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Nikki's Week

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[Egor]

Observing fish can only entertain for so long. Eventually you give up on it and try to get some shut-eye. But as you get to it, Nika finally answers your text - with a photo that would make falling asleep difficult even without your well-rested state. It's a selfie featuring girls that look like Dot and Nikki… but you have trouble believing it's them. Dot appears to be horribly beaten and hopefully just unconsious, and Nikki looks nothing like herself. She is wearing some kind of latex getup, her face decked in dark makeup and her expression more blissful than you've ever seen. You are pretty sure she is high out of her mind in this picture.

Another message appears before you can react. She says that she loves you and that she's 'found C'? 'C'… what could she mean. Cluster? That would make sense. Still, whatever has happened to her while you weren't around, you don't like it one bit, safe environment or not. Besides, just how 'safe' can a bloody sex club be when it comes to a naive soul like Nika?

Well, the unsettling fact is, there is nothing you can do about it right now. You erase the unfinished message where you ask her to call you and try to think positively. The ladies are currently all right - well, if you suspend disbelief for a second and ignore the obvious damage to one of them, - and will stay this way till morning, hopefully. Even if Dot looks like she's seen better days. Just what kind of twisted shit is this woman into? And why did she drag your Nika into it? No wonder you immediently disliked her. Something about the vibes she gives off just…rubs you the wrong way.

Halfway through the night, after a lot of tossing and turning but still not feeling sleepy, you decide that you've had enough and get up to check out the kitchen, hoping to find some leftovers to eat. You tip-toe through the living room, where you can make out Yar's massive snoring form stretched across the couch with his feet hanging off the end, and exit to the hallway. The kitchen ought to be behind one of the two doors you don't remember opening, locating it doesn't take long. The fridge is almost empty but you do find a couple of pizza slices in a plastic container, as well as some ham and eggs.

Well, you don't feel like cooking anyway, so pizza it is. You slip the slices into an unfamiliar microwave and hope it doesn't make too much noise. Appears you didn't hope hard enough - the sound of it working comes off as almost deafening in the quiet of the night. You swear under your breath, hitting the stop button… which just results in a loud bing, making you cringe. So much for being sneaky with your midnight snack.

"Hungry?" Yar asks from the doorway, yawning. He doesn't look miffed thankfully, just sleepy. But you are thoroughly mortified about waking him.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to-" Yar waves his hand, shutting you up:

"It's fine, you didn't wake me up, my bladder did. You're welcome to whatever you find there… which probably isn't much. Need to remember to order stuff… remind me in the morning."

"Sure." Seeing how keeping quiet is now pointless, you start the heating cycle again. "Shall I leave you some?"

"Nah, I'm good." Yar shuffles away, presumably to the bathroom, and you focus your attention on the food, trying not to drool. After a couple of minutes he comes back to you already shoving warm soggy pizza into your mouth. He squints at you with an expression that might almost look endearing in the dim light of the open microwave (but it's just your eyes playing tricks on you, of course it is), and asks:

"I take it you are all good now? No lingering pain?"

You swallow before speaking and nod:

"None, and since I'm all peachy now, I think you should take back your bed. Your spine will thank you. The couch is too short and it's not good to sleep all contorted like this, I know from experience."

Yar snorts dismissively:

"I'll survive one night, no biggie. You're the guest, so take advantage while I'm offering. It may not happen again."

You sigh, knowing perfectly well that it most definitely will not happen again. Well, unless you manage to get yourself messed up somehow once again with Yar being around to play doctor. The Florence Nightingale effect would probably be too much to hope for. Jesus, that's beyond stupid to even think about… isn't it?

Yar bids you goodnight and leaves the kitchen. You decide to use the momentum and prepare breakfast in advance knowing that both of you will be hungry after waking up, and having no food ready would be an unpleasant way to start the day. You quickly locate a skillet with some cooking oil and use the fridge's contents to prepare a generous amount of eggs fried with ham slices, for lack of other options. Better than nothing, and the quantity should be enough for two people… even if one of those people is someone with Yar's appetite.

Then, having cleaned up after yourself, you return to the bedroom and settle in bed, this time determined to get some sleep. Having a full stomach helps with the task, and you manage to nod off soon enough.

 

***

…Your dream is chaotic and nonsensical, a jumble of smells and sensations. Scenes follow one after another with seemingly no connection between them: latex-clad Nika, standing next to Dot's body - clearly dead with her chest cavity carved open and smelling of rot; yourself, completely naked save for the chain wound tight around your neck, lying unconscious in a tub that's rapidly being filled with ice slush mixed with vaguely familiar-looking bluish crystals, the scent of ozone heavy in the air; Yar, alive, but with his spine twisted unnaturally, rolling on the sawdust-covered floor, in pain…

One by one, the images pass before your mind's eye, eventually fading into nothingness and giving way to something solid. Your eyes can't see, but you can still feel a body under you, all warm skin and hard muscle, a steady heartbeat against your palm where it is pressed to his chest. Definitely 'his', and it's not just how firm the chest is, but the feeling of something just as firm and unyelding poking at your pelvic bone, and your body's natural reaction to it that clues you in. The smell of cedar mixed with something citrusy seals the deal. Whoever this is, he smells just like…

You snap awake and stay completely still for a couple of seconds, trying to calmly assess the situation you're in, even though you already know that it's bound to be awkward as all hell. First of all, there is definitely a sleeping, snoring body under you, and it belongs to none other than Yar. Second of all, the aforementioned body is certainly having an erection - and so does yours, to your endless chagrin. Third thing you realise is that both of you are on the floor next to Yar's bed with the blanket partially hanging off the edge and one end tangled around your ankle. Looks like you rolled off the bed in your sleep and ended up on top of Yar, who apparently at some point during the night has decided to sleep on his bedroom floor instead of the back-breaking couch. Good for him.

You take a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm your racing heart and figure out what to do next. Shit. This. Cannot. Be. Happening. This should not be happening, not to you! You aren't the type to be in these kinds of situations! You are supposed to have better control of your life than this.

But, holy god of hotness, that thing uncomfortably resting against your abdomen feels like it is really something. Part of you - a very small, very quiet and easily overruled by shame part, - wants to take a better look, either with your eyes or with your hands… but you aren't going to even begin considering doing that. A thought about staying still for a couple of minutes and enjoy the sensation while it lasts does cross your mind, but you suppress it too. You are not that desperate for human contact and would like to believe that you also have more sense than is required for acting so stupid. None of that.

What you do intend is deal with the situation the same way you would if the peson you fell on was anyone other than Yar - cold-headedly and rationally. No freaking out or reflecting on your life's choices that have led you to this point. Sure, this is beyond embarassing, but it could happen to literally anyone. No need to make a big deal out of it, bigger than you already have, anyway.

Thus having talked yourself out of the impending panic attack, you move to push off the sleeping giant. Then slowly realise that the snoring you've been listening to since waking up has stopped.

"Hey." You freeze, holding your breath. Yar, fully awake, squints up at you: "Fancy meeting you down here. Got tired of bed rest?"

"I-I… fell?" You voice sounds… weird, but at least you managed to say something. That's a good start.

"That's what I thought." Yar smirks and shifts a little, pushing his lower body up against you, and chuckes at the noise you inadvertently make - something terrifyingly close to a whimper. "Good morning to you too, by the way. Sleep well?"

…Is he for real?! Suddenly, the confusion you've been experiencing gives way to hot fury and you jump off of him with angry animalistic sound, yank the blanket off the bed, wrap it around yourself and dash out of the room, almost falling over in your hurry to get away.

Locked up in the bathroom, you tear off your clothes, jump in the tub and turn on the cold water with shaking hands. You think you can be proud of yourself for not attacking the lughead for making fun of you. Well, maybe he didn't, but it sure looked like he did. If so, how dare he! If not, then you avoided a violent overreaction and can only be accused of slight rudeness for not wishing him good morning back. And that, you can live with. On top of everything else, you're sure he understands exactly why you bolted.

"Egor." You flinch at Yar's voice, followed by a sharp knock on the door. "There is a spare toothbrush under the sink, use that." And it's all he has to say. You listen to his heavy footsteps as he walks away, and seeing that your morning problem has now been taken care of, change the water's temperature to a more comfortable one. Maybe you could get away with staying in the bathroom for as long as possible, but you know it's pointless. You'll have to face him sooner or later - might as well get this over with at once. Just keep calm and remember that you did nothing wrong. It will be fine. Hopefully.

