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and all i loved, i loved alone

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“An ability?”

“Yes, quite odd. There are few details, but it appears to be more or less harmless, not combat-based. You need not worry, Mr. Poe, it’s nothing—”

From birth Edgar grows up knowing only the looks on his aunts’ and uncles’ and older cousins’ faces when they think no one’s looking, the words they say when they think no one’s listening. He’s a child of the devil, he’s got the look of it, those eyes, those eyes. He must have cheated to win all those competitions, how can a child of someone like David Poe… He reaches up and flattens his bangs, kept long just to hide the hollow, sunken gray eyes so unlike the rest of his family’s. Sometimes he thinks he’s finally gotten it right when they bend down and pat his head and tell him how smart and bright he is, until the poems he scrawls on the back of Ma’s old playscripts later tell him they were talking about him again, long after he’d gone to bed, an ability user, yes, surely, that’s the only way.

Da, am I an ability user, he asks, one day. Da looks down at him, asks where he heard that from, and Edgar says, My friends. I haven’t introduced you?

“Nothing—nothing? An ability user—like those—those criminals and thieves and murderers? My son might be one of those? What if he loses control and kills all of Boston in one night—don’t tell me this is nothing!

“Mr. Poe! His ability is hardly—”

“—quack doctor, I knew I shouldn’t have—”

“—harmless if you get him a private tutor—Mr. Poe, wait!”

At home, Da pushes Edgar into his room and sweeps all the papers off his little table. No, Edgar tries to shout, no, please, they’re my friends, I told you about them, please don’t do that, but he only manages “D-Da.” His voice is still tremulous, prone to stuttering at the slightest provocation. “Da—”

Da whirls around to face him. “Under no circumstances will you ever use your ability. Ever. Do you understand?” There are papers clutched in his hands, folding under his grip, and Edgar thinks he can hear the screaming inside, the cries of pain, the blood that might splatter onto the floor if Da clenches his fists any harder.

Edgar breathes, quick and shaky. “But—But—”

“Do you have any idea how having an ability user as our child would jeopardize our reputation?” Da interrupts—then he lays a hand on Edgar’s shoulder, warm and solid and all the more terrifying. His voice softens, just the slightest bit (—Edgar wants to think it’s because Da loves him, but the devil in him whispers fake, fake, fake); “Think about your Ma and Da. Eliza and I would be cast out of every single movie they’d want us to star in. Understand?”

Da lets him keep his friends—but under his watchful eye, Edgar places them all in an old, rusting metal box that Da keeps the key to. His hands shake the whole time, and don’t stop for the rest of the night.

Elizabeth and David Poe were actors. That might have been why Edgar had gotten good at uncovering secrets and finding clues in the tiniest details, because actors hid away plenty of things they didn’t want the media finding out about. At nine years old, Edgar hadn’t really known why he wanted to know what they are—there had only been the burning need to find out, to know more, to learn. A year later, he realized it was because he’d needed the knowledge to pull through and keep living.

Ma hides their playscripts and sits down with him every time he does his homework, so she can make sure he writes numbers and equations and solutions on the paper, and nothing else. Afterwards she takes the notebooks and textbooks and only leaves the room after double-checking for any spare paper. But finding the playscripts takes Edgar a matter of seconds, and it becomes a bit of a game for him, to see how fast he can snatch them out from under Ma’s nose. His parents’ room is the easiest; when they’re both out, rehearsing late into the night, Edgar picks the lock open with a paperclip he’d taken from the lost-and-found at school and carries pages away into his room, little by little, his heart leaping with every sheet of paper he brings back.

(The lock of the metal box is too rusted to pick open—on the first broken paperclip, Edgar assesses its state and figures it isn’t worth wasting more on a lost cause. They’re hard enough to scavenge for on the floor during classes, after all, when no one’s paying him attention. He keeps the box anyway.)

Classes are a bore, but Edgar learns, apart from multiplication and division, that performing well in assessments makes his parents almost forget he has an ability—his certificates and awards start crowding up his room until they take up more space than his bed. Da slaps his shoulders and laughs out a good job; Ma smiles and hugs him tight and doesn’t say a word about no writing. Sometimes Edgar can forget he’s an outcast, too, an ability user destined to turn bad—he can forget Da’s devil-soft voice, his too-heavy hand, the metal box gathering dust on his nightstand.

But there is no forgetting the loneliness when he is back in his room at night, locking the door with a paperclip-trick he’d seen some of the older boys at school do, and sifting through the papers he hid in a loose floorboard under his bed. His penmanship has been praised by the teachers at school, but it still has the messy scrawl of a child writing and writing until the tip of the pencil is suspiciously short under Da’s scrutinous eyes. He can feel the power at his fingertips, the ability yearning to burst forth and glow bright blue every time he touches pen and paper—sometimes Edgar reaches for it, calls that power, but whenever the faintest of light begins to illuminate the darkness of his room, he shoves the papers back under the floorboard and retreats beneath his blankets, shaking and shivering and remembering how they’d screamed, how they’d cried in Da’s grip.

Never again, never again, never again, he promises, over and over. But he uncovers secrets, one by one—a Mr. Something-or-Other Ma visits far too often to Da’s liking, the discarded bottles in the trash that give off the stink Da tries to hide, Ma’s morning sickness when Da is still too deep in sleep to notice—and reality becomes too, too much to bear. Never again, Edgar thinks, one night, but his pencil is flying and by the time he’s filled up the paper he’s reaching for it, reaching for that blue glow, thinking, One more time. Just one more time.

His friends never hurt him. His friends never call him the devil’s child—his friends never yell and scream and shout at him about his ability, about how he’ll be the downfall of his parents’ careers. Edgar wraps himself up in the glow well until daybreak, at which point he’s shaken out of his worlds by the sounds of Ma vomiting in the toilet.

Every night becomes one last time, one last time—then Da breaks his bedroom door lock (that’d been his last paperclip) in the middle of a poem about meadows and Edgar breaks off from admiring the flowers on the field when he feels actual, physical pain from Da stepping on the paper he’s drawn himself in. “Get out!” Da yells, voice like the world’s worst thunderstorm, the kind Edgar always hides under the covers from because they make his ears ring and his room rumble—“Get out, you filthy—you little—you devil!”

Fear roots Edgar where he stands, at first, but the flowers tell him to run, so he does—the glow throws Da against the wall from shock, but rage moves him to tear up the papers again, yelling and screaming and shouting, “How many times, how many times have I told you, do you need a beating? Do you need one before it sinks into your thick head—never! Use! Your ability!” Da tosses the papers aside and advances on him, thunderstorm-footsteps and thunderstorm-glare—this close, Edgar can smell the discarded-bottle stink on his breath.

Some nights he thinks he can still hear it: the ripping, the screaming, the crumpling, the bleeding.

“No! No!

But most nights he remembers this, vividly, not a single detail forgotten: his muscles moving him into the most defensive position he knows, the cawing of a raven, the yowls of a cat, all ripped to shreds in Da’s heavy hands. Run, he keeps hearing. Run. Run. Run. Even with his eyes squeezed shut he can still see the flowers—swaying, unbroken, bending only under the light breeze.

This is what he remembers most: reaching out, curling trembling hands into fists, power flowing out from his fingertips—the bright glow, Da’s shout—then nothing but his heart, inexorably loud and racing faster than lightning.

Ma’s footsteps are echoing down the corridor, in an obvious hurry but slowed by labored breathing and a heaviness that Edgar knows is another side-effect from what causes her morning sickness. Edgar leaps to his feet, throws on his favorite coat (the one Da had bought for him as a reward for getting first place on the spelling competition), and stuffs papers and pens in all six of its pockets, tucking the dusty metal box into the snug inside pouch. He leaves the poem with the flowers on the floor, surrounded by torn shreds of other stories—he thinks he can still hear them, telling him, run, run, run.

Da will be fine, there are ability nullifiers, Da will be fine, Da will be fine, but I won’t be, not after this, Edgar thinks, and then, to the flowers: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Then he clambers out of his bedroom window and braves the fall from the second floor. If he had run away later, when his growth spurt has hit him, the height would have been nothing; but at ten years old the fall is long and far enough for him to say goodbyes to the flowers, goodbyes to Da, goodbyes to Ma, goodbyes to the younger sister he will never know, now—Rosalie, he thinks would have been her name, if the murmurs of Ma he hears come through the thin walls have anything to do with it. Rosalie, Edgar thinks—goodbye. And then—he runs. It is the only thing he knows how to do.

That is the first night he spends cold and painful and lonely. In the future he thinks of a warm smile to help him get by, and even later on a raccoon will wrap itself around his freezing hands to cover them in downy fur—but right now he knows nothing except the cold, the pain, the loneliness.

When the moon is big and full, hung up in the sky by a single thread liable to snap at any moment, Edgar collapses on hard stone steps. No one is out at this time of the night except the shadows flitting across the walls, and even those Edgar cannot bring himself to be scared of, when those shadows had kept him company through the long hours spent under his bed, poring over the backs of playscripts. Instead he fears the freezing wind chewing away at his skin, sending his less secured sheets of paper flapping away from him and into the darkness of the city. With every one that escapes his grasp, he feels parts of his heart crack and chip away, falling and shattering onto the rough cement stained red from the opened cuts on his now-callused feet.

Another page flies free from his desperate grip (Annabel’s, Annabel’s story…). Edgar knows he cannot afford to lie here on these steps forever, but he can only struggle to crawl forward and curl up in a pathetic ball on a rough, threadbare welcome mat. He knows not where he is, only that there must be warmth up ahead, safety from the biting wind, if he can only move further… further…

He stirs awake for a few moments, enough to register he is wrapped up in something warm—a pair of arms cradling him like a baby, the owner humming something that soothes him back to sleep in a matter of seconds. A voice as soft as the flowers from his fields asks him, “Are you alright? What’s your name, sweetheart?”—but he can only mumble something unintelligible before drifting off once again.

Later he wakes once more, but keeps his eyes closed when he doesn’t recognize the fluffy pillow beneath his head, the thick blanket warming his ice-cold skin, the plush mattress carrying his body. Nothing feels like the thinness of his bed back at home—ah, that place is no longer home for him, he supposes—and eventually curiosity prompts him to open his eyes a slit. Even the ceiling looks lavish, decorated with a faint pattern of curling vines and plants. (Flowers, the flowers—)

“Awake, are you?”

(Gruff and hard and nothing like the flowers—Edgar should have known.)

John and Frances Allan had always wanted a child, but God would not have it so—at least, that is what Edgar’s new Mother tells him every time she is reminded of it, something that occurs more and more often as she grows older. The night he had shown up on the doorstep of the hotel they had been staying in on their trip to Boston had, Mother says, been God’s way of telling them Edgar was destined to be adopted by them.

Personally, Edgar thinks it’s plain coincidence. If God really exists, he quietly reasons during the baptism Mother had insisted on, He wouldn’t have cursed me with an ability. He wouldn’t have left me wanting to die when I was still in that… place. But he loves Mother all the same, and thinks that perhaps it isn’t such a coincidence that her voice is like that of the flowers, the last poem he’d ever written in That Place.

But sometimes on the coldest and loneliest of nights, it feels like Father is still Da—John Allan does not bother masking the disdain on his face every time he looks Edgar’s way. With hearing refined from the training of his aunts and uncles and older cousins, Edgar listens to Father muttering about how much of a delinquent he looks, how shameful it would be if his colleagues and business partners in the merchandising industry hear that his child was adopted and not biological, how he looks like a devilish little sneak, Frances, why would you even—Edgar stops listening there, because his voice had begun to blend and mix and blur into that of his relatives’.

When the family’s vacation in Boston ends, Edgar asks where they will be going next—Mother runs a hand through his hair and tries to keep his bangs out of his eyes for longer than a few seconds, to little success. “Richmond, Virginia,” she tells him. “Thus do we reach the stars. Your new home.”

“The stars?” repeats Edgar. He looks up at the night sky, when they’re 474 miles away from Boston, and watches the pinpricks of light twinkle and flicker in the far, far distance. Thus do we reach the stars—he slides the window of his new room open, feels the cool wind blow across his face, and stares up at the expanse of nothingness interrupted only by the bloated full moon and minute glimmers of—what? Edgar can’t describe them so simply as lights or stars. Something celestial, otherworldly, something he could try to reach for all his life and never obtain.

Edgar settles into his new bed, under his new blankets, but only after setting the metal box on the nightstand and gently folding up every last one of the papers he had saved from David Poe’s rage and the merciless winds. Seven poems, six of them nonsensical and written, he remembers, at the dead of night. But one has—potential, he thinks, to be something more than just another childish scrawl, with all its odd morbidity and macabreness. He turns the paper over his hands, again and again, reading the messily scribbled words until he might be able to recite it from memory. On instinct he reaches for that power, that glow—

—and retracts, when the glow that comes forth is not a bright blue but a blood-curdling black, as if born from the deepest depths of Hell itself. Pain snaps at his hand and Edgar recoils, drops the paper—it seems to boil and simmer when it lands on the floor, the wooden boards below it scorched black, thin plumes of smoke rising. As quickly as possible, Edgar snatches the paper off the floor and shoves it in a drawer—but takes it back out, when it no longer burns or blackens. He stares at it, then at the floor—still burnt, still smoking.

Edgar slips the paper into the inside pocket of his coat, hung up on a clothes rack, and goes to sleep with the window open, to let the smoke out. In the morning he wakes up early to move his modest study desk to hide the burnt spot, and takes the paper out again to reread the poem five more times as Mother takes his coat to the laundry. Thus do we reach the stars—and yet, and yet, this paper, this poem, had an aura so inky black to it that there was no possible way it could ever come close to the light of the stars.

(Edgar knows blue glows, green glows, and later on he will know the occasional pure, blinding white light. But the blackness stays with him like ink stains on his fingertips—the deepest nights that no shine could penetrate, a glow that could not be called a glow because it darkened, did not illuminate as a glow should. He writes and writes and writes, and still the shadows persist, the hissing snap and shred of scorching fire whenever he reached for his power.

That should have been a sign, too.)

Edgar is no stranger to hate. John Allan detests him, has ever since Mother had brought him in their hotel room, cooing over a child with hair so long and ragged they covered his eyes. “If you can’t look your client in the eyes, you can’t trust them,” Father tells him, every time the topic of his work comes up. “Eyes are windows to the soul, y’know. You can always tell when a guy’s lying, so long as you look in his eyes.” And every single time, he gives Edgar’s bangs a mildly disgusted look, like a gardener seeing weeds in his master’s garden.

(Sometimes Edgar thinks about how he can see Da’s eyes when he looks in the mirror. Ma has the most beautiful violet ones with little specks of blue—everyone always said her eyes were the kind people could fall in love with. Da’s were nothing special, a nondescript green, but when the alcohol bottles started piling in their garbage, Edgar could see his own unnatural sunken eyes reflected in Da’s drawn face.)

But even gardeners would be amazed if their weeds suddenly became the most beautiful flowers—so Edgar studies day and night, reads his textbooks cover to cover, and when he finishes with them, goes on to scour the nearby libraries and bookstores for the advanced ones meant for students in higher levels. He signs up for competitions and tournaments, borrows the school’s piano and teaches himself Moonlight Sonata in a week—not that hard, when he can hear the teachers whispering, no way can he do it, just look at him, a new student trying so hard to upstage—and then they go silent when he performs it flawlessly.

After a while, Father stops giving his hair That Look, although Mother certainly doesn’t stop dragging him to hair salons that can never quite fend off his bangs for more than a few days at a time. When Father is particularly happy with the medal Edgar brings home, he invites all his friends, those business partners he’s found useful enough to want to keep, and brags about his son’s intelligence, his smarts and his brightness, and ruffles the hair he hates so much.

It’s so fake it hurts, but—in those moments, Edgar can forget he has an ability he hasn’t told Mother and Father about. In those moments, Edgar can pretend to forget this is exactly how Da had treated him—a precious child until he reached for that power, the one that demanded freedom every time his fingers felt paper.

(Nearly two weeks after meeting John and Frances Allan, Edgar’s photo shows up on the Richmond Times-Dispatch, with the caption HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY? blaring underneath. When Edgar takes the morning paper from the mailbox and sees his devil’s eyes staring up at him, he folds the page up and tucks it away in a pocket. It was like that when I got it, Edgar says, when Father scowls.

Later, when Father has gone to work and Mother is taking her afternoon nap, Edgar brings the newspaper into his room. At seven years old his smiles had not been quite so forced as now, his demeanor not quite so sullen. He wonders if Ma had been the one to choose this picture, and why—perhaps remembering, he guesses, a time from before they had taken him to the doctor, when David Poe had not yet smelled so strongly of alcohol, when Elizabeth Poe had not yet been pregnant with another man’s son. The rest of the article talks about how Da had only been able to “escape” the paper he’d been “imprisoned” in thanks to his son’s “devil-gifted” ability, and Edgar thinks that it wouldn’t be so bad if he hadn’t left—it is not a poem about suffering, after all. He didn’t suffer, Edgar tells himself, staring at the newspaper almost as thin and gray as him. He didn’t suffer. Like he’s already dead.

He cuts the article out and slips it into his drawer. There was no mention of his parents’ names, only the boy’s mother and father, and Edgar thinks he shouldn’t be so surprised that they’re still thinking about their reputation.)

In this house, when Edgar writes, Mother croons about how he’s got a talented, creative mind—on good days Father looks impressed at the papers Edgar fills up, and on bad days he ignores him, which are fairly alright days for Edgar all around. Mother buys him a notebook, so he can be a bit more organized, unlike that hair of yours, dear, won’t you please let me cut it this time—and Edgar fills up page after page, notebook after notebook, relishing in how his thirst for writing, dehydrated from years of lightless nights under the bed, can be satiated now.

But even when the power whispers, calls, screams at him to be let loose, he only allows up to the faintest glow to see what color the paper shines with; he folds the blues and greens up to tuck into his quickly-filling drawers, and keeps the black ones on his person at all times. At eleven, he has two—at sixteen he has twelve. He isn’t quite sure why he holds the black ones so close to his heart (sometimes literally)—only that someday he will need to bring one out on short notice, and he does not want to know what will happen if he fails to do so.

The first few times he assesses their glow, he wraps his hands in cool, wet cloth to soothe the burns—when he gets used to them, he forgets they’re supposed to hurt at all.

“Dare you to mess with the new kid?”

“How’s that a dare? I was gonna do it anyway.”

At first Edgar thinks overhearing their conversation gives him the upper hand, and for a moment it does—he ducks out of the way when the older boy makes a grab for the notebook he’d been scribbling on. But then he gets the wind punched out of him with a solid fist to the gut, and as he’s busy doubling over and crumpling to the ground, the older student snatches up his notebook and sneers. “Bet you thought that was a good move, huh?”

“Better than whatever you’d been thinking, talking so loudly like that,” Edgar mutters. At twelve he can keep his voice from dissolving into a stuttering, incoherent mess—

“Punk! Think you’re so smart?” Riiip—

“Wai—S-St-Stop!”

—except for moments like these, when fear and pain far outweigh any control over his speech. The older boy just blinks at him, and laughs as he tears a page out of the notebook—Edgar gasps and has to fight hard to maintain his breathing, but oxygen refuses to enter his lungs, his chest aching like a strip of his skin there had been peeled off as well. “Stop, s-stop, st-st-stop,” he pleads, begs, but there is only laughter, thunderstorm-footsteps, alcohol breath, screams and shouts and yells, pain pain pain my friends my friends

“Now, what’s going on here?—Mr. Poe! Are you alright?”

Thump—Edgar scrabbles to grab the notebook off the ground and hold it close to his chest, feeling his breathing come easier and the pain ebb away as soon as the other boy lets go. But the fear does not leave—it stays with him the whole time the teacher asks him if he’s alright, allows him to go home early, talks to his parents, a mild panic attack, I believe, and offers him some candy before he leaves.

Edgar takes the candy (too sweet), but he doesn’t let go of his notebook. He can’t let go of his notebook. When Father approaches him, he barely thinks before curling into the defensive position that protects his head and neck from the heaviest injuries, and it’s only Mother, stroking his hair and humming flower-soft, who can coax him back out of the fear.

Far from being treated better, the older boys (and some of the girls) take turns picking on him, pulling at his long hair and resorting to punches and kicks when Edgar foregoes all sense of self-preservation and snaps at them with a quick-wit remark they can never understand. Mother frets about how all his scrapes and bruises won’t help his already naturally sickly constitution; Father grunts about how those scrapes and bruises will build character.

If there is one thing Edgar learns, though, it’s that he never brings his notebooks to school again. Only the blackest poems he keeps folded and tucked in his uniform pockets—and even when the insults hit too close to home, even when his entire body crumples underneath the hits, even when his hands itch to reach for them, reach for the power, he grits his teeth and shuts his eyes and never does so.

Until at sixteen.

The path Edgar takes to go home after school everyday is usually deserted, which is the whole reason he’d chosen it—it’s roundabout, dusty, and always littered with trash, but it only makes him love it all the more. (It’s the closest thing to a second home he gets, but he doesn’t want to admit that, even to himself.) Stray animals prowl about, too, and after a while Edgar can identify individual ones on sight—he starts setting aside portions of his lunch to feed the cats with, and sometimes even the ravens fly down from their perches on the perpetually dead trees to join in. It’s a wonder, that neither animal tries to attack the other—Edgar watches the cats nibble and the ravens peck at his food, and feels at home.

(He remembers friends from a different part of his life—a short story about a cat, a poem about a raven. He remembers their strangled cries and caws when David Poe had ripped them to shreds—but he tries not to think about that too much.)

On a sweltering hot day he stays late after classes, forgetting the time in the middle of reading a long thick novel in the school library. By the time he’s finished, it’s nearing 6pm (the librarian almost locks him in the building), and Father will be raising an eyebrow at his lateness, so Edgar rushes through the path—he could take any other, shorter route, but he feels safer here anyway, under the shadows cast by the bare branches of the trees and listening to the hoarse crowing of the ravens.

On a sweltering hot night, the ravens are crowing and cawing more raucously than usual, loud enough that it makes Edgar’s ears ring—he slows his jog down after a while, both out of tiredness and confusion, and freezes when he sees a circle of five older students, likely seniors from his school, kicking something small and black around. The feeble voice in him hoping it’s just a ball covered in shadows quickly falls silent when the thing meows pitifully. A kitten—a kitten he had fed only two days earlier.

Edgar does not think. He steps over and taps the nearest one on the shoulder, smiles politely and greets, before any of them can say anything, “Good evening, I’d like to inform you about a sale we’re having, there are selected items 80 percent off—” He hands over a sheet of paper, wrinkled and yellowed from age, and only waits for as long as it takes the perplexed thug to look down at the words. And then Edgar reaches out, reaches for that power, pulls and tugs and drags his ability out from the devil inside him to envelop the paper, his hands, and the thug in the deepest of blacks.

He does not feel the burn. He only hears the crowing and cawing, the whimpering kitten, the sudden th-thump of a heart. The four other boys gawk at him—one, two, three seconds, and then they scramble to take off down the dirt road, pushing and shoving to get ahead of each other. It takes them less than a minute to disappear from sight (th-thump); it takes Edgar less than a minute to fold the searing-hot paper into its neat square and slip it back into his coat (th-thump th-thump). The heat from it fades fast, but it’s now that he can feel his hands burning up (th-thump th-thump th-thump)—he sticks them in his pockets and wonders where he put that cool cloth that had served him so well before he’d grown used to the blackness. Thump thump thump thump thump.

At first he wonders why his heart is beating so quickly and so loudly—then he realizes it isn’t his own. By the time he gets home, sweat sticking his clothes onto his skin, the beating has crescendoed to a rapid, almost unbearable drum of thumpthumpthumpthumpthump until it feels less like a heartbeat and more like someone slamming their head against a wall, over and over and over until—

“What’s with the lateness, Ed?”

“W-Was just reading in the library, Father. Lost track of time.”

—until—

“Ahh, you kids, you always say that. Lose track of time—you make it sound like you were with a girl, man. Were you? You know you can tell me. What’s her name?”

—until—

“Maybe later, Father? I should—go, I have—homework—”

“So there is a lady! Come on, Ed—”

—until until until until

“—Hey, is that a cat you brought home there?”

“W-What?”

Edgar turns—at his heels is the kitten, thin and bony and barely bigger than his palm. It mewls and paws at his feet, and for a moment Edgar forgets that the heartbeat has stopped.

Mother, predictably, fawns over the animal and insists Edgar get to keep it—Father is reluctant but doesn’t seem to mind too much. As it nibbles on some leftover chicken from dinner, Edgar retreats into the relative safety of his room and brings out the still-warm paper—his first black poem, saved from David Poe and That Place. He lays his hand, still stinging with pain, over the weathered page—an overwhelming sense of lifelessness greets him, not just emptiness and nothingness but a complete lack of life from where there once had been a madly beating heart.

He drops the paper like it had scorched him again, and dampens a cloth with cool water to wrap around his hands. He sits by his desk for the better part of an hour, staring at the paper sitting so innocently on his table, until he hears a meow from outside his room.

The kitten bounds inside as soon as Edgar opens the door, wandering around and sniffing at every little thing before nuzzling up to his leg. “Don’t do that, you’re all dirty,” Edgar mumbles—he leaves the cloth on the table and brings the cat into the bathroom, where he can wash off the dirt clinging to its fur. It doesn’t twitch or hiss in displeasure the whole time, staying perfectly docile until he murmurs, “Alright, you’re clean,” at which point it jumps out of the sink and trails water everywhere.

Edgar looks down at the cat—less than a few minutes and it’s already gone back to rub against his ankles again. During its quick bath he’d felt its bones through its fur, felt still-fresh cuts and bumps it had doubtless received from the boys earlier. Its mother must not be around, he thinks, unable to recall seeing any other cat with fur as pitch black as this one. It wouldn’t live long back outside… too young to hunt for itself…

The kitten follows him up to his room once more, and totters around while he sits by his desk, hands in the cloth and eyes fixed on the lifeless paper. It hits him, again, that there must be a body inside that paper, the poem he’d written with his own hands—the body of a boy not much older than him, who had hobbies and dreams and aspirations and—and a family, a family that will soon be asking around for him, a family that might get the police for help and the police might ask the other boys who had run away and the boys will say Edgar Allan Poe—

He takes a deep, deep breath, exhales, and lays a hand on the paper again. Still nothing. Not that he hadn’t been expecting the heartbeat to start up again, which would have been far more terrifying, but—but. When he closes his eyes, he can somehow see the landscape within the poem—a foggy graveyard at night, clouds blocking the moon so completely that not a sliver of light pierces the mist.

And a body, both fresh and ashen, on the cold soil. The urge to move back, to open his eyes and leave this place nearly overpowers Edgar, but he keeps his hand steady and focuses on the body. Tall for a seventeen-year-old, a hooked nose, a pimple below his right ear, the latest cell phone model in his pocket (means he’s rich, means his parents have money, means they can afford a hired detective, means means means)—Edgar knows his face, has seen it twist into smirks and sneers in the hallways, but into loud boisterous laughs in the gymnasium, too.

Focus, focus, focus. Cause of death. For the life of him, Edgar can’t identify what it is—there are no external wounds, and all he can see is the look of utter horror and fright on the boy’s face (he’s still a boy he’s barely any older than Edgar himself how could he how could he). With a flash of realization Edgar mentally goes over the second stanza in the well-memorized poem—the spirits of the dead who stood in life before thee are again in death around thee… their will shall overshadow thee: be still. And then he understands—killed by the dead.

He opens his eyes—the graveyard (and the fog, and the coldness, and the body) fade from vision to be replaced by the kitten that has jumped onto his lap without him noticing. It purrs and bats at his stomach, then stills when Edgar pets it. “You’re clingy,” he notes—his usual stutter doesn’t make itself known.

Inexplicably enough, the kitten meows, as if in reply to him. He can almost understand what it says, probably something along the lines of, Only because your lap is warm! It feels like a sufficiently cat-like thing to say.

Absently, Edgar checks its side, and frowns at the large cut he had washed the blood from—it’s already scabbed over, but he can too-easily imagine how a solid kick could have sent it skidding across sharp rocks on the ground. “They really hurt you. Why?”

Meow. How should I know?

“Oh, right—of course you wouldn’t know, you couldn’t even fight back.” Edgar smoothens the fur down and smiles when the cat purrs in contentment. At first he doesn’t know why his face muscles are protesting at the movement until he realizes it’s because most of his “smiles” before this were little more than twitches at the corners of his lips.

Meow. Look, you’re smiling, the kitten seems to say—it sits up in his lap and reaches for his face with its front paws. Edgar lifts it up and lets it bat at his cheeks with tiny paws, its claws so soft he barely feels them. It’s probably rather unsanitary and he might get its fur in his mouth, but his smile just grows and for a moment he forgets about the corpse hidden away in his words, the blood on his hands—for the first time it feels like he’s finally made a friend outside of his own imagination, even if it is a cat.

“You need a name,” he muses. His eyes drift over to the poem still on his table, and the title scribbled near the top—Spirits of the Dead. He thinks of the fear on the boy’s face, his life cut so short because he’d kicked around an animal that couldn’t possibly fight back. And for what reason? Edgar asks himself—Why did they need to hurt it? Just for the sake of hurting something? Just for the sake of feeling powerful? He thinks of the fear that’s become a part of him, his habit of staying near the back of a room to make sure no one can sneak up and get him from behind. Thunderstorm-footsteps. Thunderstorm-glares. Why did they need to hurt me?

Meow. Pay attention to me!

“Sorry, sorry.” Edgar sets the cat back down, where it begins to eye a loose thread on his coat. “How does Pluto sound to you?”

Meow. You should fix your coat, it’s coming apart at the seams.

Edgar tugs at the thread. “Hm.” But the cat doesn’t seem to object to the name, so after slipping Spirits of the Dead into a spare blank notebook, Edgar goes to sleep with Pluto beside him on the bed. The night is warm, and so is his chest—the coldness of death evades him, for a while.

It revisits him not long after; the next day’s afternoon, he comes home from school to find something swinging from a tree not too far from his house. The logical part of his head knows what it is as soon as he sees it—every other particle in his body refuses to believe it.

“You murdered our friend for a stupid cat,” one of the boys and the obvious leader of their group says, shoving his face close to Edgar’s. “What the hell’s wrong with you, ability user? You’d kill a human for a tiny animal?”

“We’re telling the police,” another pipes up. “You can have fun using your ability when you’re cuffed with nullifiers. You really are the devil’s—”

“What makes you think I won’t murder all four of you now?” Edgar whispers, so low that the slightest wind would have swept his voice away. But the day is hot and dry, and all four boys’ faces pale at his words. “Go on. Tell the police. See what I’ll do to you before they get to me.”

The sight of them running away like the devil’s behind them would be amusing if Edgar doesn’t think about how unfortunately accurate the comparison is. He unties the rope and sits at the base of the tree for a little while, unable to move or cry or anything, can only cradle Pluto’s cold, cold body in his arms. Another life cut short because of him, but this time a life so innocent, so sinless, that there is nothing to justify its end. There is no justice, really, Edgar thinks. There is no justice, no right or wrong or black or white, only the boundary between life and death and what little it took for someone to go too far over the pathetic fence separating the two.

He buries Pluto in their backyard—there’s a shovel somewhere in the storage room, but it’s too far and he doesn’t want to walk anymore. Edgar digs and digs and gets dirt under his nails, sees the soil cover the ink blots on his fingers, feels grounded enough for the gears working his emotions to start spinning again. When he lays Pluto into the earth, hands brushing over wounds that had still been healing, he feels a shock of anger—when he pushes the dirt back into the plot, he remembers thunderstorm-footsteps and screams of pain—when he stands up and tells Mother the kitten from last night had run away, he hears a heartbeat that had not been his echoing in his ears, beating against his ribcage as if fighting for dominance with his own heart.

At ten years old he had known loss in the form of papers ripped to shreds, not in running away from the people who had brought him into the world; at sixteen he becomes intimately acquainted with it again, in an animal he could almost understand, not in a human life. Humans—they are so finite, Edgar thinks, so uncaring—first Da’s heavy hands and devil voice, then the other students at school with harsh words and still harsher punches, and now this.

Do they even deserve lives, Edgar thinks. Do they deserve lives more than a cat who hadn’t done anything, Edgar thinks. Do I deserve a life after taking one, Edgar thinks.

He locks himself in his room and doesn’t sleep for the night—instead he pulls out sheets of blank paper and starts writing with fervor he’s never had before. If before his words had been imbued with a child’s wonder and imagination, and later a runaway’s loneliness and solidarity, then now he pours every flame of boiling-hot anger and hatred into each letter he digs his pen into, scratching onto the paper so hard it leaves a mark on the one beneath it. But Edgar doesn’t stop—not when the hour hand hits twelve, one, two, five—because there is no stopping the need for artificial justice, for the bloodiest of vengeances.

(“Your eyes are darker than usual, Ed,” Mother admonishes. “Did you stay up late last night?”

“Just a little. Had—Had homework.”)

A week passes in silence—for Edgar, at least, because the rest of the neighborhood is in an uproar about the missing boy, his parents in hysterics and the police questioning everyone in school. When a kind policeman (probably a father, got a ring and good with the younger kids, Edgar boredly notes) offers him candy and asks if he knows anything, Edgar shakes his head and says he’s never talked to the guy—by the looks of it, the other boys hadn’t said anything either, because that’s the first and last time the police talk to him about it.

He declines the candy—he already knows it’s too sweet.

A week passes in silence. Edgar continues as always, doing his homework if only to pass it and refusing to listen to teachers—they never have anything to teach that he doesn’t already know or can’t learn under five minutes. He uses the same route to walk home, but he starts eating less and staying there later just to feed the cats and ravens some more. With them, the simultaneous heat and coldness in him fades into the background, if only for a little while, and sometimes after their meals the ravens let him stroke the tops of their heads before they fly off. The cats always nuzzle his hands and legs before he leaves—his heart always clenches up and doesn’t relax the rest of the walk home.

A week passes in silence. Edgar slips a sheet of paper folded into a quaint little square into one of the boys’ bags, and closes his eyes whenever he can—the surroundings that pop up behind his eyelids are hazy and vague, but he can always tell where it is. A week passes in silence—and then when Edgar is half-dozing in the library something whispers, Alone. The four of them. Alone.

The street he arrives on is indeed devoid of anyone or anything—it’s on the outskirts of town, behind an old building overgrown with plants and housing a tree that curves in and out of the broken windows. With some reluctance Edgar lets a small scrap of paper be carried away by the wind—before it disappears from sight completely it whispers, no cameras, no witnesses, no danger. Edgar wraps his coat tighter around himself and hides behind one of the building’s walls—he can hear the boys throwing a ball around, without much spirit but with the occasional shout or laugh.

Perched on one of the tree’s branches is a lone raven, looking down at him with a glinting eye. Edgar lays some of his leftover meat from lunch on the ground, right where the bird can see it, and it spares him a glance before flitting downwards to peck at the food. Its caw seems to say, Bit cold, but better than nothing.

Edgar stretches his hand out—when the raven doesn’t snap at him, he gives it a few gentle strokes on the head and then holds out a single page. He jerks his chin at the general direction of the boys—over there.

The raven watches him, then takes its time pecking and nipping at the meat—just as Edgar’s about to give it up as a lost cause, it snatches the paper out of his hands with its beak, barely avoiding ripping it, and swoops over the boys. The paper floats down a few ways away from them, and Edgar stays absolutely still when one of them jogs over to pick it up, the rest trailing behind to shove and elbow each other.

They’re smarter than Edgar gives them credit for, because if he hadn’t reacted as fast as he did, the boy holding onto the paper would have thrown it back onto the ground and his plan would have completely failed—as it is, he clenches his fist and pulls at the ability tingling at his fingertips before that can happen. A pulsing blaze of black, fire racing all the way up to his elbow, four panicked shouts—and then nothing. Edgar steps out from the shadows to retrieve the first page of his work before it touches the ground. In the distance, he can hear the faint crowing of a raven.

He slips into the building, leans against the tree trunk, and closes his eyes. Four separate heartbeats ring in his ears like funeral marches, like countdowns until Judgment Day—he holds the papers in his hands, ignoring the searing pain across half his right arm, and focuses.

It’s three o’clock in the morning there… in Paris, on one of its streets, in the fourth story of a house, four boys are gathered around the corpse of a dead cat. Th-thump thump thump thump. They are aware that they have just killed it. Thump thump thump thump. There are footsteps on the stairs. Thump thump thump thump. Something is coming. Thumpthumpthumpthump.

The four of them scatter to the winds, trying to navigate the unfamiliar house, but somehow everywhere they go leads to a dead end for the murderer to corner them in. Edgar follows the first one, the smallest one, the one he thinks is only tagging along with the others because they had seemed cool—he gets locked in a broom closet and his sobs when the cat’s owner approaches are almost pitiful. Thumpthumpthump—the second one falls down a flight of stairs and breaks his leg, which would have relieved some of the burden from his killer if his screams weren’t so ear-piercing. Thumpthump—the third one, the leader’s best friend, pulls out a knife and waves it around, shrieking empty threats Edgar can barely understand. Thump. Their bones are smashed like proud buildings reduced to rubble and debris. Thump. Their throats are cut so deeply that their heads fall off when their bodies are moved. Thump. His arm hurts. Thump.

The fourth one, the leader, trips on a fold in the rug and skids to a stop in front of the fireplace. No, stop! He leaps to his feet, makes a mad dash for a window latched shut—Get away, get away, you’re the devil, the devil! He bumps into a table, sends a priceless porcelain vase crashing into pieces on the floor—Please, please, I’m sorry, I’m—

Edgar opens his eyes, but he can still hear the gurgling apologies, can still see a face turning blue in the corner of his eye, can still smell the soot when the murderer stuffs the boy upside down into the chimney—can still feel pain racing up and down his arm. When he looks down his usually pale skin, already obviously sickly, has turned ashen gray, almost corpse-like. He should probably feel more worried about it. He doesn’t.

The building is eerily silent. No more sobs or screams, threats or apologies. No more heartbeats.

When he gets back home, arm securely hidden under his coat sleeve, he takes a long bath to scrub the gray out of his skin. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t regain color until the next morning, but Edgar finds that he can’t bring himself to care—looking down at it, all he can really think of is how it resembles the body still rotting away in the graveyard he created. The other boys had died from actual, physical injuries, but the first one, his first murder—it had been the spirits of the dead who’d taken him for themselves.

If I do this enough times, will my whole body turn gray, Edgar wonders. If I do this enough times, will I die along with the people I’ve killed?

He cracks open the same notebook he’d kept Spirits of the Dead in and lets this longer story join its pages. Five bodies within a week.

In the dead of night, when he can’t get to sleep, he pushes himself up from bed and reads through the story again, its papers crumpled and worse for wear after the feverous grip he’s had on it for days (and, perhaps, because of what had just taken place in it earlier—but Edgar doesn’t think about that). The gaping hole of nothing where there once was something, where there once was life, should make him feel… what? Guilty? Proud? Edgar doesn’t even know what he’s supposed to feel now, after murdering five people, five boys, with the ability everyone he knows and knew called the devil’s gift.

Edgar replays the deaths of the boys over and over in his head, remembering the sobs, the screams, the threats, the apologies. The heartbeats. They’d all had different ways of protesting death. How would I protest to death, Edgar wonders, again.

Would I even protest to death?

(Later a man, his smiles deceptively brilliant and fingers stained green from money bills, will ask him for his ability. Edgar will remember the papers crumpled in his notebook, remember the heartbeats, remember the corpse-gray of his arm and how he had practically been beside them in death, a relationship more intimate than anything else could ever hope to be.

“Black Cat in the Rue Morgue,” he answers. Briefly he wonders if this is what Pluto, a kitten so small the branch he had hung on did not even bend, would have wanted for him.)

Chapter Text

Father is turning into Da.

Specific events are hazy now, but the memories are as clear and sharp as ever—Edgar still relives that night over and over in his dreams, in the darkness of his room when he shoots up from bed, kicking the covers off and clamping hands over his mouth to stifle screams. It’s probably childish or babyish or whatever, but he can’t stop, not after this long. The nightmares already feel a part of him, and those aren’t counting the ones about the heartbeats, or the screams, or the sobs, or—

You get the point.

There’s nothing he can do, he supposes. Father is turning into Da and he can’t stop that, not when Father is going out every night to pass sweaty bills into sweatier hands forever smelling of cigarette smoke, flip and exchange cards while spending more and more and more until he’s waist-deep in debts their family can’t repay. Edgar withdraws into his studies as best as he can—graduates with top honors at high school and gets into his first-choice college—and pretends he doesn’t dread the night Father comes home with alcohol on his breath.

At nineteen years old, you’d think Edgar’s biggest fear would be about being pointed out as the culprit behind five missing boys. Mostly it’s the sound of the front door slamming and heavy, familiar footsteps thudding on the floorboards.

Mother caught a cold that’s been going around town for a while, so most of the time she lies in bed and asks for Edgar, who sits by her bedside with a mask around his mouth, then talks about things from her past, stories Edgar’s heard time and time again. He never tells her so, though, and just holds her hand when she asks for him, listens to her tell him how he’s their God-given gift, how being their child had been destiny for them all. Edgar listens to her voice more than her words, thinks of flowers swaying in the breeze, telling him to run—he thinks about how everything else may have been coincidence except for this.

When Edgar yells at Father, it’s to the thunder rumbling outside. “Stop—Stop gambling all the time!” Father is soaking wet, clothes dark from the heavy downpour he’d had no protection against. “You… There isn’t even enough money to buy medicine for Mother anymore. Please—”

The words die in his throat when Father’s eyes darken. For several long, cold moments, all Edgar can think of are those heavy, heavy hands—and then Father snaps something he doesn’t catch and stomps up to his bedroom. It takes Edgar another shivering, shaking minute to start moving again; he tries to sleep for a while, but gives up when he can’t hear anything except for the storm still raging outside. He goes back down, makes himself coffee in the kitchen, and sits by the dining table until morning comes.

At 7am, Father stumbles back down. “Breakfast,” he grunts.

“No,” Edgar says.

Bloodshot eyes move from staring at the table to staring at Edgar. “I said breakfast.

“Stop gambling.”

“Edgar, quit being difficult—”

“That’s my line.” Edgar’s voice cracks, which just makes him sound even more pathetic than he doubtless looks—uncombed hair, heavy bags under his eyes, shaking hands wrapped around an empty coffee mug. But then Father looks just as bad as him, if not worse, so he supposes that cancels it out. “Stop. Please. Just stop.”

Silence. And then, “I can’t, boy. You have to understand. If I stop now, the business—”

“Is—Is that m-more important than Mother?”

“I will earn the money back, Edgar.” (Oh, using my name, are you, does this mean you’re serious? Or are you just trying to make yourself sound like it? It’s that devil’s voice again, the same one Da had used, the same one Edgar hears in his head every time he relives the deaths of those boys in his dreams.) “I know what to do. It might take time, but I know what to do. I swear.”

(There are tuition fees scattered on the floor of Edgar’s room, letters from teachers that went from concerned to impatient to nearly demanding for payment—he can’t bear to kick them under his bed, because no paper deserves that, but he can’t bear to throw them away either. There are shady men lurking outside their house at nighttime, retreating into the shadows whenever Edgar opens the door. There is endless coughing from Mother’s room, bloodstains on the sheets from a sickness they have no medicine to alleviate. There is evidence of Father doing nothing all around the house, and yet, and yet, he still says—)

“Fine.”

When Edgar talks to the school authorities later, they agree on a scholarship—he’s less happy about this than he should be, and he barely feels a hint of pride when they commend him on his top grades and award-winning pieces in the school paper. Mostly he can only think about his lunch money being spent in the local pharmacy instead, for pills he’s not sure are worth the cash.

Father continues to stay out late. Edgar still hears the thunderstorms.

Mother dies in another month.

Edgar thinks he should’ve seen it coming. He sits beside her when she breathes her last, listening to her voice (hoarse but still sounding like the flowers) tell him, “Please, Ed, darling, John’s a good man, he’s your father, he’ll be alright, you’ll be alright, Ed, forgive him, he’s just having a hard time, he’ll be alright, Ed, darling. I love you,” and then—and then.

Even the feeling of loss, that dark, bleak emotion that should churn in one’s stomach when a loved one dies—even that is numb and dull. He doesn’t even cry. He’s not sure he’d be able to, when death has been such a constant companion to him now that it’s almost a part of him, almost a friend. He thinks of his old poems, lost to Da’s hands or to the wind, and of Pluto, buried in their backyard—now he has to add Mother to that list.

The house was already silent even when Mother was still alive, but now it feels even worse—it’s the sort of silence that has Edgar curled up on his bed, scrawling on paper and knowing, somehow, that everything he’s making now will burn up in blackness if he tries to call for his ability. It’s the sort of silence that has Father sitting by the dining table from sunrise to sunset, head in his hands, staring at the scratches on the surface of their table. It’s the sort of silence that makes Father knock on the door to Edgar’s room the day before the funeral and mutter, “This is all my fault.”

Edgar doesn’t let him in; the walls are thin enough. “I know it’s my fault, alright, Edgar? I know. I should have—I should have done more, should’ve done better, shouldn’t have been such a damn idiot, but—I should’ve done a lot other things, I get it, but—please, please go tomorrow. Frances… Your mother would have wanted you there.”

I can’t, Edgar wants to say. I can’t go, I can’t watch another one I love be lowered into the ground, I can’t go and you wouldn’t understand, you’d never understand, you’ve never seen your friends fly into the winds or be killed by your da or be hung from a tree by five dead kids, you don’t know anything, you didn’t know anything and now Mother’s dead, I thought she’d be the only constant I could ever, ever have in this stupid life, if God exists then why did He do this to me, if God exists then why did he bring me to life, Edgar wants to say, to scream, to shout, to sob.

Instead he goes with, “Alright.”

He regrets it immediately, but he hears Father’s relieved sigh, the mumbled thanks and apology, and then footsteps fading away elsewhere in the house. Edgar closes his eyes and gives up writing for the day.

The funeral is—Edgar doesn’t even have a word for it. For all he reads and writes and prides himself in his articulacy, he can’t think of a word to describe the funeral and he thinks it’s better that way. Anything he’d try and say would only make things worse. He thinks about how Mother had never forced him to do anything he didn’t want, never forced him to stop writing or get a part-time job to help with the bills or anything, was only ever happy for him with whatever he liked to do, never faulted Father for gambling, and—and—

He takes deep breaths throughout the wake, and is only too thankful Father doesn’t push him to speak in front of the crowd. Of course it’s probably just because Father knows he’d dissolve into an incoherent mess—but Edgar pushes that thought aside, and tries, as best as he can, to forgive Father. It’s what Mother wanted. Nothing like death to bring people together, he thinks.

Edgar makes breakfast for Father again, and fetches him the morning paper when he remembers to ask for it. In return Father sticks to his job—there’s a slip of paper in Father’s work bag that tells Edgar wherever he goes, and sometimes Edgar can see the hazy outline of a bar when he closes his eyes, but—he supposes he can’t have everything. (He only ever sleeps once Father comes home, though.)

Father’s a good man, Edgar repeats to himself. He’s just having a hard time. He’ll be alright. Father’s a good man… Halfway through, the mantra stops making sense, but he keeps it up anyway, if only to have background noise in his head when he can hear those footsteps coming up the stairs again.

The unsteady truce lasts a few, shaky months—after which a knock on the door sounds, and everything falls apart once again.

“Mr. Allan, am I right?”

“Yes, yes. Er, how can I help you…?”

“Hired detective, sir, been going around for some questioning. I’m sure you know about those five boys who went missing some three years ago?”

