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A Liar and a Wizard

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The world twists and spirals, warps in on itself, shatters and reforms, turns upside down and dumps you, shaking, onto the other side of oblivion. You lie there, not quite sure which direction you're facing, not quite sure if the white noise and static is just in your head or if its source is external. As it fades to silence, you become aware of the ground under you—a surface that isn’t entirely solid, sort of spongy like you might expect a cloud to feel, soft like fabric underneath your gloved fingers.

“Hey hey hey,” comes a voice from the direction you register as in front of you, smooth and infuriatingly familiar. “You’re finally awake! You were trying to cross the border, right… Haha, nah, I’m just messing around with you.”

You crack open your eyes, astonished to find that the world outside your head is not swirling, nor flashing with multicolored lights. Instead, it’s a wide, blue plane, seemingly made up entirely of clouds and billowing plasma, stretching out in all directions under a dark and starry sky. Another dimension, clearly, though it feels different than all those you’ve visited before—

“Are you just gonna lie there?” continues the voice, and your gaze lights upon your sole companion, a boy sitting across from you, cross-legged and straight-backed. He’s got a huge, floppy jester hat and poofy pants that clearly identify him as a Clown, very possibly a Fool, though not intense enough to count as a Juggalo. His arm prosthetics give off an entirely different vibe—something vaguely robotic and certainly very extra.

You recall him now. His name is Marx, and he is a Bastard.

“Maggie!” he crows as you try to get your eyes to focus on his face. His grin is very slightly maniacal. No, who are you kidding; it’s absolutely maniacal.

“What,” you say. Your voice feels strange in your throat.

“Don’tcha remember me? Your old pal?”

Vaguely? He’d shown up when you first finished repairing the Starcutter, and you’d stayed together for a while, but you can’t say you completely remember the contents of your interactions, save some key takeaways, such as Marx is a little bitch, Marx is high off his ass 24/7, and Marx fought Kirby once and now he’s Banished to the Void.

Kirby. Kirby. That’s right. Trickles of memory flow into your brain, and you press a hand to your forehead. None of it feels real; none of it feels like something that happened to you.

“Where are we?”

“Some sorta void.”

“Ah.”

“Can’t remember much? That’s normal. It’ll come back to ya. Or not. Either way’s fine.”

“What have you been… doing here?”

He shrugs. “Stuff. Hey, I’ve been thinking bout you a bit.”

“Me? How come?”

“We’re Friends,” he says with a grin that kind of makes you want to vomit, but like in a fun friend-y way. “And I was wondering about how all your plans were going! To end up here, well, you must’ve gotten real far.” He leans toward you, pressing his metallic fingers together. “So tell me, Maggie. What’s it like to rule the world?”

*

It seems like a lifetime ago you first met—Marx isn’t really one of those people who you clearly remember meeting; it feels kind of like he’s always been there, up to some shit in the background of your life. Like, you’d be sitting and reading some scientific literature, fully engaged in the complexities and nuances of dimensional physics, and a couple feet away Marx’d be shoveling dirt into his mouth at speeds that’d make even Kirby jealous.

He’d crash-landed into the side of your ship, actually, flung from a star-shaped portal, his eyes wide and crazed and hair standing on end, energy rippling across every inch of his body, clothes disheveled and burnt. There is no better description for him than “feral,” and though he physically looks much better now, he’s managed to live up to that wonderful designation just perfectly.

You offer him some food, and he wolfs it down, periodically glitching out of reality. Here is a power that you’ve never seen before—not in person, only through your research—and it is slowly consuming him, eating at the very atoms that bind his form together. There’s something tragically beautiful about it, not to mention scientifically fascinating.

He’s about to go fuck off and live in the woods for a week or two when you decide that you just can’t let him do that. No one’s fucking off to the woods, not on your watch. You put him in one of the storage rooms and double down on your research, consulting the Lor’s databanks for any scrap of a clue that might explain his… condition.

“I was going to rule Popstar!” Marx tells you more than once, and he seems so convinced of it that he almost manages to convince you as well.

“But how?”

He raises his arms, multicolored shapes blinking into existence below them. “The galactic comet Nova—they showed me my true form! Do you know them? You should ask them for a wish…”

“A clockwork star??” you ask, excited.

“Something like that!”

Of course it was the technology of the Ancients. Nothing else could hold the same sort of power. And it has broken Marx, left him only able to manifest himself on Halcandra, in another dimension.

You swear that you will not let the same happen to you.

*

“I didn’t really rule the world,” you admit. “I… ran into some problems.”

Marx sighs loudly and flops onto his back, spreading out his arms beside him. “Doesn’t that always happen, huh! Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Now, you’re here! Let’s do something!”

As fast as he toppled over, he springs to his feet, bouncing on the soles of his shoes, looking at you expectantly. You… don’t think you’re ready to try standing up yet, despite the fact that your previous nausea has mostly subsided.

“Have you been alone all this time? Oh man, how long have you been here?”

“Time works weird around here. So I dunno. But yeah. Just me. It’s boring as shit! But now that you’re here, I can finally spend some time with my old buddy, my good chum, my fantabulous pal…”

He shoots you a conspicuous wink, and you get the feeling that he’s not tripping balls all the time, he’s just Like That. Which you probably would’ve known if you could remember more of your previous conversations.

“What did you wanna do?” you ask.

Marx stops and seriously considers this. “Hmm, maybe we could roll up all this stardust stuff into balls and then have a snowball fight but with little bits of reality. Or we could eat it. Or maybe we could like, try to make a very short human pyramid. Or we could make out. Or we could swap hats!”

Those are, well, those are certainly activities that you could indeed do, and more than one of them has you slightly concerned, but you decide not to comment on it. “Maybe we could just talk?”

“Well, what would we talk about?”

