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Nikki's Week

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[Nikki]

Your neighbour is noticeably older than you, her face is a little lined by age, but her raven hair doesn't have any grey in it, and her body is something to marvel at. She is leaning against the wall as you saunter by, trying to check her out covertly. You obviously fail, because she turns and grins at you - a very toothy white smile.

"Look all you want, honey." She adjusts her pose, as if to present herself better for your perusal. "You got wrong plumbing for my taste, but I'm not selfish."

You give her what you can of a polite nod and retreat back into your apartment. Wow. She looks amazing. You shut the door and turn around to look through the peephole - and she's expecting it. Her back is still leaning against the wall, but now her phone is out and tilted towards the hole you're looking through. The flashlight on her phone adds a lot of glare, but you can still make out the smirk on her face and the golden figure below the hair falling on her shoulders. Pretty. Very pretty.

Your heart hammers in your chest as the light blinds you. Normally you like girls as much as the next guy (pun intended), but this older lady has just caught your eye for some reason. Her breasts and face aren't the best you've ever seen, but then again, all you've ever seen are plastic bimbos on naughty websites. Street walkers are certainly more realistic, but none of them have drawn your eye like this gal.

And why now? Surely you've passed her dozens of times already in the stairwell or laundromat? It could be her smell, the refreshing clean scent is almost intoxicating. Not dizzying like cleaning products, but more… pleasant. Like hand wash. Her hair must be the same, it's dark and frizzy, but not out of control. Not out of control like your hair. You'd have to sort it out before seeing her again - assuming you see her again.

You turn away from the peephole and blink the spots of your eyes, feeling around the entrance of your apartment until you find the chair you use to sit when tying your shoes. You slide into it gently and as you start rubbing your eyes, a small worry sets in. You know she doesn't like girls like you do, was she just flirting with you to be nice? Does that even count as flirting?

You stop rubbing your eyes and lean back on your chair to stare aimlessly at the ceiling fan you forgot to turn off before leaving. Watching it spin around for 5, 10, 15 minutes doesn't calm your nerves at all. Why do you always have to complicate these things? Surely she just said that to be nice, nice but dismissive. Maybe she's already forgotten about you. Any chance she works as a hooker and you can buy her for a night just to talk? Doubt it. If her body is fake then she probably earns enough for real surgery, if her body is real - then damn. You really have no shot with her.

Well, there's always the awfully low chance she got her amazing figure by blowing some surgeon. But then why would her face not be perfect? Her teeth were pristine so she's probably never done any crazy-hard drugs. Okay, this is too much. You either need to forget about her or have a loot at her again. At least that part is easy to work out.

You slowly rise from the chair and stretch quietly. Already you're nervous, but if you can just see her again once more tonight, it'll be worth it. Just one step forward - and you're at the peephole, nothing major. So why does it feel like a million-mile sprint. Being in love is crazy, and you know you're not in love, you just have a crush on someone who doesn't like you back. Which is decidedly worse, so maybe your reluctance is justified.

You close your eyes, take one step forward, and open them. The door is right there, thank Christ. You slowly, slowly lean down just a tad to look through the peephole. She's sitting in her doorway and chuckling directly at yours. Not sure what she's so happy about, but at least you've seen her again. Her hair and figure still look amazing. Especially now that she's laughing. But what could she be laug-

Oh. Oh no. Why does your throat feel rough. Were you saying everything about her out loud? No way.

"Yes way." She confirms with laugher that brightens up your day. Goddammit. You quickly stride to the other side of your apartment and put a dollar note in a nearly-full jar. That's the 6th time this week. You go to your bathroom and swallow a couple of pills out of a prescription bottle.

There is a knock on the door, sudden and loud, and you almost drop the bottle. Okay, it's okay, no need to be jumpy. There is only one person who knocks in this particular pattern, and he is safe. -Ish. Safe-ish.

"Oh, you're here already." You open the door and note absently that the woman is already gone, then push the inevitable pang of disappointment to the back of your mind for now. There are other matters to attend to.

"Well, obviously. I live just two doors down. Let me in?" Egor sounds as flat as ever, even a little rude, but that's his usual way of talking.

"Oh, right. Sorry." You step aside and let him close the door on the way in, then hurry to your couch and pull out the backpack stashed under it. You have no idea (actually, you do have an idea, but haven't confirmed it) what exactly is inside, but it's quite heavy and suspiciously lumpy. It's not the first time he asked you to hold something for him, despite you two being just casual acquaintances, and while he has never stated that you shouldn't peek, you refuse to indulge your curiosity, taking advice from a saying you heard from him on several occasions: the more you know, the older you get. Or something like that.

Also, since you don't know each other that well, it would make sense for him not to entrust anything too sensitive to his neighbour, right?

"Thank you." He takes the backpack and just holds it, looking pensive for some reason. Then turns and gives you one of those intense stares that would be unnerving if they weren't always so... warm. Like he actually likes you and likes looking at you. But not in a pervy way, probably. Hopefully.

"I wouldn't mind seeing more of you, if you ever feel like hanging out. Drinking or... I don't know. Whatever it is you'd feel like doing."

"Oh, uh yeah, just hang around here if you want, I'm not doing anything." You face towards the rest of the apartment and wave him onto your couch. Egor looks surprised, but not ungrateful. As he sits down, you turn back around and linger, looking at the door of your neighbour.

That was a big stuff-up. The silver lining is that she knows all your thoughts now, so it's her turn to do something. Let's just hope she was laughing with you and not at you. Who knows if your heart could take that rejection again.

Egor snaps his fingers. Not in a commanding way, just to snap you out of your stupor.

"The walls in this place are thinner than you think. And believe it or not, you're very easy to read. I know you're stressing right now, so we can just have a nice quiet night if you want?"

A lovely quiet time, that sounds nice. Hopefully the beers you keep in the mini-fridge next to the couch are non-alcoholic. You sit on the couch next to him and pull the drinks out.

"So I've heard it's bad to stick your nose into someone else's business, but can I just ask what's in the bag?"

"Oh." He looks sheepish all of a sudden. "By the way, I didn't mean 'hang out' as in right now... But what the hell. In the bag there is... it's nothing interesting, just some canned food, used-up spikes, a couple of wrenches I no longer use. Maybe something else - I just sort of threw it all together. Stuff I needed to get out of my place for a while, you know? To clear some space for... other stuff. Now I can take it all back. The other stuff didn't last. Unfortunately." That sounded plausible, but why did you get the impression that 'stuff' he was talking about was a person?

"Roommate problem?" You carefully prod, opting for keeping your question neutral, in case your guess was off.

He seems relieved. "Astute. Right. Roommate. Not a problem, no, she just needed a place for a week, it was never meant to be a permanent arrangement." He sets the beer she handed to him on top of the fridge and looks her straight in the eye, looking thoughtful. There goes that cordial, inquisitive stare again. "Have you ever felt like someone is taking advantage of you? Not on a specific occasion, more like in general? In little ways, but constantly? She's been giving me that feeling recently. And I'm not sure if I should be bothered by it."

"Ummm." Keeping eye contact is tricky, so you do what you can. "I don't think anyone has ever taken advantage of me, I know I can be naive sometimes, but part of me hopes that anyone hoping to use me would feel too guilty before they got anywhere." As your eyes water, you realise that this isn't a staring contest. You blink rapidly once more and look down to start fiddling with the cap of your beer. The sharp metal edge of the bottle cap is very distracting. You run it along the edge of your chewed fingernails while trying to think of what to say next.

"This person that you think is using you, how long have you know them for? Do they know you well enough that you'd see what they're doing? I hear that in relationships see red flags, are there any of those?" The bottle cap was looking better with every passing second, surely he wasn't still trying to make eye contact?

A chuckle makes you raise your head and check. He isn't looking your way anymore, he is looking at his hands, idly picking on the fabric of his jeans. Despite the mirth, he seems almost sad. "Lucky you for having faith in people, I suppose. I don't really think a lot of them are capable of feeling guilty. Or letting the guilt guide their actions, at least."

You wince. Surely this comment wasn't to be taken as condescending. But it's hard to tell with this guy, and his intonational patterns are all over the place... or absent, as it happens. He probably doesn't even realise it.

"Though I may be thinking the same. Or rather, I want to believe that I'm not being used. It's convenient. And I do enjoy helping out. Not everyone, obviously, but some people are more worth it than others. For emotional feedback, if nothing else."

You nod along, thinking about the rest of your neighbours and some people you know on the street. Some are useful to have around, of course, but not all on them. Some are just good for a chat. Or simply good-looking. As in, good for looking at.

'Like a certain someone from across the hall...' You swallow, your throat feeling a little dry, and take a sip of your beer, focusing on that your guest is saying. Better than entertaining these thoughts again and risking blurting something out.

"As for red flags... you normally pay attention to these when in a relationship, right? Not applying the same standards to friendship. But even if I pause to think about i, about her - there probably aren't any. Which is troubling in its own way. But that could be just paranoia creeping up on me."

The beer does weird things to your mind. With every sip your thoughts become more and less clear. Your hands become more and less shaky. Your partner looks less inviting but your confidence is through the roof! Better strike while the iron is hot. You discard the bottle cap and move both of your legs closer you while tilting your head onto your new guest's shoulder.

"I wish I knew what to tell you. Things would be easier if people were nicer, but unfortunately, that's not the world we live in. If you truly think that you're being used, why not confront her. Line up every ounce of evidence and watch closely to see if she buckles under the pressure or denies it all. It won't be perfect, she could always be telling the truth and you not believing her. But I reckon it's worth a shot. Although I will admit that paranoia is a right bastard. It's done me more harm than good." You yawn without meaning to. This is the longest you've talked in a while, not including the embarrassing thinking-out-loud earlier.

"Hey, Nika?" He taps the top of your head gently. "Are you well?"

"Yes, why?" That's some nice and comfy shoulder right here. You might just stay like this. He doesn't seem to mind, from what you can tell.

"You look a little drunk." He sounds amused, yet slightly worried. Aww, that's nice of him, but really he has no reason to be! You feel just peachy!

"I'm fiiiiine... I guess? Well, maybe a little tipsy? I did finish that beer. Aren't you drunk too?" As soon as the question leaves your lips, you realise that you sound a little slurred. He doesn't, though. He appears to be stone-cold sober, compared to you. How?..

"Okay, good thing you are home right now, because that's not normal. Is this your usual reaction to beer?"

Tonight you're just a slurring, stammering, flirty mess of a person. "It... might be? I don't usually drink at all, let alone pop pills and have people over for philoso-, sophical-, ffffffilosoph-hic!" A small hiccup. "I mean d-deep talks with them. You're the first in months."

That was a lot of talking, you go to put the end of the bottle back in your mouth but you miss and bang it on your cheek. It only hurts a little bit, but you see him smirk out of the corner of your eye, and your mind edges ever closer to the breaking point. He can tell.

"Hey, don't worry. That was a funny little mishap, we'll just forget about it and talk pleasant topics." Happy thoughts, easy. Those have always helped in the past. So you say the first positive thing you can think of:

"What's the biggest you've ever been rejected?" Oh, that was such a stupid thing for your drunk mind to come up with. The breaking point is here. You stand up and turn around to stammer out an apology for the stupid question but he's not worried about that, he's worried about you. There're tears in your eyes and peachy feeling you had earlier just makes you think about the scent of your neighbour.

"I-I-I j-just, I'm s-sorry I - hic! - didn't m-mean to-." You're blubbering now. So much for happy thoughts. Your next hiccup sounds more like a sob as your legs give out and you fall to the floor.

He's clearly a little uncomfortable, but at least he knows how to comfort. He sits next to you on the floor and gently massages your back as you try to get yourself under control. You know he's saying nice things right now, but you can't focus on his words. They sound muffled and your vision is blurry. Thank God this whole thing happened in your home with someone you know and not in an alleyway with a stranger.

 

[Egor]

"Well, that escalated quickly." You sigh and kneel beside the girl, who is quickly approaching a point where she will probably pass out if nothing is done. Even though you are no stranger to booze in its many forms, you rarely have to deal with drunk people while being sober. You are usually more or less on their level when things get out of hand. Now is different.

Dragging her to the bathroom doesn't prove to be an issue (she thankfully didn't struggle on the way and even actively helped by moving her legs). Thinking splashing water in the face won't do much, you quickly apologise and bend her over a pan of the shower stall, pouring cool water directly onto her head. That's when she starts retching.
You feel your face contort in sympathetic grimace. "Ouch. But it's a good thing, you'll feel better for it." After gently half-patting, half rubbing a towel on her face and hair once she is done, you lead her back to bed.

"Maybe you shouldn't drink if that's how it goes for you. Just a thought."

 

[Nikki]

"I... yeah, you're right." You have no excuse. Many people drink for different reasons, yours is apparently if you ever need to feel really sick for some reason. He props you up against your bedroom doorway and walks inside to sort out your bedsheets. Thankfully he doesn't feel the need to talk about the row of stuffed animals next to your pillow. Is he a gentleman or is it something else?

"I guess I just wanted to give something like this a shot. Sometimes all I can think about are the party animals that live around Interstate. They have so much fun, why can't I be like that."

 

[Egor]

You turn away from her odd toys and take her by the hand, guiding her under the covers. "There's no need to change yourself , if you want friends, the right people will find you. Maybe they already have." You almost gesture to yourself , but change your mind at the last second and look at the figures sitting neatly by her pillow. "I bet those guys will never let you down."

She gives you what she can of a drunken smile and holds a small orange tiger close to her chest. "They make things easier for me, dream catchers don't work and my medicine can trip me out sometimes. Sometimes I even need a big strong man to protect me." She settles down into her bed and gives you a shy wink. Its a nice little gesture for you, but you can tell that she had to muster every shred of confidence possible just to say it. A bit of teasing is in order.

"You want me to watch over, do you? I guess you don't mind if I just wait here until you go to sleep then."

 

[Nikki]

Sleep sounds like a very good idea right now. "You can if you want, I have a bookshelf in the other room if you get bored". It doesn't take a genius to figure out this might be a bad idea. He's at least half a head taller than you and he easily picked you up earlier. You'd have no chance of fighting if things went bad. But on the other hand, you've known him long enough to get a decent feel for his personality. And it might be your drunken mind talking, but something about his presence in the room makes you feel... at peace. Your eyes dart to him one last time before you close them, and he's got the same smirk that your neighbour had before. Don't tell me...

"Yep," he chuckles. "You really need to take more of your medication."

You pull the covers over your head in utter mortification and hope sleep will come soon. You've had enough of embarrassing experiences for one day. At least you shouldn't have to worry about vocalising your thoughts while napping. That has probably never happened. Or so the few people who saw you asleep assured you.

...You are in a dream before you know it. It feels like your body is slowly sinking into a pool of invisible honey - warm, viscous. Your limbs feel utterly useless within this heavy mass and only slightly twitch when you try to move them. You turn your head and note with relief that it moves freely, unlike the rest of you. You take a look around your bedroom, lights are on but strangely dim and just barely enough to make out some of the details. You feel like you shouldn't be able to see it, but can't remember why. Something isn't right.

That thought flees your head before you can figure it out when you see a hazy silhouette of a man standing in the doorway. It's odd. Something is completely off about his proportions - and his skin, it's an inhuman greyish hue and has a black film of... something covering it and his clothes (are these clothes?), and he is too tall, and he is rapidly growing in size - no, he's just getting closer, why is he getting closer, who let him it, what does he want?

And now le looks naked, where did his clothes go?

You look on, paralysed, as he stops near the bed and leans over you. Now you see it. There is no face. He has no face.

You open your mouth and scream for someone, you can't tell who, you just don't remember and it doesn't matter now, someone just must be near and they should hear you. You feel cold coarse fingers running up your arm and keep screaming as loud as you could, straining your muscles in trying to crawl away from him, but your body doesn't move. Then you pause for breath and realise that there was no sound. You've been completely silent all this time.

The man with no face lies down on top of you in this thick mass of liquid. One of his arms continue to drag up and down your bicep while the other rests on your lips and cheek. His knee is pressing down on your belly button and his other leg wraps around yours and stops just above your ankle. Overall he seems content to wait and 'cuddle' while you are freaking out.

You desperately want to try screaming again but his hand is softly touching your lips, waiting patiently until they open. Something small you notice is that both of his hands have a pinkie at either side of them - he has no true left and right hand.

This black film he's covered in reminds you of latex. The disgusting rubbery material that some people find attractive and not remarkably claustrophobic or constructive. He senses your apprehension, but appears to grow impatient. His no-face gives your vibes of anger. It presses against the side of your neck, the cold fabric doing nothing to alleviate your nerves. A thought appears in your head: 'Scream for me'.

It's pure fear, not obedience, that makes your open your mouth. Before you can even attempt a noise, his hand is inside and has turned to black honey. It spreads over your tongue, up your gums, coats the inside of your cheeks and infects your teeth. At least you can scream now. You scream like never before:

"Help! Please! Someone! Ahhh!"

None of those work. Inhaling to breathe makes the liquid slide down your throat and spread throughout you chest. It burns now. Another hand grown out of his shoulder joins the first one as it shakes your shoulders rapidly, you get the vague sense of someone tilting a cup around, making sure the liquid covers all the dry spots.

You can still breathe, but that's the only good part. The latex figure has begun merging with you. His leg has completely melted into your own and his groin is inching ever closer to your own. The poison spreading throughout your chest and rising through your skin makes beads of sweat pop out on your forehead. He says: 'We'll be together forever, my lovely.'

Suddenly, something shifts. Lights blink out, shrouding everything in darkness, but your body miraculously is listening to you again, and you don't hesitate. With force born out of desperation, you kick out, aiming to where the man's groin would be, then swing at his faceless head, your desire to hurt him so intense it overrides the impulse to take this unexpected window of opportunity and flee.

"Blyat', ty chto delayesh', dura! It's me! Wake the hell up!" That's not the disgusting man's voice! You freeze, blinking and trying to adjust your vision, realising at last that you are alone in your bed, your bedroom looks exactly as it should look with lights out, you are covered in sweat and your guest is standing next to you, cradling the side of his face with the palm of one hand while rubbing his inner thigh with the other. Oops.

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry!" You scramble out of bed, almost falling over as your feet get tangled in the covers. "I didn't mean to! Are you okay? Does it hurt?"

This is it, you think. This is the part where he gets fed up with your antics and leaves, most probably for good, never to talk to you again, because why would he want to stay around such a mess of a person that you are? And this was supposed to be a bonding opportunity for you!

"Well, at least you've missed one of your marks." He says a bit testily, but his voice is mostly back to his usual even pitch, so at least he isn't being emotional about it. "But it's certainly going to bruise."

He gingerly rubs at his jeft cheekbone, then looks at you... and snorts, smirking.

"Guess I can say that it's a result of domestic violence. People are going to be oh so surprised to hear a girl did it to me. Certain parties would be very pleased to assume I'm dating a lady now!" For some reason, this last thought seems to be hilarious to him, because he's practically wheezing at this point. You can only stare in shock. So... not angry, then?

 

[Egor]

"No." You inhale, trying to get your mirth under control. "No, I'm not mad. If anything, you should be mad at me for ruining your beauty sleep." Nikki gives you a relieved but tired smile.

"I appreciate that. But you'll the one who'll need beauty sleep if that bruise gets any darker. Here, I'll get you some frozen peas." She slides past you and ducks into her kitchen. You watch her go, noting once again how small and unassuming her stature is. Considering this, the punch she landed was pretty impressive. Alice will definitely be interested to hear this story - she always rants about short girls being vicious little bitches. Speaking of - you should probably check on her. Later.

 

[Nikki]

"Motherfucker." You whisper under your breath. "Where are the damn peas when you need them. Ah, finally." There they are, in the back of the freezer next to last year's Easter chocolate. You pull them out and try not to think about the familiar ice-burn coming from your hand. Tonight you've caused a few problems, and by God you're going to solve at least one. You walk back around to your room, and see Egor sitting on the edge of your bed, chuckling still.

"Here you go," passing him the cold bag. "I really am sorry about the whole... you know, 'accidentally punching you' thing."

 

[Egor]

"It's fine. But honestly, stop stressing. I could hear mumbling while you were returning from the kitchen, so I know your thoughts are still running wild. Maybe take more pills before we meet tomorrow." Oops. That might have been a bit too fast. You meant to ask if she's free to hang out again the next day, but you haven't even asked if she's alright now. She doesn't seem to have heard the last part, though - she gives you a small nod and keeps walking right past you to go to her medicine cabinet. You laughter changes to smiling and you rub your cheek as your mind drifts to what you are going to do about this shiner. Ask Alice for makeup tips? Nah.

 

[Nikki]

Hang out, again?! The thought drives you wild. You had no idea that people could be so... genuinely nice. In the past, people have ghosted you for minor errors or slight inconveniences. Now there's this guy who you've accidentally hit twice, and he's still giving you the time of day? Wow. Maybe it's time for you to start looking forward. However good you neighbour could have been is nothing compared to your new best friend.

More pills, you'll need a refill soon. Do people go the pharmacy on a date?

Wait, slow down. You just called Egor your best friend, dating is out of the question, even if you were attracted to him, which you're not. You like girls! But he doesn't?.. Why do you think so? Just a hunch. You can always ask him later.

So, hanging out again - where? His apartment? Maybe the quiet roads of Palisade? That could be fun, hitting the streets with a pal. But won't people think you're a couple? "Oh man." Why do you get attached to people so quick, it's never once done you good. Better think about even easier things.

You make sure the bathroom door is locked. Afterwards you strip out of your damp clothes and stretch around, inspecting your body in the mirror. There's no sign of the poison you felt creeping up out of your skin or in your mouth. Normally people would splash cold water on their face to refresh themselves, but you're fairly certain doing that right now would give you a panic attack, so you decide to leave it and hold the towel from earlier in your hands, running its coarse fabric through your stiff fingers and trying to think pleasant thoughts. That nightmare really took a lot out of you. You hope you won’t forget to dry your clothes to before heading back to bed.

 

[Egor]

There's light spilling out of the cracks in the bathroom doorway. Listening closer, you can hear mumbling, a rattle of pills, then exertion noises followed by a soft rustling. Sounds like Nikki took your advice. Part of you wants to ask what the pills are for, but you know that question is unnecessary, you're just looking for an excuse to stay around a little longer. That book you chose was a good read - until she started thrashing about in her bed. Maybe you should offer to watch her sleep again and see if she's busy tomorrow? Or maybe you've caused enough trouble and should just leave quietly with the book and the bag she held for you.

 

[Nikki]

All right, that's enough reflecting. You soak the towel in warm water and run it over your somewhat sticky skin, then hang it on the rack to dry and head back out to the bedroom... almost, because at the very last second you remember that you're still naked. A quick look around the bathroom determines that your only options are a clean bath towel sitting untouched on the shelf above the rack or your sweat-soaked clothes and undies. So towel it is.

"It's not like it could get any more awkward..." You mumble and exit the bathroom. Your guest appraises you and shakes his head.

"You look even worse than an hour ago. I think you need way more sleep, undisturbed, to fix that. And some food, maybe." Your stomach lurches in protest immediately.

"Not now, maybe in the morning." You plop down on the bed and stare at the ceiling, wondering if you should bit the bullet and ask him to stay some more. Just in case. But it is getting pretty late as it is... And, despite your appreciation of him for acting like a decent human being, that doesn't exactly make him your bestie, remember, Nikki? You don't even know if he likes you that much, or what his boundaries are. Maybe he wouldn't be that keen on staying the entire night in an apartment of a neighbour. Because that's what you are. Neighbours.

"I wonder what that peculiarity of yours is called. In medical jargon, I mean. There must be a term for it." He sits down next to you and tentatively touches your shoulder. "You're thinking too loud again. It won't be inconvenient for me to stay some more, you know? I have no plans for tonight, so if I went home now I would just stay up all night anyway, might as well do it here."

You look down at you toes curling up in the carpet. A small sigh to collect your thoughts, then you look at him. "I'd like that. Tonight's been complicated but in this moment, I'd like that."

"Then it's settled." He gives you a pat on the shoulder and settles back into the chair he was on earlier. "You get a good nights sleep while I sit here with this book."

You climb over to the foot of your bed and scoop your sheets off of the floor while making sure to not accidentally flash him. Your towel slipping now would just be another in a long line of hiccups, not even worth mentioning if he's in the same state of mind.

"Just for the record, I don't know what it's called either. My pills are for schizophrenia, but the doctor said some chemicals overlap, I'm not sure how it works."

"That's very peculiar."

"Tell me about it."

He turns back towards the book. How can he see the pages when the moon has gone being the clouds now? Oh!

"I normally sleep with a night light. Let me just..." Your hand slides out of the covers and reaches into an old lamp. The familiar bulb displays reassuring deep green colours of the jungle that spread all across your ceiling. Egor is fascinated by how vibrant, yet muted the colours are.
"Maybe this was the cause of my nightmare earlier? I wasn't surrounded by the jungle and my warriors." You reach behind you and pull a small toy monkey out of the pile. "I'm going to drift off properly now. See you in the morning, I suppose."

 

[Egor]

You can't quite focus on the page in front of you yet, your gaze keeps returning to the bed where Nika's now motionless form lies, her breath even. How old is she again? All these plushies and the night light, and zero alcohol tolerance paint a picture of a certain kind of person, and this part of the city is so not the place for someone like that. You briefly wonder how she survives every day, what she does, where she came from - then decide you'll probably have enough time to figure that out if you two continue spending time together. All in due time.

