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The First Step

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- the first step.

 

remove the safety=

"Hey."

He catches the man in front of the coffee machine in the accounting division's break room. Tengo's here to deliver the billings report for his latest job -- one shot and no witnesses, of course, though he'll need to tack on his brightness fee for their extra condition to perform in broad daylight. (Tengo does not do daylight; and no, no matter what lies that idiot Dandy dreams up, he has no horrible skin condition nor is any form of vampire. A hitman's job requires stealth and prowess, not declaring where you are and what you're doing to the world. If his targets knew he was there, he could hardly claim to be one step ahead of them, now could he.)

Jeego looks up from his mug (likely borrowed from the nearby cupboard, emblazoned with the words 'World's Best Dad Villain') to glare at Tengo. At least, he assumes he's glaring at him. The man's head is turned toward his general direction, and his face holds the same annoyed, squinting expression as pretty much every time Tengo sees him. "What," he says flatly, turning back to the pot.

No reason to beat around the bush when he's in one of his moods. "So what are you doing here in accounting?" He closes the door behind him, not quite private but it's not quite a private question. "And is it true, then? I heard about what happened on your last gig." A couple days ago, had her in his sights, but his gun jammed on him when he took the shot. A jam with a shotgun like his ... couldn't be pretty. And thanks to his policy of practically needing to take his marks out for a drink before he can get close enough to take them out with a bullet, she was able to run and hide for a while before backup could finish the job. A total screwup all around, and Tengo knows Jeego knows.

"None of your goddamn business," he says grimly, which in Jeego-speak is a resounding yes. The more time Tengo spends in the land of Insufferable Prick, the more fluent he becomes in the language.

He can't help but let out a sigh as he pulls up a chair and swings his legs around the back, watching the man fill his cup. He can't fool him, of course -- Jeego's wearing his 'go die now' fedora today, the most extreme level of anger in the hat(e)-spectrum that ranged from 'it's just business' to 'genocidal fury'. (Discerning the differences between the nearly identical hats and their significances had been a ... delicate, lengthy process that came with knowing the man for as long as the two had been in the hitman division together.) "You really should take better care of that thing if you're going to use it. I don't know why you'd want to use the thing, but..." An old argument, ancient really, dating from the day they'd met: Jeego had sneered and called his glasses nerdy and weak; Tengo had harrumphed and asked what kind of self-respecting sniper would use a golden Winchester rifle, honestly, it looked like something out of a kids' magic show; Jeego had offered to stick said rifle in a rather highly uncomfortable place; Commander Sith had entered the room before things could escalate any further. Angry glances had been exchanged for the rest of the meeting.

Not unlike the one on his face now. If Jeego was a girl, Tengo'd have to paint his eyebrows into a permanent scowl. Maybe he should do it anyway. "Not in the mood."

Gosh. This was serious. Jeego was always up to a little friendly banter between rivals. This was supposed to be the part where he retorted with an insult about his own shotgun, or his glasses, or his mother, or his mother's shotgun glasses. Tengo reaches across the table for his sixth late-mid-morning doughnut of the day. (The complimentary doughnuts were a primary factor in his choosing to work in the office as a union hitman rather than going freelance.) "Sheesh, what's got your panties in a bunch this morning?" He takes a bite, pauses. "You're about to spill tha--"

"Shit!" Too little too late; the mug overflows onto the man's pants as he yanks the pot up and lets it rattle on the counter. A string of uncreative curses follows as he tears far more paper towels off the roll than is entirely necessary and attempts to furiously scrub out the spot with one hand while surely scalding his tongue with sips from the cup of black coffee in the other. "Don't fucking touch me!" he says without looking towards him when Tengo lightly places a hand on his shoulder, trying to calm him down.

Honestly, all the stress and coffee couldn't be good for the man's blood pressure, Tengo thinks as he shakes his head in pity, finishes off the doughnut, and prepares the four creams, six sugars to go into his own cup. "You know guns will jam if you don't do your proper maintenance," he says matter-of-factly, returning to the original topic. "It's not that hard to take it apart, give it a good cleaning. The parts would even be in 'point-blank range'." He chuckles softly as he pulls the carton of heavy cream from the nearby fridge, but pours it slowly, contemplating what he'd just said.