The water finally warms up to where you like it. You clean yourself like usual, taking an extra second when your hand goes over where Yar rubbed against you. There, you scrub for a bit longer. Your mind drifts to how many times Yar has used the washcloth you're holding to wipe down his body and how many times he's stood naked where you currently are. The familiar urge starts up again, so you shift to thinking about many times he's put you in danger and generally been a bad partner, if not a shitty human. It doesn't work. Turning the water cold again isn't fun.

You use a hand towel to get most of the water dripping off you, then start an epic search for the spare toothbrush Yar mentioned. First, you find shaving cream bottles, soaps, some kind of medication, then a dusty pistol taped to a side of the cupboard - makes sense… Finally you spot a purple toothbrush still in its packaging and use a nailblade to cut it free - and come *this* close to throwing it at the wall when you see a small decal of a cat on the back. If the universe is taunting you, it's not going to win, no sir. You are calm. Calm.

Five minutes later you're dressed and walking towards the kitchen. Yar is shirtless - be still your beating heart! - and wearing… chinos? Why? Although, if you were the one who spent the night sleeping on the a couch and then the carpet, you'd probably want to wear something fancy too. The man is currently busy staring at the stovetop where the ham and eggs combination you prepared is sitting - you probably should have put the skillet in the fridge. Well, too late for it now.

"Damn, Egor, when did this happen?" It appears he's forgotten about the small incident after you both woke up. You'll apologise about it later… well, maybe. There's a decent chance you'll forget about it too.

"I wanted to get a head start on breakfast? Thought no one likes starting the day with an empty stomach."

He smirks at you:

"How'd you make this then?"

"Not liking to start the day hungry isn't the same as being incapable of doing so." You slide into a chair and turn expectantly towards him; maybe you can show him you're not playing his game today:

"How about playing a good host for now? I cooked, so you serve. It's only fair."

"I cannot argue with that." He flexes his fingers for some reason and makes a big show of pulling different plates out of different cupboards, then picks up the spatula and flips it in his hand. It's hard not to smile at this little performance he's putting on, even if he only does it because you asked him to serve the food.

"You want some, Egor? Eggs, I mean." He knows how he comes off right now and he should be bloody ashamed of himself.

"Sure. And don't forget to reheat them." Despite your earlier refusal to serve yourself, you are still itching to help out in some way - maybe by making coffee? Does he even have coffee? And you know for a fact there is no milk, so you won't be drinking. Maybe you should ask if he has tea.

Yar doesn't seem to need any assistance though; the microwave is already working, and he's pulled out a genuine coffee maker from one of the cupboards and is busy loading it with water. Okay, better say something because you really don't feel like having black coffee today. You clear your throat, and he turns to you.

"Does that thing work with tea leaves?" Yar stares at you for a moment, confused. Guess it never occured to him to use the appliance this way. Then he shrugs:

"Huh. Odd idea, but I'm willing to find out. Good thought." You take note of which cupboard he gets the tea from, just in case you ever need it, and contunue to observe the preparations, pleased that he went along with your plan. "If this explodes, you're buying me a new one."

"It won't, but fine… hey, how did you end up on the floor?" You have a general idea, so he doesn't really need to answer, but at the moment you can't think of a better topic to make conversation.

"You were right, you know. That couch is a back-killer. I woke up from the mother of all cramps and decided a flat surface where I could stretch properly would be a remedy."

"Why the bedroom, though?"

"It has a carpet." Oh. That makes sense. You shake head at your own stupidity. Some kind of barrier between cold hard floorboards is better than none.

"Well, in any case, I think you need a bigger couch. Or rather, longer. And your bed? Isn't it a little too narrow for you? You should be constantly waking up on the floor regardless."

"Actually, never. I suppose I just sleep like the dead. No movement."

There is a lull in the conversation after that, during which Yar switches the plate in the microwave with the cold one and sets the reheated portion in front of you along with a fork – you silently waive the knife he offers and take out your phone, because it only occurs to you now that you haven't the faintest idea what time it is. There is light coming from behind the shutters, but it's faint – either due to the window being hidden behind boards on the outside or because it's just early. Turns out it's 10 a.m. already. You can't remember last time you were up at such hour. Back when you had a regular job with fixed hours, maybe.

Clearing the accumulated pop-up notifications on your phone makes you think back to yesterday and Nika's disturbing message. You really want to call her and make sure everything isn't as bad as it seems. Actually, forget calling, you need to see her. The sooner, the better.

"Anything interesting?" Yar asks, finally pulling out a chair to set opposite of you with his own plate. You quickly slip the phone back into your jeans' pocket.

"It's nothing major." As much as you wish to talk about your friend's problems with someone, Yar isn't privy to a lot of information that would be necessary for you to vent without having to provide some background first. And you still aren't exactly ready to let him in on the details of your private life. It's not like you know a whole lot about his after all, so in your eyes it's only fair to hold back a little.

Yar is positively annihilating his food with an urgency that makes you wonder if it's due to the meals high quality or just pure hunger on his part. You observe this and you pick at your own food lazily, letting your mind drift. Yar did mention on multiple occasions that he doesn't have friends – only associates. You used to count your humble self among those, but now you aren't so sure. Though it all depends on how Yar normally treats his 'associates' - would he drag them all the way to his private den to have their wounds treated instead of dumping them at a hospital or with their next of kin to deal with? Would he lend them his bed? Would he invite them for drinks with no plans to discuss business-related matters? Would he keep pestering them with a clearly unwelcome pet name?

…Would he rub against them without even a slightest hint of shame, shall they land on top of him after falling out of bed???

The fork drops out of your hand with a clank and you startle, realising that Yar has long since cleared his plate and is now looking at you quizzically.

"Not hungry?" You shake your head and begin shoveling the eggs into your mouth, barely chewing. Thankfully, there isn't a lot for you to finish. After hurriedly swallowing the last lump, you make a move to take the plates to the sink, but Yar shoves you back into your chair and does it in your stead.

"You're the guest, remember? I'll handle it. You can do the tea, if you are so eager."

You nod and get busy with a couple of mugs that he has set aside for the two of you, putting them under the nozzles of the coffee maker that has just started puffing. Wonder of wonders - looks like it does work with tea leaves after all. Speaking of which…

"How come you have not just tea bags, but leaves? You aren't a tea person, as far as I can tell?"

"No, but I'm definitely a hangover person. And strong black tea helps a lot." Yar returns to his seat and cocks an eyebrow at you. "How come you don't know this? Aren't you Russian? Knowledge of hangover remedies should be an obligatory line in your genetic memory coding, or something."

You knew this was coming the moment he opened his mouth. But for whatever reason his words don't rile you up as much as they would have coming from… say, Robert. Maybe you are finally becoming immune to his bullshit. The fact that he was obviously just teasing helps too, so all you do is set the tea down on the table and take a seat. You slowly pick up a mug and take a delicate sip of the hot coffee-smelling liquid, not breaking the eye contact.

"Why would I even need to know, if I'm never hangover?" Damn, not only does it smell of coffee, there is no sweetener either. You'll just have to chug it down as soon as it's cool enough not to blister your tongue. You sigh, frowning at the offending beverage. You are really roughing it today, aren't you?

"You're shitting me." Yar stares at you in utter disbelief, his eyes wider than you've ever seen them. It's pretty comical, and you use the mug to hide your smile. "That can't be. I know for a fact that you've gotten blackout-drunk before – I personally dragged your butt home once, for fuck's sake. Are you telling me that didn't affect you?"

It's your turn to look smug, and do you ever enjoy having the opportunity! It is pretty nice to have advantage over him, even if it's something as small as being blessed with fortunate metabolism.

"My father has never had a hangover in his life, too. Guess I won the genetic lottery. In some aspects, that is." Other aspects might get you brutally murdered if you are not careful, but that's another matter.

"Lucky bastard." Yar grumbles and proceeds to drink his tea. Judging by his morose expression, it does nothing to lift his spirits. "This is horrendous, never again. Will just make it in a jar next time, like always."