Hmm. Okay, good point. You feel around in your pockets, hoping to produce a book or maybe even a little notepad or tablet, but clearly you didn’t have that sort of foresight when you followed Kirby and his friends up to the top of the volcano. The exhilaration of being so close to your final goal clouded out any shred of possibility that you might lose.

That creeping sensation comes over you again, echoes of a phantom pain, the feeling of a body ripped apart from the inside and re-fused according to a different pattern. Maybe Marx is right; maybe you shouldn’t dwell on the past. Then again, right now, the past is all you have.

*

“I am going to fix you,” you tell him, putting the final touches on the stabilization chamber you’ve constructed out of spare parts from the junkyard where you found the remains of the Lor.

Marx tilts his head, arms folded at his side like the wings of a bird.

“Why do I need fixing?”

“Well, maybe not fixing, exactly, but if you keep existing on this plane of reality, something’s going to go wrong. You might end up creating a black hole!”

“Black holes are awesome.”

“Yes, yes they are! But not on my ship.”

He eyes your contraption, hastily welded together, exposed wires snaking across the floor. It’s cylindrical and slightly lopsided, and you’re not entirely sure if the doors will close correctly, but flooding the Lor with radiation is a risk you’ll have to take.

“You’re trying to take away my powers,” says Marx, accusatory.

“No! I just need to make them less dangerous—”

“You definitely are.”

“Why would I even want to do that?”

“You want to take them for yourself.”

“That isn’t even how it works,” you protest, but Marx is having none of it. He takes a couple steps back and squats on the floor, scarlet eyes flicking from you, to the stabilization chamber, back to you.

“Well, then, you’re just jealous!”

“I am not,” you protest. It’s technically not a lie.

“I’m not going along with your little scheme!”

“Marx!” You throw your hands in the air, glowering down at him. He doesn’t move, but he does tilt his head up to look at you. “Your body is destabilizing. If you don’t let me help you, you are going to die! Do you understand that??”

“Whatever,” says Marx.

“Oh, come on—”

He shrugs. “I’ve died before. And then I came back even stronger!”

“How do you know that’ll happen this time?”

Marx doesn’t have an answer to that.

“Just try it. You’ll feel better. I promise!”

He slumps into a cross-legged position, then draws his knees up towards his chest, not looking at you anymore. “Why do you care if I live or die? I don’t. It’s all so much more simple if you don’t!”

“I just don’t want you to destroy my ship.” Again, it’s the truth, just conveniently leaving out the part where you admit you actually kind of care about him.

“Fine,” says Marx, and he stands, taking a couple distrustful steps towards your machine. “We can try it.”

*

“Let’s play a game.” Marx has begun to pace, practically skipping around the immaterial plane, kicking up clouds of star-stuff. He does a cartwheel and lands neatly back on his feet, arms in the air.

“What kind of game?”

“Tag?” He scoops up a couple balls of plasma, juggles them effortlessly, then chucks each one into space. “Catch?”

“I can’t say I’m up for so much exercise.”

“You’re no fun!”

“Sorry.”

“Maybe, then, something like truth or dare?”

You feel like agreeing to play truth or dare with Marx is probably a disaster waiting to happen, but you have to say you’re morbidly curious to see what shit he’ll try to make you do. “Okay.”

“Great!” He claps his hands together and plops down across from you, resting his chin in his palms. “You go first. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” you say, warily.

“Do a somersault.”

“I can’t do that!”

“You just have to believe in yourself, Maggie!”

“That doesn’t—Marx, that isn’t how it works!”

“Okay, then how bout just standing up? Can I get you to stand up?”

You push yourself up, coming to a shaky standing position. Your head swims, but overall you don’t feel too bad, and you think you’d consider that a success. Five seconds later, you sit back down, and Marx claps.

“My turn! Gimme a dare!”

“Do a flip?”

He sighs, standing, already starting to look bored from the easy dare. “What kind of flip?”

“Uh, I don’t know anything about flips. Any kind you like.”

Marx takes off running, then leaps into a front flip, again landing lightly on his feet, right side up, surprisingly lithe and graceful. You’re amazed that his hat hasn’t fallen off yet.

“Did a flip!” he cries as you not at all sarcastically applaud. That really was pretty impressive. “Your turn.”

“Truth,” you say, because you are really not feeling up for any more acrobatic shenanigans.

He thinks about it, face twisting into a quizzical expression. Seems like his strong suit is coming up with wacky shit for you to do rather than conversation topics. That figures, you guess. He’s always been more one for acting rather than talking.

“What,” he drawls, “is, uh. No, that one’s boring. Hm. What. Is your favorite flavor of jelly?”

You blink, and his barely-repressed smile becomes a full-blown smirk.

“You can ask me anything, and that’s what you choose?”

“Answer the question! It’d better be grape.”

Grape because… he’s purple all over? “It’s not grape.”

“Fuck you!”

You feel like “wouldn’t you like to” would be a fantastic response here, but that’s, well. That’s a little too much, even if it’s just a joke.

“Probably peach or something,” you say instead.

“What? Is grape not good enough for you? Not tasty enough?” He scoots closer, brandishing a lavender-colored pant leg in your face. You can’t help but blush. Not subtle at all.

“I guess grape’s pretty good too!” you tell him, and that seems to satisfy him, but he doesn’t move back to his previous position. Instead, he starts playing with the hem of your cloak, scrunching it up between his short, pointy fingers.

“My turn. How bout another truth, huh?”

Man, what do you even want to know about him? Don’t you know everything already? You know how he went to Nova and became a god for all of five minutes and lost to a little pink boy with a voracious appetite. You know that he stayed with you for a while on Halcandra, until he disappeared one day and was never heard from again. You don’t remember what you felt at that instant. You just accepted it, you think. He’d never pretended he was going to stay forever, and you’d never pretended that your stabilization chamber would always be able to keep him from fading into different dimensions.

