No Sugar Tonight

Rei awoke with her eyes closed. There were sounds of car mounted police radios, the quiet crunch of tires against pavement and grass. Car doors being opened and shut. She forced her eyelids to open —which took more effort than she expected— and looked straight up. Sechson was there; he held her head up off the ground as he looked over at the lights. She smiled at him. He noticed her move, and he looked down at her. He smiled back. The sky behind his head was still dark, but flashes of blue, amber, and green reflected off of every surface, and created hard shadows against everything that the light didn’t hit. The lights made Rei squint, and she put her sunglasses back on.

Hey man… how… long was I out?
Hey. Not too long. A few minutes, I think. Maybe ten or so, max.
She took a deep breath, let it out, then smiled and closed her eyes again. Man, I… I gotta stop ending my days like this. she chuckled, and he did too, Passed out on somebody else’s property every other day…. I really am in college, huh? Heheh.
He chuckled with her, but it faded into a concerned look, That was… a lot of magic. I didn’t know you could do that.
Ohh yeah. I uh… let’s see…. Rei leaned forward, lifted her hand up, and tried to cast a spell. Nothing happened, and she shuddered. Yeah. That’s what I thought.
What is it?
Totally outta juice. she put her hand back down, and flopped back onto the grass, That sucks.
That’s okay though, right? You’re okay?
Rei smiled at him again, and nodded.

Warren walked over, and looked down at her. Their whole body, and all of their clothes, were stained with what looked like black powder and soot. The few places that weren’t blemished reflected the police lights like mirrors.

Hey. their expression neutral, You good?
I uh, yeah, yeah. I’m doin better. Rei pulled herself up into a sitting position.
She inhaled while she thought of a good response, …Less pissed. she clarified, Better than I was. she tried to stand up, but stumbled, and Sechson caught her by her arm, Thank you, sorry. I… think I… took a good chunk of my anger out on… whoever that was. Still uh… still pissed though. In general.
…Are you sure? Warren furrowed their brow in concern.
About what? About being pissed?
No, no. About…. You just don’t sound… I dunno, worried.
I mean… No? Should I be?
Warren stared at her and crossed their arms.
I’m… it— it’s fine, man, I’m good. Don’t worry about it.
Are you sure you’re okay?
She managed to stand, and stay stable, Come on, man. I’m good! she smiled, Heck if you want me to complain, sure I’ll complain. she stretched, which popped a few joints in her back, I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’m still pretty pissed off. But other than that I’m okay. Don’t worry about it, man.

An officer walked up to them, and stopped when he was around three meters away. He was a blue Quiggle, his face obscured by a green Brightvale police cap, dark sunglasses, and the glare from the police lights behind him. He had the green and yellow badge of Brightvale law enforcement on his chest. He inhaled, then spoke in a tired, disaffected tone.
I’m gonna need to speak to the homeowner. Any of you kids know where they might be?
Oh! Sechson moved forward, I’m him! That’s me!

Warren put their hand to their face and cursed, too quiet for them to hear. The cop gestured for Sechson to come farther forward, and Warren turned away.
Dammit. Dammit. they muttered, their voice low.
Rei raised an eyebrow, What?
We don’t need him talkin to those shitheads. they gestured at the police with their eyes.
They asked for him! she whispered, What were you even gonna say?
Warren sighed, Look… every chance I get, I’m gonna be the one talking to authorities. Nobody else. Don’t… none of y’all say a goddamn thing. Okay?
They’re gonna talk to us, eventually. What do you expect us to say?
You all are gonna say: they raised their hands in mock‐terror, oh, goodness me, I am too traumatized by the scary —but crucially non‐anomalous— home invader, I am so glad that I am not, now, a dead guy. That’s what I expect you to respond with.
Oh please.
I’m gonna tell them everything they need to know. If they get enough information to be satisfied, they’ll piss off. That’s all that matters.
Rei frowned, They’re gonna wanna talk to more than just one person, Warren.

Hey kiddo. the cop asked, both his face and his expression empty of emotion, Your parents out? Are you speaking on behalf of the homeowner?
I uh… essentially. Yes, sir. I live by myself, so this is my house, for now. I just had friends over.
The cop looked over to Rei and Warren, who whispered and made frustrated gestures at each other with their hands. He looked at Kenji, who was asleep, face down on the grass, then back at Sechson, all with the same expression, …Right. You wanna tell me what happened here?
Yes, sir. Someone broke in. They tried to hurt us. Kill us, I’m pretty sure.
Hmf. the cop crossed his arms, What’d they take?
I’m sorry?
What’d they steal?
Oh, uh. I don’t know. Nothing, I think.
No, sir.
And the fire?
Magic, in self defense. We… might have died, otherwise.
Mm. I see. I think… I think I recognize you.
Oh? Are you uh…? You go to the same service I do, right?

Warren looked up and over at the two of them.
A smile crept up on the cop’s face, Heheh. I sure do. The whole force here in Brightvale does. Fine people.
Sechson’s face lit up, Oh really? That’s great!
It sure is…. We’re gonna do a full investigation for ya. Gotta stay safe, out here. Ya hear?
Oh, yes. Yes sir.
That’s right. he put his hand on Sechson’s shoulder, We’ll take care of you. Child of the Highest.
The cop’s words made Warren feel like someone dropped an ice cube down his back, and he shuddered.
Sechson nodded, and he put as much respect into his body language as he could.

Another car pulled into the driveway, this time a small beat up orange station wagon. The cop looked over at it, and grimaced. He turned away from the Bori, and walked back over to his own car. Sechson took that as his cue to move back over to Rei, Warren, and Kenji. As soon as the orange car stopped, the engines & lights cut out, and the door opened. A purple Xweetok with a black coat, and bright orange suit underneath that, stepped out of the car. She slammed the door shut, and fast‐walked over to them. Kenji flinched as the sound of the door woke him up.

Ah. Warren relaxed, I think I know who this is. Sechson, everybody, shut the hell up and let me handle this.
Uhh. Sechson looked confused, O—okay?
They all watched as Warren approached her.

They cleared their throat, and spoke in a plain accent the rest of them didn’t recognize, something like a news anchor, Can I— is there something I can do for you?
Hey there! she held out her orange‐gloved hand, And, yes, I hope so. My name is Yolanda. I’m a detective. I work for the Brightvale police department.
Warren made their expression look as neutral as they could, and didn’t respond to her offer of a handshake, Yeah. I’m alright thank you.
Uh, good. she raised her eyebrows at them and put her hand away, Sure seems like it. Can I get your name and title? For the record?
Mr. Warren Grey. they lied.
Is that right?
That’s what they decided on, that’s what they call me.
She chuckled, I see. Is that with an E or an A?
Excuse me?
Your last name.
Oh, right. Sorry. It was an E.
Right… first of all, was anyone hurt here?
Well, good. Still, I’m gonna need your help, she pulled out a notepad, if you wanna talk about it.
Alright, well, what happened here?
Mm. they nodded once, All of us were in the middle of a… gathering. Someone entered the house and tried to kill us. I do not know why. Our friend created a large fire in self defense. The home invader is not here anymore.
Do you know this person?
No? Doesn’t live around here? Doesn’t go to, or work at, the college?
So you’ve never seen this person before.
Mm. she shifted her weight, So what was this gathering about?
After school club.
What about?
Uh, reading. Book club, about books. they lied again.
I see. Is there any reason you can think of… as to why someone would want to do this?
Do you, or any of your friends, have any sort of… unhealthy relationships? Any… personal grudges you can think of that could escalate to this?
Me? Uh, no. As you can see, I am a… shining beacon of charisma.
Yolanda resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and waited for them to continue.
Uhh, as for the rest of us… they looked back at the rest of the club. Sechson and Rei helped Kenji up off the ground as Warren watched, I don’t uh, I don’t think so. I think they’re pretty nice people. As far as I can tell anyway.
Right, right…. Is there any reason why this after school club isn’t on school grounds?
Yeah, actually. they turned to look back towards her, I don’t really… think it’s all that important? But, for completeness sake, I might as well tell you. We’re here temporarily because another club took our previous space.
Ahh. Sorry to hear that. Well… so, what did this person look like? The one who attacked you?

Warren thought for a moment, Kyrii. Masculine voice. I think grey…? No, white hair. Black & gold dress suit and black slacks. Like they were dressed for a business meeting. They took their jacket off, and… they had this white shirt on underneath that. But… they also had some kind of… clear plastic suit? On over the shirt?
They were wearing a plastic suit under their jacket?
Hmm. That’s interesting. Well, anything else?
They used lightning magic. A lot of it. Blew all the lights out and cut the power with it. Oh, they also had a sword.
I’m sorry, they attacked you with a sword?
No, no. They used magic. They also had a sword, but they didn’t get a chance to use it.
I… I see. Swords and sorcery huh? They sound pretty old fashioned. Besides the business suit I guess.
Yeah. Real fuckin weirdo.
…Right. she side‐eyed them as she jotted down something on her notepad, Well.
Is that all officer?
Oh, no, please, you don’t have to call me that.
Good. Can we leave now?
You… aren’t interested in police protection? We can keep an eye on you for a while, in case they come back.
No. I doubt that’ll be necessary.
Hmm. Still. It’s probably best that you all stay in public, maybe sit at a restaurant for a while.

Rei looked over at them, a smile on her face, Cold Scoopies.
Warren turned back to look at her, and dropped his accent by accident, What? Again?? That’s where you wanna be right now?
Heck yeah.
How many— they cleared their throat, then put the accent back on, How many times this week are we gonna go there? they said, as they fought back a yawn, I’m so tired of that place, all we do is just sit around.
Well, maybe, if you actually ordered something you wouldn’t be so bored.
They rolled their eyes, Whatever.

Yolanda looked back and forth between them,I… think I’ll talk to… you all individually. Later.
Warren turned back to her, Yeah. Later. That sounds good.
Right. You all want a ride?
…Excuse me?
To that place you wanted to go? Surely y’all aren’t planning on just walking there alone, are ya? It’s around midnight.
They turned their head, and looked over at the comparative darkness past the gate to Sechson’s property. Sure. Fine. Can we all fit in there?
Sure, sure. You all hop in. she gestured with a hand for the four of them to follow her.

Warren shuffled slow towards the car, Kenji & Sechson walked at a reasonable pace, and Rei ran forward past all of them to the front passenger seat.
Don’t mind the bumps and scratches, it runs just fine. Yolanda patted the hood, Ruba, symmetrical four wheel drive, brand new, though it doesn’t look it. Got a little tore up from how hard I run it, but it gets me where I wanna go.
Alright, that’s neat. Rei nodded, I don’t see a lot of these.
Yeah, haha. Yolanda smiled, I had this car issued to me by the department. It used to be blue, but I had it repainted after somebody keyed it.
Oh, dang.
Yeah. I get a lot of people pissed at me in my line of work.
Warren scoffed, but otherwise made no comment.

The detective climbed into the driver’s seat, Rei jumped into the front passenger side, then Sechson, Kenji, and Warren crammed themselves into the back, all of them strained to buckle themselves in. The whole car was filled with the intense smells of cheap, burnt coffee and gunpowder.

So where was it that you wanted to go again? Cold something?
Ahh, yeah. Cold Scoopies. Rei smiled and nodded, Great place. They have all kinds of stuff, but their main thing is ice cream and big food.
Neat, cool. I’m glad you can manage to be in a good mood after all that.
Haha… well. I’m… cool. It’s been kind of a long day for me. she turned to look out the window.