"It's an odd combination." You agree. "Though maybe if there was a muffin to go with it, or any kind of chocolate…"

"Well, next time bring your own muffin, then." He decisively pushes his mug to the side and stands up with a grunt. "If you're done, I'll drive you home. I have a meeting to get to in your area."

So, just like that, huh? He's not even going to mention… Ah, forget it. If he doesn't, then you definitely won't. It's not worth it.

"Thank you for having me. Well. Sort of."

"Don't mention it. Listen…" He is almost out of the kitchen when he suddenly turns to you, as if he's just remembered something. "If you have trouble keeping the shakes under control, I know a guy who knows a guy… Doesn't matter, but I can get you the Juice on short notice. At reasonable price, too. Just call. Don't let it get too far."

He proceeds into the hallway, leaving you frozen where you stand due to an acute case of warmth and fuzzies that catches you so off-guard that you have to take a pause to process it. Those aliens that replaced him may have done a very good job at making this version of Yar look convincing 99% of the time, but he just keeps slipping, doesn't he? Betraying his doppelganger nature with uncharacteristic mindfulness.

You shake off this thought and leave the kitchen. Time to go home and touch base with your troublesome neighbour.

 

[Nikki]

No nightmares. Your eyes tiredly drift open, and your chest rises up and down softly with your breathing. The tiny horizontal slit of a window near the roof has sunlight streaming through it, and it warms your arm and face that isn't hidden by the thin covers. Dot is the big spoon, and the sugar-glider folds below her arms cover your ribcage as her right arm wraps around your side and her left arm goes over your head, making the fold on the other side a nice wrinkly pillow cover. You slide backwards into her embrace; her breasts press against your shoulder blades and the heavy breeze from her nostrils tickles your scalp. The tail at the bottom of your spine wants to have fun but you won't let it ruin the moment; instead you just pin it in between your bodies and grind your butt into Dorothy's crotch.

She doesn't wake up yet, so you enjoy her warmth for a little while longer. Then, you gently roll over and face her. The scarred and bruised face looking back at you is one that holds no resentment, no distrust of any kind. Her black eyes give her some bewitching eyeshadow and the horrible marks, cuts, burns and bruises covering the rest of her top half fill you with apprehension. Trying to ignore it, you lean forward and kiss her on the cheek - the lips can be kissed when she's awake. Then you slowly disentangle yourself from her limbs and slide out the bed to the bathroom. You do your business and wash your hands, then splash some of the cold water on your face. It does its normal icy shock neccessary to fully wake you, and afterwards you go to your wardrobe and slip some underwear on. You decide not to get properly dressed until you've talked to Dot about potential plans for today.

After enjoying the sunlight a bit more, you slide back under the covers and snuggle into her embrace again, not patient enough to wait for her to wake up normally. After half an hour, you've fallen back asleep and she's the one to wake you with a kiss on the back of your head and a smooth hand running over your ribs.

"Mmm… hello?"

Dot chuckles at this.

"It's your girlfriend." That's right! Shortly before you both fell asleep, you asked if you could start a proper relationship together… and she said yes.

She moves back slightly, and you roll over once more to face her. The bruised eyes are open now and looking down at you. You feel shame.

"You don't regret it, right? Neither the ways I hurt you nor saying yes to a relationship?"

Dot shuffles closer to you, and her hand caresses your cheekbone, her split lips curl into a smile.

"Of course I don't, you're a great girl and a pretty decent Dom too."

"I might be, but… I wish I didn't have to find out the hard way."

Dorothy gives a big stretch and climbs out of the bed, then steadies her legs and stands up, giving you an impressive view of the whip lashes you left on her back and butt.

"Just don't forget, Nikki: everything you did to me was because I wanted it to happen. If I didn't want you to damn near kill me and make me beg for mercy, then I wouldn't have offered to receive at Cluster. Try to remember that whenever you feel ashamed. You good?"

"I guess so, it was just a lot to experience so fast."

"Yeah… that pill I gave you didn't exactly help." Of course, you had almost forgotten she'd given you a pill to calm your nerves, and all it did was turn the nerves into anger, making you beat Dot within an inch of her life.

"What was it? Did you pick it on purpose?"

Dot bites her tongue.

"If I tell you, will you use it in your own time?"

"No."

"Then no. But I promise you, it's not illegal."

Later on you sit sideways in Dot's lap in the kitchen and hang your hands around her neck while she strokes your hair and rests a hot cup of coffee on her thigh in between sips. This quiet time is nice, even though you want to ask about today's plans. Eventually she begins talking.

"Nikki, I'm your first ever girlfriend. Correct?"

"First ever partner ever. I lost my virginity to you, so there's probably a word for that."

Dot takes another sip from her cup and gets a distant look in her eyes.

"Maybe we should stay a bit distant for now."

Huh?

"W-Why's that? You're wonderful, I went to spend as much time as I can with you."

"As much time has you can, huh. Would you marry me if given the chance?"

You stand up from her lap and turn to face her while you think. Dorothy is amazing, full stop. Her body and mind don't sound off any warning bells for you, and there's a deep longing in your chest whenever you lay eyes on her. Or maybe that's just basic longing for a companion and not her specifically. Who knows and who cares, you've made up your mind.

"Well, we'd need to find a wedding dress with cuts under the arms for you. I'm not sure if they sell ones like that, but-"

"Goddamnit, Nikki." Dot drains her cup and stands up from the chair; her tall frame can look intimidating in the right light. Did you do something wrong?

She takes your hand in hers and guides you over to the couch. Your eyes dart briefly to the front door to make sure it's locked before you sit down with her - the last thing you want is Egor or someone else barging in on you half-dressed and her completely naked.

"I'll level with you. You… shouldn't feel this way about me already. Love is a slow thing, I've been married four times before and sometimes I still miss them. But Nikki? In all honesty, we haven't done anything lovey-dovey together. Yes, we showered together at Cluster but that was to get the mess off that horrible latex clothing. There was one real kiss early this morning, but apart from that, it's just been pure violence and lusting for each other. You should not be considering marriage right now, not at all. Is that all okay with you?"

Part of your mind is stunned but the rest of it agrees completely with Dorothy. It's not worth mentioning this morning when you climbed back into bed with her just to feel her embrace.

"Yeah, I am. I probably shouldn't propose to someone who's only been naked since I started dating them."

Dorothy smirks at that, then she stands up and does a show of stretching while walking to the bathroom, successfully enticing you.

"I'm gonna go shower, wanna come with?"

"Umm, no thank you." You desperately want to say yes, and she knows it. She shrugs and disappears around the corner without a word.

You sit there awkwardly and try to mentally block out her naked form in your mind, but it doesn't work. You start drumming on your knees and fiddling with your tail, your mind still focusing on her. To distract yourself you decide to do the dishes, the colourful rubber gloves you first used to hide the electric current in your hands work well enough. Then go to turn the hot water on, but manage to stop yourself before you reach the tap. Pipes are weird here. Hot water from the tap might mean no hot water for Nikki's shower. Dot's shower, that's what you meant. Then the water starts flowing in the bathroom and you decide you were right the first time.

It's hard to get your rubber-covered fingernails under the lining of your bra and panties, but you need to keep the gloves on if you intend to shower. Just as you get them both off, you round the corner - and Dot's waiting there with outstretched arms. You leap forward, and she scoops you up with a bit of a huff and carries you into the shower stall. The hot water burns for a second before you adjust, and she cradles you in her arms while your tail decides to start sliding in and out of her. Naturally you can't stop it and Dot squints at you like she's trying to ignore it, and fails.

"Alright, I appreciate the thought, but I'm still recovering from last night. If we're doing this, it's with me giving and you receiving." Thankfully, the juices of your mutual excitement wash away easy enough in the shower.

Later on, you sprawl on your bed wrapped in a towel and try to work through the tingling you feel all around you. It feels like there's glittering apple cider in your veins. You toss and turn left and right while you can't stop your voice from murmuring about nothing and your hands in their gloves curl into fists and shake like mad. What Dot did in the shower, what she helped achieve for you - it felt otherworldly. But it also triggered memories of some of the worse dreams you've had, and now you convulse and try to work through the scattershot of images you see in your mind. A sweat breaks out on your forehead, and you start hyperventilating. Dot picks a good time to finish drying herself off, and now she strokes your hair while soothing you down with a tune you don't recognise. Once she helps you with that, your limbs settle down enough to let her dress you. It's another awful feeling similar to how much she helped you recover in Cluster, but this time she jokes the whole time and plans the day for you.