You move the chair a bit closer to the small light, turn the page and let the story pull you in once again.

Chapter Text

[Nikki]

The smartphone under your pillow starts vibrating - it's your version of an alarm clock. After wiping the gunk from your eyes you watch the last wisps of the jungle fade away as the sunlight overpowers it. You pull away the loose towel still covering you and kick the covers off you. Absorbing the fresh light directly into your skin is your favourite part of the day. It's not like you have photosynthesis or anything, it just feels lovely to be warmed by something so natural. Thankfully you are very much a day person. Is Egor?

You slide both your legs off the bed and slowly put your weight on them, they support you. Tiptoeing to your bathroom wrapped in a towel is nothing new for someone who never remembers to put out clean clothes to wear after your shower. But today your hair is only a little greasy, maybe you can shower later if something is going on tonight. Speaking of which…

You find Egor curled up on your couch, sleeping soundly and snuffling just a little. Your footsteps seem to wake him, because he immediately raises his face from where it was tucked into the crook of his arm and looks up at you.

"Morning?" He rolls onto his back and stretches luxuriously, so thoroughly that his joints are audibly popping and even the couch under him creaks a little. You smile, getting second-hand satisfaction from the sight, as if it was you who just stretched.

"Morning!" You don't really know how to address your mixed feelings, most prominent being the gratitude for his company and all the help with yesterday's fiasco of a hangout, so your greeting hangs in the air with no follow-up. But apparently you don't have to say anything else, because he raises to his feet and picks up his backpack from where it was left on the floor.

"Well. That was fun, he should do it again! Actually, no, that was properly shit, but I had fun regardless. But now I have stuff to do, so… see you soon?"

"Sure!" You squeak, blushing, once again mortified at the memory of your lousy drinking experience, and hurry after him to properly lock the door. "I'd like to see you again! Soon! As you said! Any time!" Oh, for the love of... Just shut up!

"Tonight, maybe? We could, I don't know, go see a movie? I know this theatre in the Interstate, went there a couple of times, but watching alone is a little boring." Surprisingly, he actually looks... hopeful?

"Oh. I'd love to! When?" Does this count as a date? Wait, no. Of course not. But should you dress up? How posh an activity movie-watching is, anyway?

"5.30 p.m.? I'll text you in case you aren't home. There will be plenty of time before anything actually starts." You're in agreement, so he leaves. At last, you are alone.

It's 11 a.m. when you're finally ready to leave your apartment. Today Michelle only needs you for a couple of hours at the 'spa'. That's where you say you work to spare yourself the horror of revealing where you really work. Hesitating at the door, you look through the peephole. Nothing. Good.

You open the door, walk through it, shut and then quickly lock it. Then you pull the key out, test the door handle, and relock it just to be sure. In the long term you know you're just wearing the bolts down, but for now, right now, you can take solace in the fact that your little safe haven is blocked off and completely unavailable for anyone wishing to get in. Until you come back this evening.

Today is a hard day at the 'spa'. Your hands are nearly purple with use and your mind is barely able to figure out 2+2 by the time you're dismissed. You'll definetly need to take some more medication before your afternoon nap. You climb up the stairs to your home and hesitate right before pausing at the last floor - still no sign of your neighbour. Time for that shower you regret not having. Reaching your apartment, you unlock the door and relock it once entering. You dump your bag on the couch and plug in your phone for it to charge. The home screen alerts you that it's 4:49 p.m. and you'll be meeting again with Egor soon. That's fine, you have plenty of time to shower and snooze. Hopefully you don't have any crazy mishaps while leaving your apartment.

 

[Egor]

Bang-bang-bang!

What the hell?..

Your phone buzzes furiously somewhere to your left, blasting a cover for "Sorcerer's Doll" as it does, and you let out an annoyed hiss, reaching out for it blindly. Someone's at your door and you phone is ringing? That's some shitty timing.

Alice sounds very annoyed when you finally pick up:

"Oh, good, you're alive. Are you asleep again, babe? Rise and shine! And let me in already!" Banging on the door like there is fire in the building while also dialing you, just to make sure you're not dead, because why else won't you open? That's typical Alice right here. So caring.

You fumble with the phone, trying to find the off button, but accidentally hit speaker instead. Oh, lovely. Now she is extra loud.

"Stop shouting, woman, what's wrong with you!"

"Just open up, won't you? There're people here already giving me looks!"

"If they are, it's because you're making a ruckus. Shhh. I'm coming, just leave my door alone."

The banging ceases. You sluggishly roll out of bed and reluctantly head for the entrance, bumping into a door frame as you go. Alice badgering you isn't the way to start a day. Not that your day actually started just now. But you prefer to count all of your morning and afternoon running around like a hound stung by a bee on the behind as something that happened 'yesterday'. 'Today' starts when you wake up. Whenever that is.

"Ugh. Finally." Alice makes for your bathroon the second you open the door, but you swiftly catch her by the belt of her skirt, surprising her with your reflexes. Normally you aren't so quick before your "morning" coffee, but still enough to intercept. Nice.

"Heels." You growl, and she huffs, but obediently kicks them off, rolling her eyes as you let her go, satisfied.

"Neat freak." She sticks her tongue at you and slams the bathroom door shut before you can react. Wait, was that a piercing? She didn't have that last time she visited. Looks neat. Maybe you should consider piercing your tongue? On second thought, why would you?

"Every civilized culture in the world has a rule about outdoor footwear inside a house. The rule being "Hell no". You might not give a fuck about that, but how about common courtesy?"

"I love you, so I'll forgive you for being a nag. This time." She comes out of the bathroom looking much calmer now (guess needing to pee doesn't help her temper, who would have thought) and flashes you a brilliant smile. Her lips are extra red today. Matte. Contoured to perfection. And a little puffy.

"How gracious. Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company, m'lady?"

You wonder why it's so easy for you to slip these kinds of phrases into your speech when talking to her. You must sound like a pretentious moron. Well, at least she takes it the way it was intended - with irony.

"You know what. But don't give me that face! This time, I have a little something for compensation! You'll love it."

She unsnaps her handbag and pulls out a... bottle. A little bottle filled with greenish liquid. You can't believe what you're seeing. Is that?..

"How did you get that?" You take the bottle and look it over carefully. It appears to be authentic. Holy hell, you didn't expect that. The Juice. She has brought you the Juice.

You've had it before, a couple of times. The taste is shit. Even worse is how it makes you feel after taking a dose. But it helps so much better than anything you can manage to keep the shakes at bay on your own. It's lucky that you don't have that many implants. On the other hand, it's very unlucky that you get the shakes at all. So many people don't, ever, no matter how much stuff they have installed in their bodies.

"Don't you worry your pretty little head about this. I have my sources. And my sources have sources. It works out."

She goes to the main room and lies face-down on the couch, rolling up her skirt to expose her round bum. "I've traded in a little favour, that's all. Now, be a darling and hurry up? My regular pill is wearing off, and I'd rather not take the stronger stuff unless I absolutely have to."

You're already on it, preparing the shot. The medicine you have isn't exactly safe, but it's definitely better than whatever kind of long-lasting painkiller she can afford without getting hooked on it. You were very lucky to get your hands on that shipment of meds, even though it didn't seem to be worth the hassle at the time. And better yet, you know where to get more. Even if you'd have to pay a little finder's fee.

"Hey," Alice starts after you chuck the needle and press a piece of cotton to there a little blood has come out. "Do you think you can let me stay for a couple of hours?"

You check the time. Almost 5 p.m. Normally you'd be fine with her presence here, but considering the plans you made with Nika…

"Sorry, I have a meeting in about 20 minutes."

"Ah, shit. Sorry, it's fine, I can just… bum around the district for a while. No big deal."

She makes to leave, but you press you palm firmly down on her butt, keeping her in place.

"Or I could leave you here, and you'll just lock the door when you are done hiding? Leave the key with the old lady downstairs? Apartment 2, remember her? She is usually home in the evening."

"Ah, that sweet woman that said my mouth always looks like I've just serviced the entire building? She knows how to compliment a girl."

You can't help but chuckle at that. The babulechka is something else. She always sounds so genuinely nice even as she says the meanest things. You aren't sure whether she likes anyone at all, but at least she is always civil with you. And she also happens to be the landlord's mother, so tenants have made it a thing to leave keys and rent payments with her. She has never let anyone down, so there is that.

You leave Alice to chill on your couch and do some preening - a brisk shower and a change of clothes, comb your hair and shove some money into your pockets. Check the phone. Ready.

After saying goodbye to Alice, you send Nikki a text, asking if she is home, then pause next to her door in the hall, waiting for her response.

 

[Nikki]

A nice scrubbing shower is lovely after all your hard work today; you use an extra helping of shampoo and conditioner to keep your hair down. It's a bit of a shame that you have to use the towel you slept in. How do normal people get ready for a night out on the town?

There's no particular blemishes on your face, your eyebrows don't need plucking, your lips aren't chapped (it's not like you're gonna kiss him), you think you smell okay. Now… what to wear?

You sit on your bed and stare at your big wardrobe. Just… something comfortable. But the sun will be down once the movie finishes. And should you wear something with pockets or take a handbag? You can't be too fancy or els- Stop. Good thing you have different pills for occasions like this. You take a slow deep breath and close your eyes. Let's just have a nice time with a friend. Egor probably doesn't worry about his looks so much, so why should you?

You put on a cool outfit with a nice green warmth to it. You shove the smallest one of your animals into a pants pocket and unplug your phone while waiting for the medicine to fizz into your glass of water. Then your phone beeps - he's asking if you're home. You are. He says he's waiting outside. You skull the entire glass and squeeze the toy in your pocket. It's showtime.

You put your hand on the doorknob and nearly throw up. Calm down, you've done worse. This isn't even difficult, it's just nerves.

He gives you a warm smile after you exit the room and relock you door. It's a relief to see he's wearing semi-casual too.

"You ready, Nika? I heard they're playing the classics tonight."

"Yeah, I'm all good to go; you look handsome, by the way."

"And you look wonderful." He holds out his hand. "Shall we start walking?" You shall.

Walking down the stairs and out the main entrance isn't such a chore when you're not alone. Egor holds your hand the whole time, and it makes you giggle. It's unlikely you'll ever become more than friends, but it doesn't mean you can't have romantic moments, even if your definition of romantic is just holding hands. Is it romantic to help an old lady cross the street?

"Oh, what do you think we should watch tonight?" You ask him.

"I hear they're playing 1980's American film with Russians as the bad guys, that sounds interesting."

"Really? You're okay with that?"

"We were always the bad guys in almost anything Americans made, I have zero expectations."

"Oof, can't argue with that."

 

[Egor]

You keep chatting, walking hand-in-hand throughout Interstate. Nika's grip is still remarkably tight in your palm - you get the feeling she'd start panicking if you let go, so you just try to ignore the numbness creeping up your wrist. Eventually you reach the neon lights of Cowgirls. As expected, Nikki excuses herself for a second to duck inside and check out the prices. It's still too expensive for her. Another street later you both reach Rainbow Cafe, and it's your turn to head in, though not for the usual reason: you see a familiar face as he enters the building. Nikki accepts your quick apology and waits patiently outside while you head in to catch up with him. It takes a few minutes. As you're leaving your companion appears around a corner, startled.

"I-I thought you had forgotten about the movies, so I just wanted to have a quick peek and see if you were in the middle of something." She says that whole sentence in one breath. You tell her that Robert is a 'friend' whom you lent a moderate sum of money that he hasn't returned yet. He had a new story prepaired about why he can't, and you just wanted to hear the end of it.

She understands. Well, probably not. Nikki does look like someone you could mooch of by playing the pity card, but not like someone who has much to offer in terms of material wealth, so it's unlikely she's ever had to deal with people dodging payments. Though there is always room for surprises.

Right before reaching Micky's you see a familiar defunct news agent. You know what's under it. The place down those stairs makes all of Interstate look like a house party. Down there is where people like you can truly shine - the sex fluid flows like rain and the shows can't be beat. Down there, you can have fun. Unrestrained.

Nikki notices your furrowed brow. "What's going on? Did you used to work in there?"

"Just thinking." You sidestep the question. "How long ago do you think this place was still in business? It looks ancient. Lets keep moving."

"No need." Nikki says under her breath. That makes you worry for a second until you realise she's looking at a group of girls standing out the front of Micky's. They all wear matching pink ribbons around their thighs and hats with stupid blinking lights on them. "Wait here for a second." She steps foward a few meters and clears her throat.

"Taylor?" Nikki is currently talking to the back of the tallest girl. "You're at Interstate tonight? I thought you said you had to stay at St. Joe's for another week".

The woman you assume is Taylor turns around and huffs:

"Yeah, sorry I forgot to tell you, Nik. They couldn't get my paperwork right for a few days, so I just walked out the front door." That's a lie. You know from experience that St. Joe's has almost zero paperwork, even for the few major surgeries that happen there. Any confirmation you needed appears when some of the girls Taylor is with giggle softly.

"Oh well, it's no harm." Nikki seems genuine with her words. "What are you girls up to tonight?"

"Nothing, Nik, we're just doing our own thing. See you later." Taylor doesn't even make an attempt of inviting Nikki inside Micky's.

You walk forward and rest your hand on Nika's shoulder, nearly making her jump. "Are you alright?"

She turns to you. "Yeah? Why wouldn't I be?"

"I thought you hated being called Nik."

"I do. Taylor just keeps forgetting it. I don't mind." …What have you just uncovered?

You place both your hands firmly on her shoulders and look her dead in the eye, being careful to not trigger any of her nightmare from the previous night.

"You know those girls were targeting you, right? That 'Taylor' girl knows you hate being called Nik, she said it on purpose."

"What? No way, she just forgot again." Her bright smile means she believes her own words.

"Nika…" Jesus. How the hell has she surived so long in this city?

 

[Nikki]

It's nice of Egor to worry about you, but really, it's fine. If Taylor and her friends were truly being mean to you, then how come they've never hit you where it really hurts: your sexuality. It's the biggest target of all, and no insults from them? Sounds like Egor doesn't know what he's talking about.

"It's fine. I promise." He doesn't seem convinced. "I can almost smell the popcorn, let's not be late!"

"Yeah..." He slides his hand back into yours. Almost there.

You have this idea in your mind that popcorn is a big part of movie-going experience, and Egor seems to be in agreement, because he treats buying snacks as a decision not to be taken lightly, studying your options for a couple of minutes before buying 2 big buckets of it - one salty and plain, one sweet and coloured. Then he remembers drinks, and since he doesn't have a preference, you end up suggesting regular old lemonade, which he buys one cup of - for you. He mentions having cold fizzy lemon-flavoured tea when going to movies with his mom as a boy and laments that they don't offer any of that here. He gets quiet after that, looking a little grim, and the two of you head to your seats. You have a feeling he doesn't want to talk more about it.

Whatever dark thoughts there were, the movie appears successful in making them go away - at 10 minutes in, he is fully invested in what's going on with the main character. You stop worrying then and start enjoying yourself.

"Whoa! He jus-"

"Shhhh!" The shushing comes from all around you, mostly Egor. When his eyes aren't stuck to the screen he's peering into one of his popcorn buckets. Occasionally he offers you a handful of it, you politely decline. He wouldn't even notice if you told him to F-off or ate it right out of his palm; those enhanced retinas must pay dividends when watching these old grainy films. What was the resolution of these movies anyway? 4K? It's better than nothing. And, contrary to what he was told, Egor is pleased to discover that the bad guys of the movie aren't actually Russian, so he 'won't have to cringe too hard', as he puts it, while watching.

"This is ludicrous." You mumble under your breath. It can't be denied that this is so far an amazing Christmas film, just a tad unrealistic. And unfortunately a bit of a wake-up call. How many times in Cinci has someone been a one-man-army and lived to tell the tale? This McClane guy just pulled tons of glass out of his feet and he's still walking around. The sex-desperate part at the back of your mind wonders if a foot fetishist would get off to that. It's gross to think about. So you should probably stop.

"Wow." Egor is right. Wow. What an amazing movie. You both leave the cinema and sit down on the nearest park bench to exchange your favourite moments.

"...welcome to the party, pal…"

"...I'm surprised he never died…"

"...that girl's boob popped out…"

"...I wonder if there's a sequel…"

"...that song's by Stevie Wonder…"

On and on. 20 minutes later and it's almost time for the second showing of the night. You're both thinking it, so you do.

"It's not as good the second time around."

"It's our own fault. We knew what was going to happen this time."

"Still, a hidden reference or something would have been nice."

"Well, maybe there was. Should we see it again and find out?"

You desperately want to say yes, but you should have been asleep an hour ago. Just standing up is making your eyes bleary, not to mention the long walk back home and up all those stairs. "I think we should call it for now. Tonight's been fun, but…" You stifle a comically-timed yawn. "I need to go to work in the morning."

"Ah, very well then." It's easy to forget he's a night hawk. He's looking around interstate with full energy while you're struggling to keep your eyes open. Although right now he's got more night energy then normal. He's currently staring down a girl exiting an alleyway - shapely, with brilliant white hair, light blue eyes and red lips. She's a real looker, but almost definitely too pricey/straight for you. What a shame.

Egor calls a taxi with your phone and rests in in your lap. "Excuse me for one second." He starts walking towards the girl - what could be the reason? Is he going to rent her services for an hour and leave her with you as a gift?

You slap yourself in the face after thinking that. How the hell did you even get that idea. It's probably just your sleep-deprived mind desperately searching for something to focus on. Well, you can do sex stuff tomorrow, right now you're waiting for the taxi to take you and Egor back home.

 

[Egor]

Interstate isn't Alice's usual turf, what could she be doing here? She is examining the sole of her shoe - as high-heeled as always. Dark red and little dirty. There is a frown on her face, but it transforms into a grin when she hears your footsteps and looks up.

"Look who it is, my darling, my babe, good to see you again! I didn't know it was a party night! I thought you were out on business." Her expression drops and eyes widen as something behind you catches her attention, and suddenly she steps forward and wraps her arms around you in a warm, a bit exaggerated full-body hug. Then her lips brush your ear: "Just hold me for a second, okay? And play along."

She lets her hands slide down your back, one crawling under your shirt, the other continuing only to stop at your butt. She leans in to nuzzle your neck and mumbles an apology before giving you a squeeze, letting it linger...

You are utterly confused, but not so much that you don't realise she is putting on a show. So you cheekily grope her in return, but try to stealthily look to the side and figure out who she is performing for.

"Mmm… Don't bother. She is gone now." She withdraws her hands and steps back. "Whew. Thanks a lot, doll, I thought I was done for. But now I really need to go back to my patch."

"Don't tell me Inga's here? Did she see you?" You ask, not quite sure whether to be worried for her or not because Alice's pimp is an interesting case. As a person, she can as be delightful as they come, when she wants it, though her occupation tends to sour the impression of her character for some people. It certainly did for you, initially. But even as a pimp she is not the worst. Could even be one of the best - if your definition of a 'good' pimp includes actively avoiding excessive abuse of your charges.

So all in all you tentatively like Inga. Mostly because Alice likes her, every now and then making off-handed comments about how much easier it is to work for her after her last pimp. But it's also because you've met a few times in person, and so far she's been… okay. If a little creepy. Maybe it's just her face - too symmetrical, too proportional, too doll-like, yet not perfect enough to look unnatural? It still makes you a little uneasy, and Alice seems to be with you on that.

"Nah, not her, but one of her hounds. The crew that usually oversees us, you know? Didn't expect to bump into one of them here. I was just meeting someone, not for work, you feel me? Guess I chose a bad time for goodwill accumulation. Anyway, I'm off. Oh, wait! Your key! The old lady said you'd better be home before 1.a.m., or you're sleeping in the streets tonight. Ok, bye! Call me!"

She then scampers away as fast as her heels would let her, blowing you a kiss as she does. You watch her go, shake your head and get back to Nikki. The taxi has just arrived.

"What was that about? Were you getting handsy with her?" For all the questions Nikki asks, she never once seems like she's prying or being annoying.

"It's nothing to worry about." You help her sluggish body into the taxi. Her legs are a bit stiff, and she lets out a tired giggle when you need to put your hand on her thigh to buckle her seatbelt on. She quickly falls asleep, not snoring at all, but she is drooling. Lovely. You tell the taxi guy the street address and turn towards Nikki's dozing state. What a girl. So childlike and genuine. So trusting and friendly. Most people in your world either can't be trusted or just want something from you. Or both. It's rare you can spend a nice evening with someone you truly care about, even if it's too dangerous to get closer to her. Your enemies would almost definitely target her to wound you, and you are NOT going to let that happen.

The taxi hits a few potholes, and Nikki's body jumbles along with them, but a bit more than usual. Then you notice her arms shaking and beads of sweat appearing on her forehead. You've read somewhere that it's dangerous to wake people up from a night terror due to the fact you might both be injured. Forget that, you have your armour implant and you're strong enough to stop Nikki from hitting herself. A gentle shake on the shoulder makes a tear spill out of her closed eye. Reaching over and shaking both her shoulders makes her audibly cry out. The taxi driver hears this and chuckles:

"Do whatever you want pal. I ain't gonna judge. Cop a feel or fuck her silly? Just leave me some extra cash, and I'll forget it ever happened."

You are too preoccupied with Nikki to even spare a glance in the asshole's direction, but your blood boils at the implication. Who the fuck just goes around calling people rapists? And offers to cover for them, at that?

"You better hope I never see you again." That's all you say before resuming your efforts to wake up your friend. The driver keeps his attention on the road after that and doesn't offer any further commentary.

 

[Nikki]

He's here and you can't stop it. This time the poison rising through your chest is electric. It arcs through you, and you feel like your hair is gonna catch fire. You've struggled enough. Let's do this.

You can feel it, feel him deep inside you. It's miserable. Your throat is closing up and you've begun sinking into the liquid. You can't breathe. That is, until you feel weird fleshy holes on the side of your neck. Gills? The tears that you can see in the corner of your eyes are pure black. You're infected with it now. This terrible poison covering you that makes you feel like a degenerate. Who could ever want to be with someone like you. Who would ever want to feel like this. Who in their right mind would be into a girl who likes mutations and latex.

"Nika!" The voice doesn't come from inside your mind. It's comes from somewhere else.

"Nika!" This time it comes from right beside you. You sit up, screaming and thrashing like you've done oh-so many times before.

"Calm down, calm down! It's me!" That husky accent is familiar. Your vision slowly adjusts, and you finally see the worried expression of Egor.

"Egor?" Your throat is dry and you skin feels clammy. You shove one of your hands into your pants' pocket and feel around for the stuffed animal that gives you relief. It's still there, thank God.

"You were having another nightmare."

"I know I was!" That sounded way harsher than you meant to, but Egor doesn't react.

"Is it your medicine that gives you night terrors? I might know a guy that can put you on something else."

"No! No, that's fine, thank you for the offer." Medicine side-effects are always way worse when starting fresh. Part of the reason your nightmares are so intense is because you keep swapping medicine types, trying to find one that doesn't keep you awake at night. The result is extremely vivid nightmares and they never get a chance to settle down because you're already on a different brand, trying to find just one that doesn't make sleeping at night a chore.

Your mind is so rattled that you don't know what's happening until you're walking up the stairs with Egor, hand-in-hand again. He's got his key back from the irritable lady who all but slammed the door in your faces, grumbling something about him needing to start sorting out his whores during daylight hours. Approaching your appartments, he tries quizzing you on possible future endeavours, and you accidentally shut him down when you fail to respond. You're at your doorway when he places both his hands on your shoulders and looks you in the eye.

"Do you want me to watch over you again? Don't forget. I normally stay awake throughout the night, it's no trouble."

"I... no. Thank you for the offer, but I think I should be by myself right now."

"Very well, the offer is still open, so don't be scared to knock on my door if something happens in the middle of the night."

"I won't forget, thank you, Egor." You stand on your tippy toes and kiss him on the cheek. You just mean it as a sign of affection, needless to mention a lesbian kissing a (gay?) guy doesn't really amount to anything. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Nika." He walks down the hall and enters his own apartment. You do the same with yours. You lock the door firmly and pull the stuffed toy out of your pocket as you walk over to your bed.

"We had fun tonight, didn't we?" The small toy does not reply. Of course it wouldn't, it's just a mess of fabric and fluff. It doesn't stop you from talking to it. Diaries can be stolen and read, but you're little friends can withstand the harshest interrogations known to man.

You've spilled all your secrets for tonight and you've shaken of the dread you felt from your most recent dream. Changing into soft pyjamas, you set your phone alarm for... 3 hours and 22 minutes from now. Wow. The movies couldn't have gone past 11pm, how long were you talking to your friends? Egor is probably still awake if you wanted to sleep with him. Or rather, if you wanted to have a guardian angel again.

But you are a big girl, aren't you? You've gone on so far without anyone keeping an eye on you. Managing a couple of hours sleeping on your own shouldn't be an insurmountable task. You can do this. Come on. Just close your eyes and let go of your mind. You'll be fine.

 

[Egor]

A quiet hour has passed with you doing absolutely nothing and enjoying the hell out of it when you hear a buzz and a text message announcement from your phone on the other side of the room. You slowly get up from where you've been lazing in your bed, wondering who it could be from. Nikking having trouble sleeping or maybe Alice wanting to share something exciting? Who else could be texting you at this hour?

Yar, apparently. And he is being as eloquent as always.

'U up?'