The car lurched as she pulled out of the driveway backwards, not using the circular drive because a police car blocked one side of it. Warren looked at her through the rear‐view mirror.
Hey, shouldn’t you be at the crime scene?
Hm? Oh, it’s fine. It’s not goin anywhere. Plus, the patrol officers are already there. It’s not gonna just up and walk away if I leave for five minutes. I was mostly sent here to make sure all of you were safe.
Mmm. Fine. Hey, second question, how the hell did anybody know we were in danger, anyway? I sure as hell didn’t call the cops.
Oh, one of your neighbors called the police. They apparently saw some of it from their window.
Oh. Great. they threw their hands over their head, and almost hit Kenji in the head by mistake, We got snoopy assholes around here. Love this neighborhood.
Yolanda looked over at Rei with a raised eyebrow as the car slowed to a stop once it reached the road.
Rei mouthed a silent He’s grumpy, don’t worry about it.
She chuckled and shook her head, then accelerated down the road.

As soon as the car stopped in front of the restaurant, Warren opened the door, jumped out, and brushed their hands over their jacket. They shuddered, as though they’d sat in toxic waste. The others let themselves out as well, without the same fuss.
Thank you. Kenji nodded his head at the detective as he stepped out of the vehicle.
Ahh, you’re welcome! You kids stay safe, alright?
Heheh, hi and buhbye.
Kenji was too tired to correct her with what he actually meant, and ducked out of the car.
Sechson opened the door on his side, behind the driver. We’ll try! You stay safe too.
Nahh, nahh. I’m gonna just plow into danger, get shot a couple times maybe. she smiled.
Sechson raised his eyebrows and looked worried.
I’m kidding, son. Mostly. she chuckled, Go on and eat.

As Rei closed the door behind her, Yolanda rolled down the window. Hey, I got all of you, right? You all gave me a number to call?
Warren let out a single chuckle, then walked off toward the restaurant.
Sechson noticed this, tilted his head in confusion, and watched as they left.
Yeah? Rei looked back to her.
Yeah. You all see anything suspicious… anything. You feel like you’re in danger, you call me or the police. You got that? Even if you think whoever it is is gone, we wanna make sure you’re safe, alright?
Right, yes ma’am.
Alright. Remember to pick up the phone when you get a call, it might be me. You take care of yourselves, now.

The detective rolled up the window, drove off, and the tires skid a little as the car turned the corner out of the parking lot.

Warren opened the door, the first one in. They looked around the inside of the restaurant: black and white checkerboard patterns, turquoise painted walls, and red tables with advertisements laminated onto them. In each corner, and by the cashier’s counter, were person sized plastic sculptures of ice cream cones, save for one corner where an old jukebox was. It was the ugliest eatery Warren had ever set foot in, in their opinion. They sighed as they walked through it for what felt like the millionth time. They looked over to their left, at the jukebox. The lights were on, but nothing played. They looked farther left, to the booth seats up against the wall.

A pair of neopians in suits sat across from each other: a tall orange Myncii, and a muscular grey Lupe. Warren turned their back to them as soon as they realized who they were, which took less than a second. Fuck. they whispered to themselves as they massaged their brow with their fingers, These people. First the police and now these. God damnit.
The Lupe looked up from her meal, narrowed her eyes at them, but didn’t get up from the table.

Rei opened the door and walked in. She waved at the cook. Ahh, hello! It’s us again!

Warren looked up and over at who Rei had waved at. It was the Skeith that waited on them every time their friends ate, and they had been watching them the whole time from the kitchen. Warren stared back. The Skeith cleared their throat, shifted their weight to push themselves away from the counter they’d leaned on, then walked towards them.

Y’all up late. Out of a meetin’ place again?
Oh! Uhh. Rei was taken aback, Yes, actually, how did you know?
Don’t worry about it. they said with a dismissive wave of their hand, Sorry about your friend’s house. Table for four again?
Ahh, right, uh. Yes, that’s right. Sorry if I seem a little out of it.
Don’t worry about it. Same booth as usual is open, go ahead. I’ll be with y’all in a minute.

Sechson & Kenji both walked in, and followed Rei over to the table that they’d eaten at before. Warren didn’t go with everyone, for a moment, as they watched the Skeith walk behind the counter, as they walked out of sight, into the employee only area. They moved away only after the Skeith were gone.

They sat down at the booth. It made a dramatic sound as they all sat and scooted into place at once, everyone too exhausted for grace. Warren leaned their head back after they sat down, which hit the wall with a metallic thud. Rei put both elbows on the table and held her head up with her hands.

…Ffffffuck. Rei whispered to herself.
You can say that again. Warren spoke, but didn’t move, head still pointed at the ceiling, Fuckin hell.
Sechson looked uncomfortable, as he sniffled and shuffled his feet under the table.
I’m so tired. Rei said into her hands, If I wasn’t so hungry I would’ve just gone straight home, honestly. Sorry you don’t like this place.
It’s alright. This place uh… gives me weird vibes, I guess. I think that’s what the kids call it these days. they lowered their head to a more normal angle to look at her, …You are okay, right?
Yeah, yeah, man. she shook her head, For the millionth time, man, don’t worry. I’m cool.
Well… alright. Kenji? Warren looked down at Kenji, who’d sat next to them.
He looked up from the menu, Hm?
Are you alright? You passed out. When did that happen?
Hai, I’m… fine.
You’re fine? After your bifurcation thing? No headaches, nobleeding from the nose or ears?
Here, lemme see your face, I wanna make sure.
No, no. I’m fine, I’m fine. Kenji leaned away from them and scrunched his eyes shut.
Alright, alright. I’m just making sure. I guess you’re fine. Everybody’s fine. Hey, they pointed at Sechson, you.
Hm? What? he looked up, then pointed at himself, Uh, me?
Yeah you. Are you fine too? It sounded like you got knocked around pretty hard in there.
Sechson rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, Oh uh… yeah, but… I think I’ll be okay. Just some bruises. Though I think I might have uh… lost consciousness through some of it. It’s alright. I’m pretty sure I’m okay.
I see. Right. they closed their eyes, then after a pause, looked back over at him, What about the house?
Your house.
What about it?
Whaddya mean what about it? It was on fire.
Well, I mean, not for very long. He shrugged, I’m sure I can get somebody to clean it up before my dad finds out.
Get somebody. What do you mean by that?
Like… you know, hire somebody. A cleaning service?
Warren leaned in, For that much damage??
I dunno, Sechson made an exaggerated shrug with his hands and arms, maybe I’ll get… some repair people in there. I dunno. I'll ask my neighbors who to call, if they have any advice.
How the hell are you gonna pay for all that?
With… money? I'm not sure what you mean. Sechson furrowed his brow and looked puzzled.
…You… just have that kind of money… just layin’ around?
It’s not that expensive.
Rei and Kenji looked up from their menus, and all three of them stared at him.
Right? Haven’t you guys ever… like… had someone come over and clean your house? Put on an addition for you or something?
Uh… no. Warren said, No we have not.
O—oh. Uh. Okay. I uh, sorry. he said, as he looked around at the adverts on the table and shrunk into his shirt a little.

The purple Skeith stomped over to their table, notepad in their clawed hands.
Hey. they said, as they looked around at all of them. Everyone’s clothes & hair were disheveled, their arms & faces dirty, and some parts of them a little singed. The waiter made a tch noise with their teeth, Y’know, now that I’m seein’ y’all up close, y’all don’t look so good.
Warren looked up at them, Hello to you too.
Heheheh. they smiled, Want some coffee?
Rei nodded without looking up, head still in her hands, Yes, please.
Tea for me, please. Sechson raised his hand, Whatever kind you have made is fine.
Hai… watashi mo…. Kenji nodded as well, his head hung forward like he was about to pass out again.
Mm. they nodded their head and wrote something on their notepad, Two teas and a coffee. You want anything to drink, Warren?
Hm? What? they looked back at them, with a spooked look on their face, Hh. No.
Mm. they grunted, Y’all know what y’all want?
Rei shook her head. Kenji’s eyelids drooped, and his head stayed down, not awake enough to process the question. Warren just stared at the Skeith.
Sechson looked around, then to them, Uh, n— I don’t think so, sorry. Not yet.
Mm. I see. Well, I’ll be back with your drinks.

Warren stared at them as they left, as the Skeith turned and ducked into the kitchen. They narrowed their eyes.
Hey… did…. Did I ever tell them what my uh, name was?
Rei looked up, Oh, I dunno. Maybe. Probably just overheard us talking, at some point. Are you being paranoid again?
They sighed and massaged their brow. …You know what? Probably. I haven’t been this stressed out in a long time.
I’m sorry. You don’t look all that good.
I’m sure I look like hell, yeah. You know, this is the second time this week I’ve lost sleep because of a ghoul. That, and I’m just kind of… waiting for them to barge in and start trying to kill us again.
What? Nahh, man, don’t worry about it. I got ‘em.

Warren looked up at her and made a face, eyebrows raised.
Rei raised her own eyebrows. What?
Warren looked back out the window.
I don’t think we got ‘em.
Aww, are you kidding? I friggin vaporized ‘em! I went fuckin unseelie on that asshole.
Yeah. Ya sure did.
I didn’t even know I had it in me. I was so friggin pissed. Felt pretty good.
Wasn’t all that fun for me.
Oh. Sorry about that.
Mmm. I honestly can’t believe you people aren’t shaken up by this. Maybe it’s just ‘cause you’re all still kids.
Warren, Fyora’s name, could you please stop pretending to be an old person.
And, well… this kind of thing is… kind of the opposite of traumatic for me, if that’s a thing.
He raised one eyebrow at her.
Hey, I like gettin the heart pumpin. This kinda shit is cool to me.
I won’t even watch a movie unless I know it’s got some explosions in it. Or a mystery. Preferably both. Spy movies are good for that. You like spy movies?
No. I’m tired of secret agent stuff, honestly. Just completely done with it.
Pfft. Whatever, man. she smiled.

So… regardless of whether or not we uh, got em they made finger quotes in the air, we need a plan.
A plan? she rested her chin on a hand, For what?
Making sure something like this never happens again.
Eh. Maybe.
Maybe?? Whaddya mean, maybe?
Hey, you know what my plan is. she smiled, Same as earlier, light ’em up.
That’s not going to solve every problem, and you know it.
Rei rolled her eyes.
Look, they obviously work for somebody—
Work‑ed. They ain’t workin for shit anymore.
They sighed, Fine, whatever. For somebody. Or a group of people. You heard how they talked about it. Like it or not, there are people out there who do not like us now, and want us dead. If this specific person never comes back, fine, but somebody else will. We just kicked a hornet’s nest, and got ourselves —officially— in over our heads already. Gods, what has it been, like, only three days or so?
Can’t help that, they’re the bad guys.
Warren leaned over the table and put their scrunched up face in their hand, Hhhhh. Come on, you’ve gotta take this seriously. Eventually we’re gonna run into somebody that none of us are gonna be able to fight back against. I don’t know who, and I don’t know when it’ll happen, but it’s gonna happen. And we need to prepare for it. We need… like, a security system, wherever we meet up. In Sechson’s house, for now.
He looked up at the sound of his name, But… I did have a security system.
Was it on?
Uh… I don’t remember.
Well. That’s probably doesn’t help. A good enough system for normal people, maybe. But we’re not normal people, nor are we up against normal people. We need wards on doors, heavier locks, thicker windows—

Warren stopped, as the Skeith walked back up to their table, a tray of glasses in one hand. They set down their drinks in front of each of them. Alright. Y’all ready to order?
Ahh, hello again, Rei smiled, good evening. Well, uh. Morning? I guess? Good morning.
The Skeith grunted.
I’m… definitely… ready for food. I think uh… what’s the biggest thing you have here?
They lowered their head, Biggest. Are you sure? It’s big people food. they made a gesture around their waist with their clawed hands, Wide people happy.
Oh, trust me, I need it. I feel like I could eat the whole damn restaurant. Oh, sorry, excuse my language. It’s been a long day.
Don’t worry about it.
So… what was the big thing?
Oh, uh. It’s the uh. Ballotine. Do you want it as the regular entrée or the full meal version?
She didn't recognize the word, I… don’t know what that is… uh… the full meal version, I suppose. What’s in it?
Uhm, bird.
Mmhm? Yes?
Um… vegetal. A couple of those. Cheese.
Rei nodded her head, Wwwhat else?
It’s…. they gestured with their hands, like a fisherman asked to describe their catch, It’s big.
Rei put her head into one hand and exhaled through her nose. I uh… sure, yeah. Big bird. Sounds good to me. she looked back up, Thank you.