She requests you go to her apartment and grab some things for her, namely a journal she kept in her bedside table and a piece of jewellery which is hopefully still hidden in the bottom of a knife block. Dorothy wraps a thick orange jacket around you and kisses you on the forehead which is the turning point in bringing you back to normal.

"Egor texted you and said he'd be home soon, I reckon you wait outside in the harsh cold and give him a nice warm welcome. Just don't forget to grab my things, please."

"I won't, see you later."

"Bye, honey."

Dot wraps a blanket around herself, opens the front door, shoves you out of it, then closes it and locks it - twice. Then you turn towards the stairs and nearly stumble over yourself when you feel how icy the floor tiles are. Did it rain at some point during the night? At least these big boots Dot put on you help a bit. You slowly make your way down the stairs and rustle around to see what clothing she put on you. There's a normal bra and panties, thankfully. A long grey sweater has its sleeves tucked into the brown leather gloves that Egor gifted, the orange jacket over it practically glows in the daytime. For your bottom half, Dot managed to pull a big pair of cargo pants on you and some stockings for extra warmth. Finally there's a pair of tough, tan boots and a beanie that struggles to hide all your hair so you take it off and shove it in your back pocket, brushing where you tail would be. You bite your cheek when you realise Dorothy has haphazardly used the garters from the Cluster box to pin the tail to your leg. The very end of it wiggles almost at your knee and you pray there's enough clothes in the way to hide it.

Waiting outside in the cold isn't fun, but eventually you spot a sedan with darkened windows pull up and Egor climbing out of it. After waving to the driver and watching the car peel off, he shoots you a quizzical look. He then waves to you too, and you stride towards him and wrap him in a hug; he returns it and despite the less clothing he's wearing, you're shivering just a bit more than him. After the hug, you shove your hand in your back pocket and pull the beanie over his head.

He huffs, but lets you do it, then adjusts it while talking:

"I don't… whatever, thanks. What are you doing out here?"

"I couldn't wait to talk to you! There's so much to say, Dot introduced-"

"You called her Dot on purpose just now?"

"Yeah! We're dating, can you believe that? She wanted me to get some stuff from her apartment but it's a while away."

"I'll come with, just let me put something warmer on." Egor briskly walks up the icy stairs and you follow. You make a few attempts to continue talking, but he mentions that you should probably wait until you're both inside his home. When you pass your own door, you can't wait any longer and blurt out that you love her. Egor glances at you funny and leads you to his own front door. There's just enough time for you to kick your shoes off at the front before you start clapping your hands with glee and spill everything.

 

[Egor]

Nika hovers around you and talks about everything that's happened to her recently while you sort yourself out. Last night while you were with Yar, they both hit Cluster and Nika let out a wild side she didn't know she had. Somehow - with the help of an unknown drug, - she managed to not only throw a punch, not only use a knife, not only use a whip and a hammer and a pincer, she somehow managed to successfully torture her friend until she begged for mercy - then fell unconscious. Nika. Precious little Nika who's scared of her own shadow managed to do worse than Yar sometimes does for interrogation. You wouldn't believe it if she hadn't shown you pictures to illustrate her story.

Then she tells you there was a point to this: apparently they were in the S&M section of Cluster (where you've personally never been to), and Dot can't sleep or orgasm without something to push through her no-pain mutation. It sounds like a horrible way to live, and you'd feel bad for her if you actually trusted the woman or liked her at all. Then Nika reveals that after the long nap, the latex cleanup, and the debate over having a piercing as a reminder, Cluster actually expected her back to continue working there. Flipping insanity. Nika getting a job as a professional dominatrix is about as likely as Alice taking the veil and establishing a convent in Interstate.

Eventually Nikki slows down and talks about this morning's events, mainly her and Dot officially becoming a couple. You put down the clothes you're holding and give her a small clap, because what else can you do at this point? Your actual feelings on the matter won't be welcome just now. She blushes and admits she was going way too fast for Dot which is exactly what you expected to hear from Nika's first relationship. An inexperienced and unappreciated girl like her is definitely going to make every rookie mistake in the book. She vividly describes what made her think like that: very early this morning, after Cluster, her and Dot shared a passionate kiss, and Nika imagined a scene of the two of them lying under an apple tree on a bright sunny day pointing out shapes in the clouds. For some reason that rings a bell for you, maybe you saw it in a movie somewhere?

She goes on to gush about how Dot pleasured her in the shower stall. You're happy for Nika discovering the better perks of adult life, but you really don't want to hear this, and she graciously skips most of it until she gets to the point of how she was convulsing on her bed afterwards. You comfort her when she tells you that she was ashamed of Dot having to dress her while she recovered - you tell her it wasn't her fault, and she should blame whoever made her this feeble in the past. Finally, she's finished telling you about her day and night.

You spit the toothpaste into the sink and rinse your mouth with more water. Nika sits quietly on the bathtub's edge as she pulls her pants down a bit and tries to stick the length of her tail back under its constraints, namely the underwear accessories that Dot put on her. She notices you looking at her and gives a big huff:

"Sorry to ask but, would you mind helping me with this?"

"Of course."

She stands up and manages not to squeal when you take off all the garters before pinning the tail to her leg with one hand and snap the squeaky vynil staps over it with your other hand. Before it can wiggle free, you tightly do the rest of the garters down her leg and help her pull her pants back up. After Nika exhales and thanks you for it, she shuffles a little to check how secure the tail is and follows you out of the bathroom.

"Whew, thanks for that. I'm glad one of us has experience."

"No problem. Wait, experience?"

"With these things. I've never worn anything like that before. No stockings and no garters, just tights and some long socks."

"Well. Me neither, obviously." You give her a pointed look and hope like hell she doesn't actually think you're the type to wear girly underthings.

The look seems to go straight over her head:

"You don't have much experience? Surely you've been to Cluster for years."

You tense up when she says it. Cluster isn't really your main club of choice when it comes to 'experiencing', Rainbow Cafe is more your speed, despite its ridiculous name. Cluster is more of an occasional a hangout spot for you - you feel too overwhelmed by its usual crowd to go there with a carnal purpose in mind. Granted, Nika doesn't know how you feel. But that doesn't clarify where her confusion comes from.

"No, I can't say I've ever used any ladies underwear before, especially the fetish kind."

"Not ever?!" She seems surprised to hear it. "But… you must have at least once!"

Jesus, seriously, what makes her think that?

"No, I see no point in using something not made for you."

Nika falters.

"Yeah… I knew that. But…" But what then? You're utterly lost at this point. Nika drops her gaze to the floor and stays quiet for a little while. Then you two enter the living room, and she turns to you with a timid questioning expression.

"You… only… like guys?"

You blink. It takes you a couple of seconds to process why she is asking you this, right now, and what her earlier misconception was actually about. Then you shake your head at the absurdity of the situation.

"Correct." It's hardly worth mentioning, in your mind, but Nika got the facts wrong, and you cleared it up. Thankfully, before she lept to any more incorrect conclusions. Or you did, for that matter.

She fumbles with her hands, and you almost start laughing when all she has to say is:

"Cool."

You invite her to sit onto your couch and light-heartedly ask if it's your turn to talk yet. She gives you a sheepish smile and says she thinks she is finished. Hopefully Nika won't mind you talking about Yar - her only experience with him was her phone being taken away and the mess with him waiting in her place of work's lobby to hand in a mutant bounty. You begin, not using any complicated language for her sake.

"You don't have any cybernetics or implants, right?"

"Right. I'd feel too bad for whatever body part I'd be leaving behind."

"That's fair. As you know, I have a few. And sometimes, they do more harm than good. Anyway, sometimes my implants remember they're foreign to me and do some weird erupting thing that feels like it tries to fry my brain." You actually have zero clue if this is accurate, but Nika doesn't need to know the specifics if she doesn't have anything herself.

It appears Nikki's knowledge of the shakes is superficial at best, so you take some time to paint her a picture of the phenomenon in general and your personal flavour of the side-effects, adding what little you know about the mysterious researcher who creates the wonder liquid that helps. At this point Nikki pipes up with unexpected bit of information - apparently, she heard Dot talking about a guy by that name, but she isn't sure. It's highly unlikely that 'Jax' Dot mentioned is the man in question, so you don't pay it any mind. The name isn't that rare, after all, even with the spelling. And who even knows if the spelling you've been using is correct?