"Yeah, thanks for the lecture, Mom." The man leans against the counter with a foot propped back on the door of a cabinet, holding his cup with both hands and staring into the steam. "Ain't it a shame we can't all be perfect little teacher's pets like you. That's what you really wanna say, isn't it? Come to gloat over your shiny new title?"

Tengo frowns. "I haven't been promoted yet." Just one of the rumors in the rumor mill, that he'll finally get the recognition he deserves. Section head of the hitman division. As much as he'd like to pretend it's already in hand, being one step ahead and all, he knows the way fate will trick and turn away from someone too sure of a good thing. He clucks his tongue in insincere pity as he rips open the last of the sugar packets. "I'm just trying to look out for you. Gods know you don't look out for yourself."

Jeego splutters, as he knew he would. It's so amusing, the way he overreacts to anything and everything; Tengo says half the things he does just to get a rise out of him and it never fails. "Jesus, do I look like I need a freakin' babysitter?! I'm fine, okay? I just--" He cuts off, dodging his eyes to the ground, and was that a purple tint of a blush Tengo saw heating the man's cheeks? "Just ... fine. Goddamn."

Tengo shrugs, returning the pot to the stand. "If you say so. But neglecting gun maintenance, spilling coffee all over yourself like that; if I didn't know better..." He stops in his stirring of the coffee, eyes widening slightly behind his glasses, because maybe he had... "Jeego," he says, softly but with a hint of ...  caution? Fear? But that would be foolish, why would he be scared that the man had actually, finally, completely lost his...

The other man's face definitely has a lavender flush to it now, but his jaw is rigid, set in stone, and he doesn't respond.

"Jeego, look at me," he orders. Asks. Pleads. Foolish, it would be foolish, why would he be scared...

"Fuck!" He throws the half-full mug on the counter and looks up, to his left, close and yet so far. "What's your fucking problem today, huh? I'm fine!"

Tengo bites the inside of his lip, feels something a little like his heart wrenching inside his chest. He waves a hand limply in front of the man's nose. "Jeego... I'm over here." Watches the man's face flit from overacted rage to disgruntled embarrassment and back.

"Shit," he says again, just as firmly but quieter, and Tengo can't tell whether it's directed at him or the man himself. "Just..." His eyes are squeezed closed tightly now, as if he -- he, Nearsighted Jeego himself -- is actually trying to hold back tears.

Then he socks him in the nose.

"Aagh!" Tengo reels back from the hit, covering his face instinctively, gingerly -- "You putched be id da dose!" Because hell, when you randomly get socked in the face, you get a free pass on stating the blindingly obvious. He takes off his (thankfully unharmed) glasses, pats the front of his face, and stares at his fingertips. Yep; at least bleeding, if probably not broken. "De fuck was dat for?"

The man's brows shoot up, like he's the surprised one -- oh. Right. 'Blindingly' obvious. But after a second of his lips twitching as if to say something, he just turns to leave, taking a stride towards the door before pausing. "You got the job." Voice as cold as a knife blade against his throat. "I'm here 'cause of another goddamn paycut. Bet I know where that'll funnel off to." Hand on the doorknob. "Congratu-fucking-lations."

And he leaves.

 

=load the chamber=

A corner office. A wonderful view of downtown, of the capital city of their glorious country. They couldn't make a bigger mockery of themselves if they were trying.

A picture window? In a sniper's office? Yes, it was bulletproof glass, doublepaned; that was far beside the point. Tengo stands and stares out at the scene, evening sun glinting off his glasses, watching lights begin to flicker on like fireflies in the gloom. The assassin part of his brain, impossible to turn off, has already spotted half a dozen optimal 'nests' atop the roofs of adjacent buildings, places he himself would scout and choose if he were assigned to take down a man in the room he's standing right now.

But he stands in front of the window, and asks himself why he can't quite seem to care.

"It would appear congratulations are in order, sir."

