The Underground was quiet. Each step I took seemed to echo, not in a way heard by ears, but more felt in the empty, vibrating air. I let myself into the back parlor, hopped up on the bench, and waited for Zig.
I met him weak smile for weak smile, slipping back off the bench and wrapping him in a tight hug. “You up for this?” I asked when I pulled back, unable to read his face. That beautiful, goofy face, usually so clear to me, lost to a haze of a million directions. He was grieving, he was in denial, he was stony silent, he was laughing it all off. He was somber, face set in rage, bawling openly and utterly blank, all at once. For a minute, I was kinda jealous he could do that, feel the full range of his potential all in one go and get it over with. When we were done here, he would be better. I would still have the real world to get back to.
His face settled into one of my favorites, a soft, sardonic smile that actually reflected the true meaning of the word, rather than used as a misplaced attempt to say sarcastic but sound smarter. His best smiles always came a little bit at his own expense, and that was part of what I loved about him.
“Are you up for this?” he countered. “You’ve been trying to write this for days.”
I checked him with my shoulder as I moved back to the padded bench. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve got a lot of crap on my plate and you know it. Now shut up and take advantage of this moment, before it all goes south and I have to start over again.” We were both getting pretty tired of these false starts.
He nodded and I laid back, staring at the faces in the drop ceiling. Foam tiles in my world always looked speckle-sterile. Here, each cluster of dots looked like tiny, eager goblins, waiting not-so-patiently for someone to say her right words. I wondered if Zig had any right words for this. I sure as hell didn’t.
“You want me to do a test line, or do you got this?”
I made a face at him, annoyed that he was breaking scene. I got enough of that crap from Rook. “You wanna gimme my “first tat” or not, Ziggo?” Never mind that mine was three-days-old and just starting to flake. We wanted this, and here, I could do what I wanted, damnit. Within limits.
“Suit yourself.” The gun buzzed to life and I waited for that first burst of pain.
I knew it didn’t actually hurt. I knew I’d blink kinda stupidly, give a little half-laugh and go “That’s it?”. But knowing how the story ends doesn’t change how you get there, and right now, I was still wrangling the butterflies and imagining a burning fire worse than anything I’d ever willingly done for fun and kink. I was relieved to be wrong again, and gave Zig the go ahead to start in again with actual ink.
The vibrations are the worst. More than anything else, its the vibrations that drive me crazy. It’s less like fire and more like that time I accidentally touched a live wire at my uncle’s house and my thumb went to sleep for hours. My ink started to go numb, bright spots of pain only flaring when the design strayed too close to my collar bone. I had more trouble keeping down the nausea from the horrible, dentist-reminiscent medical glove smell than anything. The dentist… yeah, this was disturbingly like that. Now the buzzing of the gun made my teeth ache, and I had to fight the urge to keep opening my mouth so Zig could work.
“Chica, you think the weirdest things.”
I startled, then swore as I realized I’d jumped. Zig just laughed, already anticipating the motion before he’d spoken. Someways, he knew me as well as I knew him.
“You need a break?”
I shook my head, and resettled my shoulders. “Nah, I’m good. It’s more the shock of it than anything else. As long as I lay here and don’t think about it, it’s not quite real.”
“Well, think of England then, cause I’m about to start the shading. That’s always the worst.”
I thought of the tangle of tree branches that covered his ribs and wondered how long it had taken him to sit through that much work on bone. Flashes of his first tat, the star on his hand, whirled through my mind, whispering the beginnings of a scene. I tried to spindle them away for later, tucked in with the snippet of that same star getting an orange and blue face lift, and tried to ground myself in the present moment. If this was how Rook saw the world, I owed him an apology. It was almost impossible not to go meta when the whole of time and space tugged at you like that.
Like the grey creeping dawn, music had sifted into the parlor without me noticing at first. I only realized now because I was somehow listening to Blackstar and the opening title of Labyrinth at the same time. Not the usual odd back and forth my brain did, where lyrics wove together into something bizarrely new, but honest to god two songs at once, without either standing out above the other.
“You doin’ that?” I asked between strokes.
“Don’t think so,” Zig murmured, hardly pausing. He must be nearly done with the star then.