Sending an 'F U' is just a reflex for you at this point, and you almost do exactly that, but at the last second decide to just leave him on 'read'. A pile of manure won't stink if you don't poke at it. Best not to engage. If he needs something with regards to strictly business, he can call in the morning.

But Yar obviously doesn't think so. Another buzz - and you get a picture. At first you aren't sure what it is you're looking at, but turning the phone sideways helps. It's… a fish. A catfish, rather, judging by this thing's muzzle or, er, face?.. That has these little antennae-looking growths (tendrils?) on it. And also by its general shape. And the fact that it is sticking to a piece of driftwood at the bottom of a tank. The fish is kind of chunky, dotted in small gray spots, and its black scales have a velvety look to them. It looks pretty dope, to be honest.

There are no texts after that. You patiently wait for about twenty minutes, then give up and dial him. Probably a bad idea. But this is too random for you to be able to just leave it like this - damn your curiosity!

"Hey, kit- I mean, Egor. Good night." His greeting is a little slow, every word in enunciated. Which is odd.

"Night. What was that about? Why did you send me a picture of a catfish?"

"That's a birthday gift. For me. From a friend. Cute little motherfucker, isn't he?" Now you get what's up with his diction. He sounds drunk. Or very tired. Or high on weed. Maybe a combination of all three.

"Er… yes? Wait. Is it your birhtday? Today? Or was it yesterday?"

"No, the day after tomorrow. He won't be able to see me in person then, so the gift came early. It kinda looks like you, so I thought you should see it."

You pause and take another look at the photo attachment, incredulous. Is he serious? You are supposed to look like that matte-black, spotted, tendril-faced little monstrosity with a suction cup for a mouth? You exhale, slowly, telling yourself not to jump to conclusions just yet.

"Really."

"Well, I didn't mean literally. You just give off similar vibes. Nocturnal, bristly, skittish, kinda cute." And now you are 100% sure the man is smashed on something. No way in sizzling hot hell has he just called you cute. No. Way.

But you aren't about to focus on that when he is in this state. Plus he probably never meant to word it this way, so you let the matter drop instead of focusing on Yar's point about what exactly makes you vibe like his new bushy-nosed fish buddy.

"Well, I shall remember to call and greet you then."

"Please do." Damn. Who is this guy and what did he do to Yar? That's not him! "Gotta go now, stuff to do, people to hunt."

He hangs up before you can say a prober goodbye. Ah, that's more like the Yar you know and dislike. Properly abrupt. Good. All that civility was about to begin freaking you out. You settle back down on your bed and examine the picture once again. The more you look at the little guy, the more you feel like being compared to him isn't so bad after all.

"Guess I'll just take it as a compliment then." Maybe a second opinion couldn't hurt. You share the picture with Alice and ask what she thinks, then, after a little deliberation, decide to send in to Nika - in the morning. You don't want to risk waking her up too early.

Once again you wonder about her disorder. It's ambiguous, yet there is definitely something. You aren't sure if her naivete is caused by it, or just the way she was raised. But if that's the case just how sheltered must a child be growing up to end up like her? And what kind of parents couild manage to afford that?

Questions, so many questions, and none of them are the kind you could just ask without using some tact. Which isn't your strongest suit. You're certain you'll find out more at some point, so no need to rush it. Rush her. The two of you are just fine as it is for the moment.

Eventually you start getting drowsy and see that it's 6:40 a.m. already. You remember your earlier impulse and follow through, sending Nikki a text with the photo of the fish, hoping it would put her in a cheeful mood, if nothing else. Then turn in for your traditional morning nap.

Chapter Text

[Nikki]

The pillow vibrates again under your phone. Wait, that's not write. No, it's wrong. It was right, right? Correct? Left. No, you meant right!

Goodness, what's going on??? You run your hands through your hair and around your face, then check them. No sign of blood or anything, so you're probably not woozy from blood loss. Is it your pills? You'd love to check the medicine cabinet, but your legs are refusing to listen to you. That's a bit of a worry. You pull yourself up into a sitting position and drum a repeating pattern on your knees. Then you rub the sides of your thighs with your palms like the internet taught you. Slowly, slowly, slowly, you regain feeling in them. They tingle like normal whenever limbs are asleep, but it's probably for the best - you have a free excuse to practice before starting work.

Now you just lean against the bedhead, swiping through your phone while waiting for your legs to wake up. Egor has sent you a message of this cute little fish thing. It's got tendrils above its mouth and is covered in lumpy grey dots with black scales all over. Hopefully he doesn't plan to eat it. You're not sure why, but Egor eats a lot of fish when he gets the chance. It must be a very expensive taste if he doesn't want anything cloned.

A hundred minutes later you've showered, eaten, groomed, and are now good to go for work. After locking your door you look down the hall and wonder what Egor is doing currently. Having a catnap? Eating that poor fish? Maybe he's got a girl over, lucky guy. That girl he was feeling up on the street in the Interstate was a real looker. Although you can't shake the feeling he had ulterior motives…

It's strange. You don't have any horrible secrets to hide, no secrets at all, for that matter. He seems like he has a lot. Privacy is important to a lot of people in Cinci. You don't even know his last name while he knows about your bedroom jungle.

Your face must show your confusion, because when you finally reach the door of the parlour, Dorothy doesn't hound you for the password and just buzzes you in. You give her a nod and she leans back in her chair while toying with a pencil. Her usual brilliant red hair goes nicely with a proud business suit that definitely screams 'legitimate company'.

"Whatcha thinkin' 'bout today, Nikko?" Her accent makes things tricky sometimes. She pronounced your name like the start of 'nicotine' - you don't even know what type of accent it is.

"Nothing really, just my friend who's got more questions than answers."

She gets out of her chair, walks over and hugs you tightly.

"You'll be right. I used to date this guy who had nothing but questions for me. Where did I live, what was my income, how's my cooking? I thought he was just some not-so-subtle IRS agent. Took me to a fancy dinner, and I woke up in a bathtub with my kidney stolen." She laughs at her own crude joke. "True story. Anyway, just hang around until Shell greets us, Will is working on her pluming right now, so we might have to wait a hot minute."

"Alrighty, thanks for the warning." She gives your shoulder a pat; people like doing that to you.

"No worries, Darl, it's what I'm here for. And on the rare chance you ever date a guy?" She picks up the pencil and snaps it in two. "Introduce me to him, I'll make sure he's not too much for you."

Previous conversations have told you that what she really means is: 'Something on your mind, Nikki? It's no business of mine. Now I will tell you a joke to calm your nerves before we start the day proper. I am very protective of you and aware of your naivety; don't get mixed up with anyone who means you harm'. Slang is such a weird thing, friendly or not. You appreciate all these people looking out for you, but sometimes you wish you knew how to look out for yourself - what if one day they all leave you too?

"Nikki, honey!" Michelle's voice rings out down the corridor. Her speaking is mixed in with the occasional grunt and loud smack - God only knows what she's doing with Willis. "Could you and Dot stay by the entrance for me? I'm just having a-" moan, "…a meeting with Will." Her voice has cracked. That confirms it.

You sit by the doorway with Dorothy while she talks to you about her night. When you get a chance, you tell her about Egor, but you don't say anything about your nightmares - those can stay in your bedroom, where they belong.

Later Michelle and Willis finally come out of the 'meeting room'. Aka the broom closet. Michelle is red in the face and rickety on her high heels while Willis has a toothy grin and is buckling his belt back on.

"That was a pretty good talk, wasn't it, Shelly?"

"Sure was, Will." She gives him a smooch on the cheek and turns towards you and Dorothy. "Alright girls, we have a customer at 10:30am and 2pm. Dorothy, you're in Room A. Nikki, you're working the counter. Will?" She turns towards him and slides her gloved hand around to his bum. "You're on standby."

All this slang and nicknames can make things confusing, and it's a bit of a letdown that you're on the front desk again, but at least you can play solitaire and do paperwork. You slide into the chair that Dorothy was sitting in; it's still warm. Dorothy stands next to the coffee machine waiting impatiently while Willis goes outside for a quick smoke and Michelle heads to her office, aka broom closet №2.

There's a good little business going on here. People who say menial tasks are boring have never been grateful to just have a job. You like working here because while the pay could be better, you're somewhat friends with everyone, and paperwork/ massaging is very difficult to do incorrectly. Plus sometimes Michelle gets high and gives you her wallet to buy GDX bagels for everyone. As well as Vaseline and razor blades for herself.

You've always called your workmates by their names: Michelle, Willis, Dorothy. They call each other Shelly, Will and Dot. You're the only one in the building that doesn't use nicknames, it just seems disrespectful to you to not use real names. More than once it's caused a problem.

Last time, Michelle was trying to tell you about this hentai character who's name was Will. She was telling you about his tentacle legs when Willis came out of the back room ready to greet another client. He shook the man's hand, said "Hi, I'm Will", and next thing you know, Willis is getting the daylights beaten out of him because the Tower guard he was greeting thought you and Michelle were saying he was a mutant. He almost beat Willis to death until you yelled loud enough to clear up the misunderstanding and make him leave. Good thing too. While the guard was attacking Willis, Dorothy was trembling like no tomorrow and had to hide in the bathroom until the guard left. You're 90% sure she's got something, but you'd never want to ask and put her in danger. 'Hey Dorothy, the signs are all there. I know you're a mutant, so just admit it.' What a dumb thing to tell someone.

…did you take your pills today?

Suddenly there is a buzz, and you answer the door with a standard greeting:

"Hello, do you have an appointment?" Though you know there are no appointments till 10:30.

"No, I came to make one." The prospective client, from what you can see via the ring camera, is male, gruff-looking, with deep voice and grim expression. You look over at Dorothy, who just shrugs, and unlock the door.

Immediately it opens with enough force that it bangs against a wall, cracking loudly - it's a miracle the glass remains whole. You feel your desk shake a little at the impact and shrink in your seat, trying to look as small and unassuming as possible as you stare in shock at the man who just entered. He is tall and thick with muscle, wrapped up in a sand-coloured trench coat that has seen some action, judging by the multiple patches on it along with a fresh round hole near his breast pocket. From a bullet, by the looks of it.

But it's neither his stature nor the scowl on his face that makes you uneasy. It's the much shorter man he has dragged inside by the collar - an unconcious man with his hands tied and a tricle of blood running down the side of his face.

"What the hell, man?" Willis barges back in and promptly runs face-first into the man's conveniently-placed elbow. You wince, and Dorothy mouths a silent 'Ouch' from where she stands, holding her cup of coffee in front of her like a shield. Whether accidental or not (probably not), that hit has to hurt.

"Settle." The man grunts, adjusting his grip on the guy he is holding, and bends down to pick Willis up from the floor - also by the collar. "I'll be out of your hair in fifteen minutes. No need to make a fuss." He pushes your sputtering co-worker in Dorothy's direction and pulls out a phone with his free hand.

"Shit." After one look at the display he tosses it and turns to you. "Miss. Your phone." You continue staring at him, having not quite processed what he asked of you, and his scowl deepens. "Your phone, I said! Give it to me."

As your hand dives into your pocket, you open your mouth to enquire why he needs it. It's not like you mind helping him out, but you'd like to be sure he isn't going to do something to it. That's reasonable, right?

"Now!" The loud, sharp command makes you reconsider the validity of asking questions right this moment, and you pass him your phone with a slightly shaky hand.

"Here…" He snatches it and instantly starts dialing without bothering to thank you. You carefully remove yourself from behind the desk and dash over to the coffee machine to join Dorothy and Willis, who instantly move to stand in front of you, watching the man with wary eyes. The man doesn't seem to care - he is already growling at whomever has picked up his call:

"Where the fuck are you people? No, I said… Don't give me that shit, do you think I'm stupid? …Precisely where I said I would be. Not there now, obviously. Phone died." He looks around the reception area, disgruntled. "Some kind of shitty massage studio or whatever. 'Arm Handy' or something similar but just as stupid, I didn't look."

The unconcious man drops to the floor with a thud, and the tall man prods him with his foot absent-mindedly as his expression goes progressively less pleased with every word he hears on the other end.

"No, I needed your incompetent ass there ten minutes ago. That the best you can do? No, make it fifteen, or…" Listening to whatever objections or excuses are being offered, he scratches at his stubble furiously and tsks:

"Seriously. Make it ten, then. Oh, that's how you want to play it? Make it five. I can go lower, do you want to keep pushing it? Didn't think so."

He ends the call and mumbles something that sounds like 'idiots', moves to put your phone on the desk and… goes very still for a couple of seconds, looking at the screen with a surprised expression. Then slowly, it changes into smile - a sly, predatory kind of grin that makes your hair stand on end. Whatever it is there on your phone that caught his attention, it must be very amusing to him.

"Nice ancistrus." He turns to the three of you, who look at him utterly dumbfounded, and corrects his earlier statement:

"Less than fifteen minutes now. Don't." The last part is directed at Michelle, who has just exited her office with a gun in her hand. The man doesn't appear to be bothered by it in the slightest, to your amazement and mounting horror. "You really don't want to do anything with that, beautiful. Trust me."

"I actually don't want to shoot you, but you aren't welcome, not with whatever this is." Michelle frowns and gestures at the body on the floor with her pistol. Then looks a little closer and squints, as if seeing something odd. "Now wait a goddamn minute. Are these… fangs?"

You stick out your neck from behind Willis to take another look at the guy. There is indeed something weird going on with his mouth - you can see two long, sharp canines protruding from under his upper lip.

"These are fangs." Michelle repeats, looking queasy now.

"Fangs, indeed. Now don't go throwing a fit over this - it's not like he can do anything about it. His kind rarely ever can, you know? Sucks to be a mutant with a tell this obvious." The man says it with an air of indifference, but something about his eyes tells you that he probably has more to add on the matter, not that it means anything in the context of the current situation - it's is neither place nor time for any kind if discourse on sensitive topics.

Michelle shakes her head dismissively, clearly just about done with this whole mess.

"We don't need any of that. Why don't you just leave?" She succeeds in coming off calm and collected, even though her voice climbs up an octave by the end of the sentence.

The man gives her an unamused grin and steps over the guy he's dragged in to hoist him up on his shoulder. Then leans on the wall and comments conversationally:

"Nice place you have. A bit dingy, but it adds character, doesn't it? How much do you guys charge?"

Michelle bites her lip nervously, keeping the gun on the man and looking him steadily in the eye. Willis rubs at his abused face, sliently glaring, and Dorothy doesn't volunteer any information either, drumming fingers on her cup. The silence gets akward, and you start nervously biting your nails. Eventually, Michelle gives up on the staring contest and answers:

"That depends on what kind of massage you need and that areas are going to be covered."

"Right. About two hundred should be enough, if I have to guess?" You gape at him, wondering what kinds of places he's been frequenting if he thinks two hundred is average for a massage.

"Yes, just about. Why?" For a split second Michelle looks just as taken aback as you are, but clearly wants to take advantage of the man's apparent willingness to pay that much.

The man digs into an inner pocket of his trench and pulls out what looks like a roll of banknotes tied with a rubber band. He smirks at Michelle and waves it at her in a 'come hither' motion - like she is a stripper or something. The only thing this gesture is lacking is a salacious wink.

"You can find out. Payments are normally handled by a receptionist, but you are the proprietor, right? So take two." Michelle cocks a skeptical eyebrow, not in a hurry to move, and he adds: "I won't bite. Unless you ask."

Still looking dubious, Michelle approaches the man and takes the roll, undoes the band to separates a couple of notes from the rest of them. Then carefully wraps it all up and passes the roll back. He gives her an indulgent kind of smile, which looks totally out of place on his brutish mug.

"Consider it a compensation for your time. And his face." He inclines his head at Willis and then actually winks at Michelle, which looks even more bizarre than him smiling. "Nice meeting everyone. Bye, beautiful."

With this, he presses the button near the front door and heads out without looking back. The door locks behind him with a click.

"What." You clear your throat, hearing that your voice is a little coarse. "…What was that?"

"Some kind of bounty hunter, looks like." Dorothy says, still clutching her coffee cup like a lifeline. "Probably needed to get out of the street while waiting for a pick-up. And we were the closest option."

"B-But… what type of bounty?"

Dorothy squints at you. "You didn't see that unconscious guy he had with him?"

Oh, right.

"I saw him, but what was so bounty-worthy about him?"

"That a trick question? It was those fangs - he's a mutant." She looks at the tall guy through the glass doors with a mixture of hatred and fear. Then she shakes her head slightly, and her expression softens. "Bounty hunter or not, he just gave us the easiest job ever. How much'd we get, Shell?"

"Eh? Two hundred. Give me a second." Michelle has put her gun back on the wall in her office and is currently fussing over Willis' latest bruise. "You need some ice, honey?"

"Ice honey? Haven't heard of that before." Willis smirks as Michelle leads him to the break room. Dorothy watches them go and begins chatting to you again.

"What was that thing he mentioned? A… anci-what?"

"Oh. I guess he was looking at this fish my friend sent me." You pick your phone up off the desk and show her the photo, trying to ignore how warm it got when that man was holding it.

"That looks half-decent, probably wouldn't taste bad either." She goes to take a sip of her coffee - but its not there. Instead, her hands are coated in piping hot liquid, and there's a crushed cardboard cup on the floor. You're both just noticing it now.

"Whoa! Are you alright?" The boiled ground beans have dyed the ends of her suit sleeves, and you can see steam wisping away from her darkended hands.

"Yeah. I'm alright." She looks down at her hands, not in any apparent pain. She just… studies them. Then she looks up at you and studies you. How is she not screaming in pain right now? Is she in shock?

"Umm… should I ask Michelle for more ice?"

"No need. This just happens sometimes, not sure why."

You walk back to the reception desk and sit down as she continues standing there. Her usual laid back demeanour has been replaced with cold stoicism. You've never seen her like this before. Normally she's cracking jokes and having a good time. Now she wipes the coffee away from her hands as if she's just finished washing the dishes. You get the impression she's weighing her options, and her constantly looking up and down your body doesn't help your mood.

"Nikki."

"Y-Yes?" She's scaring you now.

"That unconscious guy that Yar was with. What did you… feel about his fangs. Feel anything special?"

"Uhhh…" You have to admit, something felt strange about him. Stranger than your average unconscious fanged guy, anyway. Also, 'Yar' must be that tall guy. "There… yeah there was something a little bit weird."

"Ok. Stay here for me." She looks determined now. But you have enough time to ask one small question before she starts walking away:

"Wait, how do you know that guy's name?" Dorothy looks through the glass doors of the entrance and clenches her burnt fists.

"He did me dirty once, and doesn't even remember me. I sure as shit remember him, he killed my sister." The skin of her hands goes white with tension, and a tear drips down her cheek. "But this isn't the time or place".

She struts down the hallway, most likely to talk to Michelle and Willis. You turn towards the front of the store and see Yar with his back to the entrance. A few minutes later you can hear an awfully loud car engine get closer and closer.

"Come with me." Dorothys return startles you, especially because she's grabbed your arm with one hand and is holding Michelle's pistol in the other. "We need to get out of here. Come on." She drags you through the parlour until she kicks open the fire exit with her heels. You notice that Willis and Michelle are nowhere to be seen. "Do you know someone who could let me rent a room, or just stay with them for a while?"

"I do, I mean, you can stay with me, but… why? What's happening?"

Dorothy turns back to look at you while walking down the alleyway; somehow her feet know where to plant themselves without her looking where she's going:

"That fucker who killed my sister is out hunting mutants, and I think I'm next." Wow. That's a pretty decent bomb to drop out of nowhere. Although, it's not really out of nowhere. Why didn't her complete absence of reaction to burns clue you in?..

Now you're both reaching the end of the alleyway and the start of the busy street, so it's better not to ask any big questions. Dorothy lets go of your arm and has the bright idea to shove the gun in her handbag instead of waving it about in public. While rustling around in there, she pulls out a weathered bottle of Aloe Vera and applies a generous amount to her raw hands.

"You want some?" She's offering you the bottle.

"Umm, no thank you. I didn't really burn my hands, so-"

"Suit yourself." She's already putting the bottle away. "Come on, my apartment isn't far. I just need to grab some stuff before… before…" Her sentence ends like she wants you to finish it. At least her usual happy tone is returning.

"Before… what?" She looks at you. The familiar gleaming twinkle in her eye is back.

"Before you get a new roommate."

 

***

You stare at the door of Dorothy's apartment, once again biting your nails. What could be taking her so long? Throwing together an overnight bag and money, touching up makeup and hitting the bathroom before heading out is not a complicated time-consuming process! What if something is wrong?

You sigh and tell yourself to calm down. Clearly Dorothy's palpable tension is rubbing off on you, making you jumpy. It was just all so sudden. Your mind couldn't quite process what was happening as you left the 'spa' with Dorothy without saying goodbye to either Michelle or Willis. After accepting your offer to let her crush at your place for an undeterminate amount of time, she refused to say anything further regarding her situation, other than 'I'll explain further once we are at your place'. The weird looks she kept throwing your way while you walked to her apartment building did nothing to help your nerves.

You spit out a stray chunk of a nail and decide to distract yourself before you end up chewing through the skin of your fingertips. You contemplate calling Egor, but decide he is probably asleep now, so you open up one of the pre-installed game apps to kill time. Several minutes later, the handle on the door in front of you turns with a click, and Dorothy finally emerges with a bag over her shoulder, a little pale and tired, but looking much calmer now, almost determined.

"All set. Let's go."

"Let's go? Now? Don't you want to lock your door first?"

"Hmm? Nah, it's fine, whoever comes here looking for me will instantly know I'm gone." You're no expert, but doesn't that mean the people after her will start searching faster? You're probably wrong.

"Uh, my apartment is this way." You point towards the only exit of this building. Dorothy guffaws at you while you try not to let it show that you weren't trying to be funny. You fiddle with your hands awkwardly while she slowly settles down.

"I know it's that way. Where do we go after that?" You show her.

Walking the city streets with someone other than Egor is weird. Aside from when you're both excited about something, normally you and Egor are content to travel in complete silence. Dorothy is the opposite. The way she prattles on about every little thing is almost impressive. She's got a lot of stories too, and you don't think a single one of them is fake. If you weren't there yourself, you wouldn't believe she was fearing for her life barely twenty minutes ago.

"So I says to the guy 'Fuck off. If that hash is grey then I'm the new Queen of England'. It was a good time. Long story short, he died of overdose or some shit and I got my six bucks back. Oh, are we here?"

You look up from the pavement and check the dark blue arch that stretches over the main entrance of your apartment building. Briskly walking through the lobby, you see that no one is at the desk. Good. You really don't feel the urge to talk to the tennants. Although Dorothy would probably have a field day with all the talking they do - it's something to think about later.

Heading up the stairs you finally see her again. Your neighbour. You ask Dorothy to wait temporarily on the stairs; she notices you glancing nervously at your neighbour and is happy to wait. What a relief. You shyly walk up the stairs and say 'Hello' to the back of this gorgeous woman. Finally it's your turn to catch someone unawares.

"Ooh, hello." She turns to face you and inspects you with her beautiful eyes. You quickly clear your throat and make sure your thoughts stay in your head this time. "How have you been? I haven't seen you since that little hiccup a few days ago."

A hiccup. It's nice of her to call it that. She's only been talking for a little while, but you're all over the place. Your nose is almost overwhelmed by that old fragrance from a few days ago. Your eyes are resting on this lovely black sweater she's wearing, her legs are wrapped in tight jeans and her manicured hands clasp a watering can.

"I-I've been okay, thank you for asking…" Mention it. "Umm, I'm sorry for the other day."

She dismissively waves her hand:

"It's no trouble, I know I'm sexy." She strikes a pose with the watering can, and you feel your cheeks turn red. "But if you're still worried about it, we can start fresh and just forget it ever happened."

You try not to show how desperate you are for that chance.

"Yes. Let's do that. Please." She gives you a small smile. You know it's just your imagination and paranoia but… doesn't it seem like she's less enthusiastic this time?

"Hello, neighbour, nice to meet you." She outstretches her hand and you reach for it. "My name's- Y-eeeooow!" She quickly snatches her hand away from yours, and her other hand drops the watering can in surprise. She starts rubbing at her injured palm. "What the hell was that? It wasn't…" She looks down at her black sweater and then your jacket. "It wasn't static electricity."

You're too caught off-guard to even reply. Half of your mind is wondering how you accidentally hurt her, while the other half is thinking about how to apologise and dreads that she will stop giving you chances to be a decent human being.

It's at this point that Dorothy decides to dig her hand into your jacket's pocket and slot your apartment key into the lock. She briefly says 'excuse us' before shoving you backwards into your apartment and relocking the door tightly, just how you like it. You hear two doors slamming shut. The first one being yours, the second one being… your neighbour's?

"Nikki." Dorothy guides you onto your couch and drops her duffel on the floor next to your feet while she looks around. "Nikki, do me two favours: look through that bag for a white box and tell me where your bathroom is."

On autopilot, you point at the far end of your living room. She rushes off and starts unbuttoning her fancy suit. Your brain finally clicks back into gear. Oh man. That definetly could have gone better. Part of your mind wonders if that's the last you'll ever see of your neighbour. Of course not. You still both need to do the laundry and leave your homes, right? Maybe the timing will be better next time.