“Ah! Them, yes, I remember, quite the incident. A questioning, eh? Come in, then, it’s freezin’ out there. Ed! Get down here and fix up some tea, we’ve got a guest.”

The moment the door had swung open, Edgar’s blood had run cold—he has innocuous scraps of paper scattered around the house, a habit from before that he hadn’t been able to get rid of, and every single one of them whisper, danger, danger, danger. Then the detective steps through the doorway, greets Edgar with a cordial smile, settles by their dining table—and Edgar has never, never felt fear so palpable flow through his bloodstream.

“Hello,” the detective says, too kindly for comfort. “Edgar Allan, is that right? You were a schoolmate of those boys, weren’t you?”

(A hired detective, huh. Must mean it was one of those boys’ parents who paid him, probably the first one because he’d been rich, but why now after three years? Gave up hope and then thought it could work again? Ah, foreign clothes, odd accent, probably came from elsewhere, then he must have an untarnished reputation to make those parents think that if anyone can solve a case as cold as this then it must be him—)

“Yes.” Edgar sets the tea down and forces a smile, although he’s sure it’s little more than a twitch of his lips. “I—I never knew them that well, though. Can’t—Can’t say I know what happened to them.”

“Your stutter’s acting up again, Ed,” Father points out. To the detective; “He’s been sickly since he was small—cold weather’s never been our favorite time of the year. Anythin’ else, detective?”

The detective leans back and shakes his head, smile making his eyes crinkle. “It’s a shame, but most everyone else ‘s told me the same thing. Never knew the boys that well, dunno what happened to ‘em…” He sips his tea, giving Edgar a moment of silence to collect his still-racing thoughts. “One of the boys’ parents suspect it was—aye, that reminds me. Edgar—”

(—had happened so long ago but yes, I remember, the police questioned everyone in school and the neighborhood, couldn’t find anything, parents didn’t even know where their kids went after school, I covered my tracks, it isn’t as if the raven can tell them what happened, they can’t possibly know that—)

“—are you an ability user, by any chance?”

For one precious second, Edgar freezes—his grip on his mug tightens, his entire body goes still, his eyes widen by a fraction of a centimeter, and those are only the physical signs; his insides are churning in his gut and his heart is beating loud enough that he’s almost certain the other two can hear it. He’s not sure if the detective notices all these, but Father definitely does—he casts a quick, confused glance over at Edgar, as if asking, Why aren’t you saying anything?—and why isn’t Edgar saying anything—“No,” he says, “of course not.”

The detective smiles again. “Of course not.” (Sickly since I was small, of course I wouldn’t have an ability, I’m a harmless college student making tea for you, that’s all I am. Look at me, do I look capable of killing five boys who were twice my weight three years ago? No, of course not. Of course not.) “What was I sayin’—right, one of the boys’ parents suspect it was the work of an ability user. What kind I wouldn’t know, ain’t like there’s so much as a speck of evidence on what happened to them, but a crime so clean does seem impossible for the normal person…”

When the detective leaves—overstayed his welcome, Edgar thinks—Father knocks on the door of his room and asks, without waiting for Edgar to let him in, “Ed. Are you really… you know… one of those?

“What? S-Sorry, let me clean up first—”

“No, just—answer me. Are you an… ability user?”

“Father,” Edgar laughs—laughs, he actually laughs, he doesn’t even want to think about how obviously fake it must sound, “of course not. Even if I were, why would I do anything with those boys? I never knew them.”

A pause. And then, “Alright,” and, “Right, of course,” and, “Well then,” and then footsteps, and then silence.

At nineteen years old, you’d think Edgar’s biggest fear would be about being pointed out as the culprit behind five missing boys. It’s second on the list—first place goes to the look on Father’s face if he ever found out Edgar’s ability, and what he’d do next. That night Edgar doesn’t bother thinking anything else through—he packs clothes, some food, notebooks upon notebooks upon stacks of extra paper (leaves his cell phone under the bed, because it’s not like he had ever used it much), and his metal box into a bag, and escapes through the window when the papers tell him Father’s asleep.

(They also tell him goodbye, and their voices are too, too close to that of the flowers, to that of Mother. He is leaving behind nine years of growth and pain and love and death, leaving behind Mother’s last wish, leaving behind the place he thought he’d reach the stars in, leaving behind— leaving, in general. He doesn’t have to, he knows those murders were clean and he’d left no evidence behind, but the detective’s question rings in his ears and then there’s only fear, narrating his thoughts and driving his actions.)

An unfinished poem he’s had sitting on his desk for a while now tells him, what about studies, you worked so hard for that scholarship, and Edgar isn’t the least bit surprised to find that he doesn’t care. Every single lesson was a bore when he already knew what the questions on the exam were going to be, every single person not worth talking to when they were too slow for them to follow him.

So you’re going to be a college dropout, it asks. Edgar rolls the words around in his head, and supposes they’re not as bad as murderer or ability user or disgrace to the family.

Richmond, Virginia: Thus do we reach the stars. But as Edgar takes the only available train that night and looks out the window, he can only see the sky’s inky blackness, not a pinprick of light in sight. He wraps his coat tighter around himself, feels the rustle of paper against his chest—the night is cold, painful, and lonely, when all you have is yourself and the constant reminders of your monstrosity.

In a way Edgar had kept up with his old family, through the celebrity news section in the paper: David Poe abandons family, Elizabeth Poe dies from tuberculosis. (There had been nothing on his younger sister; Edgar briefly wonders if she had ever even been born.) Which is why he briefly entertains the notion of going back to Boston—surely no one would recognize him, after nine long years? But he looks down at himself, wearing a coat Mother had bought for him when he was fifteen, Boston accent long replaced with a Richmond one, five corpses tucked neatly away in a notebook—and shakes his head.

When the train stops at Portsmouth, he flattens his bangs over his face and spends a few days at the cheapest (and consequently most rundown) inn he can find, applying for every single job opening advertised on the streets, and winds up working at the inn to keep his room without having to pay for it. “Dropout, are yeh,” the innkeeper grunts. Edgar opens his mouth to protest, if only to save face, but the innkeeper waves him away and says, “Hey, been in your shoes before, yeh know. Yeh look like an alright guy—yeh know how to write, at least?” And so, in addition to cleaning up after the customers’ messes, he has to take care of the inn’s financial records, too—he supposes he’s only lucky he’d taken up a basic accounting class back in high school.

(High school. It seems so far away now, so childish, a world of rigid class schedules and feeding animals on the way back home; a world Edgar could never go back to.)

A small-time newspaper agency calls him over a week after he’d been interviewed, and tells him, with no small amount of trepidation, that they’ll take him as long as he stays under a senior journalist first. Edgar practically pounces at the chance—his hopes of getting to write anything, even if under a pen name, are dashed to the ground when he realizes he’s essentially an errand boy, but the measly amount of money they pay him is still money, and he’ll take whatever he can get. “Perry’s your name?” the senior journalist, Royster, asks. “Well, we’ll have to share my office cubicle, so I hope you’re not the messy type, ‘cause then that’d just make my mess worse..”

“T-That—I’m not—”

Royster laughs—it’s an odd sort of laugh, where he throws his head back like there isn’t enough space between them for his amusement. “Aw, don’t sweat it. Get me some of those papers over there, will you?”

The first news article he’s assigned to copyread (not even to draft or gather information for) is about the mysterious disappearance of a college student from Richmond. Figures, Edgar thinks. With my luck, I get the one thing I actually know anything about. Then he crosses an extra word out of the article, listening to it whisper facts and missing person statistics—no different from the rest of the papers that talk to him in the office. Facts, details, interviews, quotes, dates and times and specifics—it’d be almost boring if Edgar didn’t think to dig deeper, start actual conversations, and listen to the articles complain about getting crumpled whenever the journalist holding them is in a rush.

Ow, ow, ow, watch where you’re writing! I hate the editing process!

“Sorry,” Edgar whispers—breathes, really, because he doesn’t think people would be very kind about him talking to a sheet of paper. “Just a little more—”

“Where’d you come from anyway, Perry?” Royster asks, leaning against his swivel chair to peer over Edgar’s shoulder; Edgar accidentally grips the paper so hard he crumples it and his ears are filled with a litany of complaints. Royster’s breath and general proximity make Edgar uncomfortably hot, what with the office’s air conditioner malfunctioning in the middle of an unusually sunny day for November. “You said Richmond in the interview, right?”

“Y-Yes.”

“Know anything about ‘em?” He jabs a finger at a line. “Misspelled disappearance there. Could this be connected to the case of five missing children from three years ago? Seriously, what’s up with your hometown?”

Edgar bites back a smile—not just a twitch of the lips either, but a real smile that reminds him of Pluto and the kitten’s easy friendship. “I didn’t study with them, so I didn’t know anything, but the police couldn’t find any evidence, so the case went cold.”

“So you can talk without stuttering.”

Edgar pauses, pencil hovering above a misplaced modifier. “I-I…”

“There you go again.” Royster smacks his back, using it as leverage to push himself and his swivel chair back to his cubicle. “Relax, Perry, you sound better when you’re not stumbling all over your words.”

There’s a jagged line across the paper; Edgar hurriedly erases it, to the paper’s consternation. Although Royster’s already left his side, he still feels hotter than he should be.

He gets back from the agency at eight, but that’s only on good days when the journalists aren’t running back and forth trying to get everything done for the next issue—most of the time he stays longer until the dead of night, subsisting on cheap breakfast bars from the convenience store across the street (which he has to go back to every half hour, at the coworkers’ requests for more drinks) until nearly one in the morning, all for a bit of extra money. After that, it’s cleaning rooms in the inn and going over checkbooks before he can even get back to his room, and by the time he’s done with those he’s usually the only one still awake—so he stops trying to form any sort of healthy sleep schedule whatsoever, and passes the time at night writing in his notebooks instead.

It isn’t as if he didn’t already know, but—well, when he sits to write at his desk just by the open window letting the sea breeze blow in—it feels right, somehow. Like he isn’t a missing person in the newspaper, his high school grad photo looking absolutely nothing like him. Like he isn’t a murderer or an ability user or anything, just an Edgar Allan Poe who works a number of jobs for a living and likes to write on the side.

Sometimes ravens fly by overhead—even if he can’t exactly see them in the night sky, he’d recognize their cawing anywhere. He leaves some of his lunch beside him on the table, and feels more at home than ever when the birds perch on the windowsill to peck at the meat, however cold and dry. Sometimes they let him pet them, and sometimes he wishes a black cat would rub up against his ankle—but he doesn’t let himself think about that.

(On the coldest and darkest of nights, he thinks about Father—about how he must feel about Edgar disappearing without so much as a letter, about how it must feel to live alone in a house that used to have two other people. He’s happier without me, Edgar thinks; I was always a burden to him, anyway, he never liked me from the start, he just put up with me for Mother’s sake…

He thinks that, again and again, until it feels mostly true—but he wonders if Father eats breakfast and reads the paper.)

On one cold day in December, Edgar freezing from head to toe with his threadbare clothes, Royster lets him borrow his desk to edit an article—Royster himself has to dash for an interview with a politician he “hates to death, man, can’t believe I have to do this, couldn’t the boss have listened to me for once, I swear!” By the time Royster gets back, Edgar’s edited two other articles, helped out with one interview, and gone on four trips to the convenience store (or five—he lost count), but he lets Royster have the swivel chair. “You look exhausted, Perry, did you even sleep last night?”

“Do I sleep at all?” Edgar returns, and smiles when Royster laughs. To smile at another person’s happiness is—odd, and a little surreal. The thought of having made anyone happy, even Mother, who was always vocal about how she felt—Edgar just isn’t used to it. “How—How was the interview?”

“Same old stupid stuff, sucked up to the guy ‘cause what damn choice do I have anyway.” Royster makes a motion as if to sweep papers off his desk, and aborts the movement when there aren’t any papers to sweep.

At Royster’s obvious confusion, Edgar stammers, “I-I sorted the papers a bit. I can’t—I can’t work when everything’s messy… i-is it alright?”

“Hey, it’s fine, it’s our desk anyway. And I planned to clean up, really, but you just made things easier for me!”

Edgar decides not to point out that Royster’s been planning to clean up for the past two weeks, and settles for another little smile instead. (It feels so wrong to be happy, like he’s not worthy of happiness, after everything he’s done, after—after—) “Hey,” Royster suddenly says, plucking a stray paper from underneath a stapler, “is this yours? It’s a… What, this is a poem, isn’t it?”

“Wh—” Oh God did I leave it there by accident oh God it must’ve been right before Royster came back oh God I was in the convenience store and when I came up I forgot to get it back and oh God oh God—it feels like Edgar knows the exact moment Royster starts reading because it feels like his eyes are on Edgar instead of the paper, scouring and searching him for any hint of an ability and oh God he can almost hear another heartbeat beside his own, th-thump th-thump and no, no, if he reads it (remembers the bright glow that had sucked Father in)—if he reads it (remembers four boys disappearing into a single tattered page)—

“This is pretty nice,” Royster says, and for once Edgar stops thinking. “I mean, hey, I’m no poet, but I like how it goes! You’ve got a real flair for this, don’t you, Perry.”

“I-I do?”

“Would I lie?” Royster hands the paper back; Edgar has to resist the urge to snatch it away, like his ability will—will do something if Royster holds it a second longer. “Why’re you here editing hard news? You should be submitting works to magazines or something, would get you more cash than playing errand boy in this hellhole.”

Edgar looks down and tries not to shift in place uncomfortably. He fails. “T-That… Do you really think…?”

Royster just sighs—at first Edgar’s terrified he’s done something wrong again, until Royster asks, “Tell me what that poem’s about.”

Oh. He can do that at least. “Er, well, um… W-Well, there’s Death, see, and he’s ruling over this city. I didn’t want to say exactly where, because the lack of specificity naturally makes readers more suspicious of the place, and it gives it a more, say, mysterious aura? This—The poem itself, it isn’t so much a narrative as it deals with the atmosphere of the city, which should explain all the descriptions, if you were wondering—ah, and in the end the city starts sinking from one gust of wind, right? You notice you didn’t feel anything when it did sink? I wanted it to be less surprising and more morose and solemn, because that’s what the city is all about, it’s just a pitiful civilization than anything else. It doesn’t really put up a resistance when it sinks, right, because it’s got no will left to live. I wanted the whole thing to symbolize the death of the human soul because of sin, like vices and all, and—”

“Perry, are you practicin’ a speech or somethin’, I bet China can hear you from there,” someone suddenly calls.

Royster turns to glare at them, but—their voice is enough to make Edgar clamp his mouth shut, clinging onto the paper in his hands so tight he’s afraid it’s crumpling. He hadn’t even realized he’d started talking so much—had he even stuttered? He hadn’t, had he? And—And it had felt nice to speak, because he knew Royster had asked and Royster had wanted to hear what he had to say, and—it was a new feeling, to have your thoughts and words be—valued. Or had he just assumed? Had Royster just been asking to be polite and Edgar had annoyed him and—

“Hey, Perry—”

“S-Sorry,” Edgar murmurs, hoping his voice doesn’t shake too much (it does). His stutter is back, too, which isn’t surprising. “I… I didn’t mean to say all that, it just came out. Um, I-I have to get this article—” He turns to leave, feeling his back hunch over again—had he been standing straight? He hadn’t noticed—and then nearly stumbles and falls when he feels a hand on his shoulder.

(Heavy, so heavy and hot and hard but it shouldn’t be, because Da is—gone, Edgar reminds himself. Gone gone gone gone—even after nine years those hands find their way on his skin.)

“Perry. Chill. Griswold’s just being an ass.” Royster sounds amused. That’s… a good thing, right? “You sound nice when you don’t stutter, alright? And it’s nice, ‘cause I’ve never seen you actually, you know, talk about something you like. You look alive. Rest of the time you look dead on your feet.”

“Probably because I am,” Edgar mumbles.

“Yeah, guess we all are, we work for a newspaper. Anyway, point is, you’ve got talent.” Royster flashes him a grin—and Edgar feels the contents of his stomach (which, if he remembers correctly, consist of approximately a single loaf of bread and some water) get jumbled up, both in a good way and about-to-throw-up way. “Keep writing and keep telling me about what you’re writing. I’m telling you, it’s way more interesting than listening to boring old men go on and on about politics.” He gives Edgar’s shoulder one last pat, and then heads over to a photographer waving him over.

When Edgar’s sure Royster isn’t looking, he buries his face in his hands in some pathetic effort to cool his burning cheeks, and focuses on calming the rapid jackhammer beat of his heart.

For Christmas, Edgar gets the innkeeper Howard a nice thick scarf, because he’s always complaining about the cold (he gets a grunt and a clap on the shoulder that hurts a bit more than it probably should); for the journalists, he brings a batch of cookies the kitchen staff at the inn had left over (they’re a little burnt, but definitely edible for a group of starving reporters); for the ravens that have come to perch on his windowsill every morning and evening, he leaves a plate of warm (warm!) meat on his table (he comes back later to find the plate cleaned, and a small pile of shiny trinkets beside it, most of them dented from where sharp beaks must have gotten).

For Christmas, Edgar gets himself a pair of boots.

In all honesty, he probably should’ve gotten something wiser and a little (okay, a lot) cheaper, but in his defense, the boots are gorgeous. And it’s got heels! Not pointed, and they only give him a little boost in height, but still. Heels. He’s tall enough without them, but wearing them makes him equal in height with Royster, which he pretends not to like as much as he does.

(—Speaking of Royster.

It’s embarrassing, but Edgar has to admit that he’s gotten into the habit of writing more, if only to impress Royster and not just for himself anymore—he always has to stop himself when his hand starts cramping, but by then he’s written more than three pages’ worth of lines. He always “accidentally” leaves those poems on Royster’s (their? is it their?) desk, near enough for Edgar to see it but far enough that Royster doesn’t suspect anything, and without fail Royster will call him over and point out his favorite lines. “This one, right here,” he says, with a toothy smile; “If you read it aloud, it would draw crowds.”

“You’re—” Edgar flushes. “You’re just saying that.”

“Don’t try me, Perry! Anyway, I like this one even better than the last one. I swear you get better with each one you write. When’re you gonna compile and publish ‘em already?”

For Christmas—)

When Edgar steps into the office, barely able to focus on anything else aside from the satisfying clack-clack of his heels on the tiles, he hears a familiar and rather unwelcome laugh. “Perry!”

“Griswold.”

“You don’t need to sound so damn disappointed. Can I get you to fetch me those papers on Huxley’s desk?”

With a nod (and a little frown, because Edgar hadn’t even gotten to put his things down yet), Edgar turns to wade through the rest of the journalists to get to Huxley’s cubicle—and falters when he hears Griswold’s surprised, “Are those heels?”

“Er. Y… Yes?”

“Why the hell are you wearing heels?

(The disapproval and disgust in Griswold’s tone is so, so damn familiar to that of—of—) Edgar swallows and manages, “Is it w-wrong?”

Griswold chokes out a scoff. “Uh. Yeah? Because dudes don’t wear freaking stilettos?

“T… They’re not stilettos,” Edgar grumbles, turning away and feeling his face burn when the other journalists around them pause in place to listen to the conversation. “They’re just boots. T-They’re good for the weather, anyway.” He sort of likes how the word stiletto sounds, though, and he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t mind wearing actual—

Griswold’s laugh is derisive as ever; it makes the hair on the back of Edgar’s neck rise. “Whatever then, gay boy, go suck up to Royster some more. Don’t forget those papers!” He turns back to his desk after that—and just in time, because he probably would’ve said more if he’d seen how Edgar looked at that moment.

Not that Edgar knows exactly what he looks like—all he knows is his limbs feeling locked in place, his stomach plunging, his mouth going dry. His first instinct is to run (all flower-sweet he can almost imagine the open window and no, no, not now), so he does, but when he gets back to his senses he realizes he’d detoured over to Royster’s desk instead of Huxley’s—a safe place, he’d been thinking of. A safe place—but then he looks at Royster, blinking himself awake from a nap he’d taken on the table, and hears, “Oh, Perry, mornin’,” hears the half-asleep quality to his voice—

“Yeah,” Edgar says, and drops his things on the floor before rushing over to Huxley’s desk to dump the papers with Griswold. He doesn’t turn around to see the look on Royster’s face, and he convinces himself it’s better that way.

He takes on every single errand and request that gets him away from Royster: spending a few minutes longer than he needs to dawdling in the convenience store just to keep the distance, taking articles with him to the restroom to copyread, busying himself sorting every single file and paper by alphabetical order in the archives room—and when the clock hits six in the evening, Edgar nearly falls over trying to stand in the now impeccably-sorted archives.

“Take a break,” one of the journalists suggests, “you look like you haven’t slept in weeks.” So Edgar grabs the chance, and for the first time in this errand boy career of his, asks the editor-in-chief if he can leave the office early because he feels ill. He waves Edgar off (probably doesn’t think I’m doing anything useful, Edgar notes, a little distractedly; he’s got a ring, always in a bad mood, probably can’t deal with crying kids and a snappy wife, what a shame), so Edgar trudges back to the inn, wondering if he should kick off his boots now while he can, since Griswold’s made sure to tell him and everyone else just what he thinks of them.

Griswold’s opinion shouldn’t matter, but… but. What does Royster think, Edgar keeps wondering. Does he think I shouldn’t wear them either? And that makes him really want to kick the boots off, but he holds himself back and decides leaving them there in the cold would be a terrible and uneconomical decision.

He’s considering what price to sell them at (maybe a dollar or two higher… or ten…) when he hears a furious yell—“Damn pest, you think this food’s for you? It’s my damn living, you damn—” and nearly trips on a clump of snow on the sidewalk from the sheer volume of the—wait. He knows that voice.

Edgar backtracks a bit and joins a growing crowd around the bakery he frequents whenever the inn’s kitchen needs bread—the baker is by the doorway, waving people away and saying, “Nothing to see here, nothin’ to see,” following that up with another enraged, “What—you stupid little—ya just don’t learn, do ya!” and then the sound of something hitting the rough asphalt. “I pay my taxes and the government ain’t even got time to clean the damn streets of your kind?—Ugh, get out! Go away! Shoo!” Another harsh kick at—something that Edgar can’t see from his position, and then the baker stomps back inside, slamming the door behind him.

The crowd disperses quickly after that, muttering about pests and taxes and whatever; but when Edgar turns to leave as well, he hears a soft whine and—his step falters. (In his head he hears a cat’s meow, from an animal that he’d almost been able to talk to; in his head he hears the bustling streets of Richmond, his high school’s ringing bell, John Allan apologizing, Mother’s voice, so, so soft.) So he steps back, turns around, and sees a lump of scraggly gray fur crumpled on the ground. It huffs out another pained whimper, shifts and shakes as if trying to stand up, then goes still.

(In his head he sees a tiny black body hanging from a tree, dirt under his nails, greedy darkness enveloping four boys only a year older than him.)

He takes a deep breath, and shrugs off his coat to wrap the animal up in it.

In the inn, Howard doesn’t so much as glance at the bundle in Edgar’s arms, and instead asks him what on earth he’s doing back so early—Edgar shrugs, lets a vague lie slip smoothly out of his mouth, and retreats into his room. He lays the animal on the floor, sets a bowl of water in front of it, and waits for it to crawl out of his coat and greedily lap up the water. “A raccoon,” Edgar murmurs—the raccoon’s ears twitch, but it doesn’t stop drinking. “I should’ve known.”

(He’s not sure if he’s relieved or disappointed it’s not a cat.) (Later on there will be fleeting thoughts of black instead of gray fur under his hand, or a thin tail instead of a puffy one—but small claws and annoyed, give-me-attention coos always bring him back out of his head.)

When the raccoon settles back down, the water bowl is half empty; Edgar sets it aside to wash later and grabs a loaf of bread off his desk to break down into small chunks and feed to the raccoon. It eyes him cautiously for a second, but rushes forward without another thought afterwards. “It’s a bit stale,” Edgar says, more to himself than to the animal, “but I’m sure it’s better than nothing.”

He doesn’t miss the way his stutter fails to make itself known.

The raccoon finishes a little over one-third of the bread before it retreats back into Edgar’s coat, which he’d forgotten had been lying there—he sets the bread aside and moves to pull the coat out from under it, but the raccoon hisses and clings tight to the fabric. “Oh, great, so you’re attached now, aren’t you,” Edgar sighs. “Fine. You need a bath—you’re dirty all over and you’d make a mess in my room.”

It jumps out of the plugged sink as soon as it gets in, probably because tap water in December is freezing—Edgar sighs and lets it wander around and sniff curiously at everything in the tiny bathroom, which Edgar can proudly say he has kept mostly clean since he’s started living in the inn. When the water has warmed up a bit, or at least isn’t going to give the poor thing frostbite somehow, Edgar scrubs the dirt out of the raccoon’s fur and murmurs admonishments whenever it tries to jerk out of his hands. (Pluto had not moved, had remained almost unnaturally still once Edgar had told him to—but he does not think about this. He does not.)

After Edgar towels it off, it coos and noses his hand—then squeals and dashes to hide behind the toilet when someone bangs on the door to his room outside. “Coming,” Edgar sighs; to the raccoon he says, “Don’t go anywhere,” and then leaves to follow Howard down to wipe tables and check ledgers.

He’s almost surprised when he sees the raccoon is still in his room once he gets back, having abandoned his coat (absolutely must take that to the laundry) and instead dragged his only blanket down from the bed to the floor to make himself some sort of nest. “Give that back, it gets cold at night,” Edgar huffs—as he expected, though, any attempt to tug the blanket out of the raccoon’s hands earns him a dirty look and a hiss. So Edgar relents, and settles for feeding the ravens that have stopped by again, before going to bed blanket-less and curling up into a ball to preserve heat.

Somehow, when he hears the raccoon’s easy breathing from the floor, he finds he doesn’t mind. (It’s better than knowing he would have caused another death.)

The raccoon is still a baby, as thin and ragged as the blanket and almost as starving as Edgar is (—all the ways that remind him of Pluto, too, too much). In the morning, he feeds it some more bread, smiling when it jumps to catch the pieces he throws in the air, and gives it another bath to check for lasting injuries and to get rid of persistent dirt. He takes note, almost systematically like some kind of vet, where the raccoon twitches and whines at, then gets a towel to dampen and press against the areas, lightening the pressure when it bites his fingers (“Ow, you better not give me rabies, you—”) and strengthening when it calms down. “I’m treating your wounds,” Edgar says indignantly, when the raccoon bares its teeth for the third time, “so don’t attack me, you silly thing. That baker hit you pretty bad, and you’re still so small.”

The raccoon snuffles. I know, he’s terrible. It’s just one loaf of bread.

“It had just been one loaf of bread. Still, at least you can figure out another way to get past him next time. I’ve never been fond of the man.”

You won’t be giving me more food?

“I—” Edgar pauses. When had he started talking to animals again? It had always been something that came naturally to him, but he’s sure that’s not part of his ability. Although they never said actual words, he could always understand what they wanted, at the very least, like how the ravens are in the mood for meat one day and for fish the next. For more… intricate things, like holding whole conversations with them…

The raccoon noses his hand. You stopped pressing. What’s wrong?

There! There. He just… knew, somehow, what it said. Or perhaps he’s simply delirious, which doesn’t sound so impossible. “Nothing,” Edgar murmurs, scratching the raccoon behind its ears. It closes its eyes in obvious satisfaction. Maybe it doesn’t matter if I actually understand them or not, Edgar thinks. Maybe it’s just me talking to myself and assigning dialogue to animals like they’re characters in a story… it sounds more childish, put that way, but it makes some kind of sense.

He definitely doesn’t need secret animal-communication skills or an ability when the raccoon refuses to leave once they’re outside the inn, though. “Go on, now, your bruises should be fine in a while,” Edgar says—he feels silly crouching down to talk to a raccoon on the streets, but thankfully there’s never a lot of people around at the ungodly hour of five in the morning. “Maybe next time you’ll get to steal bigger bread from the bakery.”

The raccoon just blinks at him, and cocks its head sideways.

Edgar sighs and stands up to walk to the office, but the raccoon just follows him, as it’s done for the past few minutes. Thinking quickly, he unwraps a breakfast bar from his bag, breaks a chunk out of it, and tosses it on the other side of the street. The raccoon is gone chasing after it in an instant, and Edgar makes a break for it as well—only when he makes it about two blocks does he register the sound of claws pattering along after him.

Behind him is the raccoon, its cheeks bulging with Edgar’s lunch. It eyes Edgar almost suspiciously, the menace, then starts chewing when Edgar finds that he can’t bring himself to move any further—the sheer ridiculousness of the situation has his legs numb. When he can move, he bends down to stroke the raccoon’s head, feeling a foreign smile come on when it leans into his hand. “You’re smart as a human, aren’t you?”

It sniffs and nips his fingers. Well, what do you take me for, of course I am!

“Of course you are.”

Edgar imagines this is what it’s like to lose a pet and find another one that’s too similar to them; it feels like a fake and a fraud, a replacement for something that shouldn’t be replaceable. And he doesn’t want to keep the raccoon, because—because, well, there’s all the responsibility that comes with having a pet, and raccoons are known to be pests for a reason, and—and he can’t get rid of that image in his head, of Pluto hanging from the tree, being lowered into the ground, he just can’t. And he doesn’t want that to happen again, doesn’t want to have the death of another animal—another friend—on his conscience.

But right now—right now, he’ll take care of the thing. Right now, he’ll give it food and water and his blanket. He’ll figure out the rest later. (Later he’ll realize that both animals chose to stay with him, and later he’ll realize that means something—but that’s still later.) So he lets the raccoon huddle in his bag, worn and threadbare as it is, and instructs it to not leave the bag during work—animals obviously aren’t allowed in the office, and Edgar is not keen on losing his job because of a restless raccoon.

He is duly unsurprised when he finds it being fawned over by his coworkers less than ten minutes later. Even Griswold laughs and feeds it treats from under the desk—Edgar can almost hear the This food is much better quality than yours from the raccoon when it returns to his feet, cookies clutched in its little claws. “Had fun, didn’t you, you little charmer,” Edgar mumbles, making sure no one else can hear him. “Wish I had even half as much people skills as you do.”

“Perry! Is that a raccoon?”

Edgar first thinks the voice is the editor-in-chief’s, and nearly jumps straight out of his skin to stammer, “T-T-This isn’t—” before letting out a relieved sigh when it’s Royster grinning at him. “Oh, it’s just you.” Then he realizes that it’s Royster, who is grinning at him, and his heart speeds up once again. “Oh! R-Royster.” All this speeding up and slowing down and speeding up again cannot possibly mean good things for his heart.

“Mornin’ to you too. And good morning to you! ” Royster sets his bag on his desk, then crouches down to deliver enthusiastic head pats and head scratches to an equally-enthusiastic raccoon. “He’s a darling! Is he yours, Perry?”

“Er… sort of.” And then, “D-Darling? This guy?”

“Yeah, he’s precious. Better not let the boss catch him, though, or else it’s to the gutter for him.” (Edgar bites his lip and looks down—he hopes Royster doesn’t notice.) “Why’s he here anyway? Not that I’m complaining. Aw, does he want food? I’ve got snacks!”

Royster isn’t assigned to do interviews today, only to work on articles with provided information, so he stays in the office for most of the day—Edgar, on the other hand, is once again given the task of running errands, rather literally because he has to foot it to a building almost an hour away from the office and back to ask about an overdue payment. His one-track mind forgets about the raccoon once Huxley asks him to get back within the hour (which is impossible, but who is Edgar to argue), so once he gets back and remembers the loose animal, he has to spend a good minute psyching himself up for the editor-in-chief to… to…

What? Kill it? Kick it? Throw it out the window of the third floor? It’s at that moment that Edgar realizes he’s more worried about the animal’s life than his job, and the knowledge bothers him enough to push the door open. Instead of… anything he’d been expecting, really, it’s just Royster with the raccoon, meek as a mouse, sitting on his lap with its snout on the desk.

“Ohh, Perry, you’re back.” Royster waves him over; the raccoon doesn’t even react. “Look! We’re friends now! Say, does he have a name? I’ve just been calling him Mr. Raccoon for a while now. I think he likes it! Mr. Raccoon, shake my hand.”

The raccoon stares at Royster’s offered hand, and instead leaps off his lap to circle Edgar’s feet, tail swishing. Royster deflates. “You’re right. He’s no darling. Only monsters would ignore me.”

“No, it’s probably because you’re calling him something like that.” Edgar scoops the animal up and lets it settle comfortably in his arms.

“What? Mr. Raccoon is a great name!” Royster breaks off a piece from his cookie and tosses it towards the raccoon—it reaches out and grabs the crumb out of the air, to Royster’s delight. “See, he loves me. So what is his name?”

“I… He doesn’t have one. I don’t plan on keeping him.”

Royster gawks. “You’re what, now.”

“H-He’s a wild animal.” Edgar loosens his grip a bit when the raccoon starts to fidget, and it clambers up to perch on his shoulders, chin on one side and tail resting on the other. “I just saw that he was—hurt, so I patched him up overnight, and now he doesn’t want to leave. B-But he’ll go back home eventually, wherever that is.”

“Hm.” Royster tilts his head a little, looking rather unconvinced. “But y’know, I read somewhere that domesticated animals won’t be able to live in the wild anymore.”

“He’s far from domesticated, it was only one night—”

Yeah,” Royster cuts in, “but also. Don’t you think if you leave him on the streets again, he’ll just go back to where the food is?”

Edgar opens his mouth, but closes it when he realizes he doesn’t know what to say. Royster grins at that (Edgar’s heart rockets up to his throat, which he tries to ignore). “See what I mean? He’ll either go to you… or here. Catch, Mr. Raccoon!” Another cookie crumb—Edgar nearly chokes when the animal wraps its tail around his neck to keep its balance while snatching the food with outstretched claws and perfect poise, somehow. Royster just about falls off his chair laughing. “You have gotta bring him around more often!”

“T-The editor-in—”

“Psh, who cares ‘bout him, like we’re going to out Mr. Raccoon to that guy? He’s safe under our desk, that’s for sure.”

When Royster gets up to talk to a coworker about something, Edgar takes his seat to rest his aching legs and smiles down at the raccoon by his feet, nibbling on the cookie Royster had left on his table. “You’re going to get fat,” Edgar tells it.

The raccoon gives him a side-eye. If it knew human gestures, it probably would’ve stuck out its tongue. Edgar bends down to stroke its head, and murmurs, “Did you hear him? He said our desk. Mine and his. Our desk.”

A bit of cookie crumb falls on the floor. What, so you’re getting your hopes up over a single word?

“S-So what if I am. You certainly like him.”

The raccoon scrambles to shove the crumb in its mouth, as if it, too, believes in the five second rule. Do you?

“Of course I…”

He trails off there, because in his head is Griswold’s voice, taunting gay boy, then Royster’s sleepy greeting from just yesterday, and… and. The raccoon says nothing more, only looks up at him (if it could raise its eyebrows, it probably would right now), then continues munching on its cookie. Not my problem, it seems to be saying. When it finishes eating, it climbs up to rest on Edgar’s shoulders again, nosing his ear.

Edgar reaches up to scratch it behind the ears, more to have something to do with his hands than anything. Do I? he asks himself. He thinks of cheeky smiles and good-mornings and how eyes light up whenever they land on him and (for Christmas—) Royster is heading his way, so Edgar hurries to get up and busy himself with a report so Royster doesn’t insist he take the chair.

“Are you working on something?” Royster asks—he peers over Edgar’s shoulder again, an awful habit he absolutely has to quit, because it sends shivers down Edgar’s spine every time. The raccoon’s tail flicks, and Royster sneezes. “Mr. Raccoon! You don’t just damn wave your tail in someone’s face like that!”

“An article,” Edgar mumbles—okay, the paper he’s holding on isn’t actually a report, it’s an article to be proofread. He really has to get himself together. “And you had that coming.”

“Sheesh, you’re tetchy. You were, too, yesterday, weren’t you? I barely saw you around, Perry, you kept running away.”

Edgar’s hand freezes over the paper. (And he’d just been about to actually work.) “I-I don’t know what you’re… talking about…”

Royster huffs, so close that Edgar can feel his breath on his neck. “You’re a terrible liar.”

“No, I’m not, I was just busy yesterday,” Edgar says—it’s only when the heat behind him disappears that Edgar realizes his voice has slipped into—into something that doesn’t sound like him at all, and Royster has drawn away from him. “A-Ah, I mean—”

“I got it,” Royster interrupts, but he sounds—different, too, far from the cheery voice Edgar has grown so used to. His expression is neutral, but there’s confusion etched in his furrowed brows, his small frown, his words when he says, “Never mind, then, I was just worried.”

Edgar spends the rest of the day in the archives. He doesn’t know where else to stay that won’t require human interaction, and especially with Royster. (There had been hurt. Edgar had seen it, heard it, felt it, and he hates it, hates how Royster had been hurt, hates how it had been because of him, hates how it feels like the only thing he’s good for is hurting and hurting and killing.) Even the raccoon seems to pick up on the mood, because it doesn’t make a mess in the archives room, just sniffs at cabinets and old newspapers and asks for attention every half hour or so.

It feels wrong. Like Edgar should be outside, running errands, editing articles, talking to—well, who else, it isn’t as if he wants to talk to Griswold, or anyone who isn’t Royster, really. And this is all just so—so stupid, because he’d gone from a stuttering wreck to someone who’s lied his way out of murder, and it’s not Royster’s fault at all but—but Edgar hates it. Hates how stupid and wrong this is and hates how he can’t bring himself to go out and apologize. (Hates how his Christmas gift had just been a waste of his time if he can’t even give it.)

When he does emerge from the archives room, because he’s frankly sick of sneezing at all the dust in that place (and he knows Royster’s usually left the office by now), the only other people still milling about are a few photographers and Griswold, who looks up from his bag when Edgar tries to sneak past him. “Finally decided to come out?”

“T-The archives needed sorting,” Edgar grumbles. If he has to talk to Griswold after all this, he doesn’t think he’d be able to stop himself from jumping out a window.

“I’m sure they did.” Griswold steps closer—for one second Edgar feels his hand twitch, feels a spark of blackness spread across a folded sheet of paper in his pocket—but he clenches his fist and forces himself to relax. The raccoon on his shoulders coos when Griswold gives it some head scratches. “He really is tame. I didn’t know you like raccoons, gay boy.”

A low hiss, a swift blur of movement—and then Griswold yelps and recoils. “Wha—hey!”

Edgar realizes what happened a second before Griswold can react—he steps back and lets the raccoon untangle itself from his neck to scramble down onto the floor and dash outside the office. “S-S-Sorry!” Edgar stammers—except this time the stammer feels almost forced, because really, he doesn’t feel sorry at all. “Y-You shouldn’t have said he’s tame, I bet he wanted to prove you wrong for that…”

Griswold stares at him, hand still in the air, then rolls his eyes with a half-forced laugh. “Uh, right, as if that animal can understand me, Perry.”

“It understood gay boy well enough,” Edgar says. The only reason Griswold hears his low, low voice is because the electric fans in the office have been turned off—if they’d still been running, Edgar doubts his voice wouldn’t have been swept away by even the faintest whirring. As it is, Griswold hears him loud and clear, and he freezes in place; not scared, per se, but definitely alarmed. “So I suggest you don’t try anything again.”

Griswold stares at him. “Or what?”

“Or something you don’t want to find out.” On habit, Edgar flexes his hand, stretching thin, bony fingers out—and the movement must catch Griswold’s attention, because he glances down for the shortest of seconds, but long enough that if Edgar were to bring out the paper tucked inside his pocket—

Don’t, something tells him. Don’t hurt any more people.

(It could have been the news articles scattered around the office. It could have been his conscience, still aching from the screams of those boys. It could have been a figment of his imagination. But more than anything it just sounds like the flowers, telling him to run, to save himself. Like Mother.)

Edgar lets his hand relax; he thinks Griswold does too, though not very visibly. “Well?”

Griswold turns away. “Fine, alright, whatever. If those are all empty threats—” He laughs again, sharp and caustic. “Dunno about you, Perry, but I doubt the editor-in-chief likes you enough to not kick you out if he hears about a threat.”

Not bothering to dignify that with a response, Edgar turns on his heel and leaves the office, letting the clacking of his gay boots echo in the now more or less silent room. The raccoon isn’t outside, or downstairs, or anywhere along the streets—Edgar’s relieved, really, that the raccoon had had its fair share of pets and treats and finally decided to go back home. A million less responsibilities for him now, and it had even decided to leave him after giving him the opportunity to get one up on Griswold.

And yet, his shoulders feel almost cold.

He kicks up some snow when he reaches the inn’s doorstep, thinking about how the ravens might prefer meat today, because they always like meat on Thursdays, when he hears an indignant squeak and feels something scratching at his pants. “Wh… oh.”

The raccoon looks up at him, snow on its head. What do you mean “oh,” bring me inside where it’s warm and dry already!

At first Edgar doesn’t—can’t comprehend it, because what is it doing here I thought it went home why is it still here why is it still with me I can’t be trusted, I can’t—but the raccoon just scratches at his pants some more and Edgar bends down to pick it up on reflex more than anything. It whines and rests its chin on his shoulder, apparently too tired to climb up on its now-usual perch. “I’m sorry,” Edgar murmurs, not caring if anyone sees him cradling a raccoon like it’s his child. “I thought you left.”

The raccoon snorts. Right. Sure I did.

“Thank you for… what you did. I didn’t think… Did you actually understand…?”

This time the raccoon doesn’t say anything, or at least Edgar doesn’t think it does. It simply shifts around in his grip to get more comfortable—and, well, maybe that’s answer enough for the both of them.

Dinner consists of some sausages and, thankfully, some cold pork for the ravens, who eye the raccoon with beady eyes as if concerned it’ll try to get their food (which it doesn’t, as it’s busy with its own loaf of bread). Edgar watches it happily munching away before, for some reason, he thinks to ask, “Do you think I’m different? For… For liking boys?”

The raccoon looks up and stares at him wordlessly, which Edgar can’t blame it for. “I mean… it feels… sort of wrong, you know, like it shouldn’t be something normal people do, but then it also feels really—right? Does that make sense? Because Royster is really—” He flushes. “Just really… something, you know… And, when he smiles, it’s really… oh, whatever,” he groans, reaching over to give the raccoon a head pat, even though he’s got a feeling it’s going to bite him, “you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about, do you?”

The raccoon noses his hand, and much to Edgar’s surprise, licks his fingers instead of the expected bite from being interrupted while eating. Edgar blinks—the raccoon goes back to nibbling on its bread contentedly. “Is that supposed to mean something?” he asks.

If raccoons could shrug, this one would have. Instead, it just gives him another undecipherable look, then stuffs the rest of the bread in its mouth. Only a day after it had gotten picked up off the streets and it’s already looking fatter, Edgar thinks. Or, no… it’s looking healthier. Because it is—though Edgar thinks he’ll likely still be able to feel its bones through its fur, it had been more energetic than he thought it would be throughout the day, and the regular meals must have done wonders for a starving wild animal.

He picks it up and settles it on its lap when it nears him, letting his hand go into automatic petting motions. It’s December right now, freezing cold at night, he thinks. If it had been trying to steal food, then it must not have a parent to provide for it… and it’s only a baby. If it tried to live out there after becoming used to domestication, even for only a day…

The raccoon barks, pawing at his cheek (thankfully not with its claws). Hey, pay attention to me, it seems to say.

“You really don’t plan on leaving, do you?” Edgar mutters; the raccoon cocks its head. “I guess I really should give you a name, if you plan on sticking around.”

Last time, he’d named a kitten after the god of the underworld, after the spirits of the dead. Last time an innocent life had been snuffed out because of him, barely a year old. This time—this time, Edgar isn’t taking chances.

“Karl. How does that sound?”

The raccoon—Karl—just gives him that look again, that says if he could shrug, he would. Edgar smiles.

(For Christmas, Edgar writes a poem, and leaves it on Royster’s desk the next morning—Royster calls him over and asks if it’s his, and how nice it is, and this line especially, we loved with a love that was more than love, it has just wonderful reader impact—and is he alright now, because he doesn’t seem so under the weather anymore. It’s as close to an apology as the both of them can make.

“What’s the poem about this time?” Royster asks.

Edgar opens his mouth, then pauses. He looks at Royster—really looks at him, not glances from the corner of his eye like he’s looking at the sun and can’t stare for too long. He sees the way Royster avoids eye contact, sees his too-tight grip on the paper that’s grumbling about how it ought to be handled better, sees the light pink on his cheeks—and remembers his habit of leaning over Edgar’s shoulder in a manner that’s too close for comfort for any normal person.

“I think you know,” Edgar says. And Royster smiles, thoughtfully, fondly—and Edgar does end up having to look away, because suns are simply too bright to look at—until he feels Royster reach to turn his head back towards him.)

Chapter Text

A week before his twentieth birthday, Edgar gets to write a news article.

Hard news absolutely bores him now, after having to edit hundreds of terrible articles and still get a pitiful salary, but he deals with it—it’s not like he can get a new job so easily, especially as a college dropout with a shady background, and besides, Royster’s here. Still, if the papers weren’t so easy to get along with, he thinks he may have left a long time ago; as it turns out, things get a lot easier to bear when there’s always someone to talk to, even if that someone may be an inanimate object for most everyone else.

But anyway—the news article. It’s boring. Of course it is, it’s hard news. It’s boring and Edgar copes by listening to the article talk as he writes it; it whispers him facts, important quotes, evidence found on the crime scene, and the suspect currently being investigated by the police. “He’s innocent, though,” Edgar mutters, when no one’s paying him attention. “None of the evidence points to him. All he did was—what was that? Deliver money from the bank to the victim. He’s a bank clerk, that’s his job. He doesn’t even have any relationships with the victim, so what personal motive does he have to kill her? Really, it’s—”

“Perry?”

It’s—surprising, that Edgar doesn’t jolt or jump anymore when Royster comes over to peer over his shoulder. Instead, a warm feeling lights up his chest, which he finds a far more pleasant reaction. “An article. It’s boring.”

“Hmm. What’s it about?” Edgar shifts the paper for Royster to see it better, knowing he reads faster than anyone, and then hears a huff. “Boring? But how? It’s about an unsolved murder, that’s more scary than anything. What if it’s a serial killer?”

“No, it’s not,” Edgar says blandly. He doesn’t even think about it when he finishes the article off with a vague conclusion about the police continuing investigations, listening to the paper grumble about unsatisfying endings. “There are enough details for the culprit to be obvious. Look, the perceived motive of the murderer was over some letter the victim had, which has sensitive information on some minister. The minister stole the letter, but he knew the woman would visit him in his house to look for it. He’s rich, so he bribed the prefect of police to murder the woman once she came, and then turn the blame away from him and onto some bank clerk who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s it.”

Hey, incomplete sentence in the fourth paragraph! Fix me!

Sorry, Edgar mentally replies, and does so. Then, when Royster just stares at him, Edgar cautiously asks, “Did I… say something wrong? I thought it was obvious.”

“Obvious?” Royster parrots. He grabs the paper (Edgar winces at its complaint) and waves it around frantically (Edgar tries not to cover his ears at the angered screaming). “There’s like, none of that information in here! How did you know the minister stole the letter? How do you—okay, I guess it’s a given he’d be rich,” Royster mumbles, calming down, much to the article’s relief. He sets the paper down, and Edgar hastens to smooth out the creases. “But how do you know he bribed the prefect of police? And that the prefect killed the victim? I mean, the prefect’s the one leading the investigation on this, he’s got all these important quotes and stuff.”