Mm. No problem. One big bird. they jotted it down on their notepad, then turned to Kenji.
Hai… he had his head down, exhausted and on the verge of unconsciousness right at the table, chīzuhanbāgu… onegaishimas.
Mm. One hamburger steak.
Kenji nodded. Suimasen….

They turned to Warren.
Mm? Nothing? they raised an eyebrow.
I’m good, thank you. There’s nothing here I want.
They leaned in, Are you sure about that?
Yes. they frowned, I’m sure. I’m not hungry.
We have more than food. Anything you can think of?
Uhhh… like… souvenirs?
Alright, sure, fine. they threw their hands up, Surprise me. Just… nothing more expensive than a meal.
Mmm. Good.

They turned to Sechson.
He nodded, and set down the menu. Uhm… I think something light. Just some ice cream, for me. I already had dinner, before the meeting.
Mm. What kind?
Oh, a paranormal club.
Not the meeting, I meant what kind of ice cream.
Oh! Sorry, uh… chocolate, please. Could you also put strawberries in it too?
Mmhm, sure. Is that all?
Yes, thank you. he nodded again.
Alright. It’ll all be right out. Don’t go anywhere.

Warren watched them leave again, then turned to Rei as they went out of their sight.
What was that about?
Heheh, what, them making you get something?
Is that what that was?
You never actually get anything. They probably wanted to know what kind of food you like.
I don’t.
Rei snorted, smiled, and shook her head.
Sorry I don’t seem too enthusiastic. they crossed their arms.
Hey, it’s okay, man. You went through a lot today.
This just… doesn’t… they put their head in their hands and sighed.
Rei raised an eyebrow, and tilted her head at them.
We… we all just survived a home invasion, attempted murder, and a house fire. All in like… a span of fifteen minutes. I can’t help but feel like we’re… taking all this entirely too well.
Well, what can I say, Rei smiled and made an exaggerated shrug with her hands, we’re badass.
Sechson snorted as they held back a giggle.
They rolled their eyes at her, Yeah, whatever. We’re all gonna have to go to therapy after this shit is over with, I guarantee it.
Mmm. Well, I don’t like it. Not one bit.
I figured. You kinda got the worst of it this time.
No, no… I mean… I don’t like how it ended. It was too easy.
Too easy?? Dude.
I’m serious. they held out their hands, Too convenient. Shit like that happens in cartoons, not real life. The moment… the instant there was any kind of pushback… the one moment they didn’t have the tactical advantage… they were just gone.
Gone back to hell, more like.
Sechson looked worried and upset at her.
Oh, uh. she noticed his reaction to her swears, Back to heck. Apologies.
He drank more of his tea.
She turned back to Warren, Look, man, it’s over. I unloaded on ‘em. You saw it.
They shook their head, No, I didn’t, actually. Did you?
I kinda didn’t have to. That was more magic than I’ve ever used at once, in my life. I couldn’t even extenguish it myself.
Mmm. I’m probably not gonna be satisfied until I see a body. Or at least… the weird smear on the ground that they leave.

Rei shrugged, and drank some coffee. She wasn’t using the little cups of creamer, and instead, flipped one over with one finger as she waited for her food. Sechson looked down and over.

What’re you doing? he tilted his head.
Hm? Oh, this? she flipped the little plastic cup of creamer a couple more times, and it landed on its side. Once more, and it flipped back right‐side up. You never seen that before?
Haha, no, actually. I don’t usually get coffee, or really, eat out at places like this. More of a tea person, generally.
Ahhh. Yeah, I learned this from a friend of mine. Just playin around with it. You wanna try?
Oh, sure! he smiled wider, and she gave him one. He looked at what she did, and tried to mimic it, one of his claw‐fingers on the top edge of the cup. He pulled back & down, and it spun a bit in the air, landing on the side.
Rei chuckled, Don’t worry, it takes some practice. Even I can’t get it every time.
They both chuckled, and continued to spin around the creamer cups. Warren looked back and forth between the two of them, and allowed themselves a tiny smile.

So, uh. Sechson looked up at Warren, I’m not sure… about uh….
Mm? Warren blinked, What is it?
I… didn’t know you guys could do stuff like that. What even was some of that? I mean, I know I blacked out for a bit, but I…. Did I hear a gun?
Was that… one of you guys?
The gun was me, yes.
Oh, uh. Okay. I thought you guys needed permits or something to use guns or destruction magic here.
If by here you mean, anywhere else on the planet that isn’t Meridell, then yes. We’d prefer not to have a mass shooting or magical explosion every five minutes or so.
Rei looked down at them and whispered, Warren. Be nice.
So you have one of those?
What, a gun permit?
They looked out the window, Something like that.
I got one too. Rei looked over at Sechson, Have to, for the course I’m doing on high powered destruction magic.
I see. Sechson nodded, then looked over at Warren, I didn’t know you uh… carried a gun around.
I don’t. Unless it’s an emergency. …And it was an emergency. Look, I don’t wanna talk about it.
Alright. Yeah, yeah, that’s uh. That’s fine. If you don’t wanna talk about it, I won’t press you. he looked to the side and flipped his creamer cup over.
I appreciate it.
So… what was the uh… bi… cation? Thing?
Warren relaxed a little, and looked back over, Oh, that. Bifurcating illusions. That’s uh… that’s something Kenji can do. they gestured with a tilt of their head next to them.
What is it?
It’s uh… very specific. Kenji can… Warren looked over at him, hey, Kenji. You uh… you awake? You wanna explain this? Your thing?
His head was on the table, rested on his folded arms. There was no response.
Warren chuckled, Ah. Well, I’ll uh… let him sleep. Anyway, I’m sure he’ll explain it to you later. He knows it better than I do.
But… what is it?
It’s uhh…. Look, I’ll let him explain it, later, if he wants to. I don’t know the full extent of what he can do with it anyway.
Hmm. Okay.

The kitchen doors burst open, and the cook walked backwards out of them. They rolled a metal cart with both hands, and turned to walk towards the table. Warren leaned over to look, and their eyes grew wide.
Rei looked up. Hm? What is it?
Your… uh…. Warren stammered.
My what?

The Skeith and the cart came up to the table. On top of the cart was an enormous fried something on a platter.
O— oh, my….
It was a giant, golden brown, deep fried log of meat, and steam still rose from it as they lifted it up with both hands. The drinks shook as it was deposited onto the table in front of her. Rei took her glasses off and stared at it. The Skeith took a knife & an oversized carving fork, and lopped off one end of the log to reveal the inside. It was an enormous cooked & deboned bird, which was then stuffed with more meat, onions, greens, spices, fruit, and fancy cheese.

The grey Lupe at the booth at the other side of the restaurant leaned over to look. She nudged at the orange Myncii, and he turned around in his seat to look over as well. He mouthed Hot damn! too quiet for his voice to carry over to them.

Kenji’s head rested in his crossed arms on the table, and had slept through the dish being set down. Warren prodded his side, and Kenji inhaled. He lifted his head up, and blinked while he focused his eyes. He jumped when he saw the monstrous fowl across the table from him.

The orange Myncii looked around the other table, then at Kenji. They blinked, Waitaminute… hey Annie, he turned back over to the Lupe and jabbed in Kenji’s direction with a thumb, it’s that guy! It’s— it’s that guy!
Mmm. she stared, I see him.

The cook cut a few slices off, let them rest against the other side of the dish, then set the utensils in front of her.
W… Rei stammered, what is all this?
Bird. It’s big.
Uhh… haha, uhm. Yes! I can see that. What all is… this? Specifically?
Oh, specifically? Uh… it’s… they paused, a second or two between each sentence, a big ol gobbler…. Stuffed with uh… onion…. Only a little bit of celery…. No carrots…. Rosemary…. Young gruyère cheese…. Apple chunks, not a lot…. Spinch…. Chunks of mallard meat in there too, I think…. Somethin else in there…. Don’t remember.
Warren looked up at them with an incredulous face, You don’t remember? Didn’t you just make this?
They looked over at them, What, are you the chef now? An expert on food all of a sudden, hungry man?
N— no, but—
But nuthin. Anyway. Yours’s next.
Your food.
Excuse me?

They took a wide metal platter, larger than Warren’s head, and placed it in front of them. On top of it, was a tiny silver sculpture of a bowl of ice cream, itself with an even more miniscule spoon inside. The front of the bowl read COLD SCOOPIES (7oz Fine 999 Silver, Do Not Eat) in a font so small as to be nearly unreadable. They stared at it and blinked a few times. The Skeith folded their arms and winked at them.
You’re welcome.
Hamburger steak. they said, as they pulled Kenji’s meal off of the cart and placed it in front of him.
He wiped the sleep out of his eyes with a paper napkin, and looked back and forth between Rei’s huge meal and Warren’s tiny sculpture of one. A… th— thank you, thank you.
Ice cream. Chocolate, with strawberry slices. and they set the dessert in front of Sechson.

Alright… the Skeith looked around at all of them, is that it? Did I forget anything? No?
It took a moment for everyone to recover from the bizarre display on their table and respond.
Rei picked up her fork and turned to them, This is… the most absurd thing I have ever seen in my life. Thank you, I am going to eat all of it.
Well, good, because it’s only one to‑go box per person.
What was this… called, again?
It’s on the secret menu. I call it The Big Motherclucker, but the actual name of it is uh… Ballotine de dinde… pleine friture. With extra cheese.
The fo[u|w]l language made Sechson blush and sink into his shirt again.
Rei snorted in held back laughter. I’ll uh… I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you. Very much.
Mm. Yell at me if you need anything.

