatively - more tentatively than usual, despite the carte blanche she might have just been given - she reached out and stretched a hand through his hair. It was so thin. The individual hairs, that is; there were still quite a lot of them for his age, though even and yielding, and a faint negative vortex forming around the back of his head. “That’s my job to figure out, I guess.”

“Like you don’t mean it actually could be anything, do you? Some sort of Dark conspiracy as sophisticated as ours - but if they had that, they would just move and take him, wouldn’t they? I mean, I know there isn’t any it, stuff is just happening, and it’ll probably settle down soon, I just get my thinking mixed up with his sometimes, where it feels like there’s some all-powerful thing out there, maybe the Goddess or the Dark, messing with you - which he doesn’t realize is mostly us. But I used to feel like that too, before I joined, sometimes, and it comes back to me in weird ways at times like this.”

Not sure if she was overreaching, or if she just needed to wait for a clearer cue from Shaïgnar - but he would know, he knew everything somehow, and would take this as a bite on his offer - she slid her hand up from his hair to his cheek. “I’m me. I’m another person. Like you. I’m not part of some big cold thing. He might never understand that, but it’s not your fault. You can still be you.”

“I mean it literally is my”- he stopped, sniffed, let his head rest heavier on her hand - “you know the funny thing is, when it happened, right before he went out, and again, right before the journalist showed up, I felt like you’re saying. I wasn’t in him any more, even in the dream, I was just floating over the scene, watching. I couldn’t do anything of course. But I was me, and he was him. I don’t think I could even feel inside him, what he was thinking.”

“You… lost connection.” Braz pulled her hand away, sitting bolt upright. Well, Shaïgnar, is this what you were looking for? “Were there any other times?”

“There was one other time, in the restaurant, but nothing really important was happening, he was asleep… oh. Oh. Rraihha.”

“Something important?”

“Do you have a timeline of what happened. Like, not from my notes, externally. Did you figure out who that woman is that the journalist was talking about.”

Braz shuddered. “It’s the same woman who paid for him the first time. That’s… a dangerous connection, too, but it’s our job, we can deal with it.”

“No, just - when did he see her.”

Braz undid the buttons on the front of her jacket. She was still carrying her clipboard with the info from the meeting in her confidential storage pouch on the inside, which she hadn’t opened in here in months. A couple of Ymañn’s drawings were in it - but not the one of Luskonneg. “About 54 minutes after he came in. At 5:23.”

Braz blushed, and took a moment to realize why she was blushing. Oh. At 5:23, on that day, she had been in the washroom, rubbing one out, thinking about - well, she had done it precisely to stop thinking about the person next to her now - but that had backfired, because the only other person she could think about was the stranger from Countour, and that brought her back -

“Oh - that should be - I wasn’t watching the clock, but - that sounds like around when it happened. It was about fifteen minutes into his dream. I think he was almost at the end of class.”

What did this mean? The phone call, the contact, was one of the events Shaïgnar had described as a probability anomaly - an event outside the range of constrained unpredictability some of the most sophisticated spells were meant to keep the Dark Lord surrounded by. Those spells were not easy to disrupt, if you even knew they existed - a traitor in their midst? Or was something just happening to Ymañn, his magical stamina degrading? My working hypothesis, she scrawled later that night in a report she would pass to Shaïgnar privately before he left the next day, is that it’s a defensive dissociation - Ymañn’s subconscious is breaking the connection, and disrupting the spells, to protect his subjectivity from merging with Luskonneg’s. Has this ever happened with a [Taboo Preserver] before? I’d be surprised if it hadn’t, and perhaps one of their notes will contain some insights on how to deal with it. I’m requesting access to the [Taboo Grimoire].

She didn’t say - because it would sound too nakedly self-interested - that if this was true - and that was why she had to be extremely careful, poring over the archives of the [Taboo Grimoire], to ascertain whether it was true - that the best solution was probably to let the [Taboo Preserver] form other relationships that weren’t tied to Luskonneg, that would anchor him when he was awake.

Lying in bed, a thick inherited blanket covered in florets of rough-blue thread spread across a narrow officer’s cot, two candles lit on the desk across the room in case she wanted to work (the light soft enough, on the other hand, to let her go to sleep if she didn’t), the dark around this light somehow darker, thicker, smokier than it had ever been…

She wondered what kind of relationship that would be.

A deeper friendship, that would be enough. That would be more than she had ever dared to hope. Could it even be deeper? All her other models for friendship involved sharing parts of a life he couldn’t have. No one less restrained than her in the first place could have invested so much a relationship so limited, was how she had always thought of it. But maybe it wouldn’t always have to be rushed between other errands to the secret installation in the mountains north of Winter City. Maybe one day she could be there when he woke up; plan the whole “day” together. She could spend enough time there for the dogs to trust her; they could curl up with the dogs together, curl up together through the dogs. Maybe she could ask him about the parts of his life that were redacted on the documents; things that made him a person outside of his dreams. Maybe she could tell him he didn’t have to run from that any more. There is someone to be a person with you. I haven’t wanted to be a person with someone so much in so long.

Ymañn Ulwen, lining up coloured glass bells to set up a spell that would ring them in a self-elaborating fractal loop, sneezed. A dog lifted its long head and whimpered.

A cockroach crouching on top of Luskonneg’s phone, on the corner of his mattress, scampered off as it vibrated in the dark.