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The Number Man stepped into the spacious white kitchen. He yawned, hand going up to cover his mouth. While it was there, he rubbed at the stubble that had grown overnight. He needed a new razor. Contessa kept appropriating his for reasons that apparently weren’t related to personal grooming, but he’d known better than to ask.

Alexandria was already there, sitting at the counter island. She raised her eyes from her laptop, took in his cowlick and crooked pocket protector. “Well, you look a mess,” she said, and unabashedly let her eyes drop to his massive unbounded set. “Didn’t get much sleep?”

“Bad dream.” He picked up the newspaper someone had left on the table and idly flipped through to the puzzles section. He completed the sudoku in a blink, but the crossword below it caught his eye. Whoever had done it had just shaded in the remaining boxes whenever their answer didn’t have enough letters. Christ, he thought. Stick to word search if this is too advanced for you.

“Mm. Same,” said Alexandria, seeing his suppressed grimace. “They missed almost two thirds of the clues, the buffoon.”

They shared knowing looks. David.

The Number Man retrieved a carton of chocolate milk from the fridge.

Alexandria’s laptop screen lit up in the black and dark blue of Parahumans Online, the only forum currently in existence. She flitted through hundreds of tabs, skimming threads. Every now and then she’d smash out a reply, though not literally smash it like her last twelve keyboards. She'd made the switch to membrane keyboards, at least. Back when she used mechanical, people from other earths thought their villages were being carpet bombed.

"So tell me about this nightmare of yours,” she said. “I didn't take you for a dreamer."

"I wish I had as much control over my subconscious as you seem to think is possible," he replied wryly. He poured himself a glass of milk.

Over her shoulder, he watched her fingers blur over the keys and the words drum to life in the comment box: Here's the thing. You said an "independent is a rogue." Is it in the same family? Yes. No one's arguing that. As someone who is a cape scientist who studies rogues, I am telling you, specifically, in cape science, no one calls independents rogues.

"My Corpus Hypercubus was missing from my office,” he said at last.

“In the dream?”

“Yes. In its place was the original White Crucifixion.”

“Oh,” she said. “Chagall.”

“Fucking Chagall, Rebecca," Number Man said, throwing his usual reserve to the wind. "A man to whom ‘visually appealing composition’ meant throwing darts at a canvas to decide where the elements would go. To say nothing of the pastiche cubism. I deliberately chose a painting where meaningless spiritual iconography could be overlooked by masterly execution."

You said an independent is a rogue, which is not true unless you're okay with calling all members of the rogue family rogues, which means you'd call vigilantes, predators, and other parahumans rogues, too. Which you said you don't. It's okay to just admit you're wrong, you know? Alexandria punctuated her comment with a gif of herself swinging a skyscraper like a baseball bat and demolishing a city block on her follow-through alone, and hit post.

"Oh no," she said with perfunctory sympathy. “And the Golden Mean print?”

The Number Man shrugged a shoulder. He'd never cared for it. Contessa had put it up along with an ivory abacus, a sculpture of a Klein bottle, and a motivational poster featuring Bertrand Russell’s famous suicide quote in a geometric typeface on a galaxy background when she recruited him. To make the room more math-themed, presumably. The Klein bottle was fun during tax season.

"But perhaps the worst part," he continued, voice rising slightly, "worse than the interior décor, was that I was back in the 9. Have you ever met the Slaughterhouse 9? They're abominable people. They’re subpar at karaoke, they’ve only read one Vonnegut novel—Galápagos—and no one ever replaces the toilet paper when the roll is empty. They also do this thing where they cut in front of you in corridors and then walk at the exact same speed you were walking, and they don’t walk single file.”

Alexandria brushed a strand of hair out of her right eye.

"I’d much rather be here doing real work.” He shook his head, banishing the memory, and continued. “There I was, in my old costume, still smelling of blood and fabric softener. I was sitting in the old camper, the windows blacked-out. I couldn’t see anything. But I could hear breathing. And—”

He broke off.