“What were we, really?” you ask.

“What?”

“On Halcandra. Were we really friends?”

“Yeah, of course.” His brow furrows. “C’mon, Maggie, that’s a lame question! You just wasted your turn!”

Your head hurts from trying to piece together the fragments of memory, images and emotions that flit through your mind. There’s something you’re missing.

*

“Magolor,” whispers Marx, standing in the doorway to your quarters at 5:30 AM, his hand on the lightswitch. “Magolor. Maggie. Wake up. Wake up!”

He flicks the switch about ten whole times, and you groan, burying your face in the pillow to drown out the horrid blinking.

“Rise and shine, darling Maggie!!!” hollers your companion, and you clamp your hands over your ears, but it’s no use. You’re awake for good now.

“What,” you mutter.

“You’re going to take me on a tour of Halcandra!! We’re going to meet all the cool people you were talking about! I’m ready to go! Let’s fucking go!”

You stumble out of bed, but before you can reach the door, Marx has taken off, his ungodly screeching echoing throughout the ship. For the thousandth time, you question the decision to let a feral clown live with you. But you guess it wasn’t a choice you made consciously. It just happened. And you’re finding that (with the obvious exception of this particular moment) you don’t particularly regret it. He may be completely off the shits, but you have to say he’s endearing.

None of the “cool people you were talking about” are available (probably asleep, you figure, and chastise Marx again for his over-enthusiasm—and besides, you don’t even know them all that well), but even the desolate landscapes of Halcandra are surprisingly beautiful early in the morning. The machines chug on in the background, endlessly and pointlessly, but the rest of the land is silent, calm, reflective. The atmosphere even makes Marx shut up for a while. If this were your first introduction to the planet, you’d never guess it was rotten to the core.

You watch the sunrise from near the top of the volcano, marvelling at how well the light filters through into this dimension, and Marx rests his head on your shoulder and stares unblinkingly into the swirling sky.

*

“Truth or dare,” comes Marx’s voice.

“Dare,” you reply, only because he couldn’t come up with a good personal question to save his life.

“Oh?” He grins again, and you begin to regret the decision. He’s going to make you do something really, really stupid, isn’t he. “You know you can’t back down from this one, Maggie! No more excuses!”

“That wasn’t an excuse! I really can’t do a somersault.”

“Shall we see about that?”

“Is that your dare? You really want me to do a somersault?”

“Nah, nah.” He drops your cape and leans in really close, eyes bright and wide and excited. “I was gonna ask you to kiss me.”

Oh.

“Um.” You make to inch backwards, but you’re frozen, unable to take your eyes off him. A million potential responses crowd out your brain, but none of them seem right. “...Why?”

Dammit, Magolor, why are you so fucking dumb, there doesn’t have to be a why, it’s truth or dare and it’s meant to make you feel weird. Or, well. It’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable-weird. Not deja-vu-weird or intrigued-weird or any of the other kinds of weird that your brain is somehow defaulting to.

“Come on, you’ve done it before!”

“I certainly have not!” Because you would remember if you’d kissed Marx. That’s kind of an important thing to know about a person.

“You have!” he sings. “Really, you don’t recall our steamy love affair, Maggie?”

Okay, yeah, that one’s definitely a lie, but it still makes your cheeks burn. You retreat into your huge collar, and Marx laughs.

“All right, all right, now I’m just offended. Seriously? You don’t remember?”

Before you can stop him (and even if you could, you don’t know that you would), he climbs into your lap, winding his arms around your waist, and there is something so, so familiar about this—

 

You remember the late night, your spinning head (definitely high on something; you sure hope it was just sugar), the blurred-out event you’d just returned from (a party perhaps? for who? the information is gone now), and something inside you that just wants to try something new, to let go for a moment. Marx in your lap like he is now, sitting on your bed, too close for comfort (or maybe not close enough). His bangs tickle your forehead as he leans in to kiss you, and you giggle, your arms draped around his neck, gloves lost somewhere on the floor with your cape and collar and hood.

And when you wake up the next day, his head is still nestled against your chest, and neither of you talks about the fact that you totally made out last night because neither of you knows how to bring it up or how to deal with the consequences of that. It wasn’t an affair and it wasn’t sexual (and thank the stars for that; you don’t think you could live with knowing you’d fucked a clown) and you don’t think it was even really love, but you were two people who felt some sorta way about each other, and you guess you never really found out what that sorta way was.

 

“Oh my,” you whisper. “Holy shit. That… that really did happen.”

The memories have warped your perception of him, augmenting emotions that were no more than flickers in the back of your mind until now. You recall how soft his lips were, his contagious enthusiasm that drowned out any doubts or horrified thoughts of what is wrong with me, why am I kissing a feral jester—

Marx’s grin widens, and he pulls your collar down under your chin, revealing the bottom half of your face. “Whaddaya think, then, Maggie boy? Up for smooching me again?”

Yeah, yeah, okay, why the hell not? You can only nod, heart pounding in your ears.

“Fantastic,” murmurs Marx, and presses his lips against yours. His breath is hot and he tastes like dirt and plasma (a fitting sign of what he’s been eating), but honestly? You don’t really care. In this moment, it finally hits you just how glad you are to see him again.

“I forget whose turn it was,” he says after he breaks away.

“Uh.” Marx’s sudden, unexpected show of affection has done nothing to help your spinning head. “I think it’s yours?”

“Dare, then.”

“Kiss me again?”

He chortles, flicking your nose with his finger. “Oh, so now you’re into it, huh? Could’ve just said so before.”

“Shut up,” you say, and kiss him back.

*

“Who’s in charge here?” asks Marx as you wander through the empty streets of some abandoned town on the other side of the land. Every building is covered in ash, and more than a few are completely demolished, smashed to smithereens by a hail of molten meteors. You’d expect this place has been sitting here for years, undisturbed. Marx clambers over a mound of black rock that was once a lava flow, far from the first you’ve seen today.