"Sh--!" He's already reaching for a weapon before he turns around, even though it's ridiculous, he could never sight someone fast enough who snuck up from behind h-- And it's the commander's goddamn robot servant. Of course. The only man in the world that could actually manage to sneak up on and surprise One-Step-Ahead Tengo. (Man. Thing. Whatever.)

He leans on the back of the chair in front of him, takes a breath, lets his heart rate calm down. Spins the chair around to sit -- a red leather wingback, more proof the decorator just chose to take refuge in their stylistic audacity -- and spins it back to fall on the desk, elbows spread akimbo, chin resting on his fingers. A pose both incredibly lazy and rather insulting to the whole idea of his position as the section head of the hitman division, and again he can't quite bring himself to care. "You the welcome wagon? Little late. Been a week already." He's had the occasional interaction with the bot; Sith took it everywhere he went, if only for the hidden refrigerated compartment in its chest, a fresh bunch of grapes always on hand. "What's the big guy been up to?"

"Commander Sith is far too busy to get involved in trifling office politics, sir. Still, he sent me to give his regards and well-wishes, sir." Its masked eyes are lit up like the warning signal on a crossing gate, and the stray thought passes through Tengo's head that the commanders in their government were assigned their own personal androids as much for intimidation as convenience.

He rolls his head to the side, absently scratching at a scruffy sideburn with a finger, careful to avoid touching the plaster stuck across his nostrils. "Well-wishes. Right." He stares at the opposite wall, at a poster left over from the previous tenant, a kitten cutely hanging from a branch alongside the phrase 'Hang in there!'

Tengo loathes cats. He has no idea why.

A long, slow exhalation. The bot is looking at him like it's waiting for him to say something more. Or maybe he's just projecting. Ah, hell, no one better to talk to at the moment. "Gods, what's the matter with me?"

"Sir?"

Of course, he feels utterly foolish the second the words are said. Still, they seem to relieve a pressure inside him, and he can't help blathering away. "This is supposed to be what I wanted. What I worked for." He waves his arm over the desk, encompassing it and everything that came with it. "I get an entire box of fresh warm doughnuts delivered to my room in the morning. Yesterday I ran across Dandy in the halls, and you should have seen the look on his face when he realized he had to start calling me 'sir'. And the pay is--"

Bet I know where that'll funnel off to.

He rests his chin on a hand, rubbing at a temple with his thumb, looking at nothing. "... better than ever." Shakes his head. "So what am I doing moping around? It's like..." He trails off, half because he doesn't know how to finish the sentence and half because he's afraid he does.

The bot seems hesitant. Or he's projecting again. "... I have been programmed to serve and obey Commander Sith, sir. I am unable to offer an analysis into the quagmire of illogicalities and contradictions known as human emotions, sir."

He rolls his eyes. Shouldn't have expected anything more. "Well, aren't we just a pair of winners."

"But if I may be so forward as to hazard a guess, sir..." And Tengo actually takes the effort to look the bot in the eyes; this was curious. "You are an excellent hitman, sir. One of our best, sir."

He snorts. "Your 'guess' sounds more like buttering me up."

"But there is someone else in our company nearly a match for you, sir..." He arches an eyebrow, waits for it to continue. "His name and title is Nearsighted Jeego, sir. You're well-acquainted, I believe, sir."

Tengo blinks. "What? Jeego?" Just the name he'd been trying to avoid thinking about. For the past week. He hasn't seen him at all since the day in the break room, not even across the cafeteria or in the halls, though he can tell through his new administrative accounts that he's still working with them, hasn't quit or gotten fired yet. It isn't like he expected a bouquet or anything, but... He was the man's coworker for years, and he doesn't really want it to end this way.

(Coworker. Was that all he was?)

The man shakes his head to clear his thoughts. "But his hit rate's nowhere close to mine. Now." He feels a need to modify the sentence, thinking back to when the two of them were just starting out, having joined the hitman division the very same day. Before they had earned their titles, when they were nothing more than Tengo and Jeego, probies in the company.