Necessary exposition over with, you get to the point:

"I wasn't in any state to get home last night because I had an attack. A bad one, the kind that results in passing out. So I spent the night at Yar's."

"Was that… Did he drop you off?" She looks uncomfortable at the thought, so you hurry up to reassure her:

"Yes, and before you ask – he isn't a danger to you or me. Not unless we do something that might put a good enough bounty on our heads, that is… and even then, he'd probably pass on that. I think." Nika doesn't look particularly convinced, but that's to be expected. So you add:

"Trust me. I know him."

"I do trust you, it's just… You didn't see him when he came to the parlour. He was…" She pauses, frowning, clearly searching for the words that could best describe him in his element. Luckily, she doesn't need any – you have a pretty good idea of what she could have witnessed.

"I've seen him work plenty of times. I know. Maybe I'm just desensitized to his ways of going about business at this point. Besides, you did say he didn't really hurt anyone? Well, except for that one guy he clocked in the face. That's mild compared to what could have happened." As soon as the words leave your mouth, you realise that you aren't making a convincing argument in Yar's favour. So you hastily add:

"Not that things go downhill that often, mind you. He is usually very good at avoiding confrontation. When it's not necessary."

"I… well. I trust you, Egor. So if you say your friend is as harmless as a butterfly, then that's what I'll believe." Despite still not looking entirely convinced, Nika giggles to herself and you let out a sigh of relief. Good thing your ramblings have put her at ease enough that she is willing to joke.

"Cool, glad we figured that out. Now… Mind waiting by the door while I change? Then we'll see about your errand."

You throw on the first warm pair of jeans and sweater you get your hands on as you poke around the wardrobe, then unlock the safe to get some cash. You haven't the faintest idea about how much Nika usually keeps on her and whether it would be enough for shopping, so you take a lot, just in case, and stuff everything in the inner pocket of your coat. Nika could always pay you pack. Or not. You never give anyone anything that you wouldn't be willing to part with for free… and it pays off – you rarely get too upset when people fail to return what was borrowed. Even if it sucks to lose things regardless.

The walk to Dot's apartment in uneventful and very quiet – Nikki is shivering and sniffling, any attempts to make small talk effectively discouraged by her teeth chattering. You keep a very brisk pace, silent and not at all enthused to be spending any longer than necessary in the weather that unpleasant. You could swear yesterday wasn't nearly as cold. Or the pavement under your feet as icy. You even slip a couple of times, thankfully managing to keep your balance. Nika fares much better, probably due to her much more cautious walk. Or maybe 'waddle' might be more a fitting word for it.

"I never experienced cold like this before I came to Cinci. I stepped off the bus in my dress, excited to explore and make new friends but everyone at the station just laughed at me for not wearing long pants. I don't miss those early days…" You're unsure of how to reply, if you should comfort her or tell your tale of arriving in the city, but it doesn't matter. She just asks for her beanie back and 'waddles' on. Hostile elements notwithstanding, you eventually make it to the apartment building that Nika indicates as the one. You pause near the entrance.

"Do you think she would mind if I entered her flat with you? I don't think whoever her stalker is could be inside, but just in case…"

"No, come with. I'll be the one handling her stuff anyway, you could keep an eye out and do… overwatch, I guess."

Inside the apartment, Nika mumbles something under her breath and trots off to the kitchen while you take a look around. Dot's living space is nothing memorable. You don't wander too deep in, just take quick peeks after Nika into kitchen and the bathroom, making a point not to follow her into the bedroom - that space is too private for a random man to invade. You don't think much of the layout or the furnishings, and the lingering scent of a different person that hangs in the air doesn't make it any more appealing. It's not exactly unpleasant, just too alien for you. Which is odd, because you don't remember Nika's home giving you the same poor impression when you first visited her. Maybe her natural scent is just more appealing to you?

"Ok, I think that's all she wanted, let's go." Nikki tucks some kind of notebook into her coat's pocket - it doesn't fit, one corner is left sticking out, - and trots into the hallway, gesturing for you to follow. "Do you think we could check if there are any coats like yours? The long kind, with pockets on the inside?"

"We should, because that tail mutation is alarmingly fast in it's development." You keep your voice down, just in case. "I'm not even sure having something that goes all the way down to your ankles would be sufficient once it's done growing."

She locks the door, looking pensive.

"I really feel like it should be possible to control its movements to the point where I wouldn't have to tape it to my leg every time I go out, and sometimes I can make it twitch… just not all the time. Maybe I need to practice with it more? So I could… I don't know, wrap it around my waist or something."

"It's too early to tell how efficient that would be. But let's hope it turns out obedient and of manageable length." You gently shove her towards the stairs. "Is Dot expecting you soon?"

"Not really." As you walk down, she fiddles with her pocket, trying to shove the notebook further in - to no avail. "She said we don't need to be together all the time. That I shouldn't be getting too attached too quickly. That we haven't even done anything 'lovey-dovey' enough for me to feel this way about her. Some distance should be good, but I already want to hug and kiss her again… she's so nice."

That part about the distance is sensible. You did feel a little dubious about Nika's obvious infatuation, with everything being all too sudden, but if Dot sees it as well and is trying to rein it in instead of taking advantage, then maybe she isn't all bad.

"Changing topics for a second, I don't think the weather is ideal for trying things on, but you probably will have to. Which means we are going to do a lot of walking around and searching for places that offer at least a modicum of privacy, as well as something indoors that's unlikely to have hidden surveilance. That would take time." You're pessimistic, as usual. The way you see it, there is a drone, a camera or a nosy pro-Tower snoop with nothing better to do with their time covering every square meter of the slums and nowhere is safe, but that mindset is getting you nowhere.

"I think I'm okay with that." At least Nika doesn't appear to be bothered much. So you supress the urge to suggest postponing the shopping trip today in favour of just taking her measurements and roping Alice into helping you get what's neccessary without Nika having to leave the apartment, and take her hand instead:

"Good, I think I know where to start."

 

***

"Well, would you look at that. If it isn't my favourite guy!" Alice's playful purring comes from behind you, and you feel her arms wrap around your midsection, her body pressing to your back. "What are you doing here, browsing the ladies' section all by yourself?"

You whip around to return her greeting. Alice smiles at you and digs her hands into your pockets for warmth. She looks fine today, majestic even, with her bleached hair in a neat updo and elaborate makeup in hues of blue and silver making her look like a knock-off Ice Queen. If Ice Queen had a habit of wearing vinyl mini-skirts and fishnets. You shudder involuntarily at the sight of her bare legs and hurry up to unbutton your coat and use it to wrap her in a hug.

"Woman, are out of your mind? Here I am, injecting all sorts of expensive shit into you - for free, - and you pay me back by taking zero care of yourself? Do you think letting your bloody ovaries freeze off is going to do you any favours? Having back problems isn't enough?"

Alice cocks an eyebrow at you and snorts, unimpressed.

"Love, don't be a nag, you aren't my mama." She makes no attempt to disentangle herself though, seemingly content to stay pressed against you. You nuzzle her hair, noticing a new scent - some kind of bubblegum sweetness. Alice hears your sniffing and grins:

"You like? New conditioner. Great stuff - my hair no longer feels like wire, and it's cheap. You should try it." Now is your turn to snort, imagining yourself smelling this fruity. Fat chance.

"My hair is just fine, don't you worry. You smell great though." You pat her on the head. "Very sweet. Actually, what are you doing in Gamble street?"

"Same as you, I imagine? Shopping. I can't work all the time, you know. It's still light out - my official time off." She eyes the selection of cardigans that you've been checking out. "So, what's up with that? These aren't exactly your style?"

"It's for a friend. She is off searching for a toilet, if there is any. I've decided to look for something in her size in the meantime."

"A 'friend', huh?" Her smile immediately turns sleazy, and you roll your eyes at the implication. Leave it to Alice to pretend to forget who she is talking to. You're well aware she is just teasing, but clarify nonetheless:

"Friend. A friendly kind. 'Like a sister' kind of friendly? Platonic."