“There’s a huge dragon called Landia who’s… well, they’re technically the protector of the planet, but they’ve been asleep for millenia.”

“Sounds like a kinda shitty protector.”

You step over a heap of charred bones, and grimace. “Yep.”

Marx picks up a tiny helmet lying on the side of the street. It looks like it once belonged to a Waddle Dee, and your stomach twists into a knot. “Is it just me, or is this whole place kinda shitty?”

“You only just noticed?”

“You’ve got a ship. You could leave.”

“I could, but…” Your gaze floats to the huge volcano, slumbering in the background. “I don’t know! I feel like I kind of have a duty to protect this place, or something.”

He snorts, putting on the helmet on top of his hat. A cloud of ash cascades out of it, and he throws it off, leaping backwards and coughing violently. You can’t help but laugh.

“A great protector you’ll be,” he growls, furiously batting his hands across his hat, only succeeding in further smearing the ash into the fabric. He whips off the hat, exposing his wild, lavender-purple curls, and starts to shake it. A fine dust rains down from it, but it looks like it’ll be needing a wash.

“Maybe something more like a watcher,” you say once your giggles have mostly subsided.

“Well, I mean.” He hasn’t stopped waving his hat around, even though at this point the effort is futile. “You know what? You’d make a great protector, Maggie. But do you have the guts for it?”

“The guts?”

“Yeah! Go fight that dragon! Assert your dominance!”

You chuckle and shake your head. “No, no. I couldn’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“I’m no fighter.”

He leans in and gives you a cheeky smirk. “Sounds like something a coward would say.”

“Marx!”

“Kidding!” He prances away, then turns back, arms folded. “Actually… no! I’m right! You’re all talk and no action! Don’t you think that if you want something, you should go get it?”

“Well… in theory, I guess, but there’s a big difference between stealing an ancient wrecked starship, and fighting an entire dragon! A four-headed one, no less!”

“Maybe you could ask Nova—”

“Didn’t you destroy Nova?”

Marx considers this. “Oh. Yeah. Well, there’s sure to be other, uh, what did you call them? Clockwork stars?”

“Maybe. At the very least I know there’s more Ancient technology that might accomplish the same thing.”

“Oh?” Marx, usually uninterested in your technological ramblings, perks up.

You consider mentioning your research, the data pulled from the Lor’s hard drive, scraps of runes flickering to life on archaic tablets, legends of Landia and their role on this planet. The Master Crown, one more age-old source of unlimited power.

But then you remember that look that Marx gets in his eyes when he talks about Nova, about his fight with Kirby, how he almost ruled the world—and when you ask him why that was his wish, he just kind of shrugs, and tells you that, well, he thinks it would’ve been pretty neat! And sure, you can’t deny that taking over a planet would be pretty neat, but there’s no real motivation to it; he tried to do so just because he could, and you wouldn’t want someone like that to get their hands on the Master Crown. No matter what you might feel about them.

*

Marx doesn’t remove his arms from around you, even as the conversation moves onward, and you don’t complain. His embrace is warmer than you would expect from someone with robotic limbs, either from some sort of magic, or just the regular heat that arises from an overworking computer. Whatever the case, they have a strange organic feel to them, and the tiny vibrations from their whirring gears sync with his heartbeat, slow and thunderous against your chest.

“Wanna keep playing?” asks Marx. His face is pressed to your shoulder, and it muffles his voice.

“Maybe we could do something else?”

“Yeah, we could always do some more truths and dares later! We’ve got all the time in the world, after all.”

You could sit here for an eternity, if you wanted, tangled up in the soft hug of an unruly clown. But you haven’t been in this realm long enough to be unaffected by the slow pull of passing time, and there is still a driving force inside you that tells you that you need to do something productive, even if you can’t think what that something would be.

“What’s next?”

Marx lifts his head from your shoulder and peers at you, bleary-eyed. “Like, what game are we gonna play next?”

“And after that. And farther in the future, too. What are we going to do?” A sudden, jolting panic settles in at the last word, and your voice cracks. Are you really going to be here forever? Is this the end? A blank infinity of star-stuff from which you can never escape?

“Shhh.” He pats you on the head, resting his chin on your shoulder once more. “Don’t think about the future! Just live in the moment!”

“You don’t ever wonder if you’re ever gonna get out of here?”

You can’t see his face, but you feel Marx’s chest tighten.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says, and you’ve heard him genuinely cheery enough times to tell when he’s faking it. “Not like I’ve got anything to do back in the real world, huh! Except see you again, I guess, but now I’ve done that…”

He’s begun to fidget, and you suppose that your spontaneous cuddle session was never meant to last. You release your arms from around him, and he jumps to his feet, wringing out his hands, bouncing up and down on the tips of his toes. Part of you seems empty without his weight in your lap, and you tuck your knees to your chest, feeling a lot smaller than before.

“There isn’t anyone else you’d want to see?” you ask quietly.

“Nah, not that I can think of.” He places his palms on the ground and kicks up into a handstand, hat miraculously staying glued to his head. You’ve gotta say, he’s got a surprising amount of core strength for such a twinky gremlin.

“No one in Dreamland?”

“Who cares about Dreamland!”

“You, apparently, since you tried to take it over.”

“So did you.” Marx folds into a backbend, then springs up onto his feet again in a single, fluid motion. You wonder if all the acrobatics are just a result of his boredom, or because he’s trying to impress you. Either way, you’re pretty wowed.

“Yes, well, I had a reason!”

“And so did I!”

“A reason other than just because I can?”