They turned and walked away, back into the kitchen. The four of them all sat in silence for a moment. Warren looked back and forth at everyone else, then pocketed the sculpture they’d been given into their vest.
Rei was the first to eat: she lowered her fork onto one of the stuffed slabs of meat, and cut it into quarters with two cuts of the huge knife that was left at the table. She took an experimental bite. Mm… hmmm. This is…. she put a napkin up to her face, and talked with her mouth full, it’s a bit… fancy, for my taste, but I do like it.
Are you gonna be able to eat all that? Sechson started to eat his ice cream after she took her first bite.
I, uh… maybe? I think? I mean, I know I can eat a lot in one sitting, but like… this is….
Can I try a little?
Oh, uh, sure! Yeah!
Warren offered their now empty platter to the Bori across from them to use, Here.
Ah, thanks.
Rei lifted a slice of the stuffed bird over and plopped it down on what was now his plate, and he tried some.
Hmm…. he swallowed, This… this tastes a bit like something I’d eat in a fancier restaurant. Minus, the uh, fried part. Usually something like this is… roasted? Braised?
Warren shook his head, There’s no way they made that this fast.
Maybe… Rei took more bites out of it, maybe they had this, like on the back burner or something? Under a heat lamp maybe?
That’s ridiculous. This is a —fucking massive— deboned poultry… thing, with stuffing. This shit should take hours to make.
It’s on the secret menu! So, what, you’re an expert on this kind of thing now?
They sighed and rolled their eyes.
Maybe it’s just… hell, I dunno. I don’t feel like arguing anymore. I’m so friggin hungry.

The Myncii and the Lupe from across the restaurant got up from their table and walked over towards them. Warren stared at them as they came over, everyone else too busy with their food to notice. They stopped at their table, stood at the end.

Uh. Warren folded their arms, …Can I help you fine fellows?
Nahh, nah, nah, you’re good! Just wanna chat y’all up a little bit. the orange Myncii smiled, That’s one hell of a meal right there!
Rei looked up, her mouth full, and raised an eyebrow, Mmhm?
Yeah, sure. Warren said, Again, can I help you? What do you need?
Ohh, nuthin much, nuthin much, I was just checkin’ up on ya boy. he pointed at Kenji.

Kenji swallowed his bite of hamburger steak, but only stared at them.

Maaaan, it’s been a while, huh? Last time I saw you, you were Dreeaamin a’ Jeannie!
I’m sorry, Kenji’s eyes widened, what??
Oh. No, no, that sounded wrong. I wasn’t, like, watchin you while you were asleep or anything. On purpose, y’know. You were… in the hospital, and uh… your friend uh, jade lady, with the hat, was there, we were talkin.
Rei sat up straighter, and she swallowed, as she realized who these people were.
Yeah‐hah, Whashyername uh, somethin, uh. I don’t remember. What was your name again? Daiji? Dude? Lil’ dude?
A look of even greater panic flashed across Kenji’s face.
Can I just call ya lil’ maaan?
Rei cleared her throat and pointed a fork at the stranger, Hey, we’re not telling you people anything! Why don’t you weirdos piss off?
Warren raised their eyebrows and uncrossed their arms, Whoa—ho, hey, let’s calm down a little bit.
She turned to them, What?? I am not calming down! These are the friggin spooks she was talkin’ about the other day!
Hey, come on, let’s be reasonable with these people, you don’t know who they work for.
Yeah, we’re cool! the orange Myncii continued to grin, and turned to the Lupe, Looks like, our uh, reputation precedes us. then turned back to the four of them, We’re cool dudes! Just lookin out for ya! Nuthin spooky about that. Here, m’name’s Dylan, he bent over and held out a hand to Kenji, how ya doin.
The Lupe turned and glared at him, Names not important.
Yeah, yeah, whatever. And this lovely lady is Anast—
The Lupe had reached over and pressed his snout closed with a muscled finger and thumb, No. Against procedure.
Mmff. Sheesh, fine, whatever. he said through his teeth. You coulda made me bite my tongue, you know?
She removed her hand. Mm. she grunted, Terrible.
Anyway, don’t worry about us, you guys, we’re cool, we’re just uh, makin sure everything’s good in the neighborhood, right?
Everyone stared at him.
Right? No? Whatever. Anyway, little‐man, you feelin alright? Drained of energy? Unusually lethargic or experiencing sleep disturbances?
Rei glared, I said, we’re not telling you people anything. Get outta here.
Whoa‐oh, hey now, Dylan raised his hands up, it’s all good!
No, it’s not.
Later maybe?
How about never??

Rei drew closer to Dylan, and the Lupe glared & stepped forward in response. Warren looked between the two of them with wide eyes. Whoa whoa, hey, easy! they leaned towards her and held out their hand, You uh, you don’t wanna threaten these people. Let’s all just calm down a little.
She turned back to them, It ain’t no threat! If they mess with my friends, they die. I don’t care how tired I am, I’ll kick anybody’s ass.
Yes, I am well aware.
Rei growled in response, and turned back towards the two of them.

Too much. the Lupe turned to Dylan. Come. We do this later. Finish sandvich and leave.
Aww, what? He’s right here! This is valuable data, y’know!
Too unprofessional. she turned to Warren, We will come back at better time. Speak in private.
Right. Warren looked back and forth between the two of them, Uh, thank you.
Tch. Dylan shrugged and spread his fingers apart. Well that was dramatic. Too bad. Is this you guys’s favorite restaurant? he turned to the Lupe, What was this place called again? The… fuckin, scoop zone, or whatever?
The Lupe glared at him, Enough.
Right, right, yeah, yeah. he snapped his fingers into the shape of finger‐guns at Sechson’s forehead as he turned away, See ya later, alligator. I guess I’ll uh, leave y’all alone, then. You uh… he looked down, back and forth at the stuffed fowl and Rei, you certainly got quite a… mouthful goin on here. Good luck with that.

He put his hands in his pockets, then turned and walked away without another word. The Lupe stared at them, then turned as well. Rei followed them with her gaze, and turned around in her seat to watch them leave. They sat down at their table. Dylan looked over at them again, made an annoyed face, and they both went back to their meals. The Myncii had a large plate of spaghetti with a single oversized meatball on it, and the Lupe had a ham & bologna sandwich, cut into triangles, with cheese, lettuce & tomato, and an olive pinned to it with a toothpick.

Rei turned back to face forward in her seat, huffed, and started to eat again.
Sechson cleared his throat. W… what was that about?
Don’t worry about it. Warren mumbled at him.
Dmnt wrry abt mt?? Rei looked over at them, her mouth full.
I’m serious. Remember what I said about pissing groups of people off? Those people are… I mean, those people look like some kind of agents. You don’t know who they work for, so it’s probably better to not get involved.
Rei swallowed, You seem awful familiar with them.
That’s not important. they looked out the window, They look like they’re dressed for a spy movie, or a funeral. And they’re the same guys that talked to Vert the other day.
Yeah, I know. If they think they’re gonna follow us around like creeps, they got another thing comin’. she said, then took another bite of her meal.
Yeah, well. I doubt that. They probably have bigger fish to fry.

Warren looked over at the agents and sighed. Their eyes went over to the kitchen door, where they saw the Skeith. The cook glared at the table Dylan and the Lupe sat at, then looked at Warren. They pushed their way out of the kitchen, around the side of the counter, then walked over to stand by the two’s table.
You two. Are y’all done here? You wanna check?
Check on what? the Lupe looked them up and down.
Oh, they mean like, a check for the meal. Dylan said, then looked up at the cook, Uh, not done with the food completely, no, but a check would be good, thanks.
Good. they grunted, You like it, then?
Yeah, yeah, real good, love me some spaghetti. Puhsketti. Supghetti. Heheheh.
Right. All this’ll be 139⃄.
Wait, for the spaghetti or the sandwich?
Oh. Was there a discount on anything? Shouldn’t this cost more?
Not unless you want it to.
Unreal, you make any money doin this? I’ve paid more for food at some gas stations.
I write the menu, I set the prices. It costs what it costs.
Heheh, alright, whatever. he shrugged and smiled, You’re still in business, what do I know.
Yeah. By the way. Are we gonna have any more problems?
Uhm. I’m sorry? Problems? he turned his head and raised his eyebrows, a smile still on his face.
I think you know what I mean. Heard a bit of a commotion over there.
Oh. Right. Uh.
Mmhm. Don’t go up to our customers and cause trouble, alright? Anything like that happens again, y’all both aren’t gonna be welcome here, you understand?
Haha, right, got it. We’ll uh… he turned back to his spaghetti, keep that in mind.
There was a moment of quiet, and the Skeith turned to the Lupe.
She opened a suitcase that lain next to her, and pulled out a golden square with green text. It was a single 139⃄ bill, which she handed to the Skeith, I pay for this.
Good. Y’all’d better. the Skeith said, as they took the money, and shoved it into a pocket in their trousers without a look down at the ammount.
Apologies for… commotion. Please do not speak of this to anyone.
Apology accepted. But I make no promises. I do what I please, lady.
The Lupe narrowed her eyes, but said nothing else.

Rei looked up at Warren, and swallowed, You hear that? she said in a hushed tone.
Guess that means we can still eat here without getting harassed.
I guess. Look, you know I don’t usually give strange people the time o’ day.
But you gotta talk carefully around some people, alright?
Never thought I’d hear somethin like that outta your mouth. Where was this politeness when you were talking to the Drama Club lady?
I’m polite when I need to be.
Look, I don’t like being polite. What I do like, is not having some kind of agency breathing down our necks. Even if you think you could kick the asses of these people, there’s no telling what kind of problems that would cause in the long run.
Yeah yeah, alright. You’re acting like you know who they are. You gonna tell me about that?
That’s not important.
Mm. Subtle, as always.
They frowned, and stopped talking.

Rei turned her head from Warren to the Bori next to her, So… Sechson.
He looked up from his ice cream, Hm?
What’s the matter, you look spooked.
Sorry. It uh, got kind of intense with those guys.
Mm, yeah. So… where are you gonna go?
Go? Oh, because of like… my house, right.
Probably… a hotel, I think. As far as today goes… I think I’m just gonna take a nap and relax. Do they have taxis here in Brightvale?
I’m pretty sure, yeah. I haven’t used one here so I’m not really sure how all that works.
Alright. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do, I think.
He yawned, putting his arm up to his mouth to cover it. He shook his head, put his arm back down, and looked back to her: What are you gonna do?
Oh, uh. Hmm. Probably the same, minus the cab and hotel. Listen to some music, unless that makes me more upset. I can’t nap for too long though, I gotta go to the festival.
Hm? Is the Poogle Parade a multi‐day thing?
Oh, no. The Færie Festival is today.
Oh! I forgot about that, sorry.
Pff, it’s fine. Queen Fyora’ll be here this year, so that’s more interesting than usual.
Sechson nodded, Is it fun there?
Ehhh. she scrunched her face up. It’s something to do. Not a huge deal as far as I’m concerned, but I try to go there each year. Plus, free food, ya know? That’s a big motivator for me. she grinned again, and he chuckled too.

She’d eaten a little more than half of the ridiculous meat roll in front of her, with both Kenji and Sechson given a slice of their own.
Speaking of food… Rei leaned back in her seat, I dunno about you all, and I can’t believe I’m saying this but… I’m stuffed. she looked around at all of them, lowered her head, and her voice, Y’all wanna help me smuggle the rest of this thing outta here?

She held two plastic bags, one in each hand, with two styrofoam to‑go boxes inside each of them, as she floated over the trees. Her wings flapped slow, as she moved along only a little faster than a jog. Above the trees, there was nothing but open sky; the stars, and the moon, shone a pale white from space. It wasn’t quite a full moon, a waxing gibbous with just under a third of it covered in shadow, but still enough to see the treetops and the way home to her apartment.