You hear scuffling from the bathroom as you paw through the bag. On top is Michelle's gun - you carefully lift it out and place it gently on the coffee table. Once, when you were holding a package for Egor, it was a gun in a big ziplock bag. He promised it was unloaded and, just as a precaution, taught you the basics of firearm safety. Thankfully you haven't forgotten any of it. Underneath you find the white box. Lifting it up you see a weird selection of clothing. You've never seen Dorothy wearing something that wasn't a loose-fitting business suit. But her bag is filled with deep-cut tanks and short skirts. How bizarre.

"My god, that's better." You turn around and see… Dorothy. Dressed only in a undershirt and panties. The first thing you notice is that there is no scar over where her kidney would be. The second thing you notice is, from her elbow to her ribs, there's a fleshy curtain of skin hanging in a triangular shape. It's the same at the back of her knees.

She throws her bundled up suit onto one of your chairs and sits next you on the couch. Then she holds one of your hands and squeezes it gently with both of hers.

"I'm not feeling any static electricity, maybe the voltage is real high. The box, please." Dumbfounded, you pass her the box. She lets go of your hand and searches through it while it's resting in her lap. The folded-up wedge of flesh below her groin has a lot of cuts and marks around the edge.

"When I was young, I tried to hide it and cut it off. It didn't work. The fucking things just toughened up along with me." She pulls a long needle out of a pouch and slots it into a vial of brownish liquid.

"Thankfully, I knew what they were before I asked my parents about it. They would have killed me on the spot." She grunts slightly as she presses the needle deep into her thigh. Just when you think she's about to hit bone, she presses the plunger down.

"Flying squirrel? Sugar glider? Call me whatever you want, just don't make it boring." Now she leans back on your couch and breathes deeply. The needle goes back in the box, and the box in the bag.

"Oooooh. Don't look." You take her advice and turn away; a few minutes later she says it's okay to look now. Her thigh has swelled to nearly double its size, and the mark where the needle went in has slowly begun leaking pus. The flesh curtain attached to her thighs has a green web of veins across it. This whole thing is rather gross and suprising. You go to stand up, but she leans foward as best she can and puts her hand on your shoulder:

"Wait. Please. Just until I fall asleep." Waiting for your response, she pulls out a small handbag from the duffel and swipes the gun from the table to put it inside, her eyes never leaving your face as she does it.

"Okay." You sit back down, and she breathes a sigh of relief.

Later on, she is dozing softly while you are writing down everything you've learnt today in a scrapbook usually reserved for doodling. It's barely past 12 p.m. yet, but the day feels over. Dorothy has confirmed to you she's a mutant, you now hold the power to turn her in to Tower. Which you would never do. She revealed this to you because… why? She knew she had to, because she didn't react to her hands getting burnt? That seems too convinient. That 'Yar' guy having a mutant as a bounty? Maybe. But why did she take you with her? Unless…

You slowly get up from the couch and walk to your bathroom, open your medicine cabinet and take a bunch of your regular medication. Then you take a bunch of sleeping tablets. Then some miscellaneous headache tablets. Then you take some random ones you found in the corner. After that you wander over to your bed, climb under the covers and wrap your arms tightly around your jungle warriors. You whisper instructions to each of them, tell them each how much you love them. You pull your phone out and text Egor. He probably won't see this for another few hours. You say that you're glad you knew him. Finally, you close your eyes and wait for the forever sleep.

Half an hour later you're vomiting into your toilet while Dorothy holds your hair back.

"I should have thought of this." She mumbles. "It's a pretty common reaction, after all. Stupid of me to pass out like this, I should have sorted you out first. But it's all right. I'm here, and you aren't going to die on me now. Just let it all out. It's okay."

She has been saying something else, too, but your rattled mind is processing maybe half of all the information it receives right now, at most. You clutch the toilet seat with shaking hands, content to just focus on the feeling of Doroty's hand on your back, slowly rubbing it in circular motions, and the sharp, stabbing pain in your stomach. Your heart feels like it somehow has made its way to your head, with all the blood pounding within the confines of your skull. You aren't sure you've ever felt worse.

But you are alive. Which means having to deal with whatever comes your way now. No choice. You only hope that you aren't going to be alone to face it.

 

[Egor]

The knife you've been absent-mindedly twirling between your fingers finally flies out of your hand and lands on the kitchen floor with a clunk. You blink, snapping out of the fugue you've been in for the past few minutes. Off. Things are just off. You are having an off day. An odd feeling that something isn't quite right, some kind of uneasy anticipation has been following you ever since you woke up three hours ago. It's nothing new to you, but it gives you all the more reason to be ill at ease. Because you know from experience that if something doesn't feel right, then it most certainly isn't. The problem is that most of the time you can't put your finger on what exactly 'it' is.

"Vot zaraza." You stare at the knife in mock offence. How dare it fall out of your hand. Now it needs to be washed again. As you bend down to pick it up, you wonder if you should take it as a sign that some man is going to come visit you today, even though it's just a silly superstition. That would be an unusual occurrence for sure. Few of your male acquaintances know where you live and ever fewer would think of visiting you in person instead of calling to arrange a meeting somewhere specific. Ladies are a different matter. Alice rarely ever warns you before showing her dolled-up face, and Nikki just has to walk a few steps to reach your door. Even Inga has paid you a social call once or twice, unannounced.

So what kind of man could possibly come by? Maybe the landlord? But there is no reason for him to bother you about rent. You always pay in advance.

As you are about to put the knife back in the drawer where it belongs, you pause, momentarily mesmerised by light reflecting off its smooth surface and sharp edge. That makes your thoughts travel in a different direction. Is this the day? You listen to yourself, trying to gauge if something really needs to be done today, or maybe you could postpone for a while. It's no use - your sensations are muddled by this anxious state you're in. But you know that now that the thought has occured to you, you won't be able to get it out of your head unless you go through with it. What a nuisance.

"Just do it. No point delaying." You say to yourself. Heading into your bedroom, you open the wardrobe and look at a long, thick chain draped over one of the hangers. It's not dirty, as you haven't used or worn it since the last time, but you are going to wash it anyway. A wet chain is eariser to handle. Or so you think - objectively, there should be no difference. It's just a convincing thought for your comfort.

You start as usual, letting the first few links rest on your tongue for a minute, then begin to move it around, biting the metal carefully, trying to get as much of the *taste* as possible. There is always a small hope that simply sucking on it for a while would do it. And sometimes it works. But not this time, apparently. You are so not looking forward to it, but…

You throw you head back and put a little more of the chain in. The links touch the back of your throat, a ticklish sensation caused by them is familiar enough so it's not a hindrance anymore. Relax and inhale. Then swallow. It's only a little difficlult to force the tip in, but once it's properly down and on its way, the rest is more or less a routine. Keep swallowing, breathe deep and even, and try not to think about how disgusting the noises you're making must be. It's a good thing no one can hear you now. This crap is embarassing enough as is.

You aren't sure how you even came up with this… maintenance thing in the first place. You remember being drunk at the time - apparently so much that trying to eat an inedible object because your body craved something metallic seemed like a valid idea. And it obviously didn't go well. Despite your trying to hold it, gag reflex got in the way, and you ended up emptying your stomach in a rather violent manner. The mess was autrocious. Your throat ached for a few days after. So why did you try it again? Probably because all the other methods you were using and ideas for alternatives that you were entertaining back then were even worse. So it's not like you had anything to lose. Other than your last meal.

Like always, you stop after just a bit more than two thirds of the chain are inside. You tuck what you can inside your mouth and let the rest dangle freely, brushing your chin. You can already feel the difference. It's weird. As revolting as you find this process, it does something to your body and mind. The discomfort is immeasurable, but the nagging sensation that's been at the back of your mind since morning is gone, and you are much calmer now, despite still being tense for reasons unrelated to your metal craving. You look at yourself in the mirror and rub at your neck in a soothing gesture, feeling for the chain inside. It is still alien to you, having this object just sitting in the upper part of your digestive tract, but it's not bothering you as much as it used to. You are quite the sight right now. Unsettling one, if you can say so yourself.

After a couple of minutes you decide that you've had enough of this thing. Now for the most unpleasant part - not that what you did previously was pleasant in any way, but at least the first part is objectively the easiest. Things are supposed to be going down your throat, after all. No the other way around.

The key is going slow. Just yanking the chain out would do you no favours - as smooth as the links are, they could still cause trauma. So you grab at the part still hanging from your mouth and pull, exhaling as you do. Little by little, your insides let go of the chain, and you drag it out, cringing at the amount of saliva coming along with it. The involuntary sounds you are making are even worse. Your eyes are watering a little, as they always do, and you really can't bloody wait for this to be over.

Just a little more… There. You let the chain drop in the sink and lean over it, spitting and wiping at your chin, then turn on the water and get some soap to start cleaning. You feel queasy, but it's okay, a perfectly normal state after your little session. It will pass.

Going out of the bathroom on slightly unsteady feet, you look at the couch where you left your phone earlier and notice a light blinking on it. That usually means you've missed a notification - either a service message or a text. The phone is on silent mode at the moment, so it's no wonder you haven't heard anything.

Picking it up, you frown. There was a text from Nikki a couple of hours ago. You open it up to read and stare at the message, not getting what it means for the first couple of seconds. The the realisation sinks in, and you run out of your apartment to Nika's, not bothering to lock up. Banging on her door with enough force that your hand starts hurting, you pray that she is inside, that she is breathing still, that it's just a misunderstanding, and she meant something else. Or that she reconsidered. Or something. Anything that would mean she isn't gone.

You bang and bang and bang on the door. The handle doesn't turn. "Nika? Nika!" The handle stubbornly refuses to turn. Kick the door down? That's too desperate for right now. Plus, you know an easier way. You quickly rush back to your apartment and grab your lock picking tools, remembering to put the shoes on and lock the door on your way out this time. You head back to Nikki's door and crouch down in front of the doorknob. Breaking it would be easier but it'd make too much noise. You unzip the small bag and get to work.

"What's all that racket?"

You turn away from Nikki's door and look at the familiar woman coming out of her apartment.

"I think Nika is in trouble, and she's not answering. I promise I'm not breaking in to steal shit."

"Nika? That's a nice name. I saw her go in with some red-haired lady in a business suit. Sorry I can't help you further." She locks her apartment door and walks down the stairs. Who cares. Nikki needs your help. You call her and place your phone on the floor, then continue fiddling with your tools. Your hands are shaky with worry and sweating a little, so your phone doesn't register you pushing the redial button until you almost break the screen. Nikki's chirpy tone in her voicemail just makes you stress more.

Finally, a few minutes later, just when you're about to give up on the lock and kick the door in, you hear scuffling inside the apartment. You stand up and knock once more, and at last you hear a muffled 'hang on'. Thank God. She's alive. You briefly crouch down and carefully take your tools out of the lock. They go right back into the bag and your pocket, and you wipe your face on your shirt sleeve just before the door swings open.

"Oh… Hi Egor." She has zero emotion in her voice. "What can I help you with." Her left eye is bloodshot as if she's been crying, and her right eye, which always had busted blood vessels in it, now is almost completely red, iris included. If eyes are the window into the soul, then Nikki is currently possessed. You pull her into a hug which she doesn't have the energy to return. Then you pull away and address the reason you came here:

"Are you alright?! What the hell was that text message about?!" Even though you're currently screaming in her face, your tone is more fierce than you meant. She looks down and mumbles 'you know what it was about'. You sure do.

Fifteen minutes later your throat is raw from yelling in a frustrated jumble of Russian and English, mostly your mother tongue. The passage in your throat was still a bit tender from the chain when you came over, and now it feels like a cheese grater. Although Nika's not doing any better. At some point her tears started falling again, and while you should feel bad about making her cry, you're not going to apologise. Not until she explains herself.

With the volume you've been screeching at her, it's a miracle it took this long for your voice box to give up. When your coughing fit begins, she ushers you inside her apartment with a gloved hand and locks the door - twice.

She indicates for you to sit down on the couch. You hesitate long enough for her to notice an ugly dark stain on one of the cushions. Her gloved hands twitch right before she picks up a blanket and tosses it over the stain. She sits down on it and goes to pat the couch seat next to her, but decides against it. Both of her hands are covered in colourful dishwashing gloves. It goes horribly with her damp t-shirt and tight jeans. Her hands lay in her lap like she's holding an invisible bowl. As you sit down you notice an overnight bag on the table and… you can hear the shower running? Who else is here?

A bit later, with the help of some water, your voice returns. She still hasn't explained what's happened.

"Nikki." Your tone is steely, and she looks miserable. "What was up with that text? What made you want to do it?" She goes to meet your gaze but falters halfway through and buries her face in her hands. Then she immediately yelps from pain and leans back, looking more miserable than before.

"You know you can tell me anything." This time she succeeds in meeting your gaze. Her voice is probably the most stand-offish it's ever been.

"I don't think I can." She looks back to her hands and curls her fingers into fists. You gently reach forward and get your grip underneath the folds where the glove ends. You almost pull it up to the palm before she stops you. There aren't any cuts on her wrist or up her arm. "I… umm… my friend from work, she's… they gotta…" She just fumbles with her words and fumbles with her hands. "I..."

"Nikki. You can tell me anything, I mean it." She sizes you up. Then pulls on the edge of one of her gloves until it comes off. The apartment lighting makes it difficult to tell, but her hand looks just like it always does.

"Anything?"

"Yes."

She breathes deeply, then pulls you into a hug. When her arms are wrapped around you, she uses her gloved hand to pull your shirt up and places her bare one gently on your lower back. A sharp zap of electricity shoots up your spine. She breathes into your ear:

"I'm a mutant."

"Shit, Nika."

She pulls away from you and quickly puts her glove back on. "I-I was just joking. That jolt up your spine was static electricity from my… It's a prank buzzer from a-". She bursts into tears when she realises she's got no excuse. Nika. Your Nika. A mutant. You never would have guessed. How unlucky can one person be.

"I… I tried because… " She starts sobbing into your shoulder. Deep, gutural sobs like you've never heard before. You just hold her tightly and rock back and forth. Slowly, gently. The shower must have stopped a while ago, because a well-built girl with fiery red hair and a loose tracksuit comes limping out of Nikki's bedroom, carrying a purse. She walks over to the kitchen table and sits at one of the chairs facing you. She props up her wounded leg on another chair and starts rifling through the purse she has put on the table. She barely glances up at you before saying:

"You this 'Egor' guy that Nikki's been rambling about?"

"That's me." You say with a gruff tone. "What's your business with Nika?"

She doesn't even smirk. "You can call me Dot. I work with Nikki at a massage parlour. We had an unfortunate visitor recently, so I had to go into hiding. Found out Nikki's… what she is. You can see how that played out." Dot tilts her head towards the body currently sniveling and weeping into your chest. Nika sounds like she's in pain with every sob, it breaks your heart. "Me too, for the record."

Dot pulls a lighter out of her pocket and flicks it on next to her cheek. Her bored expression doesn't change while the flame dances around her cheekline. Eventually Nikki quiets down again while Dot explains the day's activities to you. Your heart skips a beat when she brings up Yar. When she gets to her part with the syringe, Nikki takes over. You slowly stroke her hair while she tells you about the text message. When she gets to you thumping at the door, Dot takes over again.

"It's no coincidence that you're here too, so I'll only ask once." Dot pulls a pistol out of the purse and rests it on the table. "What'd you have?"

"Put that away." You huff at the vaguely threatening display. She'll only ask once, how cute. "What are you going to do with it? This is not a shooting range." Like you owe that woman whom you don't know from anywhere any answers. However, you do, sort of, owe a certain confession to your friend now, don't you? You look down at Nikki who is still clinging to your chest, and sigh. "Don't you think that's lot of fuckery to put up with first thing in the evening? Pardon me if I'm not in the mood."

Most importantly, you are still unsure how to feel about Yar spooking these two into skipping work and hiding. You know for a fact that he isn't some kind of mutant-hater hunting your kind for sport and profit. So his appearance at the massage parlour alone shouldn't be of any significance. Of course, there is still a teeny-tiny possibility that he could have come over to the dark side, so to speak. This morning's messages from him were the first time you two have spoken in well over… what, two months? Who knows what might have happened while you were out of touch. You can't be sure about anything anymore. You need to see him. Find an excuse to touch base, maybe suggest a meet-up and test the waters to make sure he is still not a threat to you. Or Nika. God, what a mess.

"My DNA is also fucked up, if that's what you are asking." You really don't feel like elaborating, not with that woman staring you down as if you're a potential threat she tries to evaluate. "It's not obvious. I can pass just fine. Like her." You nod at Nika and gently detach her from your chest. Once she is properly seated facing you, you give her gloves a light-hearted tug. "These aren't the most subtle way to go about hiding, malysh. We should get you some fingerless gloves, vinyl or leather. Something that would go with most of your outfits without making you look like a germaphobe."

She gives you a watery smile. Poor girl, she probably still can't believe this is happening. You do hope that you've managed to put her at ease, at least a little. Though you have no idea how she must be feeling right now - your condition has always been sort of an open secret in your family, and you can't recall a time when you didn't know. In fact, one of your earliest memories was of you purring snuggled against mama's side and her joking about how she should be the one putting you to sleep with a lullaby, not the other way around. 'Lullaby' or 'singing' were the euphemisms she used to refer to your purring. 'No singing when others are present, all right, kitten? Save it for mama and papa'. Maybe back then it was soothing enough of a sound to qualify as singing, but certainly not anymore. These days when you purr, the rumble is low, dry and very gravelly. Still comforting, as far as you're concerned, but you won't bet your money on anyone else liking it.

Stirred by the memories, your mind inevitably turns to an important issue. Neither of your parents were like you, despite the fact that you were undeniably their child, bearing strong enough resemblance to your dad that people could tell you were related at a glance. There is plenty of your mother in you, too. The height and the eyes, for instance. So the question is, and always was - how did you come out so different? And Nika? What are the odds that one of her family members, especially the parents, had a condition without her knowing?

A question for another time, perhaps. For now, you have some for Dot.

"Yar's bounty aside, is there a specific reason you've decided that you need a change of place? He might be after you, scouting the place where you work without making a move yet, I won't deny this possibility. But he never takes two jobs at once, and when you saw him, it looked like he was on a job already. Unrelated to you." You keep your voice even and as close to expressionless as possible, not wanting to come off as defending the man in any way - God knows he is a jackass that doesn't exactly deserve the benefit of a doubt. Still, something about branding him a villain doesn't sit right with you. Though you might be just a little bit biased. Might.

"Good thing you asked. I wouldn't have panicked at seeing him if there weren't other signs of danger." She pushes the gun to the side so the barrel doesn't point your way anymore and limps over to the duffel she left near the couch. Seeing that kneeling beside it would be difficult with her stiff leg, Nikki hastily brings it up on the seat beside her. Dot nods and fishes an envelope out of a small compartment on the inside.

"There. Little surprises I've been receiving for way too long for comfort. Go ahead, it's an interesting read."

'Surprises' was a nice word to describe it. Inside the envelope there are dosens of notes and photographs, even a couple of spikes and thums. Curious. You pick up one of the spikes, wondering what could be on it.

"It's SensePerience, that much I can tell from a quick scan, but I can't slot it - no socket." Dot looks at you questioningly, and you shake you head - you don't have a neural interface either, and getting it at some point isn't on your current list of priorities. "Well, too bad. Not sure I even want to know what's on it, really. The contents of all the other stuff this sick fuck has sent me are disturbing enough."

Nikki has already connected one of the thums to her phone and is now biting her lip, looking uncomfortable. You peek at the screen and see a footage video taken of someone who looks like Dot exiting a bar that resembles a place you could have seen at some point in the Interstate. Then there is a clip of her talking on her phone while standing near an unremarkable building. Then a first-person perspective of someone walking up the stairs. Then approaching a door to an apartment.

"Your home." Nikki's voice is little more than a whisper. Dot gives her a grim nod, but doesn't say anything. Not that she needs to. You take a quick look at the notes. All of them are more or less connected by the same theme, generally threatening, like 'I know what you are', 'I'll make you scream', 'I know where you sleep', etc., as well as an extensive list of phallic objects and bodily fluids that they can't wait to fill her up with, along with graphic descriptions of the process. Disgusting, but at the same time a bit too over the top to come across as serious, bizarre as it may seem. To you, these sexually aggressive messages look forced, almost like the person writing them felt obligated to do so. You keep this observation to yourself - it's no doubt that Dot won't appreciate your analysis, especially since it wouldn't change her situation for the better anyway.

Yet there is one thing definitely worth mentioning:

"Well, at least now I'm sure you can cross Yar off the list of people who could be after you. Whoever wrote this shit is clearly unhinged, and Yar doesn't work with nutcases, so he couldn't have been hired by them." Dot looks pensive, yet still sceptical, so you add:

"The fact that he himself didn't write any of this shit goes without saying. The style and handwriting is just… Look. I know you have your reasons to suspect him, and I can't claim to know 100% what's in his head, but I had dealings with him before. I know how he operates. And I know he doesn't give a fuck about his targets' DNA, only about what they did and how much he is getting paid for them. Do with this information what you will."

You get up fron the couch and stretch, ignoring Dot's blazing gaze. You've said your piece, there is nothing else to add on that matter.

"Since you two are okay for the moment, I think no one would object if I go home? I may have left the kettle on, it's hard to remember." This is bull, of course, but you really feel like you've overstayed your welcome, at least as far as Dot is concerned. Suddenly, you have an idea.

"Nika, walk with me? I think I may have some gloves for you to try on." Thankfully, your grabbers are on the smaller side, though still bigger than hers. But you are pretty sure whatever gloves you end up giving her won't fall off her hands, that is, utill she finds something more fitting.

"Dorothy, lock behind me, please." She calls out after unlocking and hangs the keys on one of the hooks on the rack near the door before walking out after you. "I'll call you to let me in, okay?"

You can't make out Dot's mumbled reply from where you already are halfway to your own flat. Nikki hurries after you, and you let you both in.

"Shoes off, please. The floor is clean." She silently removes her footwear and proceeds into the apartment in her socks, looking around curiously. You tell her to make herself at home and dive into your bedroom to rummage around the wardrobe. You know there is a decent pair of fingerless gloves here somewhere. The exact kind you were thinking about when you gave her that fashion advice.

Nikki timidly peeks inside the bedroom some minutes later and you invite her to sit on the bed as you continue searching. She's been silent the whole time, but you don't need to hear her say it to understand that she doesn't want to be alone. Her words when she finally speaks confirm it.

"Do you think I could stay?"

"Sure, as long as you want." That's not really a question, is it?

"It's not that I don't like Dorothy, but…"

"Well, I definitely don't like Dorothy." You interrupt with a huff. "I'm sure she is a peach, outside, with you, with others, but something about her just rubs me the wrong way. No offence."

"I don't really know her outside of work." She seems almost embarassed to admit it.

"And yet you offered her shelter. Very noble. Also, naive. But you know it, right? And I know you couldn't turn her away. That's just how things are, sometimes."

At last, you find the gloves in the pile of unsorted (clean) socks and toss them on the bed with a satisfied smile. Maybe it's time to sort out your clothes. The insides of the wardrobe are getting progressively harder to navigate the more you ignore the mess.

Once you've stuffed everything back inside and shut the door, you turn to Nikki and see that she already replaced the rubber gloves with the ones you gave her. You take one of her hands and turn it palm up and then palm down, admiring how well the glove fits. Even better than you expected.

"Thank you." That's all she says, but you know she isn't just grateful for the new accessory.

"Don't mention it."

 

***

'As long as you want' turned out to be the rest of the evening and well into the night after Nikki made a quick trip back to her apartment to check on Dot and inform her that she was going to hang out at your place. You mostly spent the time snuggling on the couch in front of the TV - not that either of you were all that interested in watching it. You shared what exactly your mutation was and answered Nika's questions about your feline side, mostly by vehemently denying having the majority of typical housecat's attributes. You did confirm more specific stuff that she suggested, like the unsurprising love for meat and your affinity for certan types of fish (but not all), your trouble with controlling the urge to hiss and growl sometimes and, of course, to Nikki's amusement, your ability to purr. You two also conducted a number of safeish experiments where she zapped you repeatedly in order to try and find out more about how her electric hands work. You don't say it out loud, but part of you sort of enjoyed the weaker charges…

Around 8 p.m. Nikki sent Dot a quick text saying that she will spend the night, so that her guest doesn't stay up on her account. By 9 p.m. she could barely keep her eyes open, so you offered her your bed, to which she agreed, but only after you've assured her that you aren't going to separately tonight. You aren't a fan of sharing your bed with anyone, but exceptions can be made from time to time, so you don't really mind if it's just for one night.

Once Nika is all good and snug under the covers, you return to the main room and, after a short hesitation, dial Yar's number.

"Kitten." He growls into your ear, and you feel goosebumps running down your spine. Not only because the sound itself does things to you that you wouldn't like to admit, but his tone suggests that- "What do you want? I'm busy." There. Exactly this.

As much as you'd love to chew him out for using the idiotic pet name yet again, with his current mood it's better to just cut to the chase.

"I heard you've caught a mutant today." He is silent for a few seconds, probably expecting you to add something. Hearing nothing, he exhales in exasperated manner - so loudly that it sounds like an elephant has just sneezed into your ear:

"So what? And where did you hear it? Your little friend has told you, I assume?" You freeze at that. The ladies didn't mention Yar interacting with Nikki. How?..

"What friend?" You ask flatly. He chuckles - a very pleasant sound it would be, if not for the fact that he currently has you at a disadvantage.

"The one that you sent my new fish to. At, er, Handy Arms? Or was it Arm Handy? The massage studio. I'm glad you think it's cute, by the way. I do too."