Something warm and wet slithered across the left side of his face, starting from the cheek and trailing its leisurely way to the chin. Like someone had taken a sodden washcloth—the soft kind made for sponge baths—and screwed it up into a narrow wad before dragging it along his jaw with excruciating tenderness. The contact grew bolder, gaining muscle behind it, reversing direction. Then a line of toothed edge darted out and rasped against the stiff bristles it found there. As it did, a hot draft laved over his already slick, tingling skin. The edge suddenly retreated and was soundly replaced by the slimy mass, which continued lapping in tight but lazy circles as if it had never ceased.

Eventually, it removed itself.

It took all of Number Man’s discipline, all his training, all his disdain for overt displays of emotion, not to shudder. He turned his head instead, and there was Jack Slash, in his goateed glory, wearing nothing but bedroom eyes and an unapologetic smirk.

Jack licked his lips, savouring the taste.

"That," Number Man said. "That happened. In the dream."

"Don't worry about it," Alexandria said, waving a hand. "You're just in time for…"

NO-SHAVE NOVEMBER WITH KNIFE AND NUMBERS

There are many types of unions. Unions of love, unions of brotherhood, unions of necessity. So many, and so fine the line between, that often it is difficult to discern which is which.

Watch with bated breath as Jack Slash's tortured tongue inches ever closer to his slumbering lover's stubble, and tell me, do you know what it shall become? What the payoff of the momentary union will be? What the relief could mean? The questions intertwine, and no one answer presents itself.

Tell me, as contact is made, as a slow and soft scraping commences, who the true beneficiary of the arrangement is. Jack may gain a lapse of itchiness, yes. But the Number Man's fitful dreams of hyperbole and hyperbola suddenly collapse down into a singular sweetness. A lover's caress, tongue or no, echoes in the mind.

And as Jack rolls over to fall asleep himself, one final question must be asked.

When you find yourself adrift,

Whose stubble will you lick?

***

"hey can i lick your stubble my tongue is itchy and i don't wanna get up" jack asked

"yeah sure whatever" the number man mumbled, rolling over

jack lick

his tongue no longer itch

***

Kurt was asleep. Then his face felt like it was toes being crawled over by an unexpected slug as he got the morning paper.

He woke up at once shouting, "What the fuck!"

But it was only Jack licking his chin.

"What!" he exclaimed.

"My tongue was itchy. I didn't want to get out of bed and I knew you have stubble by this hour, so..."

"What the fuck?!!"

"Also, Contessa came in through the window and is sitting in the armchair in the corner glaring at me. Figured I'd give her a show and remind you both who's in charge."

Then Contessa threw Jack out of the window by the seat of his boxers.

"So," Kurt said.

"What?"

"Is your tongue itchy?"

Then Contessa threw Kurt out of the window too.

***

Jack Slash was a lad of few thoughts and fewer understandings involving personal space or what was and wasn't creepy. So, after a healthy dose of pineapple to help a few things taste better, he came to the issue of having an itchy tongue and nothing to scratch it with. Considering his collection of knives, you may think his mind would turn right to that, but no. Knives are not made for scratching, you fucking simpleton. They are made for cutting, and Jack enjoyed his tastebuds despite Shatterbird's attempts at cooking. 

No, he needed a cleaner solution.

The Number Man was not known for his cleanliness, but he did keep his beard up to snuff. Jack moseyed over to the bed where he was sleeping off last night's machinations. His tongue unrolled itself from his mouth in a manner rather vile. He leaned over the bed slowly, so as not to disturb it. His neck swiveled down to the face, his hot breath coming out in puffs.

Liiiiiiiiiiiiiick!

"Refreshing."

 Chartic

***

Number Man scratched along his jawline. The scritch-scritch of his stubble made Jack's tongue tingle that much more.

"Why are you staring at my chin."

"Mm. No reason. Just. Hmmm. Can I lick you?"

"You know you can."

"It still feels weird not to ask," Jack said through a tongueful of sweet rasping stubble, scratching away the itch that would only return when he stopped.