Back then, for the first few months, nearly the first year, it was Jeego who had been the rising star, the prodigy. The man's target rate for assassinations in any situation, to any mark, was unparalleled in the organization's recent history. Tengo wanted that. Wanted the recognition, the glory that came with being a top agent. He studied at night for hours on end, reading the wisdom of a hundred great hitmen, and during the day practiced at the shooting range until he could knock a fedora off a head at a hundred yards without touching a hair.

Not long after that, he had caught up with Jeego, then surpassed him. He had been so proud that day he saw his name at the top of the charts, he decided to start setting larger, more ambitious goals. Get to the target before they get to you. Always take them out in a single shot. Become head of the hitman division. Become director, manager, company president -- hell, prime minister. And then what?

And now, what?

So really, everything was thanks to Jeego. He would never have had the motivation to improve without him. Would still be working the dregs, the ugliest jobs left to the newbies, or -- in this line of work -- he'd be dead.

All thanks to Jeego. And look what it got him. Congratu-fucking-lations, Tengo.

"I am not merely taking the statistics into account, sir," and he carefully does not startle (again), though he had been so wrapped up in his thoughts he had nearly forgotten the bot was still in the room, that he was still one half of a conversation. "I refer also to the man's personality; his 'killer instinct', his tenacity, his adaptability, sir. Things that, if sir will pardon the humble servant, you lack."

"Huh?" He's not nearly as offended as he is just bemused. "I'm tenacious and adaptable!" Hopefully that hadn't come off quite as prissy-britches as it sounded. "And how could I be a killer without a killer instinct?"

"Nearsighted Jeego's 'useful range' has diminished to the point that he must need to practically touch the barrel of his shotgun to his mark before he is certain he has the shot. And yet he still chooses to take on assignments. Frankly, sir, if you were in his position, can you safely say that you could do the same?"

"I--!" The reflex is to argue, but there's nothing he can say. The bot is absolutely right; there's a reason he chose Silvia the sniper rifle over Goldie the Winchester. Tengo's no coward, but he could never manage what the man does, what he's adapted to doing thanks to his -- he'd call it hotheaded stubbornness, personally, but -- tenacity. He loosens his grip from the edge of the desk, not even realizing when his knuckles turned pale. "So the guy's a good hitman. What's your point?"

"My point is that Nearsighted Jeego is a match for yourself in more than just statistics," the bot says in its monotone, and only now does Tengo notice the dropped verbal tic. "It was mere chance that the two of you became partners in the division. But it was choice -- or fate -- that you two became rivals."

(Rival. Was that all he was?)

"Your cool-headed planning tempers his recklessness. His hot-blooded passion sparks your determination. The two of you make a team the way an anode and a cathode make a battery. Were it not for his unfortunate handicap, I believe the both of you together would make for an unbeatable force to be reckoned with."

Tengo would roll his eyes again, but if he starts now he'll never stop. His 'unfortunate handicap'; well, that was kind of the problem here, wasn't it? Silly Tengo, to think he could actually have surpassed his rival on his own merits. His condition must have started worsening way back then. "Oh, is that all. And what am I supposed to do about that?" He rubs the edge of the plaster with a finger contemplatively, feeling the tactile difference where skin meets gauze. "The only thing worse than the guy's eyesight is his ego. There's not a chance in hell he'd get glasses."

"Might contact lenses--"

"That's not it!" He doesn't know why he's arguing this, or how he can be so sure of the way the man would react. A delicate, lengthy process that came with knowing the man for as long as the two had been in the hitman division together. "It's not the look of the thing. It's..." He throws the hand not supporting his chin to the side, palm up in a defeated gesture. Just try to sum up Jeego in a few words. "His pride. His damned hotheaded stubbornness. And what..."

He shakes his head, looks down. Continues in what is almost a whisper, almost pained. "... What am I supposed to do about that?"

The pause lasts for five heartbeats and a lifetime.

"It finally got to the worst, and he didn't even tell me." The words are heavy, weighting down the atmosphere of the room. "He didn't come to me, when there was no one else to go to. Didn't want to get me involved." The sentiment, if not the exact words, has been running a rut in his thoughts for the past week. "Have I-- ... Has he ever really had a friend, other than me?"