Something happened on the day he died… It’s not long at all…
At home, I’d been so focused on ignoring the house music that the echoes of Bowie in my head had been what kept my attention from the pain. Here, I was fascinated by the strands of magic I could feel weaving around each note, trying to follow their sources and meaning, feeling more than a little like Tripp. He, I was confidant, could have made sense of this all. I felt more like I’d eaten a certain peach, but had little desire to notice the clock on the wall. I’d stay here as long as my brain would let me.
Zig didn’t bother asking which orange and blue I wanted, and I didn’t really mind. The music was cradling me, carrying me along to parts unknown in a crystal ball. Asking would have broken the spell, and if anyone could pick the right shades for this, it’d be Zig.
I only flinched when I felt a shift in the sensation- still a mad buzzing, but no dots of pain. I looked down for the first time in this whole process, and saw Zig’s hand on my shoulder, gun working to outline his own star rather than fill in mine.
He didn’t mirror my lightning bolt, but traced the outline of his little black star on one side, accenting it with blue for a sort of 3-D effect.
I could feel his smile, even if I couldn’t see it.
Days later, I came back, finding the upstairs just as empty, but the kitchen downstairs was humming with quiet chatter. Zig was cooking something spicy and wonderful, Jules and Rain were curled up on the couch, somehow looking into the kitchen through that damned table island that just plain defied basic physics. Tripp pulled his usual ninja bullshit, sneaking up behind me even though I had to know he was there to write him.
“I will never get used to this bullshit,” I swore as he handed me mug of spiced hot chocolate. The gentle giant only smiled, and steered me to the kitchen table with a hand on my back.
Sera was there, and not there, and while that weirded me out, I found it strangely comforting. It was kinda nice not to be totally omniscient—made the off-balance-vaguely-lost feeling I’d been nursing all week somehow tolerable. I gave her a little wave as I sat down, mentally apologizing for not being sure if she was here yet, or even how to spell her name, and I could hear her laugh, see her smile and nod, and get up to go stand with Tripp all at the same time. Yup, those two certainly worked.
Zig coughed politely to warn me of a spoilers, then asked how my ink was holding up. Here, with a little help from some good old fashioned wish fulfillment, it was mostly healed and didn’t need any touch ups. I was just here for the nachos (as I’d vetoed the strips of beef Zig was frying from fajitas to something more palatable), the beer, and the party. More than once, I caught of a rush of movement in open doorways, or a flash of eyes and wicked smiles in any reflective surface. The chatter of goblin giggles made a good counterpoint to the quiet kitchen chatter, I thought. I could even mostly ignore the vertigo of having my back to the living room, but still being able to see it somewhere vaguely off to my right every time Rain or Jules made a comment. The Underground was more than a little mad, but it was home.
“All I’m saying,” Rain said a little too loudly, having traded her chocolate for beer a few drinks back, “is that he went into a wardrobe—a wardrobe! Come on! Don’t any of you read?”
Tripp raised an eyebrow at that, and I think I heard Sera laugh. I know I heard Zig mutter, “Not children’s books. No PG-13 rating for me, thanks.”
“It did get suddenly and violently cold over the weekend,” I added, enjoying the fact that my private theory had leeched into Rain’s head. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but she was a good vehicle for this, I thought.
As hoped, Rain pounced on my input like a terrier. “See! Jadis came to take him home and there’s nothing any of you can say to convince me otherwise.”
“What about Alan Rickman?” Tripp asked in his usual even tone.
“I’m not ready to talk about that,” Rain answer, flopping back onto the couch. I could practically see the word “Pout” in a little action bubble around her. I entertained notions of leases being up in certain fictional apartment buildings and let it go at that.
The evening ran its course, disappearing in a puff of time lapse and leaving me a little dizzy. Maybe it was the beer? I couldn’t count how many I’d had because by my reckoning, I hadn’t even finished my chocolate yet, let alone started in on the booze, but between one paragraph and the next I was nursing a pretty decent buzz and was curled up in the overstuffed chair in the living room, starting to doze.
“Damnit,” I mumbled, seeing the end coming in fast. “I missed eating my nachos.”