Edgar blinks. “It’s just… It’s there. It’s…” How can’t you see it? It’s right there, it’s so obvious! All the information! “Of course the minister would’ve stolen the letter, since it has secrets about him he doesn’t want anyone else to know,” he starts, speaking slowly.

“Right, I got that.”

“If you get stolen from, you’d definitely go back for it. The woman knew the letter had something important, and she’s a columnist for a gossip magazine—all the more that she’d want to know, and all the more that the minister would not want her to know. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“The obvious suspect here is the minister, because he has the motive for killing, which is true. But he has an ‘alibi’ for the time of murder—in a meeting with the prefect of police, far away from his house. Now if you read the prefect’s quotes carefully, too, you can see that he’s trying to push as much blame as possible onto the bank clerk,” Edgar continues. He lays a hand on the article, and—there. He can see the interview happening in his mind’s eye, right in the victim’s boudoir; the woman’s family weeping in a corner, the police poking and prodding around the room, the interview taking place right by the window, where the light is best for the camera. “See, he said, ‘We’re quite sure the good minister is not at all involved in this crime—we’re conducting investigations on Mr. Le Bon right now, and we’re certain he’s the culprit. He was conversing with the victim the morning before her death, which means he had ample time to understand the layout of the house and plan the murder.’ And—”

Shit! He’d almost mentioned how the prefect had had a confident expression, one that had faded as soon as the camera had turned away from him and back to the reporter, morphing into a satisfied smile that could be passed as one of relief that the interview was over. No, Edgar knows far too much about expressions to be fooled so easily (knows the dark clouds that roll over before the thunderstorm starts)—has written far too many pieces on emotions to not be able to see what’s underneath the surface (knows how scared boys react when faced with death). He inhales, giving himself time to modify his phrasing, and manages, “And, you know, just. It’s… It’s obvious.”

Royster lets out a whistle. “You should tell them.”

“Wh…?”

“You know, the police or… no, wait,” Royster muses, “if the prefect really is the culprit, then I doubt he’d be arrested by his underlings. Maybe you should confirm it first, though, see if what you think is really correct.”

Edgar bites his lip. I don’t just think I’m correct, I know I’m correct—why can’t you see it? It’s just so obvious! He doesn’t understand the frustration rising up in him—not at Royster, not really, but at how odd it is, that he doesn’t see what Edgar does. Royster’s far from an idiot, after all, he’s smart and an excellent journalist. So why doesn’t he see how this is the obvious, obvious answer? Edgar doesn’t need confirmation, or second thoughts, or more time to think, because he already knows. That’s why the article is boring.

But he says, “Well, alright.” Then, “You’ll come with, right?”

Royster breaks into a grin, and some of the frustration fades away to be replaced by that warmth again. “Duh, Perry, I wouldn’t want to miss out on this Hardy Boys adventure of yours.”

They (mostly Royster, because Edgar would dissolve into a stuttering mess) schedule an appointment with the minister for an interview; he graciously accepts and invites them over instead of the other way around, which is odd but not exactly unwelcome. He lives in the more upper-class part of town, which means Edgar has to get in a cab with Royster once work is over—it’s particularly humiliating when, after mentally calculating food and other expenses, Edgar only has a few measly dollars to offer as payment. Royster waves him away and pays for the both of them. “Let’s just say this is our first date,” he says.

“Then I should open the car door for you,” Edgar shoots back, and goes around the side of the car to help a laughing Royster out. The taxi driver rolls his eyes; Edgar ignores him. He’s gotten used to people like Griswold, enough that he doesn’t feel too stared at when he wears his heeled boots out. (He really likes them. Really likes them. He’s been thinking about buying more pairs for more variety, but that would put him and his wallet in a very terrible situation, so he’ll just have to save up again for now.)

But—he can never be used to how Royster kisses him so easily, like it’s no big deal, that they’re together and… and stuff. For a writer, Edgar is awful at describing the way his whole person lights up when Royster holds his hand or strokes his hair or presses smiling lips to his temple. If he really had to, he supposes it’s comparable to sitting in front of the fireplace on a cold winter day—a feeling of safety, comfort, a feeling of being at home.

Home. It feels like a foreign subject, even when Royster is with him—he supposes there are some things, wounds and memories that can never go away, and concepts that Edgar will never quite experience, no matter what.

Royster does most of the greetings and small talk when they arrive at the minister’s place, a grand manor that makes Edgar feel poorer with every step he takes upon the plush carpet. The insane amount of air freshener by the doorway is headache-inducing, and it’s eerily silent, a stark contrast from the constantly bustling office filled with voices of both people and papers—here, Edgar can only feel Royster beside him, and a faint voice somewhere deeper in the house.

“Do you know where the minister was this morning?” Edgar asks, trying to listen for the voice. Is that the prefect? No, too high. The minister? He doubts it.

The servant leading them to the minister’s office turns around to shake her head gently. “Sorry. I only come in the afternoon.”

Before he can ponder on it further, the servant leads them to the minister’s office, because of course he has an office at home. He is neat, well-groomed, and obviously not used to seeing college dropouts knee-deep in poverty, by the way he ignores Royster but raises an eyebrow upon seeing Edgar. “Ah, the journalists. Mr. Royster and Mr. Perry, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Minister, evening! Thanks for consenting to an interview.” After exchanging more small talk, Royster pulls out a notepad and pencil, both of which he won’t need, though Edgar doesn’t tell him that. It adds to their image, after all, except now they also look too poor to afford cell phones. “‘Fraid we don’t have much time, so let’s get this done quick and let you have the rest of the night. Heard the murder this morning was over a letter?”

The minister scoffs, settles back in his leather armchair. Edgar can’t tell if the chair itself is comfortable, but the minister is certainly relaxed, self-assured of his innocence, and distant towards the crime itself—he’s already moved on, then, Edgar thinks. He’s either stored the letter someplace safe or burned it up to make things final. Hopefully it’s the former—the more evidence, the better, after all. “Yes, yes, very silly business. That woman made a great fuss about me stealing her letter, and she came here raging and flailing trying to get it back. Like I have the time to spare for her silly matters—most likely she just misplaced it.”

“When was that, exactly?” Edgar asks.

Casting Edgar a scrutinous eye, as if assessing whether he’s worth the effort to reply to or not, the minister says, “Well, it was sometime around early morning today, I believe, scarcely a few hours before she was killed. She was going absolutely mad—”

“That’s interesting,” Edgar cuts in, feeling his stutter recede in favor of laying out the details in an organized, satisfying manner. He’s always liked his papers in order. “You said you were in a meeting with the prefect of police at that time. You couldn’t have been visited by the victim if you weren’t at home.”

The minister freezes—an undetectable and barely noticeable movement, but enough for Edgar to know he’s gotten it right. Beside him, Royster shifts, the friendly smile he plasters on for every interview gone. “Forgive me, it must have been yesterday morning,” the minister corrects, cocking his head in a way to look distracted and noncommittal. “Such a busy schedule that I can’t even keep track of everything that happened in one day and the one before it.”

“But the victim was entertaining Le Bon that morning, when he came to deliver money from the bank,” Edgar interjects again. He feels blank, listless, bored. He already knows this. He can see the whole thing from start to finish in his head, the woman receiving the letter from a friend to the prefect clubbing her to death. Right now, he’s just going through the motions. “According to the prefect of police, they spent quite some time together, enough for Le Bon to understand the map of the house. Do you think the victim would have gone here ‘raging and flailing’ right after having a nice chat with a friendly bank clerk? Besides, it couldn’t have been early morning if she were with Le Bon—early afternoon would be a far more normal time.”

“Are you trying to insinuate something, Mr. Perry?”

“Will you please tell us where you were in your meeting with the prefect this morning?”

“I believe I have the right to keep some parts of my life private,” the minister responds tersely.

Stalling for time, Edgar thinks. He strains his ears in the split-second silence that follows, and hears the whisper again. A cry for help, it sounds like, but from whom?—Oh, wait, but of course. He should’ve known.

“We’re not trying to insinuate anything, no, very sorry about that, Minister,” Royster smoothly interjects. “We just want our article to be as factual as possible, while also putting you in your best light.” And there comes the winning smile again. Edgar’s glad he’s not the subject of it, else he’d flush and melt into a useless puddle of goo, as per usual.

The minister huffs, looking somewhat appeased. “Fine, fine. I was in the police station with the prefect, which as you may know is a good few miles away from here. I suppose I was mistaken again—perhaps the woman had gone there instead. My memory must just be muddled with all the work I’ve had to do the past few days.”

Blood, the voice wails. Blood everywhere! It was awful! I… I’m in the house with a murderer, yes, a murderer!

Just wait a minute longer, Edgar thinks. He’s never tried to send a message to a paper from so far away without even knowing where it is, but when the voice quiets, he adds, I’ll get you out soon. And then, to the minister, “I acknowledge you were with the prefect, but why were you at the station? You could have invited him here, which I know you’re obviously fond of doing—”

“He called me there for an important matter, you must understand, do not just assume—

“What was that important matter?”

Another moment of silence anyone not engrossed in the rapid-fire conversation would have missed. Then, with a hint of a waver in his voice, “Political matters. None of your businesses, certainly.”

He can’t help it; his voice drops into an acidic tone he wishes he weren’t familiar with. “The newspaper covers politics as well, in case you didn’t know,” Edgar hisses. “I think you know you’re trapped here, Minister. You stole the letter from the victim, knowing she would suspect you and therefore come looking for you here. Your servant only comes by afternoon, so it couldn’t have been her who opened the door and let the woman enter—no, it was the prefect you were with, wasn’t it?”

“That’s—”

“You bribed him to kill the woman and then push the blame onto someone else. He murdered her there by the entrance hall, where there are less windows for unwanted witnesses, and then got him to deliver her back to her boudoir to take suspicion off of you. Explains the air freshener by the doorway, to cover up the smell of blood. Your lies are imperfect because they were conceived just this morning, when the woman was killed—you haven’t had the time to truly believe them.” Edgar tilts his head a bit, just to see the minister’s shocked expression better. “Am I wrong, Minister?”

“Perry,” Royster murmurs. “I don’t think—”

“You dare accuse me of murder?” the minister shrieks—he jumps to his feet and slams his open palm on his desk, so hard that it rattles the contents and sends a pencil rolling onto the floor. “Some lowly journalists barge into my house and call me a murderer, and a corrupt one, at that—”

Edgar stands up. “Am I wrong, Minister?” Admit it. Admit it already! You did it. You did it! I know you did, I’ve known from the start, now it’s just up to you to confess!

“They can’t know!” he screams, a shout so raw and angered that Edgar’s resolve cracks and he has to step back, the familiar fear starting to creep up again. (Thunderstorm-footsteps. Thunderstorm-glares.) “They can’t know,” the minister repeats, slower and more dangerously. “That fool woman thought she could expose the fortune I’ve saved up from money laundering. She thought she could get away with it by asking some of her contacts in the government! No, there could only have been one outcome for her actions. She couldn’t… She couldn’t be permitted to live, not after finding out… no… no…”

What’s happening? the letter asks. What’s going on? I feel blood. I feel it! I feel the—

It happens so fast that Edgar doesn’t follow what’s going on until it’s done—first he registers being pushed to the floor, and then the bang of a gunshot, the vague sound of a bullet lodging itself into the wooden desk the minister had just been behind. Where is he now—and Royster is standing in front of him, arms outstretched as if to—to protect him, but why—and then another bang, and Edgar doesn’t think, only acts—he shoves Royster to the side and then feels burning, searing pain all along his left side, fire racing up and down his torso.

Someone is gasping, raggedly, pulling in desperate breaths of oxygen like tugging on the string of a kite whipping in the wind. Edgar belatedly realizes it’s him. Royster is saying something, the minister is laughing, and there is a cry, but this one is clearer than any of the other sounds—Let me. I can do it. Revenge, I need to take revenge! Just let me do it. Trust me!

Edgar doesn’t think. Only acts. Only grabs onto the ability he hasn’t used in so long, and pulls.

Curdling black. Screeching red. A mix of colors—two lights from one tiny sheet of paper, once tucked gently in an envelope and then ripped sharply out to be stuffed in the drawer of the minister’s desk. There are two more sounds—the minister’s shocked shout, another man’s voice yelling unintelligibly—the light fades, and then silence. Edgar closes his eyes, focusing both on breathing deeply and evenly and on seeing the insides of the letter. Two men, the minister and the prefect, the latter holding a gun (two bullets fired)—one voice rings out.

You killed me. You killed me!

His eyes shoot open of their own accord, but the scene still stays in the back of his mind—the flaming black ghost of a woman, coming down on the two men with the club used to beat her living self to death—and Edgar ignores the pain still flooding his body to scramble for the desk drawer. “What? What is it?” Royster asks.

At first Edgar doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to trouble him, but he can’t find the letter, can only hear the ringing screams in his head, can only hear those boys sobbing and pleading and—“The letter, get the letter,” he manages, and almost collapses on the floor again.

Royster curses, and Edgar registers the sounds of drawers opening and papers being rifled through, until finally a sheet of paper is shoved into his hands. He takes a deep breath, and—Let them go. This fixes nothing.

They killed me! They killed me, they deserve to—

“Let them go,” he speaks aloud. Royster stares at him in obvious confusion, but Edgar can’t bring himself to care. (He does not want more blood on his hands. He does not want to sleep at night with their screams forever echoing in his dreams.) “Let them go, or I will make you.”

Silence. The screams peter out, but Edgar keeps his grip on the paper, listens to the jackhammer beat of two frightened hearts—and then a dull, gray light. The minister and the prefect flash into existence on the carpeted floor, pale and bruised but alive. Alive—Edgar has never felt relief this heavy.

And then he blacks out. His last thought is what Royster will think of him now.

When he wakes up, he finds himself in a hospital. The room is devoid of life, both human and paper. Edgar wishes he had stayed asleep.

It takes three, horrendous days until he’s released from the hospital—the nurses always seem to be walking on eggshells around him, and the doctor dismisses him without even looking him in the eye, as if unable to. The first thing he does is head straight to the inn, and he almost collapses again from relief when Howard says another worker has been feeding Karl for him (the food came from his meals, of course). There are trinkets scattered all over his work desk, and Edgar doesn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for the ravens to fly down and perch by his windowsill, many of them pecking lightly at his hand. He thinks that means they’re concerned, but he’s not too sure—all he does is hand over his lunch for them to fuss over, and hugs Karl close to his chest.

“I’m exhausted,” he says, rather unnecessarily. Karl just coos against his shoulder. “I revealed my ability in front of R-Royster and I almost killed two people. Murderers, yes, but they—they were still people.” He swallows. Remembers a small, black body hanging from a tree. Murderers, yes, but still people. They had only been boys, barely a year older than him. Murderers but people, indeed. “What do I do, Karl?”

If raccoons could shrug, Karl probably would have. Edgar knows he would have, too. When Karl gets tired of the hug and starts scratching at Edgar’s chest, he releases him and lets Karl clamber up to settle on his shoulders again, as has become his usual spot. “Should I go talk to him? That… That sounds like the most sensible idea.” But also the most terrifying. He hates conversation. He likes it with Royster well enough, but the topic—

His drawer is ajar.

Edgar moves so fast, his side threatens to tear apart—he leaps to his feet and pulls his desk drawer open, feeling his world go numb when his carefully organized, paperclipped poems and stories are scattered and thrown in disarray, his metal box from a full decade ago toppled onto its side. He sets it right, sifts through the papers to check if anything is missing—and his heart almost stops, right then and there, when he can’t find his notebook.

There are other notebooks, of course, with late-night writings not half so good as the ones he picks to show Royster are, and those are mostly unimportant—he could live without them, though he wouldn’t be happy about it. But the notebook, the one where newspaper clippings shout HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY?, sneer David Poe abandons family, presumed dead, scream 5 children now missing in Richmond, and, in some soft whisper, Missing uni student, possibly related to previous disappearances. He has Spirits of the Dead tucked away in there, the still-unnamed story that houses four boys’ corpses folded and inserted, he has blood and death scrawled all over the pages of that notebook, he has—himself. And now someone else has it.

It doesn’t take long for him to piece the puzzle together, considering it’s not much of a puzzle at all. Edgar sets Karl down, quieting his protesting squeaks with some leftover meat from the ravens’ lunch, and then sets off for the agency.

When he arrives, Royster is waiting for him by the entrance, leaning against a pillar and staring blankly ahead of him. “Hey, Perry,” he greets, tone bland. “Or Poe, I guess I should call you.”

Edgar swallows. He thinks Royster saying his real name would have more of a positive effect on him if fear weren’t running through his every vein right now. “R-Royster—”

“Save it,” he snaps; Edgar flinches when Royster tosses him his notebook back, long enough that the tattered thing falls on the concrete, papers and pages flying out from underneath it like the pathetic body of a dead bird, wings splayed awkwardly beneath it. The image is brutal—Edgar shakily bends down to pick it up, for lack of better things to do. “I… Listen. Just answer me something, okay?”

“Royster, I—”

“Just tell me,” Royster grinds out through gritted teeth. “You… You’re an ability user.”

(“An ability?”)

“Y… Yes.”

“Fine. Whatever. Don’t care, it’s not like you’re all automatically bad. But—” Royster shakes his head, and the lack of change in expression dampens whatever hope had been rising in Edgar’s chest at his words. “You… You killed those kids in the article. Didn’t you? The five missing boys. Don’t lie,” he tacks on, brow furrowing. “Your ability, it’s drawing people into books and stories or something, isn’t it? Or papers, in general, like—like what you did with—with those two.” His voice cracks—Edgar’s never heard something that’s made him want to cry so bad. “Tell me. Did you kill them?”

And what is he supposed to say? What on earth can Edgar say to counter this interrogation? It’s like the worst form of karma possible, being drilled into confession the same way he had forced the minister into admitting his involvement in the crime. What had Edgar gotten out of it? A bullet to the side, and—and this. There is no warmth when Royster looks at him now; only coldness, the freezing breath of winter hailing down on his insides, turning them into icicles. What is he supposed to say? If God exists, Edgar thinks, briefly and ludicrously, then why won’t he tell me what I’m supposed to say?

“Did you kill them, Perry?” Royster asks, voice barely more than a whisper now. He doesn’t even seem to notice his slip back into Edgar’s fake name. “Just tell me the truth.”

It would be so easy to lie. Royster sounds like he’s begging for just that—for Edgar to tell him that of course it’s not true, because how could junior-journalist, animal-loving Edgar kill anyone, much less five boys? Edgar can already see the words forming in his head, just like telling a story—no, never, why would you even think that, those articles were just leftover ones from when I was trying to write more journalistically than fictionally, Royster, please believe me, I stopped the letter from killing those two, please—and then he realizes the problem, because he’s never thought of a conversation as telling a story.

He doesn’t want to lie to Royster again. He’s done that enough times, he thinks. So he swallows, and—“Yes,” he breathes, all the oxygen draining out of him from that word alone. His lungs feel ready to collapse in on themselves. “I d-did. I did. I’m s-s-sorry, I didn’t—I wasn’t—”

Royster’s expression hardens. “Poe—”

“No! Please, listen—” He surges forward, clasps Royster’s hand in both of his, and the static that flies between both of them numbs Royster long enough for Edgar to speak again, however brokenly. “I r-regret it everyday, I’m s-so sorry, all the damn time, I wish I never d-did it, I wasn’t thinking straight, I wasn’t thinking at all when I w-wrote that, there’s no excuse for what I d-did, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, please forgive me—” He breathes, breathes, breathes. “Royster. I—I lo—l-l-lov—”

“I’m sorry,” Royster says, and lets go of him. Edgar’s mind goes blank. “I can’t. Alright? I… I can’t. I’m sorry. I need to—You need to leave.”

“W… What?”

“You’re a murderer,” Royster murmurs. He even looks and sounds apologetic. “I’m a journalist. I can’t just let you go. I’m sor—”

Edgar turns away and runs, ignoring Royster’s shouts behind him. He runs and runs and runs. It is the only thing he knows how to do. (Goodbye, he thinks. Goodbye, Royster, goodbye, Griswold, goodbye, Huxley. Goodbye.)

There are the flowers, again, telling him to run and never stop, not for anything or anyone, but he stops that train of thought and makes a mad dash for the inn. He only has a few minutes before Royster informs the police, or at least gets someone else to chase after him, and—and it’s ridiculous, but Edgar can’t abandon everything. Not after Pluto. Not after Mother.

Karl is still nibbling on some lunch when Edgar picks him up and hides him in his work bag, apologizing over and over again in response to the annoyed squeal, and shoves everything else he owns inside—notebooks, pens, an extra change of clothes, breakfast and granola bars, a half-empty bottle of water, his wallet, his metal box. A lone raven remains on the windowsill—when Edgar stares at it, it squawks and then hops onto his shoulder.

“Alright,” he mumbles, “alright.” Later he will call her Lenore, but for now he can only spare the bird a brief stroke on the head before he runs again. (Goodbye, Howard.)

I love you, he thinks, over and over while he’s ducking into back alleys and winding through the maze of dark tunnels. I love you, I love you, I love you. For a writer of so many love poems, I can’t even say those three words. Do I deserve love after taking lives? Do I deserve a life after taking so many of them? I love you, I love you, I love you. I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry.

News spreads quickly about a serial killer with an ability. Karl brings him discarded newspapers to listen to, and they tell him about the first article on the incident: written by Royster, because of course it’s him. The information is painfully objective, omitting nothing on the goriness of the five boys’ deaths and how the minister and the prefect had almost been killed. It’s only in the newer issues that the details get distorted, the adjectives and adverbs feeding the fire, and Edgar Allan Poe becomes an insane murderer.

Edgar wonders what Royster thinks, if his memory has become distorted too, if all he will remember of Edgar is bloodlust and not his poems, his presence, his—kisses, maybe, if Royster had cared enough to remember them. He thinks it wouldn’t be so pessimistic to believe so, that Royster can only remember that now, because Edgar can only remember the look on his face when he’d called Edgar an ability user, a murderer.

Karl curls around him when he brings a newspaper four days after what had happened—this time there are testimonies from witnesses of his cruel acts, which is downright hilarious but isn’t at all helpful. Edgar closes his eyes and lays his hand on the cold, crumpled paper, listening to it calm at his touch. You don’t feel like a murderer, it says, meek and timid. You know the media’s been going on and on about you, right?

“Yes.”

Oh. Well… If you can talk to us, it squeaks, sounding embarrassed, then you can’t be so bad. D-Do you want to listen to the article?

“Sure.”

He listens. They’d gone all the way to Richmond to interview Father, who’s remarried and seems to have sunk even deeper into debts the last time Edgar’s seen him. “I knew he was an ability user,” Father says, but his eyes are wide and he sounds more shocked than anything. “He ran away from home after his mother’s death. If he really is a murderer, then…”

“Stop,” Edgar says. The paper goes mute. “Skip the rest of my father. Who else is there?”

There are the families of the five boys from years ago, sobs and cries for justice, to arrest him and sentence him to death like he’d done with their children. These Edgar had expected—he listens to their mothers’ hysterical screams and their fathers’ thunderstorm-yells, hears those boys crying and begging in the back of his head. The paper suddenly stops in the middle of a sentence, and Edgar opens his eyes. “Why…?”

That can’t be nice to listen to, it murmurs. Don’t listen to them. You are kind, aren’t you?

“Kind?”

Karl squeaks and paws at his chest; Edgar scratches the back of his ears on habit. Lenore is perched upon the telephone wire overhead, beady eyes scouring the nearby surroundings. Yes, kind, the paper chirps. I’ve never heard of a murderer who took the time to care for animals and papers alike. Do you know what readers do once they’re done with me? Throw me away! Down the gutter, on the street, into the trash! But—you’re talking to me.

“I… guess,” Edgar allows, and tucks the paper away in his notebook when it gets sleepy.

Breakfast and lunch and dinner are things of the past—though Edgar supposes they always have been, since he’d never had the most rigid meals schedule, and he’s used to subsisting on little food. But on nights when the hunger claws at the inside of his stomach, he scribbles down short stories on food and water and drags Karl in with him, chewing and swallowing like it’s more a chore than anything to stay alive. When he’s done (and it never takes long, because there is never much food), he withdraws himself and sends Lenore in—he needs the raven to keep watch for any threats, which there is never a shortage of on the streets and back alleyways he hides himself away in.

When he can see the rest of the food is gone, he lays a hand on his notebook and brings the animals back out. Karl sniffs and Lenore croaks, both of them in disappointment, but there’s no way around it—Edgar would need to write longer for that, and there are no pages for him to spare. He thinks the emotion behind the writing has an effect, too—the measly amount of fruits and meat he manages to bring into existence always turn to ash in his stomach.

The nights grow longer. Karl continues to bring articles; Lenore continues to squawk at the first sign of a passing policeman. There is a bounty on his head, Edgar reads, off a worn newspaper that mumbles and mutters about wanting rest; a fat amount of cash for anyone who can bring him in or help the police in doing so. You sure are expensive, the paper mutters. You shouldn’t have trusted a journalist like that. They do everything to sell their articles.

“Royster didn’t,” Edgar snaps. “Don’t generalize.”

A pause, and then a grumbled, Sheesh, sorry. Who’s that? Your boyfriend?

It’s Edgar’s turn to go quiet, and he lifts his hand from the paper for a moment before laying it back down. “No,” he says, the bite gone from his voice. “He’s… He was a friend.”

Was. Edgar’s never hated the past tense like this. There were touches. There were smiles. There were kisses. There was love. He hates it, hates it and the coldness it brings, the promise that nothing would ever be alright again, that nothing would ever be as it once was. He hates that he’d fooled himself into thinking he could live like that forever, basking in Royster’s sun, living an honest life. Honest—the very word seems to mock him, taunting him by dangling honesty in front of his nose and snatching it away when he dares to reach for it. The same with love.

The same with love.

You alright? the paper asks.

“Fine.”

How could I ever have thought myself worthy of love, Edgar thinks, and takes his hand off the paper to avoid crumpling it up. The paper yawns and goes to sleep; he stows it in his notebook when he can trust himself again. How could I ever have thought myself worthy of living?

The nights grow longer and so, so much colder; Edgar thinks about Royster, that warm smile and those warm eyes, but every image of his face twists and turns into that apologetic expression, his now-foreign lips forming the words I’m sorry and murderer and I can’t. Edgar hates that he misses him. He hates that he still thinks of that face lighting up upon seeing him, hates that he longs for the warmth of his kisses. Hates it, hates himself, but could never, never hate Royster—that he knows for certain.

For his twentieth birthday, Edgar curls up against a cold, damp wall, and chokes out a sob when Karl comes to wrap himself around his freezing hands and Lenore returns bearing a shiny black pin.

Happy birthday, he thinks she says. I like shiny things, so I’m sure you do, too. She is like that, Lenore. Prim and proper and murderous when the situation calls for it. She nudges him with her beak until Edgar takes the pin, but it’s too dark to see what it is.

He strokes her head anyway, and murmurs, “Thank you.” Then, to Karl, who chitters and squeaks for attention, “And you, too.” His fur is coarse and ragged, and he’s grown thin and lean again from the sudden lack of food, but he still stays with Edgar all the same, and Edgar doesn’t, can’t, ask for more.

For his twentieth birthday—Edgar receives a small, shining metal pin of a black cat. He tucks it away in his work bag, in its most secure pocket, and has to resist the urge to cry again. He doubts he has the energy left to do so.

When he runs out of blank pages, Edgar reaches up to flatten his bangs, and then heads into the nearest, smallest convenience store he can find. He still has unused money sitting in his work bag—he hasn’t exactly had the opportunity to use it so far, after all, with most other thugs he sees backing away as soon as they get a look at his face. Karl hides in his bag, and Lenore perches outside with the other ravens, blending in effortlessly. Edgar picks and chooses food with the most excellent care.

He pays. He exits. He still has his bangs covering half his face, his coat is draped over his shoulders to draw as little attention to him as possible, and it’s late enough that there shouldn’t be many people around. But he’s already one step into ducking into an alleyway and successfully evading detection when someone shouts, “Hey! Excuse me?”

Edgar runs. (The only thing. It is the only thing.)

He’s spent maybe a little over a week lurking in the alleyways, enough for him to become desensitized to the stench of garbage that now clings to him like a shadow, for his body to become nothing more than skin drooping sadly on bone, but most of all for him to have an almost intimate knowledge of the backstreets. Memorization has always been easy for him, and he had treated the maze of alleys as nothing more than another puzzle to solve during class, something for his teachers to marvel over and his classmates to scoff at. He can lose the policeman within the alleyways with little to no effort, and he knows it.

Then Karl squeaks from inside his bag, and Edgar skids to a stop. Lenore, he thinks. Lenore. He thinks of a black body hanging from a tree and five cruel boys and there is no reason, absolutely no reason, to think that a policeman would know what his raven looks like.

But Edgar has always been a slave to fear.

He detours, runs down an alley that leads back out, hears the (thunderstorm) footsteps behind him and tries to calculate how far away he is by sound alone (he is only ahead by two seconds, maybe three; a single misstep, and—), but his mind wipes itself blank when he is faced with a stone wall. Dead end. He had tried not to go further than he needed to, and he is only familiar with the streets he frequents.

The footsteps skid to a stop behind him.

Lenore. He has to get to Lenore. She is a friend—his friend.

Ragged gasps. The click of a gun.

But—but. It’s more a chore than anything to stay alive, isn’t it—he asks himself that, but it’s barely a question, more a statement of fact. To live is something for the living. Surviving, subsisting, staying alive, those were all for the corpses waiting to collapse. Anything would suffice—bullets digging into skin, knives eating into pliant flesh, starvation and dehydration both clawing inside of him.

“Put your hands in the air. You’re Poe, aren’t you?”

It would be so easy, to die here. To turn around, pretend to attack, trust the policeman’s finger to press down, trust him for even the slightest pressure that would free him. Karl and Lenore, they are smart—they can get the food he’s bought, figure out how to work it, return to scavenging for their own sustenance afterwards. (Royster’s voice, in his head: Domesticated animals won’t be able to live in the wild anymore. Don’t you think he’ll just go back to where the food is? Royster’s voice. Royster.)

Edgar’s arms twitch, and so does his bag. It shifts around until Karl’s small black snout peeks out from the tiniest of openings, big enough for him to sniff the air. Go back in, Edgar silently pleads, frozen, waiting. Go back in. Please. Please.

The nose disappears back inside. Edgar deigns to breathe—and then a gray blur flashes out of the bag, ripping it open and shooting straight for the policeman’s feet. Edgar whirls around, hears someone (himself, he realizes later) scream no—the gun goes off, but there is no spurt of blood, only a bullet burying itself in the wall beside them. Karl bites and snaps at the man’s ankles—the man curses, and somehow Edgar’s vision zooms in on the tensing of his muscles, the way his leg is poised to kick. “No!” he screams again, dives to intercept a young boy hitting a small black cat around—

A flurry of feathers, dark as the night around them, slams straight into the policeman’s face. Lenore screeches and shrieks and claws at the man’s face with those gleaming talons, but she is small and lean, made for speed and flight, not for defense. The man yells, closes his hand around her, and flings her to the ground, all of it happening too fast for Edgar to comprehend until he hears the sickening crack, a half-formed caw dying before the rest of it is released. Karl slips into the shadows, long tail curling around him; animals react far quicker to death, and far more practically, than humans ever will.

The sound echoes in Edgar’s head, repeats itself, over and over. Crack. A black cat. Crack. A frail, broken body. Crack. Another friend gone. Because of him.

The man aims. Edgar sees the gun—he is nearer to it now, and he can see the inside of the barrel, a dark hole that seems to stretch into infinity. He thinks that may sound poetic, if he wrote it down, but he supposes he will never write another line again. He closes his eyes. Waits.

He hears the bang of the gun. He thinks he had heard it before he had felt it, but then when it never comes—it being the cold, dull sensation he had hoped for, or the bursting inferno of pain he had expected—he opens his eyes again.

The policeman crumples to the ground before him, uniform dyed red from the blood spreading from a dark hole in his back; his gun clatters out of his grip. Behind him stands someone else, golden hair gleaming under what little moonlight reaches them in the alley—beside him is someone small and slight, her face dipping to avoid eye contact when Edgar turns to look at her.

“Edgar Allan Poe,” the golden one says, looking amused. His words are slow, measured, carefully chosen the same way Edgar has heard politicians do. The devil’s voice, he remembers. Da. “Insane serial killer with an initially non-combat ability.”

Edgar says nothing. The crack still rings in his head—he dares not look at where he knows Lenore’s body lies.

The man cocks his head; the very gesture is animalistic, almost unnatural, and that alone unnerves Edgar more than anything else. Even the gun in his hand, smoke still trailing from its end, seems kind in comparison. “You certainly don’t seem insane.”

“Who are you?” Another friend. Another one. Because of me. Because of me.

He smiles. Gleaming white teeth cut through the darkness of the night.

“The Guild. Who else would we be? We’ve been looking for you, old sport.”

In exchange for saving his life, Edgar is to find someone, and then get information from them. “Not that I can’t do it myself,” Fitzgerald says, polishing the handle of his gun. It has intricate patterns on the metal, Edgar notices: like curling vines, or unfurling flower petals. No definite shape, but beautiful all the same. “But he’s been a thorn in our side for far too long, and he has connections we don’t. I’d like it if he became an informant for the Guild.”

“And… you expect me to do that.”

Fitzgerald fixes him with a look with those clear blue eyes of his, terrifying and calming at once. “With your ability, it wouldn’t be hard, would it? Write a little poem. Trap him in it like you did your other victims. Threaten him with that wild, insane imagination of yours. He wouldn’t take long to crack.”

They bring him to a shining grand hotel that looks like it’s made entirely out of gold—Edgar hadn’t even known Portsmouth had hotels like these—and lets him stay in an entire suite by himself; but Edgar mumbles an excuse to slip away from the lights and sounds and returns to the alleyway, where the policeman is still hidden in, buried under garbage bags, scurrying rats, and clouds of flies. He waves them all away, and crouches by the small, unmoving body, half-melted into the shadows.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.” He should cry, he thinks, but nothing comes out except another hoarse apology. Karl is by his feet, winding around his ankles and keening softly, a low sound that sounds like an I’m sorry, too.

Lenore says nothing. Edgar wishes he didn’t have to say anything, too, wishes he could be a corpse the rats and flies could feast on as well. Death held no responsibilities, no lives to be compromised for his own, no friends to lose, no policemen to run from, no shady informants to chase down as a debt to people he hadn’t asked for help. But Lenore is dead because of him, and to throw this life away, however useless and poisonous, would be throwing her life away, too. Death held no responsibilities for him, yes, but he doubts his raven would appreciate the gesture.

There is no nearby soil he can bury her body in except for the ones in strangers’ gardens and backyards—he walks all night until he finds a little piece of the forest, fenced in on all sides but otherwise unguarded. Edgar rips a scrap of paper off a worn page, watches it become carried away by the wind, and sighs when it murmurs about a crumbled section of the wall he can just barely crawl through.

“Goodbye,” he whispers, when there is dirt under his nails and his hands are sore from digging. Karl had helped, this time. “Look—you can see the stars from here. The clouds, the moon, the sun. The sky. Maybe—Maybe you’ll be free again, someday.”

Thus do we reach the stars, the flowers around him seem to be saying, their heads bobbing along to the breeze. Karl noses his hand, when all Edgar can do is watch the flowers, and in turn listen to Mother telling him she loves him.

How can you love someone like me, he thinks. How can you ever have loved someone who isn’t deserving of it, Mother?

When he returns to the hotel, the sun has begun to rise.

Chapter Text

The target is Meyer Wolfsheim, a short Jew who seems to have been born looking suspicious. He lives in a rundown apartment a few blocks away from the grocery Edgar used to frequent when the inn needed him to, and every night he goes to the casino a taxi ride away, earns ludicrous amounts of money, and then sulks around outside until he can get another cab to bring him back home. Edgar is driven to the casino by a low-ranking Guild member who doesn’t speak the whole way there, and he manages to brush against Wolfsheim close enough to slip a scrap of paper in his bag pocket. Then he’s driven back to the hotel (still no conversation, which he’s perfectly fine with), settled back in his suite, and on the verge of falling asleep when he realizes something is very, very wrong.

“Karl?” He shoots straight up from the bed. No sign of the raccoon. “Karl!” No, no, not him, not now, not so soon after—after—no, please—

He forces himself to calm down, and closes his eyes—the papers all around the suite shiver but tell him nothing, and he can’t feel Karl’s presence in the place either. Karl wouldn’t run away, considering he has all the food he’s ever wanted here and more now, but—but maybe Lenore’s death had—scared him away from Edgar, or—or—

Tap. A soft knock on the door; it takes Edgar a second for that realization to catch up to what he should do next, and he wrenches the door open with probably unnecessary force. Fear melts away into confusion when all he sees is the smaller woman from before—he doesn’t even know her name yet. “Er…”

“Y-Your raccoon,” she mumbles, fumbling with her hands. “He f-fell asleep in my room. Um… I thought I should let you know. I-I would’ve brought him back, b-but I was scared he’d b-bite me…”

“Oh,” Edgar says. Terror lifts itself from his shoulders, carried away to be replaced by palpable relief. “I… Thank you. It’s alright, I’ll get him myself.”

She nods silently, now fiddling with the hem of her blouse and studiously looking at the floor, and leads him to her suite. It’s much the same as his, only less cluttered and with Karl curled up in a ball on her bed. Edgar scoops him up in his arms, holding himself back from fussing over him for the time being to avoid making a fool of himself, and turns to face the girl. (He doesn’t know how old she is, and that frightens him.) “Thank you, again.”

“It’s f-fine,” she murmurs, still avoiding eye contact.

Is he supposed to say something now? Or does he just leave right away? Their speech is so stilted and the awkwardness of the situation is almost ridiculous—two people who dislike conversation trying to make it for courtesy’s sake. Edgar swallows and decides to get at least something out of this whole thing. “What’s… What’s your name?”

The girl reddens and glances up at him for a split second before immediately looking back down at the carpeted floor. “L-Louisa. Alcott.” Her stutter reminds Edgar, almost painfully so, of himself, and he has to wonder why it hasn’t come up in his own words so far; it isn’t as if he can control when it appears and when it conveniently decides to leave. “Call me whatever. It’s n-nice to meet you…” She trails off, and finally looks at him for longer than a blink—it’s impossible for her to not know Edgar’s name, and Edgar acknowledges it as a polite opening for him.

“Edgar Allan Poe,” he says—Alcott doesn’t look like she cares, which he cannot blame her for. “It’s nice to meet you too. Er… I should get going, now. Good night.”

She mutters something that could be a good-night as well, and Edgar hurries out of the suite. Karl sniffs and snuffles in his arms. “What were you thinking, running off on your own like that?” Edgar sighs, smoothing down some of the ruffled fur on his back. “At least you didn’t leave the hotel, but if you had gone into someone else’s suite…” Fitzgerald’s, he thinks, but doesn’t say out loud; he knows too well who could be listening. “I thought I told you to stay put.”

Karl yawns. But the lady was nice.

“I… I suppose.” Is that really what Karl’s thinking, or am I just assigning dialogue to him again? “She doesn’t seem like a Guild member.” He’s edited articles on them before, after all, and accompanied the other journalists on interviews with members of the Secret Society, especially when they were getting caught up in large incidents. He can’t remember any individual names, though—they had all opted to remain anonymous in the articles. What he does remember is that he had always been the one sent on these because no one wanted to go to an interview with a Guild member alone, and picking the journalist to do the job had always involved random drawing of lots (Edgar, of course, hadn’t gotten a choice).

Edgar knows the leader of the Guild had been someone who had clawed their way through the ranks like a starving predator. He hadn’t known Fitzgerald’s right-hand man is a young woman who looks like she couldn’t hurt someone even if she wanted to, though.

It is almost laughably easy.

Edgar closes his eyes and observes Wolfsheim’s actions from afar—he gets up, he eats breakfast, he goes to the grocery, he meets up with a friend almost as shady as him and talks business. Edgar listens. Then he eats lunch, he sulks around at home, and he goes to the casino. Edgar weighs his options—wait for a more opportune time or strike now to get it over with—and his impatient side wins out.

“Stay put,” he tells Karl, “and don’t try and go to Ms. Alcott again.”

Karl huffs. But she’s nice!

“She’s scared of you.”

I won’t bite her. I only bite idiots and you.

“Great, thanks.” Edgar drapes his coat around his shoulders and slips a tattered old poem inside the pocket with easiest access. (It shudders and snaps at his touch, ages-old bitterness and resentment lashing out at his fingers. His skin stings where he had held it, but he ignores the pain—if he pretends hard enough, it just feels like a light peck from a raven’s beak.)

When the Guild member drops him off at the casino, Edgar has to immediately hide out in a less crowded corner to catch his breath—the amount of people in here is staggering, and the place is so thick with cigarette smoke that a light fog of it has settled over them. No one here looks even the tiniest bit trustworthy—everyone he passes by gives him a sidelong glance, then a second, longer one when they don’t seem to recognize him, before deeming him non-threatening and moving on. At least that’s what Edgar thinks they do—he doubts everyone here somehow has him on their hit list, or that they all recognize him from the newspaper, but in a place like this, anything seems possible.

He swallows, breathes, ignores the smoke as best as he can, and closes his eyes. An image flickers in his head, Wolfsheim leaning against a wall and muttering with another man beside him, and Edgar scans his own immediate vicinity to look for somewhere similar. Go left, a voice whispers—the contract he needs to make Wolfsheim sign, he realizes. Then go straight when you see the restroom.

Thank you, Edgar thinks. The contract says nothing. Perhaps it doesn’t think this is something to be thanked for, to be aiding a murderer—but Edgar doesn’t think about that. Doesn’t think at all, really, only moves forward in the direction the paper had given him. (Doesn’t think. Only acts.)

When he sees Wolfsheim, he doesn’t feel fear, or nervousness, or everything he’d been expecting to feel—there is only a sense of boredom, that this is a job fit for a low-level grunt without an ability. It certainly doesn’t need Edgar’s ability, of all things; he doesn’t see how Fitzgerald can’t just send a couple of his men himself and establish the connection. But—he sighs—a deal is a deal. (Lenore had died for this.) “Meyer Wolfsheim?”

Wolfsheim’s eyes narrow; when he speaks, his accent is thicker than Edgar remembers from a few days ago. “You… Aren’t you that ability user on the news? The serial killer.” The man beside him stiffens and ducks his head as if to avoid making direct eye contact with Edgar. Edgar can’t say he blames him, though to think he can kill a person through eye contact alone is a little far-fetched, even for him.

Edgar only looks at him. (He knows nothing about how his eyes look beneath the curtain of his bangs, more hollow and sunken than ever with how thin he’s become from the days on the street, how the darkness in them feels like it can drown out any ray of light that dares to shine upon them.) “I will not kill you,” he finally decides, “but you’d best stop that line of thought before I reconsider. Come with me. There’s something I must discuss with you.”

“Eh? Look, I’m busy right now, can’t you—”

“Come with me,” Edgar repeats. The poem thrums in his pocket, begging to be let out, to be pulled into existence by his fingertips alone. Almost nonchalantly, he adds, “No businessman like you would give up the deal I mean to offer.”

Five minutes later has them in the dumpster just outside the casino, Wolfsheim with his arms crossed over his chest and giving Edgar his best glare—for a scruffy man in an overlarge trenchcoat and baggy trousers, it’s not very intimidating. “What’s this deal you have, then?” he snaps.

“We know about your ring of mercenaries,” Edgar says, sparing no time for dramatics. He doesn’t give Wolfsheim the chance to respond—he doesn’t need to, seeing as the shocked look on his face is all Edgar needs to keep going. “We know you’ve been sending them to assassinate ability users in the Guild because of a grudge against one of them who wronged you in the past. We know you’ve been utilizing someone’s luck ability to earn back the money you use to pay your killers and more.” When Wolfsheim says nothing, only stares at him, Edgar adds, “Shall I continue? We know every single time you’ve escaped from the law by making use of your connections and fooling the court—”

“What do you want?” Wolfsheim interrupts—his face is white with fear, voice trembling and eyes wide. “Money? Is it money? I can give you that. How much? Hundred thousand? Five?”

“You,” Edgar says blankly. This is so boring. This is so. Boring. “Become an affiliate of the Guild and we will provide you with all the protection you need. In return, your connections are our connections, your property our property, and, yes, your money, our money. Unless you act against us, no harm will come to you.” He pulls the neatly folded contract from his coat pocket and holds it out for Wolfsheim. “Deal?”

Wolfsheim sneers in disgust. Edgar wishes he were surprised. “This—You are joking with me, surely. Affiliated? With the Guild? Ability users who steal and plunder and rule the black market while keeping on the government’s good side—you, you are insane to think I would be scared by you.” A movement, slight but noticeable; he’s reaching for his pocket, where a phone-sized bulge is visible. “Listen here. This deal you are offering, you are better off taking it somewhere else.”

You’re not gonna make him write on me, are you? the contract asks. I bet he’d have terrible penmanship.

No, I won’t, Edgar replies. He folds and tucks the paper back up into his pocket and retrieves a different one, thoroughly bored with the whole business. If Fitzgerald was going to make him return the favor, he could have at least picked a more interesting job for him. “You’ve made your choice, then,” he says, and holds the poem out in front of Wolfsheim’s eyes. A tingle runs down his arm at the very moment Wolfsheim’s eyes land on a word, and it only takes a vague thought for the black light to pour.

It’s a fairly new one—The City In the Sea. It had glowed a warm blue when he had first written it, he remembers, and when he had explained it to Royster it had taken on an even lighter shade of cerulean. But now—he isn’t surprised it’s lost that warmth and that light. He listens to Wolfsheim’s heart ratcheting up to almost unbearable speeds, hears him spit curses in harsh Hebrew and a solitary shriek in English: The devil, you devil, the devil!

“Yes,” Edgar murmurs, clutching the poem in his hands so tight he’s afraid he’s crumpling it. “I suppose I am.”

He closes his eyes. A breath of cold wind. The city sinks, and so does Wolfsheim.

His ring of mercenaries is information privy only to him, but Fitzgerald hadn’t cared about them; they had only attacked the Guild members for the money they were being paid. With Wolfsheim out of the way, they’d mind their own business as well. “And I have plenty of assassins at my fingertips,” he’d said. He hadn’t looked up from the strategy plans Alcott had laid out for him. “Whether he agrees or not, it’ll be alright either way. Now, Poe.”

Edgar had paused. He remembers this, very clearly. He’s not sure why. “Yes?”

“What was your ability name? I don’t remember if you’ve told me already, and it had slipped my mind…”

When Wolfsheim’s heartbeat fades into nothingness, Edgar folds the paper up and slips it into his coat pocket once more. (His dark poems have never spoken to him. The City In the Sea had giggled and laughed when he had explained its meaning to Royster, once.) “Black Cat in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar mumbles to himself. It feels odd, to give this ability of his a name after twenty years of keeping it under wraps, to need a name for it because others know about it now.

Can we go home now? I’m tired, the contract whines.

“Alright,” Edgar says. He doesn’t have the heart to tell it that Fitzgerald will likely be throwing it into the trash as soon as he reports back.

“Disappointing, but not surprising,” Fitzgerald drawls. Even he sounds bored, as if he had expected this to happen from the start. Edgar can’t say he doesn’t relate. “Well, old sport, you’ve done your job, and thanks very much for it. Saved me the time and effort from talking to him myself, that’s for sure. I’d hate to have to figure out what he’s saying under that mustache of his.”

“Er… yes,” Edgar manages, out of lack of things to say. He supposes Wolfsheim’s most distinct feature had been his enormous mustache, which had taken up more space on his face than his eyes, nose, and mouth combined.