"Right." You sigh, rubbing at your temple. So that's happened. The guy who might have dirt on you, who knows where you live, who so far has been the main source of most of your major troubles now knows about your friend and one of the places where he can find her. That's just lovely.

"So what was that about a mutant? You never seemed to care about my work before."

"It's just… What did they do?"

"Hm, well, the usual?" He sounds genuinely puzzled at your inquiry. "Drained some whore when she was giving him a freebie. Well, not 'drained' as much as opened up her artery and let most of it pour out. She was his girlfriend or some such, too. Her pimp was her brother, so he is pissed. For multiple reasons."

"I see." Indeed you do. Despite the pretty 'we should stick together and look out for each other' ideology that some individuals propagate, you never let yourself forget that your kind are still people. And people are all different. Some are assholes. Some are decent folks. And others are pure evil.

"Anything else you want to know?"

"No, I… No. That's all. Sorry for taking up your time." You make a move to end the call, but Yar stops you:

"Are you free tomorrow?" You tense up immediately. It's almost a reflex at this point. Questions such as this usually lead to a job offer, and jobs from Yar usually lead to you ending up in shit.

"I'm not looking for any extra work in the forseeable future, and I would appreciate it if you didn't resort to breaking my stuff in order to change my mind."

Yar snorts, clearly offended by your swift rejection:

"It was only once. And I was hangover." As if that's an excuse! You hiss. Just can't help it.

"Three times, Yar. Three. That's not 'only once', that's a tendency."

"Don't nag at me, man." There he goes with that menacing tone again. "And listen. That's not about a job."

"Then what?"

"I want to know if you are free to go out for a drink." After a beat, he rewords the offer: "Or ten. However many would get us both shitfaced."

Stunned, you take the phone away from your ear and examine it. Nothing appears to be out of place, but you already know the device is not to blame. It's you. You must be hallucinating. Or running a fever. Or both. Maybe you've taken something fishy earlier today and forgot about it?

"Egor? I haven't got all day. You still there?" He sounds irritated. You take a deep, calming breath and answer:

"I'm here, yes. And… I'm free. Unless… no, nothing." Not the most eloquent way to respond, but it's his fault for rattling you.

"Good. I'll call. Better yet, I'll come and pick you up. Be awake by 6 p.m." And the call is over. Just like that, no goodbye or anything. Business as usual then?

So… Looks like you are getting drunk tomorrow.

Chapter Text

[Nikki]

This time it's not the viscous honey-like stuff. This time it's a stereotypical dentist's chair with straps across your arms, legs, torso, face and neck. At least you have a surgical gown on. Your hands are free to move around, but you feel no charge in them – all you have is a pair of simple rubber balls growing out of the armrests that you are free to squeeze. The leather straps digging into your skin are only rough when you struggle. So you keep still and wait patiently while trying to keep your rising panic under control.

Later on the man in black appears in front of you holding two cattle prods. The hulking, intimidating figure of the past has been replaced with a smaller, more humble person which doesn't seem threatening at all. He takes the balls off the armrests and swaps them with the cattle prods. The intense electric current you feel isn't painful or 'shocking', it's almost reassuring. His voice is inside your head, but it's not deafening, it's almost... compassionate.

"Nikki. You embraced it. My work is almost finished." A third arm grows out of his chest and pats you reassuringly on the shoulder like oh-so-many people have done before. The latex feel of it on your bare shoulder is still unfamiliar enough to keep you on edge. "Almost."

His third arm grows impossibly long and slithers around your body until it reaches the bottom of your spine. You tense up as he presses a finger deep inside. You can feel the skin separating as it goes deeper and deeper inside you.

"Your mind is not yet free, I can only free your body." All the while his left hand is rubbing smoothly around your right eye socket and his left hand is gently caressing inside your mouth, which was at some point pried open. The rubber is warm to the touch.

Then, his third hand takes hold of something. Some miscellaneous length of wire from the base of your spine. He pulls it up through holes in the leather straps and drags it in front of your face. It's a bright neon green colour that ends in a sharp point. He leans through the wire and kisses you passionately with a mouth that isn't there. He climbs onto your lap and wraps you in himself like the last time. You're not scared – you embrace him back. The straps around you disappear, and you are free to hug and kiss and love him back. This strange, familiar, wonderful, cryptic thing isn't a girl, but the passionate kisses you leave on his face turn you on anyway. Closer and closer. You WANT to be with him.

"Nikki. You are my greatest creation. Don't let it be in vain."

Your eyes fly open. For once you don't feel queasy and your forehead isn't covered in a sheen of sweat. Wow. That was the first good dream you've had in... you don't even know how long. The unfamiliar bed sheets don't mean squat when all you've known for months, maybe even years, is terror when falling asleep. Last night that all changed. You feel so... powerful. So in-charge of your own life.

Better strike while the iron is hot. Carefully, you slide a glove off and place your bare palm on your chest. You squeal. The current that just hit your heart was super-charged. How amazing. Maybe being a mutant isn't so bad after all. But you'll never get to thrive as one if you lay in bed all morning.

You sit up slowly to make sure Egor isn't around, then toss the covers off. You wait patiently. Then keep waiting. Eventually you remember that this isn't your apartment; there's no chance of doing some sunning in your bed. Shame. You swing your legs off the bed, and one of your hands stifles a yawn while the other one absent-mindedly scratches the base of your spine, right where the professor pierced you.

You freeze. Professor? Where'd you get that from? More importantly, what's this weird bump you accidentally brushed with your hand? You stand up, pull your shorts and panties down to your thighs, then hike your t-shirt up to your ribs. You pull your phone out of your bag on the bedside table and, aiming it behind you, look through the camera app and see a small fleshy rod growing out of the base of your spine.

You scream. Egor must have heard it, because you hear ceramic rattling in the other room and some frantic footsteps before the bedroom door swings open. Egor gets one look at your bare crotch and immediately covers his eyes, turning away and swearing in Russian:

"Oh ty zh blya… For fuck's sake, Nika, cover up!"

"What? I don't care if you see me, just look!"

"Well, I do care, so if it's alright-"

"Egor! Please! Just look!"

He must have heard the desperation in your voice, because he finally turns back to you, and you turn around to show him your backside. His voice drops to a lower octave.

"Oh… that'll surely make hiding more difficult."

"What the hell is this!?! I can't go outside with-"

"Nika! Shush!" He's very quick to regain his composure. The momentary distraction of witnessing your new growth is immediately gone when he reaches forward and clamps his hand over your mouth. Makes sense: loudly announcing that you have a tail is a good way to get killed.

That thought bums you out. Egor takes his hand away as you pull your clothes back on, keeping your shirt hiked up a little bit to let your new appendage hang free. He creases his brow while looking at your face.

"There's another…" You blink in confusion and his eyes widen – he even takes a step back.

"What? What is it?" He pulls your phone out of your grasp and turns the camera towards you. You gasp. The burst blood vessels in your right eye have completely webbed over each other. Closing your eyelid, it's as if a flashlight is shining from inside your eyeball. It doesn't hurt, thankfully, but your vision has started blurring.

"Ooh. Ooh, what do I do?" You voice rises in distress, but Egor immediately stomps on your impending panic:

"Stay calm, is what you should do." His voice is steely and, once again, he's resting his hands on your shoulders. He's looking you dead in the eyes – it's a relief he isn't off-put by these new developments. "Panicking will get you nowhere, just do something what makes you relax."

Relax. That's a good idea. Having a new eyeball and tail definitely isn't stressful at all.

His right hand goes to caress your cheek. Though maybe 'caress' is the wrong word. He tilts your head around like he's inspecting your neck. There must not be anything worth mentioning there, because he just gives a slight humph. His left hand slides down your right arm and eventually reaches your gloved palm.

"Come." He starts walking towards the kitchen. "I made tea." You can feel the swelling at the base of your spine bubble slightly. Tea? Can't wait.

Once you reach the kitchen, Egor sits you down at his table. He says the tea is a recipe that he combined out of miscellaneous different flavours. Whatever it is, it mellows you right out. The lovely patterns on the mug you are holding make you think of the neon wire you witnessed in your dream. That… professor guy, he made you? You have many memories of growing up with all your other siblings. Mom and Dad never looked like that guy. You had an auntie who worked in a lab but… no way. Dad would have killed her before he'd let her lay a hand on you. Then again, other siblings were free to roam while others were grounded for weeks at a time, so maybe you are overselling his protectiveness of you specifically.

You shudder, and the liquid in the cup almost spills over. You love your family, but sometimes being away from them isn't the worst thing in the world.

"Nikki, honestly." You look up and see that Egor has finished his cup while you have barely started. "Take your pills."

"Oh. Ooh." Your pills! With how you've been dealing with your medication lately, once you empty the "forgot-to-take-them" jar, there would be enough there to buy Egor something nice for being such a good friend. Or maybe you'll have to spend it on new clothes, now that you think about it, because there is no telling how long this new appendage of your is going to get. You are going to need longer… everything. Coats, shirts, loose pants…

Speaking of clothes, you probably should get back to your apartment and put some clean ones on. And brush your teeth. And inform Dorothy about what is going on with your body. Maybe she'll have some insights?

"Thanks for the tea, it was lovely." You finish what was left in your cup in one big gulp – thankfully, the liquid has cooled down enough so that it doesn't blister your throat as it goes down. Egor looks at you coughing and chuckles:

"In a rush?"

"Yes, I need to head back. See what Dorothy thinks."

He looks at you pensively.

"Good idea. Are you going to tell your family, too? I don't mean right away, but once you've found your footing, so to speak?" Right, he's heard you rambling just now. Pills. Must not forget to take the pills.

"I... I honestly don't know yet. We'll see." You put the cup in the sink, and he stands up to wave you away from it:

"I'll do it, you go. Make sure nobody sees you – this thing of yours is currently very poorly hidden. And, Nika?"

"Hmm?" You've already rounded the corner with your phone at the ready to call Dorothy before you exit.

"Tell me more about your dreams. Whenever you're ready." You swallow nervously and pop your head back into the kitchen to meet his intense stare. Serious and warm. As always.

"I'll... I'll think about it. See ya!"

He nods and turns back to the sink. You send Dorothy a short text asking if she is awake and head to the exit to put your shoes on. Half a minute later she answers that the door is unlocked, and you let out a sigh of relief. There is probably no need to fret too much, but knowing she is okay and nothing bad has happened while you were asleep is comforting.

Once out of Egor's apartment, you look up and down the hallway to make sure it's empty and dash to your door, which is already opened a crack with Dorothy waiting on the other side.

"Girl, you look wild. Had a good night?" She jokingly asks, and you let out a small hysterical sob, already picturing her face when she sees what's at your back. You don't know why, but the thought is hilarious rather than distressing.

"Turn on the light, you aren't going to believe this."

 

***

Once the excitement over your newest anatomical acquisition has died down a little, you and Dorothy both set to sorting your wardrobe. All the bottom-revealing and form-fitting stuff goes into one pile, all the loose, long-hemmed and oversized items – into the other. Turns out, you don't have a lot of the latter. A shopping trip is definitely in order, and it's going to be a quest, given your current condition. You'll need someone with you, to check out how the clothes fit and how good a job of hiding your tail they are going to do. Dorothy shouldn't leave the apartment, so that leaves Egor.

Then there is a question of where to shop. Toho has changing booths, but you worry about potential surveillance. There shouldn't be any, technically, but can you really count on the fast fashion chain management to uphold the laws regarding consumer privacy? Maybe Gamble street would be a better choice – you'll just have to stick to the stalls that have privacy screens or curtained areas for trying clothes on.

But that's a problem for another day. For now, you change into clean jeans that do a decent job of restraining your tail's unconscious movements to a minimum, and a long, loose blue checkered flannel. Turning your back to Dorothy, you try to move the tail and ask if she sees anything. Reassured that she doesn't, you stuff the rest of approved clothes into a bag and go back to Egor's in high spirits. Maybe this little nub isn't going to prove to be that much of a nuisance after all.

You've been so preoccupied that you haven't noticed how much time has passed. Apparently, the sun is already high enough in the sky so that people with normal sleep schedules are beginning to file out to work or wherever they usually go in the morning. Because as soon as you exit your apartment, in the hallway you see her. The beauty that you effectively botched any chance with yesterday due to your 'magic hands' picking the worst possible moment to say hello.

"Oh, morning!" Her smile seems a little forced, but maybe it's just you? "Nika, was it? Heard you were having problems yesterday? Your friend seemed worried."

"Um, yes, but not really… I mean, he had a reason to be, but I handled it. Sort of." You resist the urge to bite your nails, but something at the base of your spine twitches, as if the tail is trying to coil, even though it's length wouldn't permit it. Better not think about it now, your pills haven't taken the effect yet. Think about something else.

Like how good she looks – she seemed to like it before. So you run an appreciative glance up and down her fine figure, noting how her sporty top is showing off her torso and toned arms, and the yoga pants are clinging to her legs just enough to make your throat a little dry. Perfect… she is just perfect.

"Oh, you." Her smirk is genuine and unrestrained this time. "Off your meds today, are we?"

"I-I only just took them. They need time." You look down at your feet, embarrassed and relieved at the same time. She is in a good mood now, and you haven't blurted out anything she doesn't know already – mission accomplished. Trying not to lose momentum, you hazard a guess:

"Are you going out for a run? It's so early…"

"Yes, it's nice out today, and a run is just what doctor ordered. This body you like so much doesn't just happen, you know?" She throws her head back and laughs airily, reaches out to pat you on the shoulder and slips past you towards the stairs.

"I'm off for now. See you around sometime, Nika."

You open your mouth to say goodbye, then realise that you've never introduced yourself, yet she calls you by the name that Egor usually uses. Did she hear it from him? And what should you call her then? But no way to find out – she is already gone for her run, and you're not going to follow after her just to ask for introductions. Another time. There is always another time.

Knocking on Egor's door has turned out to be and exercise in futility – after about five minutes of polite, but increasingly loud knocking you realise that you've been gone for a couple of hours, and it's morning now, which means that he's assumed you were going to stay home and probably went to sleep in the meantime. You quickly shove your hand back into your pocket, embarrassed that you have forgotten something so obvious, and go back to your own door – at least Dorothy should be wide awake now.

 

[Egor]

His hands run down your bare back and leave tons of light scratches. You give a deep, guttural purr in return. You'd love to stretch and flex your hands, but the pillow on your chest is too good to let go off. Your nails dig into it as bells go off in your head. Your lower back is wiggling slightly and you feel so sluggish, but so hyper at the same time. One particular scratch gets you right there – and you drop the pillow as your eyes fly open and you bite him. Despite how... distracted you are, your rational human brain comes back to life when you see the bite mark you left on his bicep. He doesn't mind, just pulls you closer and chuckles softly.

"I know you didn't mean it. Or did you?" His legs entangle yours as you cup your hand over his wound and lick affectionately.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be." He flexes his buff arm, and the purple mark shines in the spittle you left behind. "Here, kitten. Show me what you can do."

The satin pillow you've been playing with goes under his head as you sit up and look down as his bare torso. He's perfect, just like you've always imagined him to be, and the urge to kiss and lick and bite all the delicious flesh exposed to you is impossible to resist – so you don't even try. First it's his mouth, upturned slightly at the corners, not quite smiling, but undeniably more joyful than the usual grim line it's set in. Then it's his neck and chest, where you leave a trail of tiny hickeys. Your hands move over the skin on his abdomen, the fingertips itching to scratch, just a little, but you know it would be all too easy to let out the sharp blades hidden under your nails and leave thin red marks on him, marks that are going to instantly bead with tiny droplets of blood. So you ignore that impulse and just trail the outline of his abs with feather-light touches, and he shakes a little, laughing silently.

"Do you really believe I'm ticklish?" No, you don't. But it's nice of him to pretend to be affected. You lean down and kiss him again, less confident this time, no tongue – rather chaste compared to what you had started with. Something tells you that getting too fired up right now would lead you nowhere. And he knows it, too. He looks up at you with genuine warmth and says in a serene, cryptic tone:

"This won't happen."

Your eyes fly open again, for real this time. Before you can fully wake up, your hand is already swiping around the sheets for any sign or feel of Yar. Nothing. You let it drift back to your side and exhale, feeling weirdly wistful. It's not like you are too disappointed by his absence, but you're still not in a great mood.

That alone gives you pause. Looks like you have some unwelcome feelings to sort out. As well as urges. Bottling it up is never a good idea, but what can you do? Diaries can be stolen, Robert and all those shitheads you know from the streets wouldn't care, Alice gets around and doesn't have the energy for emotional attachments, Dorothy and Inga are out of question. That leaves… Nikki? She could work. Although she probably has no idea where your preferences lie, so maybe you shouldn't drop too much on her at once. God knows she doesn't deserve it.

You sit up in bed and look down at your arms. Your fingertip razors must have come out during your dream, because they're coated in dried blood. The flesh of your upper bicep has new shallow cuts on it, some still leaking a bit. You stare at the tiny beads of blood and fail not to think about your dream. The scratches on your arm are almost exactly where you left your mark on him.

No chance of catching some more sleep. The phone alarm rings out and stops your depressing train of thought. Then it puts you into another, slightly more hopeful mindset. In two hours you need to be ready for meeting with Yar. Probably to go bar-crawling, or, if you're lucky, it would only be just one. You should probably figure out where he could be planning on taking you.

It takes a few minutes to unlock your phone and navigate to Yar's text chat. You wipe the sleep from your eyes and message him:

"Which bar?"

He's not answering, so you put your phone back on your bedside table. You cross your arms over your chest and stare at the floor, wondering what could be keeping him from texting back. Then you stand up from the bed, walk to the bathroom and splash cold water on your face. What the hell is this line of thinking? He is probably just busy. And even if something is actually going down right this second, it's bloody Yar – he can survive anything. Why are you wasting time thinking about the goings-on in the life of the bastard who more than once has almost got you killed?

You shake off whatever concern you had for him and prepare for tonight. He invited you out for drinks, and that's it. Maybe he'll apologise about that last fiasco of you being tortured during a 'safe' job, maybe he'll pretend it never happened and instead give you shit for not drinking as much as him. Either way, you can get back at him by 'forgetting' to wish him a happy birthday for tomorrow. Anything bigger than that, and he'll see it coming.

Out of habit, you examine your face for any sighs of stubble coming back in, even though you've long since made sure to get the hair removed permanently. Then hop in the shower, swearing when you realise you forgot to wait for the water to heat up. Some people (crazy people!) like cold showers. They say it's invigorating – you say it's a load of bull. Despite it being autumn still, Cinci's weather feels like it's in the depth of winter, so why would they ever…

Holy shit, how will Nikki shower? You turn in the stall to look at the wall closest to where her apartment would be. Hopefully she's smart enough to wear those gloves while bathing, otherwise she runs the risk of electrocuting herself. Maybe Dorothy can help her.

The skin on your arms turns pink from the heat, the scratches are now clean and no longer bleeding. You hiss instinctively when you rub soap on the wounds. Hopefully, they will seal before Yar arrives.

You dry yourself after the shower and absent-mindedly check your phone. He's texted you back, finally:

"Going to Thirsty Camel. Quiet, not a lot of ppl there. Can't swing a dead cat in most places this time of night, this one's better. I'm picking you up at 5:30."

What on earth… He must already be on something - there he goes again, referencing cats. Last time you saw him in person you distinctly remember doing a real feral hiss at him, you were so angry. It was a mistake made in the heat of the moment, but he didn't seem to notice. But even if he did, no way could he be planning to needle you with it out in the open where other people could overhear. There is hoping. Anyway, what should you wear?..

By 5:40 p.m. you've decided on the outfit for tonight and texted Nikki to say that you're heading out and your apartment won't be available for bunking tonight, to which she replied with a picture of a sad rabbit giving a thumbs up. The only thing you're not sure about is this 'Thirsty Camel' place. It's not anywhere in Interstate or Gamble Street. Yar knows you don't trust the Projects. A web search hasn't given you anything solid – all you can find are miscellaneous reports of a place called 'The Humpback' closing up shop due to the owner being killed in a turf war. Not useful.

Just what does he have planned for tonight? More importantly, how old is he turning? You won't find out if he expected a gift from you until he asks for it. But screw it, you still can come up with something. You head to the bedroom and pull open a hidden compartment in the back of your wardrobe. Inside is a satchel stuffed with what you know for sure Yar won't be upset to receive: about a dozen of various knives along with a couple of unloaded guns; some blades look brand new and some are worn with use.

You carefully paw through the selection and pick out a long dull hunting knife with an engraved emblem on the wooden handle. You aren't an expert, but the emblem looks a lot like Svarog's star. If you're correct about the meaning, then it's a real bloody rarity that has fallen into your hands. Too bad you have no way of learning where the knife came from, so you can't really check if it's genuine. In any case, it's a good find. You wrap the blade up in a cloth and stuff it in the inner pocket of your coat.

There is a knock on the door. You take about fifteen seconds to shove the satchel back in its place before getting to the entrance to greet Yar, who has the nerve to act like you made him wait a whole extra hour.

"You ready? Yeah? Come on."

He pulls you out of your doorway without waiting for your response. You clench your fist when he almost grabs your sliced bicep.

"Yes, I'm ready. Where's this 'Thirsty Camel' you mentioned?" You don't dare even glance at Nikki's door when you pass it - Yar has no need to know that something important is in there.

"It's my new place. Not a lot of people know about it, and the entry is restricted. No law or Tower to bump into there."

"Funny that you should mention Tower…" You mumble, following him down the stairs. Yar hums, but says nothing. A familiar sedan waits outside the building, and he unceremoniously shoves you in the front seat before taking his place behind the wheel. You don't really get the urgency with which he is handling the picking you up part of this outing.

"What's the hurry?"

"Shit day. Been thinking about how I really need a fucking drink. And now that I can actually have it, why wait?" He answers, not looking at you, but he seems sincere on the bad day part, at least. Then again, he always looks like someone pissed in his soup...

"Don't tell me you've waited the whole day for this? Don't you have liquor at home?" You ask, just to make conversation. The street you're currently on is vaguely familiar, but it's hard to tell from behind the tinted windows of the car, and there are no street signs in sight. Maybe the structure of the buildings you are passing is just so generic that they could belong in any of the mostly-abandoned parts of the city.

"Drinking alone is the first sign of alcoholism, didn't you tell me this at some point?" You turn away from the window and give him an appraising look. He keeps his eyes on the road, his expression is neutral. He could be entirely serious for all you know.

"I did? Oh. I did." Indeed, that sounds like something you would say. But does he really care that much about what he comes off as? It's not like it counts if nobody knows about it. Also, having a drinking problem is not the worst thing that could happen to a person like Yar. There are far more dangerous addictions out there than booze.

Most importantly, since when does he care about what you say?

You sigh and rub you right arm, which has been a little shaky for the last few minutes. You hope it's just a regular insignificant tremor that comes and goes for no reason and has nothing to do with shakes. You've been feeling fine for over a week after taking the Juice, and optimistic side of you has forgotten about the danger entirely because of it. But now that you remember, your inner pessimist is convinced that the prolonged peaceful period just means that whatever is causing the attacks has been building up this whole time, ready to bite you in the ass when you least expect it.

Better be on the lookout for any more signs. Maybe you'll get lucky and it won't hit today. You don't have a headache, at least, not yet, you aren't sweating and there is no weakness in your other limbs. You clench and unclench your fist, frowning when you see your fingers tremble more. But there is nothing you can do about it right now, so worrying is pointless.

"Something wrong?" You would have jumped in your seat if it wasn't for the safety belt. Yar is looking at you sideways with an irritated expression. Just what is his problem this time? Did he notice you space out?

"Nothing, for now." You look at your arm again. It looks normal at a glance, yet the tremor is there. You still feel it. But it's not Yar's problem, so no point in elaborating unless it gets serious, because knowing how bad the shakes can get, you'd probably need help. Shit. Please, let this feeling be mean nothing.

Eventually Yar parks in a secluded alley near an unremarkable three-storey building. The front is completely burnt black save for a reinforced red iron door that looks brand new. A sign hanging above it reads 'Thirsty Camel'. It looks like it's seen better days. The building itself isn't much better: the ground floor appears to be completely devoid of windows while the ones on the second and third floors are all boarded up. No wonder you couldn't find this place – it's clearly been out of business for a while.

But Yar gets out of the car like he is exactly where he needs to be. You follow his example and look around. You aren't sure why, but something about the area feels familiar.

"This is it?"

"Hey, this took a lot of work," Yar locks up the car and gives you a scowl. "You think it's easy to shuffle titanium out of the border town? I paid nearly as much in bribes as I did for the fucking lighting."

What lighting? The whole building is charred black. It's when he leads you inside and past the reception that your opinion changes. Aside from a dust curtain and the odd support structure, this place would fit nicely in the Interstate. Neon lights sparkle around on a track in the roof while digital screens display robot fish swimming behind real waterfalls. The main dance floor is littered with cube stools and piles of sawdust. The DJ booth has a blow-up doll wearing a hard hat in it.

"Yar…"

"Not bad, I know. Wait here while I get us some drinks."

You hang back and chat with some people around the VIP-rooms. Most of them are wearing slim rubber gloves, smoking blunts, and this particular guy approaching you has a familiar face.

"Egor! Hey, man. How you been?" Julian shakes your hand roughly and slaps you on the shoulder, making sawdust fly up off your shirt at the impact. "This place ain't bad, hey! Soon Yar'll be letting us actually use the bastard. What's he got you doing today?"