She laughs and shakes her head:

"Well, obviously. You having any other kind of girl friend would be surprising. But you never know… you know?" Yes, you do know. Nothing is ever entirely clear-cut, preferences tend to change with time, so in theory… "A girl can hope." Wait, what?

Seeing the puzzled expression on your face, Alice grins:

"Boy, just relax and take the compliment. There is no hidden meaning behind it." She chuckles and presses a little closer to you, burrowing into your coat. "Not the best weather to be out and about, isn't it? You look half-frozen already. Couldn't have waited for a warmer day?" As always, Alice is all about rationality. You don't have anything prepaired for the answer, so you change the subject:

"Maybe I'm freezing because there is a human icicle hugging me? Whatever happened to your coat? The pink, fuzzy one? Why are you wearing this plastic shit?" You nod at the jacket she has on - whatever cheap material it's made of, it doesn't look serious. The thing is shiny, cold to the touch and creaks at every movement Alice makes. She might as well have put on a trash bag or a raincoat and called it a day - the alternative couldn't possibly be any more useless.

"Ah, yes, Pinkie. Ruined. Well, burned, actually. Long story. Shame, it wasn't even two years old. And I got it at a very nice discount, too. Such a waste." She doesn't look too broken up over the loss, but she rarely does look anything other than nonchalant - save for when she is actively projecting some kind of positive emotion. You've stopped trying to figure out her true moods long ago, opting to rely solely on context.

"You realise that now I have to get you a new one, right? Unless you can buy a replacement for yourself right this second." Technically, you don't have to do anything. But knowing that she is subjecting herself to freezing temperatures because she doesn't have anything better to wear is going to eat at yout conscience untill you do something about it. You know yourself.

And Alice knows you. She gives you a glare, but it's half-hearted. Then, with a sigh, she agrees:

"All right. However. While trust that you won't go and bankrupt yourself over a piece of fake fur for a whore what you don't even screw, I think it'd still be better if I was the one to pick that piece. So…" She gives you a sweet, sweet smile and extends her palm. You get the hint and take a step back to reach into your inner pocket. Alice instantly starts trembling, no longer warmed by your proximity. You smile sheepishly and place a nice stack of banknotes into her hand.

"If there is change, don't bother returning it." There you go again, playing discount sugar daddy to a pretty lady when your own sources of income are not exactly reliable. But oh well. Easy come, easy go, right? You can afford to lose that much. Not spending a whole lot on yourself helps with mitigating such losses.

"You are the best, love. Now, if you'll excuse me, I better make the best of my time off by putting this donation to good use. Don't bother giving me anything for Christmas!" She rubs her cool cheek against yours in lieu of a kiss, knowing your stance on lipstick marks. "Shit. It's like my nipples are about to fall off, I don't feel them anymore. Better hurry." With that, she trots off, shivering and cussing under her breath. You watch her go, buttoning up your coat, then turn in the direction Nika's disappeared to. Just where the hell is she? It's been good twenty minutes.

You are about to go looking for her when she suddenly appears from an alley on your left, looking frazzled and, as far as you can tell with her complexion, flushed.

"There you are, I was afraid I'd lost you! You wouldn't believe what just happened! I couldn't find a toilet, so I sorta… well, when you need to go… anyway, it was a secluded spot, all good, I was fast and nobody saw me, but then! There was a guy-" She haphazardly brushes her hands through her hair like she can't believe her own words, her eyes as wide as saucers. "Came out of nowhere! And he offered me fifty whole dollars for oral! Not for me to do anything - for him! He said he'd pay if I let him lick me! Who does that???"

This is so sudden that you don't quite know how to respond - your first reaction is a surprised laughter that escapes before you can catch it. Nika looks at you with her mouth open and you shurg, a little embarassed at seemingly making light of the situation:

"Honestly, I don't know why people do that. I've never had it happen to me, but from what I hear, it's not an unusual thing for a girl to experience. Maybe he is desperate, maybe it's a bait, maybe he just gets off on shocking random women. There are a lot of crazy people out there. You can't waste time trying to explain everyone's weird behaviour. At least he didn't try anything… did he?"

"No, no, it was just a proposition, and I excused myself before he started pulling out more money. Jeez." Nika's breathing slows down, and she looks back over her shoulder in the direction she came. "People like that… I hope they get the help they need." Suddenly, there is a buzz. Nika frowns and pats her sides, then pulls out her phone and checks it. "Oh. It's Dot. I texted her to say we might take some time to return, that with shopping and all… before that man approached me." She unlocks the screen and reads the message. "Ooh."

"What?"

"She says it's okay if we take out time, she is going to take a nap anyway. And apparently she'd like some… pears, if we can find them?"

You blink at her. She blinks back, looking just as confused as you feel.

"That's random." Regardless, you don't want to be a dick and dismiss that request out of hand. "But I guess we could take a look. Though I highly doubt they are in season now. Maybe she'd like frozen ones? Or dried?"

"I didn't even know there WAS more than one type of pear, she didn't specify." Nika puts the phone away and shrugs. "Well, anyway. Clothes first?"

"Right." You sigh, dreading the perspective of spending the next few hours in the cold, and gesture to the nearest stall you've selected for browsing while she was away. "First of all, I believe you need loose pants. Like harem pants, but dense, not see-through. Then there's…"

 

***

At 5 p.m. you're hungry, tired and officially done with literally everything: shopping as a concept, clothes, Gamble street, your friends, ice, wind and your own two feet that you no longer feel due to how bloody cold they are. Also, produce. At this point you feel like you'd die a very happy man if you never had to lay eyes on another sickly-looking fruit or vegetable ever again. You and Nika did make an honest effort to accomodate Dot and her sudden hankering, but you weren't wrong in your assesment of the fruit's accessibility. There are really no pears on offer. Not even frozen or dried ones. So you two decided to call it a day and retreat to your apartment to get a bite to eat. Nika initially didn't find the idea too appealing, wanting to get back to her girlfriend as soon as possible after a whole day apart, but hunger unlimately won.

Once at your place, she sets the table for you as you reheat the leftovers you've taken out of the fridge. Nika smiles at her phone, and her eyes get a little teary, she must really be happy to finally have one she loves.

"Ask her is she's eaten. I could give you some of this, in case there is nothing to eat at your place." You suggest and collapse into a chair, forcing yourself to pick up the fork and eat. Even this simple action seems like too much effort after the day you had. It's ridiculous - you haven't done anything too stenuous. Just walking around and carrying half of Nika's purchases. A lot of walking, sure, but that's hardly an excuse to be feeling this way. Maybe you need to exercise more often.

"Yeah she's fine, she ordered takeout." Nika barely looks up from the screen as she chews, practically inhaling the food. You aren't too far behind. "I can't wait to show her what we bought. By the way, when should I pay you back?"

"Eventually?" You hesitantly suggest, picking up your plates to wash them. "I could set a date if you'd like, but there is no rush."

Nika opens her mouth to say something, but gets interrupted by your phone's ringtone. You curse quietly and wipe your hands on your shirt to pick it up without looking who is calling.

"Yes?"

"Didn't your mama ever caution you about answering your phone like that? You never know what you might be saying 'yes' to." It's Yar. Of course. No greeting, just straight to lecturing. You suppress the urge to roll your eyes.

"Seriously? No. Scams that use voice recognition haven't been around since the 40's, in case you didn't get the memo." Nika cathes your eye and silently gestures to the exit, indicating that she's going to her flat for now. You wave her off, secretly glad the subject of money has been dropped for the time being. It can always be revisited at a later date, provided neither of you forgets. But right now, you're more interested in hearing what Yar has to say.

You hear your front door open and close after Nika as Yar huffs in your ear:

"That's exactly how they get you. Because nobody expects this shit to happen anymore. Guess what, kitten? The older the scam is, the more likely it is to come back when the time is right."

"Very funny, I wouldn't exactly agree-" A piercing shriek rings out from down the hall.

"Egor? Egor, what was that."

You hang up on Yar and slam open your front door with your shoulder, ignoring the new pain in it and the stinging of your bare feet on the ice. As you scramble to Nika's apartment, the screaming gets louder and louder, and when you finally reach her doorway, it's stained red. Nika is kneeling in a puddle of blood screaming her head off at what could only be Dot's horrific remains.

You pull her to her feet and turn her around to face you. She keeps screaming, tears stream down her face, and her voice box must be close to exploding.