***

Dear Peri,

I am happy to receive a message from you. In this day and age, it is far too rare to exchange formal letters.

However, I apologize, I cannot acquiesce to your humble request. I have a Fan Service post to write. This piece of fiction is by the author Pericardium. I have had the most wonderful idea on how to elaborate on Alexandria’s family recipes. The jell-o of the soul, meant for somewhat-human experimentation. Agar is better for gelatin anyway, probably.

Yours, Harbin

***

jack and number man were in the parking lot looking for the car

"my tongue is very itchy" jack said

"i know what will help" number man said seductively

he opened jack's mouth and pushed his chin inside

the stubble scratched jack's tongue

he took it back out

"ok nice but where's the fucking car" jack said

***

It had been two days since they killed King, and Jack’s tongue was driving him crazy. He suspected it was an aftereffect of King’s blood splashing into his mouth. It probably happened sometime during all of the stabbing.

Kurt sat next to him. He’d refused to take a cushion or raise the seat, so he was driving by the grace of his powers, using numbers to avoid getting them into a head-on collision. Not for the first time, Jack held back the need to tell him that numbers didn’t work that way. Knowing that one plus one didn’t equal seven didn’t make you a good martial artist, no matter what Kurt had done over the past year.

“Dude, let me lick your face,” Jack said, the words spilling out as the thought entered his mind.

Kurt turned to him, his gaze severe through the horn-rimmed glasses he wore. “Why?”

“You’ve got some stubble over your lips. My tongue itches. Come on, dude.” Jack used his averagest pleading voice for this, knowing his best one would make Kurt suspicious.

“Use your fingernails. Or a carpet.”

“No, dude, your stubble. It would be perfect. You know numbers, I know edges. Your stubble is perfect.”

“It would be gay.” Kurt’s voice was resolute.

His point was also salient. It would be gay. Jack mentally recalibrated for a second. Then he saw it, a path to victory, steps he could clearly take. He almost felt like another person.

“What you’re saying is, you’re too scared to get licked? That’s gay.”

“Being licked by a boy is gay,” Kurt said.

“What if some dude runs up to you, licks your face, and runs away? Are you gay then?”

“No.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Because I don’t want him to.”

“So what you’re saying is that consent is gay.”

“What? I

“I know it’s nineteen eighty-seven, Kurt, but don’t you think that’s disrespectful to survivors of traumatic experiences?”

“Fine.” Kurt turned the steering wheel, pulling them onto the side of the road.

Jack leaned in, and as his tongue brushed over Kurt’s upper lip, he realized the problem in his calculations.

Twelve-year-old stubble was soft. The itch was still there.

God damn it.

A thought came to him.

“So the alveolar ridge is rough,” Jack started.

— PitaEnigma

*** 

"I win again!"

"How the fuck does the power of knives let you beat me at poker?"

"Well, I guess they give me—"

"An edge, yes, excellent point. Let's get this over with... what's the forfeit?"

"Let's see... the first spinner—my one—points to my tongue, while the second one—yours—points to your chin, so—"

"You are not licking my chin."

"Agreed, there's too much stubble in the way. Though I could fix that pretty quickly..."

"For fuck's sake, Jacob, it's No Shave November, do you have any shame?"

"No."

"Of course you don't! What's with you and licking things? In any reasonable world, you should have cut your own tongue off by now."

"I have impressive control and—"

"You cut the knives, somehow, and literally spit razorblades afterwards. I'm not letting that thing anywhere near my face."

"That's my prize though, stop being so belligerent. I'll tell you what. Since you're my friend, I'll make you a deal: we play one more game. If you win, I get nothing. If I win, I get three licks."

"That seems reasona—"

"Of Snap."

"Fuck you."

"We can do that either."

"No, I'm out of here, I'm done. I'd rather go another round with King."

"I'm sad to hear that and wish you the best. First though, I require an exit fee..."

"What do you me—oh. Ugh. Get it over with. Then drop me at the nearest bar that'll let me get blind drunk."

***