Your hand is still trembling slightly after Julian finishes shaking it, and your fingers don't feel like curling up.

"Just drinking, he says. What are those gloves for?"

Julian takes a long pull on his blunt.

"Yar decided that people getting electrocuted daily probably isn't the best way to build a nightclub. He bought a shipment of these puppies straight from the markets and made them standard issue when working on the electricity for this place."

"They're insulated?"

"Yeah, man!" Julian starts coughing, but stops when someone behind him smacks him on the back. "Anyway, good chat. Looks like boss-man wants you." He points over your shoulder and you follow his gaze to Yar in a booth cracking open beers. You begin walking towards him, discovering with unease that both your feet are feeling slightly numb, so you have to step carefully and make a conscious effort not to fall over. By the time you finally make it to him Yar has noticed your funny walking. He laughs when you nearly trip into the booth.

"You already off your chops? I haven't even begun." He finishes his sentence by downing a beer. "So tell me, this gal at the parlour. Who is she to you?"

A spike of aggravation at the question makes focusing easier. Although the whole reason you came here was to relax and get drunk, he isn't doing a good job at making you feel at ease.

"She gives me free massages if I send her pictures of fish."

Yar gives you a smirk and slides a beer towards you.

"There we go. Loosen up, Egor, otherwise stress'll get you and, uhhhh… gut you like a fish."

You discreetly rub at your knees under the table and pick up the beer. You don't know what to say to that. Is he trying to be funny? Or just fun? Either way, he is failing.

"If your goal is loosening me up, you're going about it the wrong way." You take a swig of the beer and choke a little, having only just realised that your wording could have been better. Yar doesn't seem to notice, though – thank God he's is obtuse.

"Hmm. Then let me try another tactic." He leans forward over the table and looks you straight in the eye. "I gotta apologise."

This time as you choke you go into a full on coughing fit, and Yar has to reach over and hit you repeatedly on the back, hard. You almost go face-first into the table at that, but it seems to help, at least – you can breathe normally again, though your voice is still raspy when you speak:

"You have to be specific, because there are a lot…" You wheeze in between coughs. He removes his hand and raises an eyebrow, knowing that accusations are coming.

"A lot?"

"A lot of things that you should be sorry for. What are you referring to?"

"First of all, no need to be an ass about it." You give him a glare, and he huffs. "No matter what you might think about the jobs I used to give you, none of them went quite as sideways as the last one, no one got hurt more seriously than expected, and you were well-compensated each time, so I don't believe you're in any position to read me the riot act for those."

You keep looking at him, unimpressed. To be fair, he might be right on that front, but you sure as hell aren't going to admit it. Then, there is still the last job…

"I'm sorry that..." His frown deepens, and once again you see the familiar look in his eyes – the one you used to interpret as him blaming you for getting in trouble and making it his problem, but now you realise what it actually means. He is feeling defensive. "...I'm sorry I got sloppy." Oh wow, it looks like it hurts him to admit it. "This won't happen again. Ever."

"No shit it won't. Because I'm not working for you again, ever." You distractedly knead your right elbow. Is it just you, or has the tremor got worse? You finish your beer and reach for another. Maybe if you get drunk fast enough, it will help you keep the shakes at bay for a little longer – the attacks never happen when you're properly intoxicated, for some reason.

"Must you insist on burning this bridge? I have plenty of things need doing that don't involve dealing with dangerous people at all. We can just stick to these."

You sigh, exasperated at his thick-headedness.

"It's not about the danger. I'm just done." Yar doesn't look happy about it, but them's the breaks, or whatever the saying was?.. The thing is, you believe that you are already well past the point where you should be no longer obligated to keep repaying him for his help back when you first moved to Cinci. But you aren't going to say that, because the truth of the matter is that you'll probably never stop feeling like you owe him. And for a good reason, too – if it wasn't for Yar's timely assistance on your first day here you'd now be a rotting corpse lying in a ditch somewhere. That's a fact.

Another fact is that your vision is getting blurry. You gulp down the rest of your second bottle and blink rapidly, shaking your head to try and clear it – to no avail. Worse yet, you can feel blood rushing to your head and pounding against your temples. You don't need to look at your right arm to know the tremor is visible now, and your other limbs are quickly catching up. So, looks like this is it. It's happening. Shit, it's actually happening.

"Restroom." You awkwardly stand up and pray that the toilet isn't too far for your suddenly rubbery legs to manage the distance. Yar blinks at you, confused, and you clarify:

"You have a working one in this place, right? Where is it?" Please, could he just point you the right way and let you deal with your mess in private? The way the last attack went, with you twitching on the floor in a pool of vomit before passing out, you really don't want anyone around you when it happens. Especially Yar. Literally anyone but Yar, is that too much to ask?

…Yes, apparently. As soon as you move, your feet stop cooperating and you collapse on the floor, thankfully landing on your side and not on your face like last time. Small mercies. Your arm hurts like nobody's business where your elbow hit the table on the way down, and a different kind of pain, sharp and blinding, surges through your head like it's just been hit by a lightning. You bite your tongue, tasting blood, and it only gets worse from there.

Arms circle your chest and abdomen, helping you up into a sitting position, and with nothing supporting your head you can only make out your own chest and a little bit of the floor next to where you kneel. These are all stationary things, yet from your perspective everything is moving, not letting you focus for longer than a second. You smell iron. Why do you smell iron?

"…Shakes, looks like."

"Make room, you idiot…"

"…and a bucket or some…"

Murmurs you're hearing aren't making a lot of sense, your head is on the verge of exploding, but on the bright side, there is warmth at your back, and the arms holding you feel kind of nice. That's the only positive thought you have time for before your whole body goes into a spasm, and the contents of your stomach fly out of your mouth, soaking the front of your shirt and pants.

"Bloody hell, kitten."

Another lightning shoots through your brain, and you black out, spared the embarrassment of dealing with the fact that Yar along with a bunch of other people have just seen you throw up – exactly what you were trying to prevent from happening. Just your luck.

 

[Nikki]

You head back to your apartment and unlock it, then relock as you've always done.

"Dorothy, I'm back."

"Ah, Nikki! Welcome!" That's a weird thing to say when you're coming back to your own home. You turn away from the door and see Dorothy leaning around your bedroom corner, you can see the very end of a black nightgown held up to her chest. "Egor asleep, was he? Oh well. It's a good thing you returned, I might actually need your help with something. Follow me, if you will be so kind!" She leans back into the bedroom. Were her pupils dilated? Dorothy is absolutely beaming for some reason, she's even more bouncy than normal. Maybe she has her own pills with weird side-effects?

You drop your keys in the bowl and follow her. When you enter, she's turned away from you kneeling on the bed and facing your pillow. Both of her wrists are handcuffed together and the nightgown she's wearing doesn't go past her hips. You turn away and cover you eyes in a similar fashion to Egor this morning when you showed him your tail. Does Dorothy have something to show you? You slowly turn back towards her, and she appears to have forgotten you're there. She's facing the wall humming happily while you stare at her form. You clear your throat and Dorothy freezes. Then, she starts trembling. She looks down and starts weeping.

"I knew you'd find me. Please, just make it fast." Huh?

"Dorothy I'm not going to-" She carefully looks over her shoulder and while the tears keep flowing, her terrified mood vanishes. Her eyes light up and her face goes from anguish to delight.

"Oh Nikki, you're here! Brilliant! Mind helping a girl out? I can't quite seem too…" She shimmies her arms around behind her, trying to escape the handcuffs. You climb onto the bed behind her and inspect them. It's just like you thought. The cuffs she's wearing are the ones you kept hidden in your box of souvenirs. Why the heck was she looking at the top of your wardrobe – trying to find a hairdryer or something?

You grab a hold of the chain in between the cuffs and try to turn the keys that have been left in the keyholes. When both your hands are touching the metal, a spark shoots off and her whole body shivers.

"Oho-ho! Getting a bit kinky, are we? I won't say no." She starts shuffling back, trying to grind her butt into where she thinks your crotch is. Your tail has broken free out of the top of your jeans, it's struggling desperately to stroke Dorothy's lower back, but you get the keys undone and slide off the back of the bed. Dorothy turns around to you and pouts while rubbing her wrists.

"You're no fun." Then she bounces off the bed and hugs you tightly. "Thanks, Nik. I just wanted a bit of fun. No harm in that, I'm sure you understand." You return her hug and bury your face in her chest…

…When you open your eyes, you're completely naked and lying under the covers in bed. Dorothy is naked as well, snoring softly with her arm fold acting as your pillow cover. A clock on the wall says it's 1p.m. What the hell happened during the four-plus hours since you hugged Dorothy? What was with her weird behaviour earlier? Why does your tail feel so strange?

You lift up the covers gently to check it out and stifle a yelp as it immediately greets you. Before it was barely long enough to reach under your crotch, now it's doubled in length and its tip can comfortably sit in your belly button.

The yelp wasn't quiet enough to keep Dorothy snoozing. Her eyes open slowly and she looks at your mutation.

"Wow. Looks like you got a good friend there." She stretches her head towards yours and kisses you gently on the forehead; her free arm has started caressing your cheek. "Thanks for that earlier 'expedition', I had no idea you were such a natural. Really hit the spot."

You contemplate your options, then go with what you always intended to.

"Dorothy."

"Hmm? Don't tell me you want a round two. Not sure I can last-"

"Dorothy. What happened after I took your handcuffs off?" You knew that asking such an obvious question would just invite more questions, but you asked her in this gruff tone that Egor uses sometimes. Dorothy senses your mood and answers honestly:
"I called you 'Nik' and we started fooling around in bed. You asked me if you could see if I felt pain, I said 'go for it', because it's the only way I get off. And boy did you hurt me." Dorothy shuffles slightly and pulls you closer, your breasts are now touching hers. She uses her hands to help explain what happened.

"You called me names, zapped me hard, beat me black and blue, choked me out, pricked me with needles, bound me tight… then put your whole fist in me! After I recovered and my drugs wore off, I suggested we try to get you a job at Cluster due to our massage careers now being in the toilet. You said yes." Dorothy's hands go back to comforting you. Then she asks the important question:

"You don't remember?"

"Not a thing." Your mind is completely blank, save for a few wisps of ecstasy and pride. "What happened after I headed back for Egor's?"

"Oh, I thought you were gonna spend the day there, so I took some Nexus to keep myself entertained. Found your handcuffs and my drugged-out mind didn't even think about sentimental value, sorry for that."

"Hmm." Both you and Dorothy know you're not going to say 'That's okay'. "So I just went loopy and started whaling on you? Are you alright?"

"More than alright. I think I've been wasting my years going out with guys. Girls are where it's at." You snuggle up to her and she gently strokes your hair. Why don't you remember anything. What could be the reason for it. Is the electricity in your hands affecting the signals in your brain? Not to mention your completely red eye – it doesn't take a genius to figure out that's not how normal human eyes work. But you're not a normal human. You're better than a normal human. You and Egor, and even Dorothy, all of you are the next level of evolution.

Dorothy makes a move to slide out of bed, but you stop her with a quick grab of her fold. Seeing her climb out of bed next to you, mixed with something she said earlier makes the gears turn in your brain.

"You got more questions?"

"Just one. Earlier when you said I, er, fisted you… Did I wash my hands after?"

She barks a surprised laugh, likely finding your question nonsensical.

"No, why? You just sorta… wiped them on the bedding, I think? I wasn't really paying attention." All right, that's better than nothing, you guess. Just one more thing.

"Did you… do the same to me?"

Dorothy smiles and leans forward to kiss you on your lips.

"You mean fisting? Nah. I did go down on you and used my fingers, though. Didn't think I'd be any good at it, but it sure looked like you were having a hell of a time. I hope you weren't saving yourself for someone special. I had to move some cobwebs out of the way." Dorothy smiles at her own crude joke, and you give a full belly laugh at it. She sees your delight and holds you tight. "Congrats, Nikki, you can tick that one off your bucket list."

 

[Egor]

Ice-cold water is a shock, always. In your current case it's a good thing because the shock serves as a stimulus for your scattered brain cells to get a grip and start working again. Enough for you to be able to express yourself in an almost-complete sentence:

"S uma spyatil?" You accompany your indignant enquiry by attempting to get out of the tub that Yar has unceremoniously dumped you in, but your movements are sluggish, and he effortlessly shoves you back under the cold stream coming from a showerhead that he holds over you.

"Nice to see you awake again." Even in your sorry state you can't help being ticked off by his smug mug.

"G-get the water off me! The fuck are you even d-doing it for?" You shake your head, spraying water everywhere like a wet dog. Yar tsks, wiping the droplets from his face, but turns off the water, at last.

"Easy there, I'm being helpful."

"Which p-part of freezing me is s-supposed to be helpful?!" Seeing that he isn't going to let you out of the tub for the time being, you wrap your arms around yourself and press your teeth together to stop them from chattering. At this point you don't even know if your shaking is a leftover from the attack, the cold water, or both.

"June says it's good for the shakes."

"Well, June's lying!" Whoever that is. Though to be fair, they may actually be telling the truth based on their own experience. The effectiveness of DIY remedies for the shakes is different for each individual, so you get where they may be coming from with this trick – a little water couldn't possibly make things worse, right?

A distant high-pitched yell comes from somewhere outside the bathroom:

"Hey, boss, what's the word?"

"He's not happy with me!" Yar bellows back. "Guess it's working!"

"Good! Imma go finish my drink now! See ya!" You hear a door slam. For a couple of heartbeats, Yar looks at you as if deep in thought… then snorts:

"You look like a drowned cat." Right on cue, you hiss at him before realising that's the reaction he was aiming for. True enough, he throws his head back and roars with laughter.

"I-I'm not here for your ent-t-tertaiment! And that was b-both wrong phrasing and not b-bloody funny!" That idiot. What is he even thinking?

"Maybe not, but I can always count on you to make it hilarious!" He isn't laughing anymore, but an upturned corner of his mouth betrays his ongoing amusement.

"Ass." You sniffle. "C-c-can't feel my fingers."

"Well, since you're better, we should probably warm you up. A hot shower is in order now." Yar looks you up and down and suggests:

"Want me to help you with that?" You stare up at him, unsure if you heard right. He is waiting for your answer. You blink. Once, twice. Three times. There isn't a hint of sarcasm in his eyes. He is actually offering to help you shower.

You weight the offer, biting back a whole bunch of remarks that range from witty to cutting, because you aren't sure how you're supposed to take his words, not really. On one hand, you're as weak as a newborn right now, and he can see it. On the other hand, him treating you like you're incapable of doing something so basic doesn't sit well with you.

"I think I'll manage." That's all you say, and he shrugs:

"Just leave your clothes in the tub, I'll throw them in the washer once you've done. Take this towel here, it should be big enough for you."

"All right."

"And shout if you need me after all!" He adds from behind the door. You bite your lip and focus on prying the cold wet fabric from your skin with wooden fingers. Showering is going to be a process.

Twenty or so minutes later you stumble out of Yar's bathroom wrapped up in the biggest, fluffiest towel you've ever seen. It could easily pass for a blanket on you, but considering Yar's size, it's probably just a regular bath towel for him. Speaking of which – he is waiting for you outside, leaning on the wall with a bored expression. With your tired brain no longer fogged by pain, you can appreciate the sight of his bare arms and the way his light grey t-shirt clings to his torso. You dare not look lower. Why does he always have to look so damn good?

"So. You remember where the living room is, right?"

"Why?" He pushes past you into the bathroom to scoop your wet trappings from the tub.

"I ordered food, think you should wait for it there. How steady are your feet? You look wobbly."

"If I hug the wall, I'll be just fine." You leave him to fiddle with the washing machine and slowly head to the room that, as you remember, had a couch in it. There, you plop onto one end and take your feet off the floor, tucking them under you. Your toes are already getting chilly.

"That's a nice piece." Yar says, entering the room and taking a seat on the opposite end on the couch. He is holding the knife you took with you in case the topic of presents came up, examining the engraving on the handle. Did he go through your pockets?.. You tuck that thought to the back of your mind for later. You really don't have the energy for questioning his actions right about now.

"Glad you think so. I meant to give it to you." You sigh and tug at the towel to make it envelop you a little tighter. Your body is rapidly cooling off in the chill air of the room, and the wet towel isn't helping.

"To me? Why?" His looking genuinely surprised makes you roll your eyes. Just what kind of inconsiderate prick does he think you are? Did he really expect you to hear about his birthday and not offer at least a symbolic gift, if it came down to it?

"Your birthday, moron. It's tomorrow, right? I figured you might like something for the occasion."

He grins at you then, all teeth:

"Aren't you sweet, kitten." You frown, but don't feel like arguing about the name at this moment. Yar doesn't offer further commentary, and you two settle into a slightly uncomfortable silence. You listen to the muffled sounds of a washer working as you look for something to say.

"I'm sorry about the floor." He looks up from the knife that he's been twirling, bemused:

"Floor?.."

"You know. Down at the bar?"

"Ah. Pfft, it's nothing. You aren't the first one to throw up on it."

"I guess." You give him a small smile and suppress a yawn. Yar apparently takes notice of your drowsiness, because he gets up and goes to the bedroom, returning with a blanket in his hands.

"Ditch the towel. This is much more comfortable." And much warmer, you are happy to discover. You kick the towel off the couch for him to pick up and make yourself a blanket cocoon. It's getting harder to keep your eyes open. Guess all that hot water after getting shakes on top of being frozen half to death really did you in.

"Just take a nap, I'll wake you when the food's here." Yar walks out of the room, taking the towel with him. You decide to take his advice and close your eyes...

 

[Nikki]

By 2 p.m. you've had a good make-out session and are drinking coffee together in your kitchen. How exciting! Real conversation and romance that isn't a computer program or a pre-recorded video.

Dorothy, on her end, is going through some kind of adjustment period. All she's been with is guys, and this was her first tryst with a girl. She's still remarkably bright and bubbly, just hesitates slightly whenever she turns towards you and sees womanly curves instead of manly… physique. It's very fun to observe. You both chat for hours about random topics, from potential cybernetics to music tastes to if tomato sauce goes in the fridge. Is this what having a girlfriend is like?

By the time the sun hits the horizon, she's completely obliterated your wardrobe trying to patch together two outfits for Cluster. Dorothy knows her life still might be in danger, but she's willing to risk it for a few hours to celebrate you loosing your 'V-plates'. There she goes with more slang.

Dorothy passes your key back to you and ushers you along. You nearly stumble down the stairs with these boots, the shiny black leather is covered in buckles and reaches your knees. The long flannel and coat you wear is mainly to cover your tail, although it keeping you warm helps too.

Dorothy brushes past you wearing a cropped leather jacket the same colour as her red hair, she wears a deep green turtleneck underneath it and baggy cargo pants on her lower body.

"Come on darling, staring at me won't help none if we're wrapped up." She pulls at your wrist and you follow her. Despite her only being in the apartment staircase once before, she almost knows it better than you do. As soon as you exit the main entrance she hails a taxi and climbs inside the first one that slows down.

The driver is an old guy with a shaved head and an earring. He whistles when he lays eyes on you and Dorothy in the rear-view mirror.

"Shit, girls. You going clubbing or just showing off?"

"Why not both? Interstate, please." Dorothy sees you buckle yourself in and smirks as the car pulls off. "You worried about crashing? What about your airbags?" She playfully slaps one of your boobs, and you sharply gasp. "You better get used to that where we're going."

You can feel the place she hit you start to tingle and go red, it pangs and doesn't let you forget about it until Dorothy tips the taxi driver and does it again. This time you flinch and shoot her an annoyed glance.

"Ouch! What was that for?" You climb out of the taxi and briefly consider slamming the door in her dumb face. She anticipates this and puts her hand on the glass window. Then she shuts the door and waves to the taxi as it drives off. She walks past you and doesn't answer your question. You let it go and follow her down an alleyway next to a brilliant neon sign. When she reaches the end, you're both in another street standing next to a closed up news agent that seems familiar somehow. She slides a piece of paper and 40 dollars under a roller door and next thing you know, she's shoving you into a concealed doorway and closing it behind her. There was no door handle on either side.

Dorothy turns back towards you and after giving you a bright smile, smacks your tits again. Hard, with both hands.

"Ahhhh! Please stop doing that!" It's hard to tell you're angry about it, you never really get angry about anything. You're either really bad at handling pain or have some weak skin, because you can feel bruises start to form. Was this the type of stuff you did to her when you blacked out? You aren't aroused at all, just crossing your arms over your chest and trying to stare daggers at Dorothy as best you can. She doesn't react and even does it again, this time against your ribs. You squeal and the frustration bubbles over into sadness.

"Please stop! What is the matter with you?!" You hold both your sides and almost start sobbing. It really hurts. Dorothy pulls your into a hug which you try to shake off, but her arm folds act like a comforting curtain around you, you haven't noticed she's ditched both her tops, and her breasts press against your flannel. You must both be safe now if she's getting naked.

"I'm sorry, I really am. I was hoping you could use your frustration at me for later."

"But why would I need to be angry at you?"

"Just frustrated. It's gonna be useful if this night is gonna play out how I think it will. As for the bruises, we're going to the S&M section, and they don't even let you through the door if you're not 'marked'. Is that alright?"

"I guess so, sorry for snapping at you, Dorothy."

She scoops you up and carries you down a staircase you didn't notice before.

"Honestly Nikki, you'll need this confidence boost I got planned. I hit you repeatedly and you're apologising to me? Plus, call me Dot. It's my name down here."

When your friend called Dot reaches the bottom of the staircase she carries you across the large room as you survey your surroundings. The room you're both in looks like an average nightclub turned up to twelve. Figures that can loosely be considered human do everything possible to each other on stages, in booths, the dance floor… even the reception area has people playing chess while others fist each other desperately.

Dot brushes past a pair of twins dancing, and they both eye you, one is wearing a fluffy blue onesie while the other one is stark naked and covered in red glitter.

"First time here? You'll learn to love it!" They start making out, and you quickly look away. Dot clears her throat and adjusts her grip on you as she passes down a wide hallway lined with doors.

"There's no real taboos down here, save for death or anything properly non-con. Incest, scat, all of that is fine. Did you know some people's mutation is cannibalism? I didn't find out until I saw a girl bite her own finger off and swallow it. Kinky shit."

Dot sets you at the front of a large door labelled 'Give and Receive'. She takes off her baggy pants and shoves them into the bag she brought with her, leaving her with some ripped stockings and the jacket she puts back on. You take the hint and shed your long coat, the skin underneath is sweaty and damp. Dots folds hang freely from cuts in the sleeves of her jacket. Your tail hangs low out the bottom of a small black dress you never thought you'd get the chance to wear, and you pull your gloves off. Experimenting with Dot and Egor earlier means you've mostly learnt how to control the charge they give off, although the AOE has spread to your fingertips and wrist. Hopefully it stays there.

Dot reminds you to show of the bruises and opens the door. A tall bald man wearing an extremely fancy suit with the Cluster logo checks you both over and lets you pass. The thumping music from the dance floor dies down as hellish violins replace it. On a stage some people are being lashed to the bone and beg for mercy while others pinch and deliver playful slaps to each other. It's… hypnotising.

"I recommend enjoying the view as much as you can before getting involved. Those guys up there?" Dot points above you to figures suspended from the roof either constricted in tight wire or dozing in hammocks. The people hanging from the roof drop blood, sweat, tears… other liquids on the other patrons of the club. Each one of the writhing bodies holds a wax candle in the mouth while the people asleep in hammocks spin around slowly holding fans. One girl's candle is blown out by a fan and she cries out in pain as the wire around her goes impossibly tight. Then it loosens and she falls to the floor in front of you. She starts fingering herself and rubbing the melted wax all over her face and into her cuts. Dot tilts her head back and catches some miscellaneous liquid in her mouth. Then she swallows, licks her lips and nudges you on the back.

"Better move away from the entrance if you don't want to get rained on." Dot steps over the wax girl and leads you deeper in while she explains. "We call them the Candles. They all want to be there of course, razor wire is a lovely thing."

"Dot, I don't know if…" You slow to a stop and look to your left. There's a pale man winching slightly on a stool while a being that's neither masculine nor feminine pushes thick pins into his backside and stares at the blood that pools out. The metal spikes go awfully deep, and he's rock hard. "Dot, I think this is too much for me." You stare at nothing while she puts her arm over your shoulder and gently guides you towards an occupied booth.

"You'll be alright, darling, it was scary for me too at first. I know something you'll enjoy if you give it a chance."

Across the table is an amazon wearing a ripped romper. She has dark ebony skin that glistens with sweat all over her large muscles and watermelon-sized breasts. You try not to stare at all of her exposed skin, especially her pierced nipples, the rings in them are each as big as a smoke alarm.

"Dot." Her booming voice makes you quiver, and Dot rubs you gently on the shoulder. Even though you've begun looking down at the marble table, you can feel the giantess's piercing gaze go through your head and into your brain. It seems that Dot has already been talking for a while.

"Nikki's having second thoughts. A few days ago she sprouted a tail and electric skin. I also reckon there's some stuff inside her too. Maybe her brain or stomach, not sure yet. Nikki, look up."

You struggle to meet the gaze of the giantess. Her emerald eyes stare into your soul and they don't let you go until she turns to look at Dot. You slump back in the chair and pant desperately. You must have been holding your breath while she looked at you. There's a rising panic in your chest. People are being hurt all around you, and your friend doesn't seem to care. How can she not care? You almost start hyperventilating before Dot calms you again and lets you lean against her shoulder.