Fitzgerald cocks his head again, nursing a wine glass in his right hand. “What will you do now?”

“S-Sorry?”

“You have nowhere to go, don’t you? You’re a wanted murderer, after all. Not large enough to reach the international news, but I doubt you can clear your name now that the local tabloids wailed on you.” Fitzgerald waves a careless hand at the scattered magazines on a glass table by the side of the room. Edgar vaguely wonders why he has them, since they’re definitely not hotel-issued. “Helping you from that policeman was a one-time event. I certainly won’t be there again if the same thing happens, nor do I plan to.”

Edgar looks down. “I-I…” He doesn’t know what to say. Is there even anything to say? Yes, he’s a murderer; yes, he’s a wanted criminal; yes, he’s hopeless and helpless out there with only himself, Karl, and the dwindling supply of papers in his bag. Even if he restocked now with the temporary protection of the Guild, they wouldn’t last forever, and soon he would find himself in a situation he wouldn’t be able to narrowly escape again. (And if it came to that, Karl might—might—he doesn’t want to think about it. Won’t think about it. But he can’t say he doesn’t think it may very well happen.)

“If you’d like,” Fitzgerald says, voice smooth as a snake slithering through the grass, “you can become a member of the Guild.”

“I—What?”

“You’d have protection from the law. You’d be able to make full use of your ability. You’d have money, comfort, and whatever else you could ask for.” Fitzgerald spreads his arms. His wine glass dangles dangerously in his loose grip. “What more do you want? We could make use of you, too. I know you were bored during that whole affair with Wolfsheim—you’ve got the brains to be a good strategist, and the skill to be an even better assassin, with that ability of yours.”

“A-Assassin?” Him? An assassin?

“Why so surprised? You’ve murdered six people by now, haven’t you?” Fitzgerald sets his glass on the table in order to rest his elbows upon it and steeple his fingers. “What do you say, old sport? We could use a member like you. There are countless cases even Louisa needs help with, and you’d be the perfect person for it.”

Edgar hesitates. “M-Ms. Alcott?” He still doesn’t know her ability, only its name—Little Women, it suits her—but he doubts she needs an ability to make her smarter. Fitzgerald talked highly about her every time he had the chance, and he said she’s well on her way to being the Guild’s master strategist, despite her young age. And he thinks Edgar could keep up with that? “But—sir.”

“Come on, just Francis is fine.”

“Mr. Fitzgerald,” Edgar decides, “I… don’t know if I can keep up with that kind of work. I mean… My ability, it’s—it was never meant for combat or killing. I… I’m a writer. Not an a-assassin.”

“Your performance today made me think quite the opposite,” Fitzgerald demurs, looking vaguely amused. “I imagine Wolfsheim thought similarly. How did you kill him? I found your gruesome murders five years ago quite artful.”

“He…” The devil, he’d called Edgar. The devil. (The boys had called him that. His relatives had called him that. Da had called him that, all heavy hands and alcohol breath and thunderstorm-footsteps. Da and his devil voice, telling Edgar it was for the family’s sake.) “He drowned.”

“Oh, how torturous. Suffocation.” The smile widens. Edgar can’t look him in the face—he opts to look at his hands instead, imagines the green coating his white skin, his wealth becoming a part of him. “Edgar Allan Poe, I am sure you are aware of this, but I am not a charitable person; that’s Louisa’s job. I do not help people without first thinking of what I will gain from them. If you join the Guild—” He shrugs, a smooth, careless movement. “We could both benefit from each other. I am not charitable, but I am not unfair. Well? This is my last offer.”

Edgar has to turn away again—everything about Fitzgerald makes his insides seize up. He closes his eyes, breathes, hears the crumpled contract yelling in the trash can in the corner of the room, hears the hotel notepad grumbling about gathering dust on the table by his side, hears the black book in Fitzgerald’s hands hiss and murmur promises of fame, glory, and wealth. This ability of his, this gift from the devil—he doesn’t think it’s for killing. He doesn’t want it to be for killing.  He doesn’t want his memories of Pluto to be sullied by blood and cold corpses and five boys screaming and pleading, but they are. He hadn’t wanted Pluto to die, but he had. He doesn’t want Black Cat in the Rue Morgue to be for murder—but the only thing he knows how to do is to run, and the only thing he is good for is hurting and killing and being the devil himself.

There are so many things he doesn’t want, hadn’t wanted. He hadn’t wanted to leave Ma and Da, Mother and Father, Royster, but he’d had to. He doesn’t want to use his ability for murder. But he had.

The only thing he is good for is hurting, and hurting, and killing.

“An affiliate.”

“Hm? What was that?”

He had spoken so lowly that even he had barely heard himself. Edgar clears his throat. “An… An affiliate. I d-don’t want to join the Guild.” (Yet, something whispers. He’s not sure if it’s the black book or just his own head.) “But I… I… I can work for you. With you. An—An on-call a-a-assassin.” He hates himself for tripping over the word. “That’s… That’s fine, isn’t it?”

“Hm,” Fitzgerald says again. He leans back on his armchair, fingers drumming on the edge of the table contemplatively. It dawns on Edgar that Fitzgerald isn’t much older than him, with only a gap of four years between them, yet he already has a wife and child and an entire organization at his fingertips. He wonders, truly, what had driven Fitzgerald so far to make him bounce to the top of the Guild’s hierarchy. “Hm.”

“If not—”

“Come now,” Fitzgerald cuts in, not even looking at him, “it’s a good deal. You understand what being an affiliate of the Guild entails, of course? That is the contract you offered to Wolfsheim.”

“Yes.” He is not to leak information of the Guild to anyone. He is not to serve as a representative of the Guild unless specifically ordered to. His actions do not reflect the Guild unless under specific orders. He is to support himself, non-mission related expenses unsponsored by the Guild, and he would not travel with the Guild unless for a mission. He would not have the authority to call on low-ranking Guild members to help him unless those members were given specific orders to do so. The list had gone on, but most were things Edgar could infer by himself, and by that point he had grown tired of reading the word ‘Guild.’ “You will pay, of course,” he says, carefully, “for every… task you make me carry out.”

“Yes, yes. You think me cheap?”

“N-No. But… Do you have one I can do, right now?” Edgar mumbles. He’s not looking at Fitzgerald, either. “The money, I… I need it.” Pathetic, he tells himself. Pathetic.

“That’s fine,” Fitzgerald says. Edgar glances up at him—he’s giving Edgar a look, the confusion and mild distaste easy to pick out. He must hate the poor, Edgar thinks. They probably remind him of his past self. Groveling at a higher-up’s feet. Begging for work to earn money. Edgar had thought himself better than that, but he supposes there’s nothing worse than killing for a living. “There are plenty of cases you can work on now. Ask Louisa and pick one out before we leave.” He slides open a drawer to fish out a sheet of paper, and his eyes twinkle; Edgar would call them stars if he didn’t know just how much of a facade the light there is. “Here’s the contract. I’m expected back in headquarters in a week; you have that long to do as much as you like before we find use for you again.”

Karl is waiting on the bed when Edgar returns, and the raccoon bounds up to climb up his shoulders and chitter away at his ear. “Yes, yes, hold on,” Edgar says, and proceeds to the kitchenette. He doesn’t know if he’s genuinely not hungry, or if hunger is but a dull feeling in his stomach he can ignore now, because he doesn’t eat anything and lets Karl have dinner by himself.

Pathetic, he tells himself again. He slumps against the wall and buries his face in his hands. Even he’s disgusted by himself. Murdering for money? Working with the most illegal secret society in America? Proving Royster right, that he’s nothing but a killer? Pathetic. Pathetic. Pathetic. He can still feel the poem containing Wolfsheim’s drowned body burning a hole in his pocket; Fitzgerald hadn’t asked for it, likely because he hadn’t cared enough to. Is this what he’s become? Is this what he’s settled for? Edgar doesn’t want to kill. He wants to explain poems to Royster and talk to chatty articles and pet Karl and listen to novels read to him when he can spare the time. He wants to buy a new coat and another pair of boots. He wants to write on a table in a room with the windows open and smell the salty breeze of the sea and feed the ravens that stop by. He wants Lenore back. None of this, none of what he’s gotten himself into, is any of that.

If the only thing I’m good for is killing, then am I really the devil, Edgar thinks. If the only thing I’m good for is killing, then should I just do it to myself, too?

When Edgar knocks on the door to Alcott’s suite and explains what happened, Alcott says, “Alright.” Then she steps aside to let him enter, and brings out a stack of case files. “Which one would you like to do first?” Her stutter is, oddly enough, gone, and she looks more tired than ever. The suite had been spotless when he had first visited, which can’t have been more than a day ago; now it’s a mess, cluttered with notes and papers that fill the room with a perpetual murmur of noise, like faint music from a hidden radio.

Edgar takes the files, and Alcott returns to bending over a report. “Is this one fine? The uncontrollable werewolf ability user. It seems the most serious.”

“You’ll get mauled,” Alcott says. She doesn’t even look up at him. Edgar is uncomfortably reminded of Fitzgerald. “Meyer was orphaned as soon as she was born, and lived on the streets for the rest of her life. I doubt she knows how to read, so you can’t trap her using your ability.”

“Fair. This traitor, then? He can bend reality. That’s…”

“Carroll is a madman,” Alcott says simply. “Reality bends for him; he’d only laugh at your poems. S-Sorry,” she suddenly adds, when Edgar blinks in mild surprise, “I-I didn’t mean to—offend, I m-meant—”

“No, it’s alright.” Her stutter is back. “I know what you mean.” And surprisingly, he does know what she means. His darkest works are about the murders of madmen; based off the information here, Lewis Carroll would wave it off, even without the use of his ability, seeing as he’s apparently lived through worse and only come out even more insane. “Then… this. A spy in the Guild,” Edgar reads, slowly, “and the murderer of five members through unusual methods of torture.”

Alcott stops mumbling to herself, and looks up at him curiously. “There’s barely any information on that.”

“There’s plenty.”

“There aren’t any suspects. I-I haven’t had the time to investigate on my own.” The waver in her voice tells Edgar she’s been putting it off, which he can’t blame her for; this spy seems smart enough to get rid of her as soon as they got wind of any investigations. “And it’s dangerous—since you’re still a new affiliate of the Guild, they’ll definitely target you as soon as possible. Are you sure?”

Edgar shrugs. “I already know.”

“You—” Alcott stares at him. “What?”

“Well, not exactly—I don’t know their name. But there are plenty of details here that make the spy obvious.” He looks down at the file again, pitifully short compared to the other cases that are over five pages long. “You have a base of operations or something, don’t you? Can you bring me there? If it’s here, that is.”

Alcott looks down and fiddles with her blouse again. “It’ll be here in a week.”

“A week?” That was the same amount of time Fitzgerald had given him. Edgar can’t wait a week.

“Y-Yes.” She sighs. “Our base, it’s… well… I suppose you’ll find out.”

In the end, Alcott recommends he take care of some members of “the Party,” a steadily-growing gang of ability users trying to establish dominance on London and its surrounding areas, the targets on this mission having already attacked Guild members and affiliates. It’s pathetically easy; the hardest parts are avoiding the police and local authorities whenever possible, and steeling his nerves to ask Alcott for money for the bus tickets. In Hackney Street, Edgar sucks members Phyllis James and William Gibson into the catacombs of a palace; “Tell me who your leader is, and this will be quick,” Edgar says, over the two Party members spitting and snarling at him from their chains.

“Go back to hell where you belong, you fucking devil,” Gibson howls.

Edgar sits back in the alleyway he had found them in, and waits for the beating of their hearts to desist. May they rest in peace, he thinks. He doesn’t really need the information from them; he already knows. When he gets back to Portsmouth, Fitzgerald only spares him a glance before handing over a bag of coins. “Use it well,” he says. “I heard you’ll be coming with us in a few days. I look forward to your performance.”

“T-To your base of operations, right?”

“I’m sure you’ll love it.” Fitzgerald flashes him a smile. Edgar is always most scared of those smiles, because he can never tell if it’s genuine. “If you’re anything like Louisa, anyway.”

“W-What does that mean?”

“You’ll see!” Another blinding smile.

Edgar does, indeed, see, when an enormous metal whale picks them up from the hotel at 8am sharp; he is given the unfortunate task of coaxing Alcott out of her suite, because Fitzgerald is too busy talking to the other members to do it. “Um… it’ll be fine,” he tries. He’s not sure if Alcott can even hear him, considering he’s been talking to the door for a while now. “You’ve been on it plenty of times, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

From within, Alcott wails, “It’s a million feet up in the air.” She sounds absolutely miserable.

“It’s going to be alright,” Edgar says, despite the feeling of his own stomach beginning to churn. A million feet up in the air… “I don’t like heights either,” he amends, trying a different approach, “so at least you know there’s going to be one other person who’ll hate the ride.”

Silence. Then the door cracks open to reveal one pale green eye, blinking pitifully up at him. “I should tell you,” she mumbles, “that that’s not actually very comforting—b-but thank you for trying anyway.”

On the Moby Dick, Alcott hides out in her room almost immediately, and Fitzgerald gives Edgar some general directions before disappearing into his office as well. Edgar retreats into the guest room, lets Karl run around and familiarize himself with the new scents, and pulls the curtains down on the windows. Its flight is, Edgar will realize in the future, not unlike that of an airplane, but he had never been on one in his life, so the only thing he can even vaguely compare it to is that of an elevator, a comparison he clings onto tightly if only to give this surreal experience some modicum of sensibility.

After a few minutes of letting himself get used to the motions, Edgar spreads out the information files of every single Guild member so far, and eliminates over half of them with one look from what details there are about the spy. In another few minutes, he’s down to one suspect, which he isn’t surprised about—he had suspected it would be them as soon as he’d skimmed over their file, but he’d wanted to make sure, first. “Stay,” he tells Karl, who huffs and whines but calms down comically quickly upon being fed; then he leaves the room.

The airship, if he can call it that—for he certainly doesn’t want to refer to it as just “a whale”—is just as massive inside as it is outside, if not more. He really only knows how to get to the kitchens (courtesy of Fitzgerald, who claims to understand priorities) and the emergency exits (courtesy of Alcott, who had looked ready to be sick all over him), but it isn’t so hard to find his way to where the rest of the Guild members stay. When he finds the room the suspect supposedly stays in, however, only their roommates are there.

“Said he’d go talk to Ms. Alcott,” one of them grunts. (Edgar doesn’t even have to try to recall their full name, their birthday, their former occupation, and their family members.) “Said he’d be busy, too, and not to look for ‘im.”

“Thank you,” Edgar mutters, and goes to do the exact opposite.

Alcott’s room is right beside one of the emergency exits, probably by request—Edgar strains his ears and follows the directions papers scattered all over the hallways give him to take the quickest route there. Someone is coming, one of them whispers.

Who?

Someone dangerous. Hurry.

Edgar skids to a stop when he reaches the room’s hallway, and hesitates—he had seen the slightest hint of movement at the end of the corridor. Is someone there? he asks, but the papers go still and quiet. He supposes he doesn’t need an answer; he already knows.

He moves to the door, lays a hand on the knob. Hello?

Something rustles. Please do not come in! Louisa is busy! one of the countless files inside squeaks. You may come back at a later time! But for now, please—

Alright, Edgar interrupts; he hates to do it, but something had moved again, and now he knows for sure what it is. He slips a hand in his pocket, feels the familiar hum of power as soon as his fingers touch worn sheets of paper. “Come out, Orwell.”

He can hear a soft huff, amplified by the silence in the hallway, when the shadows break apart to reveal the spy. “Aren’t you the smart one,” Orwell hisses. His information file had said his age is thirty-one, but the lines around his face make him look older than that, and his tall height is whittled down with his slouch, as if he is weighed down by the secrets he has kept so well. (Until now.) “I’ve never even seen you before. How did you figure it out, hm?” There is something to his voice that reminds Edgar, terribly, of Fitzgerald—they both speak like slithering snakes hiding in the tall grass.

“Your ability lets you control people’s thoughts as long as you can make eye contact with them. Prolonged exposure can alter their morals and beliefs entirely.” Nineteen Eighty-Four, the file had told him. Edgar had read those words, and felt a shiver go down his spine at the sheer power the ability radiated. “The people you killed were subjected to plenty of things they could have run away from. None of them were restrained or incapable of leaving. There were no signs of struggle in any of your victims. You killed Winston through rat torture, but he hadn’t been tied down or locked inside his room—he could have pushed off the cage of rats and run away, but he didn’t. You severed Julia’s head and brains in a mock lobotomy, but she showed no signs of being drugged or incapacitated. All signs of mind control to keep still.” He pauses, breathes. “Would you like me to go on, Party leader?”

Orwell stiffens, and the furrow in his brow deepens. The shadow over his eyes seems to shift of its own accord. “Party leader? What the hell is that?”

“You know what you are. Your underlings James and Gibson showed signs of permanently altered mindsets as our tactician—” Edgar makes a vague gesture towards the door he’s still standing in front of, “so meticulously described. Bloodshot eyes, an awkwardness in their movements, frequent dizzy spells, act like wild animals without sentience when threatened. It cannot be coincidence if both of them had it, you understand. Their abilities are also both incredibly dangerous and effective—to conjure illusions of a person’s childhood fears and to manipulate electricity into a solid shape—yet they used nothing but their fists when confronting me. Illogical thinking is another symptom of your mind control; besides, I assume you were trying to stop them from attacking you with their abilities when you began controlling them,” Edgar adds, a hint of disdain seeping into his tone, “and that stayed with them in their changed minds.”

Orwell is shaking, from pure hatred if not fear. “You lie,” he’s snarling, “you have no proof, nothing, none at all,” and Edgar wants to laugh in his face, because can’t he tell that Edgar doesn’t need any more proof than that, he’s already laid the details out for the guy nice and clean, and this mystery (if it can even be called that, with how pitifully easy it had been) is solved, this case is closed, this problem is fixed. Edgar likes this, the way he can neatly tie everything up with a ribbon and finish it in less time than it had taken others to gather the information. He likes this, the thrill of discovering the culprit and enumerating each one of their careless mistakes to see the look on their faces when they get found out. He likes this. He’s good at this, at pointing out murderers and uncovering secrets and being in control of the situation. He likes this, he’s good at this, and he wouldn’t mind getting used to this. He wouldn’t mind it at all.

And then Orwell is stepping forward and his eyes are flickering in a myriad of colors—but Edgar only has to close his eyes to block out the ability. It doesn’t work on victims who are expecting it, after all. On your left, his notebook whispers, so Edgar shoves a sheet of paper at Orwell’s general direction. He feels it, that tingle at his fingertips when Orwell’s eyes land on the words, and from there it is only waiting until Orwell’s shrieks stop and the pendulum grounds into a halt when its knife edge digs into his stomach. His heartbeat stops abruptly—the rats from the dungeon begin to feast.

“George Orwell?” Fitzgerald repeats, when Edgar reports back to him that night—they had stopped somewhere in Canada to pick up a new member, and Edgar had only managed to speak to him now. “A shame. His ability has come into use a number of times when we needed to get our way. But!” He claps his hands; Edgar resists the urge to jolt in surprise, and ends up biting his tongue. “You’ve taken care of the spy that’s been bothering us all for a while, and killed the leader of the Party before they could become a real threat to us. Very good, Poe, very good.”

“E-Er…” Fitzgerald reaches under his desk, and brings out a small case of—Edgar nearly balks at what must be several wads of money bills, all of them mumbling and grumbling about how cramped it is inside. “T-T-Thank you. Mr. Fitzgerald.”

Francis.

“Do you need me for anything else?” Edgar decides to ask instead.

Fitzgerald leans back on his armchair. When he speaks, Edgar is reminded of Orwell again, that patiently waiting snake ready to pounce upon its unfortunate prey. “No,” he says, very slowly; “I believe you’ve done all you can for now. We’ll be stopping in New York soon for some business; you can get off there and do something with that money of yours. Start a new life, whatever you like; it’s far enough away from Portsmouth. And don’t worry—I’m quite sure,” he muses, “that we’ll be needing you before you need cash again.”

There are still a few hours before they reach New York, so Edgar heads down to Alcott’s room and knocks. There’s a squeak of “C-Coming!” and several papers complaining about being stepped on and pushed aside before the door cracks open. “Oh, M-Mr. Poe. Is this about the spy, then?”

“You know?”

“I heard it happen. It was right outside here, after all.” She pushes the door open wider to let Edgar in; the room-cum-office is even messier than the newspaper agency on a busy day, and Edgar can’t tell where one paper ends and another begins. “I-If you’re here to tell me about it, you don’t have to,” she says. “I, ah, I know the general gist of it.”

“Oh.” Edgar wonders how, and decides he doesn’t really need to know. Alcott can figure anything out given enough time—if something had happened right outside her door, then she probably knew everything about it, right down to the exact words they said. “That’s good, then.”

“Yes.” A pause; Alcott returns to her desk and shuffles some papers around. Then, “How did you kill him?”

The question, so blunt and devoid of Alcott’s usual stutter, has Edgar blink in surprise. “A pendulum. The torture device.”

The responding “I see. It must have been fast, then.” is still delivered without emotion.

“S… Somewhat.” Edgar swallows in the silence that follows, interrupted only occasionally by the scratch of pencil on paper, Alcott preparing more files and reports. Left without much to do, Edgar turns to leave and prepares himself for an awkward “goodnight,” when he looks out the window.

There’s nothing he can see, of course—it’s nighttime, and the most he can make out are the outlines of clouds and pinpricks of stars in the distance, which he tries not to focus on. He knows for sure that they’re far away from Portsmouth, now, if they’re en route to New York, and that means he’s far away from the ravens who had eaten with him everyday and given him shiny trinkets, far away from Lenore buried six feet deep in private property, far away from the newspaper agency he had spent only a scant few months in before everything had gone wrong. Far away from Royster.

For a moment, Edgar regrets not having gone to visit them (visit him, really) one last time, because now he knows for a fact he’s never seeing them ever again—but he stops that train of thought before it can get any further. A child-murdering ability user isn’t something the public around there will be forgetting anytime soon, and if he knows what’s good for him, then he’s never going back there unless he wants to get himself caught and killed. Royster probably wouldn’t even care even if he did make the effort to sneak past and see him again. Royster wouldn’t care, because he—hates Edgar now, and Edgar has to understand that, has to remember that because he knows how dangerous false memories and false hope are, he knows that… and yet. And yet.

“Do you hate me?” he asks, before he can stop himself. In his mind’s eye, he’s talking to Royster again, in a universe that would never come into existence outside of his own head.

“W-What? Why?”

“For being a murderer.” And, before a reply can come, “Aren’t you scared? That I’ll kill you like I killed those kids. I-I did it without thinking twice. I didn’t even regret it that much, all I felt was—like I was setting things right, like I was doing the right thing, and I didn’t care that they were dead until years later, because back then all I could think about was how they didn’t deserve to live after k-killing something, themselves. But then I went and killed them, too, and went against my own beliefs, because I’m still alive despite—despite thinking I don’t deserve to be. I want to just—to just die, to just k-kill myself, because that would be right, but I don’t. I can’t, I don’t know why, and—and all I’ve done is hurt myself more because I pretend I can live a normal life with a normal boyfriend and a normal job and normal pets but I just—can’t. There’s no normal when I’ve killed people, killed children, and I… I just…”

He trails off, both out of breath and words—he doesn’t know what else there is to say, even though his head is whirling with thoughts that demand release, the same way there is power struggling to set itself free at his fingertips—when he realizes that, he clenches his fist and forces the energy to drop, and the room feels lighter, like every single sheet of paper inside had relaxed.

Alcott is silent, which Edgar had been expecting. “I’m… sorry,” he mutters, after a while. “I didn’t mean to… I was just… I was thinking.”

“It’s alright,” she says, and then, “I don’t hate you.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t hate you. And I know you won’t kill me.” The rustling of paper. She sounds almost unnervingly calm, for such a usually nervous person. “I don’t know you very well, Mr. Poe. But I know you’re not the kind of person who kills without reason.” She shrugs. “Maybe it’s not always for the right ones. But there is always, still, a reason. I don’t know exactly what made you murder those children, but they must have provoked you somehow. The attack on the minister and the prefect of police were in self-defense; Wolfsheim, James, Gibson, and Orwell were all under Francis’ orders. I haven’t given you much reason to kill me, unless I’ve offended you in some way.” At this her expression seems to crack, and she ducks her face to fiddle with her blouse. “I-I hope I haven’t!”

“No, you haven’t,” Edgar manages numbly.

“Oh. T-That’s good.” She straightens a little, and gives him a nervous look—not scared of him, but more unsure of what she’s supposed to say. He supposes he’s not the worst conversationalist in the world after all. “But I don’t think you’re a bad person, Mr. Poe. You have a pet raccoon and I saw you with your raven, that night. If you’re as much of a murderer as you think you are, you wouldn’t care so much for animals.”

(Don’t listen to them. You are kind, aren’t you? I’ve never heard of a murderer who took the time to care for animals and papers alike.)

“Lenore.”

“S-Sorry?”

“Her name was Lenore. The raven.”

“Oh.”

“I had a cat, before,” he blurts out. “H-His name was Pluto. He was a stray kitten. The kids back in my old place were kicking him around, and—and I didn’t think. I used my ability on one of them, just to get them out of the way. But i-it was a black one.”

“A black one?” Alcott gently prods.

“A—dark poem. I don’t know how to explain it, but—some poems glow blue, or green, or whatever,” Edgar babbles, “and from there I can usually see what kind of poem it is. But this one, the one I used, was black. Maybe it was a conscious decision, maybe it was just coincidence, but—whatever it was, it killed the boy. I d-didn’t mean for it to happen. It just did. I took Pluto home, and it felt like I finally m-made a friend. But the next day the other kids hung Pluto from a tree.” He squeezes his eyes shut, barely hearing Alcott’s soft gasp; he breathes, in and out and in and out until the image of that tiny body unmoving in the air fades from his mind. “So I killed them all. If you know that I attacked the minister and the prefect from self-defense, then you know how those boys were murdered.”

“Three from multiple broken bones, one from suffocation,” Alcott says. For her, it must just be another detail to remember when talking to him; for Edgar, it’s his sins being laid bare, as if awaiting judgment. “I… didn’t know about Pluto. Your reason for killing them, that is. It wasn’t in the paper.”

“Of course not,” he murmurs. “Who would care about that, anyway? It wouldn’t fit in our 500-word limit.” He hates how he can still remember that, along with all the other stupid little rules and details he had picked up on after working there for some time, all the inside jokes the other journalists had exchanged and laughed about. He hates how he misses the easy camaraderie he had been able to indulge in, on some days. He hates how inconvenient happiness has to be.

“I care,” Alcott says.

Edgar stares. “What?”

“I-I mean!” She flushes magnificently red. “It gives a deeper perspective on you as a person, not just as a mindless murderer. I-I know news articles are about the facts and not about feelings or other personal things, but… maybe I just read too many books,” she sighs. “Still. I… I don’t think you’re a bad person, Mr. Poe.”

Edgar chews on his lower lip. (You’re kind, aren’t you?) Why had he even told Alcott all that? It would just give her more leverage on him, if he ever turned back on the Guild one day—and he has a feeling he will, because he can’t bear the thought of killing people for a living for the rest of his life. But he’d told her, and now there was no way to take any of that back. Yet… there’s something about Alcott, he thinks, that just makes him instinctively trust her, somehow. Maybe not with everything, but with a significant amount, even if he’s only known her for a week and barely talked to her throughout that time. Maybe it’s because he sees himself in her, with her stutter and her terrible conversation skills and her habit of avoiding eye contact. Maybe it’s just because she’s a sign that the Guild isn’t completely made up of people like Fitzgerald.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

“Thank you.”

“Oh… you’re welcome. Er, for what?”

“For this.” Edgar shakes his head. “I know this must’ve been… uncomfortable for you. But thank you. I think I… needed to tell someone everything.”

Alcott blinks, but manages a smile, shaky yet genuine. “It’s no problem, Mr. Poe.”

“Um. You can call me Edgar, you know.” Having the mister tacked on at the start of his surname feels unbearably formal and unnecessary, especially when he’s gotten so used to being called just Perry.

“E-Edgar, then. But—you should call me Louisa, too, in that case.”

In New York, they send the new member they picked up from Canada to walk with him—she can’t be more than eleven years old, and she glares at him instead of introducing herself. “She’ll be helpful for when we need to fetch you for a mission,” Fitzgerald had cheerily explained. “Show her to where you’ll be staying, and she’ll be able to establish a connection with her ability.”

“Alright,” Edgar had said, despite understanding absolutely nothing aside from the girl having an ability. He tells her his name, but she only looks away and clutches her worn, threadbare doll closer to her chest. Alright, Edgar thinks, and lets them walk in silence. He doesn’t mind if she doesn’t want to talk.

Alcott—Louisa had helped him find a decent apartment in Midtown to stay in for the time being, with affordable rent and passable living conditions, though the high crime rate in the area had her worried. (Edgar had reassured her that he would be fine and that he could protect himself if they got violent. He’d decided bringing up the whole being-a-murderer thing wouldn’t really be his greatest idea, but he’d definitely implied it.) He sees that now, walking in the street with a kid in the middle of the night—there are eyes trained on him everywhere he goes, at least two shadows perpetually slinking behind them until he turns around to look and they disappear to hide behind buildings and lamp posts. A middle-aged man stops the girl for a second, under pretense of giving her a promotional poster for a toy store, but Edgar can hear the poster hissing and spitting—he reaches for her shoulder and opens his mouth to say “not interested,” but the girl smacks the man’s hand away before anything else and dashes further ahead.

“Are you alright?” he asks, when he’s caught up with her—the crumpled papers on the street had helped with giving him a better layout of the place. The crowds here are even more ridiculous than the ones in London.

The girl only gives him another dirty look, and makes a vague gesture that Edgar decides to take as “Hurry up and go.” So he does.

The apartment isn’t too far; as promised, Edgar brings the girl with him, amidst suspicious looks from the other tenants, and is settling a sleeping Karl on some blankets on the floor when the girl speaks up. “‘M gonna use my ability,” she mumbles. “Stay back. Or you’re gonna get hurt.”

Edgar raises his hands. “Alright.”

In two years, she will tell him the name she’s picked out for her ability—Anne of Abyssal Red—but for now, all he can do is watch curiously as the girl guides her giant floating doll to place its hand upon a door that looks like his. A brief flash of pink light, and then—“Connected,” she mutters. She waves a hand, and their surroundings disappear to be replaced by Edgar’s apartment again. “I’m done. Bye.”

“Ah, it’s not safe for you to go alone—”

“I said bye!” she snaps, and runs out of the apartment before Edgar can even step forward.

He curses, and retrieves a paper from his pouch—he had worked on it just hours ago, waiting for Moby Dick to touch down on New York City, and it shivers at his touch as power surges into it. “Follow her,” he says, and throws the paper out the open window. He hears something like the beating of wings, and thinks he sees a whirl of black feathers for a moment, but when he blinks again there is nothing outside, only the night sky and the city lights.

Edgar closes his eyes—the paper swoops and soars and gives him a bird’s eye view of the streets, and it flutters to follow a little girl of eleven, pushing and shoving her way through the tight crowds before any would-be muggers get to her. His heart rockets up into his throat when a thug grabs her thin wrist and she can’t shake off his grip, but it only takes her a minute to activate her ability—they disappear from view for a minute before she reappears again, alone and with her doll dangling from her hand.

The paper follows her all the way to the Moby Dick; Louisa fusses over her, fixes her messy hair and coaxes her into coming inside. Edgar sighs, deeply, and reopens his eyes—in another moment, the poem is back, drifting down on his desk as if carried by the wind. He smooths out the creases, traces the carefully-penciled words with his finger, and murmurs, “Thank you.”

You put me to work so quick after I was born? I’m not your slave, you know!

“I know. Thank you.”

Hmph. I suppose the air felt nice. How did you know I could fly?

He remembers beady eyes waiting patiently for the next meal, her silhouette watching for danger on the telephone wires, and the shiny pin of a black cat. He kept it safe in his bag, but now he wishes he had protected Lenore instead. “I just did.”

The next morning, he buys some groceries and other essentials, but he also gets a new jacket to clip the pin onto. No use in keeping it safe now—if he were to treat it like Lenore, then he wants it to see as much of the world as it can before something inevitably takes it away from him, too.

Two weeks pass before the girl shows up on his doorstep again, her unruly hair now forcibly tamed into two thick, slightly-less-unruly braids. “Hey,” she says, as way of greeting. “You’re needed. Come with me.”

The fifth time this happens, Edgar sighs and says, “Can you let me fix my groceries first?” He knows now that her name is Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Louisa is the one who does her hair every morning until Montgomery gets embarrassed of being coddled and starts doing it herself.

Montgomery glares at him. “No.”

“Look, the last time I went with you before putting all the food in the cabinets, ants came in from the crack in the wall and made me have to throw away my chicken. That was six dollars worth of chicken.”

Her glare deepens. “That’s just KFC takeout. Now move it.”

Edgar moves it. He really can’t say no to her.

Every single mission they send him out on is eternally boring. None of them are quite as interesting as he wants them to be, with little detail to work with and the thrill of danger to get him up and about—he still solves the cases Louisa is too busy for and uncovers spies and double agents lurking among the Guild members, but barely any of them are worth the effort. All of his targets are just so easy to predict, their thoughts, movements, actions, and motives all clean-cut and almost stereotypical, like characters from a terrible novel that relied on popular archetypes without bothering to change or tweak any of them. Possibly the only interesting thing is suspecting how boring the next mission will be, on his Boredom Scale from one to ten, the highest being the most boring. Most of them never dip below five.

The sixth time, Montgomery fetches him as usual (not giving him time to hang up his laundry to dry, as usual), but this time Edgar manages to ask, “How does your ability work, exactly?” He knows enough that she can conjure a miniature universe she calls Anne’s Room, and that she can ‘connect’ one of the doors in it to another door in the real world for easy transportation, but that’s about it. Anne the doll herself is a complete mystery.

Montgomery looks up at him, skepticism written all over her face with almost painful obviousness. “Don’t you already know? I can connect doors here to doors outside. I just have to have been in the outside location myself.” She looks away, like she’s expecting rebuke for it. “‘S the only thing the Guild’s been using me for. They’re just like everyone else.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a freak,” she hisses. “E-Everyone in the orphanage called me that. They always blamed me when something bad happened. Because of my ability! Because of Anne. Like she ever did anything wrong.” The doll in question bobs downwards from where it had been floating up in the sky, coming to a stop just above Montgomery’s head. It’s always amazing, how Anne is larger than even Edgar, and could probably kill him with a single swipe of her hand. Montgomery reaches up to cup Anne’s cheeks, as best as her much smaller hands can allow, and rests her forehead against the doll’s. “Anne’s the only friend I have,” she mumbles. “Everyone else calls me the devil.”

She swings the door to the Moby Dick open, and mutely pushes Edgar out before he can think of something to say. Fitzgerald is waiting for him in his office, settled comfortably in his armchair as always and with a book propped up on his lap. (Edgar’s grown used to how he can be naturally intimidating, probably something he had developed in the cutthroat world of business, but then he had walked in on Fitzgerald with a plate of cookies once and the man had offered him some—Louisa had made them, of course. That had dulled the natural intimidation a little.) “Poe! On time as always.”

“You needed me, Fitzgerald?” He’d also begun dropping the mister. Fitzgerald had threatened him to at least do that if he couldn’t call him Francis. He could be a lot more odd than frightening, sometimes.

“Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. We sent one of our informants to set up a business deal, but they haven’t returned, and their tracker’s gone, too. Thought you might like this.”

“Where were they last seen?”

“Villa Diodati, in the village of Cologny—Montgomery will go with you.”

Edgar blinks; the abrupt deviation from his usual solo missions distracts him from his thought process. “Ms. Montgomery?”

“Yes. I thought it time she start going on missions as well, if only just to observe and take notes.” Fitzgerald leans back; the book in his lap is still speaking softly, and Edgar can hear it reading its own story quietly. He had missed that, how he could fall asleep to the voices of novels. “Her ability is useful for just about anything, like yours; I want her to learn how to utilize it as best as she can.”

“But… she’s a child.”

“You were a child when you first killed,” Fitzgerald says. Edgar freezes. “Not as young as her, for sure. But ability users have never had the best childhoods, when everyone is calling you the devil’s spawn. It’s best she learns to defend herself now, against both regular humans and other ability users she may not be equipped to handle on her own right now.”

How old were you when you first killed? Edgar wants to ask, because he knows Fitzgerald wouldn’t have had qualms about killing, either. How old were you when you first heard a victim’s screams, or seen a corpse you created, or felt like the blood on your hands would never wash out? Or was it clean, Fitzgerald, did you use a gun and had it over and done with and pretended everything was fine, that because you were alright, it didn’t matter if you had just erased someone’s existence? How did you feel when you first killed? Do you really want a child, younger than any of us, to feel that way?

Instead, he says, “I understand.” And, because there are still a few hours to go before they hit Switzerland, he excuses himself and goes to find Louisa. She always has cookies ready for him, somehow.

He’s both surprised and not when he runs into Montgomery heading the exact same way. “Oh,” she grumbles, “it’s you.”

“Have you heard? We’ll be going on the mission together.”

Montgomery looks away again. “Yeah. I know.” She doesn’t sound happy about it, either. “Why’re you going to Lou?”

Lou? “I always do.”

“Well, so do I,” she huffs, and crosses her arms. If Edgar’s hearing right, she sounds possessive, which makes a lot of sense. She hadn’t been treated well at the orphanage, something Edgar had suspected after seeing her threadbare clothes and the scars littered all over her arms and legs, and Louisa must have been the first person to show her kindness. She fiddles with her braids, and that really only confirms Edgar’s suspicions.

“Don’t worry,” Edgar says, “I’m not going to steal her from you.”

Montgomery storms ahead into Louisa’s room without bothering to knock. Edgar follows, and indulges in Louisa’s comfortable presence and chocolate chip cookies; it’s only slightly surprising to find out how chatty Montgomery becomes with Louisa. She chatters on and on about the most trivial things, most of which Edgar don’t pay attention to, and she almost looks like a normal kid without an ability, talking to an older sister about her day at school, if school was daily activities on the Moby Dick. Louisa listens, smiles, replies when prompted, and works at the same time, but Edgar can tell Montgomery doesn’t feel ignored.

He doesn’t know her that well—their conversations may as well be scripted, from how frozen they are. But he’s happy for her, all the same.

In Cologny, the mission is quick and easy, but admittedly more interesting than the previous ones—Edgar rates it a six on the Boredom Scale. Montgomery trails silently behind him early on, but once Edgar gets down to investigating the disappearance of the Guild member Henry Clerval, she pokes and prods and asks questions about how he’d known where the member had gone and why he thinks so and so on and so forth. Edgar doesn’t mind—he likes laying out the details, after all, because it makes things neat and orderly, especially when there’s someone else to remember everything—but he’s most surprised when Montgomery figures something out before him.

Clerval’s body is dumped unceremoniously behind Villa Diodati, something Edgar had expected; it had taken extra time figuring out where exactly, but the disgusting smell had helped. “Strangulation,” he deduces immediately.

“Not by a human,” Montgomery follows up, just as quickly.

“Oh?”

“Those marks look as big as Anne’s hands,” she points out. It’s true—Clerval’s neck looks crushed beyond normal human capabilities, and he’s dressed in pajamas, which means it’s likely that he had been killed inside Villa Diodati. To carry him all the way here without attracting attention would have required both speed and power, something only someone especially strong could have done, considering Clerval is fairly tall and muscular. “So someone like Anne could have done it. A m… monster.”

Edgar looks at her; she’s ducked her head down again, a habit reminiscent of Louisa. Now is probably the time for him to lay his hand on her shoulder and say something comforting, like all good people, but all he can think of to say is, “Your Anne’s not a monster.”

“She…”

“She’s your friend,” Edgar finishes, when Montgomery doesn’t seem capable of doing so. “That’s all that matters.”

Finding the monster, and by extension the ability user that controls it, would have been much harder had Montgomery not pointed it out then—thankfully, it’s only a matter of tracking the disturbed grass and soil in the nearby woods. They find Shelley crying out, telling them it’s not Frankenstein’s fault, that it had been an accident, and Edgar sees the exact moment Montgomery wavers, the haughty facade cracking when the giant monster cowers behind its creator. “Don’t hurt him, don’t, please, take me instead, just don’t kill him,” Shelley begs—“It was an accident, I swear, you can take me, he didn’t do anything wrong—”

“I’m sorry,” Edgar says, and draws them into a poem. It glows a dim blue, like the sky preparing for a storm, and not like darkness sucking them in. Two heartbeats thrum in his head—he squeezes his eyes shut and blocks them out until he can almost ignore the steady th-thumps.

Montgomery avoids his gaze when he looks at her. “I know what you’re thinking.”

“Yeah? What?” she snaps. “You didn’t have to do that. You heard her. It was an accident.”

“How do you accidentally strangle someone?”

“You don’t know your own strength!” she shouts—her voice jumps a pitch higher, and it almost echoes, like the misery threatening to break free in her words is bouncing off the trees. “Sometimes—Sometimes you don’t mean to. Sometimes you were just scared and didn’t want to get hurt and then you end up k-killing someone. Sometimes murder isn’t black and white!”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Edgar cuts in, when Montgomery pauses to take a breath. She jerks away at his voice, even if there’s barely any bark in it, like the very idea of being beside him disgusts her. “I know murder. I know how it is to be scared and retaliate from fear and anger and then something you didn’t mean to happens. I know that. Ability users—we all know that.”

Montgomery looks down again, sucks in a breath, clenches her tattered dress in between her fists. It’s so painfully similar to Louisa that Edgar feels his chest tighten. “I know it too,” she murmurs, voice dripping with regret. “One of the orphanage workers was going to h-hit me. And I was just so s-scared, I didn’t realize what I was doing until Anne was—was there and crushing him and I couldn’t think, I couldn’t stop her until he was already d-dead. I wanted to t-tell her that she was wrong, but she said—she said she was just protecting me. They don’t know any better,” she gasps, “our abilities. They only know what we do. They act when we’re in danger because they’re protecting us. They don’t know right from wrong. It’s never their fault! But it’s never our fault either! It’s just people—people can be so—not human,” she finishes, legs trembling hard enough that she looks ready to collapse.

Murderers, yes, but people, Edgar thinks. He wonders if she’s thinking that, too. “I know,” he says, instead of anything else. “I know.” Maybe it’s what she needs, right now. Someone who knows.

Montgomery takes them back to the Moby Dick, and Edgar reports to Fitzgerald. The dual heartbeats are slower, now—he wonders if it would have been more merciful to just kill them both off swiftly instead of this slow death he’s putting them through. “As long as they’re out of the way,” Fitzgerald dismisses. Then, more focused, “How was Montgomery?”

“Good,” Edgar says. He doesn’t know what else there is to add.

“What sorts of mission do you think she would be best for?”

Edgar pauses, and manages, “Espionage. But I wouldn’t recommend anything with killing.” He counts the money bills Fitzgerald hands him, and wonders if he can indulge in something a little better than instant noodles tonight.

When Montgomery brings him back to his apartment, he asks, “Do you want to stay for dinner?”

“No,” she mumbles, at the same time her stomach growls almost threateningly. Behind her, Anne makes a sound much like a laugh. Edgar waits until she huffs and says, “Okay! Fine! I’m hungry! It better not be KFC takeout!”

When he is twenty-two (and Lucy at thirteen, and Louisa at nineteen, and Fitzgerald at twenty-six, showing photos of his two-year-old daughter to anyone who stopped—it’s odd, to keep track of other people’s lives like this), Fitzgerald hands him a plane ticket. “Japan,” he says, as if that’s sufficient explanation. When Edgar just stares at him, he sighs and elaborates, like it’s some great effort, “An informant’s been killed. She had sensitive information on a large-scale company that may have gained its wealth through illegal means, and we were supposed to blackmail them into becoming affiliates with us, so that may be something to consider.”

“Anything else about her?”

“Incredibly wealthy, sixty years old, husband died about a year ago from natural causes. He was a government official.”

Edgar exhales quietly. The answer seems obvious enough, but he’ll have to go take a look at the body himself to make sure anyway. “Alright. But, er. I don’t… really know how to speak Japanese.” He had studied the alphabets after having to talk to one of their other Japanese informants before, and he knows the meaning of some basic kanji because of a supplementary Chinese class in high school, but that’s about it. He doesn’t even know if the Chinese characters he knows mean the same thing in the Japanese language.

Fitzgerald shrugs. “The flight’s still at night, and then you’ll have a whole fifteen hours on the plane. Plenty of time to start learning.”

Of course.

Lucy takes him back to his apartment to pack, and sits on his bed without even bothering to ask if he needs help. “Japan? You going with anyone?”

“No.” Which is good, because he works much better independently anyway.

“Oh.” A pause. “Will you bring back souvenirs? I’ve never been there.”

Edgar leans back for a moment and wracks his head for some of the more popular trinkets in Japan. There are doll collections everywhere there, right? “Sure.” He doubts he’ll be in Japan long, a day at most, but he decides to bring Karl along as well. He can’t trust the raccoon in here alone, after all.

The plane ride is long and indescribably boring, but at least Fitzgerald had gotten him a business class seat; otherwise, Edgar knows he would have just swum to Japan himself. The basic Japanese textbooks he had borrowed from the public library don’t do much to occupy him either, when he can understand the grammar rules and verb conjugations with one glance (though keigo had taken a bit more time), so he wraps his coat around himself and sleeps for over eleven hours—when he wakes up to the pilot announcing their arrival, he feels ready to be sick.

A Guild member is waiting for him at the airport and mutely drives Edgar to Yokohama—he takes the time to let Karl out of the poem he had kept him in for the duration of the flight, and Karl whines the whole car ride about how stuffy it had been in there. “I should tell you,” the Guild member suddenly says, when they’re about ten minutes away from the crime scene, “another detective has gotten there before you. We said we had hired one already, but he insisted he could do it better.”

“Oh?” Edgar raises an eyebrow. “What’s his name?”

“That you’ll have to find out yourself.” He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I didn’t want to talk to him for too long.”

When Edgar enters the widow’s room, mumbling his name to interrogative policemen, there is, indeed, someone else there. Small and skinny and with the cheekiest look on his face—Edgar already dislikes him. “Ooh, so you’re the detective they sent? You don’t look like much,” he says, annoyingly cheerfully. He can’t be more than sixteen, with a personality to match the height.

Edgar huffs softly. His speech is almost too fast to follow, but he can tell it’s casual for Japanese. That’s certainly odd. “Yes. I was sent here by the police themselves for this case. Please do not inter—”

“I’m Ranpo Edogawa,” he interrupts, clearly not having heard a thing. “You’re?”

Edgar resists the urge to grind his teeth. “Edgar Allan Poe.” Ranpo Edogawa. So Ranpo is his surname, right? “It’s… nice to meet you, Ranpo-san.”

“You too, Poe-kun. Hey,” Ranpo says, before Edgar can blink at the honorific usage, “why don’t we make this case more interesting? If you’re so good that the police sent you all the way from America, then you’ve got to be a challenge, right?”

“Wh—”

“Let’s turn this into a contest!” He grins. Edgar hates it. “First one to figure out the culprit wins. Okay?”

“I—”

“Don’t worry, I just got here, so I dunno any other details aside from what you’ve probably already noticed, too. So? What about it? Come on, the police were all nervous and tense when they said you’d be coming, that’s gotta mean something good, right? Right?”

Edgar breathes, deeply—he doesn’t want to raise his voice on a kid, and it takes an amazing amount of willpower to keep himself from snapping. “Alright, fine.”