"Nika! Please, quiet!" You press her face against your chest to muffle the noise she is making. Her screaming dies down to hysterical wailing then, and she stomps her feet madly and beats her tiny fists against your shoulders.

"She's dead! She's fucking dead! My fucking girlfriend is fucking, fucking DEAD!"

You sigh, wincing in the face of her hysterics that you have zero idea how to deal with, and give her a firm shake:

"Do you have a suitcase or a bag to fill with clothes?"

Nika gets mad at you for once, but that's expected.

"What!? Why the fuck is that important!!! My… my…" Nika's face darkens and she stops thrashing around. You are relieved you didn't have to slap her or anything. "I… she's… I have one in my closet."

"Okay, good. Fill it with the stuff we bought today. Add underwear, your toothbrush, pills, anything you'll need. We leave in ten." Nika stares at you unseeingly, her mouth opens and closes, but nothing comes out. You ditch her for now and run back to your apartment. Now that you don't have Nika to distract you from the horror you've just seen inside her apartment, you begin suffocating, and your mind feels like it's contemplating the possibility of shutting down for a while. That would be less than ideal in light of the situation, so you make sure to pause just outside your door to take control of your breathing. You don't even register entering your apartment, pulling out your phone and dialing Yar. His voice snaps you back to reality when he picks up, and you slam your door shut to lean against it.

"Eg-"

"I need a keyboard cleaned." You don't quite recognize your own voice. It's toneless, small and broken.

Yar immediently yells to his right, and you hear some scuffling on the other end of the line.

"You're at your apartment?"

"Yes. No medics."

He does some more aside yelling while you pry open your wardrobe and search for the backpack you keep stocked, his presense on the other end grounding you somehow.

"What's going on?"

"There is a dead mutant in the apartment a couple doors from mine. My friend's apartment. Her girlfriend. Dead. Ripped apart, presumably by her stalker, and there is a good chance it's going to be… us next. How long until your men get here?"

"Not long, just sit tight." He hangs up, and you eject the magazine out of your pistol. 12 shots of .357 SIG, should be enough to cover you both. It goes inside your jacket, and you put a spare box of ammo in the bag alongside a burner phone, a canteen, some underwear, money - always more money, - socks and a dozen of other small things a guy on the run would need.

You tie on the best boots you have and slam the circut breaker shut - getting bills for however long would suck. Right before leaving, you take one last look around your apartment, making sure anything properly valuable is either hidden away or stored on your person. You hear a siren in the distance - a strangely fitting background noise for your current situation. There are no other tenants in the hallway, but there will be, and soon. Maybe they aren't home now, or scared, or waiting for someone else to deal with whatever has caused your friend to scream, but eventually someone's curiosity would get the better of them.

At Nika's, you walk through the doorway and fail to ignore the horrific gore displayed all around you. It's as if someone decorated for a birthday party with a person. Skin is used instead of streamers, and Dot's ribcage is used like a barbeque grill for hamburgers… you don't know where her head is. The 'curtain' over the kitchen doorway is actually the loose skin from under her arms stretched impossibly long, and one of her thighs hangs off the wall with a mock donkey-tail pinned to it. Nauseating. You suddenly bend over and gag violently before throwing up on the floor, and the sight of half-digested food mixing with the blood does nothing to settle you. You squeese your eyes shut and breathe throuth your mouth, trying to think of anything else but what's in front of you. A little unsteady on your feet, you make your way through the bedroom to a small bathroom where you find Nika mumbling to herself slowly trying to wash her coat - in vain, it takes more than lukewarm water to get blood out of fabric.

"Nika, you're all ready?"

"Whuh?" She turns around, looking more in-shock than miserable or angry. "I got… there's my nightlight. Just used the box from… from…" Her face falls, and she turns back to the sink. You go open the box at the end of her bed and find it filled with bdsm gear, most likely the same stuff you saw in her picture. Hastily shoved in are some warm clothes flecked with blood and a lumpy pillowcase. Nika shuffles away from the sink with it still running and tries to slide her arms around you into a hug.

"Why would… she's gone…"

You sigh and get to work, seeing that she is in no fit state to handle packing. Dot's bag is the first thing that comes to mind, as it's big enough and much more convenient for transportation. Luckily, it's not hard to locate. You empty it on Nikki's bed - she whimpers upon seeing it, but keeps quiet and out of your way, for which you are thankful. You stuff it with today's purchases, open the drawers in hopes that Nika would help you find her some undies and socks - which she does, grabbing and throwing items in the bag without looking at what she is taking or how it lands. No matter. You dive into the bathroom to grab her toothbrush, a hairbrush and a bottle of pills - the only one you could see, so you assume it's the prescription.

Finally gathering everything and leaving the flat is a blur. Nika clings onto your back as you hold her bag and the box with fetish gear, and she wears your backpack. Carrying all of this, after just throwing up and walking around the whole day while now trying not to slip down an icy staircase is… rough. But you know it won't take long before you get help. Sure enough, as you stumble through the reception area, a big black van pulls up, and three men - unassuming at a glance, but you know they are armed to the teeth, - all step aside for you to climb in.

"Hey. Egor. How is it? You look a little green." The big black man that you know relieves you of your luggage, sets it at the floor of the van and climbs outside. You stare at him blankly. What was his name?

"Ajax." He nods, and you give him a smile that is probably more of a grimace, the way your face twitches. "It's… a sight. I hope you haven't eaten recently."

"I'm sure I've seen worse." You are sceptical, but make no comment. "Is the door unlocked?"

"Yes, and I think the key to the apartment is inside there… somewhere. I was too focused on getting her out as fast as I could to pay attention." You nod at Nika, who has started weeping silently, still clinging to your back.

"It's fine, I know how to do my job. The boss will let you know how it goes. Try to have a good… rest of the day, now."

"Wait." He turns back to you, and you look him in the eye, hoping he understands what you are about to say. "There is a mess in the living room, aside from the main, er, stuff, you'll see. It must be gone before anyone takes samples - if the law gets interested enough, that is. Ideally, the whole apartment needs to be… sanitized, just in case, but I know it's a tall order."

"Understood." That's all he says, not appearing in any way bothered, so you assume it's all right and no longer your problem to think about.

You slide Nika off your back and keep your arm around her as she weeps into your chest and the van doors slide shut. The car peels away from the curb, and you settle in for a long drive, knowing that these people won't be taking a direct route to wherever it is Yar ordered them to take you. Eventually you drift off, realising only now that daytime is normally when you're asleep.

 

[Nikki]

She's gone. She's really gone. It hits you now that you'll never see her again. Willis won't. Michelle won't. Pia won't. Egor won't. No one ever will, ever again. You lean against Egor's chest as he snoozes and trace gentle patterns in his shirt, admiring how soft it is. Tonight you're surrounded by people you don't know, in a car going God-knows-where, bags stuffed with stupid sex stuff instead of real clothes and travelling further and further away from the girl you love. It's a shame.

One man you don't remember the name of talks to you about dealing with loss. He had a little angel of a daughter that passed away from a horrible sickness on her birthday. What did she wish for when she blew out the cakes candles? 'I wish I wasn't hurting anymore.' He goes back to looking out the darkened window, and you snuggle a bit closer to Egor… thinking about life and death. After you hear a phone beep 7 p.m., a conversation happens at the front of the van, and it slows to a stop.

"Egor…" You only poke him slightly; the last thing you want right now is to be a bother.

"Hmm? Ah, we're here." The van door opens to a dingy building with a bulky red door and a neon sign so bright you can't even read it, what you can see is a decal of a sweaty… something that must be a camel. "Follow me. We're safe here, but… stay close." Egor helps you out of the van and leads you to the door with his backpack slung over his shoulder. One of the van guys nods to him and pushes open the door. You find yourself being guided through a half-finished nightclub.

"Nika, just letting you know now, Yar's guys are checking our bags for weapons or bugs and they might go a bit… weird at your Cluster stuff. Just talk to me if you think they took something, and I swear I'll handle it."

"Ok… Thanks, Egor." That was the furthest thing from your mind. Is he asking because… because it's going to be how you remember Dot? You wish there was a little keychain or something easier to interact with.

You're led up a narrow staircase, and Egor rests his hands on your shoulders; the familiar geusture brings you back to earth somewhat.