“Who needs any more reason than that?” cries Marx. He does another cartwheel, then begins to pace again, ever restless. “Who hasn’t felt the urge to flip the world upside down? Go big or go home! First rule of beings that only grant you one wish—wish for more wishes! And controlling a planet is a pretty great way to make wishes come true, huh? Just fuck around, make people bring you free ice cream, dedicate a national holiday every other week to juggling competitions and cheese rolling, get rid of all the laws and taxes and shit and just let people go ham!”

You think that Marx has a fundamental misunderstanding of how governments work, but the goal, you suppose, is somewhat admirable.

“And you,” he continues. He sits again, folding his knees under him. “You just wanted to fix Halcandra, huh? How’d that go for you?”

You allow yourself a single glimpse of your memories from the past couple days, still murky, still distant, still painful. “I… got somewhat sidetracked.”

“Well, isn’t that a mood.”

You don’t respond. You want so badly to lose yourself in his kiss again, or some other sappy bullshit like that, just so you can pretend everything’s okay. It’s not easy to do when you can’t even see the aftermath of the damage you caused, can’t verify it didn’t have wider reaching consequences than you’d assumed. Closure is more than a simple banishment of the problem from your immediate vicinity.

*

“If you were king,” you ask Marx, “what would be the first thing you’d do?”

“Food,” he answers instantly.

“That’s… not a policy, but okay.”

“You don’t understand. I’d get everyone to give me food! Like, really good food. Dedede knows where it’s at. A king’s gotta eat well, you know.”

“Eat well? Like, uh…” You cross the room and fish a couple empty bags of chips out of the trash, giving your companion a pointed look. It’s not even that good of an example—Marx is omnivorous in the most literal fashion, and fairly indiscriminate when it comes to putting objects in his mouth, from mud to grass to the ends of your cape—but it still elicits from him a smug grin.

“Exactly!”

You return to the seat next to him. “And what else would you want to eat?”

“Toes.”

“Uh, Marx?”

He cackles, kicking his legs up into the air in pure, horrible delight. You’re only 75% sure that he’s joking.

“What about you?” he asks once his laughter has faded into a grin.

“If I were king? Of Halcandra?”

“Yeah, or wherever.”

“Well… I’d try to shut down all those old factories and do something about the pollution, for one. And I’d organize the public into some sort of political structure. Oh! And I’d name a day of the week after myself, I think. I’ve always wanted to do that. But I guess the best thing about being king would just be… feeling important, you know?”

His head bobs up and down. “Yeah. Yeah. Hey! Hey Maggie! You know what? We should both be kings!”

“Can there be two kings?”

“Of course! What, you want a queen??”

“No, no, it just seems like having two people with the same amount of power ruling at the same time might be a bit of a political nightmare—”

Marx clamps a hand over your mouth. “Shut up! About politicalness! There can totally be two kings!” He relaxes his grip, but doesn’t remove his hand, his other arm slung around your shoulder. “Hmm. Hey, to be double kings, I guess we’d have to get married, huh? Whaddaya think, Maggie? Let’s get hitched, bitch!”

In lieu of a spoken response, you give him a sarcastic thumbs-up, and he whoops with joy, planting a big sloppy kiss on your forehead. You redden, and he giggles.

“Hmm… who would we invite? Nova? Oh right, they’re kinda dead, whoops. How bout Kirby? Oh man, you gotta meet Kirby, Mags, you’d love him, he’s a cutie pie and also a fucking badass, ten outta ten would fight to the death again! Maybe after you kick Landia’s ass they’ll be inspired to join in too. Hey, there was this pink-haired girl I met once in another dimension, maybe she’d be down. Then we also have to make promises to each other, right?” His voice jumps an octave, tone exaggerated and posh. “Oh Magolor, my dearest love, I swear that I shall never depart from your side, and I will stop chewing on exposed wires in the Lor engine room, and also remember to not cough up phlegm into your capes—”

“You did what??” you explode, pushing his hand away from your mouth.

“That was one time! And I washed it afterwards!”

“Why are you like this.”

He pats your shoulder, leaning his entire weight against you. “You know you love me for it.”

It’s times like these when you wish you’d actually said something, jumpstarted an actual conversation about your relationship so you could define it in a way other than we’re best bros but we once made out in my bed and also he says weird flirty things sometimes, but today is not that day. So you murmur something noncommittal and wonder why his words kindle a sort of warm, nervous feeling in your chest.

*

“Okay, new game idea. Two truths and a lie. You know that one?”

“Why do you keep picking party games?”

Marx shrugs. “They’re fun. And you don’t need any cards or anything. And it’s like a getting to know you activity! I’ll go first.”

He lies down again, kicking his legs in the air—a position that looks fairly uncomfortable, but you’ve learned not to question it. He thinks for a couple minutes, tapping his fingers against the ground in an indiscernible rhythm.

“All right. One. I stole my hat off a Noddy when I was very young. It was my first foray into crime. Two. The tastiest type of flower is a rose! Three. You aren’t the first person I’ve ever kissed! That honor goes to Bio Spark, who I blackmailed into helping me execute an elaborate Wheelie heist on the Halberd, but it went horribly wrong, so we got really drunk to try and forget our embarrassing failure and ended up making out on a life raft in the middle of the ocean, then never spoke to each other again.”

That last one is too elaborate to be false, and you desperately hope that it’s not a lie, because it sounds exactly like the kind of batshit thing that Marx would do. “Um… is it the second one?”

“Nope!” he cries. “It’s the first! Noddy caps are boring—they’ve only got one tail! What, you thought I associate with Noddies? Those lil sleeby bitches? Huh?”

“Stealing someone’s hat just feels like a very Marx thing to do.”

“Sure is!” He pushes himself back into a seated position. “Your turn.”

Hmm. Coming up with statements is harder than you’d realized. How personal should you get? It doesn’t help that your memories are still jumbled—you can’t quite recall anything about your origin or your childhood, though that may not be new.

