In a post-apocalyptic America, the all-powerful Heaven Incorporated, headed by Mr. Ansel God, has taken control. Seri, having recently quit the police force, finds herself in Mr. God's employment, spying involuntarily on the very man to whom the apocalypse can be credited - Emril Cayro.
The payphone feels dirty, sticky against Serissa Sprague’s palm as she cradles it to her ear, the corner of her mouth just barely brushing the plastic of the phone’s bottom speaker. Her auburn hair’s pressed between the back of the phone booth and the metal plate that’s sticking to the back of her neck, and she knows she’ll have a grand time later trying to clean the dust and grime from the Plexiglas wall out of her snarled curls, but she’s so sore and tired and generally unmotivated that she can’t bring herself to push her weight onto her feet.
She scuffs the bottom of her leather boots on the sidewalk and tilts her head to the side, sucking absently on the inside of her cheek while the dial tone sounds, impossibly feeble in her ear beneath the sounds and confusions of the surrounding city. A sprinkler whizzes by overhead, and Seri squints almost instinctively to keep the warm water that comes through the open roof of the phone booth from streaming into her eyes; it does despite her halfhearted efforts, and the glare she shoots up at the hovercraft as it passes is diluted, lost on the machine. The saturated grime in her hair adopts the viscosity of soup, so she scrapes at it with the tips of her fingers even through she knows she’s only going to succeed in getting the stuff under her bitten nails.
“I’m looking for a Mister Gabriel Erela,” she says when her call’s picked up, her voice thin and nasally, the congestion from her head cold mangling her words.
“Name?” drones a voice on the other end of the line, and Seri rubs the back of her hand across her raw, red nose as if that’ll somehow remedy the way she sounds.
“Sprague,” says Seri; her voice is still as hoarse and ugly-sounding as it was before, only now her nose is throbbing at the same staccato pace as her head, and she’s more and more tired with every beat, slumping back against the phone booth wall.
“Just a moment, please,” says the secretary, in that same monotone. Then there’s a click, and Seri’s put on hold for so long that the grey, rundown streets start to look interesting despite their dreary uniformity, that the emaciated apartment buildings start to seem as if they’re standing completely upright, when in reality Seri knows that their blown out windows have always seemed like threatening, toothed mouths and that they’ve always been just as ominously crooked.
She puts in three more quarters and manages to decide that having a cold is definitely not worth the effort before the grainy, garish music that’s playing over the line ends. “Miss Sprague,” Erela’s baritone is almost surprising in its suddenness, and Seri shifts the sticky plastic payphone to her other ear in compensation for her start of surprise.
“Mister Erela,” she tries to mirror his polite tone, but she’s much been predisposed to courtesy.
“I’m glad you got my message,” says Erela, and if Seri were to look for months she wouldn’t find a shred of anything resembling honest sincerity in his statement.
Seri snorts tactfully and drags the will to stand up straight from some secluded region inside herself, trying to ignore the aching protest that her bones and muscles offer. “I didn’t have much of a choice, Gabe,” she drawls. “You left your phone number written in permanent ink all over my subconscious.”
Erela chuckles wryly, briefly. “So you noticed.”
Seri rolls her eyes and shakes out her hand to siphon off some of the goopy dirt. “I’m not some washer addict you can drag around any which way you please,” she says, “and I don’t take lightly to suggestion.”
“Well,” says Erela condescendingly, “I know that we can both move past this to have some sort of functioning business relationship.”
Seri smiles to herself and takes a step forward – takes as much of a step as she can in the confines of the phone booth – flicking a stray curl out of her face with her index finger. “Depends what sort of business you’re talking about,” she admits.
She turns as a tall man walks by her, the angles of his suit’s shoulders only slightly sharper than the angles of his cheekbones, his sunken brown eyes narrow as he gives her a coldly appraising look. Seri shakes her head in exasperation and digs in her deep duster pocket until she finds her small plastic city pass, then holds it up for the man to see. He nods, rubs his thumbnail across his forehead in acknowledgement before continuing on his leisurely walk down the street.
“I have a job for you,” says Erela, and the forced, civil formality in his voice is gone.