"Pia, I reckon Nikki could get a job here. It doesn't look like she's capable, but I want to put her through a test. Drugs allowed."

"Hmmm." Pia's voice is a deep rumble. Aside from the cool blue of her romper, her skin is almost as dark as a shadow. Her golden piercings and emerald eyes are a beacon in the inky blackness of her body. She might be the most powerful person you've ever met.

"We'll need someone to receive."

Just then your phone buzzes. You quickly pull it out and see that Egor has informed you that you can't bunk with him tonight. That's alright, seems like you'll be busy anyway.

 

***

"Say it. Now."

"Th-thank you…" The whip cracks. "Ahhh!.. Th-thank you, Governess."

"Cunt." You set the bloodstained whip aside and reach under to start fondling her mutations. Earlier, Dot gave you some random pill to settle your nerves. Maybe she gave you the wrong one. Your slender hands tightly grasp Dot's folds, and she screams out in agony. She cries out for mercy, for an end to the suffering, for death, if she must.

She doesn't say the safe word, so you keep going faster and harder, your brain feels like it's splitting in two. One side is the angel asking if this is what you really want, the other side is the demon urging your onwards. As you pull and stretch the folds, Dot's voice goes ragged with screeching, and her eyelids flutter closed. Right before she passes out, a mixture of green bubbles and other fluids spatters out of her vagina. She's orgasmed finally – took her long enough. You've had a few while using your hands on her earlier, thankfully your new crotchless latex uniform emblazoned with the Cluster logo is water-resistant. You glare down at her glistening body that hangs limply on the rack. Who knew hurting others could be so fun? Your breasts ache and your nipples stand on end from where she smacked you earlier, and it seems only fair that you beat her unconscious in retaliation.

You grab a sponge from the bucket and wipe it around your boots, then over your uniform to keep it shiny. It's a pure black skin-tight suit with gaps around the armpits, kneepits, breasts and crotch. It creeps up to nearly your chin and has a coin slot flap at the back so your tail isn't forced to be squeezed against your back. With all of the openings near parts of the body that require maintenance, it's designed to be able to be worn for weeks, even months at a time. You wear a thick metal collar locked on with a combination lock you don't know the answer to, only Dot does. It's a safety measure to ensure both parties are properly consenting. Around your waist is a tight leather corset that digs in every time you inhale - it's wonderful. There're self-lacing ones, but you both agreed on the safety measure option that needs two people. The heels you came in have been put aside, and now you wear ballet boots that make you stand on your toes with six-inch-heels. Long gloves that cover your hands are buckled on (another safety feature) and end at the very ends of your fingertips. The clothing you wear is constantly pressing against you and constricting your every movement. It's perfect. Later, at home, you'll remember this moment and cry over the trauma of nearly killing your friend. Now, in Cluster, you can get lost in the ecstasy and let the future Nikki deal with that nonsense. It's so hot thinking of the evidence you've left on Dot.

Pia steps forward out of the darkness and takes the sponge out of your hand. She twirls her finger and you spin around to face Dot's body. Pia has been watching silently while you mercilessly tortured her, only speaking to ask you to channel your fears and hatred into the pain you inflict. It worked terrifically. You pictured Taylor and all her bitch friends entering the party you weren't invited to. You pictured the man in your dreams antagonising you with no way to escape. You pictured every time you woke up in the middle of the night and were too scared of the outside world to even leave your bedroom. But now you are the reason to be scared. You said all of this out loud, and Pia nodded along while Dot choked on the blood you drained into her mouth.

Now Pia gently wipes the sponge along the length of your tail – it must have blood on it or something because she spends a good ten minutes scrubbing it down while you slide your tongue down Dot's bloody throat and absent-mindedly toy with the remains of her fiery red hair. You took some scissors to it to make the hairstyle you liked the best, but nothing satisfied you, so you chopped it all off as best you could. Dot sobbed while the curls fell around her. You said she didn't deserve something so pretty, and she agreed. That was right before you slammed the scissors into her thigh and delivered enough pain to make it swell up again.

You stop making out with her bloody mouth and greedily lap up anything that isn't dried. Not a single pang of sympathy pops up when you swallow down her blood and slowly pull the blades out of her leg. Just imagining all that life juice going into your stomach… you cum without meaning to.

During your afternoon talk with Dot she explained what that needle she shoved into her leg was: diluted acid. Not only does she enjoy pain, she literally can't fall asleep without it. Obviously a very difficult thing to deal with, let alone a mutant who can barely feel pain in the first place.

So here, after it swelled up, you electrocuted her with your hand and forbade falling asleep. She made it until 10:18 p.m. Now, when the clock hits 10:30 p.m., Pia finishes with your tail, quickly wipes the mess you made on your front half, places the sponge in your mouth and passes you a metal ID card with your full name on it.

"This card makes you one of us. You've given enough. Come back as much as you can until you grow tired. Then it's your turn to receive."

Pia gives you the bag of clothes back and leaves the room. You squeeze all the juice you can out of the sponge with your teeth before dropping it back in the bucket and pull your phone out of your coat pocket to snap a selfie with Dot's abused face. The picture looks wonderful. Your dark hair and red eye with black makeup looks so goddamn hot compared to the pathetic bumps and scratches over your companions face. A latex-gloved finger taps on the dilated pupils of your picture-self. Wonder what you're high on? It makes sense if Dot purposely gave you a different drug so you could punish her so badly. You'd have an outing for your jacked-up woes and she'd get what she wants too.

The gloved finger traces the outline of your smile in the picture. That girl looks like she's finally enjoying life. That girl is you. Standing here, in a fetish club with a belly full of forbidden fruit, with someone you've badly hurt, a tail out of your back and your hands generating electricity… a shiver runs up your spine, and your neck feels tight. It's hard to believe just a few days ago you were content with your small life enjoying mundane shit like reading books and holding packages for a guy who lives down the hall. Now you've hurt, you've made new friends, and this grand old city is about to be introduced to someone new.

The phone in your hand buzzes: Egor has mysteriously asked if you and Dot are alright. Doesn't he know? You've never been better. You take dozens and dozens of photos of Dot's bruised and battered body. Under her eyelids, inside her mouth, wherever you can fit the camera lens – this is NOT a memory that you're going to let fade any time soon.

It's very difficult to not spam Egor with all of these slutty photos, your cooked mind oh-so desperately wants him to see what you've done to Dot. With a hand that barely listens to you, you manage to only send him the original selfie you took. Then as an afterthought you tell him you love him and that you found 'C'. You can see the little bubble that means he's typing, but it fades away without him sending anything. Maybe he doesn't know how to react to his sweet Nika being a bad girl?

Dot wakes up. You've both had your lust, so now it's time for your love. You turn the charge completely off in your hands and gently guide her off the rack and set her on the floor. You kneel and let her head rest in your lap. While she sips water and murmurs thanks to you over and over, you stroke her new haphazard buzz cut. It'd feel prickly if it wasn't for the fact you're still wearing gloves.

Egor has cancelled whatever message he was going to send, so you show Dot the selfie. She is particularly amused by her painful expression juxtaposing your gleeful one.

"This is wonderful, Governess… I mean, Nikki." You give a genuine smile at her as you wipe the sponge up and down her large athletic body, then pop it in your mouth to chew on before shoving it into your coat's pocket. This souvenir will haunt you tomorrow, but maybe the day after tomorrow you'll get to use it again.

 

[Egor]

…You come to abruptly, as if someone has kicked you awake. The room is dark, the switched-on muted TV being the only source of light. Something warm and firm is under your cheek – you turn your head to look up and see Yar's sleeping face. Damn, even from this unflattering angle he looks good. Seems like you've been using his thigh as a pillow. Awkward. But he wouldn't have let you do it if he minded, surely?

Also, whatever happened to waking you up for food? Your empty stomach starts growling as soon as you finish that thought. You sit up and rub at your eyes, wondering if you should shake Yar awake and ask. But you don't have to. He yawns and stretches lazily, looking at you sideways. Your shuffling about has probably woken him up. That, or the absence of your head's weight in his lap.

"Morn… er… Evening? Night? What time is it?"

"No idea." He reaches for his phone on the side table. "Hmm. Night. It's almost 11 p.m. Sleep well?" Shit. That's one hell of a nap you just had.

"Why didn't you wake me?"

"You looked too darn cute to wake?" After a brief consideration, you give him the most disgusted look from your arsenal, and he guffaws: "Joking. I did try, but you were out cold. Like in a coma. So I decided to just let you have it."

You stomach picks this very moment to announce its hungry state with another growl, and you look away, embarrassed by how loud it sounds.

"Let's feed you. Lucky you that pizza tastes fine reheated. Wait here." He is out the door before you can object. Seriously, what's up with all the fussing? You are all right now, he doesn't need to wait on you. You get up with every intention to follow him into the kitchen to prove just how okay you are, but experience a spell of light-headedness that puts a damper on that plan. Guess you'll have to play invalid for a little longer.

When Yar returns, he has a plate in one hand and a bundle of clothes that you recognize as yours tucked under another. You extend your hand for the plate, but he holds it out of your reach, looking at you sceptically. You have a pretty good idea of what he is thinking about.

"If you are going to try hand-feeding me, I'm leaving." Even though it's an empty threat – it's not like you could just walk out with no clothes on and means to get back to your part of the slums. That reminds you of your last visit. How ironic. Every time you are in Yar's home, it's not by your own volition, you are almost or entirely naked and not at your 100% physically.

"Fine." He rolls his eyes and passes you the plate. "So sue me for wanting to make things easy for you. Be all self-sufficient if you like."

"Thanks." You grab the plate and wolf down its contents, barely tasting anything – you are too hungry to slow down and enjoy it properly.

"Try not to choke." Yar warns you, amused. Now probably wouldn't be a good time to tell him that you don't, usually…

Once your plate is clean, you hand it back to Yar and ask:

"Do you think it's possible for me to get home? I'm not asking you to drive, but maybe someone else could?.."

"Yeah, no. You aren't going anywhere tonight." Somehow, he doesn't appear to be sorry about telling you that. Had you still been eating, you'd definitely choke after hearing him say it.

"Why?"

"Because. I'll personally drive you back in the morning, don't worry. But tonight you stay." His face is once again set into a scowl, which tells you he won't be entertaining any discussion on the matter.

"Fine…" That's not how you expected your evening to end, but it's no big deal. Nika has her own apartment to sleep in, you don't have any pets that need feeding and no early-morning plans that you'd have to be at home for. And you sort of get why Yar is acting the way he does right now. What you don't get is at what point exactly the aliens had arrived to switch his old version with this doppelgänger. Probably sometime during the period when you two weren't talking?

After a short-lived fight over who takes the couch – that you ultimately lose, - you pull your now clean clothes on and settle down in Yar's bed, your attention divided between poking at your phone and observing the fish in the tank next to the bed. You aren't yet ready to fall asleep again, but Yar seems to have no such problem, judging by the snoring you hear coming from the living room. It's nothing unusual, yet you still find it funny. He snores. Who would have thought.

Remembering Nika, you contemplate calling her, but decide that it's too late for it in case she is asleep. So you send a text asking if she and Dot are all right and return your attention to the fish tank. There aren't really a lot of things in Yar's bedroom that you could entertain yourself with, unfortunately. You try to find the catfish that he's got as a gift, but the poor thing is probably too shy to just sit out in the open. Too bad, but there are a lot of other aquatic creatures to focus on. Like that fat striped snail crawling up the piece of driftwood… Wonder what it's called? Is it a predator? It looks predatory to you. You decide to ask Yar when he wakes up. That, and how he set up the whole thing in the first place. It looks awesome, and you are sure you wouldn't be able to afford anything like this for your apartment. Shame, really.

With sleep not being on the menu, you get to making plans for tomorrow. Today's attack means you aren't doing as good as you thought. Which means you need Juice. And getting it would require some work. Calling Alice to check if she or her 'friends' have any to spare is in order. Failing that, you could try Inga, maybe. Or just hit the streets and hope for the best.

In any case, it looks like you're going to be busy.

 

[Nikki]

Dorothy shakes you gently. Your eyes open and you see her bashed face with a bleeding nose that drips blood onto her bare chest. Her kneeling next to you makes sense when you remember her hands and feet are still both bound with tape.

"Nikki, honey. Mind setting me free?"

It's hard not to think about this morning… maybe yesterday morning, when she toyed with your handcuffs and permanently tainted a souvenir. You punished her hard for that. You don't remember it, but you remember all of the most recent sessions. Every. Single. Thing.

You lean forwards away from the wall and vomit harshly into your lap. The orange bile flows around the linoleum, and chunks splash onto the small fuzz left of your pubic hair. You shake terribly. Dorothy pats you on the back with her bound hands, the edges of her fingernails green and showing infection. You throw up again, having adjusted yourself so that you're on all-fours and spewing directly into the bucket that once held the sponge covered in Dorothy's blood. You know, the one you sucked on and drank from. Nothing much is left in your stomach, save for some dregs you know will never come up. They'll swish around your body and infect your cursed bloodstream and stay as a permanent reminder of last night's events, but you have to try. You try to punch yourself in the stomach in a desperate attempt to get them out, but no such luck.

You heave and shake and start to cry, but you're not so cruel as to not cut Dorothy's bonds off with scissors before losing it completely. The tape that you'd personally wound is too tight, and you have to jam the scissors deep into her until you are satisfied with the results. You weep until there're no tears left to cry. Then you stumble over to the far corner of the circular room wearing these obnoxious heels you can't take off. Once upon a time, this latex uniform might have felt comforting, even enticing. Now you can't wait to peel this claustrophobic fabric away from your skin, burn it, destroy your new ID card, snap your crop in half, wipe your make-up off and ask your jungle warriors if everything will be alright.

You lie curled up on the floor and breathe shaky breaths while Dorothy comes back into focus and starts undoing your ballet boots. Five buckles, two zippers and a whole lot of knots have to be undone before it comes off and your feet and ankles remember how good fresh air is. Dorothy is looking over you and picking her battles carefully. You look at her, and she gives you a small, what's-meant-to-be-reassuring, smile. One of the molars in her mouth is missing, and it's your fault. She remembers this and quickly shuts her smile down.

Then she undoes the leather strap fixing your glove on and tosses it aside. While she works on the other one, you channel the most energy you can in your free hand. Some of the hairs on your arm stand on end and your palm is almost glowing. Then you shut your hand into a closed fist and reopen it. It opens, and your fingertips feel like lighting bolts, your palm is well and truly glowing now. Dorothy doesn't let it bother her when she takes off the other glove. Then she collects the gloves, boots, leather straps – anything the two of you used is now in her hands, - and drops into a hole in the wall. While she does that, you clasp both your hands together in a prayer motion and slowly pull them apart from each other. A very-small light-blue bolt leaps from one palm to the other, just for a second. The current in your hands dies down, and you start sobbing again.

Dorothy must have really liked everything that happened to her. You inflicted ungodly amounts of abuse onto her writhing form. Now, when you're at her mercy, she doesn't seek vengeance and instead helps you to the bathroom. She does everything. Loosening your corset, unlocking your metal collar, washing any spew away. Finally, she peels the suit away from your shoulders and lets the shower cool you down enough so that it's not so tight and restrictive. After she washes the shampoo out of your hair, she sets you down on the wooden bench outside the sauna while she tends to her own needs. You try to block it out, but you can hear muffled calls and cries of anguish in the other room when the water is too hot or when she bends down and reopens the fake c-section scar you gave her.

Just try to think calmly. Think nice and tranquil thoughts. Maybe in the morning Egor can take you to the movies again – that was a nice memory. But your brain goes through that night and lands on Taylor ignoring you. Egor was right, she was calling you 'Nik' on purpose. You were too naive to notice, and the only small payback you got was torturing a completely-unrelated person.

The fleshy length of your tail pops out behind you to say hello. It gently needles you in the ribs as if it's telling you to get a move on. You take its advice and slowly walk back to the main room wrapped in your towel. The large puddle of vomit, blood, sweat, and various other bodily fluids spread out over the floor is being mopped up by a small circular robot. You slide your underwear back on alongside the black dress and the flannel, but not the coat. The deep tan thing has a sponge in one of the pockets and you don't want to think about it until you absolutely have to. Only thing missing is shoes.

Dorothy limps out of the bathroom with a white-turned-red towel draped over her shoulders, many of her cuts still bleeding. She holds your freshly cleaned uniform. You open your mouth to say how sorry you are, but she cuts you off with a wave.

"I asked for this. I wanted this to happen. You helping me with it is no different than helping me with the laundry. For that, I thank you."

Her words are sincere, but there's a slight air of… you don't know what. It's almost like Dorothy is waiting for round two. She talks about how she doesn't regret it and is open to doing it again in the future. Fat chance. While she talks she uses the white parts of your towel until she stops bleeding and is completely dry. Then she neatly packs your latex uniform away along with all of its gear she retrieved from a hole in the wall – they look like they've been steam-cleaned.

You want to ask if it's alright you don't wear the boots you came in with, but Dorothy is already one step ahead. She puts her clothes back on but pulls your heels towards her and does them up on her own legs. Then she tosses you the colourful runners she was wearing earlier. You can't say 'thank you', there's too much going on in your brain, but Dorothy's thinking is clear enough.

"I mean it, Nikki, thank you for hurting me. This shit is tricky enough without finding a willing partner." She passes you the box.

"Y-You're welcome." It's only a whisper.

"By the way, don't go thinking I sleep around like a sinner. I say this to clear my own head as well as comfort you. Should we get out of here?"

"…"

"…Nikki?"

"Yes?"

"Do you want to leave Cluster and go home?"

"…Yes. Let's go." Not sure why you hesitated. Yes, you do. "Wait."

Dorothy takes her hand off the doorknob and turns to look at you.

"What is it?"

"I can't just let myself get away with this. Do something to me."

She shakes her head.

"I just told you, I asked for this to happen. You don't owe me anythi-"

"I do. Please. Let me redeem myself." One final tear forms in the corner of your red eye and your voice goes shaky. "I-I don't want to do this ever again. Stop me from doing it again. Please." Your voice cracks on 'it'.

It feels like there's a demon inside you, and you're scared of it, you're scared of yourself. The crying earlier was just the initial shock, now comes the life-long dread you'll have forever unless you do something about it now.

"Please Dorothy, I don't-" Your voice chokes up. "I don't care what drugs I was on, I'm terrified that I'm capable of doing that again and you need to stop me. Do something. Please, please let me make it fair."

You're about to get on your knees and start begging when Dorothy pulls you up and walks you through the main S&M room of Cluster. Many of the acts you saw before are still going, some people in them are unconscious, just like you made Dorothy. The thought makes your eyes well up, but Dorothy quiets you back down.

"If you seriously never want to do this ever again and need a reminder, then there is something you might agree with. Something small that fits your… criteria."

"I want that, where is it?"

She leads you down some different hallways and stops at a door with a large picture of a screwdriver on it. She pushes open the door, and you see a guy wearing a spike sitting next to a tattooist chair reading a magazine. Dorothy explains your situation to him and he nods thoughtfully while pawing through his magazine. He goes from pictures of intricate tattoos to light cyberware to teeth replacements. The last one interests Dorothy. It just makes you feel worse, and she doesn't notice until the magazine shows various wigs.

Finally Dorothy remembers she's not the priority.

"She doesn't really want something permanent, just something she can't forget about."

"Ok… Ok… How about this?" He holds up the magazine to you and Dorothy. There's a picture of a man with a golden septum ring fit for a bull, it almost reaches his bottom lip. "It can go smaller."

"I-I think I want that one." It's not permanent, but the hole the piercing makes should last for a few months.

"Nikki, no. It's too big. People will see that everyday for the rest of your life." Dorothy won't let you.

"I don't care about that, I mean the-"

"You should care! The rest of your life is a damn long time." Dorothy must not understand what you meant.

"I don't want the ring, I was the hole that comes with it." That makes her falter. "Please. I… I'm still worried, let me have a reminder."

"Don't forget about your uniform and gear."

"Those are staying in my wardrobe, if not the bin. I need something on my person." Dorothy's gaze lingers on you.

"Something on your person, huh." She reaches down and gently presses on some of the skin on your breast. You yelp, and she pulls her hand away. "There you go. That'll do it until you can be rational again. I'm not letting you get anything super permanent when you're this emotional."

It's a nice gesture, one that you very much appreciate. You climb out of the chair and hug her – it's a bit difficult with the box in between you, but she returns it. After letting you go she gives a small nod to the spiked guy and holds your hand while walking to the main room of Cluster. Then back up the entrance to the Interstate, back into a taxi, back up the apartment staircase, and finally, after locking your door twice, back to your bedroom.

After Dorothy puts the box in the wardrobe you both undress completely. She winces slightly when pulling her clothes off makes some of the cuts reopen, mainly her nipple starts bleeding from when you hit her breasts with a crop like fifty times. You ignore the queasy feeling you get and pull a tissue out from the box on your bedside table and crawl over the bed to wipe it up. It's the least you can do after all she's done. Then, you hold her hand and guide her under the covers where you gently dab her nipple with the tissue while she slides her hands up and down your naked body. Before last night you always wore long pyjamas and even slippers. Now, with a fellow mutant and partner, you feel more comfortable in your own skin.

Later on, you discard the tissue and grab another one. Her cuts finally stop bleeding, and she tells you again that she wanted it and she's glad you hurt her so. It's fun using one of her arm folds as a pillow cover again. She kisses you on your soft lips with her split ones and you hold it for a second longer. Kissing this person who you've been intimate with, her covered in wounds and you covered in regret, it forms a strange connection and paints a nice little picture in your head. A cartoony picture of you both running through a field hand-in-hand, skipping through a meadow and lying under an apple tree while naming what you see in the clouds… you continue kissing her. Your hands slide around the back of her wounded neck and start stroking various cuts and patches you left on her head, while one of her hands is twirling your tail around a finger and the fold is over your rib cage while her other hand snakes down your butt and massages it gently. This lovely embrace makes you want to go faster and harder. Your tongues have their own little embrace with each other. You both stay like this for ten minutes. Just passionately kissing your lover while your hands wander.

Your heart pounds in your chest with delightful natural warmth, nothing like the harsh artificial heat that the drugs gave you. Your tail breaks free of Dorothy's grasp and starts tickling the top of her thigh. She starts laughing, which means you need to pull away and inhale some oxygen.

"Wow." Dorothy's eyes have a bright glint in them. "Where did that come from? You're good at love as well as lust."

You smile shyly and start fiddling with your hands.

"Well… you said it yourself…"

"What did I say?" Dorothy edges closer towards you and pulls you down to lie down next to her.

"Was it… Love?" Your usual apprehensiveness and confidence problems start floating back. "I-If it's alright with you…"

Dorothy gives a loud laugh of joy, not mockery.

"Sure is, Nikki." She pulls you as close as she can and guides your tail into her front hole. You kiss her passionately while stroking her short hair and she does the same with your long hair. "I gotta tell ya, I'm so glad I'm no longer dating guys."

 

***

A bit later the clock hits 2 a.m. and you both settle down and start feeling properly sleepy. Your tail is coated in sex juices, but you decide to wash it in the morning. Dorothy didn't even seem distracted by the repeated plunging, she just kept loving you. You trail random patterns on her side with a charged finger while she strokes your shoulder with one hand and rests the other one under her shaved head.

"I love you, Nikki. Gonna have to turn in for the night."

"Alrighty then, I love you too, Dorothy." It feels weird to say those words and truly mean them.

"Still calling me 'Dorothy' eh? I think we're past that. Why'd you stop at Cluster?"

"I thought you wouldn't want me to, after I hurt you so badly." A rough edge creeps into your voice when you say the word 'hurt'. You still want a decent reminder.

"Just call me 'Dot'. Is that alright, honey?"

"Yeah… yeah, it is." And it really is. "Goodnight, Dot."

"Goodnight, Nikki." Despite all the crazy stuff you've done and seen, there's no visit from the professor tonight. You dream wonderful dreams of mellow colours and longing for more. You love this girl you sleep with and you love being a mutant.

Chapter Text

[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.

Chapter Text

[Yar]

Nikki and Egor are both still asleep. Interesting. You know Kitten has always been a night owl, but yesterday and the last time he was here he slept through the night… which is strange. His inner clock must be off. The girl's deal is clear, at least on the surface: classic innocent soul dragged into a world where it's nigh impossible to keep your innocence. However, things are a bit different with this one - she has a little extra biological arsenal to keep herself safe, and Kitten is friends with her. You'd never imagine him taking an active interest in someone like her. Guess it shows how little you really know him.

How would things have worked out if there was no Egor? If it was just Nikki and yourself? Let's say you find her in some dark alleyway in whatever kind of distress. Initially, you believe, she'd be too timid to join up, yet too scared to leave your side in any other way than at gunpoint. Too... girly to leave an impression on you and too naive to not think you can be trusted just because you helped her once. Not unlike Egor in some ways, yet far too different in others. Kitten has always been a cynic, for one, so instant trust was out of the question…

Mental illness would be a better explanation than none. Or simply neurodivergence? You don't think she's autistic or anything like that - there isn't enough evidence to support that yet, considering you've only just met her. Not that it would change your opinion of her, but at least some things would be explained. The much more likely option is that you're such a narrow-minded asshole that your mind immediately starts searching for some kind of "condition" to justify when people don't act the way you're used to thinking is regular. And Egor, being all sweet and shit, apparently cares for the girl and clearly has no intention of leaving her to fend for herself, her perculiarities notwithstanding. Hmph.