“Okay. One. In the same vein as yours, I’ll say that, uh, you’re the only person I’ve ever kissed. Two… I like cooking, but I don’t do it very often. Three, I met the greatest warrior in the galaxy once.”

“It’s the second! You always complained about having to cook for me!”

Dammit. “I… forgot about that.”

“How’d you meet the greatest warrior in the galaxy??”

“Oh, uh, I accidentally summoned him while playing around with some Ancient technology. He kind of tried to kill me, so I just banished him back into his crystal and sent him back wherever he came from.”

Marx whistles. “Whoa! You never told me about that!”

“Happened after you left.”

“Shit, dude.” He wrinkles his nose. “Why’d I miss all the cool stuff?? Hey, what else did you even do after I left?”

“I, uh…” Man, what did you do? The stretch of time after Marx disappeared seems as long and as confusing as the time he spent with you. Was it months? Years, even? “I woke up Landia, at one point. Fought them, like you told me to.”

“Did you win??”

“No, of course not! I told you, I’m no fighter.”

Your friend is silent for a moment, twisting his fingers together, staring at a spot about three feet behind you. When he speaks, his voice, though still casual, has lost its perpetually lighthearted tone. “Did you miss me?”

*

You barely even notice when Marx starts to glitch out again. A sudden flicker here and there, a subtle warping of space around him that can’t be explained by a trick of the light, the multicolored polygons that characterized his most powerful form flashing for a second beneath his outstretched arms. It’s no problem, you tell yourself, and purposefully ignore all the signs of destabilization you’d noticed when the two of you first met, blindly hoping that he’ll fix himself, that it’s just a little hiccup.

You have more important things to worry about. Plans for an assault on Landia have been cooking in your mind, and you can’t seem to let them go, not since Marx called you a coward for talking rather than acting. It’s stupid, really. You have nothing to prove to him. But maybe you’d rather prove it to yourself—that you are strong, that you can do what it takes to get your hands on that final piece of Ancient technology you’ve been so, so curious about.

“Landia has this… powerful tech-crown-thing, right?” asks Marx in passing one day, as you’re going through your notes about the Master Crown, checking translations of runes and examining blueprints.

“Yeah?”

“You totally deserve it more than they do.”

The statement awakens some sort of feeling in your chest, something like… pride? No, that’s not right. But you grin sheepishly and reply, “Not that the reassurance isn’t appreciated, but where’d that come from?”

“You’re the master of all things tech-y! You—”

“—I’m not, but okay—”

“—could absolutely do some wack ass shit with that kinda power. Believe me, it’d be awesome. Like, black holes, y’know! You could make some black holes just pop up wherever! And besides. It’s your turn to become god.”

“What are you—sorry, I don’t quite follow—”

“Okay. Think about it like. An acid trip or something. You get to see the true nature of the world! And it’s fucking wild! And sure, coming down might not be the best experience, but look at me! I’m doing great!”

“So, you’re telling me I should steal the Master Crown because…?”

“Because it’ll be fun.”

You’re not quite sure if fun is the right word for how he’s been describing his own experience with being pumped full of god-like strength by Ancient technology, but you have to admit, there is something intoxicating about the idea of wielding that kind of power. And something fairly suspicious about Marx’s enthusiastic praise of its effects.

“Are you sure you’re not goading me into this so you can take the Crown yourself?”

“Why would I even do that! Don’t you trust me, Maggie?”

His form shudders for a second, the colors inverting, and for some reason this is the one time you truly notice. Wait. Wait.

Everything crashes into place, and your stomach twists.

“You’re fading again,” you say quietly.

“No shit.”

“And you think that the Master Crown would help you.”

“Whaaat??”

His smile is too innocent, eyebrows raised in mock-surprise, and in that moment you can see through him, see the maniacal smirk behind the simpering mask of his face, and all of a sudden you’re furious. You slam your hand down on the desk, shutting off the screen in front of you, and turn on Marx, giving him your full attention. He shrinks back, grin wavering.

“Why am I so stupid! Of course you want the Crown! You’ve been manipulating me from the start! You got a taste of Ancient power, and it almost destroyed you, but it got you hooked, didn’t it? And now you’re after more. You’re good, though. I can’t believe you almost—that I almost—”

You sink into the chair behind you, burying your face in your hands. Marx is silent. Too silent.

“Well,” he says, finally, voice way too relaxed, “you’re not entirely wrong, but…”

He trails off. An awful sensation has crawled out of the pit in your stomach, reaching into your chest and wrapping around your heart and lungs. All his compliments, telling you that you’d be a good leader, that you deserve it, his whole joke about being kings together—it seems so transparent now. This shouldn’t be a surprise. You know all about his past. He hasn’t exactly been quiet about his continued lust for power, but it always comes out like a joke, like he’s never actually going to act on it. But of course he still wants to be powerful—doesn’t everyone—and you know he’s all about doing rather than talking, so why is it so hard to believe he’d actually try to get his way?

“Look,” comes Marx’s voice from somewhere beside you. “I wasn’t lying! I thought I could make you go get the Crown and then we’d share or something! You still totally deserve it—”

“But you deserve it more,” you say through your fingers. A dull ache has appeared in your head, muting your senses.

“You’re not the one who’s fading into another dimension.”

“I thought you didn’t care about death.”

“It’s not death I’m afraid of. It’s eternal stagnation.”

He doesn’t elaborate, but you think you understand. You also don’t give a shit. Your eyes burn, and you squeeze them tight, balling your hands into fists and resting your forehead against your palms. It does nothing to alleviate the pain.

Seconds pass. You refuse to look at Marx.

“So!!” he cries suddenly, clapping his hands together and producing a sound that makes you jump, already-racing heart kicking into overdrive. “Right. Yeah, I might’ve kinda fucked up. But let’s forget about that now! It’s all okay, right? We can go steal the Crown together, and you can fix Halcandra and all that, and then I can have it for a bit! That’s basically what we were already planning, right?”