Seri quirks an eyebrow to herself and leans her hips to one side, watching out of the corner of her eye as the overhead city-consecrator crosses the near-empty street and starts back up the sidewalk on the other side, leaving the concrete several shades darker in its wake. “I didn’t know your company employed slumdogs like me,” she teases venomously. “Thought the prospect of getting a spec of dirt on your nice shiny boots was just too frightening.”
Erela laughs flatly. “I think you’ll find that we employ all sorts of different people here at Heaven Incorporated, Miss Sprague,” he deadpans, and Seri blames her inability to realize his threatening tone on the fact that she’s got a drilling headache.
She chews thoughtfully on the inside of her cheek, trying to ignore the sour taste of leftover bile in the back of her throat. “Yeah, well,” she says. “If you’re planning on hiring me, get on with it already.”
Erela’s silent for a moment, before she hears him clear his throat in two tandem little coughs over the line. “Your purpose at Heaven Incorporated, if you so choose to accept our employment offer, would be to recover an item of ours that’s been stolen.”
Seri’s mouth falls open in confusion, and she struggles to keep from hacking at the breath of cold air that floods her scratchy throat. “Don’t take me for a dumbass, Gabe,” she spits, annoyed. “If this item was stolen from your company, you wouldn’t need me to get it back.”
Erela sighs heavily. “Itwasstolen, Miss Sprague. It’s who it was stolenbythat prohibits us from recovering it.”
Seri swallows a bout of instantaneous nausea, presses her lips into a thin line for the same reason that she starts to fiddle with the corner of her city pass, running it over and over and over across the inside knuckle of her thumb. “Who stole it, then?”
Erela lets out a dispassionate sort of grunt. “The address is three-three-four West Palm Lane, in the Southern Quarter,” he ignores her inquiry. “We have from a good source that the item is in crate number seven-forty-one. The warehouse is equipped with minimal security; it shouldn’t be too difficult of a job.”
She’s reluctant, because she’s been in far too many a scrape to trust a man who she’s only ever known over the phone, only ever known for about two minutes. “How much?” she asks, worrying the inside of her cheek between her molars.
“Ten thousand credits,” replies Erela smoothly, just a moment before the metal plate on the back of Seri’s neck gives a sharp little shock.
She winces, flattens her hand under her matted hair. “Alright, Gabe,” she says grudgingly. “You’ve got yourself a brand-spanking-new employee.”
“Excellent,” she can hear the smile in Erela’s voice, and shakes herself to keep from realizing as she hangs up that he sounded almostsmug.
The door to her apartment is open when Seri gets home.
She can see it from the stairwell, can see that the door is open even through the pale purple haze that hangs low over the building’s roof. She takes a step out towards her box-like home, her collar turned up against a wind that she only hopes will come, her footsteps deliberately reserved, deliberately quieted. The gentle hum of the city boundary is barely audible, even though it’s only meters above her head, even though it seems to have no trouble making the entire area an almost lilac color, and it comforts her, seeming to be right at her back as she walks.
There’s a man standing in the doorway with his back to her, the lines of his suit making him look broader and more threatening than Seri knows he actually is. He hasn’t yet turned on the lights, preferring for some reason to stand in the fluorescent, glow cast by a cluster of idle computer screens, and his dark hair is a mesmerizing collage of blues and greens and oranges.
“Will,” says Seri, and the word might as well be a whisper for all the volume she manages to put into it. She coughs lightly, her chest quivering from the sudden effort, and when she closes her mouth there’s a long strand of her hair stuck to her tongue, stuck to her wind-burnt cheek. “I don’t allow sniffers into my home on principal. You know that.”
Peacekeeper Willard Fielding turns, and for a moment Seri allows herself to imagine his eyes as brilliant a blue as they should be; for a moment she imagines before she has to accept that they’re a muddy, murky brown. His forehead’s lined, his eyebrows drawn together in a curious frown that she tries everyday to remind herself that she used to love, and there’s a smudge of grime that he probably hasn’t noticed on his jaw.
“You still live here,” he says simply, and his voice, if nothing else, is the same – innocent and earnest and plain with just the faintest hint of desperation that makes him seem childlike and naïve when it’s most prominent.