She reached over and put both bags into one hand, then inspected the other now empty hand. She brushed her fingers against her thumb. Sparks of magic fire flew upwards, with effort. She always felt more recharged after eating, but she’d never depleted, then regained, her magic so quickly before. If not for magic, she wouldn’t even be able to fly at all. She redistributed her leftovers, and closed her eyes. She shuddered, and clenched her fists harder. Her insides burned.

It didn’t take long for her to get home. She touched down on her second story porch, and sat down her bags on a side table. She’d forgotten to turn on her porchlight —a wood and glass magical lamp— so with a touch of her hand, and some of her magic, she made it glow. Her finger stung as she did so, the magic itself painful. She looked around behind her, then turned back to her door. She yawned as she went to unlock it.

The phone inside began to ring.
Aww, hell. she frowned, and jiggled the lock until she managed to unlock it. She pushed the door open, left the bags outside, and fast‐walked over to the phone.

Uh, yeah? Who is this?
It’s Warren.
Oh, hey! she put a hand on her hip, You got home fast! What’s goin on?
Nothing, really.
Uh… okay?
Yeah, uh… Sechson got all of us a taxi. Took us back to uh, my house, Kenji's dorm. Real nice of him.
Oh, good, that’s good.
There was a pause, as Warren breathed in and out, You made it home okay?
Mmhm, I did. Had my eyes closed, for like, half‐a‐the way. I’m still super tired.
Yeah. Don’t worry, I’m good.
I’m glad to hear that. Leftovers make it too?
Yeah, yeah. Just gotta… get them into the fridge. Man, I think I’m just gonna go straight to bed. No music this time.
Sure. Sounds good. they paused, …And uh… hey. Can I ask you a question?
Yeah, sure man.
How much of you being… good… do you really mean?
Oh? she looked out the window, into the moonlit dark.
Like… really really mean? he continued, I know how upset you were. Completely fucked, yesterday. How much of being good and badass right now is just performative?
Oh Fyora's name, dude…. she made a noise somewhere between a wheeze and a chuckle, then put her head in her free hand. She smiled, and shook her head. I cannot believe you just said that without laughing. Did you really say that with a straight face?
…I’m being serious.
What, are you my therapist now? Are you trying to psychoanalyze me or somethin?
I just wanna make sure you’re actually okay.
That’s why you called, right? To make sure I didn’t die on the way home?
Mmhm. That’s right.
She sighed, And… what would you have done… if… I hadn’t picked up the phone immediately, and gone straight to bed?
Call again. And if that failed, probably would’ve gone over there.
She chuckled and shook her head again.
Alright, whatever. I guess I have to be content being the only one taking any of this seriously. Just lock the doors.
Yeah, whatever, dad.
I’m not kidding.
Trust me, I know. she giggled into the receiver Goodnight, dude. Next time you call me this late it’d better be life or death.
I’ll keep that in mind. Goodnight.

A door opened, with the jingle of a bell that was screwed into the threshold. A blue Bori walked in. He was a child in a hooded sweater, with hair a darker shade of blue tied up in a ponytail. The door shut behind him, which rang the bell again. The light from the windows made rays of yellow, which shone through the dust that floated through the inside and the morning mist from the outside.

The arcade was otherwise dark. The machines blinked & glowed, from their screens and other lights on the sides. There were only a couple other people inside the building at this hour, and all of them were too wrapped up in their games to notice him come in. The boy turned to the attendant at the counter.

Hey. Hey. Sir?

The Skeith —green, middle aged, and with bags under his eyes— didn’t move. He’d fallen asleep where he stood. His head leaned back and up, pointed at the ceiling.


His eyes opened, and he wobbled as he woke back up. He took a deep breath as he looked forward, then down, to the Bori.
Mmm! Wuh… he blinked and cleared his throat, whaddya want. Oh, it’s you! What uh, what’s up, uh, Mister Weimann.
Just tokens, please.
Ahh. Right, sure.

He pulled out a small wallet from the pocket on the belly of his sweater jacket, and from that, a 5⃄ note.
Mmh. Real high roller today, eh? he took the bill from him.
Looks like mowin lawns is workin out for ya. he looked down, and put the bill into a cash register.
Well eh… as long as you’re havin fun, more power to ya. he handed him a large stack of brass colored tokens, Me, I couldn’t stand doin hard labor like that. That ain’t me.
Yeah. …Hey, by the way… he’d started to walk away, but had turned back to look at the attendant, Do you uh… know how these things work?
What things?
The machines.
Uh. Not really? Depends on what you need, I guess.
Well… it’s… about Alphacube.
What, the uh, the fightin one? With all the fancy‐schmancy graphics?
…Did it eat your coins or somethin?
No, no. I just… is there like… anything that I’m missing? About how to beat the final boss?
Oh, uh, I dunno. You askin the wrong guy, you probably know more than I do about that damn thing. Darn thing, I mean, dammit. Don’t tell your parents I said that. And yeah. I dunno. At least as far as the uh, game part is concerned.
Even like… with the password cards?
Nah, nah, sorry kid. Even that stuff is new to me. I don’t uh… I don’t mess with that stuff. All this shit feels like it’s from the frickin future. I’m old school, hahahaa, you know what I mean?
I guess, but… you work here….
Sure, but that don’t mean I know jack about how any of this sh— I mean uh, this stuff works. I take the cash, I pull out the tokens, I get my check at the end of the week. Don’t gotta worry ’bout nuthin else. …And believe me. I don’t.
A… alright. Thanks. the Bori started to walk off into the rows of arcade machines.
No problem junior. You need more coins or a soda or whatever… you let me know. Otherwise… I’m goin back to sleep.

He walked past several machines, with a blank stare at the dark patterned carpet. He passed a hall (to the restrooms & maintenance closet) and turned to the machine at the end of the row. This arcade cabinet was larger than the other ones, and had its title emblazoned upon the top marquee: Alphacube. It was painted a plain black, with yellow letters. The screen however, was very different. Every cabinet used either straight lines or small dots in a grid to display the game, but Alphacube had both. And while most of the games were limited to a few colors, or just black and white, this machine had a mixture of painted backlit backgrounds that scrolled mechanically, colored pixels, and bright colored lines. There was nothing like it anywhere in the arcade. He frowned as he stared at the screen. He was going to beat it, and today.

The Bori pulled a slip of card stock from the pocket of his sweater jacket. This was his password. It contained an incomprehensible jumble of squares, colored black, white, red, and yellow, with an orange border around it. He knew there was some kind of pattern to the colors, but it was too complicated for him to be bothered with.

Alphacube’s screen played a demo as it waited for input. It was a side‐scrolling fighting game: each battle location was a different painted background, each character a different pixel art sprite, and each weapon a different vector line that glowed bright against the rest of the artwork, with smooth animation.

He’s right, honestly. This thing really does look like it’s from the future. he said to himself out loud.
Another kid looked over from a few cabinets down: Hm? Oh! Hey Zelig! the pink Wocky waved their hand.
The Bori tore his gaze away from the machine, Oh, uh, hey. What’s goin on?
Not much. they pointed at the cabinet they played on, Space Battle.
Cool. Zelig nodded, then looked back over to Alphacube, I thought you’d be playin this one. You got here before I did.
It’s…. they looked at the cabinet, then into the distance past it, It’s… not for me. I’m not a part of that story.
Uhh. he gave them a sideways look, Okay. Whatever.

Zelig walked over, pushed in one token into the front slot, then mashed the AFFIRM button with his finger. The demo stopped, the backlight turned off, and there was a mechanical sound as the background switched out. The backlight returned, and displayed the Alphacube text logo across the screen. Below that, in small text, were the words In association with the Augur Collective — Products of the future, today. The pixel display pulled up a simple menu below that, which read ACTIVATE, ANAMNESIS, and ABSCOND. He pressed down once, to ANAMNESIS.

The pink Wocky stared at him with a concerned expression, …Are you alright?
Zelig looked back over, Hm? Yeah? Why?
I ‘unno. You look kinda mad.
I guess. Sorry.
Can’t beat the boss.

The top half of the backlight dimmed, which caused the Alphacube text to fade out. A new pixelated menu replaced it, four options which now read APPOINT ANAMNESIS, ASSIGN, AFFIRM, and ABSCOND. There was a blank portrait rectangle to the right side of all four options. He selected APPOINT ANAMNESIS, and all the buttons besides ABSCOND dimmed as it waited. He flipped the card over. It had a repeating arrow pattern on the back. It was right–side‐up, so he put it into the machine through a slot in the front, where it disappeared. Fans whirred faster, as one by one, the small colored squares from the card appeared on the screen, and it began to fill the rectangle.

The Wocky walked over. So… how far are you?
You’ll see.
What, is it a surprise?
You’ll see. Zelig repeated, and smiled a little.
They chuckled at him, and looked around at the other machines, You like this game?
At first it was because it looked cool. Different from all the other ones.
They nodded, Labor of love. It is one of a kind.
Zelig turned to him, Wait, really? It is?
Hmmm. That’s kinda cool. What’s the story behind it?
You’ll find out. Just not right now.

They both watched the squares from the paper appear as pixels, right to left, as though someone read it off the slip. As it finished, it made a quiet bubbling sound, and the other options returned to normal. Zelig pressed down twice, and selected AFFIRM.

The screen popped up just as he remembered it from the last time he played. His character was close to full health and stamina, equipped with a dagger, and fists (which were treated as their own separate weapon by the game). The other kid squinted to look at the status screen.

Oh hey, is that your fighter?
They looked closer at the screen. Wait… does that say you’re on level twenty two??
Uh‐huh. Zelig smiled.
Ohhh you’re almost at the end then! So you beat the firestarter boss as a brawler, huh? How’d you manage that? She has, like, the fire aura that kills you.
You have to get soaked in water.
Oh yeah?
You know that uh, shower and all the way to the right of the screen? With the border around it?
Yeah, that’s not actually decoration. If you use it, you drench yourself in water. Then you can get close enough to get a hit in before she kills you.
Oh wow!
After that it’s a one hit K.O. with a light crystal.
That’s awesome! How’d you figure that out??
I mean… I dunno. he shrugged, I was just trying things out as different characters. There wasn’t really anything else I could do.
Mmhm. Having a bunch of different versions of yourself does sound pretty useful. they grinned.
Well, like, every level has an environmental thing. You can hit the tutorial guy with a book, and if you’re fast enough, you can throw a chair at the fog boss, or stab him with a light dagger.
You’re joking. What about the three and four?
You can hide behind the wooden table so he doesn’t shock you. And if you solve the puzzle box on the fourth boss, she gets caught by demons. You didn’t know any of those?
How’s a normal person supposed to figure that out?
I dunno. he shrugged again, Die a lot, I guess. That’s how I did.
So, that means… you’re on the final boss? That’s what you’re stuck on?
Yeah. I got as far as I could, yesterday, but I dunno what this guy’s deal is yet. I keep dying.
Yeah. Either at the boss, or right after the boss. It makes me so mad.
Fate, then. Maybe you’re meant to die there. You get another chance, at least.
Not gonna happen. I don’t care how I do it, I’m gonna beat him. Today.
Mm. Well, g’luck.
Right. Thanks.

The other kid had wandered off to the front desk, and they carried an empty paper soda cup. Zelig looked back over his stats screen one more time. There were two small options at the bottom right corner: ABSCOND and AGGRIEVE. He nodded to himself and tuned out the rest of the world, as he selected the only option he cared about. The music kicked in, a faster and more intense rendition of the title screen music.