(Friend. Was that what he was?)

The bot seems to have a knack for recognizing rhetorical questions. "I can't tell you what you're supposed to do, sir. But I am curious as to what you are going to do, sir."

He looks up again, arching an eyebrow. "For a machine unfamiliar with emotions, you're pretty good at knowing what to say."

It straightens up more formally, clasping metal hands behind its back. "I am currently running a subroutine I found on the internet on how to console people, sir." A pause. "I believe this is the part where I pat you on the shoulder and offer pithy remarks, including but not limited to 'there, there' and 'everything will be okay'. Would this increase your comfort level at all, sir? You need only say the word, sir."

Gods, but it feels good to actually laugh. "Thanks; I don't think I'm that far gone yet." He looks into the bot's strange, inhuman eyes, clearly visible now that the sun has nearly completely set and no one has bothered to flick on the lights. Two hovering beams of light follow him in the darkness, and he wonders what it would be like, to see as a robot sees. It certainly never had to worry ab--

The plan comes to him unlike any plan before, immediately clear with step-by-step instructions to reach a conclusion he hadn't even considered ten seconds ago. As if he'd been spending his time tearing his hair out over a blank page when suddenly his unconscious hands him a monochrome masterpiece, only waiting for him to color it in by carrying it out.

The chair is knocked back against the window in his haste, but that is absolutely the very farthest thing from his mind at the moment. "Hey!" he says to the bot while moving around the desk to the door. "Where's the big guy right now?"

It would have blinked if the mask had eyelids. "Commander Sith is likely in his quarters, sir, reviewing past and future international policy cases. If there is something you need from him, I would be glad to take a message..."

"Argh!" For all the spontaneity with which the plan appeared, it's awfully insistent on being carried through quickly. "No, just -- say it's urgent! Tell him One-Step-Ahead Tengo wants to meet him in accounting tonight, as soon as possible."

The way the bot's head turns to follow him when his shoulders don't doesn't even make him flinch. "I shall relay the message, sir, but what do you mean by using your old title? Surely you mean to say 'Division Head Tengo', sir."

The man opens the door and smiles a sharp smirk that's more than a little manic. "Nope," he says. "Not anymore."

And he leaves.

 

=aim=

The bell over the door of the lonely bar on the edge of town rings out at half past ten at night, rings out over the sound of the jukebox in the corner playing a bluesy sax and the low murmur of the smattering of couples conversing in the dimly-lit booths. It's a demure, decorous place that Tengo's never before visited personally, but is a company favorite; he often overhears coworkers over the watercooler making plans to stop by. So it's half planning and half luck that he ends up finding the man he's looking for nursing a nearly empty highball glass at the counter.

He slides into the stool to his right without Jeego giving him a sideways glance. "I'll have a virgin Cuba Libre," he says to the silently inquiring woman fastidiously polishing a glass behind the counter. It's not any sort of moral superiority that motivates his teetotalism, he just hates the taste of alcohol. It's like lighter fluid, like drinking liquid fire, nearly as bad as the time the two of them had lunch at that Asian place and Jeego tricked him into laying on that green paste, then laughed his ass off at the face he made when tears came to his eyes.

(There's no resentment attached to that memory. All he thinks of it on reflection is that Jeego actually has a surprisingly pleasant laugh.)

He thinks he catches the man's eyes widen under the brim of his fedora at the sound of his voice, but there's no other visible reaction. Which is a good deal preferable to a few of the hypothetical situations Tengo'd imagined, including him stomping out, throwing his drink in his face, socking him in the nose again, or any combination of the three.

"Virgin, eh? Well, you are what ya drink." The tone of his voice makes him think the drained cup in his hands isn't the first of its kind tonight. "'Nother salty dog," he says to the bartender, lifting two fingers to get attention. "An' put it on his tab." He tilts his head in Tengo's direction, then stares into the grain of the lacquered countertop like he's trying to memorize the pattern. "God knows he's good for it." There's no indication when he stops talking about Tengo and starts talking to him; he never looks up. "You can take it out of the 'used to be Jeego's' fund of your paycheck." The bartender places each of their respective glasses in front of them, and Jeego lifts his in front of his face, staring into the cloudy mixture. "It'll be our little celebration, eh? Here's to the next step in brownnosing." And he knocks back a slug of the cocktail.