You whip around and fix him in a glare, his own eyes widening when he realizes how red yours are. “I don’t think I want you to help me with this anymore.”

“But—we’re friends—!”

“Are we? Or are you just saying that so I’ll change my mind?”

He doesn’t have an answer to that. The expression on his face flips between fear and pity and regret.

“Get out of my starship, Marx.”

Marx opens his mouth, as if to protest more, to appeal to your empathy by crying that he doesn’t have anywhere else to live, maybe even to apologize—but he reconsiders, turning on his heels and marching out the door, the pompoms on his hat bouncing up and down. You never see him on Halcandra again.

 

You do miss him. A day later, after an almost-sleepless night of tossing and turning, trying to staunch the hot flow of tears down your face, you stagger into a nearby village, wild-eyed and seeing double, with your gloves on backwards and your hood down, asking the residents if they’ve seen a guy with a jester hat and prosthetic arms. They say no, and ask you if you’ve seen a ghost.

Marx was always a little shit. That wasn’t new. But at what point did it turn from endearing to infuriating? You hate yourself for being so angry. No, it’s not like he lied, not really. But he wasn’t doing any of it for you. At least that’s the thought that repeats itself endlessly in your mind and threatens to bring you again to tears.

You could have slept on it, had another conversation in the morning, worked something out, explained further why you felt so betrayed. Maybe he did genuinely consider you a friend. You’ll never know now.

Memories resurface of your late-night kiss, of all the times he hugged you, told you you were smart or cute, and you want to scream.

You don’t have anyone, now. It’s just you and the unspeaking starship you stole and a couple hundred random inhabitants of this godforsaken planet.

 

Months pass in a daze, and there’s no sign of Marx, though at this point you’ve given up hoping. If he hadn’t destabilized completely already, that’d happen soon enough. Good riddance, you think, and instantly despise yourself for it.

You forget about him. You put all your energy into your work, and it succeeds in distracting you, letting you push the memories deep down into the dark corners of your mind. Marx doesn’t matter. He’s gone now. There’s nothing you could have done to stop everything from falling apart.

Except there is. There is a way to regain your control. There is a way to write yourself back into the story, to become important again, to take back the agency that Marx stole from you.

 

You challenge Landia, and it is terrifying and exhilarating and so much more than you bargained for, and you inevitably crash and burn and everything turns upside down.

And, your ship in tatters around you, alarms blaring and error messages screaming across every screen on the bridge, your cheek pressed to the cool floor, a door materializes and you hear footsteps approaching. Four pairs of them. Curious, alien.

This time, you are not alone. Kirby agrees to help you before you even ask, without knowing your name or your purpose or your origin, and it almost reminds you of the day that Marx crashed into your life and refused to leave. For better or for worse, helping others seems to be a fundamental instinct.

 

For a moment, you almost think you have a friend again. Four of them, in fact. They jump at the opportunity to collect the Lor’s scattered parts, and go above and beyond, proving their skill and resourcefulness every step of the way. You have never felt so elated.

It starts as an honest query. How far would they be willing to go for your sake? Could they be useful in aiding your ongoing quest? The offer to visit Halcandra just slips out one day, and Kirby and his friends seem genuinely excited. It’s the perfect plan.

You’re not manipulating them. You’re not pretending to be their friend. You like them a lot! Really! They have been so generous and kind!

But when you get to Halcandra, the anxiety returns with Landia’s second attack on the Lor, impossible to ignore even with all the hope that Kirby has instilled in you. You find yourself bending the truth, little by little, not quite explaining Landia’s motivations, conveniently leaving the Master Crown out of the story. One day, Kirby overstays his welcome on the bridge, and you lash out at him. Your previous insecurities have you in a chokehold now. What if they aren’t willing to go any further? What if they’re just helping you because they’ve got an ulterior motive? Can you trust them? Are they really your friends?

You watch their fight with Landia from a distance, heart pounding, the culmination of your years of effort finally coming to life before your eyes. And you didn’t even have to carry out the action yourself! It’s all quite clever, really. You congratulate yourself on a job well done.

They’re amazing. You are so, so grateful. And awed. And ready for this all to be over.

The moment you put on the crown is when your memories go blank. Images, sensations, emotions repeat in your head, none making exact sense. Something horrific happened to you. Something horrible and electrifying and vindicating. For a moment you were on top of the world. And then it consumed you, and your mind began to crack along with the fabric of reality.

*

“Maggie?”

“What?” is your automatic response.

“Are you—did you hear me? You look kinda out of it.”

“Yeah, I just—” You press a hand to your forehead, the nausea starting up again, the world starting to blur before you, and you’re not sure if it’s from tears or from the aftereffects of a violent trip down memory lane. Nothing makes sense. You’ve got all the info back in your head now, but none of it provides even a touch of clarity.

Marx is right there, right in front of you, barely a foot away, and even his half-hearted grin can’t conceal the nervousness seeping through.

“Yeah, I did miss you, of course I missed you,” you mumble, and he sighs with relief. There’s an awful ringing in your ears, the sensation that comes with the beginning of sensory overload, but the space is so quiet you think you could hear your companion’s heart pattering from a mile away.

“Okay, well, enough of that!” He scoots back a couple inches, rubbing his hands together. You stay put, staring at the ground. “My turn, right? Two truths and a lie. One—”

Almost involuntarily, your own hand shoots out and grabs his wrist. He stops, blinks, the fear returning to his face in an instant.

“No. No. I’ll go for you—”

“It’s not your turn!”

“That’s not what I meant. Let’s switch up the game a little. I tell you facts about yourself, and you tell me which are the truths and which is the lie. Okay? One. You wanted to get your hands on the Master Crown. Two. To do so, you buttered me up and pretended to be my friend.”