Rei inhaled, then inhaled deeper, as it turned into a yawn. She let her eyes open on their own, slow from drowsiness. She blinked a few times. She’d lain down on her sofa: a bright orange upholstered piece of furniture, padded so thick that there wasn’t a hard surface anywhere on it. She turned her head and looked around the room. Light shone in from her windows, stained orange from the decorative glass. It hit her gaudy wallpaper, a flamestitch pattern of brown, orange, red, and yellow. Her eyes followed the beam of soft light over to a large round clock on the wall over her television.

It was 30 minutes past noon.

Uhg… I don’t even remember falling asleep…., she mumbled as she wrenched her eyes shut. She rubbed an eye with one hand, and pushed herself up off the sofa with the other. Her hand rested on the cotton throw pillow her head was on, which felt more soft than usual. There was something off about her hair, she noticed. She opened her eyes, looked down at the pillow, then put her hand up to her head where it’d rested. She’d smashed the side of her afro in her sleep, and there was a flattened dent in it.

Wh… Oh, for… uhhhgg. she scolded herself, put her hand up to her brow, and shook her head. She pulled herself up from the couch. It was quiet in the apartment. There wasn’t anyone that lived above or below her, and there was a large grove of trees around the complex that insulated it from the sounds of the city. She stifled a yawn, which turned into a sharp inhalation as she bent backwards to pop her back.

I’m gonna… have to wash the pillow… and I’m gonna have to wash my hair… change my clothes….

She looked back at the clock, then at the sofa.
Mmmm. No. Not enough time. she reached down and flipped the pillow over, so that the drier side was on top. The pillow had sucked all the moisture out of her hair, and —while it probably smelled better from hair product— it was stained in a way she didn’t like. She turned and walked around another large piece of furniture, a couch with short wooden legs, also orange upholstered. It was at a right angle to her sofa, and the small corner between the two was filled by a wood end table, with a lamp and a record player on it. The whole set rested on top of an oval rug, brown and orange, a shaggy island in the middle of her living room. She walked past her kitchen and through the threshold at the end of the open floorplan.

She opened the door to her bathroom, poked at the light fixture to turn on a magic glow from inside, and turned to face the mirror. The corners of her mouth scrunched up, and her brow lowered, a face of annoyance at her hair, and herself. She shook her head. She reached down for a spray bottle —half water & half aloe vera juice— and spritzed the flattened part of her hair as she combed her fingers through it. She did this a couple more times, and finished with a squeeze of leave‐in conditioner that she ran through her hair with her fingers.

…Yeah, I can still tell. she stared through the mirror, …Oh well. I don’t think anybody’ll notice.

She continued to stare, as she noticed that the white suit she fell asleep in was smudged and singed. …Oh. That’s… I’m just covered in… she sighed, they’re gonna notice that. Aww hell. she shook her head and trudged out of the bathroom.

Rei walked in through glass double doors with the same maroon jacket she’d had on the day before yesterday. It still smelled like the cheeseburger she had when she wore it last, but her hair product and some perfume covered it up. Mm. Hopefully that covers it up. she thought. She looked up and around at the inside of the University of Brightvale Expo Center through her sunglasses: an enormous convention center, the inside painted the same pastel yellow as the outside brickwork, with light that streamed in through windows in the ceiling. Fæ were all around, ones of every magical element, who all wore vivid colors to match their wings. Many sat in chairs around tables, some stood in front of booths with magical devices & artifacts displayed, and some gathered at a buffet table at the far end of the building.

Rei turned to look at a few of the booths as she walked. A pale earth Færie with brown hair and green highlights grinned from a booth, with a banner over it that said NEW CURSES!! written in comical print. Rei chuckled. Then, a different booth drew in her attention. Several books and artifacts involved with light magic were laid out, and a light Færie reclined in a chair behind them.
Ooh. Rei mumbled to herself and took her glasses off, Oh absolutely.

The booth itself was covered in bright gold & yellow adornments, and as she approached, she saw that the Fæ who ran the stand was as well. She was a light Færie, who wore bright yellow and gold robes. Her skin was far darker than Rei’s, so much so that it looked like the night sky, and her eyes were a bright gold color, with gold jewelry to match, that sparkled in the lights that hung from the sides of the stand.

The Fæ looked up as she heard Rei approach, and spoke with a Sakhmetian accent, Mm? May I help you?
Ahh, yes, hello! Are all these… uh, light magic things?
Yes, indeed. What exactly are you looking for?
I’m not really sure, I was just looking around at everything.
Well, take all the time you need. I haven’t had as many customers as I expected.
Oh, are all these for sale?
Mmhm, yes.
Ohh, even better! I thought most of this was just a display, sorry.
No, go ahead, it’s all for sale. Even the cloth it’s sitting on. she smiled, You’re interested in light magic?
I am, I am, yeah. I realize I’m not a light Færie, but… I’ve always had a fascination with light magic.
Mmm. It’s always good to push your limitations.
Well… thank you, I think.
What all does a fire Færie do with light magic, hm?
Well, I recently made a spell. It’s equal parts light and fire magic. I think it turned out well enough.
Oh, really?
Yep! It’s uh, destruction magic, a pretty big explosion.
Ahh! That’s quite something. she raised her eyebrows.
Yeah! It only hurts the undead though, so it’s safe… well, safe‐er than fire magic alone, but it’s still pretty dangerous around flammable objects.
Gracious. You need to use that often?
I uh, unfortunately. she chuckled and looked aside, Seems like I might need to.
She chuckled, I see. I won’t probe into your personal life, but it sounds quite interesting.
Oh, uh, eheh… Rei smiled, You could say that.

Rei looked down at the table. There were a few books on light magic, with a yellow star on the cover, which rested on a wire display. Gold and yellow trinkets with yellow and white gems were scattered on the table on top of fabric: necklaces, rings, and artifacts to hold in a hand or in a pocket.
I hope you like what you see. the light Færie said.
I do! These are all really beautiful. Are all these… did you make these yourself?
Mm, I did. I am both a goldsmith and an enchanter.
Oh nice. That’s really cool. So… what do these do?
Ahh, here. she turned and handed her a paper pamphlet, one from a stack of several identical ones at the end of the table, I had this printed. It lists what they all do.
Oooh, thank ye. Let’s see uh… Gavin and Grant Stationary Company… Oh, your name is Ibriz?
Yes, that’s right.
Alright, cool. Nice to meet you! she held out her other hand, and Ibriz shook it.
Very nice to meet you as well.

Rei walked over to a table to sit down, a paper bag heavy with light magic knicknacks in one hand, and a hard paper cup of fruit punch in the other. A pair of water Færies were towards the center of the expo center, putting on a show with colored water, and they used magic to send it in circles and spiral patterns in the air. The bag Rei had made a loud clatter as she sat it down, and she herself sat down as well. Light blue fabric covered the plastic and metal tables and chairs, and they made loud noises whenever someone moved them. The water show was joined by a light Færie, a different one than who she spoke to earlier, and she added a burst of sparkles to it. Many Fæ up close to it clapped. Rei looked around. Everything she wanted to do here —besides eat— she’d already accomplished.

She looked over a large poster that hung on the wall. It had stylized pictures of several Færies on it. She scanned the poster for anything that she didn’t already know. There was no schedule printed on it, only the names of some attendees and some events. At the bottom of the poster, however, was some small text that read: 20th of Gathering. 9am to Midnight.

Midnight. she blinked and shook her head a little, Fyora’s name…. she frowned and sighed, What am I gonna do for ten hours? I… I think it’s ten hours. Hell, I don’t even know what time it is. she whispered to herself and leaned back in her metal chair and looked back to the water show.

A voice from behind her: …And, do you wanna know what Patricia said to me earlier?

Rei tilted her head in the direction of the words, but didn’t look away from the show. Someone at the table behind her spoke in what they must have thought was a quiet tone, but the nasal voice carried over to Rei regardless. From the sound of it, she could tell whoever it was was much younger than her.

No, not really. a second Fæ responded in a louder, deeper voice.
Come on.
What, is she still on about her car? I’m tryin to watch a show here.
No, no, listen.
If she wants me to apologize for that, I’m smashin’ her other headlight.
Let me—
Why she even need a car anyway, she got wings.
The first raised her voice, Shut the frick up, Kelly, god, let me tell the—
You shut up! the other retorted, even louder.
The young Fæ made an exaggerated growl.
Fine, what’d she tell you?
Okay, get a load of this. she chuckled and lowered her voice back down, You know Patricia’s neighbor? Like, Abby or something?
No, I can’t say that I have.
Well, whatever. I heard, I mean, Patricia told me, that she saw her… going out on a date.
The other Fæ raised her voice a little, …Uh. Okay?? Rei couldn’t help but imagine the words paired with an exaggerated shrug, Girl are you really that bored?
No!! Look,—
You need a hobby.
If we ever go somewhere without drama —like, camping or something— you’re gonna go stir crazy and fuckin stab me, I guarantee it, and I’m gonna die, and it’s gonna be your fault.
God, Kelly, shut up! Look, get this though: the date?
What about it?
She lowered her voice even more, It was with a neopet.
The other Fæ, Kelly, took a long drink from something, …I see.
Right?? That is so nasty, so messed up.

Rei’s smile faded, and she put her sunglasses back on.

And you believe that? After what she said about you to Tabitha? She’ll say anything.
—That is so nasty
Look, she stirrin up shit and you know it. Just ignore her.
Why would she lie about that? Isn’t that like, beastiality? Uhg.
You even know who she is?
Who you were talkin about. Abby?
Uhm no? Why would I?
You’re really gonna be up in somebody’s business you don’t even know?
Girl, you stupid.
S’cuse me??
She’s just messin with you! You know what she said about—
No she isn’t!—

Rei gathered her things, got up in a single motion, and pushed the chair under the table. It made a wretched noise, as the metal scraped against the concrete and drowned out whatever else the girls behind her said.

She walked over to the buffet table at the back of the huge room. Most of the light from the glass ceiling shone bright on this part of the building, and illuminated all the food. Fruit, sliced meats & cheeses, and a couple of fondue machines. One fondue machine had some kind of cheese, the other, chocolate. Her smile returned as she took her sunglasses back off, and she grabbed a paper plate. Rei noticed that there was a large platter of burritos, covered in red sauce, grease, and cheese. She shrugged and got a couple of those, then moved down the table, as she took at least two of everything at the table. By the time she’d walked over to the dessert section, her plate was already full and unsteady with a pile of food. She chuckled to herself, and decided to come back for sweets later.

She popped a piece of cheese into her mouth, and then a cube of meat. Some kind of hard white cheese that she couldn’t identify, and ham. She nodded and chewed at it as she looked around the room. Someone caught her eye. He was the only person she could see that wasn’t a Færie, and she’d wound up right next to him. He was in an enormous suit of indigo armor, and Rei was surprised that she somehow hadn’t noticed him earlier. Whatever he was was indiscernible, as the suit covered his entire body with nothing exposed. There were no wings, so Rei assumed he wasn’t a Fæ. There were a pair of horns on the helmet, but that was the only identifying feature, other than the strong color. There was a Fæ that stood next to the suit of armor, even more close to Rei: a very pale woman, with purple robes, hair, and arm bands. Rei stifled a gasp when she realized who it was.