"Alright, we're about to go see Yar. I'll do the introductions; you just stay quiet, and hopefully he'll leave you alone long enough for us to all talk properly in the morning… is that okay with you?"

"Yes. Thank you, Egor. I-I mean it, really. Sorry if-"

"Shh, darling. Keep to yourself, and I'll do the talking. At most you'll just have to shake his hand."

"…Ok." Egor bangs on the door, and the loud music inside dies down while you pull your gloves slightly tighter on - the last thing you want is to electrocute the person who's granting you and your friend a place to live.

The door opens, and you see Yar's brutish face and gigantic body lean forward - the same guy who took your phone at Arm Handy.

"Kitten, I'm glad you're safe." Who's 'Kitten'? Is Yar already talking to you? He's not making eye-contact with…

"Not glad enough to greet us out the front." Egor mutters it loud enough for Yar to hear. You knew these two had history, but… should Egor really be talking back to him?
Yar smirks and waves you both inside; you hold Egor's hand tighter while the two of you shuffle through the doorway.

"Why would I meet you outside, do you know how cold it is? Actually, don't answer that." Yar nods at you. "I assume this-"

"Her name is Nikki. She's a timid soul who's currently in mourning and out of her depth, so…"

"I saw you at Arm Handy. Hmm, small world." Yar seems to be completely ignoring Egor and focusing on you instead; you nod slightly, and he smiles. "Hello, Nikki."

"H-Hi…"

Yar continues smiling at you and turns back to face a visibly tense Egor.

"She is timid, isn't she? Come on, lets all sit down and talk baseball." Egor guides you further into the fancy penthouse and shushes you before you can mention you don't know anything about sports.

 

[Egor]

Yar rambles some different rules and conditions, and you can tell Nika is doing her best to remember them all, but it's clear she gets confused and is too scared to ask him to repeat himself. So you summarise for her:

"Yar is pretty casual: don't set off any bombs, and you'll be fine." Yar laughs, and Nika meets your eyes, giving you a grateful nod.

"If I had any bombs, that would violate the rules I just laid out."

Yar walks over to his counter for some coffee, and you shake your head when he tilts the cup in your direction. Then he looks at Nika's back while she looks at the table and you look at Yar. After thinking a while, he taps the side of his head and mouths 'Stable?' to you while nodding at Nika. Instantly ticked off, you flip him, and he smiles.

"Ah well." He walks back towards the table and - without warning, - pats Nika on her lower back. She yelps, and you tense up. "Whatcha' got down there? I thought I told you both to declare all arms."

Nika shakes her head and goes red in the face, and you realise her tail must be protruding against her back for Yar to notice.

"N-No, that's not an arm, I-I mean it's not a… a ta-uhh. It… sorry, it… uhhhh… y-yes it is a gun, sorry." Poor girl didn't have an excuse ready. Honestly, neither did you. You'd better think of something, and fast.

"Well that's two strikes already, little lady. Hiding a gun and lying. One more - and you're out on the streets." Nika gives a pathetic little whimper, and he outstretches his hand. "Pass it over."

'Shit.' The colour drains from her face, and you decide to butt in.

"Yar, it's not-"

"What? It's not a gun? What is it then?"

"…"

"What is it, Egor? I know you well enough to know that you'd never-" You interrupt him with a hiss, exasperated. This whole exchange on top of the day you've had has proven too much for you to maintain your cool.

"You don't know me at all! All you do is hire me for jobs I don't get paid enough for and call me a stupid pet name!"

He sighs and slides back into his chair.

"Alright, listen up, Egor, it's been a long day, and I'm not in the mood for this shit. If you think that you can lay low here with a friend for who knows how long and expect to hide something from me the whole time, then you can just head back to the curb. You and Nikki, I don't care if there's a murderer after you two or not." He sips his coffee and waits for you to make your move.

He must be bluffing. He has to be. But can you take that chance? His current expression is bored, and Nika is shaking like a leaf in her chair. Neither of you make a move to comfort her. *Shit, shit, shit.* Ok, you've known Yar for… maybe under a decade? You've known Nika for a few months, but only this past week has really meant anything. Still, no way in hell are you going to ditch her and stay here. Is Dot's stalker really after you two next? If not, why not just stay at your place with Nika? Hell, why not live together in a different building? No, that's not the way. Nika is the most vunerable person you've ever met, so you're sure that on her own she won't last long - and you hate seeing innocents die. Yar doesn't care about mutants… right?

He keeps staring at you. Nika wipes her nose with her sleeve - gross. Think, man. THINK! Her tail will only get longer and harder to hide. There's a small chance that a display like Dot's dismembered body will one-up the usual 'mutilated corpse in the slums' routine and make the news. That's a death sentence for Nika if she enters the public eye. Yar is a proper bastard. But he won't sell either of you out, right? Nika's life depends on your next words…

"Nika, show him." She looks at you, and you nod to her. Here goes nothing. She pulls up her jacket and starts shaking even worse. You get out of your chair and let her hug you as you get the tail out for her. Yar doesn't seem perturbed by the fact you're undressing a girl in front of him, at least - small mercies. Nika leans against your body as you untuck her sweater, and… the fleshly growth cascades down the back of her pants.

What does Yar do? His eyes widen, but that's all the reaction he allows you to see. He sips his coffee while murmuring:

"Was that all? Thought I'd see something decent." Nika starts crying, and you feel the growl building up at the back of your throat.

"Do. Not. Just… Just don't." You glare at Yar as he drains his cup, approaches you and hesitates a second before resting his hand on your poor girl's shoulder. She cries harder, and you try to ignore the wet sniffiling next to your neck.

"Uh, follow me." Yar is rattled - that's a rare sight. You hike Nika up on your body until you're carrying her again, and Yar shows you his living room, newly furnished to accomidate two new people. And when you say that, you mean there's a real pillow from a bed lying on the couch, as opposed to a regular couch pillow.

"I'll… I'll get the girl some water." He ducks back into the kitchen, and Nika starts sobbing about her night terrors and whether Yar will kick her out. You stroke her hair and rest on the couch while her tail hangs limp, hitting your thigh.

"Nika… your terrors will be okay, I stay awake during the night, remember? I'll watch over you." You wait until Yar comes back before you finish talking: "And besides, on the one-in-infinity chance Yar kicks you out, I go too. We stick together."

Nika presses her face into your chest and cries 'thanks' to you over and over again. Yar scrunches up his face when he realises how… how unlike Nika is compared to you two. And you don't mean because she's a girl or because she's so naive. It's because Nika couldn't even dream of hurting a fly - and there's currently a pistol sitting inside your jacket. A pistol that you've fired before, not caring one way or another if the person you aimed at would survive.

"You're alright, you're alright." You keep the reassurances coming, patting her on the back and hoping she calms down soon.

Eventually, her cries of thanks die down, and she switches to mourning Dot quietly while you spill the whole story to Yar - and he listens attentively, actually caring, by the looks of it. By the time you finish, you're struggling to stay awake. Thankfully, Nika has calmed enough to take over the conversation for you and even offered to show Yar how her hands work. The man laughs with genuine delight when she creates an arc of lightning between her hands.

"What else can you do?"

"Uhhh… I-I think that's it."

"Damn, girl, that's a bar trick if I've ever seen one."

"…I don't know what that is, sorry."

"No need to apologise… Kitten can do some interesting stuff too, do you know?"

"Kitten?" You shoot Yar a harsh glare, and Nika turns back to you. "Is… is that also Russian word, or-" You palm your face, hard, and Yar leans back, roaring with laughter like you've never heard before. "I guess it's not then…"

"He's laughing with you, not at you, so ignore him. Are you tired, Nika, are you sleepy?" Without waiting for an answer, you resolutely drag Yar off the couch and shove him into his room - he chuckles, but lets you manhandle him and obediently retreats. You linger in the living room to drape a blanket over bewildered Nika, then kiss her on her forehead, because why not - you're feeling more protective of her than usual tonight.

After making sure she's settled in nicely, you proceed into the bedroom, where Yar greets you with yet more amusement, whispering that it's cute how well you play mother hen for the girl. You send him another glare, but don't deign to react otherwise. Instead, you wish him good night, snatch a free pillow from the bed and go off to fall asleep on his carpet, in the corner away from the bed, because you figure if he rolls off in his sleep while you're snoozing next to it, you'll surely be crushed.