“Yay!” God, Edgar hates him. “And by the way! I’m not a kid. I’m twenty. So don’t underestimate me!”

“T-Twenty?” Edgar can’t stop himself from parroting. He had thought Ranpo was sixteen, for goodness’ sake.

“Aww. Are you surprised? It’s okay, I get that a lot.” Ranpo crouches down to peer at the widow’s body. “Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way together, Poe-kun! So, strangulation as cause of death.”

Edgar chews on his lower lip. An amateur would have made the mistake of pointing out the stab wound as the cause, when Edgar can tell it had been done to ensure the woman would not be revived. So Ranpo’s not absolutely terrible after all. “Stab wound is from a jackknife. Long but ordinary.”

“And unnecessary, ‘cause she was already dead.”

“Attacked from behind. She bent down to open the paper door when the culprit got her.” Edgar turns a little, and means to point out one of the more damning evidences when he catches sight of Ranpo’s face—his previously shut eyes are cracked open now, green twinkling in the light and roaming over the crime scene, sharper and more observant than anything Edgar’s seen before. When Ranpo looks up at him, those eyes narrow and crinkle with the smirk twisting his lips.

It’s infuriating.

“She was old, couldn’t struggle much. She did scratch here.” Edgar jabs a finger at a nearby folded screen. A painting of a beautiful woman has her face ruined by the marks left by the widow’s nails, most likely. “If there are any suspects, it should be easy to figure out who did it with some interrogation.”

“Government workers Fukiya and Saito,” one of the policemen gathered there grunts. They had been silent save for the occasional murmur, and Edgar had almost forgotten they were there. “All the evidence points to Saito, right now. A psychological test was conducted to check, and Fukiya seems to be in the clear.”

“A psychological test? May I see the—”

“Ahh, you’re taking too long,” Ranpo whines, straightening from his crouch to fling his arms up in the air. Edgar shoots him a dirty look that he doubts Ranpo catches. “Come on. It’s so obvious, Poe-kun!”

“I know it’s neither of the two suspects,” Edgar barely keeps from growling, “but it’s still best to eliminate all other possibilities before pointing fingers. The culprit in this was someone who worked for the government and also killed her husband a year ago.”

Ranpo brightens. “Yup! Duh! He didn’t die from natural causes. Someone killed him and made it look like a heart attack or somethin’. He knew too much about—”

“—a multinational corporation that gained its wealth through illegal means.” Edgar stalks over to a potted tree in an alcove of the room, grabs the pine tree by the trunk, and brings out a bundle of money wrapped in oilpaper at the base of the pot. “Either he stole from them and disguised it as honest money, or she found out about it and stole from them herself, meaning to use it as proof of corruption. She must have realized they had killed her husband, too, otherwise she would have left them alone. She’s rich, so she doesn’t need the money.”

Ranpo grins. “See, it’s so much easier when you don’t have to include boring details.” From his pocket he pulls out a pair of plain black glasses, unfolds them with a flick of his wrist, and slips them over his eyes. “So, Mr. Policeman,” he abruptly declares, pointing at the policeman Edgar had just spoken to, “anything to add? You know, as the culprit of this whole thing.”

The policeman freezes, and so does Edgar. He had suspected the man, but only because he had suspected everyone else in the room, too. “What?” the man finally manages—it’s almost funny, how terrified he sounds.

“Are you stupid? You’re. The. Culprit. Did you forget how you murdered this poor old lady?” Ranpo crosses his arms behind his head, green eyes practically sparkling. “The company head bribed you to do it; at first you weren’t going to, but the money made you crack. And seriously, you can’t be more obvious! You’ve been annoying and stiff the whole time I’ve been here, answering everyone’s questions like you’re the head of the operation. How’d you even know the suspects were Fukiya and Saito? Only the District Attorney knows their names. Everyone else knows them as the government workers who knew the victim and were with her before she was killed. That’s because you set them up to be seen with her before her murder, so they could be easy suspects and the most boring red herrings ever. You were absent at your post at her time of death, and your coworker told me you were out to the general store a few days before that. Should we check the CCTV footage, or can we just take me on my word that you bought the jackknife there?”

Edgar doesn’t know if he sees it first, or if Ranpo knows it’s coming and does nothing anyway; regardless, it’s Edgar who reacts when the policeman whips out his gun and fires almost too fast for anyone else to move. He grabs the poem that’s been hissing and snarling the whole time it had been in his pocket, and throws it in front of the bullet heading straight for Ranpo—the bullet disappears into the paper, but it sizzles and smokes and begins to blacken as if burnt. “Get in,” Edgar says, simply, and the policeman is turning his gun on him but the paper lashes out with a screeching darkness and then—and then.

The gun clatters onto the floor. Th-thump, Edgar hears. Th-thump th-thump th-thump. His heartbeat is joined with the sounds of rapid pounding on the inside of a coffin, screams to be let out, and the thumps blur together until, finally, he runs out of oxygen. Edgar shuts his eyes, and tries to ignore the pain tingling around the hand still holding the paper; he lets it fall onto the ground, and it continues to growl and shiver from there, small plumes of smoke still rising from its charred surface.

“Impressive ability!” Ranpo says. Edgar turns around—Ranpo hasn’t moved from his previous position, still as relaxed as can be, like a mad policeman hadn’t just shot at him. “But nowhere near as impressive as mine. D’you like it? Super Deduction, I mean.” He adjusts his glasses and cocks his head to the side a little, smug smirk plastered on his face.

“You… Super Deduction?”

“It gives me complete evidence and information on any crime. That’s why I’m the greatest detective in the world!” He leans forward, looking up at Edgar with the most annoying look on his face yet—of all things, something like pity. “Nice try, though. You almost got it, Po-oe kun.”

Kill him, the paper on the floor hisses. Edgar has to grab his arm to keep himself from jolting. Kill him! Kill him! He mocks you. He dares mock you! He is but a fool. You are the greatest, the smartest. He deserves death. He deserves me! And it’s burning red-hot again, enough that Edgar can feel the heat from here—and, God, he’d be a liar if he said he doesn’t think about it, isn’t tempted to let the paper rise up and grab at Ranpo, send him down with the policeman to be buried alive, snuff out the disgusting brightness of those bold green eyes, wipe that self-satisfied smirk off his face—

But he breathes, deeply, in and out until the heat dies down and the paper goes silent again. (They don’t know any better, our abilities. They only know what we do. They act when we’re in danger because they’re protecting us. They don’t know right from wrong.) “I s-should go,” Edgar manages, and absolutely despises the way his stutter comes back, the childhood ghost he can never escape.

Ranpo’s eyes go dim, and the smirk drops. “Oh. Already, Poe-kun?”

“What—What do you mean, a-already, of course I’m going, do you think we’re friends?” Edgar snaps, snatching the paper off the floor—it grunts in complaint. Ranpo’s expression shifts again, from mildly disappointed to—to something. Edgar can’t tell, and he hates how he can describe everything about a person down to their deepest, darkest fears, and yet he can’t figure anything out about him. What, is he hurt that Edgar doesn’t like him? After all he’d done, he expects Edgar to like him? With that—that ability that is so, so incredibly unfair and amazing at the same time—what does he think?

“I helped you solve the case!” Ranpo shoots back, childish and protesting. “Shouldn’t you thank me, at least?”

The policemen around them whisper and mumble, and Edgar isn’t so much of an idiot to not know how he looks like right now, the tired, rundown American losing sorely to such a big-name detective in Japan that they let him have his way with the case despite strict orders to not let anyone else in. But it’s unfair, because Edgar had been so close, if he’d only been able to ask about everyone else’s whereabouts, too, or realized that the policeman must have been acting unnaturally—he’d been so close and it’s unfair and—and the paper is burning in his hand again, but he can’t let it get Ranpo, he can’t, he can’t, he can’t. That would be a useless, pointless murder, and… and he hates how Super Deduction has him so in awe, that an ability as overpowered as that could possibly exist in the world.

In his bag, Karl coos and peers out to nose Edgar’s arm in inquiry. Ranpo blinks. “Is that a raccoon?”

He can’t handle this. He can’t. He mutters a half-hearted goodbye and turns on his heel to leave the house. The Guild member who had driven him there is waiting outside, smoking a cigarette with the car windows rolled down, and Edgar can’t bring himself to answer when he asks how it had gone. After a few seconds, he shrugs and starts the car up again.

Another long flight later has him in Fitzgerald’s office. “Unfortunate,” he says, “but not a big loss. We have a number of informants in Japan—they can get to the company some other time. Anything else, Poe?” His phone is open on his messages with Zelda, and Edgar can see yet another picture of his daughter on the screen.

Edgar breathes. He had thought about it, the whole flight long, and hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep because of it. When he’d asked Karl before coming to the office, the raccoon had nipped his fingers and demanded food. He doesn’t know what that means, but by this point he can’t bring himself to think about it any longer, and he wants this. He wants, he needs to do this for himself, and he can’t remember the last time he had wanted something so badly.

“I’m thinking,” he says, “of—of officially joining the Guild.”

Chapter Text

His room is fairly small and nondescript, but it’s also right beside the kitchens. Not a bad deal.

Edgar busies himself that night setting everything up the way he likes it, bookshelf filled with the novels he’d indulged in when he had extra money, desk organized with notebooks and papers and pens all in easy reach, the drawers stuffed with old poems and stories content with being left alone. His notebook, the one that holds newspaper clippings and dozens of corpses, remains on his person at all times.

When he empties his Midtown apartment of all the clutter that’s been piling up over the past two years, he doesn’t have anyone to say goodbye to, there, except the posters along the hallways and the old maintenance notice that’s been posted on the elevator for as long as he’s lived there. You’re leaving? they ask. When are you coming back? This isn’t another business trip, is it? It’s always lonely without you.

Goodbye, he tells them. I’m sorry, he tells them. He doesn’t know what else there is to say.

Fitzgerald is overjoyed, of course. “I’m just so glad that you’re finally making a commitment,” he exclaims, and proceeds to wax poetic about the Guild’s mission, vision, purpose, and whatnot—most of it had registered in Edgar’s head, but he hadn’t bothered taking the information out to review it, like he usually does with things he doesn’t want to bother with when he first hears it. He nods and mumbles through the speech, mutely signing onto the contract Fitzgerald whips out for him—there’s the promise of giving him a room on the Moby Dick as soon as possible, especially since he’s been “such a valuable asset” to the Guild for as long as he’s been affiliated with them, and the suggestion to start packing up and settle things with his landlord.

Only two days later has him on his bed, on the airship, en route to Salem, Massachusetts—for a new member, Louisa had told him, whose ability is apparently too valuable for the Guild to give up. “He’s your age,” Louisa says, over a cup of tea Edgar had prepared for her. “Maybe you’ll get along with him.”

“I don’t plan on making friends,” Edgar mutters.

“You don’t have to be friends. Having a strong ally on your good side is always a smart choice.”

It’s funny sometimes, how someone like Louisa can go from nervous and compassionate to someone who prioritizes practicality and strategic thinking over everything else. Edgar gives her a look that tells her exactly what he’s thinking, and she flushes. “W-Well, you know what I mean, it’s what will benefit you most, too…”

“Right.” He looks out the window—Louisa always draws the curtains closed, though the sunlight filters in through the thin fabric more often than not. Salem is only a few more hours from here, if he’s calculating right. And he usually is—but that only brings to mind sharp green eyes and a smug smirk and the knowledge that when it had mattered most, when his pride had been banking on him to keep it upright, he had failed, so badly and hilariously that he can’t trust a single thought in his head anymore. Because—because what if what he’s thinking now is wrong, too, what if Salem is only two hours and sixteen minutes away instead of the two hours and twenty-three he’d been counting down from, what if the next time he has to solve a case he makes a mistake that will cost more than just his pride—

“Edgar?”

He tears his gaze away from the window. The sunlight is still streaming in without a care in the world. (It reminds him of—no, he has to stop thinking of him.) “Sorry. I was… thinking.”

“I know. I could see that.” Louisa takes a sip from her cup, and gives Edgar a minute of silence before she speaks again. “You are sure about this?”

It’s a genuinely concerned question, which Edgar appreciates, but. “Even if I weren’t, I can’t do anything about it now. I’ve already signed the contract.” He shrugs. “You know what happens if you try to leave the Guild.” He had witnessed such incidents himself, after all—in his time being their on-call assassin, there had been one rare occasion someone successfully escaped, and of course he had been the one to chase them down.

Louisa sighs. “I suppose. But… I don’t know. Why did you think joining the Guild would help you meet Ranpo again anyway?”

“Meet?”

“Er. I mean… defeat, of course.”

Edgar leans back and fiddles with a loose thread on his jacket sleeve. Only two years, and it’s already starting to come apart. “I think I’ve always planned to join it, and what happened in Japan was the last straw,” he mumbles, diligently avoiding her gaze. Though he knows Louisa would never, he doesn’t want to look up and see condescending pity again, be reminded of the expression on Ranpo’s face, that time. “What else am I good for? I do my job here well. Killing and figuring things out. Nothing else. I certainly can’t get an honest job out there, considering I’m still a wanted criminal.” Even if the news about him has died down considerably, Edgar doubts Royster has forgotten about him. (Or maybe he has—maybe he’s forgotten Perry, boyfriend journalist in-training, and only remembers Edgar Allan Poe, child murderer.)

“Y-You’re good at writing.”

“Will that earn me money?” He had tried submitting to magazines and newsletters, during the two years in New York City, but most of them had been sent back with letters of rejection—they weren’t accepting anonymous submissions, it didn’t fit their theme, it was too strange for them. After the fifth dismissal, Edgar had simply stopped; it was easier to write for himself alone and pretend he couldn’t hear the letters that laughed and jeered at him from the trash can.

Louisa sighs again, hard enough to blow a stray strand of blonde hair out of her face. “You can always ask Francis to set you up with a publisher or an agent. He owns at least a dozen printing companies.”

“Maybe,” Edgar allows.

The new member’s ability is called The Scarlet Letter—that’s what Edgar finds out about them first instead of their name. Lucy drops by his room that night to pet Karl, as has become her habit, and scoffs about how the “new guy” thinks he’s so “up there” just because he can “control blood, like, so what, I could do that too if I tried hard enough.”

That pulls Edgar out of his writing. “He can what?”

“Control his blood or whatever.” Lucy rolls her eyes and continues scratching Karl behind the ears. “It made zero sense to me. Lou says he can control his own blood and convert it to holy words that he can use either offensively or defensively. Don’t actually know how that works, though.”

“Hm. Can he control other people’s blood?” If he could, it would be supremely easy for him to kill anyone he wanted without even trying, and Edgar could see how that was valuable.

Lucy shrugs. “Maybe? But to a lesser extent than his own? I dunno, Poe.” (She refuses to call him Edgar, because apparently it’s an old-person name, and Poe is more fun to say. Edgar doesn’t understand children at all.) “Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

Edgar gets the chance to, a few weeks later, when Fitzgerald calls him and Nathaniel Hawthorne to his office for a mission. It’s the same as usual—track down someone who’s wronged the Guild, give them a chance to right their wrongs, and kill them if they refuse (and they usually do). “Name’s Martha Hunt. She’s known for being slippery,” Fitzgerald tells them, paying infinitely more attention to Hawthorne than to Edgar, “which is why we need two of you for this. Hawthorne, I’d like to see how well you can perform for the Guild.”

Hawthorne’s neutral expression doesn’t so much as flicker. “Yes, sir.”

“Just Francis is fine, really.”

Hawthorne says nothing, although Edgar thinks he catches the furrow in his brow deepen.

In Concord, Massachusetts, Louisa wishes Edgar good luck and shoots Hawthorne a nervous glance before retreating back into her room. Hawthorne is quiet the whole walk to the Old Manse, the last place their target had been sighted, and Edgar—well. He knows this is a good time to ask about the technicalities of his ability, to see how far his control on blood can go, to see what he can really do if he puts his mind into manipulating people’s literal life force. But every time, every time he thinks of saying something, the thought comes, persistent and unrelenting—What if you say something wrong? What if you mess up and make a mistake and do something you can’t take back and ruin a neutral relationship with a coworker? What if what if what if—and so Edgar stops thinking, and lets them walk in silence.

He thought he had stopped with the what-ifs when he graduated high school—it seems so long ago that he overthought everything he said and did. Edgar used to just say and do things with an impartial calculation and nothing else; there had been no room for emotions, and cold rationality got him through everything without fail. He had never slipped up, not once—until. Until Ranpo. And now that same crippling anxiety is back to gnaw at his thoughts, to hinder his every word and movement until he can say nothing, do nothing, fade into nothing from the debilitating belief that everything he says and everything he does will be a mistake.

Now he can’t trust a thing—his words or his actions or his thoughts. It had only taken Ranpo seconds to trip him up and shove his faults under a spotlight—what’s stopping everyone else from doing the same?

“We’re here.”

“Ah?” Edgar looks up. The Old Manse looms above them, chock-full of tourists snapping pictures and other visitors. Hunt had picked a good hiding place; it would be hell searching for anyone here. For someone who doesn’t already know where she is, at least. “Oh. Well—”

“Where do you think she is?” Hawthorne turns to face him, gaze tilted down enough that it looks like he’s looking down on Edgar both literally and figuratively; on instinct, Edgar looks away. (He can still see it: the pity, the feeling that he hadn’t been good enough.)

“The—” Behind the Manse, Edgar means to say. She should be right by the Concord River, and we have to move fast, because she must be expecting the Guild to be chasing after her. If we’re too slow, she’ll get away and go somewhere that’ll be too hard for us to reach, because someone like her is smart enough to have an escape plan. There are a million more thoughts that speed through his head—the possibility that she’s spread sensitive information on the Guild to other people like the authorities, the possibility that she’s set this as a trap for them to be caught and arrested for assault on her—but all those screech to a stop when he thinks, What if I’m wrong. What if he’s wrong and she’s not behind the Manse, what if he’s wrong and they waste precious time and end up letting her escape, what if he’s wrong and he has to face the fact that he was too slow again, not good enough again, what if—what if—

“Poe?” Hawthorne says—irritation tinges his voice. “I thought you said you knew.”

“I—” Edgar swallows. Behind the Manse, his brain insists; what if you’re wrong, his thoughts persist. “I d-don’t… I don’t know. I—”

“What? What do you mean you don’t know? You said—do you expect us to find her in this crowd?” Hawthorne waves a hand at the long line by the entrance to the museum. “Fitzgerald told me to trust your decision and your judgment. I didn’t understand why then,” he says icily, “and I’m afraid I still don’t understand why now.”

“Behind the Manse,” Edgar blurts out, even when all that’s going through his head is Ranpo’s voice, telling him, Nice try, Poe-kun. You almost got it. Almost. “R-Right by the r-river.”

“And how do you know that?” Hawthorne snaps.

Edgar has to pinch himself to keep from recoiling. “It m-makes sense.” Stop stuttering! “A lot of abilities require physical contact or g-general close proximity—a boat or s-some other form of transportation can get her away from pursuers quick, and she might have been t-thinking—”

“Fine, alright, let’s go.” Hawthorne stalks forward, weaving through the crowd to circle behind the Manse—Edgar nearly trips hurrying after him, and the thought of suggesting they split up to try and corner Hunt fades as quickly as it had come. Somehow he knows Hawthorne wouldn’t care for the idea. “If that thinking of yours cost us extra time,” he growls, and doesn’t continue—Edgar doesn’t need him to.

Hunt is right by the bubbling river, where Edgar had expected her to be, but she doesn’t let Hawthorne get any further than “We’re from the Guild” before she levels a gun at him. “Stay back!” she shouts, loud enough to send birds flying away. “Y-You fuckers think you can get to me, huh? You really think so?” A bang—Edgar reaches for paper, but bright red blood lashes out and slices the bullet in two. The pieces fall on the grass with dual pathetic clinks.

Edgar turns—a cut on Hawthorne’s finger has a whip of blood snaking from it to hiss and snap at the shaking woman before him. “Give up quietly, and you will be unharmed,” Hawthorne says, low and dangerous.

The surprise on Hunt’s face morphs into almost admirable defiance. “I’ll see you fucking demons in hell,” she snarls—another bang of the gun, and this time neither Hawthorne nor Edgar can react fast enough to stop herself from shooting her brains out. Her body falls backwards, falling into the rushing river with a splash and coloring the water crimson. Neither of them move to retrieve her.

Hawthorne huffs and stows his cross necklace back under his clothing; in a blink, his blood slips back into his finger and the cut begins closing itself. “If you had been a little faster,” he sneers, giving Edgar a look that drips with disdain, “perhaps this mission wouldn’t have been a complete failure.”

You almost got it, Edgar hears. Nice try, Poe-kun, Edgar hears, but this time it’s said with a tone of disgust—and he doesn’t know if he prefers the pity over that or not.

Edgar hates it. Hates him, really, Ranpo Edogawa. Or Edogawa Ranpo, whichever. He hates him and all he stands for, hates his green eyes and satisfied smirk and easy confidence and Super Deduction. He hates him and he wants, needs revenge, needs to do something to placate the burning hatred eating away at his heart, needs to do something to get rid of the anxiety that refuses to leave him and his thoughts be.

He doesn’t want to admit it, but he can’t beat Ranpo at his own game—he’s experienced first-hand how that would go. Another “contest” would just lead to Ranpo smacking him down again and bringing him even more humiliation than before. But—Edgar flips through the pages of his notebook, listens to the stories in them hum and murmur the words he’s written, whisper of the worlds he’s created. If Edgar can’t beat Ranpo at what the latter is best at, then he has to try beating him at something Edgar is good at. He can still hear the rejection letters taunting him from the trash can, so long ago in that rundown apartment, but—he can’t let that stop him. He won’t. He has to believe he can do this, otherwise joining the Guild would have all been for nothing. He had done this for Ranpo and Ranpo alone, to further the desire for vengeance that’s been scorching in his chest ever since he had left Japan, and he knows he can do this. He has to do this—for himself if nothing else.

Of course, the very moment he sits down by his desk to draft a rough outline of the book idea building in his mind, there’s a rap on the door. “Edgar Poe?” a vaguely familiar voice calls. Karl’s ears twitch. “You are inside?”

Edgar pinches the bridge of his nose. “What is it?”

“You’ve been in there for days. Have you been eating properly?”

“Er…” It’s not like he eats much in the first place. If he doesn’t think about it, he doesn’t feel hungry at all. Only a dull ache in his stomach is any sign, and even then he can sometimes pass it off as an extension of his hatred. “More or less.”

A pause, and then an audible sigh. “If you say so. But Ms. Alcott has been worrying about you.”

Edgar doesn’t reply to that, and another few seconds pass before fading footsteps tell him that the person at the door has left. He slumps against his chair and decides on petting Karl for the next half hour instead of working on the outline.

Another few days has Karl itching to go outside, though, so Edgar relents and leaves his room for the first time in what must have been a week. Karl makes a mad dash for Louisa’s room, and she fusses over the both of them with a plate of cookies and generous amounts of tea before she (incredibly hesitantly) lets him go; then the raccoon goes to Lucy, which is about the same time Edgar suspects Karl is just going to the people who spoil him the most, and Lucy plays with Karl while Edgar compliments her growing collection of handmade dolls. (She had liked the souvenir he had gotten her from Japan, a small stuffed doll that looks vaguely like Anne.)

Karl wanders into what Edgar recognizes as the control room a second too late—he rushes in to scoop the raccoon off the floor and babbles, “I’m so sorry to disturb, I wasn’t paying attention—” and stops dumbly when the man operating the entire Moby Dick seems to be sleeping.

Lemme go, Karl squeaks, and wriggles out of Edgar’s grip to land lightly on the floor and begin sniffing around with no clear purpose.

Edgar just stares; there’s not much else to do. He knows who the man is, of course, Herman Melville—he’d be a fool to not know who controls the airship he lives on, the person who can send them all plummeting to their deaths with a flick of his wrist. Edgar doesn’t know the specifics of his ability, only that it’s related to Moby Dick somehow, and he’s never had to talk to the man for anything more than a few directions here and there. But right now Melville is silent and motionless save for the steady breathing of someone sleeping, so Edgar backs up against the door of the control room and gestures for Karl to come. The raccoon completely ignores him; Edgar resists the urge to heave a great sigh.

“Troublesome, is he?”

“H—” Edgar’s hand is on his notebook before he realizes who had spoken. It’s the same voice from just a few days ago, coaxing him out of his room. “Oh. Um… He’s… He gets like that.”

Melville turns to face him from his revolving chair, looking up at Edgar with pale blue eyes that look far from asleep. “I’m afraid I haven’t had the chance to speak with you since you became affiliated with the Guild.”

“W-We’ve spoken. You know… directions, and the like.”

Properly speak with you, then.” Melville glances to the side, and Edgar follows his gaze—on a worn wooden table sits a tank, a number of small fishes swimming and bubbling inside it. “Now you’re an official member. You joined the Guild for what reason?”

Edgar shuffles his feet. “I need to… meet someone again.” A pause, and then a panicked, “Wait, no, that’s not it—I mean, to take revenge on someone. On that person. That’s the important part of the plan, not the—the meeting them again. That’s…” He trails off, and manages a weak, “less… important,” to finish off.

I can’t believe you just used ‘important’ twice in two sentences, his notebook says, sounding disgusted. You call yourself a writer!

I know, I know, I’m sorry, I panicked.

When Edgar looks at Melville again, he seems more amused than anything. “Revenge? Why?”

“He, um. He beat me in… in this contest. It sounds s-stupid, but… it… means a lot to me. He called himself,” Edgar scoffs, “the greatest detective in the world. Because of his ability, which—which lets him know everything about a case immediately or w-whatever. So he’s only a good detective because his ability hands him everything on a silver—no, a golden platter, and not through any actual hard work or thinking! And I was—so close,” he murmurs, feeling something in his chest tighten and constrict, “so close to… to figuring out the case. Without an ability, or outside help, or anything. But he solved it with those ridiculous glasses of his and got all up in my face about being the better detective and—and he kept acting friendly with me! Like I’m supposed to like him, using the -kun honorific, what are we, friends? After I had to save his life from the culprit of that case because he was being utterly infuriating? And—”

Karl squeaks. Would you calm down? I’ve heard this same rant a million times already. You haven’t even gotten to his eyes.

“And I hate his eyes,” Edgar grumbles. “They’re… just… too green.” He thinks about his own dull gray ones, perpetually hidden behind a curtain of bangs, hollow and sunken, outlined with rings of black. Nowhere near as sharp, or piercing, or… “It’s just unfair.”

“I’m assuming you don’t usually have outbursts like that,” Melville says, after a short while of staring at the fish tank. “You’re a bit out of breath.”

“U-Um. Yes. Sorry, I… didn’t mean for all that to come out.”

“It’s fine.” Melville leans back on the armchair, giving the fish one last glance before he turns to look back up at Edgar. “I’ve been part of the Guild for years now. Decades, really. They’ve done plenty of things I didn’t agree with—turning Moby Dick into an air fortress, for one thing. He used to be alive. A majestic creature.” A splash—one of the fish in the tank seems to have jumped above the surface like a dolphin, though Edgar’s sure normal fish don’t do that. “But they modified him until I could no longer speak to him, much less control him. I still know how to operate him better than anyone, but—” He waves a hand at the control panel in front of him, blinking and beeping in that foreign language Edgar doubts anyone else but Melville can understand. “It isn’t the same, of course. Never will be.”

“I… I’m sorry.”

“Why I’m telling you this,” Melville says, less than a second after Edgar comes up with the pathetic apology, “is because I should tell you now that you should not have joined the Guild if you weren’t willing to do anything and everything they ask of you.”

“Wh—” Edgar stares. “But I… I mean, I am. I was before I joined, and it’s been mostly… mostly the same so far.” And I don’t want to, he thinks, but I need the money—and this, this is the only thing I’m good for, good at. Ranpo obviously proved me wrong when I thought I was good at anything else.

Melville shakes his head. “You don’t look like a killer.”

“Funny,” Edgar mutters, “that’s the exact opposite everyone else says.”

“And I find it interesting that your ability is as about as non-combative as abilities get, yet you’ve become a rather dangerous assassin for the most dangerous Secret Society in America.” Melville looks away from him and back to the fish tank again. “A bit odd, don’t you think, that you’d use your gift this way.”

“It’s not—” Edgar breathes, in and out, and softens his voice until it’s marginally less aggressive. “It’s not a… a gift.”

“An ability, then.” A fish jumps again, vivid orange scales shining in the blue light from the control screens. “Whether it remains just that depends on how you use it. Will you continue using it to take lives? Will you use it for a revenge plot your heart isn’t really in? Will you use it as a gift or a curse? It’s your choice, Poe.”

“I—” Edgar shakes his head. “I understand what you’re saying. I-I do. But—it’s too late for that. It’s been years since I started… started using it as a… a c-curse.” It still hurts to say it, for some reason; he should be desensitized to that fact already, that this ability of his isn’t good for anything but killing, but—he remembers the flowers, the friends he’d made, the voices of novels lulling him to sleep. He can’t stomach calling those curses, not when they’ve been a part of him all his life.

Melville shrugs, leans back. “If you say so.”

Edgar blinks. “Oh?” He had been expecting more of a response than that, if he’s being honest.

“I can’t dictate what you should and shouldn’t do. Try, fail, understand. Experiment. It’s your life and your ability.” He looks away. “It’s the old man in me, I suppose. Telling youngsters not to make the same bad decisions I did, before. And you look like you have potential—to be more than just an assassin for the Guild. To be more than what you think you are.”

(The only thing he’s good for…)

Edgar mumbles a half-hearted excuse, gathers Karl up in his arms, and bolts out of the room. As soon as he’s a hallway away from the control room, though, he slows down and lets Karl curl up on his shoulders as usual, and stares at the floor as he walks the rest of the way back. “What do you think?” he murmurs, stroking the raccoon behind the ears. “About what he said.”

I think you’re overthinking things again. Old man, wants to sound smart and wise, probably asleep the whole time.

“Don’t be rude.”

I’m not! I’m just telling the truth.

His outline is waiting for him on his table when he gets back, the plot holes glaringly obvious when he reads over it again and the character development leaving much to be desired. Edgar erases the errors, apologizes to the whining paper, and works for the rest of the night—he doesn’t think he could go back to sleep anyway, even if he wanted to.

“Happy birthday!” Louisa hands him a box that looks disgustingly expensive. “This is from Francis. He said it was more a necessity than an actual birthday gift, but he only remembered to get it for you a few days ago and figured it would be a nice present.”

“Er, thank you.” Edgar gingerly opens the box, and nearly throws it across the room when he sees what’s inside—common sense and self-control keep him from making one of the worst decisions of his life, which says a lot. “Louisa, this—this is—this is a p-p-phone!

Louisa blinks. “Um… I know.”

“He didn’t have to get me a phone! I barely know how to use one!” Not that he can’t learn how in a matter of minutes, but it also sounds like too much trouble for him—and also a bit dangerous, considering how easy it would be for someone to track him down with it.

“Which is why you need one. When Francis asked me for your number and I told him you didn’t have a phone, he got the most appalled look on his face. And anyway, you’re lucky you haven’t been on a mission that requires communication with us, but now that you’re an official Guild member, that’s going to be more important than you think.” Louisa plucks the cell phone out of its box with the kind of effortless caution everyone who owns a phone has, and examines it with a calculating eye. “The latest model, too. Not a surprise. He owns the company.”

Some of the shock fades from Edgar’s person a little. “Oh. Of… Of course he does.”

“I got you something too!” Louisa hops over to her bookshelf and sweeps piles of papers away to reveal a quaintly wrapped present, brightening when he takes it with less trepidation than Fitzgerald’s gift. “It’s not much, but I don’t really like shopping anyway. The crowds are… you know.”

Edgar peels the tape and wrapping off, making sure not to rip it too much, and feels his heart rocket up to his throat when he realizes what it is. “You really didn’t have to,” he says—he means for it to come out louder than a whisper, but it seems to be the only thing he’s capable of making. “I… This is…”

“Do you, um… not like it?” Louisa looks devastated.

“No! No, I—I love it. It’s…” Edgar shakes the rest of the wrapping paper off and lifts the book up in the air. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination—the textbooks he had picked up some time ago had mentioned the book in passing, and searching the title on Louisa’s computer had prompted the list of short stories it contained, about a human chair, a caterpillar, two crippled men… There hadn’t been an electronic copy online, only a physical one he had no way of buying considering putting down the Moby Dick as his shipping address would have been disastrous, so he’d given up on trying to read it. “W-Where did you get this? You didn’t order online, did you?”

Louisa beams. “Francis owns the company that published it!”

“In… In Japan. He owns a publishing company in Japan.”

“Just one. He has plenty in America, though.” Louisa looks far from bothered. Edgar supposes she’s known Fitzgerald long enough that his endless wealth has ceased to affect her.

Edgar swallows, and looks back down at the book in his hands. It’s wrapped in plastic, so new and so unlike the rest of his books, covers peeled and pages yellowing—and for some reason his eyes are growing hot, and he can’t think about anything else except how warm his chest feels, like something in there has unraveled and loosened, just a bit. “I… T-Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Louisa peers up at him. “A-Are you alright? You aren’t crying, are you, Eddie?”

“No… no.” He scrubs at his eyes with the back of his hand until they feel mostly dry again. Edgar doesn’t do hugs, though now seems like a good time for one, so he lays a hand on Louisa’s wrist instead, hoping she doesn’t feel the tremors going through him as he breathes, “Thank you. T-Tell Fitzgerald I say thank you too. I… This… It means a lot to me. It does.”

Louisa stammers through a number of words, but eventually settles on, “You’re welcome.”

Her voice is only an inch away from sounding like the flowers that Edgar thinks he can still hear at night. She calls him Eddie, not Ed, and it only hurts on some days.

Lucy gives him a bag of candies, grouching about how they’re all from her personal stash and he should be honored she’s letting him have so many, but Edgar gives them a quick scan when he’s alone in his room and isn’t surprised to find out a number of them are sour or coffee-flavored, which he doesn’t mind—he’s not a fan of sweets anyway.

The first draft for the book taunts him from where it rests on his desk, but he drapes his coat over it to silence its jeers and settles in bed with Karl on his lap and Japanese Tales propped up on his knee. It bothers him that the author had chosen to remain anonymous, and that the only information there is on them is that they have a son, to whom they dedicate the book to, but when he turns to the first story and a cool, faintly familiar voice begins to read to him, Edgar sighs and forgets everything else. The horror and macabre usually keep people up and in suspense, but for him, it’s almost reassuring, as if telling him that he isn’t the only one to dream up people’s nightmares come to life. He idly calculates approximate dimensions for a chair that could fit an actual person while listening to The Human Chair, and The Caterpillar has him envisioning the grotesque image of a man without any of his limbs—he doesn’t realize how long he’s been listening until the narration cuts off and the book asks, Shouldn’t you be sleeping by now, young man?

It sounds so much like a father that Edgar feels his chest hurt. No, I mean… I don’t really sleep much.

Ridiculous. A healthy sleeping schedule means a healthy person! My writer, the book proudly adds, said that all the time. His kid was always running around and making a mess.

Really?

Mm. Many of these stories are based off real-life experiences, you know. My writer was the most excellent detective, went around everywhere solving cases, even those gone cold for decades. But some were so strange that he couldn’t bear keeping them a secret—like finding a body in a chair, or a man missing all of his limbs. So he modified them a bit and wrote them into stories not only to entertain, but also to inform. It huffs again, sounding self-satisfied. His son loved hearing those stories. Said he’d make his own someday, when he grew up.

Edgar smiles—he doesn’t even realize it until his cheeks protest a bit at the sudden pull of muscles rarely used. And did he?

The book falters. I… I don’t know. When my writer died, I… lost touch with reality, you could say. Time felt too fast and too slow at once, and everything was a blur. All us copies share the same memories, and we all had the same experience. Felt like parts of us died along with him. I’d say it’s been years since his death now, and his son must be an adult… but I can’t say I know where he is or what he’s doing now. I hope he’s well.

Edgar leans back, careful not to disturb Karl dozing on the bed, and closes his eyes. Whoever he is, I hope so too.

He wonders how it would be like for his own works, if he died—would they feel the same? Would they feel like they were missing parts of themselves? Someone had said that no two people in the world had the same ability. Would that mean if he died, there would no longer be anyone to listen to the papers?

Life on the Moby Dick feels fragmented, sometimes, like Edgar’s watching his days play out as some old-fashioned movie, in grainy black-and-white. When things get too much—when he hesitates too long in a mission because of a what-if, when someone shoots him a frustrated look and tells him to quit stuttering and speak up, when a body just feels too cold in his hands—he escapes to his room and buries himself in the book, writing and writing until his hand goes numb.

But the motions feel familiar—the determination to finish something, the need to show someone his work and have pride bloom in him when they compliment him. When he realizes he’s subconsciously rewording lines the way he knows Royster likes, Edgar sets the pen down, shakily, and curls up on the bed. Forget him, he tells himself. Forget him. Forget him. Focus on the now. Focus. In the end, he succumbs to sleep, and wakes up mid-afternoon the next day only because Karl’s been nudging his cheek for almost five minutes.

Writing only makes Edgar think of Royster, no matter how irrelevant the plot is to him, so Edgar gives up and heads outside to let Karl wander again—it’s some ungodly time of the night and he can’t ask for cuddles from Louisa or Lucy, so he sniffs around and eventually ends up in the kitchens. Edgar can’t say he’s surprised. What he is slightly more surprised about is that someone else is up at two in the morning, rummaging through the kitchen’s cabinets and muttering to themselves. It’s dark—they apparently hadn’t bothered to switch on the lights—and all Edgar can see of them is a very tall outline and unimaginably long hair.

“Er,” Edgar starts, and nearly falls over backwards when they whirl around to stare at him with blank gray eyes. He fumbles around and manages to hit the light switch, to which the—man?—groans at and shuffles away from. “Uh… Um… Hello?”

The man gives him a dull look, lifting a hand to shelter his eyes from the light. “Could you switch it off? I’ve been itchy all day. Sunlight rarely penetrates the surface.”

“I… Alright.” Edgar turns the lights off, plunging them back into the darkness—thankfully, there’s just enough moonlight coming in through the window to give Edgar a vague idea of where he’s going when he steps to open the fridge and grab some fruits to placate the raccoon scrabbling at his leg and pestering for food. “So… erm… who are you?” What are you, more like, he thinks of asking, but that’d be rude. Not his fault he can’t immediately understand what the man is saying, though.

“Lovecraft.” He tears open a bag of sliced bread and proceeds to chew on the heel without regard for how it’s, well, the heel.

“I-I haven’t heard of you before. Are you a new member?”

“Member?”

“Of… Of the Guild?”

Lovecraft cocks his head until it makes a nearly 90 degree angle with his neck. It’s disturbing, to say the least. “Oh, the Guild. That’s what you call your organization.”

“Uh… Yes.”

“I suppose I am.” He rights his head, much to Edgar’s relief. “Yes, your leader… your Fitzgerald… He needed my help with something. An ability user who can breathe underwater. He had me sign a contract and then—” Lovecraft stares into space, idly chewing on his bread, before continuing. “And then I did away with her.”

Edgar stares. “Her? The ability user?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Um… that’s… nice, I guess. So now you’re a member of the Guild?” Edgar looks down when Karl makes grabby hands at him, and frowns when he sees the entire apple gone, core tossed carelessly to the side. “Stop littering.”

Foooood.

“What is that?” Lovecraft asks. He’s moved onto his second slice of bread, this one thankfully normal.

“He’s my raccoon. Karl.”

“Hmm.” Lovecraft steps forward, and Edgar has to resist the urge to back away. Something about the man unnerves him, and that’s probably because he doesn’t seem human at all. Still, he hasn’t done anything yet, so Edgar supposes he can’t be a totally bad person. Totally bad people don’t eat the heels in bags of sliced bread anyway. “Would he taste good?”

Karl squeaks in horror and ducks underneath the table, and Edgar immediately moves to stand in front of him. Right. Bad people probably ate raccoons as their midnight snacks. “Definitely not,” Edgar manages, keeping his voice as level as possible. He doubts he could beat this man in a real fight—something about how he had ‘did away’ with the ability user Fitzgerald had sent him after sends chills down Edgar’s spine. “I wouldn’t recommend eating people’s pets in general, really.”

Lovecraft blinks. “Why?”

“W-Why?” Edgar hopes his utter confusion shows in his expression. “Well, because they’re… people’s pets. I mean… you’d be sad if you had a dog and someone ate it.”

“I ate a dog once,” Lovecraft says. Edgar feels something in his head snap. “It wandered too far into the ocean and was about to die. I thought I might as well. Too chewy, though.”

“I… uh… right.” The ocean. So he came from the ocean. So I have to suspend my disbelief and accept that this… person… is some kind of merman. Or… whatever. “Okay, well, that’s… that’s a little more acceptable. You didn’t know better. But, uh, make sure to ask, you know. Before eating something that people usually don’t treat as food.”

Lovecraft lifts his third slice of bread. “In that case, is it alright to eat this?”

“Y-Yes.” Edgar has to resist the urge to let out a relieved sigh. The conversation is, at least, less morbid and not about eating his raccoon. “Though people usually put some kind of spread on it. For more flavor, since bread is bland on its own.”

“Spread?”

“Things like… like cheese, or peanut butter, or whatever.” When no spark of recognition lights up Lovecraft’s face—not that Edgar had been exactly expecting it—Edgar coughs and decides he might as well do this. “Do you… want to try? It can make bread better or worse for you, depending on your preference.”

Lovecraft watches him in silence as Edgar retrieves a jar of peanut butter from one of the cabinets and spreads the condiment across the slice of bread. He doesn’t know why he’s doing this, but it feels much the same as before, in his tiny Midtown apartment, learning how to cook dinner so Lucy (then Montgomery) could eat something other than the Guild’s scraps and KFC takeout. “You can also toast it, some people like it more that way,” Edgar babbles, saying anything that comes to mind—he figures Lovecraft could use every tidbit of information he can get, anyway. “And you can put more than just spreads. Like… lettuce or something.”

“Lettuce.”

“D-Do you know what that is?”

Lovecraft appears deep in thought for a few seconds. “Dryer seaweed?”

“Um… yes, you could say that. Here.” Edgar hands him the peanut butter sandwich, and Lovecraft takes it in his hands with unexpected care. “Try it.” Karl clambers up to rest on his shoulders and chitters in his ear, complaining about how he wants a peanut butter sandwich too, but Edgar hushes him.

Lovecraft takes a bite that reduces the sandwich to nearly half of its original size, and chews with complete concentration. Then his eyes light up, and for a moment they appear less dull gray and more—Edgar searches his head for a sufficient enough metaphor for the color he sees, and comes up with nothing. Still, they’re a happy color, one that tells Edgar he’s done something right, even if it’s as small as making some underwater creature a peanut butter sandwich. “This is good,” Lovecraft declares. He finishes the rest of it in under a minute, and gives Edgar another piercing stare. “Thank you very much.”

“Er, you’re welcome.”

“How many of those can I eat until it stops being socially acceptable?”

Edgar chances a glance at the bag of sliced bread. “M-Maybe three more?”

“Three.” Lovecraft nods, and approaches the bread. “You humans have so many odd laws and standards. Underwater there’s nothing but the fish and the seaweed, and they make much better conversation than the rest of you combined.”

Edgar’s not sure if he’s supposed to be offended by that, but he can’t really bring himself to care when Lovecraft is speaking in such a matter-of-fact tone.

“Even being aboard this… whale… of yours feels unnatural. A living creature now turned into one of your infinite machines.” He reaches for the peanut butter jar and gives it a curious look. “And up here on the surface, I won’t be able to receive much tribute either. Still,” he murmurs, “I suppose underwater doesn’t have peanut butter sandwiches.”

Karl complains long and loud enough that Edgar gives in and pours him a bowl of cereal to shovel in his mouth while Edgar gets back to work on the book. He scribbles away mindlessly, focused on finishing the entire thing without accounting for errors and other details—those he can go back to in the editing process—but his thoughts are mostly on how Lovecraft had lit up upon trying peanut butter for the first time.

I wonder, he thinks, almost bitterly, if I can ever do that to anyone else again. Make them happy without thinking about it. It certainly isn’t something he’s ever done, or thinks he’ll be able to do again—but he thinks about Louisa, and Lucy, and maybe Fitzgerald, too, and sighs.

On some cool autumn day, Fitzgerald invites himself into Edgar’s room with a grin that could power the entire continent. “Poe!”

Edgar looks up from the book. It’s coming together, more or less. (He finds himself thinking about those infuriating green eyes rather than Royster, more or less.) “Fitzgerald. Is there, um, a new mission?” He doubts it, considering the strangeness of the situation, but it’s worth a try.

Fitzgerald crosses his arms. “On a day like this? On the day? Never! Did you even realize we’ve stopped? We—” He unfolds his arms and spreads them dramatically, like he’s giving some soliloquy onstage, “—are in Alabama!”

“Um…” Edgar blinks. “Okay.”

“Do you even know what day it is today.”

“Er, Tuesday?”

“No, I mean, the date!

“Oh. October 26.” Keeping track of the date had been an old habit back in Portsmouth, when the cheap calendar tacked up on the wall had talked to him everyday about the most mundane topics. Knowing the month and day is calming, somewhat, because it’s something not even he can get wrong.

“It’s not just October 26, old sport,” Fitzgerald says, sounding immensely disappointed. “It’s Scottie’s day!”

Edgar knows who that is, at least—he’s not a complete idiot. “It’s your daughter’s birthday?” That explains why they’re in Alabama, too; someone, probably Fitzgerald himself, had told him that Zelda and their daughter live there. Belatedly, Edgar realizes they do stop in Alabama twice every year, once during the summer and another time in autumn, but he had never bothered to find out why—he had mostly assumed it had something to do with business, as with all things the Guild is related to.

Fitzgerald beams. “Finally. I realize you’ve been a member for, what, two years now? But you’ve never been to one of my daughter’s birthday parties!”

Edgar feels his heart drop somewhere around his stomach. Birthday parties. That means people. Loads and loads of people. And children. Loads and loads of children. “Um—”

He doesn’t get to protest; Fitzgerald is digging in his pocket for something, and only when Edgar hears the familiar murmur of money bills does he realize what Fitzgerald is doing. “So! Go ahead and buy her a birthday gift and be at our place by six. I told the guards to shoot any latecomers, so it’d be best to come on time.”

“Oh, uh, this really—i-isn’t necessary, I have—”

“Take it!” Fitzgerald pushes the wad of cash closer until it’s underneath Edgar’s nose and he has no choice but to gingerly do so. “There you go, some pocket money, I have enough of it as it is. Use it for a present and do whatever you want with the rest. Go have some fun and sun! More on the latter, since you look like you desperately need it.”

“B-But—”

“We’ll be here until eight in the morning tomorrow, so I advise you take advantage of the free time while you have it.” Fitzgerald smiles again—it’s so genuine that it almost hurts to look at. “Come on, old sport! You’re always locked up in here, it can’t possibly be healthy for you, and I don’t count going out for missions. Scottie’s excited to meet all of you, and absolutely no one will be skipping out.”

Eventually, Edgar gives in and asks Louisa what she’s doing, but she mumbles something about feeling ill and sleeps for the rest of the day until the party, which isn’t unusual—he’s fairly sure she does that whenever Fitzgerald tries to urge her into coming out and deal with crowds and strangers, and she’s not so forgetful as to not get Scottie, practically her niece, a birthday gift. Lucy drags him to go shopping with her, and though Edgar winds up being a glorified shopping-bag-rack, he does indulge and buy a pair of boots with the loveliest heels he’s seen, sharp and pointed and likely to hurt if he ever has to kick someone.