Tengo waits until he thinks the man's finished his rant before speaking up. "I don't mind taking care of it, but there's nothing like that in my little paycheck." He pauses for a little dramatic effect. "I abdicated my position."

There's another pause in which he notes Jeego's complete non-reaction, and recalls the man wasn't exactly an academic at the best of times. "I quit. Voluntary demotion. Section Head Tengo is back to being One-Step-Ahead Tengo."

"... What?" For the first time, the man turns to face him and stares in his general direction with incredulity. "What, are you serious? For fuck's sake, why? You'd never freakin' shut up about 'ooh, taking the next step as division head'," and he waves his hands palms out around the side of his face in a demonstrative gesture. "An' after all that, you turned it down?"

"Something like that." He doesn't need to get into the financial details of the deal, the contract made with Sith and some attorney goons from accounting. Bottom line is, back to his original pay with no chance of a raise other than cost-of-living adjustments for the next ten years in exchange for a lump sum now. It's fine with him, the income's still steady, after all, so he doesn't need to worry about that; and it's a far better setup than a loan of the same amount. (Their majestic homeland contains a world of numerous inventions and discoveries to take pride in. This does not extend to even slightly reputable loan offices.)

"Why?!"

"Aww, I guess I missed your charming wit and sparkling personality." The words come out more or less on automatic, but in place of the darted eyes and muttered retorts that usually follow one of his ribbings, the man's face wears an expression reminiscent of a snarling dog.

"No. Hell no." Jeego nearly growls, squeezing his glass so tightly Tengo fears it might break. "Listen, I don't want your pity. And I sure as fuck ain't about to become your goddamn millstone!"

There's a dip in the volume around them with a few sideways glances, though the bartender doesn't look up from her glass-polishing, and he at least seems to keep enough of a semblance of self-control that he realizes to lower his voice to a hiss. "Go do whatever the hell you wanna do, be whoever the hell you're gonna be, and just leave me the hell alone."

The words are sharpened icicles dipped in poison, and when Jeego's hand unconsciously balls into a fist with the last bit of emphasis, Tengo covers his nose with his hand on reflex. Something about the action seems to make the man think twice, as he takes his glass in both hands again to steady his composure, and runs his tongue along the salted rim with his next gulp.

Threat averted, Tengo sighs in relief and turns away, taking a sip of his soda before something strikes him, and he leans his elbow on the counter with an eyebrow raised in perplexity. "Wait, could you see that just now?"

He bites his lip after saying it, not sure if the man wants to talk after what he just said, after what he never said earlier. But the man just heaves his shoulders and frowns. "... Yeah. It's ... not like a complete blackout. There're shapes, up close ... differences between light and dark..." He flexes his fingers in front of his face to illustrate, before adding carefully, "... How is it? Your honker."

With a light snort, Tengo touches the bridge of his nose gingerly, adjusting his glasses, and winces slightly. "Stings like a bitch."

"... Nnh." It's fascinating to watch him, expressions like little birds never perching anywhere for more than a moment. Flashes of sincere regret and showy arrogance, mostly, until he finally grumbles out, "... my bad." Which is closer to an 'I'm sorry' than he had ever been expecting.

The silence hangs in the air for a few minutes, each of them conspicuously not snatching glances toward the other, Tengo fiddling with the lime slice from the rim of his glass just to give his fingers something to do. Finally, he sighs, drops it on the napkin, and decides to get the words off his chest, words he had asked himself earlier. "... You could have ... told me. When it got that bad." A glance from the corners of his eyes. "I would have listened." It's not a question, not a why, because he'd never answer a why. Just a simple statement of fact.

The man lets out a suggestion of a laugh, a dry, humorless bark of sharp breath. "Yeah? But why bother?" He traces meaningless patterns on the counter with dots of condensation. "Not like there's anything you could do about it."