She’d seen pictures of Queen Fyora before, read books about her history with the world, but it hadn’t prepared her for what it felt like to be right next to her. She was in the presence of someone that had watched the births and deaths of civilizations, a mature adult long before neopians had invented the wheel, fire, or even language. Fyora had existed before recorded neopian history, so old that even Fæ history was sparse on details. There was a pool of charismatic gravity around The Lady of the Western Skies, which left Rei equal parts comforted, sobered, and existentially terrified.

Fyora held a cheap paper plate in one hand, with a half‐eaten burrito on it. She looked over at Rei, then smiled, and gave a single respectful nod of the head.

It’s like she knew I was looking at her. Rei gave a nervous wave, then smiled back. Hell, considering who she is, she might actually have some kind of spell for that.

Good evening. That’s quite a bit of food you have there.

Rei raised her eyebrows, looked behind her and back to the queen, Oh! Uh, she pointed at herself, me?
Yes ma’am. I certainly hope you’ll get enough.
Oh!! Well, uh, yes! I mean uh, thank you! Yes, yes, there’s plenty.
Mm, good. Personally, I would have wanted more burritos, but there’s always take‐out later. she chuckled.
R… right. It’s uh, it’s an honor to meet you! I never thought I’d see you outside of a textbook or something! It’s really… quite an honor.
No, no. Don’t debase yourself dear, I’m just an old woman. It’s lovely to meet you as well.
I’m… I’m honestly surprised I didn’t see you sooner!
That was on purpose. she smiled, I do blend in quite well, when I want to.
Oh, cool! What is that, some secret old magic?

Fyora smiled and chuckled, but didn’t say anything. Such a gesture would feel menacing, Rei thought, had it come from anyone else.
Fyora spoke again. Your… affinity… is with Light, so I hear?
Yes ma’am.
Well, the affinity of my friend here… is Void. she patted a metal arm of the armored individual, who had no reaction, Your Light was strong enough to shine through his Void, so you noticed us.
I uh… I see. …I think.
Fyora only chuckled again.

Rei attempted to make small talk, and gripped her plate to make sure her hands didn’t shake, So… do you like it here? Brightvale?
Oh, yes, actually. It’s quite lovely here.
You visit often?
Not as much as I should, honestly, I’m quite a busy woman. I haven’t been here in 26 years! Goodness, so much has changed.
Well, 26 years, and 29 days, to be more precise.
Uh, alright.
Well, that’s still not quite right. her expression changed to something more pensive, From your perspective it would have been much, much longer, but I digress. she mumbled through a smile, as Rei gave a nervous nod, And yes. Even here in the historic district, everything is so much more advanced now. Feels so much more modern.
Yeah… it really does feel like I’m living in the future sometimes!
Mmhm. Well, I was flung forward in time, by exactly 544 years, last I was in Brightvale. There’s some bias there, as far as technology is concerned. They didn’t have burritos in medieval Brightvale, that’s for sure. Were you around when that happened?
Oh, uh… n—no, sorry. That… whole business was uh, a bit before my time.
Right, right. she looked Rei up and down, So. Are you enjoying yourself here? You seem… discontent.
Oh!! Uh it’s uh, it’s just… I knew you’d be here, but I never expected to actually talk to you!
I see. she smiled, If it makes you feel less nervous, you’re at least the fifteenth person who worked up the courage to talk to me.
Oh thank goodness. N—not that you’re hard to talk to! Sorry, you probably get that a lot, I hope I’m not being embarrassing.
No, no, don’t fret. It wasn’t simply nervousness? There was nothing else?
Oh! Well… I mean… she looked to the side.
Mmhm? I want to make sure everyone here is comfortable.
It’s just… I dunno. I bought some cool stuff. And there’s the buffet! I like that! I’m uh, pretty food motivated, hahaha.
They both chuckled.
I uh… kinda walked into a conversation I didn’t really want to hear.
Mmm. she nodded.
And like… I dunno. It’s fine! I’m good.
You’d rather be somewhere else?
Rei shrugged, Well….
No one’s forcing you to stay, you know.
It’s the Færie Festival, I have to be here! Tonight they’re gonna have the whole… the ball, and the dancing, and the fireworks… and….
That’s all well and good. But do you want to spend all night doing that?
She looked to the side again.
I’ll leave it up to you. It has been lovely, but I’m afraid I have to continue this conversation later, I will away, as someone is requesting my attention elsewhere.
Oh! Right, right. It was great to meet you!
She smiled again and gave a small bow, It was lovely to meet you, Rei. I trust you and your friend will have a fine evening together. I’ll see you later.

There was no transition; Queen Fyora was there one instant, then gone the next. Both her and the person in the armor were both nowhere to be seen, and Rei was alone in the crowd with a plate full of buffet food. She blinked in confusion and turned around a few times. No one else had noticed their conversation, or that the queen had disappeared. She looked up at the glass windows in the ceiling above her, then down, to the glass double doors on the other side of the building. She ate a handful of cheese cubes, then began to walk towards the door to the outside.

Sechson had his head propped up on a pillow, hands behind his head as he watched the hotel television. There was a preacher —an old lupe— on tv, who stood at a podium and read off of a massive book into a microphone. A live audience was below him, and their hair, hats, or ears sometimes poked up high enough for the camera to see them.

He looked down… the preacher read and gestured with his hands, and the Lord said unto his chosen: …The worldly people look to us —sickened and pleading for us— to keep our meeting with fate. …That we uphold our principles. Self‐reliance, self‐discipline, morality, and a devotion to Him and His Message. They who are wicked, and their kin, rely on us to remain pure for the fate of all our kind. That our people build… a shining city on a hill. And the people below him cheered, for they knew His truth.

There was a knock at the door, and Sechson looked over, Ahh hey, come on in!
Rei pushed the door open. Hey man! Uh… she looked down at the door handle as she closed the door behind her, shouldn't this thing be locked?
He tilted his head, Why?
I mean… you don’t want just anybody… uh, nevermind. How are ya?
I’m good! he smiled.

He lifted up his legs, and swung them & his tail around so that his feet went from the end of the bed, to the floor. He picked up the remote and changed the channel. It switched to a news program. He looked away and tried not to pay attention to it.

I didn’t think you uh… would wanna watch religious stuff.
N— well, uh. she chuckled and looked to the side, No, not really, sorry. I’m not really… into that kind of stuff, outside of like, the holidays.
It’s fine, it’s fine.
So… whatcha been up to?
Oh, well, he looked at the tv, then back at her, not much. Mostly just this. he gestured at the tv with a hand, I don’t usually watch tv. Don’t have one.
I’ve just been… reading, looking around, grazing at the uh, continental breakfast downstairs. he chuckled, Nothing really that interesting. he looked down at the carpet and shrugged, What have you been up to? he smiled up at her again.
Oh! Well, I uh, I went to the Færie Festival!
Yeah! It was uh… it was alright.
It’s already over?
No, no, I just uh…. I didn’t really feel like staying. I got some cool stuff, ate some food, but… nahh. There wasn’t anything else for me there.
Oh!! And I talked to Queen Fyora!
Oh, cool! What was she like?
N… not exactly what I expected, to be honest. A… a little intimidating, up close. I was surprised that she talked to me, to be honest.
That sounds pretty interesting.

Rei set down her bag on the table by the bed, walked around Sechson, then sat next to him on the bed, and he scooted over to give her more room.
Well… he shuffled his feet, Warren probably wants me to keep reading about paranormal stuff. Do you uh… have any of those books?
Yeah, haha, I’m sure he does. And books…? Wait, like, the library books?
Yeah! I didn’t get to finish reading them.
Oh. Uh. her eyes widened, and she looked away from him, I think uh… I might have singed those.
Do we… have any other books?
Rei considered the books she had with her. Hmm. Well. I mean… I do have some books with me, but… they’re all magic stuff. I’m sorry, dude.
Ahhh. It’s okay!

Sechson’s attention was drawn in by the quiet sound of a recorded explosion. He looked over at the tv. There was footage of a brownish‐green tank, which had fired at something off‐camera. It zoomed out, and a reporter spoke over it. Underneath was the subtitle Tanks Roll into Qasala. Rei looked at his expression. He looked shocked, but had tried to conceal it.

The news anchor continued: In other news, yesterday morning, Kotasis Maryona —a geology student in Altador— set himself ablaze in Florin Square. According to eyewitnesses, this was done in protest against the dictatorial regime of—

Sechson pulled back, and his eyes went wide, as the broadcast showed a gruesome photograph taken by someone in the crowd surrounding the event.
Oh my Lord he shuddered & pressed at the remote, and the tv shut off with a click. I… I didn’t need to see that.
I’m sorry. Rei tried to comfort him, There's… a lot of crazy stuff goin on right now. I guess you haven’t seen the news recently?
N… no. I don’t… I don’t look at this kind of stuff.

His skin had gone cold, pale under his fur, which she could see from the insides of his ears.
She patted him on the shoulder, and he relaxed a little, I uh… think I see why you don’t have a tv.
They both forced themselves to chuckle, to lighten the mood.
Rei continued, Do you… wanna go somewhere else? To the library maybe?
Hmm… maybe. Warren’s been… talking to me about it.
He has? When was that?
Oh, earlier today. He had Lucine find out what the phone number for my hotel room was.
She chuckled and shook her head, Oh for goodness sake.
Heh… yeah. He called to uh… ask me about making changes to my house.
What, seriously?
Yeah. Like… home security stuff. Wanting to put, like, extra locks and alarm bells in there, secret exits and stuff.
Fyora’s name….
He’s… taking it really seriously. I… kind of don’t blame him, honestly. Nothing like that has ever happened to be before, and the more I think about it… the more I think that last night, the more… I dunno.

She looked to the side and thought for a second. You know… instead of paranormal stuff… do you just wanna chill out? Listen to music or something?
Oh, uh. Sure! he smiled again, That sounds nice. Where can we do that?

…Aaand here we are! Rei lifted her arm up and gestured at her apartment, My humble abode.

The sky was on the cusp of a color change: not late enough in the afternoon for the sky to stop being blue, but the shadows still grew long. The two of them had walked up from the footpath at the base of the tree‐like apartments, and looked up where she’d gestured.

Ahh, nice! I love the second story balcony.
The front porch, yeah.
He looked over, confused, Oh, that’s the…? But it’s up in the air.
Yeah! she nodded, I can fly. I’ll carry you up there!
Oh! Alright! Are you… sure I’m not too heavy?
Nahh, nah, you’re just one person! Last time I carried you, there was like, a whole ‘nother person, and like, you guys were wearing heavy metal backpacks. It’ll be fine.
Alright. Why not just use the stairs?
Oh… uh. There aren’t any.
Then… how….
Yeah, haha. Uhm. I kinda found that out a few days ago with Warren and Kenji. It’s an apartment complex for Færies, mainly. I guess anyone who can fly. They were uh… really cheap apartments.
So to get in… you have to fly up to the second story of your apartment?
The second story is my apartment.
She chuckled, Yeah, sorry. I know you’re… used to uh, bigger houses.
No no! It’s fine, it’s fine.

They both chuckled and Rei held out her hands. He took them.
You hold on tight now, just like the library the other day! If you fall I’m gonna freak out.
Heh, uhm. Yeah. He gave a second chuckle, more nervous than before, then nodded.

Rei flapped her wings, and with a surge of magic, they both rose up into the air. Her wings felt no strain —it was magical flight, after all— but she had to grip his hands tight as they both rose. Sechson tensed and held his feet together to keep his sandals on. The two of them rose up, and Rei turned to set him down onto the porch first, over the guard rail. He leaned against the wall away from the ledge, as she slipped in as well.