Lucy gives them an incredulous look. “How can you walk in those things? Much less run? They can’t be useful during missions.”

“I walk in them fine. Not that much different from normal shoes.”

“Hmm. If you say so. You wear them well anyway.” She turns and tugs on his wrist to pull him into another store—Edgar takes a seat while Lucy sifts through the oddest dresses. He hadn’t had to defend himself for wearing heels because he’s a boy, Edgar realizes. Just their practicality. And she’d even complimented him on them.

Dudes don’t wear stilettos, Griswold’s voice echoes in his head, derisive and disdainful as always. On his shoulders, Karl noses his cheek, as if he hears it too, and coos something Edgar doesn’t understand—he sighs and leans in to the touch, and figures he doesn’t need to.

When Lucy decides she’s done hoarding clothes, they drop the shopping bags in Anne’s Room and set off to look for birthday gifts. Lucy raids accessory stores, but Edgar is lost as to what a toddler would like, so he settles for a stuffed raccoon because it looks admirably like Karl, who huffs upon seeing it. He’s sorely tempted to buy one for himself, if only because the money Fitzgerald had given him is enough for ten of the things, but he tucks the bills away in his bag and gets just the one.

Lucy leads the way to the party, where half the guests are uncomfortably-shifting Guild members and the other half are screaming children and their parents, gossiping with Zelda while Scottie tears presents open with ravenous hunger. Edgar realizes he hadn’t wrapped his almost as soon as he steps into the golden, glittering mansion, and has to hide his embarrassment when he has to give the raccoon doll to Scottie gift-wrap-less. “Er, hello. Happy birthday, Scottie.” How does one talk to children? Can Scottie even understand him?

Evidently she does, because she seizes the doll with the same fervor she had opened the rest of her presents. “Cat!” she squeals.

“Oh, it’s, uh, it’s a raccoon, actually,” Edgar meekly corrects.

Scottie frowns at him with an unbelievably disapproving air. “Cat,” she repeats, more insistently.

Edgar holds his hands up. “Okay. Cat.” Beside Scottie, Fitzgerald is visibly stifling a laugh; only Edgar’s reflexes keep him from glaring up at the man.

“What’s your name?” Scottie asks.

“Edgar Poe.”

“Mr. Poe.” Her voice is clear, none of her words mumbled or slurred like another child might, and Edgar vaguely wonders if that’s Fitzgerald’s handiwork. He’s always telling Edgar to speak up, because being loud and clear gets the message across easier in business deals and helps establish that he’s the one with the power. Whatever that meant. “Nice to meet you. What do you do? What’s your ability?”

“Um, I like to write. I can bring readers into novels.”

Scottie’s eyes widen to the size of dinner plates. “Can you bring me into a book?”

Edgar doesn’t have to look at Fitzgerald for an answer. “Maybe when you’re older.” Mercifully enough, Scottie doesn’t cry or protest, only nods seriously before moving on to the next Guild member, who happens to be Lucy. She’s a lot better than Edgar is with children, that’s for sure, and so Edgar retreats to a corner of the room to awkwardly tap away at his phone until Scottie’s bedtime. (He declines a slice of birthday cake; too sweet.)

In the Moby Dick, Edgar walks Lucy back to her room for no reason other than she’d asked him to, and watches blandly as she and Anne sort her newly-bought clothes. When Lucy looks up to him and his blank stare, she frowns and says, “You didn’t do much, did you?”

“I think I did plenty, really.”

“No, for yourself. You just bought those boots and that was it! Isn’t that boring? Go out and, I dunno, buy a notebook or something. Or a fountain pen, whatever. All you ever do is sit in your room and… what do you even do in there? It has to be boring.”

Edgar’s brow furrows. “I write. I do what I joined the Guild for.”

“Ugh. You’re always writing for that Chinese detective, it’s so gross.” She rolls her eyes. Edgar can’t believe this. It’s like watching his daughter talk back to him. “No one has that much energy to focus on a single person so much. You must really like him.”

“Wh—like? No!” Edgar squawks. “The opposite! I hate him! I hate him so much that I’m biding my time for the perfect opportunity to meet him again and enact my revenge! And he’s Japanese, not Chinese, there’s a huge difference.”

“You definitely like him.”

“You know what.” Edgar throws his hands up in defeat. “Next time, you can ask Louisa to go on a shopping date with you. I’m sure you’d prefer that.” He leaves to a flushed, sputtering Lucy, feeling both satisfied and ruffled.

Louisa hands him a file. “Mark Twain,” she tells him. “Nineteen years old. Sharpshooter—his ability apparently helps him shoot with perfect accuracy, but there are few details on what it actually is.” Edgar takes the profile—of all things, a selfie grins up at him from where a simple ID picture usually is. “It was a mugshot at first,” Louisa adds, probably upon seeing his expression, “taken when he was arrested less than a full year after he turned eighteen—then he escaped from prison and sent the police that, because he said the mugshot was, um, unflattering.”

So that’s the kind of person Edgar’s dealing with, then. He leans back, flips through the papers. Nineteen—he had been nineteen when he had run away from Father and wound up in Portsmouth. That’s six years ago, now, and three years since he’s become a member of the Guild, which means he’s twenty-five. Keeping track of time is calming, yes, but on some days it feels like a waste of effort when it only makes him realize how long it’s been since—that day, in Japan, and he’s still got hardly any content to show for his book. Then again, the days when keeping track of time feels like a waste of effort are usually the same days everything feels worthless, most of all himself.

He sighs. “Solo mission?”

“Y-Yes. Or you can bring Lucy? She’s been restless all week.” Louisa lowers her voice, as if afraid of being overheard, and adds, “I think she’s afraid she’s going to be thrown out or something, if we don’t assign her to more missions. But there’ve been so many negative reports that it’s a bit…”

“Worrying,” Edgar finishes, when Louisa seems unable to. She nods, not meeting his eyes, and Edgar places the file on a nearby table. He’s memorized most of it already. “There haven’t been a lot of missions that need confinement or prolonged torture so far. That’s how big the Guild’s name has gotten, hasn’t it?”

Louisa nods again—it’s meant to be good news, but Edgar can’t help but notice how she doesn’t seem very happy about it. “Too afraid to try anything, yes. It… It seems the Guild has been spreading further and further since Francis has taken over.”

“Were you here before…?”

“N-No. I joined because of Francis, really. I know Mr. Melville was the Guild leader two generations before, but that’s about it.” She fiddles with the hem of her blouse, a nervous habit she hasn’t done around Edgar in a while. “Anyway, we should be landing soon. Don’t get shot, please, and this is supposed to be a diplomatic mission, so.”

“If it’s diplomatic, why are you sending me to do it?”

“I d-don’t know who else,” Louisa mumbles. “F-Francis left me in charge for missions, said it’s important for me to do it, b-but I don’t know how, and, just…”

Edgar sighs and pats her wrist in their favorite form of reassuring physical contact, the briefest and lightest possible. “No, it’s fine, I’ll get it done. I’ll bring Lucy, too, get her out of your hair a while.” Though both of them together are probably the least diplomatic duo in the universe, he thinks. “Get some rest. I can ask Melville about it later, if you’d like.”

She sniffles. “T-Thank you. But I should do it myself. I-If I can’t even do that, what will Francis think…”

In a tiny, sparsely inhabited village in northeast Missouri, Lucy tramples up all the grass and weeds under her shoes when she runs around staring at everything. (Sixteen. She’s sixteen now. Edgar had taken his first five lives at that age, and she had done it years earlier.) “What’s up with this boring place? It’s like there aren’t any people in here,” she huffs.

“Better that way,” Edgar reminds her. This attitude is really, probably why everyone complains when she’s partnered with them on missions. “It might turn into a battle between ability users, you know.”

“Psh. He’s just got a couple guns or whatever. Nothing to—”

To her credit, Lucy reacts the exact same time Edgar does; he’s reaching for his papers when she whirls around, braids whipping in the wind behind her, and throws her hand out to absorb the whizzing bullet into an ornate, dollhouse-like door she conjures with a flick of her wrist, a trick she had been practicing in her spare time. It pays well now, when the bullet disappears with a vwip—Lucy closes her hand into a fist and the door swings shut and disappears. Someone laughs in the distance, obscured by the tall, waving grass.

“You don’t just shoot someone while they’re talking!” Lucy shouts. She gets another laugh for her troubles, and she growls at thin air. “Stupid… wish I could drop him into the Atlantic with my ability…”

“You probably can, with practice,” Edgar tells her. It isn’t a lie to placate her either, seeing as the idea seems plausible enough.

Lucy barks out a laugh, rough and darkly amused. “If we catch this idiot, I’m using him as practice. Since you’re so tough, I bet you can take it, huh?” The last part she shouts out into the field again, only to be met with unnerving silence this time.

Edgar keeps a firm hold of the paper in his hand, closes his eyes and tries to feel for life. Their mark is somewhere to the right, the exact opposite direction of where the bullet had come from, and he shifts his stance to prepare for another shot from there. But then—what if I’m wrong—and then something zooms in front of him and he snaps his eyes open on reflex to stumble backwards when the thing disappears again—Lucy shrieks and bats away another one of the things, but that disappears, too, only for a bullet to come flying for Edgar’s hand. He swears—the fact that it’s rubber is what he notices immediately, followed by the stabbing pain. His poem falls out of his grip, fluttering away into the wind. “No—” (Ten years old and on the streets, running running running and all his friends are leaving—)

A hand stretches out to snatch the paper out of the air, none too gently judging by the annoyed yell, and the marionnette-esque arm hands the poem back to him. Lucy grimaces as soon as he takes the paper, the arm zipping back into another door and popping out of existence—it’s then Edgar notices the bright red mark on her right hand. Her dominant hand, which he knows makes using her ability easier for her. I did that, he thinks. I hesitated again. “You’re welcome,” she snaps.

Edgar breathes, and figures it’s time to quit getting pushed around. The enemy had seen that. They’d seen my slip-up. They can use it to their advantage. “You’re getting good at your ability.”

“What? Oh, uh, I mean, um, thanks,” Lucy grumbles, folding her arms and looking away.

“Can you bring out more of those hands on my mark? Just two?”

“Two, huh.” She swallows, then nods. “Tell me when.”

“Shouldn’t be too long.” Edgar grips the paper again, closes his eyes, focuses—and, there, he can feel it, somewhere just behind them. Their target moves fast, it seems. Does their ability manifest in a physical form, he wonders, but doesn’t dwell when the paper hisses of a rapid movement. He waits a split second, feels the stalks of grass bend beneath a rush of air—what if I’m—no, I have to be right. “Now!”

The wooden arms shoot out—one hand catches a struggling thing and the other one manages to bat the second thing away, hard enough for it to hit the ground with an oomph. “Ahhh, let me go, stupid!” the—thing wails, slapping ineffectively at the wooden fingers clasped around it. It looks more like an innocent stuffed doll than a murder weapon, and the same can be said for the one twitching on the ground, though they’re dressed differently.

“He-ey, no fair, did you just nullify my ability?” someone shouts, sounding closer than the previous laughs this time. Lucy tenses, and the hand’s grip probably does too, because the doll flails and kicks even wilder. A barely-audible sigh, and then, “Come on… alright, alright, I give! I’m comin’ out!”

From the thick grass comes Mark Twain, orange hair a mess and clothes even worse. The toothy grin on his face is a bit too cheerful for someone who’s been defeated. “Hey-hey, you can drop Tom now. You win, you win.”

Lucy glances up at Edgar, who nods; the doll, Tom, flumps onto the grass unceremoniously, but with a blink it disappears and settles on Twain’s shoulder, brushing itself off and pouting. The other doll on the ground does the same, though it looks dizzier and almost falls off Twain’s other shoulder. “You two are real crazy,” he says, hands behind his head. “What’cha doing in lil’ old Florida for?”

Edgar slips his poem back into his coat pocket, both annoyed and relieved he hadn’t needed to exert himself or tuck another corpse into his notebook. I had been right, he thinks. I have to stop hesitating… I have to stop. Annoyingly enough, Twain’s eyes are a bright, emerald green. He sighs, and says, “Mark Twain, right? We’re from the Guild.”

Twain and Lucy bicker all the way to Twain’s house to collect his things, then bicker all the way back to the Moby Dick, then bicker whenever they’re in Anne’s Room, training their abilities against each other. “He’s the absolute worst,” Lucy declares, when the three of them are in Louisa’s room, helping sort files, “but he makes good target practice. The amount of times Anne’s caught him is laughable.” She sips her tea, looking very proud of herself.

“Is he your boyfriend?”

Lucy chokes on her tea. “What? Ew! Gross, no! Really, like, genuinely, no! Lou, come on!”

Louisa blinks. “I thought that happened naturally when a boy and a girl spend enough time together.”

“I mean, well, yeah, sometimes, but—” Lucy looks down at her teacup, scowling for reasons Edgar’s fairly sure he knows. “I don’t want a boyfriend. Guys are just… naturally stupid and smelly and boring. Most of them, anyway, Poe, you’re only boring and occasionally smelly.”

“That’d be because of Karl, for your information.”

“Okay? Whatever? Anyway, Lou, if you really think every boy-girl relationship is automatically romantic, you need to go out more. That’s like, some heteronormative stuff right there.”

Edgar frowns. “Where’d you learn that word?”

“The Internet?” Lucy shrugs. “Where else? You don’t think I learned it from Mr. Fitzgerald, do you?”

When Lucy isn’t having Anne use Twain as a punching bag, Edgar gets very unwanted visits from the two dolls, or whatever they really are. He’d been right, that they’re physical manifestations of Twain’s ability, and they help his shooting by locking onto targets and perform long-distance surveillance using their linked minds, but for some reason all Twain uses them for with Edgar is to mess up his room enough to get him to get up from his desk and have Karl set out to search for Twain. “What do you want?” Edgar sighs, the third time this happens.

Twain takes one look at him and bursts into laughter. “Dude, your hair! Oh, man, Tom did a number on you!”

Edgar blinks, and realizes the problem immediately—his vision is clearer than usual. With another long-suffering sigh, he reaches up and unclips his bangs. The hairpin, of course, is hot pink and Hello Kitty themed. “So? What is it?”

Twain shrugs. “Nothing. Just got bored, ‘cause the kid’s not around and everyone else is either lame or a weirdo. Do you know what’s up with that Lovecraft guy?”

“Let him be or he might eat you. That’s a genuine possibility.”

“Oh.” Twain ponders on that for a while, then says, “Sounds more fun than all this sitting around waiting for the big boss to hand me a mission. I thought the Guild was more action-packed? Like, bang bang, James Bond movies or Taken or something? Maybe some Kingsman stuff, with cool themed code names after historical figures and everything?”

Edgar blinks again. Half the time, he truly has no idea what Twain’s going on about. “Um… Well, sorry to disappoint. It’s better they don’t send you out. Less risk.”

“But more bore.” He sighs dramatically and leans against the wall, Huck sitting neatly atop his bird’s nest of hair. “Boring boring boooooring. Poe-poe—can I call you that?”

“N-No.”

“Poe-poe, got any puzzles I can work out? Just to keep me occupied ‘til the kid comes back from her mission? Unfair that she gets to go on missions more often now, by the way, I’m the reason she’s gotten so much better but I’m the one who gets left behind on this whale!”

Edgar pinches the bridge of his nose. He really doesn’t know why the guy can’t bother someone else, but then he supposes he can understand going to the few familiar people in a largely unfamiliar environment. “Do you want a book?”

“Hate reading.”

Puzzles… what could Edgar make him do that would benefit the both of them. “Know how to pick a lock?”

Twain brightens, and Edgar almost regrets saying that—the way his green eyes light up is too, too similar to… Forget him forget him forget him. “That’s like, what I’m best at! Aside from shooting, obviously. Is it a door on the whale? Do I get to know society secrets? Is it, like, a heist?

Edgar almost feels bad for the guy when he blows the dust off the metal box of poems that’s over a decade old and hands it over to him. Almost. Seeing the light die in his eyes is almost funny. “Have fun with that,” Edgar says, and settles down to write again.

He can’t focus well, though, even when Twain gets to work and is mostly silent save for some frustrated huffs and mutters—because Edgar had almost forgotten about that box, so old and so long ago that it feels like it had come from another world, one where Edgar hadn’t killed five children and dozens of adults yet, one where Royster hadn’t looked away and apologized when Edgar had tried to say those stupid words, one where Edgar hadn’t taken the plane to Japan and been beaten into the dirt by a pair of flashing green eyes and a smug smirk. Being ten years old had been so long ago, and Edgar has to set his pen down just thinking about it. Over a decade, nearing two, but he still remembers, painfully and vividly, how Da had stormed into his room and ripped his friends into shreds, the glow of his ability, the sudden absence of Da from the room, sucked into the poem of flowers that had urged him to run. His feet had bled for hours that night, after running on the streets for… he doesn’t even know how long.

“Got it.”

Edgar shakes his head, clears it of thoughts that won’t do him any good now. “What?”

“Got it,” Twain repeats. He holds the box above his head like it’s some kind of holy grail, and grins when Edgar’s eyes feel like they’re about to pop out of their sockets. “A good challenge! But nothing I couldn’t handle. What’s in here anyway?”

“I…” Edgar stumbles forward and draws the box close, cracking it open and not even flinching at the disturbed dust—he sifts through the papers still stacked neatly inside, fingers trembling when he lays his hands on them and hears their greetings, their yawns, long time no see, hey, what’ve you been doing, it’s been so long, you’re so big now!—recalls, vaguely, what each of them are about, and he can’t stop the sob that bubbles out of his throat when they whisper, we’ve missed you. “I missed you too,” he gasps, barely registering their bright, baby-blue glows under his hands. “I missed you—I missed you. I’m sorry, i-it took me so long to get back to you, I missed you…”

Twain, wisely, doesn’t say anything for a while, and Edgar closes his eyes, relishing in this moment, remembers the warmth of friends, of how it had felt like to play with them when he had been ten, when he had been a child who hadn’t known anything but the way using his ability had felt, letting his power flow from out of his fingertips and engulfing everything until he was in a world of his own making. When he had let his ability be a gift rather than a curse, when he hadn’t yet known it could be used to kill. He had thought he knew power—to create something out of nothing, worlds out of words, power from pencil.

When he can breathe again, he looks up at Twain and says, “Thank you.” He’s never meant it more.

“Uh, least I could do, I guess.” Twain shrugs and pulls up a grin. “We gotta help each other around here, right? Far as I can tell, not a whole lot of you guys are all that friendly. So, uh. Stick out for one another, all that? It’s how it is in my village, anyway, since we’re so small. We gotta fight together!”

It’s that easy confidence that has Edgar thinking of him, of that person, and those green eyes, and that contented grin. He murmurs a thank-you again, tells Twain that one of his papers has informed him of Lucy’s arrival, and closes the door when Twain races out of the room. He breathes, again and again, and then tucks the brittle papers into his notebook one by one—anywhere has to be more comfortable than that rusted box.

For Scottie’s fifth birthday, Fitzgerald lets her go aboard the Moby Dick, where she squeals and runs around and begs every Guild member she sees to play with her. No one dares say no, and Edgar suspects no one wants to—even Lovecraft lets her tug on the ends of his hair and makes her a peanut butter sandwich, though it’s probably a bit sloppier than she’s used to. Fitzgerald tries to discourage her, because she’s not supposed to eat anything that might aggravate her cough, but Scottie proceeds to stuff the whole thing in her mouth, to little success. Edgar has to help coax her into taking little bites after fetching a glass of water.

“Mr. Poe,” she says again, without needing prompting from Fitzgerald to remind her of his name. “Will you bring me into a book now? I’m already five!”

“Maybe next time,” Edgar dodges. Scottie puffs her cheeks out, but dissolves into a coughing fit before she can say anything, and Edgar has to dash for the water pitcher as Fitzgerald steadies her. “Is she alright?” Edgar asks, both out of concern and politeness.

Fitzgerald, in the number of years Edgar has known him, looks genuinely worried. It’s not that Edgar thinks the man’s never been worried in his life; it’s just that he’s never shown it so openly, so vulnerably, like this. If I were his enemy, Edgar thinks, I would have tried to kidnap his daughter a long time ago. “It came out of nowhere. The common cough, we think, but we’re taking her to a doctor soon if it keeps up. I hadn’t wanted to bring her here and have her exert herself, but I’d promised she’d get to come here before she got sick.”

“Get well soon,” Edgar says, when he turns to leave. “And happy birthday.”

“Will you write me something someday?” Scottie calls after him. Her voice is rough from all the coughing, but still startlingly clear. She’d make a good public speaker in the future, Edgar thinks.

“Of course. When you’re older.” If I’m still part of the Guild.

It can’t be more than a week afterwards when Louisa knocks on the door to his room and tells him, with red-rimmed eyes and in a hushed voice, that Fitzgerald is temporarily stepping down as Guild leader.

When she leaves, Edgar closes the book, drapes his coat over it as has become a habit, and lies on the bed again; he doesn’t even care that he disturbs the sleeping Karl, who sulks for five minutes before climbing back up to flop on his pillow. “After we drop Francis in Alabama tomorrow, the Guild will be led by Mr. Melville,” Louisa had said, all trembling voice and shaking hands clenched into fists. “I… I don’t know when Francis will be coming back.” They both let the words if he will be coming back stay unspoken, lingering in the air like the last note of an interrupted song.

Edgar had only met Scottie Fitzgerald twice, but both times she had been nothing but good. Mr. Poe. Edgar tries to imagine that high, clear voice, its owner with bright blue eyes and aristocratic features so reminiscent of her father, tainted and rusted by throat cancer.

The next morning, the familiar hum and rumble of the airship slows to a stop; Edgar wakes up, but does not bother to move. He closes his eyes and sees the hazy outlines of Fitzgerald leaping off the ship, accompanied by a dozen harried bodyguards, and rushing to where he assumes is the hospital they have his daughter confined in. Five years old. She’s but a child—a child everyone had had the highest of hopes for, had almost cared for like their own.

She is six when she dies and Fitzgerald returns to take up the position again. (It had been a long year of missions, running through the motions and shoving the what-if thoughts away as best as he could. On bad days, he locked himself in his room, lied in bed, skipped all three meals, and only remembered to shower late at night.) But he is far from the same man Edgar remembers him as, now pale and gaunt and with a new hunger in his eyes not unlike that of a predatory beast in the wild.

“There’s this book,” Fitzgerald says, when he calls Edgar and Louisa into his office. He paces back and forth, back and forth, until Edgar thinks his footprints have been etched into the plush carpet for history. “It’s said it can rewrite reality. Anything you put in it, it’ll come to life. No rules, no laws. Nothing’s impossible for it.”

“Francis—”

“You two are my best tacticians,” he interrupts; Louisa’s face falls, the interruption taking precedence over the almost-throwaway compliment. (It means they don’t want to listen to you, Edgar had begun believing, a long time ago.) “I need you to research on that book for me. Everything, anything you can find on it, anyone who can bring us closer to it. I don’t care how far we have to go, I’ll do anything—” He sucks in a breath through gritted teeth, the air just as tense as the rest of him. His gaze is fixed on the floor when he says, “Louisa. I’m appointing you Chief Strategist. You know what that means.” (That’s why he made her assign missions, Edgar realizes. Fitzgerald is a strict leader, but he had never forced Louisa to do anything she didn’t want to.)

Louisa makes a sort of strangled sound that Edgar doesn’t know how to label as anything else but a shocked, panicked squeak. “F-Francis? But—But there’ve been members who’ve been here f-for far longer than me, what will they—”

“No arguments. I trust you the most.”

Louisa swallows and ducks her head—that compliment definitely gets to her. “I… Um… T-Thank you. I-I’ll do my best.”

Fitzgerald nods, but his expression doesn’t change. “Poe. Chief Architect.”

Edgar freezes. “W-What?”

“Chief Architect. You’ll have to work with Louisa and Herman more than usual. Handle the Guild’s plans, blueprints, missions, everything. I’ll assign you some businesses we have overseas, too, check financial records and the like, make sure no one’s cheating on us.” He shakes his head. “You’ve both proven yourselves since you joined; I can’t say the same for many other members who I’ve let stay for longer. This should put you two in a better position to find out more about that book, whatever it is—you find it or you find it, I don’t care how. Understand?”

A book that can rewrite reality? Edgar’s already drafting a faux resignation letter in his head—there’s no way something like that exists, and searching every corner of the world for some hopeless wish isn’t something he wants to spend the rest of his life slaving away on. But—he looks at Fitzgerald’s face, still angled away from them, and thinks about how he’ll never be the same person who burst in Edgar’s room to encourage him to enjoy himself. Enjoy himself, like Edgar’s still worthy of that, of being happy despite taking so many lives who will never be able to be happy again. He looks at Fitzgerald’s face and sees Scottie’s eyes turning to look pleadingly at them.

“Understood,” he says, the same time Louisa does. What else is he supposed to say?

“Lovecraft—California.” Edgar hates to do this, but he’s the only one they have on hand at the moment; all the good diplomats are scattered throughout the rest of the world, sidling up to political figures who might know something about the book. “Recruitment mission. John Steinbeck.”

Lovecraft rotates his head again, which Edgar has learned is his substitute for stretching his neck. “Not a fight?”

“Please, no.” Edgar consults the rest of the missions they have on hand. “Louisa, do you think you can assign the rest of these?”

“M-Mm.”

“Alright.” He stands up, arranges the papers into a neat stack they thank him for (I just hate being messy like that, don’t you?), and manages a vague smile at Lovecraft, who doesn’t return it. “I’ll go with you.”

Salinas, California—Edgar brings them as far as a small river, depending on scattered newspapers and posters to give them directions, until he can’t hear a single voice above the rustling of the grass and wheat stalks around them. “Er, we’ll… just walk around a while,” he says, rather pathetically.

“Are we lost?”

“N-No! Of course not.” With so many missions coming from Fitzgerald and Melville but so few Guild members and even lesser time, Edgar had been preparing the bare minimum for everything just to get it all done. He and Louisa could only do so much, when neither of them were fit for leadership and could barely compose complete sentences most days; the Guild’s reputation had stayed stagnant after their promotion, dipping and ebbing but never rising. Maybe that was why some members had begun leaving, sneaking out of the Moby Dick whenever it landed for resources—that only dropped more missions on Edgar’s and Louisa’s laps. Lucy had more traitors and deserters hanging from the prison in Anne’s Room than any of them could count, and more corpses were tucked and slipped in Edgar’s notebook everyday.

It’s my fault, Edgar thinks, every night he stays up filing reports and every time he sees the bags under his and Louisa’s eyes darken. It’s my fault the Guild’s getting worse. The thoughts and doubts have started coming back at full force, too; he’s not surprised. My fault.

“Fine. We’re a little lost. B-But I can—I can—”

Can what, a voice in his head sneers, lead the both of you to get even more lost? You’re going to be wrong—wrong, wrong, wrong—

Lovecraft bends down, which Edgar notices somewhat belatedly, and dips his hand in the river, the ripples spreading further than expected for a mild touch. Fish dart away from him at lightning speed; oddly, all Edgar can think to say is, “I-I thought you said they made better conversation than us humans.”

“Exactly. They don’t talk at all.” Lovecraft closes his eyes—for a moment, he looks uncharacteristically serene instead of solemn and morose as he always seems to be on the Moby Dick. When he opens his eyes, he’s straightened up and pulled his hand out of the river, and then he points to the east. “That way. The farmer—Steinbeck.”

Edgar stares. “How did you…”

“The water.” He shrugs. “It tells me things.”

They catch John Steinbeck sitting with his back to them, out on the field using his ability, subtly enough that a quick glance would yield nothing out of the ordinary—a tree branch grows from his wrist and extends to the surrounding areas, wrapping around other trees and plants in an almost loving manner. Grape bunches sway lightly in the breeze. Edgar holds out an arm to stop Lovecraft from approaching further, in case Steinbeck might become violent, but Lovecraft stops of his own accord and stares at the scene instead, probably trying to glean something about human culture from this. The look on his face is oddly soft.

Edgar leaves him to that, and examines the situation. Can connect to other trees and plants (grapes grow through grafting) had been written on the profile. If that’s the case—oh. His mind is linked to them for sure, then.

“Who are you?” Steinbeck calls, as if waiting for the exact moment Edgar realizes that. “We don’t get a lot of visitors on the farm.”

“What are you doing?” Lovecraft asks, before Edgar can speak. “With your ability.”

“Listening.”

“To?”

“The trees.” Steinbeck turns to face them. His face is young, and his smile is genuinely, effortlessly friendly. “They have a lot to say.”

“Like?”

“They’re telling me you’re not human.” He tilts his head a bit, looking more curious than anything. “But I saw you. You were talking to the river. You’re…” He hesitates, his head dipping slightly when he speaks again. “You’re like me. Aren’t you?”

Steinbeck proves a valuable, reliable member fast—he keeps Twain occupied when the latter gets bored without Lucy, he’s one of the few Louisa can talk to without stuttering or running away after three sentences, and he and Hawthorne can talk about God and the Bible and the Holy Scriptures for hours on end. Not even Lucy can pretend to dislike him very much. Most of all, though, Lovecraft is comfortable with him; before, Lovecraft had stayed away from everyone else, hadn’t bothered forming friendships, and had gone on missions independently—he’d never needed a partner, like Edgar, when all he was sent for was to kill, which he did unfailingly. But Steinbeck provided him with some sort of constancy and friendliness to fall back on, and the way they spend more time with each other, with Steinbeck making Lovecraft peanut butter sandwiches and talking about the human world, doesn’t slip Edgar’s notice. Louisa assigns them to missions together more often than not—their clean success rate bounces upwards.

Edgar visits Steinbeck’s room, once, to inform him about the new mission assignment—he had been on his way to Lucy and had passed by. His words die in his throat, though, when he subconsciously strains his ears to listen for any threats behind the door and only hears Steinbeck, talking softly: “—but sometimes I miss home. I wonder how Winfield and Ruthie and Rosasharon are doing. I guess they have a bigger share of pie each, now that I’m not there and sending them money every week. Though the jobs are…” He sighs. “The crops, too. Do you know if they’re doing alright?” A pause, where Edgar pushes himself to hear something, but there’s only silence until Steinbeck speaks again. “Too far away, huh… It’s okay. Thanks.”

Edgar knocks. Steinbeck’s room is much the same as his, just cluttered with less papers and more potted plants, scattered everywhere from the foot of his bed to perched on his windowsill. He’s alone, too. “Did you get the reassignment?”

Steinbeck smiles. There it is again—that careless kindness. It’s almost jarring, the way he lets himself be so open and vulnerable to virtual strangers. There’s the belief that all the Guild members should treat each other like family, but aside from a select few, not once has Edgar ever thought that to be true. “Yep. Thanks, Poe.”

“If you don’t mind,” Edgar cautiously ventures, “were you, er… talking to someone before I entered?”

“Oh. Yeah, to the plants.” He makes a general sweeping gesture at the countless potted plants in the room—Edgar notices, a little late, that he’s holding one in hand, the plant there barely more than a sapling. “You know that, right? That I can talk to them. You… were there.”

Edgar nods; he tries for a polite smile, but his muscles don’t even twitch. He hasn’t found a lot to smile about, lately. “Yes.”

“Right.” He turns away—his grip on the pot becomes just the slightest bit tighter. “I’m not planning on leaving the Guild or anything like that. I understand it’s a lifelong commitment unless I gain the boss’ good favor, and the pay is good for the family.”

“And the work?”

Steinbeck visibly flinches, and guilt immediately floods Edgar’s gut—he hadn’t meant for his voice to come out so… odd. Almost like a snake utilizing the split-second moment its prey lets its guard down to strike. “I’m sorry. I’m not going to—I won’t—”

“No, it’s fine, I—”

“I understand,” Steinbeck cuts in, voice shaking, “that—that the Guild doesn’t do what’s good. The Guild does what needs to be done. That’s what the boss said, right? It’s—It’s not what we want. It’s what’s needed.” He breathes out, a long sigh that seems to go on forever, until he looks up at Edgar again with an apologetic expression. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to get all… that in front of you.”

“It’s alright. I…” Edgar shrugs. He’s flat out of words. “I understand, too.”

Steinbeck smiles again, shaky but still painfully genuine, and he holds the pot in his hands out. “Do you accept gifts? This little guy’s just been born. Pecteilis radiata—the fringed orchid. He said he likes books, so maybe you could read to him or something. Ah, not to be overbearing or anything.”

Edgar blinks. He’s never taken care of a plant before—he had mostly assumed anything he touched would wither and die, and he’s almost surprised when the sapling doesn’t do exactly that when he takes it in his hands. “S-Sure. Thank… Thank you.”

“He says thanks, too.” Steinbeck looks back down at the plant, the smile on his face growing softer. It’s the same look Edgar’s seen him give Lovecraft sometimes, when the other man isn’t looking. “I read this somewhere, before. If speaking kindly to plants helps them grow, imagine what speaking kindly to humans can do. Don’t you think we all need that?”

Edgar places the sapling on his table, the holes at the bottom of the pot trailing soil everywhere. But whenever he has the time to sit down and write the book, he makes sure to read passages aloud, ignoring the little snorts and scoffs the paper makes. When it blossoms into a beautiful white flower, he thinks of Mother and her voice, calling him her darling and her gift from God; he thinks of his flowers, telling him to run.

Run where? he asks, when he’s watering the orchid, droplets running down its leaves. I’ve been running and running and running and now I don’t know how to stay. Where do I run next? Will I ever be home again, Mother?

The Moby Dick docks on Atlanta, Georgia for a business conference Fitzgerald attends to—it’s the only thing he does by himself nowadays. Before the airship lands, he calls Edgar and Louisa to his office and tells them, staring listlessly at his phone, “You’ll be picking up a new member here. Margaret Mitchell. Her family promised her to us as soon as she turned nineteen, to pay back the debt they owed us for lifting their business out of bankruptcy.”

“T-They sold us their own family member?” Louisa had asked.

Fitzgerald shrugs. “They were poor, and she’s an ability user. Non-combatant, though, as far as I can tell, but I thought the same thing for you, Louisa. Assign someone to pick her up—no need for diplomacy, she knows we’re coming.”

Without much information on Mitchell’s whereabouts, Louisa gently informs Hawthorne that he’ll have to look for her and ask around, but it “s-shouldn’t be that hard, her family’s s-supposed to be well-known…” Hawthorne had looked annoyed, likely because he had been deep in prayer (or whatever, but Edgar tries not to think that), but he had conceded easily enough. With most of the other Guild members milling out in the city to enjoy the free time while they can, Edgar takes the chance to stay in bed and sleep well until early afternoon.

He only grudgingly wakes up when someone bangs on his door, mostly because he knows who it is before Lucy shouts, “Poe! Let’s go out! Lou’s with Mr. Fitzgerald again.”

Edgar grumbles and pulls a pillow over his head to muffle the incessant knocking. He only gets up, incredibly reluctantly, when Lucy threatens him with “You know I’ve gotten better at opening doors under people!”

Their shopping trip doesn’t last long, to Edgar’s relief—he had caved in and bought himself a new coat, and the jacket on display in the nearby discount store had been starting to look very tempting. “Streets are all empty,” Lucy notes, crossing her arms despite the ludicrous amount of shopping bags hanging off of them. “But it’s the middle of the day. Hey, use that genius brain of yours and figure out what’s going on.”

“What? Oh.” Edgar tears his gaze away from the jacket and strains his ears to tune into the distant clamor that he had subconsciously turned into white background noise. Lucy taps her foot impatiently. “There’s some sort of fight. Strangely windy, too.”

“What’s the weather got to do with this?”

“It’s not natural.” He listens to the banners flapping wildly in the air, the crumpled papers tumbling along the pavement, the posters struggling to stay stuck against the gale. “They’re bothered by something—no. Someone.”

Lucy has Anne take care of their shopping bags before Edgar leads them to the source of all the noise. A jostling, raucous crowd is gathered around, of all places, a newspaper agency building—Edgar gets distracted by the too-familiar sound of rustling, murmuring articles, information rocketing back and forth, complaints on typos left by their rushing writers and careless copyreaders. He can almost imagine being back in that office cubicle, sharing a desk with—with—

“Ow!”

“Why are you so distracted today? Sheesh!”

Edgar frowns. “You didn’t have to step on my foot. That’s usually rude, Lucy.”

“Whatever!” Lucy elbows her way through the crowd, a favorite tactic of hers whenever she’s with Edgar—pushing and shoving isn’t his style, so all he does is follow and serve as an effective deterrent for anyone who might want to elbow an arrogant eighteen-year-old back. Karl whimpers and hides in Edgar’s work bag the moment Edgar starts wading through the crowd; he’s never liked other people if they didn’t feed him.

—get that interview with that so-called attorney? He’s utterly wicked, is what he is.

Ugh, I know, I was with you, remember? So sleazy. He sold his daughter to the Guild and made a big fuss about it being an accident. How do you sell your daughter by accident!

It’s the prejudice on ability users, my writer’s doing a feature article on it. And she’s the daughter you two are talking about so loudly, so could you please hush up!

Oh, you’re always gossiping with the other papers, don’t get all uppity with us—

Poe!” Lucy hisses, grinding her heel on his foot—Edgar spits out a curse and tries to tune back into the situation he’s in now, but their voices are so, so familiar and—he misses them, misses that office cubicle and that desk and—“Stop spacing out, come on,” Lucy says, the irritation in her voice bleeding out to concern. “Are you feeling sick or something? You should’ve said something earlier—”

“It’s n-nothing, I just—it’s the communication thing.” But he’d caught something important—about their new member, supposedly, if the subject of the articles’ conversation is the same, and it probably is. Lucy gives him an uncertain look before she goes back to tiptoeing in a vain effort to see over people’s shoulders; Edgar just tilts his chin up a bit, and almost trips backwards when he catches sight of honey-brown hair, unusual lavender eyes, and a white parasol—folded and closed, thank goodness, but with the way the situation seems to be going, Edgar doubts it will stay that way for long. “Lucy, back.”

“What?”

“Stay back.” Hawthorne—where’s Hawthorne, he was supposed to get her—

“I am not a witch!” Mitchell screams—she jabs her index finger into a well-dressed man’s chest, pushing her face closer to him in the sharpest, most powerful manner Edgar’s ever seen. “Call me that one more time—one more time, and I will make you sorry you ever dared—

“What else are you but a witch, you damned ability user!” another person from the crowd shouts—Mitchell whirls around in the voice’s general direction, the hand gripping onto her parasol twitching as if to jab it into their eye, but more people spit witch, hiss ability user, sneer devil, insult after scathing insult landing at her feet.

The anger on Mitchell’s face cracks, the first hints of fear beginning to show through—the well-dressed man she had been arguing with leans in, a smug grin on his face, and murmurs something under his breath that only Mitchell can hear. And just like that—her parasol snaps open, her fear abruptly disappears, and the wind picks up to a thunderous roar that has the man tripping and falling on his behind. “You—dare—speak to me that way!” she snarls; rage drips from every syllable. “You can call me an ability user, a witch, the devil herself—perhaps that’s what I am! Maybe it’s what God meant for me to be! But never—I will never—

“Stop! Don’t—Don’t use your—this ability—”

“I’ll turn you to a mummy if I have to,” she bites out. The frills on her parasol are barely even fluttering in the cyclone that’s beginning to pick up—the crowd is scattering, wisely enough, until only Lucy, Edgar, and a number of stragglers are left, trying to support themselves on the nearest lamp posts and fire extinguishers. “Or down to dust. How would you like that, Upshaw, how would you like to remember that money and wine mean absolutely fucking nothing when you’re ash in the wind!”

“You wouldn’t,” Upshaw—Edgar supposes that’s his name—spits, bravado bouncing back despite being in the center of a veritable whirlwind. “You wouldn’t kill me. Your family’s wrecked enough as it is—your father’s a disgrace and a degenerate! You’ve been sold—” His lips curl up in a terrible sneer, “to a society of criminals. Imagine that, the great Margaret Mitchell, a Guild mem—”

He’s cut off by a shriek of pain, and it takes Edgar a second, distracted as he is by the incredible effort it’s taking him to stay on his feet, to realize that it’s Upshaw himself, screaming and screaming and screaming—dust is flying in his eyes but Edgar forces them to stay open and look for what in hell is making Upshaw screech like the devil’s upon him. And then he sees it—the fingers on his left hand, turning gray and brittle until they’re just more dust spinning in the hurricane around them. “I wouldn’t kill you, Upshaw?” Mitchell hisses. It’s faint and covered up by fury, but Edgar can hear the tremble in her voice, can just barely see the tenseness in her shoulders not caused by anger. “Try me. I wouldn’t kill you? Are you so sure about that?”

Stop her. I have to stop her, Edgar thinks, but that’s a vague wish at best—he’s spending all his effort just trying to stay standing. His bag is securely shut, the last hasty action he had made right before Mitchell’s parasol had opened, and he can spot Lucy’s distinct red hair just across him, twin braids flapping in the wind, so he knows nothing’s at risk—except, of course, for the man’s life. He doesn’t have to listen closely to hear the whining of police car sirens above the wind, and if Mitchell kills Upshaw right where the police can see it—well. Edgar doesn’t care much for Upshaw, considering he hadn’t known the man had existed until five minutes ago, but—he’s seen that look on Mitchell’s face before, the one of someone flitting from kill him to spare him and back to kill him again.

He knows how far anger can drive a person, and he knows how violent their ability can get. (It doesn’t know what’s right from wrong. It’s protecting her.) And yet—and yet, how can he even hope to stop her now? Even if he could bring out a poem or any sheet of paper, he seriously doubts he can keep it from being swept away by the wind (like before, like before). I can’t do anything, he thinks, feeling his grip on the lamp post slackening. It’s hopeless. I can’t… I can’t… I’m useless again, if only, if only I acted faster, if only I realized faster—if only I was as smart as—

“Poe!” Lucy. Her hair is like a flag of fire behind her. “Any ideas? The police are coming real quick!”

Ideas? You’d ask me? Edgar thinks, bitterly and almost angrily—Ranpo would have ideas, Ranpo would know what to do, Ranpo Ranpo Ranpo. Everything comes back to him in the end, and Edgar hates it, how he can’t stop thinking about piercing green eyes and rapidfire intelligence in a situation like this. “I—I don’t know,” he stammers, eventually, looking away so he wouldn’t have to see Lucy’s face fall. “I d-don’t know, I don’t—”

“Police!” someone is shouting—Edgar can just make out the click of guns, the sirens blaring right behind them now. When he turns, he can see silhouettes of at least a dozen policemen, their guns aimed at Mitchell’s general direction. “Hands where we can see them, ability user! Stop using your ability now—we’re armed!” But Mitchell is further away, and Upshaw is still screaming, most of his hand now completely disintegrated, and Edgar can’t think, can only recall how the police saying we’re armed to a rogue ability user means their bullets are coated in nullifying agents, stuff that had taken the Guild’s best spy to steal, stuff that would kill Mitchell in under a second—and he can’t think, he can’t let this happen, he can’t have a to-be Guild member be killed like this when he’s right here but he can’t think and everything is happening too fast—

Something tangy and metallic stings the air. Blood. Edgar assesses himself and Lucy first—no injuries he can see—and then Mitchell and Upshaw. Neither are bleeding, though the latter is clearly still being turned into dust, slowly but surely. Blood—he turns. The police had been standing behind them, just seconds ago, and now they’re nothing but crumpled bodies on the ground. Blood. He shuts his eyes. It isn’t normal, and it isn’t natural, like the winds he had felt only minutes ago. An ability.

When Edgar reopens his eyes, a flash of red cuts a path through the whipping wind, splitting it apart like—an apt metaphor would be like Moses and the Red Sea, because Hawthorne’s blood has knocked Mitchell’s parasol out of her grip. The cyclone dies in the next second, howling gales devolving to a gentle breeze. Edgar collapses; on the other side of the street, Lucy manages to stay standing, and Edgar catches a flicker of amusement in her eyes when she looks at him.

“Let go.” Mitchell’s voice is acidic—Edgar imagines the words dropping down on the pavement, seeping into the cracks and breaking the concrete down. She jerks her wrist, where the whip of blood has curled around, looking tight enough to hurt. “I’m not finished with him.”

Upshaw whimpers, pathetically, tears streaming down his cheeks. His hand is gone up to just below his elbow—there’s no sign of anything else after that, the wind having literally carried his hand away, flesh and blood and bone.

Hawthorne’s eyes narrow, the perpetual furrow in his brow practically screaming disdain. “You’ve done enough, Margaret Mitchell. More police are on the way—if I had been a second later,” he snaps out, cutting off whatever Mitchell had opened her mouth to say, “the men here would have shot you with nullifying bullets. I assume someone like you has never experienced how that feels.”

The glare Mitchell shoots at him is all the answer she needs to give, countering distaste with distaste. Hawthorne scoffs. “I’m from the Guild. Come. And hurry—I’d rather not kill more innocent men only doing their job.” He gives Edgar a disgusted look, as has become his habit, and completely ignores Lucy—the blood whip tugs on Mitchell’s wrist, and she gives Upshaw’s crumpled form one last jab with her parasol before hurrying to follow.

In the wake of the unnatural cyclone, the sudden silence is jarring—Lucy stumbles over to help Edgar up and grouse about Hawthorne’s manners. Edgar focuses on breathing—he breathes and breathes until the air in his lungs feels normal again, untainted by the anger Mitchell had infused into the very oxygen, and unzips his bag. A shaking Karl scrambles to settle on his shoulders again. What was that? That wasn’t normal weather!

“No, it wasn’t,” Edgar murmurs—he lets Lucy pet Karl, who leans into the touch, before scratching the raccoon under his chin. “It wasn’t at all.”

The way back to the Moby Dick is a mess, because the winds had stirred everything up from trash cans to entire trees, and Lucy has to open up more than a few doors just to get them from one place to another without having to climb over fallen tree trunks. (It’s then that Edgar realizes he could have asked Lucy to open a door up underneath Mitchell, both to stop her and to keep her safe from the police—but of course he only sees this now, when the case is closed by a different detective.) Then there’s the matter of the police cars racing up and down the roads, searching for any sign of Mitchell or ‘a man dressed in religious clothes’—an incredibly unhelpful passerby informs them that he had seen the duo going to one of the ports, where the Moby Dick is waiting underwater—when Edgar and Lucy get there, a crowd of policemen have arrived before them, guns cocked at Hawthorne, standing in front of Mitchell, both of them being pushed further and further back until they’re inches away from the water.

I can’t help them, Edgar thinks, until Lucy smacks him on the arm and hisses, “What now?” And—just, I have to help them. I have to.

Edgar thinks. He takes in information faster than he’s thought possible before—the strength and direction of the wind, the probability of Hawthorne killing all of the policemen with his Scarlet Letter before they shoot and kill him (extremely low), the capabilities of Mitchell’s ability, the location connections in Anne’s Room. He thinks and thinks and acts.

He sticks his hand in his bag, expecting to have to dig around to search for it, but the paper flutters into his grip like it had been waiting—Edgar sets it free into the air with a please-and-thank-you, resisting an irrational smile when it primly complains about being put to work again, and the poem flaps with wing beats like a raven’s, following the wind heading for Hawthorne and Mitchell’s direction. Mitchell notices it immediately, likely due to a natural sensitivity to the wind, and her eyes follow it as it circles back to where Edgar and Lucy are. She whispers something to Hawthorne until he looks at them, too, keeping one eye on the police surrounding them and the other on Edgar, expression shifting from desperation to distrust admirably quickly. If you had been a little faster, Edgar can almost hear, maybe this mission—

He swallows. “Lucy.” Not now. Not now. Never again.