Marx’s eyes are wide and scared, shoulders tense, frozen in the middle of an attempt to get away. You continue.

“Three. You’re really sorry about it and we’ve been talking it out and coming to a mutual agreement like friends are supposed to do!”

He tears his hand out of your grasp and scrambles out of your reach. “Whoa, whoa, that’s not fair! That’s not how the game works! And besides, you’re overgeneralizing! You can’t just—can’t just make huge statements like that and expect them to be only true or only false!”

“There’s more to the story, then?”

“Of course there is!”

“You could’ve told me—”

“You could’ve listened!” he yells, and that shuts you up. Because you could have stopped and given him a chance. But then again, he wasn’t acting like someone who deserved a second chance. Hell, that was his second chance. His first went south when he pushed Kirby off the Warp Star before Nova.

“It doesn’t even matter,” you mutter. “We both lost. It’s all over. The Crown’s gone. Neither of us can take it anymore and I am so unbelievably okay with that.”

“Yeah! So we should just forget about it.”

“No! No, that’s not what I—not what I meant, I—you think we can solve this by pretending it didn’t happen??”

“Everything was fine before you remembered that,” he says, just the tiniest bit accusatory.

You exhale, rubbing your stinging eyes with the back of your hand. “What are you trying to get out of me this time? What do you what? What do I have that you would possibly want? A way out? Well, sucks for you; I’ve got no clue how to get back to the real world.”

“It didn’t occur to you that I might just want your company?”

His words make you pause. It would be so easy to just believe him; he’s shown you nothing but hospitality since the moment you appeared here. Has he really fallen so low that he no longer cares about pulling himself back up to his former twisted glory?

“Look,” continues Marx. “I know you think I’m a total asshole! And yeah! That’s fair! And I know I fucked up. I’m sorry. But for what it’s worth, I really did consider you a friend, and still do. Sure, I might’ve been a little too pushy about the whole stealing the Crown thing. And I’ll admit that some of my encouraging compliments were just total bullshit. But come on, you don’t really think that our entire relationship was built off a lie, do you??”

He’s right. It’s silly. You’re just overemotional and insecure. “I had to wonder,” you murmur.

“I didn’t even know about the Master Crown until months after we first met!”

“I guess that’s true, yeah—”

“But—” Marx looks at the floor, more obviously agitated than you’ve ever seen him. “You know what? That’s no excuse. Here I am, just trying to make you get over it, as if your feelings mean nothing, and—”

“And as if I’m in the wrong for having such strong feelings?”

He sighs, and nods. “Fuck. Yeah. I’m sorry.”

You sit in silence, avoiding each other’s eyes. Your head has stopped spinning and you’re calmer than before—maybe this is the start of a solution.

“Are we still friends?” he whispers, finally.

“Yeah,” you reply, because what else are you going to say? That you can’t be friends anymore because he made a mistake? That you don’t still deeply care about him? You’re gonna be stuck with him in this empty dimension for a good amount of the foreseeable future; the least you can do is not be enemies.

Marx extends an arm, as if to grasp your hand in his, then reconsiders and lays it on your knee, gentle and comforting. “Thanks.”

In response, you fold your arms around his shoulders and pull him into a hug. He leans in, squeezing you back, nestling his head against your shoulder. Has he really changed, now, then? Has his time in the void sucked all of the ambition out of him? When— if —you manage to escape this place, will he just return to his power-hungry ways? Not if you have anything to do with it, you swear to yourself. With your guidance, he’ll stay on the right track—won’t he?

A stray thought enters your mind, loud and clear and horrifying.

“But I’m not much better, am I?”

He pulls back, eyes slightly narrowed. “Than what?”

“Than you. I—I deceived Kirby, I used his friendship to my advantage, I lied to them all, I—oh my god, I almost killed them, didn’t I?”

Marx’s face morphs into an expression of pure delight. “You fought Kirby??”

“I didn’t mention that?”

“Nope! Oh man, join the club! Let’s get matching t-shirts! ‘I Lied To Kirby To Make Him Do Something For Me, And Then Tried To Kill Him!’”

“And tried to take over his planet,” you mutter. “Using Ancient technology he activated for us.”

“Oh, perfect!! He is sure one gullible lad, huh?”

“Maybe we’re just jerks.”

His grin fades. “Yeah… yeah, maybe you’re right.”

“Do you think we’ll see him again someday?”

“Well, we can’t be stuck here forever, can we? Something will happen. A portal will open up. Hey, maybe your ship will come to save you.”

Would the Lor be able to do that? Would it even be willing? You vaguely recall a battle in space, detaching parts of the ship and sending them hurtling towards your dragon-borne attackers. No, the Lor’s gone now. You might be able to repair it again, but not until you’re back in that dimension.

“I wouldn’t count on that,” you tell him.

“But there are millions of other options, right! Kirby could come save us! Or, hey, spacetime is weird—you never know when a portal will just open up.”

“Don’t suppose you can still create black holes?”

“Nah. Lost all my powers as soon as I got here.”

“How’s it feel?”

He thinks about it. “Not bad.”

“Really? You didn’t have some sorta superpower withdrawal?”

“Yeah, but I got over that a while ago.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Yeah.”

“Marx?” you say after a second.

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

He smiles, and for once, it’s absolutely genuine.

The two of you grow quiet again. You wish there was some sort of ambient noise, something you could focus your attention on other than Marx in front of you, but it’s no use. You guess that, for now, until you’re able to leave—and you are suddenly filled with the hope that one day you will be able to leave, venture back into the dimensions you call home, repair your ship and make amends for the damage you caused and perhaps even foster a true friendship with Kirby—you’re stuck with him.

And despite the ups and the downs, if you’re being completely honest? There’s no one you’d rather be stuck with.