She smiled and turned to him as she unlocked the door, You’re not afraid of heights, are ya?
M— well. he looked around, No more than is uh, reasonable. For a regular person.
I suppose I should have asked you that before I lifted you up into the air, heheh.
I’ll… I’ll get used to it, you’re good. he smiled and chuckled.

They both left their shoes by the door as they walked in, and Rei set down her bag of trinkets on a small table with her keys and spare umbrella. Sechson looked around.
Mmm, okay.
Rei looked over at him, Is that a good okay?
Hm? Oh, yeah! Yeah, it’s cozy in here! This… is a lot comfier than the hotel was.
Thank ya! And hey, I mean, I tried. she shrugged, You don’t even wanna know what this place looked like when I moved in.
He smiled and nodded.
Sit down, sit down, get comfy! she gestured at the sofa, You want a drink or something?
Oh, uh, sure! he sat down, one foot on the shag rug, the other on the sofa cushion. If it’s not too much.
Nah, nah, have as much as you want. she smiled and walked over to her fridge.

The living room and the kitchen were a single large room, not separated by any dividers or counters. Just like the living room, there was a center seating area, although it was a yellow formica island countertop, with bar stools on one side of it. In opposition to the warm color scheme of the rest of the flat, there was a hideous, snot colored refrigerator with rounded corners, which she inherited from whoever lived in the apartment last. She opened the fridge. The lights inside came on, along with a burst of cool air.

She blinked. W… wait a minute…. she looked in, as memories of last night came back to her. I… the food. The leftovers.

They were right in the front, the handles tied in a bow. She stared at them. I… I don’t even remember putting them in here… Fyora’s name, I…. she shook her head and pushed them aside to get at the drinks, Alright, whatever. she chuckled.
Hm? Sechson leaned against an orange pillow and looked over at her, leftovers?
Oh, the uh, big bird thing I got last night. It’s all wrapped up in here.
Ahh, okay. I thought you might have been talking about the uh, the cheeseburger with the funky sauce. The big boy or something.
Ohh, no, I think… I think I ate all‐a‐that one. …I think. Hell, I don’t remember. she chuckled again.

Something else popped into her mind, as she felt at the pocket of her jacket.

Oh! I completely forgot! The sauce recipe!
The what?
The… the secret sauce! From the burger!
Oh! I totally forgot about that.

Rei pulled the slip of notepad paper the Skeith had given her, and opened it up. As she looked down at the recipie, the first thing she noticed was the Skeith’s awful spelling. Then, as she continued to read, her face fell from a smile, to a frown.
What is it?
It’s… she looked up, and frowned into the middle distance, …just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together1.

They both were silent for a moment, until she started to giggle.

S—seriously? he chuckled too.
She shook her head and smiled, Yyyeep. It’s literally just that. I swear….

She turned back to the fridge and stuck her head in, So uh… anyway… what’re you in the mood for? I got… tea, Achyfii, a couple cans of Neocola.
Oh uh, tea is fine.
She nodded and pulled out a pitcher of black tea from deep in the fridge, and a Achyfii for herself.

He looked back over at her. She’d pulled out a glass for him and poured the tea into it. He looked down at the end table, and at the record player.
Oooh, he looked back to her, you have a record player?
Hm? she turned and smiled wide, Oh, yeah!! I got tons of music!
Mmhm! I listen to them all the time while I’m doing homework. Well, homework that doesn’t involve setting things on fire, anyway, heheh.

She carried the drinks as she walked around the couch, then set them onto coasters on the corner of the table, in front of them both.
I uh… she sat down on the couch, and gave him a lopsided smile, as she put one hand up to her head, I had the suspicion… that it was just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together.
Oh, the sauce?
Yeah, the sauce. Right when I saw what color it was. To be fair, it did taste… way better than I thought it would.
So… you were lying? That entire time? He smiled, That whole conversation?
Well. Heh. she chortled and looked out the window to the porch, I guess so. Mostly to myself. I mean… she looked back over at him, come on, can you blame me? she grinned, Warren is so full of it, makes me so mad, you know? He does this whole, she put on a faux‐grumpy voice for him: I know everything about everything act. she giggled, Ya think I wanna give him the satisfaction of being right about that? Nah, no way dude.
Hahaha! Yeah, yeah. I get that.

Oh, right, music. she said to herself, as she got up, walked past the television, and to the tall wooden shelf next to it. Now… lemme tell ya sum’m. she gestured at it, Some people collect plushies? Well, I collect these.

The shelf was taller than her, and filled with what might have been over a hundred record sleeves, almost full. She pulled out a couple and smiled down at them. Sechson didn’t recognize any of the pictures or artists, but he still nodded and smiled. Oh wow, that’s a lot. What kinds of music do you have?
Oh gosh, all kinds. Rock, discotheque, rhythm & blues, funk, a little bit of pop stuff. I got records of all‐a‐those.

He looked over to the poster next to the shelf of records. There was a picture of a purple Kougra playing a guitar, with hair that looked a lot like Rei’s. Underneath the colorful patterns and swirls, he looked swept up in the music he played.
Sechson pointed at the poster, Who’s that?
Who? …Oh.

A pained look grew over her face, which he noticed the moment her face changed.
Are… are you alright?
Hm? she looked at him, then away again, distracted, Oh, uh… yeah. Yeah. It’s uh. It’s fine. He’s…. she gestured at the poster, That’s Bili. He… was a musical genius. Y’know, in my opinion, anyway.

Sechson’s eyebrows raised as he realized why she looked upset. Oh… he was the uh… yesterday….
Yeah. she nodded. He uh… died a couple days ago, apparently.
…I’m sorry.
Hey, hey, don’t worry about it. she tried to smile at him, I’m alright. I’ll be good.
Well… maybe he’s still making music in heaven! he returned her smile.
She swallowed, put her curled fingers up to her mouth, and attempted to hide her pained expression. That’s… sweet of you to say. I appreciate it.

She stood there for a moment. She looked at Sechson, then back at the poster.
Well… you know what? she nodded her head. I know what music I’m gonna start out with.
Oh! Are we gonna… listen to him first?
Yeah. It’s good. I need to listen to it. she looked over to him Just uh, just warning you, it’s… it may not really be to your taste.
It’s uh… I can’t really imagine that you listen to a lot of stuff like this. she smiled. No offense.
That’s fine! Don’t worry, I think I can handle it. You’re… okay playing it?
Yeah, I think so. she reached up to the top of the shelf and pulled out a record. It was a dark colored picture of three neopians, Bili in the center, with white text arranged in the shape of two eyes. Rei slipped the vinyl record out of its case, held it by the sides without touching the groves, and walked over to the record player. She placed the record onto the player with careful hands, and clicked some knobs and buttons. She pulled out a drawer in the end table Sechson hadn’t noticed, took a small brush from inside it, and ran it over the vinyl as it spun. Once she’d finished, she shook it off, and tossed it back into the drawer. Now… usually I’m just listening for myself, but… I wanna have us both listen to it, at the same time. she turned and began to walk away, past the kitchen.
But, like… I don’t really like the sound quality of the uh, built‐in speakers, on this turntable, you know?

She walked through the threshold of the hall to the bathroom & bedroom, and as she did, she yelled over to him across the apartment, So uh… Kenji, right? Did I ever tell you about his dad?
Sechson raised his voice so that she could hear him, Oh uh, no? I don’t think so.
Yeah uh, apparently the guy’s kind of an audiophile, like I am, he had all kinds of… cool wires and gizmos and stuff! I really wish I knew where he got some‐a this stuff.
That’s neat.
It is, yeah. Oh, that’s where I put it. Anyway, yeah! she appeared from around the corner, her voice down to a more reasonable volume. She carried two large metal headphones on her arm, and a bundle of wires in her hand, He gave all‐a‐this stuff to ‘em, but like… Kenji’s not really an audio guy, right? So… when he heard that I like this kind of stuff, he gave all of it to me!
Oh wow! That was really nice of him.
It was! Though… I… think part of it… was that he just didn’t want any of his dad’s stuff around.
They have a uh… complicated relationship, apparently. He doesn’t really talk about it. Much. The little bit I heard was… kinda messed up. Anyway. Get a load of these:

She held up the headphones, which were both made of shiny metal, These are the highest quality headphones I’ve ever seen! Well, heard, I guess, heheh. And I got three of them!
Yeah, I’ve got like… spares in case they break I guess. And they’re adjustable, so like, both neopians and Fæ can use them!
Ahh nice! I was wondering about that.
And the coolest part? Is not even the headphones. Lookit this, now.

She pulled out a double‐sided headphone cord, and plugged it into an output on the record player, where the record still spun without being played. She opened her hand, and showed him a Y shaped plastic thing, It’s called an audio jack splitter. It’ll put the same audio into both headphones.
Oh, that’s neat! I didn’t know that was a thing you could do!
Apparently! Kenji’s dad had one, at least. She plugged both headphones into the top two outputs, and the bottom into the double‐sided cord, Here man, she handed him one pair of headphones, try these on.

He nodded and did so. He clicked them into place, to a setting that fit his head and ears. Seems fine to me.
Awesome! she smiled and walked around to the couch, and sat so that both of them had a whole piece of furniture to themselves. She reached over and moved the needle over towards the center of the record.

So… instead of starting at the beginning… I’m just gonna go straight for my favorite song on here.
Yeah. Lemme tell ya sum’m: I think this is gonna blow your mind.
Sechson smiled and chuckled as he lounged horizontal on the sofa, and let his head rest on the cushion.
Rei put on her headphones, then fumbled with the needle behind his head, This is… the last song on the album, but in my opinion, it’s the best. At least, on this album. This is an experience, dude, I hope you’re ready.
He chuckled, then closed his eyes and smiled. The needle landed onto the record with a delicate precision. After a moment of fuzzy near‐silence, the song began.

A low hum gave way to a reversed cymbal. The low hum turned into reversed, muted chords that Rei would have known as chucking, and more cymbals kept the beat. He scrunched up his brow in a bemused expression; she was right, this wasn’t the kind of thing he listened to, in fact he’d never heard something quite like it before. The rest of the instrumental came in: an electric drone layered alongside a guitar melody, with drums that, to him, sounded like a marching band.

Bili began to sing, and Rei watched Sechson listen. He smiled wider, with a small nod of his head. He liked it. She smiled too, and wiped the dampness away from the side of her eye.

The computer player took no time to pick out their own initials, and instead spammed AFFIRM as soon as the option was available. Another instance of the initials AAA was entered into the high score table.
He was number two. Again.

Damnit! Zelig seethed under his breath and hit the control panel with his fist. There was a prompt to save his progress with a new password (which cost two tokens to print). He ignored it and selected ABSCOND. It’d kicked him out to the main menu. He navigated from there to ADVANCE. It’d kept the image of his password in memory. He stared at it for a moment, then turned to the front desk. The attendant faced away from him, a newspaper in hand. It was a deep orange sunset outside, by now. He turned back to the cabinet and sighed. His eyes went over to the ASSIGN option. He selected it.

An interface similar to the high score entry text box popped up, but instead of letters, it was just four colors. Black, white, red, and yellow, along with a small cursor on one of the squares in the password image. Manual entry of the colors.

Zelig narrowed his eyes. The picture contained everything about his character, but he didn’t know how. He replaced the color of one square with another. Whatever pattern there was, he'd figure it out. He was going to beat him, tonight, no matter what he had to do.