Ah, and there's the segue he's been looking for. "... Maybe there is." A slow smile alights on his face, almost something like a cat's if he didn't detest the things.

"Huh?" He looks at him sluggishly, squinting with one eye like he's rejudging his perception of the man's sanity. "Look, I'm not getting glasses, if you're still being stupid enough to consider that an option."

Jeego scowls more at his chuckle, not finding the amusement in presenting the same argument he had rebuffed on the man's behalf earlier today. He was impulsive, true, but sometimes the man could be terribly predictable. But it was comforting, like broken-in shoes, a welcoming sense of familiarity. "Now when did I say anything about glasses?" He slips his hand into the pocket of his trenchcoat, pulls out the small but hefty wooden box; simple in design, but polished to a dark sheen. On the form, he'd checked the boxes for all the bells and whistles, and the extra fee for the gift box was chump change compared to the total bill. A little whimsical splurge of sorts, taking refuge in stylistic audacity. "Here." He passes it to him on the counter. "For you."

He picks it up with an expression of curiosity, shaking it with both hands and turning it upside-down before grimacing. "Blind guy here. What is it, a box? And it's not even my birthday." Like he would care if it was; he always seemed surprised or embarrassed when Tengo remembered his birthday every year, though the man was notoriously hard to shop for. Last year he'd picked a whiskey older than his grandfather (he wonders if he's managed to keep any of it around until now or if it was unsanctimoniously downed within the week), two years ago a pair of elegant and stylish black shoes (and he couldn't stop smiling ridiculously behind his hands when he saw him actually wearing them the next day).

This ought to count for this year's.

He rests both hands on the box on the counter, deciding to pull this off with a little flair. "This, my vision-impaired friend, is the latest in human-optics advancement technology." He opens the box towards the man, letting him see the objects resting on the plush velvet interior. "Cutting-edge, jam-packed with features, and worth more than all the cash you could stuff into one of the midget's suitcases." Tengo looks towards him, slightly smiling in anticipation of the man's reaction.

Jeego stares.

The objects stare back.

"... You ... bought me ... eyes."

"Bionic eyes. Best on the market." The grin on his face must look astoundingly stupid, stretching to his ears. He can't help it. This is better than he'd dreamed. "Isn't our country's use of technology just plain great?"

"You bought me eyes." Jeego can't stop blinking, his mouth slightly ajar. "You are seriously giving me eyeballs. In a box." Somewhere in that sentence, the corners of his mouth curled up, and his throat makes a little amazed scoffing sound. "Damn, you treat all your girlfriends this nice?"

Tengo quirks an eyebrow at that and smirks, used to the man's brusque comments and rancorous remarks over him trying anything sardonic, and it kind of shows. It was probably supposed to sound flippant. Instead it sounds ... sincere, maybe even a little jealous. And he probably caught that himself, judging by the flush tinting his cheeks more than alcohol could account for. "Only if they're really good~" he simpers more than says, with a bit of a husky lilt, just to see his face.

And he doesn't disappoint. After a ten-second theatre of sneers, pouts, and shifted eyes, he asks, "So, uh... Features?"

"Mhm. Like appearance." The sales clerk's spiel is still echoing around in his head, all the 'fantastic, life-changing benefits' of the particular model he chose. "The irises're brown right now; when you go to put 'em in, they'll be set to as identical to your baby blues as they can get 'em, but apparently you can switch the colors around whenever you want. Red, gold, purple -- hell, you could get 'em to tell time or look like a nebula if you wanted." Jeego gives him an odd look, and he shrugs slightly; he didn't make up the examples. "And they've got different settings you can switch between -- there's a brick of an instruction manual in here too, don't worry -- but things like zoom, macro, night vision, thermal, X-ray..." The man wears a lopsided smirk at that one, and Tengo rolls his eyes good-naturedly.

"Heat vision?" He's taken the balls from their box now, weighing them in his palm and running his fingertip around a cornea.