Lucy grits her teeth and extends her arm, twisting her wrist in a sharp flick and then clenching her fist—Edgar can almost feel it, how the power flows right out of her fingertips and bursts to life. A door opens up beneath Hawthorne and Mitchell—Hawthorne just manages to grab a shocked Mitchell and pull her down into the closing doors right before the police start shooting and yelling at thin air. “A little more,” Edgar murmurs, touching Lucy’s arm for the briefest of seconds; she exhales hard, then does the same action with her other arm, and then they’re falling to smack right onto Anne’s cupped palms.

“You did it,” Edgar says, softly. He almost forgets that Hawthorne and Mitchell are arguing behind them.

Lucy turns away to pat Anne’s cheek, and for a moment Edgar wonders if she hadn’t heard him, but then she ducks her head and grumbles, “Thanks.” Then she hops off Anne’s hands, despite the large distance to the floor, which distorts and rises up to meet her feet as if she’s simply stepping off a chair. Edgar blinks in fascination, and jumps off to do the same—he narrowly avoids twisting his ankle. “You’re welcome, you two,” Lucy says, without malice.

Mitchell breaks off from what had sounded like a very lively insult about Hawthorne’s clothes. “And—but you’re just a child! You’re a Guild member?”

“I’m eighteen, I’m legal!” Lucy seethes. “And I’ve been in the Guild for seven years now, so of course I’m a member! Age isn’t everything, lady!”

“You don’t look eighteen,” Hawthorne points out, sounding oddly calm.

“Was not talking to you,” Lucy snaps. “Where’s my thank-you? I just saved your lives!”

Mitchell is already wandering around. “This is your ability? An alternate dimension?” She lets out a surprised ‘oh!’ when Anne drifts closer to her, the doll’s head tilted in what looks like inquiry. “And you… are charming. I did not expect the Guild to have children with them when my father…” She breaks off there, and doesn’t bother continuing, though she does shake Anne’s much larger hand.

Hawthorne glances over at her, snorts, and then looks down at Lucy. “Fine. Thank you. Whose idea was it—Poe?” His gaze slides over to Edgar almost grudgingly, as if even just looking at him would give Hawthorne a headache.

Edgar shifts uncomfortably, and doesn’t meet Hawthorne’s eyes. (He doesn’t want to see piercing green in place of deep violet.) “Y… Yes.” Then, when he can’t stand how his stutter must sound to the other man, “Yes. It was.”

Hawthorne looks mildly surprised. “So you’ve gotten less slow since last time.”

“I—That was—” Edgar sighs, breathes in and out until the sentences aren’t threatening to fall out of his mouth all at once. “I was distracted. I know that. I didn’t want to be, but I had a problem with something and I let it overtake me. It was my fault the mission failed because you trusted me.” The words feel like rocks—dropping down to clunk and clank noisily on the floor of Anne’s Room. “I’m sorry. But I promise I’ll do better, and—I have been doing better. Like…”

“Like now,” Hawthorne finishes. Edgar manages a half-hearted nod. A pause—Lucy has gone over to Mitchell and Anne, who seem to be getting acquainted with each other. “Fine,” Hawthorne sighs. “I’ve been unfair to you. Failing my first mission gave the boss a bad first impression of me, and I blamed that on you. But—” He makes a vague gesture with his hand—there’s an open cut on his wrist, Edgar notices, but the blood isn’t dripping out. The wound seems to be actively closing itself up, too. “It is in God’s word that we forgive no matter if we believe we shouldn’t. It’s been years, besides, and Fitzgerald has been…” Hawthorne trails off uneasily, before managing, “unstable, lately. I suppose we have to trust each other, no matter the situation.”

Trust. Edgar rolls the word around in his head afterwards, when Lucy brings them back to the Moby Dick. Trust. He had never wanted to go around trusting people left and right, much less those from the Guild—he knows what had happened last time, when trusting Royster had led to him homeless and jobless, hiding in the back alleys of a city that hates him. But now he doesn’t even think twice before reaching out to Louisa or Lucy; now he doesn’t mind the occasional run-in with Lovecraft in the kitchen at ungodly times of the night; now he holds actual conversations with Huck and Tom, if only to keep Twain guessing as to what’s keeping them.

Trust. Such an odd concept, one that’s failed him, shown him how it could be manipulated and used against him, and yet… and yet.

Edgar sees Mitchell again a few weeks after their initial meeting, if it can be called that—they’ve docked in Seoul for a meeting that could lead to a hugely profitable business deal, though the problem lies in Fitzgerald’s Korean; he had learned the language in under two days, something that’s kept Louisa up at night worrying about. December has the winds freezing cold, and normally Edgar would stay in his room—chilly weather usually made for good writing atmosphere—but Louisa mentions a public library in the city that might hold information on the Book, so at six in the evening, Edgar has no choice but to draw his coat as tight as he can around himself and soldier through.

I can’t even read Korean, Edgar thinks darkly to himself, well aware that he can pick up a basic textbook from a secondhand bookshop and memorize the language and all its little nuances in under an hour. What good will it be if I’m right on a passage about the Book and not know about it? This is a ridiculous mission, I doubt the thing even exists…

“Mr. Poe!”

He halts in his tracks, barely keeping himself from slipping on the melted patches of snow on the road. Edgar catches sight of a frilly white parasol, which is all he needs to see to know who he’s talking to. “Er. Ms. Mitchell?”

Light lavender eyes peer up at him from the shade of her parasol. “Just Margaret is fine.” A pause, as if she’s waiting for him to extend the gesture to call him by his first name, but Edgar doesn’t bother—Margaret huffs, but says, “Did you see some papers in the wind? That idiot Hawthorne thinks it’s my fault his notes flew out—the winds are strong today, but it’s not like I can tell them what to do if they’re too angry to listen.”

Edgar turns away slightly and closes his eyes, straining to hear any flyaway voices in the air, but nothing comes up. “They’re too far away for me to hear,” he says, looking back at Margaret. “I’m sorry.” He chances a glance at her parasol and has to resist the urge to ask her what exactly it is—from the file Fitzgerald had given them, all he knows about it is that it serves as both an amplifier and suppressant for her ability, though he’s not quite sure about the specifics of that. Had it been crafted by some kind of ability user who could amplify and suppress abilities?

Margaret sighs, drawing Edgar’s thoughts back to the present situation. “What a pain. Oh—” Her eyes gain a proud glint to them, and she tips her parasol back to let more light shine on her face. “Watch this, Poe, I’ve been practicing.” She’s dropped the mister, Edgar notes.

She twirls her parasol a bit before stretching out her free arm and closing her eyes. A second passes before the winds around them begin to almost hum—the sound is barely audible, because a sudden number of voices accost him, whispers and shouts, laughs and sobs alike, and none of them from humans. He listens—papers, he realizes. Those recently lost in the wind.

The winds tense and shiver when Margaret opens her eyes, arm still outstretched—she says nothing, but a silent conversation seems to take place between her and an invisible someone. Then she nods, and the winds whoosh around them; Edgar has to hold down on his coat to prevent it from flying off. In another few seconds, maybe a minute, the winds die down, and half a dozen sheets of paper drift down from the sky like the rest of the snowfall. Margaret plucks them out of the air before they land on the ground and says, to seemingly nothing, “Thank you.”

There’s a responding hum from the winds, and they seem to settle back to normal—the lost voices fade away into a background noise Edgar hadn’t even realized was there. He blinks; Margaret grins, wide and proud. “Well? Did you like that?”

“Finding lost items?”

She rolls her eyes. “Not just that. I’ve learned the winds can be easy to talk to as long as you make yourself reasonable and logical. Produces far better results than just forcing them to do my bidding—the power flows out smoother. You know what I mean, right?” She flexes her fingers for emphasis, looking down at the notebooks peeking out of his bag. “With your stories and papers and all that.”

“Oh. Y-Yes, I suppose.” Edgar tries to tune back into the lost papers, but they’re too far away to make out individually anymore, as opposed to the whirlwind of voices from earlier. (The wind. The wind.) “Say, um, can you… find anything lost in the wind?”

Margaret cocks her head. “Maybe. It worked every time, before. Not that I had much opportunity to use my ability much, my family tried to beat it out of me, but… why?”

“I lost something, before,” Edgar blurts out, before he can think twice about it, “when—when I was younger. Poems. T-They flew away in the wind. I couldn’t control them yet, the way I can now—can you try? Looking for them? Or—or anything?” he asks; he doesn’t even want to think about how pathetic he must look, right now. A senior member—no, the Chief Architect of the Guild, begging for a favor from a newly-joined apprentice, a nineteen-year-old woman who barely knows how to use her ability well.

Margaret just blinks, to her credit, and then manages an, “Oh! Um… Well… Well, yes, alright, I can certainly try. Just, um. Do you remember their names? Or titles, or anything?”

Edgar worries on his lower lip, a habit he should probably break now before it gets worse. “One. Annabel Lee. The rest I—I can’t remember.” He looks away as soon as the words leave his mouth—it’s humiliating, that he can’t remember the friends who had been with him in those days, the friends who had accepted him like no one else had, the friends who hadn’t looked at him and thought devil. It’s almost like forgetting Royster’s name, or Louisa’s, or Lucy’s.

The winds circle them again, subtly enough that no one should see or feel anything out of place, and Margaret has the same mental conversation with the air before they seem to flush out in a hundred different directions. What Edgar focuses on, though, is the cacophony of voices that rush to the front of his attention as soon as Margaret gathers the winds again—he can hear so much and so many, papers cheering for freedom, papers struggling to get back, stories and articles and poems and class notes and files and official documents, everything that can possibly be lost to the winds.

He listens and listens—but nothing is familiar. He doesn’t hear Annabel’s story or anything that he might have written when he was a child, not even the voice of the flowers, telling him to run—nothing. Nothing but the dissonance of voices all lost to the winds, without friends to run to or a home to come back to, without anything but themselves. Edgar clenches his fists, realizes the heavy, unsteady inhales and exhales are his, and tries to manage his breathing better, but it’s my fault it’s my fault it’s my fault I lost them and they’re gone forever and I should’ve held on tighter, should have should have should have—

“Poe?”

The winds have gone, back to their gusting winter state—Margaret stares at him inquiringly from beneath her parasol, looking confused. “Are you alright?”

“I… Y-Yes, I…” Edgar blinks—his eyes are wet, and he swipes the back of his hand over them to get rid of the tears he hadn’t known had begun to gather. “D-Did you, um…?”

She shakes her head, and the clawing feeling in Edgar’s gut springs back to life, my fault my fault my fault. “Too long ago,” she says. “The wind always brings things back to me, but these ones are lost forever. I’m sorry.”

My fault. My fault my fault my fault my fault.

“They did tell me something, though.”

“W-What?” Breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe, don’t suffocate now, you stupid man.

Margaret looks up at him. For a moment, Edgar sees a formidable ability user, one who can spin nature around her index finger without another thought for it if she worked hard enough. Not just an apprentice to the Guild—he remembers Upshaw, his screams, his disintegrated hand—but a real, dangerous threat. “I’m not sure what it means,” she murmurs, “but it was a message they left to the winds, a long time ago. We forgive you.” Her eyes flicker, going from pale lavender to a deep, swirling violet before reverting to their original shade. “Do you know what it means?”

“They… forgive me?” Edgar repeats pitifully.

Margaret shrugs. “That was it.” She twirls her parasol again, looking like she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it.

Not your fault, Edgar thinks he can hear. We forgive you. It’s not your fault. It was a cold night, he remembers, colder than he ever thought cold could possibly be, with a bloated moon that watched him drag himself along those roads without mercy. The papers had slipped free from his hands like water, like the stars he could only dream of grabbing, like the idea of being more than a murderer, the idea that he and his ability could be used for something other than hurting and killing… We forgive you, his poems tell him, and he wonders if he is hearing them, somewhere out there, buried or drowned or destroyed, lost forever… We forgive you.

Maybe, he thinks. Maybe that means something.

“Thank you.”

“Hm?”

“Thank you,” he repeats, barely louder than his previous mumble. “Really. I… needed that.”

Margaret looks confused again, but smiles proudly. “Well! Of course. This ability of mine isn’t just for show, you know, or for mindless, pointless murder. I like to think it’s worth more than that.” She pauses, thoughtfully. “I’ve been thinking of giving it a name. You know, because that’s something people have been asking me. ‘What’s your ability name?’ I never thought about it before, because I never needed to. What do you think of Gone With the Wind? Certainly a lot nicer than Hawthorne’s, his sounds positively uncouth. I mean, ‘The Scarlet Letter’? What’s that all about? Poe,” she says, as if briefly remembering he exists, “what’s your ability name? If you don’t mind telling me.”

“Black Cat in the Rue Morgue,” he replies. We forgive you. It’s not your fault.

“Hm. That’s… That’s certainly something. A black cat. In… what, a morgue? That’s an, uh, an interesting picture. Hm. So, Gone With the Wind. It fits nicely, don’t you think? Very musical, sounds lovely when I say it out loud. I should go tell Hawthorne, he’ll be madly jealous, I’m sure.” She pauses, thankfully, and offers an uncertain, “Er, see you around, then?”

We forgive you. “Oh, right. See you.” You’re more than your ability.

Edgar finds a spot in the public library that’s right beside a window, for better lighting—none of the books are any interesting, and it’s more fun learning the language as he goes along, even if it’s nothing like Japanese or Chinese. He looks out the window every now and then, more for a change in scene than anything else, and catches sight of a flock of birds at one point—he squints, but his eyesight doesn’t give him any clues as to the species of bird.

Margaret, he reflects, is so much like Lenore: prim and prissy and proper, sharp edges hiding the small actions that show how soft they are underneath. He leans back, bringing the book up to his face, and thinks about how they would’ve hated each other, if Lenore were still here. She’d caw in Margaret’s face and the woman would retaliate with a rush of wind that Lenore would ride effortlessly with a smug squawk only she could make.

We forgive you. Edgar wonders if Lenore thinks that, too, and stands up to check some books out, knowing full well he’s never returning them, then leaves—he doesn’t think he can bear it if, after everything he’s been put through, the other library goers have to see him cry.

He can’t stomach the thought of going back to the Moby Dick and burying himself in the books he knows won’t contain any valuable information, so he wanders. The streets of Seoul at night are still packed with people, but the darkness makes it far easier to navigate—Edgar sticks to the shadows and does his best to appreciate the scenery, all blinding city lights and billboard advertisements arranged in an organized-chaotic array of colors. It’s not much different from the cities in America, except for the fact that there is far less of the English alphabet here, and even the papers who talk to him speak Korean.

At some point, he finds himself passing by a bar, which he pays little mind to at first until he realizes it’s a gay bar. He ignores it, and subsequently ends up passing by it again, and again, and again until he figures it’s useless to have detoured back to it thrice and then not go in.

Inside, the music is raging and the people are laughing, shouting, dancing, drinking—everything Edgar had expected, and yet it somehow still manages to catch him off-guard. The stench of alcohol, the stuffy air, and the flashing lights hit him hard, and Edgar has to lean against a wall to steady himself before he can move forward again. Why did I come here, he thinks, furiously. At least I left Karl with Lucy so I won’t lose him here—but why did I come here in the first place, damn it!

No one seems to be paying him attention, so Edgar does what he’s read various characters in novels do and walks up to the counter, taking sporadic breaks every now and then until he can finally collapse on a seat. “Just water,” he says, when the bartender moves towards him, and downs the cold glass gratefully as soon as it arrives.

Only the senses he’s been forced to heighten over the years allow him to hear the chuckle beside him. Edgar turns, just enough to see the person sitting on his left from his peripheral vision, and catches sight of shaggy brown hair and dimples. Right. Both are definitely bad news. “Who gets water at a bar?” they ask—their voice is rich and deep, almost scarily so, and they’re speaking English.

“I-I do,” Edgar mutters, taking another sip to prove his point. “I’m thirsty, alright.” The English is a welcome break for his brain, which has been working more than usual to understand the foreign language in such a short time, and he sinks back into his native tongue like flopping in bed after a long day.

“Alright, alright. Do you just not have cash? Want me to buy you a drink, sweetheart?”

Edgar swallows, and immediately hopes the person hadn’t seen it—he turns his head a little more, and regrets doing so when he meets vibrant green eyes and a warm smile. “You… I…” Sweetheart? he’s internally screaming. What kind of—we’ve only just met—why does it have to be green!

“Hey, hey, you don’t have to. Just offering.” A wink. Edgar’s heart stutters dangerously. “Or is it the pet name? Hmm, but you’re such a sweetheart. S’all over your face.”

“W… What’s that supposed to mean.” His voice sounds raspy. Probably because his mouth is dry despite having taken a sip of water just seconds ago. Edgar hurries to do so again.

“Means what it means. You look like a sweetheart.” The smile widens a little, whether in amusement or fondness Edgar can’t tell. “What about that drink, then?”

Edgar hesitates—remembers discarded bottles hidden away from Ma’s eyes, remembers the stink of alcohol from Da’s breath, remembers thunderstorm-footsteps—and thinks, Fuck. Fuck it all. “Sure.”

The first sip is terrible—the man laughs his lungs out when Edgar nearly spits the liquid out, and he apologizes because that’s the best beer they have in the rundown place. The second sip goes down easier, but all Edgar can think of, all he can remember, is the way Da had yelled at him, had torn his papers and his friends into pieces, those heavy hands on his shoulders and the devil’s voice, smooth and soothing, slithering in his ear. Maybe it’s why Edgar finishes the glass, feels a smile pull on his lips when the man laughs again and claps his back. (Maybe it’s why he doesn’t resist when wet lips are pushing against his.

The bathroom is empty when they get there but Edgar wouldn’t have cared if it weren’t; the man is fast and rough and Edgar doesn’t resist the tongue that snakes inside his mouth, doesn’t resist the hands that go down his hips, doesn’t resist at all. Sweetheart, the man calls him, whispering in his ear, voice husky and low, and Edgar can’t think, doesn’t think, only acts, only pulls him closer and kisses him again, breathing hard and begging, “Look at me—look at me,” and those green eyes are on him, sharp and piercing in the low light, roaming all over his body like a crime scene waiting to be investigated. The man’s hand is swift and skilled and Edgar’s breath catches in his throat and stays there and, there, sweetheart, and a hand is guiding his own down until Edgar can use guesswork from there, feeling the inside of the man’s thigh and listening to the erratic rhythm of his breaths until that not-pattern gives way for a little gasp and a long exhale. “Look at me,” Edgar says again, and those eyes—God, those eyes, that vivid green, except—except the ones he wants are narrow and slanted, even brighter than this and almond-shaped and framed by a smug smirk that oozes confidence, and, and, and—

“I, I, I’m sorry,” he thinks he says, and he allows one, one last kiss, okay, two, and then he’s out because now he can’t think about anything else but those eyes and that smirk and that voice, Po-oe-kun, and he touches a finger to his lips as he runs back into the cold night air and he can smell it, the alcohol on his breath, doesn’t matter if it’s faint because it’s there and he’d done it, the thing he’d told himself he’d never do and he can almost—almost feel it, heavy hands and thunderstorm-footsteps shaking the ground and, and he wants to go back, wants that man’s kisses and touches and breaths again, but he has to think, has to, can’t forget that he’s supposed to hate that stupid, stupid-smart detective—has to, because that’s what the feeling in his chest is, isn’t it, the burning sensation that had engulfed him on that day in Japan, sickening him to his very core, and yet, and yet, not—not entirely unpleasant—but no, it’s hate, it has to be, complete and utter contempt, that’s all it is, because—because he knows what had happened the last time he had allowed himself to think that feeling could be anything other than hate, the last time he had thought himself worthy of—of—

No, there will be no repeating that, there will be no Royster, there will be no nothing—only hate, only revenge, nothing else, nothing nothing nothing. The stuff in the parentheses—he is better off without them.)

Edgar breathes. Breathes and breathes until he imagines he can fill himself up with the cool air—and then he follows the path he had taken back to the Moby Dick. Forget it, he tells himself. Forget it. Focus on him. Not the feeling. Him. But that doesn’t work, when he stumbles back to his room and sees the book lying on his desk. He wants to forget everything so bad, wants to dig himself a hole in the Earth and never come back out, wants to just stop, because nothing he does ever seems to be enough and no amount of research on the stupid Book will bring it into existence. He wants to yell that in Fitzgerald’s face—the Book doesn’t exist, your daughter isn’t coming back, the Guild is falling apart. But he can’t. Years ago, he would have—years ago, he hadn’t cared about those five boys, had thought he was doing Pluto justice—years ago, he wouldn’t have cared about Fitzgerald, about Louisa or Lucy or Scottie or anyone.

At twenty-seven, everything feels too much. There are so many things he wants (to stop being a killer, to sit by an open window with a cat and a raccoon and a raven and write for himself, to see Royster’s smile again, to never think of what-ifs and keep doubting every little thing he does, to have the sharpest, greenest eyes look at him), and none of those are things he’s ever going to get. All because of—of what? Because of his ability? For a moment he wants to blame it on that, blame it on this fucking curse that’s haunted him his whole life, driven him out of every place he’s ever thought of as home, turned him into a murderer when all he wants is to think he’s worthy of life.

But that would be unfair. A gift or a curse? Melville had asked. Neither, Edgar wishes he could answer now, only an ability. He thinks of the flowers, of all the friends he’s made in the papers with personalities just as varied as humans—he thinks of the corpses in his notebook, of the blackness that oozes out from his poems like poison, the way his arm no longer hurts when he uses that part of his ability. It had burnt like fire, once, scorched his fingers, as if telling him it isn’t too late, that he can still stop before he turns the ability into more of a curse than a gift.

He hadn’t listened. Of course not. They’re protecting us. They don’t know right from wrong. Edgar closes his eyes. For once, he hears nothing—no voices, no murmurs, not even a gentle susurration of the papers around and near him, like they had all heard what he thought of them as. A curse.

Fitzgerald is on the phone with Zelda when they enter his office, that day. “Yes, she’s still studying in London,” he’s saying, the harsh lines on his face softening to the sound of his wife’s voice. When he hangs up, his expression is hard and cold again, barely changing when Edgar lays a thick stack of documents on his desk—their research on the Book, accumulated over the course of two years. “A tiger beetle?” he says, when Louisa tells him what they’ve found.

“Er, um, no, a t-tiger ability user—uh, that is—”

“He can turn into a tiger.”

“Y-Yes.”

“And you say he can lead us to the book?”

“W-Well, it’s a possibility—”

“Better than nothing. Poe, put a bounty on his head. We’ll go to—where is he? Japan? We’ll steer the Moby Dick there in a few months, as soon as preparations are over with.”

“Understood.”

Japan, Edgar thinks. Of course.

In its early stages, the book had been the absolute worst to work with and on—when writing, Edgar likes to talk to the piece, hear their first thoughts and see for himself how their personality develops. He remembers their first conversation: a generic hello, how are you from him, and a snappish go away from the book. Well, he had thought, at least I only have to deal with one attitude. Separate papers linked by the same story had linked minds, too.

It had hated him, then, for reasons Edgar would rather not think about—a coward, that’s what you are, it had hissed, every time Edgar would sit down to write again. Can’t take on that detective in something you’re both good at, so you put him in a world where his ability can’t work and he has to go through psychological torture until he dies. You’re a coward. A coward.

“I know,” Edgar had said. It had hurt, but it was true, and he needed to hear it. “I know.”

Stop writing.

“No.”

You would kill him like this? You would do that?

Edgar hadn’t answered. The book had threatened to rise up and kill Edgar himself, and despite the energy curling at his fingertips, desperate to be unleashed, there is no power Edgar cannot control. He’s sure there are other ability users out there who are related to books and papers in one way or another, but to draw a reader into a work is his and his alone—this he knows for sure. So he breathes, closes his eyes, and reminds himself that he controls this, has grown up with this ability for far too long to let it be taken away from him now.

(Maybe he is a coward. Maybe he wants to draw Ranpo into a book so he doesn’t have to look straight into those green eyes and falter again, hesitate again, be defeated again. At least in the novel, it would be fair—normal wits against normal wits. But, his mind unwillingly reminds him, men have always been blind to their own actions.)

Soon the book had stopped talking much, not even to taunt him and call him out for curling into a ball on his bed instead of writing. When he gets back to work on it again, wordlessly and shielding his thoughts from it, it grumbles, Plot hole.

“Sorry?” It’s always easier to talk aloud instead of thinking the answer—too vulnerable, that way, too many other thoughts he doesn’t want them hearing.

Plot hole. In the part with Ukai. Chapter 11.

Edgar shuffles through the clipped papers and finds the mentioned paragraphs. “Oh, yes. Thank you.”

Say, are you really doing this for revenge?

“Why?”

I mean, that thing with the detective happened a long time ago. Six years, right? Other people would be over it by now.

“I suppose.” Edgar pauses for a moment, pen hovering over the paper. “But I’m not other people.

He thinks he hears the paper grumble before it continues. You didn’t answer me, you know. Back then. You really want to kill him like this? He can barely fight back.

“He’s only too capable of fighting back. But I know people like him,” Edgar says, a scornful laugh escaping him before he can shove it back down his throat, “too dependent on their ability until it’s taken away from them. Then they’re lost.” It had only been too easy to dispose of targets that way—some tried to fight their way out, to bring their ability into the world where Edgar controlled everything. On good days, he feels the vague stirrings of guilt, but there are rarely many good days left for him.

Just give me a straight answer. (Edgar almost laughs again. Almost.) Are you going to kill him?

The sharpest, greenest of eyes; that smug smirk; that blinding intelligence, how it had crept up on him under a childish, naive cover and struck where he was (is) weakest, pushing him down to a stuttering, second-thinking wreck who longs to see him again, who wants his approval, who admires him. He hates the desire that claws in his chest every time he thinks of Ranpo. He hates it. He hates him.

(Written works usually inherit their writer’s personality, or take it from an inspiration, like his paper raven. He wonders what that’s supposed to mean for him and this book, how it’s almost like his conscience, telling him to stop before this ability grows into even more of a curse than it already is. It’s too late for that, Edgar had said, in reply to Melville. There is no choice between gift and curse for Black Cat in the Rue Morgue; only the illusion of one, which he’d wanted to believe in, more than ever, more than anything else in the world.)

Edgar lifts his pen. “Yes.”

The book says nothing. Edgar doesn’t need it to—the plot is done, everything major finished and taken care of. Only a few revisions left.

We forgive you… and yet.

Chapter Text

Yokohama is as Edgar remembers it from six years ago—bustling roads, busy people, and most definitely loud, with voices from both people and papers alike. From his shoulders, Karl hisses at everything, including the driver of the taxi Edgar gets in; Edgar has to pay the man extra for “allowing” a “rabid” animal in his car.

He’s the rabid one, Karl grumbles. Edgar privately agrees.

He fiddles with the wad of cash in his hands. It feels odd, to have enough money that he can spend more than he needs to, and he still has loads more in his account (in a bank Fitzgerald owns, of course). Six years ago, he’d only brought enough to buy some souvenirs and his dinner, and even that had almost been too little. Eight years ago, he wouldn’t even have dreamed of flying to Japan as a hired assassin.

Edgar breathes out a sigh, and counts the minutes until they reach the apartment building.

The unit is mostly the same, too, except it’s been stripped bare of everything the widow had owned—now it’s just composed of peeling wallpaper and crawling spiders. No one had wanted to live in it, not after someone had been murdered within, which suits Edgar just fine; he lets Karl run around and attack the spiders while he retrieves the sparse few items he had delivered here. He doesn’t intend on staying very long, but that depends on Ranpo and whether he’ll show up or not anyway.

It has always depended on Ranpo, hasn’t it.

Lucy arrives on the sunny afternoon right after Nakajima Atsushi defeats her. “I don’t know what happened,” she sobs into her knees, curled up on the floor, looking so, so small. Her hands are wrung around the back of her neck, as if trying to protect a vulnerable part of her, a habit from childhood years springing back into motion now. “I don’t know. It felt like I couldn’t c-control my ability anymore. Like everything in Anne’s Room was against me. I don’t know. I don’t know! I c-can’t leave the Guild. I can’t! I’ve nowhere else to go!”

And Edgar hates it, but he can’t say anything except for, “That’s not my decision.”

She lets out a strangled cry—the space around her distorts, flashes pink. Edgar has seen enough instances of accidental ability activation, experienced it himself, that he already has a book out before Lucy begs, “You have to help me—please!

“I—I don’t know—”

“Tell Fitzgerald I did my best. Tell him something, anything, please, you have to!”

“But—” The consequence for going against any of the Guild’s rules and policies is death. There are no exceptions. “I—” What will you do, Poe, some voice whispers, will you help out one of your few friends or give her up just to keep your job? “Lucy, please—”

She looks up at him, eyes bloodshot and cheeks tearstained. “You aren’t going to do it,” she whispers, her hands coming down to curl into fists. “Y-You’re… You’re scared, aren’t you.”

“Listen—”

“Will you help me?” she asks again, voice cracking at the last word.

Edgar swallows. “I…”

He can’t answer. He doesn’t know what to say. Lucy’s face falls, and he thinks maybe it would have hurt less if he had just said no from the start, but his voice has fled him and all he has left in his mind are Ranpo’s words: Nice try. You almost got it.

“Coward,” she hisses, eyes pooling with tears, and disappears into her dimension with a flick of her wrist. Her absence burns a hole in the apartment, leaving it feeling more sepulchral than when a corpse had been on its floor.

When Akutagawa Ryuunosuke stains Margaret’s dresses red, Edgar can do nothing but bury his face in his hands. He had given them scraps of paper to escape into if necessary, but he can’t activate his ability if they aren’t reading it—he can only watch, in slow, blurry motion, how her body crumples onto the ground, her breaths desisting.

He tells Louisa, over the phone. “I know,” she says. Coward, Edgar hears.

It only takes Lucy a few days to betray the Guild and set the tiger free—the same person who had defeated her in her own world. She has never known what to do when someone is kind to her. Edgar paces what little he can of the apartment, trying to distract himself by listening to his books, but all of them are drowned out by the one he’s written for Ranpo—coward, it whispers, just like it had whispered while he had been writing it on the Moby Dick. Coward who can’t face Edogawa Ranpo because you don’t want to be defeated again.

Edgar squeezes his eyes shut and rubs them with the bottoms of his palms until he’s dizzy. Lucy does not come to visit him. He had not been expecting her to.

When Dazai Osamu and Nakahara Chuuya blow a hole in Lovecraft’s body and leave Steinbeck crippled, Edgar wakes up in the middle of the night from a jolt through his arm. He doesn’t think twice before drawing the power through his fingertips, and the two members collapse in a heap on the apartment floor, Steinbeck barely conscious and Lovecraft unmoving.

“Help,” Steinbeck gasps, and goes limp.

Edgar is no doctor, but he does have his book—he coaxes them awake enough to read the words, and has the doctor character treat them while he sits there and, again, does nothing. “Will they be alright?” he asks. It’s the only thing he’s had to voice aloud so far; his characters can understand his mental orders and thoughts.

The doctor looks up at him. (Later on, she will have short purple hair, a butterfly hairpin glittering on the side of her head, and an axe lodged in her chest.) “They’ll be fine. They’ll have to rest here for the rest of the night, though, to avoid any other disturbances.”

“That’s… That’s good. That’s alright. Thank you.”

“You know you don’t have to thank me,” she says. You can’t do anything by yourself, coward, Edgar hears. “It’s about time to show the Armed Detective Agency your trump card. Are you ready?”

No, he wants to say. “Yes.”

She looks amused. “Don’t worry. Things will work out.”

He fashions the challenge letter like how he had with his paper raven, enough that it can ride the winds and deliver itself to its intended recipient. Edgar closes his eyes and follows its path as far as the opened office window before he shakes the vision away, stands up, and proceeds to pace again.

Around half an hour, the challenge letter tells him, its voice faint and muffled. Edgar paces and paces and, inexplicable even to him, starts cleaning.

He dusts the spiders and their webs off, apologizing under his breath when they skitter around in panic, and shows them to the window; he sweeps away Karl’s fur, along with dirt and grass and everything else Steinbeck and Lovecraft had left behind on his floor; mopping up the dried blood stains proves impossible, so he tries to convince himself they make the setting look artful and mysterious when really they’re just distracting; and, when he’s done all that and still has over an hour left, he takes a shower.

The shower thankfully comes with hot water, a luxury he had grown accustomed to aboard the Moby Dick and feared he would be parted with here—Edgar turns it as hot as he can until the bathroom mirror is fogged up, then steps into the scorching hot water and focuses on the burning feeling. Calm down, he tells himself, again and again until the phrase has lost its meaning. Things will work out, he tries instead, and he finds it works a bit better; he wills his nerves to melt away into the drain before he washes his hair and starts drying off.

Edgar touches his hair. It’s longer than it’s ever been—his last haircut must have been years ago, when Lucy had forced him into a barber shop to chop off the tangled mess of curls. He remembers the attendant clicking her tongue and remarking on how he’d got several strands of hair all snarled up and impossible to unknot, so his best bet was to get them cut clean off. That had been a vaguely terrifying experience—before that, he’d never gone to a barber shop, because it had always been Ma who cut his hair, and afterwards Mother. And afterwards… well, no one, except himself, in the bathroom of the inn at 3am, holding a pair of safety scissors to his bangs and wondering how it would feel to cut somewhere else instead.

He drags a hand through his hair, feeling them get caught in almost familiar knots. When he had met Ranpo six years ago, he had it tied in a small ponytail, if only because Louisa had suggested so. After that, he’d never done it again.

An image of the hair ribbon sitting in his room on the Moby Dick flashes in his head, but he shakes the thought away.

Five minutes, the letter mumbles. Edgar sits by the table and counts the seconds down.

“It’s been a long time, Ranpo-san. Were you able to solve the riddle at the entrance?”

Edgar thought he remembered what Edogawa Ranpo looked like—sharp green eyes, messy hair, confidence radiating off him in waves. But thoughts and memories all whither and die in face of the real thing; when Ranpo steps in the apartment, Yosano Akiko beside him, the place seems to light up. His eyes are sharper and greener than he remembers, piercing and playful at once, his hair just slightly longer and even messier. When he smiles, it has the same dangerous edge to it that has been engraved in Edgar’s memory, but also tinged with more curiosity than he’d expected.

He’s changed, Edgar thinks. It’s almost disorienting, to have a constant thought at the back of his mind suddenly age six years. But so have I.

Ranpo holds up the paper—an easy puzzle, just enough to get him warmed up and anxious for more of a challenge. “Now it’s my turn to ask a question.” He cocks his head. “Who are you?”

“Wh—You don’t remember me?” Are you serious? he wants to scream. Six whole years I never stopped thinking of you, and now you’ve gone and forgotten me? “I joined the Guild just so I could challenge you.”

Every time I slipped up during a mission, it was because of you. Every time I couldn’t get up from bed and spent the whole day wallowing in self-pity, it was because of you. Every time I killed someone, I thought of you.

“I… I am Edgar Allan Poe. Chief Architect of the Guild. You defeated me six years ago,” Edgar says, except really he wants to ask, Now you’re telling me you’ve forgotten who I am? Now you’re telling me I’m still not good enough, after all this time?

“Hmm.” Ranpo looks unmoved. “You’re making me sleepy. I’m leaving.”

“Wait! R-Ranpo-san, wait.” God, the desperation in his voice is downright pathetic. (God, the way he says Ranpo’s name reeks of even more desperation. Like he’s trying to make up for all the times he hadn’t been able to speak that name, only think it, over and over again, a mantra to keep him going on days when the book didn’t want to come out right.) “This is a mystery game. Read this detective novel I’ve prepared for you—” slaved over for countless nights, he means—“and determine the identity of the serial killer.”

“One point docked.” Ranpo raises an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t have become a detective if you were content with novels.”

Edgar can’t help it—he rolls his eyes. “I expected that.” For a moment he thinks something flashes across Ranpo’s face, something almost like recognition, but it’s gone as quickly as it had come, and Edgar tells himself he’d only imagined it. (Since when has he ever “only imagined” something? He’s never picked up on anything imaginary or unimportant. But… but.) “How about this? If you win, I tell you the Guild’s weaknesses.” He slides the folder across the desk, watches it draw both Ranpo’s and Yosano’s eyes. “How to capture the Guild base, Moby Dick, the floating fortress.”

“Prove that’s not fake,” Yosano says, right away. Edgar immediately concludes that perhaps, if they weren’t on opposing sides of a war, he would actually like her.

He raises it, enough for it to catch the minimal light in the apartment. Ranpo’s eyes crack open, sharp green skimming over it for less than a few seconds before slitting shut again. “I’m sure you would be able to tell if it were,” he says, and though he’s facing Yosano, he has to resist the urge to tack on Ranpo-san at the end.

Yosano turns to Ranpo, who shrugs and faces Edgar again. “Fine, one point granted.”

“This points system is rather silly.”

Another odd shift in expression, this one like genuine amusement. “For a game to be a game, there should be a points system, don’t you think? And you said it yourself—this is a game.”

“A game where you are betting the success of your agency.”

“Funny how you think I ever need to bet on anything. I always win, you know.”

I know, very well. “Perhaps this will prove you wrong, then,” Edgar murmurs, his voice sounding dangerously close to a purr.

The amusement fades. “Why such a silly challenge, though?”

If you remembered me, you would know the answer to this question. If you remembered me, you would know this isn’t just a little book you can read in one sitting. If you remembered me, you would know you won’t be reading this book at all. “This world’s operations are barbaric and unbearably boring,” Edgar intones. This, at least, is true—he still remembers, with startling clarity, how utterly tedious it had been to solve other mysteries and cases. None of them had so much as given him a rush of adrenaline, the need to figure things out, the hunger to uncover a buried secret, to know more, to learn. “The only thing humanity ought to have interest in is your ability, Super Deduction… Am I wrong?”

Edgar had been expecting it, but he still has to stop himself from flinching away when Ranpo swoops down to swipe the book off the desk—the book yelps and proceeds to grumble about being manhandled. “Five points granted!” Ranpo sings, plopping down on the chair Edgar had moved to that exact spot for that exact purpose. “I’m game. Yosano-san, join in, it’s boring by myself.”

Yosano glances up at Edgar, as if asking for permission; Edgar just stares at her. He’s mostly surprised she had bothered with looking at him at all. When he doesn’t respond, she shrugs and moves closer to read over Ranpo’s shoulder. (The way they’re so casually intimate with each other, the little touches and looks they exchange, how much trust they have for the other—it all annoys Edgar to no end, and he refuses to admit he knows why.) “What’s this about, then?”

“The story begins like this.” Edgar drums his fingers against the table, absently stroking Karl’s back with his other hand. The raccoon has been uncharacteristically silent for a while, as if knowing how important this moment is. “One night, once upon a time, a band of visitors were trapped in a mansion due to a snowstorm. On the night of their stay, the protagonist, a private detective, is awakened by a strange noise from one of the rooms.”

Now, he thinks, the same time the book hisses, the same time the invitation card in Ranpo’s pocket whispers, the same time almost every single paper in the room yells. Edgar closes his eyes, reaches out, curls his hands into fists, power flowing free from his fingertips—a blinding bright white, widened eyes—then nothing but his heart and two others, beating like a funeral march.

Karl coos and noses at his palm, but Edgar keeps his eyes closed, blocking out the images from the book so he can sit and stare at perfect darkness, for just a little while. Breathe, he reminds himself. Breathe. Inhale, exhale. He thinks of that night, so many years ago: Da and his heavy hands, his thunderstorm-footsteps, thunderstorm-glares. The ripping and the screaming, the crumpling, the bleeding. The dying. He thinks of how he’d drawn his power—natural, a part of him. This is something he can do. This is something he has done.

Edgar opens his eyes, and sees the victim’s body on the floor of the mansion, clear as running water. A victim, Ranpo is thinking. He is dressed in the clothes Edgar had envisioned for the protagonist, and he hates how one of the heartbeats echoing in his ears speeds up a little faster at the sight. “The two windows were sealed,” he murmurs, in time with Ranpo’s thoughts, “and no one could have entered or left the room. Two doors, and a matching key…”

When Ranpo searches his pockets and comes up empty-handed, Edgar lets himself smile—it’s unfamiliar and unwelcome on his face, malicious, poisonous, dangerous. “No abilities, Ranpo-san,” he whispers. “Not in my world. Now we’re fair.”

Welcome to the house of tragedies.

Edgar paces.

It’s been far too long since he’s had anyone inside one of his works without them dying within the first five minutes. There have been times, yes, that he had to draw someone in to prevent them from getting injured or to escape detection, but that had always been a last resort—it’s dangerous, too, because left to their own devices, the paper they’re in is just as liable to be swept away by the wind, or drenched and rendered unreadable (and therefore inescapable), or ripped apart, or burnt and scorched, or otherwise destroyed. Papers are fragile, after all, and he rarely puts effort in all his creations to be able to control them like he can with his raven.

And it’s been far too long since he’s had to keep track of more than one heartbeat for longer than five minutes, too.

Yosano’s is constant. It is sure and steady, as consistent as the rising and setting of the sun. When she examines the first victim, the caretaker of the mansion, her heartbeat never goes above more than a rapid th-th-thump at the sight of the body; afterwards, it settles into the same stable cadence it refuses to deviate from. Ranpo’s, on the contrary, is all over the place—it jumps to a fever pitch when he can’t find his glasses, then to a bored, irritable state when he has to explain the case to Ukai, then erratic thumpthumps when he yells, “Are you saying the president was lying to me?”

Edgar paces, paces, paces. There is no Super Deduction, he thinks, again and again until it can loop on his head for infinity without his conscious decision. Yosano’s thoughts tell him so, and he would know if she were faking it. There is no Super Deduction.

There is no Super Deduction. Six years ago, there had only been one Ranpo Edogawa, who had solved the case before Edgar could. He goes over what he had said, earlier: The only thing humanity ought to have interest in is your ability. But there is no ability—only… only.

He paces. Karl curls up on the floor, right in front of the book, almost as if keeping watch. But Edgar can only pace, over and over, until his footsteps feel embedded within the floor. There is no Super Deduction. There is no Super Deduction. There is no Super Deduction. When his mind seems to have accepted that, at least to some extent, he sits down and buries his face in his hands. There is no Super Deduction.

What the hell does that mean for him, then—hadn’t he been chasing an unbelievable ability for the last six years? That had been the whole reason, right? It hadn’t been for Ranpo Edogawa himself—right? But now it is, and there’s no going around that anymore, and—and Edgar can’t take this. Breathe, breathe, breathe—run, he can hear the flowers saying, run now before this catches up to you.

I can’t, he thinks. The fringed orchid Steinbeck had given him so long ago had died after a few weeks. It’s normal, and to be expected, but for some reason he can’t stop thinking about how it must have felt, now that he knows those flowers can speak to someone, too. I can’t run now. Not when I’m finally here.

When Yosano dies, he’s almost relieved—one less heartbeat to keep track of, no matter how consistent it was. Edgar counts its last remaining th-thumps, weak and growing weaker, tap-tapping his fingers to the desk again and wondering if he can get up and pace once more when Ranpo moves. His heartbeat is the most volatile it’s been since he’s entered the book, ringing in Edgar’s head like a ceremonial gong, or church bells, or drum beats, or corpses tumbling onto the floor.

There is no Super Deduction, Edgar thinks, when the book glows a brilliant, blinding gold and spits out the two agency members. There is only one Ranpo Edogawa, with no need for glasses and the most confident of smirks plastered on his face. “We’re back.”

“You…”

He doesn’t have enough words to encapsulate what exactly he wants to say—he doesn’t have words at all, period. So much for being a writer, Edgar tells himself. Can’t even come up with the right words to tell someone how much of a lie he’s wrapped himself up in. “How did you figure it out?” he finally asks, voice tremulous—he finds that he can’t bring himself to care about that either. Six years, he thinks. Six years of his life spent killing and writing and killing, and all of that, for… for this. For nothing.

“Of course.” Ranpo looks at him. Edgar doesn’t return the gaze. “The murderer was me. I shouldn’t need to lay out my reasoning for you.” He strolls past Edgar to where the files for the Moby Dick are on the desk—just the disturbed wind against his arm is enough for Edgar’s legs to crumple under his weight, and the floor is a welcome support. Karl scurries over to him, burying his face in his chest and cooing softly—Edgar rests a hand on his head, unable to do much else than that.

“Six years,” he says. He doesn’t even realize he’s speaking aloud until he has to draw breath to talk again. “Just like that…”

“The intellectual devices were much more beautiful than before.” Papers fluttering—the files. They yawn; they’d been taking a nap, because watching a book isn’t very interesting. “But I think you’ve met your match, Poe-kun.”

The world seems to spin to a stop. “W-What?” Edgar breathes—the world begins rotating and revolving again, as if righting itself upon an axis that had been disturbed. “You… remember. You remember that case?”

“Why would I forget about a mystery that I solved?” Ranpo tucks the file beneath his arm, and turns to face the rest of the apartment—and, there, Edgar isn’t imagining it, that look of… of something. He isn’t quite sure what that expression means, but it’s soft and genuine and so real. “This takes me back. We were here, weren’t we? Solving that case on the murdered widow. More challenging than the rest of the stuff I had to settle for, in those days.”

“It was the policeman,” Edgar adds, surprised he can still form coherent sentences. “He shot at you.”

“And you killed him.” No intonation, no nothing—Edgar winces, but Ranpo doesn’t seem to notice. His gaze is still fixed at the empty space just in front of the door, right where the widow’s body had been laid out. Right where Edgar remembers standing, facing Ranpo, surrounded by policemen on all sides. “It was the only time another detective gave me chills,” Ranpo says—soft, genuine, real. “The first and the last.”

“The…?”

But Ranpo’s already turning away and raising a hand in a goodbye-wave. “I’m looking forward to your next challenge! Work really hard to come up with something interesting for me. Ah—” He turns to face Edgar, just enough for a glint of mischievous green to shine in the dim light. “And really, Ranpo-san sounds so boring and formal, Poe-kun.”

Edgar straightens—Karl clambers up to rest on his shoulders. “Ranpo-kun, then?” he asks; he’s not sure where the sudden bravado comes from, but he’s glad for it when Ranpo breaks into a grin.

“You know me well. See you around, then, hm?”

A coward making friends with the enemy, Edgar hears. What do you think you’re doing, using such a close honorific? Do you think you’re friends?

Karl paws at his cheek; Edgar scratches his chin. “What do I do now,” he whispers. “What do I do, Karl?”

A soft coo. You’re asking me?

“Right… right.”

He reaches for the phone, and calls Louisa. “I failed,” he says. “They have the Moby Dick’s weakness. I-I…”

“I know,” Louisa says. Coward, coward, coward. “But don’t worry. It’s alright.”

“It… is?”

“It’s according to plan,” she says, tone colorless. She sounds like she always does when she’s buried deep in numbers and calculations, with no thought and no regard for the rest of the world around her. This Louisa always unnerves Edgar, even if only slightly—she becomes a strange caricature of herself, like a computer trapped in a human’s body, going through the algorithms it knows it can trust. “Stay there and don’t move. I’ll tell you what to do next soon.”

Edgar worries on his lower lip, but Louisa’s voice brooks no argument. “Okay. Fine. Alright. Stay safe.”

He thinks he can hear her soften over the phone, somehow. “You too, Eddie.”