Last night you were legitimately too tired to think of a better way, but that's hardly an excuse for the test you pulled off, though you think it was one of your best yet - you could almost hear the gears shuffling around in your Kitten's brain. Your only regret was making the girl cry - it's not your first time, but it's never a pleasant feeling, being an unruly dick to someone weaker than you. You hope it'll be the last time you gave this particular girl a reason to turn on the waterworks, at least. Speaking of waterworks…

Too much coffee is the problem now, you're standing over the toilet for a good twenty seconds before you splash water on your face and check yourself in the mirror. This stubble is getting too long. You scoop up the razor, but... nah. You should wait until you need to shower, or at least until the other denizens are awake. Nikki is tossing and turning on the living room's couch with beads of sweat on her forehead and her... tentacle or whatever the hell it is beating against the couch. She's murmuring like she's havng a nightmare; you leave her to it and head back to your own room, hoping to wake Egor.

He sleeps peacefully on the carpet with his razor claws pinned in to... anchor himself if he rolls over? He better not be pulling any threads loose. And even if he isn't, you're not crazy about having him here. No, that's not right. Him alone is fine, but Egor is apparently a package deal now. The girl's in mourning, but there's no reason these two should just lay around and eat your food for an undetermined period of time. Plus you've still got questions about Nikki, mainly her mutations and blood-stained eye. Egor will have to provide.

"Hey, Kitten." You nudge him on your shoulder with your foot, and he blearily opens his eyes to face you.

"Yar..." Is there something on your face? Why is he looking at you like that? You touch your cheek but find nothing out of the ordinary there. Maybe you should have shaved after all. "Yar... uh. Morning, what is it?" His face becomes unreadable and voice goes stern as he sits up.

"You want a job? Say no, and I'll kick you out." He scowls and lets you help him to his feet. Guess he didn't get that you're joking. "I get the feeling you'd want to help out anyway. There's a bunch of magazines to swap out with better ammo, with the three of us it'll probably take an hour or two. We can check the news and see if your girl's friend made it."

Egor replies with something you should have considered:

"I don't think Nika should be involved with that, is there any regular cleaning for her? I don't want her to wallow in misery."

"Ah, sure. Just wake her up and-"

"She has bad nightmares, I might have to sit with her for a second." You cross your arms. "I think it's from trauma; you can tell she's never hurt anyone."

"...That's fine, just wish you told me earlier."

"I didn't think her being a killer or not was important."

"It tells me she's the most vulnerable girl in the building. Come on." Egor stretches and mumbles that you need a better carpet as the two of you walk to the front room of your apartment and wheel a big storage unit filled with loose ammo and the occasional gun barrel into the kitchen. You stand next to it and make some sandwiches as you overhear Egor carefully waking up Nikki in the next room.

"...uh...Ah! AHHH!" It's an awful, petrified shriek matched with a sob.

"Calm down, it's just me. Egor. We're at Yar's apartment. Remember last night, when you showed him your hands?" Kitten sounds calm and collected. Probably even bored. Guess it's not the first time he wakes her like this?

"...Egor?" She's out of breath.

"I'm here. Are you hungry?" Good thing you're making sandwiches.

"No... I need the toilet." Nevermind then.

"Come with me." You catch a glimpse of Egor leading the girl down the hall, and you move the big tool box thing into the living room, sit down, and turn on the news. Nothing of interest is there, but it's not like you actually expected a fresh murder to make it that fast, even without one of your people actively working on keeping it on the down-low. Word will get out, of course - neighbors will gossip, landlords will talk, the local law enforcers are sure to slide in a report. But things should be fine as long as the corpse is taken care of and all the signs of other mutants in the apartment where it took place are removed or muddled enough so they won't be possible to trace back to Egor... and Nikki, of course… but mainly Egor. That's all that matters.

Now, if only there was a way to make 100% sure that the murder was a one-off thing and whoever did it will move on to someone unrelated to the dead woman... Speaking of, where are these two? Just how long does it take for a girl to piss?

You find them both in the kitchen, ending a conversation and munching on the sandwiches you prepared. Nikki has emptiness behind her eyes as she looks down and doesn't show much enthusiasm for the food, kneading bread crumbs on the table's surface into a small ball with one finger and absent-mindedly holding a half a peanut butter-slathered piece of bread in her other hand. Egor, for his part, is a picture of a healthy appetite. He is halfway done with his sandwich and is eyeing the one his friend is neglecting. Looking at the girl, you suddenly have a thought.

"Nikki?" She doesn't look up. "Nikki?"

"Ah!" She snaps out of her funk at once and drops her food. It hits the edge of the table and lands on the floor, butter side down, of course it does. You can hear Egor's heavy sigh and know without looking at him that he mourns the wasted food right now. "Oh God, sorry, I'll clean-"

"Egor will get it. Come with me, if you are done eating. I have a job for you. And you," catching Egor's eye, you nod at the table. "Clean up and wait for me here."

Initially, your plan was to get the girl saddled up with cleaning duty while Kitten would sort your stuff, but it occurred to you that your den doesn't need tidying at the moment, so whatever you could task her with cleaning would have to be down at the bar, or maybe communal areas on other floors. All of which are open to your crew. Naturally, most of them are out and about right this moment, and those who are in are too occupied with their own things to pay attention to your guests. Still, you don't think exposing Nikki to any more people first thing in the morning would help her state.

She climbs out of her chair and her land drapes over Egor's shoulders before she walks away and follows you to the main room.

"See this box?" You point at the stuff you've prepared in the living room. She looks over it like it's going to bite her. "It's all a mess that I just can't get round to. Think you could help me with sorting it? There is a notebook at the bottom - ignore the filled-out pages and write down how many of which we have."

"Wh... how do I know what bullets are what? I'm not really used to... guns." She looks mainly hesitant and frightened but her eyes show some eagerness to do her share and - just like you hoped - slight intrigue. You shrug:

"For now I just want you to focus on putting the identical items together. Pile them up, stack them like Jenga, tie them together with rubber bands or frilly little ribbons with bows, I don't care." Your attempt at lightness goes over her head. "Anyway, Egor will join you and help with what goes where and which size bullet fits in what barrel, I'll look over the whole thing later and then it's onto the next job."

"I never played Jenga… I just match the identical things?"

"Yes. It's quite easy." She stays silent, swaying on her feet. Hopefully she wasn't asking you to clarify Jenga instructions.

Eventually she realises she hasn't said anything for a minute and shakes her head to clear it.

"Yeah, I... I think I can handle that. What do I do when I'm done?"

"Treat Egor as your supervisor. I'll tell him to introduce you to my men - there is always something that needs to be done, and I suspect they'd be happy to dump part of their workload on you. Just remember that you can refuse anything they offer. And I mean anything. If someone tries to mess with you when Egor is not around, I'd like to know." You turn to head back to the kitchen and add in an afterthought: "Not that it's likely to happen. They know better." Nikki wraps her tentacle thing around her thigh and sits down on the couch, reaching down with a gloved hand to open the drawers.

In the kitchen, Kitten meets you with a questioning expression. You sigh and joke:

"Let the girl play around with firearms. What could possibly go wrong, right?"

He silently shrugs, apparently not thinking the matter was worth discussing. You add, feeling the urge to justify yourself for some reason:

"And it could be useful to her. Educational. Even if she doesn't want to learn how to fire a gun, knowing the specs couldn't hurt. Or how to do maintenance."

"Naturally."

"Now, that's real chatty of you, I'm surprised I even could get a word in edgewise."

"Ass." But there is no real heat behind the word. He shakes his head and explains:

"I guess the whole mess is just starting to... how do you say it, catch up with me? I have a ton of things on my mind that are either likely scenarios of how things could and probably would go wrong, or..."

"Kitten." You interrupt, and he bristles at the name, as always. You shift aside the smug feeling at his reaction to enjoy it later and suggest:

"How about you focus on things that definitely would go wrong if nothing is done about them? Are there any?"

"For one... Nikki. Her tail." He sighs and looks to the side, as if embarrassed, and finishes: "Your people. Loose lips."

Ah. Makes sense.

"Well then, what'll your girl do in terms of hiding it?"

Egor sighs.

"I loaned her money and she bought some form-concealing clothes. Would've saved it if I knew all this would happen." He waves his hand around the kitchen. "Now I'm out another few hundred."

"A few hundred?! Tell me she drained herself first." He shakes his head and digs out his wallet. You glance down at the faux leather while Egor passes you a folded white scrap of paper.

"I wouldn't let her. Read this, she made it."

"‘Dear Egor, let this paper scrap declare that IOU 263 Ohio dollars. Please keep it on yourself until I replace it with real money and don't loan me anything else until I can tear this paper up.'" You flip the paper over and pass it back to him. "Shit, she's serious about owing people. Girlie is more broke than you."

"At first I thought she was trying to be cute, now I realize she meant it." Egor slides his wallet back in his pocket. "I wish everyone I'd lent money to was the same as she is now." You laugh, and he squints at you." Forgive me for having a soul. Nika would have died without-"

"No, no I don't mean that. You don't keep a record of who owes you money?"

"Of course I do; the people I lend to are another story. See here..." Egor pulls out his phone and messages you a list of names, locations and money owed. It's surprisingly comprehensive and well put together. Almost better than your own lists, maybe that can be one of his jobs. "You want me to pay rent? There's your money." Kitten laughs to himself and you mention you're gonna go find him something to do, lest he has too much fun, then leave the den, promising to be back "some time later".

Down at the bar, you nod to some of the overnight crew and exit out the front door. Egor was joking but you don't care - you're getting your rent.

 

***

You press your finger over the peephole in the door and sigh when you hear a chain rattling inside. Truly, the hallway that you're currently standing in shit, and so is, you suspect, the entire building. The door looks like it was cut out of cardboard. You don't even know why you bother knocking. Not like them not wanting to open would change anything. You did take your time to check for any extra security measures, obvious or otherwise, and were utterly flabbergasted to find none. A small part of your brain still suspects that you missed something. Just a peephole, for real? Couldn't even bother with a camera? But, if you pause to think about it... How many people actually need security as outrageous as you and your peers have? There is safety in being a nobody. Who would take notice enough to go after you or your shit? Who would think you even have shit worth taking? Knocking again, you continue covering the peephole until the man inside is forced to open the door a crack to satisfy his curiosity. There is a chain in place, at least. Not that it could possibly keep you away.

"You... You're Egor's mate." He seems plenty intimidated already, maybe they'll all be this easy. You exhale and shift your weight from one foot to the other. Then look him dead in the eye and squint.

"So you know me, good. And I know you. I also know that you have something of Egor's that needs collecting."

"...How can I-"

"Robert. You owe my partner $431 for a bad call at the races. Don't make this difficult." He scampers off and you listen carefully for any signs of a window opening. Eventually he returns and passes you $200. You glare at him and crunch the notes in your hand. "Robert. Jog my memory, how much do you owe?"

"I-I‘m a bit light." You reach forward and snap the chain without trying, making the door swing open. Robert backs up and raises his hands. You're almost bored. "That's all I got. Honest."

"That's all you got? That's a damn lie." You don't consider yourself a debt collector, but breaking shit is fun. Robert watches you turn his couch inside out and eventually you realize he's leaning against a countertop. Knocking him to the floor, you pull out another few hundreds from a drawer and bid him farewell. "Pay him next time. Do svidaniya." Robert flinches at your words, but at least you won't be back and he knows it.

 

***

The morning goes by fast; you accumulate a good chunk of money and only one other person needed to have their shit broken before they caved in and coughed up what they owed Egor. You hardly even needed to drive around - it's unsurprising most of his loans are in the same neighborhood he lives in, not to mention Interstate. Before you know it, you're counting his bills for him in the back room and most of your crew is laying down wiring and insulation like normal. At the top of the stairs, you slip some light notes into your pocket for yourself. Better just outright gift him his money without bringing up rent. After you hang up your jacket you hear some quiet talking in the main room.

"...loved you very much."

"I know... I know."

"Are you in any pain?"

"My… t-tail stings and aches and I feel like I need to throw up sometimes. My eye is hurting and my hands…" Can you hear light crackling? "They burn. I feel like I need to laugh and cry and scream and work it all off but… I just feel flat." At this point you round the corner.

"You'll be okay, Nika. Sit with m- Yar!" Egor stands up, and Nikki winces, she looks like she's been crying. "Where the hell have you been?! Hours have passed and neither of us could leav-"

"I was collecting your debts." You stick your hand behind your undershirt and pull out an envelope, tossing it on the table. Money spills out of it. Egor looks at it wide-eyed, and Nikki dives down to scoop up some that landed on the floor, then puts it with the rest.

"I-I don't mean to steal any! Some fell on the floor and I just wanted to make sure... make sure that... um." Nikki is smart enough to catch the tense energy between you and Kitten and shuts up.

"...This is all the money I've lent to others?"

"Plus or minus some people I couldn't get a hold of. That Alice girl, and a guy called Mel."

"I... This is so much..." Nikki tentatively stretches her arm out to drag her hand over the notes, fiddling with what's probably the most money she's ever seen in her entire life.

"Yar..."

"You're welcome." He bends down and picks up a $100 note, passing it through his fingers like it's a stress toy. A very expensive stress toy.

"Thanks." He tosses the note back on the table and almost shoulder-checks you while walking past, mumbling that he'll meet you in the front room. You instead decide to sit with Nikki on the floor, just to touch base.

"So, how'd you go with the bullets? They all tied up and written down in the book?" Nikki looks sideways at you. Her red eye glowing through her eyelid would be awfully intimidating to someone unaware of her personality.

"We got them all done. Egor helped me get the hang of it but it was stressful at first." There's a tiny smile on her face like she's proud of herself, then it fades away like she's realised how dumb she must seem, intimidated by a bunch of inanimate objects rolling around in a tool box. Then again, those objects can be deadly in the right hands... notably yours.

"And yourself? You're all fine?" There's probably more subtle ways of asking this but you get the feeling she'd miss the intentions overall. She rubs her nose with the back of her hand and looks over at all the money again.

"...I guess I could be better." And you guess the city could be a better place to live. You keep the thought to yourself. "I'm a mess in every sense of the word but... at least I'm still here, right?" She looks down at her bare hands and curls them both into fists. More crackling. "A week ago, I never thought..." She stays quiet until you stand up, and she jumps like she forgot you were there. "Uh, sorry for kind of just dropping myself on you. Egor said th-"

"Bah. You're fine." It's been a long time since you've had to console someone. What would a girl like her want to hear? "You've been dealt a bad hand, nothing wrong with accepting help from the people who care about you... namely Egor." Hopefully you don't sound like an ass with that last part. She shuffles herself back onto the couch and tucks her knees up to her chin, nodding a few times and holding back tears.

"I guess... heh." She wraps her arms around her legs and there's yet another crackle. "I've been dealt the worst hands of all." She murmurs a laugh and a cloudy tear falls out of her red eye. The girl can joke. Good. You turn around and slowly walk off to give her a chance to notice you're leaving, she then calls out 'Bye!', and you hit your normal pace until you find Kitten in the front room, deleting the list from his phone.

"Kitten. How's your newfound riches?" He frowns and puts his phone back in his pocket.

"Fine. I can buy a car if I wanted to."

"See? Aren't you glad I sorted your debts for you?" He squints at you like he's trying to figure out the ulterior motive, but you don't let him see it.

"If you didn't need to brutalise anyone, yes."

"Just their places. Robert lived in a cardboard pigsty anyway, and Anthony is now missing a window. Surely that isn't an issue?"

"It is when you live on the first floor and have no lock on your door to begin with." Egor squints at you again.

"Oh, come on. You should be thanking me."

"...Thank you. How is Nika?"

"Could be better, what's wrong with her eye?" He hisses at you to keep your voice down, despite the fact she's at the opposite end of the flat.

"I wish I knew, her electricity, maybe? Don't ask me about her tail."

"You've never seen them on anyone else before?"

"No!"

"Fine then. What about this girlfriend I've had Ajax clean up? Is she off the table too?" Egor rubs his eyes like he's frustrated, then exhales like he's queasy.

"Before, Nika was a quiet loner with night terrors. You scared her half to death with your bounty at her work, and this was even before she knew she was a mutant. Her work friend drags her away, takes her viginity, turns her into a drugged-out sex fiend, then gets murdered on the same day she and Nika become an item officially. I fear her mind can't take much more, so please, for all our sakes, go easy on her. Do not bring up anything that might set her off."

It's fair enough. If only this new girl bunking with you could hold her own on the streets, at least when not in mourning. A new girl staying in your private den alongside Kitten... you can't help but feel some resentment towards him for dropping this new problem in your lap.

"Ok. I'll decide what you owe me later." He bristles at your words, but you keep eye contact and shake hands with him, and he exhales when you squeeze his palm. "Egor."

"Yar." His face contorts like he's just had a bad thought and lets go of your hand. "Shit..."

"What?"

"Nothing. No... I've just remembered something. Nika will be missing Dot." He is definitely omitting something, but now is probably not the best time to push for answers.

"Dot is the girl?" Egor pulls out his phone once more and opens his messages. You see an empty grey square amongst some green text, and he swears again, tucking the phone back into his pocket and looking up at you.

"I'm going to talk to Nika, and she'll certainly start crying again. Is there somewhere you need to be?" He phrases it like a question, but you know you're being dismissed. Shugging, you pull out your own phone to check for texts you might have missed and see that Ajax is requesting you meet him downstairs.

"Yes, there is. Good luck." He says the same to you and you pass by each other. He heads to the living room and you head out your door and down the stairs. Scanning the bar, you see Ajax is occupying the very same booth where Kitten and you were sitting when he got his black shakes attack. Wasn't that a sight. You push aside the unbidden memory and take a seat, fixing the big guy with a stare.

"Well?"

He chuckles - mirthless, dry sound.

"That was something, all right. And I don't mean "good" something. Amateurish shit. What he's done to the body, I mean. No rhyme or reason to how the bits and pieces were arranged, completely random, ghastly and disturbing just for the sake of being so. Sick, pointless, no imagination, not even remotely inspired..."

"Ajax, your experience is showing."

He shuts up, looking somewhat sheepish.

"Right, sorry. I had enough time to remove the obvious signs that your guy was there, but the best part is tenants in that building are an apathetic bunch. Nobody was in a hurry to come investigate what the ruckus was about, and by the time the landlord caught wind of what happened I've already called one of my law girls to come check the scene. She brought some friends, of course, but guess what? I know these guys. No love lost between them and Tower. One even has a grudge, if I'm not mistaken. Wonder what that's about."

"And the body?"

"Gathered... whatever they could and sent off to be cremated. My girl - Tish, by the way, do you know her? She seems to know you. Blonde, short, very ugly scar on her neck?"

"We've met."

"So, she said they could make arrangements. The urn with the ashes, all of her shit that was in the apartment... Her girlfriend will have to take it off their hands in person, no way around it, but they'll hold onto it for now, no need to rush. They won't dump it or anything. The apartment, however, is a no-go. It has Sunday still paid for, but then that's it, so the landlord will have it scrubbed and rented out as soon as, if the current tenant doesn't show up. Which everyone understands is unlikely. He does want her belongings out of there before anything, though."

"I'll have her contact him. That's not important right now. Any signs of Tower?"

"A couple of ladies showed up shortly after I left, according to Tish. And she was using the term as loosely as possible. Looked bored as fuck. Took statements, pictures of what was left, made tasteless jokes. Tish is pretty sure nothing will come of it. The worst part is that they didn't look surprised or shocked or anything like it. Either due to the fact that the victim was not human, or because they've seen worse? I wasn't there to judge, and Tish was pretty affected, so her recollection was quite colorful. Bleeding heart case."

"And that's all? They only took photos and no samples?"

"Samples were taken, but only the blood. Tish swore on her mom's grave they were as sloppy and unprofessional as could be and in a hurry to get out of there. So unless they managed to sneakily scrub off something else, only the dead girl's DNA should be processed."

"Hmm." You scratch the table with a fingernail and ponder what happens next. No chance in hell for a random slums apartment to be 100% sterilised by its landlord. Nikki's fresh mutant DNA is still there, but as long as Kittens spew is all gone... he should be okay. Ajax looks at the concentration on your brow and adds:

"I wouldn't worry. Your girl may have a big apartment but unless she was licking the doornobs, Tower won't catch anything."

"Sure." It's not Nikki you're worried about.

***

She passes the phone back to you.

"Well?"

"Tish said the... ashes and my things can be sent here but-"

"I'll sort it out."

"...Thank you. And my stuff... it's just clothes and maybe some food? I'm okay if it's tossed out or sold." Nikki seems a bit hesitant with her words but if she doesn't want the items, you're not gonna turn down free shit for your crew.

"What will you do with your apartment? Don't forget Sunday's still paid for."

She sways on her feet.

"I don't know much about stalkers or anything, but this place seems infinitely times safer than mine... if you'll have me, of course."

"I don't see why not." She nods a polite thanks and walks back to the kitchen to wrap up dinner. You lean against the couch and fiddle with your phone until you hear yawning and Egor appears in the doorframe of your bedroom.

"Kitten. How was your nap?" He stares at you out of the corner of his eye.

"I'm getting back to my normal sleep schedule."

"Good. From what I hear, these past few days have been mania."

"Something like that. I have to look at you all the time."

"Is that really so bad?" You smirk at him, and he tries his hardest to maintain a scowl. Nikki appears around the corner and softly calls out ‘I'm done.' You both head to the kitchen and check over the table while she packs things up; she's made the same sandwiches you did this morning.

"I don't know what you all like so I just made... hm." She waves her hand over the table and you all sit down.

It's clear Nikki is desperate to make herself useful but due to your lack of supplies, she didn't have much to work with. Some are sloppy with butter on the outside and it's clear her mind was in another place, but Egor wolfs it down all the same. You nod to her after your first bite and she exhales like you're the head judge on a cooking show or something.

"That's good, I only ever eat white bread and the..." She stays quiet for a second, then frowns and picks up the one sandwich she made for herself. "I need to stop obsessing over small things, it's gonna get me killed."

Egor quietly sighs like he knew this was coming.

"Nika, we may be in danger but you can still be yourself." She drops her food on her plate and starts, her voice bordering on whimpering:

"This is all just so new to me. I can't remember the last time... I don't even know."

"We can teach you how to live now?" Kitten shoots you a harsh glare, and you ignore him. "Toughen you up a bit, show you how the whole ‘gang leader' shtick works? I got my best man right here." You slap a bristling Egor on the shoulder, and Nikki almost smiles.

"Really?"

"Really. Let's start with those bullets you both sorted..."

The three of you end up talking for over an hour, mainly teaching Nikki how some people don't just work a 9-5 to make their living. How some people cheat, lie, hurt others to make ends meet. She gets a bit uncomfortable when you mention ending lives, and Kitten cuts you off before you go too far: ‘She doesn't need to hear this.' ‘How did I find you, huh?' Eventually Nikki can't keep her eyes open any longer and she turns in for bed, leaving you, Egor, and dirty plates in the kitchen.

"So, it was a good day. Productive."

Egor cringes at your exaggeratedly optimistic comment. Just what you were aiming for.

"Yes. Productive. Mind if I ask you not to bother the rest of my debtors, at least for now?" You weren't exactly going to, but fair enough. "Especially Alice. She is... special case."

Another special girl? Just how many of those does he have? You shake your head and probe:

"Special like... what? Another Nikki?"

He snorts at that:

"Thank fuck no, not even close. She is a working lady, for one. Can handle herself, but still needs helps from time to time. The kind that I don't mind providing."

You stare at him in amazement.

"Working girl? How the hell did you even meet? I don't think you're the type to hire-"

"I'm not her client, but it's not relevant right now. Just keep her name in mind. I couldn't care less about Robert or Mel or pretty much everyone else on that list you've seen, so long as they are alive and not too roughed-up. Alice gets kid gloves treatment no matter how much she owes, understand?" Pausing to think for a second, he frowns and adds:

"And if the name 'Inga' ever comes up... just be careful with her. She is not exactly friendly kind of contact, and she's yet to ask anything of me, but Alice depends on her, so..."

"Seriously, Kitten. You and your women..." You're more amused than upset with him, but you've long since noticed a pattern when it comes to him dealing with the opposite sex. This conversation just confirms it. Kitten has a soft spot for ladies, and some of them know it and are all too happy to take advantage. Which is too fucking sad considering you're very sure that he never takes advantage of them back. He should. You know you would in his place.

"There are no "my women" to speak of. I just happen to have some friends that don't have dicks." He appears to be offended at the implication, somehow. Maybe you misinterpreted something here. You decide to let it go for now, to avoid digging yourself in further, and suggest:

"Neik Ed is organising a game night down at the bar. Something about modern day vampires. June is definitely playing, and some of the others expressed interest. Want to come with? It could be interesting."

He perks up at that, taking you by surprise with sudden enthusiasm:

"Vampires? I think I know what this is about. He's been sad about his regular play group falling apart due to some kind of drama, I think. Maybe I'll try making a character, too? But even if I don't, observing would be good anyway."

And here is another thing you didn't know he was into. You don't know why, but the thought is aggravating. As if it's your job to know every last thing about Egor, and you're failing at it. It's a weird feeling.

You rub at the back of your neck, push down the odd emotions and follow him down to the bar, determined to make the most of this collective hangout.