Seri pulls the door closed behind her, but doesn’t bother with the assortment of bolts and deadlocks that line the steel door’s edge; it squeals in protest and scrapes across the rough concrete so determinedly that she has to brace her heels against the doorframe and throw her weight backwards. She faces him when she’s done, straightening her coat, and brushes nonexistent dust from her sleeves purely because she needs something to do with her hands.
“Where else do you want me to live?” she asks at last. She can barely see Will through the dim, can only make out the partially illuminated pallor of his face and hands.
He’s smiling when she turns on the lights, smiling that honestly amused little smile of his that always used to get him into so much trouble. “I always figured I was an exception from your rules,” he says, jokingly.
She looks at him forlornly, her collar drooping around her ears. He reaches out to fix it, and the back of his hand ghosts under her chin for the barest of moments before she inclines her head, and he lets his hand fall to his side because really, he’s never liked her collar turned up anyways. “You’re not,” she says lowly. “Not an exception.”
Seri shucks off her duster quickly, discards it across the back of her well-used leather recliner so haphazardly that it slides down to rest in the seat, hanging over one worn arm.
Will laughs, but his smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “You probably shouldn’t have given me a key, then,” by the time he’s done speaking the amusement’s faded, and all that’s left is a weak sort of dejection that makes Seri feel cold even through her thick flannel shirt and jeans.
She steps around him to reach her tiny kitchenette, which is stuffed into one corner of the box-shaped apartment, and wrests open the door to her pockmarked refrigerator, taking out a bottle of iced beer. “I gave that to you when we were partners on the force,” she says.
Will takes the beer from her and twists the cap off, somehow manages to chuckle in the back of his throat even as he enjoys a long swig, then hands it back to her. “You never asked for it back,” he murmurs.
“You wouldn’t have given it,” she says, more loudly than him. She takes the cooled bottle from his hand, considers it for a moment before setting it on top of the short refrigerator, because to share a drink would be to admit some sort of twisted longing for how things used to be, and she’s never been one to admit anything.
Will takes a step forward, until they’re chest-to-chest, until her nose is just about brushing the perfectly-creased collar of his sterile white dress shirt. Seri doesn’t even realize that he’s fishing in his suit jacket pocket until the familiar pressure of his hand is gone from between them, until the key clatters disruptively on the top of the refrigerator, coming to rest against the bottom of their beer bottle.
It takes a great effort for her to turn, with him so close to her like that, and she ends up with her back flush against him; his hands go almost unconsciously to her waist for the breadth of a heartbeat before stiffening, falling back to rest uncomfortably by his thighs, by her thighs. She pinches the brass key between her thumb and forefinger, clenches it in a small fist before letting her grip slacken ever-so-slightly.
When the sound of their breathing – synchronized, always synchronized like the way they used to walk – becomes too deafening, and when the hum of the city boundary, usually audible even indoors, can’t be heard, Seri sniffles. “Are you going to leave,” she starts to ask slowly, her throat sore and gritty, “or do I have to?”
Will lets his chin drop against his chest, lets out a resigned sigh against the back of her neck. He takes her waist hesitantly, so hesitantly that it breaks her heart because she just can’t give him what he wants, and presses a kiss to the back of her head, a hair’s breadth above the metal plating.
He jerks away from her, and she doesn’t turn until she’s almost certain he’s left – even though she hasn’t heard the door, the rush of blood in her ears is more than enough to muffle the squeals, disguise the scrapes. But he’s still standing there, his expression pained as he watches her, watches her even though Seri knows he’s not really seeing her at all.
“Most married citizens live together,” he muses, almost to himself; she would think it were to himself if it weren’t for the fact that she’s heard this conversation before,had this conversation before.
She blinks away what she assures herself is just irritation from all the dust, and smiles bracingly, tries not to smile apologetically as she gazes up at him. “Marriage of circumstance,” she reminds him, just as she’s had to remind him so many times before.
He laughs, forces himself to laugh even though he surely knows she can hear that familiar tremor in his voice that always breaks her down. “Right,” he says. He starts for the door, puts his hand around the brass knob and pulls it open just enough for a sliver of purple light to leak through, then casts a glance back at her over his shoulder. “I want you to live with me,” he says, plainly.
Will traces his thumbnail across his brow in farewell while she stands in respectful silence, and is gone before Seri can offer her declination.