"Knew you'd ask that. It was an available additional option, so I decided to throw it in there. You can fry an egg at thirty paces with these babies." As he inspects the eyes with the closest thing he's ever seen to a look of impressed reverence on his face, Tengo darts his eyes away and tucks a hand behind his neck. "And ... one that mimics an eyesight with a prescription of two hundred over twenty. So you can still be Nearsighted Jeego." It feels like he's coming close to a private subject for some reason, a secret. It was just another option he'd tacked on, not sure what the man's actual prescription was but adding it in anyway, because he really didn't know the real motivation behind his not getting contacts. If it was some sort of fear of change, maybe this would help...? "You know ... when you want."

Blue eyes darken, his mood seems to sober in more ways than one. Jeego's hand has slipped inside the box, laying the spheres back in their niches and rotating one around with a finger slowly, thinking. It may be the first time Jeego's actually thought before saying something to him.

"The world is ugly."

It's quiet, and there's a tremble to his tone, as if the words hurt to say. It sounds nearly a confession to something huge, a secret he doesn't want to give up.

"It's pathetic. Filled with garbage." The man on the stool next to him isn't with him, staring into some distant, solitary world, a place Tengo knows not at all. "You get to learn that up close and personal, in this job. We're briefed on the basic background of our marks for our assignments. He got too close. She knows too much. They'll blow the whistle. Enemies of the government." His finger stops turning the sphere and begins to simply tap it rhythmically. "And soon you start to see them as enemies yourself. I guess you have to, to cope or ... whatever. Have to pretend they're the lowest of the low. Scum. Not worthy of their life."

"Jeego..." The name falls from his lips like a feather, small and delicate. He knew the man for as long as the the two had been in the hitman division together. And now he might as well be a stranger, this man to his side with these thoughts he knew nothing about.

The stranger continues. "And when your biggest source of human relations is staring those guys down the business end of your barrel... You know? It's like..." He shakes his head, as if not only at a loss for words but words themselves couldn't be enough to express himself. "It's ugly business. And that makes me king of the uglies." He closes the box and takes up his glass again, punctuating his statement by finishing off the little left. "So yeah. I told myself there's nothin' worth seein' in this world anyways, so why get glasses." He pushes away the empty cup and pulls the box into his lap, feeling the edges of the wood, the opening, the hinges. "... But you know, maybe there is one thing in the world that just might make it worth seeing all the garbage again."

Tengo has no idea at all what to say, what the proper response could be. He's always prided himself on being one step ahead, but Jeego's just spun him around and dropped him in a labyrinth, and it feels like any step at all will only succeed in getting him more lost. Still, he's obviously been given an opening, and he has to say something. "What? Your handsome mug?" Sarcasm might be completely uncalled for after all that, but it's all he's got.

Thankfully he doesn't seem to take it the wrong way, actually chuckling, a surprisingly pleasant laugh. "... No. Yours."

He meets Tengo's gaze, and in his eyes are delight and laughter and a sharp edge of something more, if he wants to find out.

Tengo wants it.

The two of them hold eye contact for a moment more, imperceptibly leaning closer ... before Jeego breaks it off and looks away with another laugh, slightly less genuine. "God, that was cheesy. That was so cheesy. Look at what you're doing to me. Turning me into a sap." And just like that, the smile disappears, replaced by a wary, drawn-out frown. "... And listen, I can't accept this just like that." He picks up the box as if to replace it on the counter, but his hands don't quite leave the sides. "I don't want your pity, and I won't take your charity either."

Now it was Tengo's turn to chuckle. The man could be a terrible liar at times. "That ego of yours will be the death of you someday." Because it's just like he said. It's his pride. His damned hot-headed stubbornness. And he wouldn't change it for a thing. "Has it ever occurred to you once in your life that maybe not everything's about you? That maybe I have my own selfish little reasons for keeping you around?" He puts his smile in his words, the smile for once not sarcastic or insincere or mocking, but true.

"... Then ... why? Why are you doing this?" His voice is small, his tone less confused than unsteady, as if he already knows the answer and wonders what it means. "For me. ... To me."

Tengo smiles, and it's warm and bright as a muzzle flash.

 

=fire.

 

"Check, please."

"... How much is it?"

"It doesn't matter. Come on, let's get out of here."

And they leave.