Two hours later, four Guild members wind up at his doorstep. Twain seems as relaxed as usual; Steinbeck gives him his typical genial smile, despite his leg; Louisa refuses eye contact with anyone; and Lucy is, oddly enough, not dead yet. “Can we come inside?” Steinbeck asks, since no one else seems inclined to speak first, Edgar included. “I’m sure you can figure out what’s going to happen, so…”

Edgar waves them in, still shocked into silence—as soon as he had heard the bell ring, the end result of the next few hours had popped into his head: the destruction of the Moby Dick. He makes them tea with what materials he can scrounge in the kitchen, glad he had cleaned and arranged everything earlier, and hovers awkwardly at the side because there isn’t any more space for a fifth person around the tiny, already-cramped table.

Steinbeck thanks him, sips the tea, and then points at a nearby cardboard box sitting by the wall. “That’s all your stuff. And some food from the Moby Dick’s stores.”

Edgar nods. He’s not sure he’s capable of words just yet, but he clears his throat and forces some out anyway. Each one he speaks feels like knives scratching and clawing their way out his mouth. “Thank you. For… For how long will you be staying?”

“Not long. We just had to drop your things off and explain the situation to you, but it looks like you already know.”

“I told you he’d know,” Lucy grunts. Her gaze doesn’t lift from her untouched cup of tea.

“We get it, smartass,” Twain grunts back.

Lucy’s head jerks up, eyes blazing in fury, lips curling into an ugly snarl. “Say that again and I swear—”

“Lucy,” Louisa says, soft and low and barely louder than a breath, and Lucy snaps her mouth shut, ducking her head again. Louisa fiddles with the hem of her blouse, the movement both absent and concentrated.

A silence not even Steinbeck seems to want to disturb falls on the room. Edgar shifts his weight from foot to foot and desperately wishes he could sink into a book and stay there until they leave. Finally, Twain pipes up. “You need anything else, Poe?”

The absence of his usual nickname, no matter how irritating it had been, stings Edgar in a way he doesn’t want to admit. “No,” he says, when really he’s thinking, Why didn’t you kill Lucy the way we’ve all killed traitors of the Guild? You’ve left corpses riddled with bullet holes. Steinbeck’s buried people alive inside tree trunks. Victims starved to death inside Anne’s Room. I don’t know how many I have inside sheets of fucking paper. So why not Lucy? he wants to ask—What makes her different? he wants to ask, except he already knows the answer.

“You sure?” Twain crosses his arms behind his head, the laid back posture out of place with the atmosphere so laden down by tension. “The police will be all over our tail soon, y’know. I don’t plan on ever coming back here.”

“I’m sure, Twain.”

“Okay, then.” He stands, grabs a bag, and strolls over to the doorway. Tom’s head lolls out of an opened pocket—he’s obviously asleep. Huck materializes atop Twain’s shoulder, still and silent. Twain pauses right in front of the door, before throwing a glance back Edgar’s way. “It was a nice run,” he says. “Thanks for recruiting me, back then.”

Edgar doesn’t miss the way his eyes flicker over to Lucy’s hunched form, her back facing him—he doesn’t miss the second thoughts flashing clear as day across his face, the hesitation to let three years of friendship, of bickering and laughing and pestering each other until 2am, disappear in the blink of an eye, in the single step of a foot outside an apartment.

But Lucy is facing away from him, and she misses all that. Misses him.

So Twain turns away, pushes the door open, and closes it neatly behind him.

Steinbeck is the next to leave—he finishes his tea, unlike Twain, and nods at Edgar. “I think I’ll wait and see what happens to the Moby Dick,” he says, tracing the rim of his cup with his pointer finger. There’s still a speck of dried blood beneath his nail. “The rest of the Guild members don’t know what to do either. I need to go around and tell them.”

“You know you don’t have to,” Edgar offers, but Steinbeck is already shaking his head, so Edgar changes his next few words. “I mean, you don’t have to. It’s not your job.”

“I know.” He picks at his nails, tries to get the blood out. He fails. “I want to.”

Edgar tugs at a loose string on his jacket. “Alright. Alright, well. I… Where’s Lovecraft?”

“I’m not sure either.” The lack of inflection doesn’t fool Edgar—worry creases Steinbeck’s brow, and he stops fiddling with his hands, curling them into fists on his lap. “But I’m sure he’s alright. He’s always been better off by himself.”

“That’s not true. He’s…” Always been better with you.

“I should go.” Steinbeck stands, and the movement is so sudden that Edgar’s glad he’s leaning against the wall, else he would’ve taken a step back. “Thanks for the tea, Poe. I’ll… I’ll see you around. I hope.”

Lucy and Louisa don’t look keen on moving anytime soon, so Edgar does his best to act natural and sit down with them, absently stirring his tea, which is going lukewarm very quickly. “Is this really…” He sighs. “Is this really the end of the Guild?”

“I don’t know,” Louisa says, still soft and low and sounding as if anything louder than a whisper will bring her whole person down. Her hands, curled around her cup of tea, are shaking so much that Edgar fears for the stability of his teacup. “I-I hate this plan, Eddie. I’m leaving… I’m leaving so much up to chance. You know what’s going on up there, right?”

Edgar has an inkling, but when he looks at Lucy and sees her frown deepen, that inkling solidifies into a fact. “The weretiger,” he says. “You’re telling me he’s going against Fitzgerald right now.”

“Yes.” Louisa breathes, deep and trembling. “Nakajima will win.”

“You don’t know that,” Lucy snaps. It’s the harshest she’s spoken to Louisa, in all the years Edgar’s known the two of them.

“Yes, I do,” Louisa says—her voice hardens, as if slipping back into the person she becomes when she has to set aside inconveniences like emotions to formulate the best possible plans—from Louisa Alcott to Louisa Alcott, Chief Strategist of the Guild. But that falls away when she has to take in another shaky breath before she speaks again, her eyes squeezing shut as she opens her mouth. “I planned… I planned this. I p-planned for Francis to f-fail.”

There is a crash—Edgar only realizes it’s one of the teacups when spilled tea drips onto his coat. Lucy had somehow flung hers away without even touching it—accidental ability usage, he vaguely registers. Usually brought about by intense emotions or inexperience, especially at a young age. Whenever it happens, it somehow always ends up with him on the losing hand. “What the hell?” Lucy shrieks, shooting to her feet, slamming her palms against the table—each word echoes in the apartment, bouncing off the walls, making the whole place reverberate with her sheer volume. “What the hell, Louisa? What are you talking about?”

Louisa shakes her head, slowly at first, then faster and faster until she’s buried her face in her hands, breaths hitching and heaving, her whole body shrinking away from Lucy and the rage she’s emanating. (No, not just rage, Edgar thinks. There’s shock, disbelief. Betrayal. Hurt.) “I had to,” she sobs—“I had to, Lucy, you don’t understand, it’s—the Book, it—”

“You betrayed us! You betrayed Fitzgerald, and Poe, and Twain and Steinbeck and Margaret and—and everyone, everyone in the Guild! You…” Her voice wavers, stutters; her hands fold into fists. “You betrayed me.”

A pause—Edgar moves, just a bit, to avoid getting any more tea onto his coat. The spilled liquid continues to drip onto the floor, forming a forlorn little puddle. His mind feels blank, his thoughts fuzzy, his throat blocked—somehow he’s not shocked, or even surprised. Mostly he feels empty, like the Guild is already dead and gone, like Fitzgerald has already been defeated, like the Moby Dick has already crashed and sunk into the ocean. Mostly he feels nothing, because somehow when he rewinds everything that’s happened in the past few days and months and years, he thinks he can see when Louisa had started to plan this, when their search for the Book had turned into a search for someone to end it. Worst of all, he thinks he can see why Louisa hadn’t told anyone. Hadn’t told Lucy.

“I knew Edogawa Ranpo would escape Ed’s book,” Louisa finally says, after the longest three and a half minutes Edgar’s ever had to sit through. “That, or Ed wouldn’t have the heart to actually kill him. I’m sorry,” she adds, turning to give him a genuinely apologetic look, “but you have to admit it’s true. There’s no way you would have killed him, not after finding out he doesn’t have an ability.”

Edgar doesn’t even bother asking how she knows any of that, and also doesn’t bother trying to deny it—he wants to say that of course he would have killed Ranpo, of course he would have let his book play out with the rest of the characters being killed off one by one until only the protagonist was left and it would end with him committing suicide—but he thinks of Ranpo’s eyes, and smile, and his voice when he says Poe-kun, and doesn’t speak out.

So he nods. It’s all he can do.

Louisa looks down at her lap again; Lucy is still staring at her, eyes wide and pleading and who knows what else. “I know the Armed Detective Agency will defeat Francis,” she continues, voice lowering into a murmur Edgar has to strain his ears to listen to, “especially after teaming up with—with the Port Mafia. Nakajima Atsushi and A-Akutagawa Ryuunosuke.” She closes her eyes for a moment at the second name—Edgar turns away, pretends the image of Margaret’s impaled body doesn’t flash in his mind’s eye. “What really depends on them is if they’ll be able to stop the Moby Dick from crashing on time. Even if they do, I’ve already accounted for the possibility of a third party interfering with the ship’s controls—with so few members on board, not even Mr. Melville would be able to defend its mechanisms against any hackers who decide to strike now.”

“So even if they do stop the ship from crashing,” Lucy mutters, sitting back down, “then it doesn’t matter. This is still the end of the Guild.” Of the only home I’ve known since I was eleven years old, fresh out of an orphanage that would have beaten me to death if I hadn’t been picked up because of a gift the devil gave me, Edgar hears. “You betrayed us. Why?”

“Lucy, you won’t…”

“Just tell me, Louisa,” Lucy growls, but the anger peters out when she looks up, her eyes watery and her scowl struggling to keep from trembling. “Why?”

Louisa inhales, exhales, looks away. “If the Book even exists,” she mumbles, “Francis… he’s not meant to use it. Something that powerful can’t be found by just anyone hoping to rewrite the laws of this world for their own gain, otherwise any common person could pick it up off the street and get whatever they want. If, and that is a big if, the Book exists, then it must choose its writer—someone who wouldn’t use it for their own personal gain.”

“What’s so wrong with wanting Scottie back?” Lucy lashes out, fury creeping into her voice. “She was just a kid. She was six years old! If that stupid Book can turn anyone into God,” she shouts, “then wouldn’t God be someone who would give a child a second chance at living again? Wouldn’t God be someone who would bring her back to life, when she hadn’t even done anything wrong to deserve death?”

“If there is a God, then He took Scottie for a reason,” Louisa says, like she’s speaking to a child who can’t understand the concept of religion, a child asking why God had given them this ability that took everyone they loved away from them. “Lucy, listen—bringing someone back from the dead is terrifying. What if Scottie doesn’t want to come back? What if she understands this is where she’s supposed to be now? If Francis brought her back and she were unhappy, what then?”

Lucy says nothing, only offers an intense stare bordering on a glare.

Louisa breathes out, long and slow. “Look, my—my point is, I don’t think Francis is meant to use the Book. I don’t think it chose him. Maybe it chose Nakajima—after all, our research led us to him. Maybe it’s connected to him somehow. But the problem is that Francis is so preoccupied with finding that Book and bringing his daughter back that—that he’s forgotten what’s still here. What still matters.” She breaks off for a moment and rubs her temple, shoulders quivering. “He’s forgotten… a lot of things. He didn’t visit Zelda as often, after Scottie died, when she needed it most—he wanted to distance himself from her because he wanted to forget the pain of losing his child. He forgot his responsibilities to the Guild—you realize it was mostly Ed and I who handled missions, financial reports, company issues, new members. After this fight, after his defeat, I…”

“You’re hoping this will make him remember,” Edgar offers, when Louisa doesn’t seem capable of continuing anymore. “You’re hoping he’ll finally open his eyes, or something, once he loses everything.”

She rubs at her face. “Y-Yes. And I’ll be there with him, to help him remember. To be a reminder.” Breathe in, breathe out. There had been nights, Edgar thinks, where they’d only had each other to remind themselves to breathe, to remind themselves that there was at least one other person carrying the weight of the world with them. “I was… I don’t know. I was hoping you two could… could help me? Could be with me? Could be with us, when that happens?”

“You’re telling me you brought the organization to rock bottom so you could build it up again,” Lucy says. It isn’t a question.

Louisa meets her gaze—for once, those pale green eyes aren’t looking anywhere else, and Edgar doesn’t think he imagines the almost imperceptible way Lucy balks under that look. “If you want to think of it that way, then yes,” she says—soft and low but firmer than ever. “I’m sorry Lucy, and I’m sorry, Ed—maybe I should have told you about this first, before we arrived in Japan. But… I couldn’t risk anyone knowing and trying to stop me, because there’s no other way.” She shakes her head. “I know Francis can recover, after this, especially if I can be with him. And I know we can bring the Guild back to its glory. Please, I… I trust you. Both of you.”

Another short pause—when Edgar looks over at Lucy, her emotions are splattered all over her face like paint on a canvas, hesitation and hurt mixing together to form shades of betrayal and budding belief. For a moment Edgar thinks she’ll say yes— thinks she’ll reach out and take Louisa’s hand, and trust her like she has trusted the older woman for all eight years they’ve known each other. And Edgar wouldn’t be surprised, not when he can still remember the times Lucy had needed Louisa to braid her hair for her; not when he can still remember Lucy swearing she’ll protect Louisa if the ship ever gets invaded because Louisa’s ability is non-combatant; not when he can still see how Lucy looks at Louisa like she holds every sparkling star in her hands.

But then Lucy stands, turns away, stalks over to the door. “If there really is a God,” she bites out, “then He’s a fucking asshole.”

She slams the door on her way out.

Edgar cleans up the spilled tea and the shattered cup; Louisa sits by the table silently, draining cup after cup of tea until Edgar runs out. Afterwards, all she does is sit and stare at the table, which isn’t much better—when Edgar gently asks her when she’ll be leaving, she mumbles something about the Moby Dick and doesn’t repeat herself, so Edgar assumes she’s waiting for the airship’s fall.

He cleans some more until the table is squeaky clean. Then he paces, making sure to do so behind Louisa so she doesn’t get aggravated (she hated it whenever he had paced in their office). He counts the seconds and minutes, counts to the ticking of the wall clock, follows the cracks on the ceiling, fixes Karl a bowl of cereal, watches him dig through it like he’s digging through garbage. He waits.

And then, finally, Louisa twitches, as if coming back to life after a temporary death. “It’s done,” she says. “The ship’s fallen.”

“Casualties?” He doesn’t ask how she knows. Louisa always knows things, somehow.

“None.” It almost feels like a normal mission report again, the two of them exchanging files over some coffee at midnight, going over information they’ve already memorized word for word. But then Louisa sighs, and Edgar has to face that those nights are probably long gone now. “I should go.”

“You should,” he agrees, but now that she’s said it, he suddenly doesn’t want her to leave. What will he do then? Wait? For what? For who? “Where… No, you’re going to look for Fitzgerald, aren’t you.”

Her voice only shakes a little. “Yes.”

“Will you be alright by yourself?”

“I’ll have to be. I can’t keep hiding behind someone to fight my battles for me.” She swallows, stands up—she has to hold onto the edge of the table for balance. “I’m… scared, Eddie.”

Edgar breathes out a little sigh. “That’s good. I’m glad.”

“W-What? Why?”

“It means you’re brave.” He takes her hand, different from their usual feather-light touches; she jolts a little, but doesn’t jerk away. Neither of them are fond of physical contact, but both of them had needed something to remind each other that they’re there, so they had established the briefest brushing of a hand on a wrist, or a very mild, barely-there bump of the shoulders—but this time, Edgar doesn’t think one of those would be able to convey everything he wants to tell her. And Louisa seems to understand that, because she sniffs and grips his hand, her fingers so, so small and fragile in his. “I’m proud of you, alright?”

She coughs out a miserable little laugh. “F-Funny you’re the one saying that, when I joined the Guild before you. Aren’t I technically your senior?”

“I’m still proud of you.”

She’s silent for a moment, then nods, her lower lip trembling dangerously. “T… Thank you. That… That means a lot.”

Edgar walks her to the front door—not that it’s very far, but he doesn’t want to let go just yet, and neither does she. They stand in front of the door for a ridiculously long time until Edgar finally gets the nerve to ask, “Why?”

“Why what?” Louisa asks, even though Edgar knows she’s well aware of what he’s asking.

“Why do you care so much, about Fitzgerald? About the Guild?” What happened to you before that led you to be so devoted to him? You were only nineteen when we first met, and you were already a trusted member. How old were you when you joined? Seventeen? Fourteen? Eleven, like Lucy? Why did you join? Why?

She looks down, scuffing her feet on the floor. “He didn’t give up on me, back then,” she whispers. “I can’t give up on him now.”

Back then. Edgar has no idea what that means, and it’s frustrating not knowing something—but there is so much conviction, so much belief and loyalty packed into her words that he can’t not trust her on this. She’s twenty-five, three years younger than him, and she has so many more things out there for her to see—so he gives her hand one last squeeze before letting her go. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. Alright.”

“You won’t come with me?” Her voice barely rises at the last syllable—a question even she doesn’t think is worth asking.

“No, I… No. I can’t.” He shakes his head. “I want to help you, Lou, I do. But I don’t think… I don’t think I can help Fitzgerald anymore.” I can’t kill for him anymore. I can’t do this anymore. “But I don’t regret anything. Because I met you, and Lucy, and everyone in the Guild…” Edgar sighs. Breathes. Looks at her, at those pale green eyes, remembers when he had first looked in them and tried to convince a timid young woman to come aboard an airship floating high up in the sky. “I wouldn’t have changed anything.”

Louisa smiles, faint and weak but genuine. “No. Me neither.”

Theoretically, Edgar has enough money to get a plane ticket to America and rent a cheap apartment there—God knows how much money he has saved up now, a stark difference from what he’s used to. Theoretically, Edgar could go back to living a semi-normal life and pretend he isn’t a known murderer from the Guild with a bounty on his head—with the Guild’s fall, he’s certain the government will be up and about searching for every last member, and though he’s ensured no one has a recent photo of him, he also knows he’s a prominent figure, especially since his story is something the media loves gobbling up. Edgar Allan Poe: ability user, child murderer, Guild member. Sensational news.

But this apartment, the same apartment the widow had died in six years ago, the same apartment he’s in right now, is also bought and paid for under the Guild’s name. The landlord is a timid type and easily bought over with money—Edgar doubts he’d have a problem keeping the man silent with the promise of death via book if he so much as hints at Edgar’s existence. So theoretically, Edgar could live here, in this apartment. Theoretically, Edgar doesn’t have to go back to America.

Theoretically, Edgar could still see Edogawa Ranpo.

He paces the apartment while rolling that thought around his head. Theoretically, I could still see Ranpo-kun. Edogawa Ranpo, who defeated him for the second time in a row. Edogawa Ranpo, who doesn’t have an ability. Edogawa Ranpo, who said, “I’m looking forward to your next challenge”—next, implying there will be a next time. Edogawa Ranpo, whose surname is Edogawa and first name Ranpo, unlike what that cheeky brat had made him believe for six whole years just so Edgar would make the mistake of calling him by his first name and make it awkward for him to say Edogawa-kun now, especially after Ranpo had complained about him being too formal.

Edogawa Ranpo.

Edgar turns the television on—the news channel is on fire with the fall of the Moby Dick, and therefore the Guild. Some reporters are talking about how much the past events will cost Yokohama for repairs; some about how the Armed Detective Agency single-handedly defeated the Guild, the most feared Secret Society of all time, the organization of ability users to end all others, etcetera; some about how the Armed Detective Agency are actually the reasons Yokohama is in shambles right now, which Edgar supposes isn’t exactly false, and that they should be the ones to cover structural damage expenses.

Mostly, all he can look at are the remains of the Moby Dick, fished up and being carried away for research, examination, and, eventually, disposal. If Edgar closes his eyes, he can still pretend he’s in his room on the airship: the floor rumbling faintly beneath him, his pens and papers scattered across his desk, the head of a flower bobbing beside his window. The thin curtains drawn, but sunlight still filtering through. The sounds of the other members outside, messing around or arguing about some petty disagreement.

The other members.

He opens his eyes and continues pacing—he hadn’t realized he had stopped. He paces, paces some more. There’s nothing better to do that will help keep his mind off things while simultaneously helping him concentrate on what needs to be concentrated on. Where will he go from here? He’s aware there are dozens of things he can do now: move to a new country, change his name, stay out of sight from the officials until they forget about him and his affiliation with the Guild, then proceed to do whatever the hell he wants. (He doesn’t remember the last time he’s had this much freedom.) Or… or.

The doorbell rings.

Edgar nearly knocks Karl and his cereal bowl off the table—the raccoon squeaks in protest and scurries to the other side of the table, bringing his bowl with him. Just a Guild member, he tries to tell himself, probably come for… safety, or something, or maybe…

Stranger, a slip of paper he’d left beneath the welcome mat says. Two of them.

Fuck, Edgar thinks. He closes his eyes and tries to access the paper’s eyes, but his idiot self hadn’t accounted for it to be impossible to see through the welcome mat, so he abandons the futile effort and casts around for another option. There’d been an old poster advertising some sort of festival across the hall; a bit far, but it should be enough to see if they really are strangers. He searches for it, reaches out, curls his fingers—and wants to kick himself when he sees Ranpo, first and foremost.

He’s not a stranger, Edgar immediately tells the welcome-mat-paper.

It huffs. Well, who is he, then?

Who is he, indeed. Edgar returns to the poster’s eyes—there’s another man, this one much taller and with long blonde hair tied back in a tight ponytail. Kunikida Doppo, of the Detective Agency—his ability is Lone Poet, if Edgar is remembering his information right (and he usually is). The stern look on his face makes him seem much older than he probably is, but it’s not like Edgar’s in any position to judge. He’s… Ranpo-kun. But the other one is a stranger. Do you… sense ill intent?

What? How should I know? They just showed up here talking about how this is seriously dangerous and whatever. Listen, if I’m going to be your guard paper, then can I at least get a better post? It’s all hot and stuffy under this stupid mat, I’ll have you know! And people step all over me without considering my feelings! It really hurts!

I’ll put you somewhere else later, alright? Edgar fumbles for a weapon of some sort—“dangerous,” then that means they’re preparing for a fight with him, aren’t they, are they planning to take him into custody now that they know his ability and they’re sure no other Guild members will be there to back him up, how could he have possibly thought he and Ranpo would suddenly be alright after he’d just tried to kill him, dear God— but then the doorbell rings again, high and shrill, so Edgar grabs his notebook and, very carefully, inches the door open.

It has a chain and swings inwards, so he can at least keep the chain on and hide behind the door. Edgar doubts this will be of any actual protection against a member of the Agency, but it’s something. “What is it?” he mumbles, as way of greeting.

“Poe-kun!” Ranpo nearly shouts—Kunikida’s frown deepens, and Edgar nearly jumps back from the door. “Why are you hiding? Do you think we’re going to attack you or something? Sheesh. I’m just here to get your number!”

A brief moment of silence—Edgar allows his brain another second to reboot before replying. “What?” It’s not a very good reply, though, but can anyone blame him.

“Your number. Like cellphone number. You have a cellphone. Don’t you? You can’t afford a place in this expensive apartment and not have a cellphone, I don’t care if it’s to avoid being tracked by the government or whatever because you’re a Guild member.” Ranpo takes a breath, and Edgar uses that time to restart his head again, because it doesn’t seem to be registering any of the words Ranpo’s spouting out like water from a fountain, or maybe bullets from a machine gun. “Anyway, number. Come on. It can’t be that hard to recite some digits.”

“I told you this was pointless, Ranpo-san,” Kunikida grumbles.

“Is not! Poe-kun, prove him wrong.”

“Why would you want my number?” Edgar asks. His voice comes out entirely too weak to be taken seriously.

Ranpo blinks, his eyes opening for the quickest of moments then closing again. “Why wouldn’t I? I did say there’d be a next time. Or do you not have any more mysteries for me? That’s not possible, because that’d be too boring for you, so obviously you have more.”

“M… Mysteries.”

“Detective games! You promised you’d make more for me!”

“I don’t remember making any promises like that,” Edgar says, but for some deranged reason, his lips are pulling up in a sort-of smile. Perhaps it’s just some sort of weird tic. An illness from being on foreign land for too long. That must be it.

Ranpo crosses his arms. “Trust me, Poe-kun, you don’t want me to get angry. Not when you’re so interesting.”

“Interesting?” Edgar repeats, as if testing the word—it rolls off his tongue slow and smooth, like a precariously-positioned stone tipping over to fall into a flowing river. “Why?”

“Well, you’re the one who wrote the files for the Moby Dick, right? Don’t answer that question, because I know the answer’s yes, I know your handwriting now. They were nice, see, all detailed and specific and exactly what we needed to infiltrate your base. Thanks very much for that, by the way, it was almost too easy.”

“It was not,” Kunikida sighs.

“So,” Ranpo continues, giving no hint he had heard the other man, “I realized that the only other person who could make plans of that level of detail is me. Therefore, give me your number, because you’re interesting and you seem like the sort of person who needs reminders to write more books for me.”

“Usually people pay for those,” Edgar points out.

“Usually people don’t get sucked in the book and almost get killed, so I think it’s a nice pay-off, considering.”

Edgar exhales heavily—the little smirk on Ranpo’s face shows just how much he’s enjoying this ridiculous back-and-forth, and Edgar would be lying if he said he doesn’t find it… well, interesting. For a moment his grip on his notebook tightens; it would be easy to draw the both of them inside one of his other works, one where there’s no mystery to solve, only burning, seething hatred waiting for a victim to sink its teeth into. It would be easy—he would only have to lift it up for the briefest of seconds, to curl his fingers, to reach for that power—

“Don’t move.”

There’s a gun pointed at his head, arm stretching above the chain. Of course. “I wasn’t going to,” Edgar says, surprised at how calm his voice sounds despite the very imminent threat of a bullet through his brain—he had seen Kunikida Doppo’s hand move, a muted green glow from a sheet of notebook paper forming into a firearm. For a second he wonders why he hadn’t slammed the door in their face or ducked to avoid the promise of a gunshot—for a second he wonders if it’s because he had seen the notebook and thought, It won’t hurt me.

Kunikida’s head tilts, just enough for him to make eye contact with Edgar through the crack in the door. “Drop your notebook.”

Edgar places it on the floor, because he’s not a barbarian and his notebook would complain for hours on end if he manhandles it. Then he lifts his hands to show they’re empty (which isn’t a big deal—it’s not like his pockets are the same). “I won’t attack,” he says, still as calm and composed as someone completely outside the situation. Danger and death have always been old friends; it’s been a while since he’s felt uncomfortable with them.

“No, you won’t,” Ranpo says, not sounding surprised or alarmed at this turn of events at the least—on the contrary, he’s brought out a lollipop to suck on, like this is all a very entertaining show he already knows the ending to. “I told you, Kunikida-san, he’s no threat. And even if he is, I can handle him.”

Edgar resists the urge to roll his eyes.

“So will you give me your number yet? I didn’t come all the way here just to have Kunikida-san attack you for no good reason.”

No good reason?” Kunikida barks—impressively enough, the grip on his gun never wavers, nor does his gaze move away from Edgar. “This is a former Guild member you’re talking about. Talking to, actually. He literally tried to kill you just hours ago!”

“But it would’ve been an interesting death,” Ranpo huffs. Then, to Edgar, “Come on, number? If anything, it’ll let us keep track of you, you know, to see if you’re up to no good and trying to rebuild the Guild from the ground up or whatever. Not that I think you will,” he adds, “but it’s still a possibility. A tiny one, but it’s there.”

Slowly, so that Kunikida can track his every movement down to the angle his arm is at, Edgar retrieves his phone from his pocket and opens it up to show his number. Ranpo barely blinks at the string of digits before saying, “Okay, thanks, bye.”

“You memorized it that quickly.” It’s not a question.

“Yup. Honestly, you should be honored I came out here personally to ask you, when I could’ve just hacked into the government database or something and found it out myself.” He pauses, and frowns. “Why didn’t I do that? It would’ve made for an interesting prank.”

“Maybe because it’s rude,” Edgar suggests. Kunikida finally puts down his gun, so Edgar does the same with his arms—they’d been starting to get sore, a sure sign that he needs more exercise than he thinks.

“You realize I don’t care about manners?”

“Then maybe because I would’ve known it was you right away, if you had tried,” Edgar amends, tamping down what feels like another twitch of the lips. This is a very odd facial tic indeed.

Ranpo, on the other hand, cracks a mischievous grin. “See you later, Poe-kun.”

Edgar figures it’s pointless to ask for his number back, considering he doesn’t particularly need it when Ranpo already has his—he keeps watch via the poster on the wall as Ranpo and Kunikida make their way down the hallway and eventually out of sight, arguing about safety and precautions and being too excited. Edgar goes back to pacing until they leave the vicinity of the apartment building, then flops onto the bed and opens up his notebook. “Sorry about that.”

What, about handling me too harshly? Glad you noticed!

Edgar coughs out a laugh as Karl clambers up to join him on the blankets. “What did you think about them?”

Well, the notebook that blondie was holding sure is a looker. I wish I could’ve talked to ‘em more.

“You are ridiculous.”

Yeah, and you own me, so what does that say about you?

He flips through the pages absently, Karl dozing off at his side—years-old newspaper clippings are still taped to the pages, on David Poe’s disappearance and Elizabeth Poe’s death, on grainy photos framed by HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY? He looks at his seven-year-old self, all rosy cheeks and genuine smiles, and looks up to face a nearby mirror. Where had those gone, he thinks. He looks at his hollow gray eyes, devoid of color under the dim light, looks at his sunken face and the way his skin clings onto his bones for dear life. Where had those gone.

He supposes that isn’t the hardest question ever, if it can still be called a question.

This notebook is possibly the oldest one he has, the one that’s stuck with him for a decade—it’s chock full of both newspaper cut-outs and old writings, mostly badly-composed poems or story ideas he had needed to write down before forgetting. Dark poems that glow black when he touches them are crammed in between the pages, almost all of them housing a corpse or five. But there are scribbles here and there about his day, too, though these Edgar can barely remember what they had been about. Royster, one simply reads, squeezed into the margins and barely legible because its ink had run.

He lies there and traces the name, over and over again, wondering how Royster is doing now. You good? the notebook asks, after a while. You don’t usually reminisce like this. It’s always a sort of endless montage of work for you.

“I think I want to stop for a bit,” he murmurs, making sure not to wake Karl. “To… pause. To take a moment and… and rest.”

I’ll go back to America, he decides, but not now. Not just yet. I’ll figure out what I’ll do later on. For now…

“Wake me up if someone’s there,” he tells the guard paper beneath the welcome mat—then he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

“Poe.”

Edgar used to think years of mindless murder would have prepared him for everything—then he’d had to change his perception of that once he realized nothing would ever be able to prepare anyone for Edogawa Ranpo. And now, again, he has to alter that belief a little: years of mindless murder certainly did not prepare him for a bloody, worn for wear Nathaniel Hawthorne at his doorstep, the circles beneath his eyes almost as black as the night sky above them.

“Hawthorne,” he returns, much softer and weaker than the other man. He thinks he sees a hint of distaste in the way Hawthorne’s brow furrows, but even that doesn’t faze him anymore, not when it looks like Edgar’s the one with the upper hand here. “Er… What do you need?”

A pause—Hawthorne clenches his hands into fists at his sides, but the tension leaves him when he sighs like all the weight of the world is on his back. “I need a place to stay. Just for the night, then I’ll be gone.”

Oh. “Is that it?” From the look on Hawthorne’s face, Edgar had been steeling himself for something more along the lines of Let’s take down the Agency with our bare hands.

Hawthorne looks downright offended. “Is that it?” he repeats, incredulous.

“It’s not a huge burden,” Edgar explains, taking the chain off the door and letting Hawthorne take cautious steps into the apartment. The suspicious glances he throws around the house, as if Karl himself is going to spring up and eat his face, are more amusing than anything. “You can stay longer, if you’d like. You look… tired.”

“Thank you for putting it nicely.” There’s no bite in the retort, only exhaustion, nor is there a refusal to the offer. Edgar’s glad the apartment’s fairly spacious—well, maybe just less cramped than his room at the Moby Dick and his previous apartment in Midtown, but what matters is that there’s a guest room.

“Where is, er. Where’s Margaret?”

“In treatment,” Hawthorne says, tone as sharp as the ability that had impaled Margaret’s body. He says nothing for a moment, only sets a bag on the floor and collapses onto a chair, face in his hands, then mutters, the edge gone, “She may never wake up.”

Edgar knows that, of course; he honestly thinks she’s as good as dead with how badly injured she had been. Even he had felt a twinge of pain when Rashoumon had pierced through the scrap of paper stuffed somewhere in the folds of Margaret’s dresses. To hear that she had only fallen into a coma had been almost surprising, but he supposes Margaret Mitchell has always refused to accept a defeat she did not feel she deserved. “She’ll be alright,” he says, but the words are hollow in his mouth, hollower still when they hover in the air, ignored by Hawthorne.

He thinks of Lenore, how quickly she had broken, fell in battle. On the more sleepless nights, he still wonders if she had felt any pain, or if it, at the very least, had been fast.

Edgar shows him into the guest room, which Hawthorne shuts himself inside almost immediately; he considers asking where Margaret is a second time, in hopes of getting a more concrete answer, like a hospital, but he decides against it—wherever she is, she’s a known Guild member, and therefore constantly in danger no matter what. He paces for a little longer, unable to sleep with the papers in the guest room asking each other who the stranger is; then, when he doesn’t need to look at a clock to know it’s far past normal waking hours, sits down to write.

He doesn’t know what to write about, not really, but he thinks about everything that’s happened in such a short span of time: the fall of the Guild, the departure of people he had never thought may leave, Twain’s unsaid words, Steinbeck’s impaired leg, Lucy’s screams, Louisa’s sighs. Hawthorne, in the other room. Fitzgerald, wherever he may be now. Ranpo.

Ranpo.

Edgar inhales and exhales, and sets pen to paper. It hums at his touch, as if coming to life. You haven’t written like this in a while.

“What do you mean?” he murmurs, though he thinks he knows exactly what it means.

You know, you’re not writing to kill. Its voice is soft, almost caring. Just for yourself.

He thinks about where Louisa may be now, if Margaret will ever wake up, where Lovecraft’s disappeared to and if he’ll miss peanut butter sandwiches. About Mother, and what she might have told Edgar to do. “I suppose.”

The entire next day is spent walking on eggshells. Edgar makes them breakfast, which consists of exactly two slices of toasted bread and some coffee; Hawthorne makes a face at the coffee, so Edgar remembers to make tea for lunch instead. Karl should never be within two feet of him or he’ll start sneezing, so Edgar encourages the raccoon to stay in the bedroom, which Karl doesn’t take to very kindly (he chews on all the furniture).

Hawthorne also trails blood all along the floor, which, while something Edgar is used to, is still quite troublesome, especially when he steps on a puddle of it and only adds to the mess. “Are you alright?” Edgar asks, when he realizes blood might get on his coat and is hell to wash off.

“Fine.”

“If you were really fine, you wouldn’t be bleeding everywhere.”

“I’m—” Hawthorne sucks in a breath through gritted teeth, and his next words are more tired than annoyed. “It’s my ability. It does that.”

Edgar raises an eyebrow. “It gives you severe blood loss?”

“It opens up recent wounds even if they’ve already healed. My blood gets… restless.”

“What calms you down, then?”

A pause. “I don’t know,” Hawthorne mutters, looking away. He hadn’t bothered correcting Edgar’s usage of you instead of your blood. “It’s probably nothing.”

The conversation’s going nowhere, so Edgar lets it drop; he mops the blood up and watches the remaining puddles rise to seep back into the reopened wound on Hawthorne’s arm. The shape the blood forms makes it look more demonic than holy, and Edgar wonders if it’s a coincidence that The Scarlet Letter and Rashoumon are so alike in capability.

Dinner is another somber affair. Edgar observes Hawthorne as he sips his tea, and feels a bit of weight fall off his shoulders when the other man visibly relaxes. “Do you know anyone else who needs a place to stay?” Edgar asks, after some time. “It hasn’t been very long since… you know.”

Hawthorne picks at his food. “No. I haven’t spoken to anyone from the Guild until now, considering I left before the Moby Dick fell.”

“Oh. Right.” Edgar knows that, of course—apparently Hawthorne’s forgotten about the scrap of paper still tucked somewhere in his clothes—but checking up on people with papers on them has to be a conscious decision of his now, instead of getting visions without warning like he used to. As subtly as possible, he ducks his gaze down and closes his eyes, just quick enough to reach out and feel around for the rest of the papers. Almost all of them are gone—Lovecraft’s has dissolved into the water entirely—but Margaret’s is still on her person somehow. The wind has always brought things back to her, he supposes, even when she doesn’t ask.

A hospital affiliated with the Guild. Edgar’s not surprised, but more concerned—now that the Moby Dick has fallen, there isn’t anyone around to stop them from stopping her treatment. It’s dangerous for them to keep her around, after all, considering everyone from the Guild are now wanted criminals. The paper’s too small and crumpled to tell him much else, but Edgar glances up at Hawthorne and peers into his eyes—there’s a distracted look to them, like he’s both here but not at the same time, staring somewhere far away.

“Can you control your blood remotely, by any chance?”

Hawthorne blinks; though his gaze seems more solid, it still feels like he’s looking through Edgar instead of at him. “Anything further than twenty kilometers is only usable for surveillance,” he replies, as if reciting from a textbook. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason.” He’s keeping watch over Margaret, then. She must be within the city—twenty kilometers isn’t terribly far. The nearest hospital is around an hour and a half away from here. Even then, surveillance is the only thing he needs to use his blood for to watch over her. No need to worry, then. “Just wondering.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t already know.”

“There’s always something new to learn.”

“Hm.” Hawthorne looks, as always, unconvinced. “Why are you staying in Japan, Poe?”

“W-Why?” Edgar looks down at his plate—he’d been expecting this question, but he still hadn’t particularly wanted to be asked about it. “I figured any sudden actions would alert the authorities to my presence as compared to lying low and waiting for the chaos to die down a little. Besides, I’m not sure where to go yet.”

“Strange. You’re the sort of person to take advantage of the chaos and escape while everyone else is looking elsewhere.” Hawthorne sips his tea. “Cowardly, but strategic.”

Coward. Edgar pointedly avoids eye contact, pretends the word doesn’t hit as hard as it does. “Would you do the same? Will you do the same?” Even now, I’m still…

“No.” The answer is fast, blunt, with barely any thought behind it. When Edgar looks up, Hawthorne is stirring his tea, his gaze far away again. “I can’t. Even if I want to—and I do.”

“Oh.” The wind has always brought things back to me.

Hawthorne sighs, deep and heavy like all the world’s resentment is on his shoulders. “Thank you for the food.”

On the fifth day of Hawthorne’s stay, the doorbell rings. Karl scurries to hide beneath the table, while Edgar grabs his notebook and Hawthorne’s blood swirls to life around his wrist. “Stay back,” Edgar snaps, surprising both of them at the sharpness in his tone. “Your ability draws more attention than mine. I can handle this.”

“You don’t even—”

Stay back.

Hawthorne swallows and does so, the blood dropping back into his arm—sometimes, with the way they act, Edgar forgets he’s technically the more senior one between the two of them in regards to how long they have been in the Guild. Had been—but he refuses to think about that now, as he approaches the front door and accesses the eyes and ears of all available papers.

Him again, the guard paper, now moved from beneath the welcome mat to peeking out from beneath the welcome mat, grunts. Your Ranpo-kun.

He’s not mine. It is Ranpo, though, and alone this time, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet and whistling a vaguely familiar tune. If a member of the Agency knew that Edgar’s keeping Guild members in his place, none of them would be safe—if Hawthorne knew that a member of the Agency was visiting him and had his number, then it’d be almost like a betrayal, too—no, not almost, it’d be a betrayal—like Lucy, like Louisa—

What do I do? His grip on his notebook tightens. What do I do? (Who do I choose?)

“Pooooe-kuuuun,” Ranpo calls, audible even through the door, “are you gonna keep me waiting all day? I know you’re in there!”

Edgar can practically feel Hawthorne’s questioning stare burning his back. “Who is that?” he hisses from behind.

“N-No one, just—just—” God, not now, let me talk coherently for once in my life—“A—f-friend—”

A what? his mind screams. A what, now? Did you just call him your friend? Edogawa Ranpo, your friend?

“Well, tell him to get out, then, you’re busy or something—”

“I-I can’t! He’s—I—”

“Poe-kun.” Ranpo’s voice is still loud, but the playfulness has gone now, replaced by a seriousness Edgar’s grown to associate with two sharp green eyes, a glint of glasses, a razor-edge grin. “I’m getting tired of waiting.”

“Ranpo-kun, um…” Edgar eases the door open, keeping the chain on and hoping Hawthorne has enough mind to stay out of sight. “I’m a bit… occupied right now, unfortunately.”

It’s still a wonder seeing Ranpo in the flesh, especially when Edgar’s had to settle for nothing but memory and imagination for six years. Right now, Ranpo’s wearing a frown that morphs into a little pout, as if slightly appeased by Edgar’s words but not enough to be completely assuaged—he’s so very expressive, Edgar notes, and he has to force himself to tune back into the conversation instead of memorizing Ranpo’s face all over again. “Not occupied enough to let me in, at least?”

“And I should do that… why?”

“Because I’m bored and I want one of your mysteries.”

“You are aware the Guild’s fall is still all over the news, and that associating with me is—”

“For a guy who’s so smart, you sure talk boring. You’re like Kunikida! Danger this, danger that, don’t-associate-yourself-with-someone-like-Poe-kun there. Where’s the fun in staying safe? Wouldn’t you understand that?”

“I’ve never wanted anything in my life but to always be safe,” Edgar murmurs, and he hates how he can’t quite cover up how genuine he sounds.

Ranpo blinks. God, even against Ranpo’s intelligence, Edgar had thought he’d gotten good at hiding his emotions—but something about Ranpo just unnerves him, makes him let his guard down, and he can’t tell if that’s a good or bad thing. “Hm, I guess I can get that,” he muses. “Abilities can be a problem sometimes, right? Still, though, if you think I’m any danger to you… well, you wouldn’t be wrong, because I’m a danger to anyone. But I don’t plan on trying to kill you unless you try to kill me again, so could you just let me in? This conversation would be much more comfortable when I’m sitting on a couch with some snacks.”

Edgar resists the urge to chew on his bottom lip—knowing Ranpo, he’d identify that as a nervous habit right away, no matter how tiny the movement. He’d managed to keep the guy talking for quite a few minutes, so hopefully Hawthorne’s found some way out the apartment that isn’t through jumping out the balcony and landing several stories down, but… “Now’s really not a good time, Ranpo-kun.”

The almost-amused look on Ranpo’s face instantly changes to displeasure again. Edgar ignores the way his heart twists a little. “What is it? Is there a dead body on your floor or something?”

“W-Well, no—”

“You’re not dealing in the slave trade, are you?”

The human trafficking business had never been his favorite part working for the Guild. “No—”

“You didn’t just finish jerking off and haven’t cleaned up ye—”

No!

Ranpo huffs and crosses his arms, leaning back slightly. “Then there’s no problem, is it? Those are the three main things I wouldn’t like to walk in on right now, so everything else is fair game. Hm, though I wouldn’t really like it if you had your half-naked girlfriend in there or something either, but it’s not as bad as the last one.”

Edgar can feel his face heating up with every word, and even more so at his last few words. For a guy who acts so childish, he sure can say things like that without so much as a blush. “N-No. I don’t even have…” He trails off, half in embarrassment and half in caution. Why he’s cautious, he doesn’t know—it’s not like Ranpo knowing his sexuality will matter much, and he’s never been very careful with it before—but he keeps his mouth shut all the same.

Unfortunately, this is Ranpo he’s talking to, which means speaking and not speaking have very little difference in the face of his superior deduction skills. “A girlfriend?” he finishes for Edgar. He sounds far from surprised. “Well, it’s not like I actually thought you’d have her in there, but okay. So? Let me in. Before I try figuring out what you’ve got in there.” Ranpo’s hand twitches to his pocket, where Edgar can see the briefest glint of his glasses. “Or who.”

Edgar says nothing, at first—for a writer, he’s pretty terrible at coming up with words on the spot (or maybe because he’s a writer). Then he swallows and gives in to those inquisitive green eyes, taking the chain off the door and pulling it wider. “Come in,” he murmurs, casting a glance behind him.

Nothing but a speck of blood on the floor. The door to the guest room had been previously open, but now it’s shut and probably locked as well, if Hawthorne knows what’s good for him. Ranpo walks in without so much as a flicker in his gaze at the blood and drops down on the couch, as he’d promised. “Nice in here,” he says.

“Um. Thank you.”

“Don’t you have snacks?”

“You are quite forward.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that. In words less nice than forward.” Ranpo snorts. It’s annoying and endearing at once. “Come on, you can’t not have snacks, how would you live otherwise? Besides, you’ve got more than one mouth to feed here.”

“Do you mean Karl?” Edgar asks, knowing very well he doesn’t.

Ranpo rolls his eyes. “You know very well I don’t.” When Edgar doesn’t respond immediately, Ranpo leans forward, elbow resting on his knee and chin propped up on the edge of his palm—he looks far from amused again, his expression curious but indecipherable, even to Edgar’s experienced eyes. “Ho-nest-ly. I’m hurt you don’t trust me more, Poe-kun.”

Trust? “Trust?” Edgar slowly repeats, doing his best not to bristle. You made a fool out of me six years ago, we came out of opposite sides of a war, I nearly killed you and your coworker or friend or girlfriend, whoever she is, I could very well do so again with you sitting there and being easy pickings for one of my poems, who do you damn think you are, do you think we’re friends—“We barely know each other.”

“Your point?”

“My point—” Edgar breathes in for a second, taking the chance to reel in the thorns in his tone. “My point is, well. You can’t expect me to trust you after everything that’s happened so recently.”

Ranpo turns away, but not enough that Edgar can’t see the way his mouth is pulled down in a frown. “Still,” he grumbles, “I thought you were like me.”

Edgar blinks. “What?”

“Nothin’.” Ranpo jumps up and wanders over to the kitchen itself. After a brief moment of hesitation, Edgar follows, more out of fear Ranpo will break a plate than anything. “You should tell your friend that it might be too late for the lady if she doesn’t get better treatment. The lame old hospital she’s in doesn’t have the right stuff for her.”

Edgar freezes, but forces himself to speak. “So you knew.”

“Duh.” Ranpo opens a cabinet, spies a packet of biscuits, and swipes them in the blink of an eye. “Just wanted to see what you’d come up with. Which was nothing.”

“You know you can just come out and say something.”

“Hm?” Ranpo tears the packet open and shoves a cookie in his mouth before looking up at Edgar, a mischievous light dancing in his eyes. “But I wanted to see your reaction with the jerking-off one. Wasn’t that funny?”

Edgar grinds his teeth and pretends not to have heard. From beneath the kitchen table, Karl dashes out and hisses up at Ranpo, probably because he’d marked those biscuits as his since they’d first arrived in the apartment.

To Edgar’s surprise, Ranpo just shrugs and breaks a biscuit in half before feeding it to Karl. “You still have your raccoon,” he says. “I remember him. He was in your bag, that time.”

That time. To remember a detail as insignificant as that is only something Ranpo would be capable of, Edgar supposes. “Did you pretend to forget who I was, when we met again?”

“Maybe a bit. I didn’t recognize you at first, what with the lack of a ponytail and in goth clothes.”

“G-Goth—”

“Who wears their coat like that? Goths.” Ranpo tosses the other biscuit half down to Karl again, who seems to have gotten over his initial dislike for the man after a single piece of food. “Who wears high-heeled boots like that? Goths. You got new boots since last time, didn’t you?”

“What? Er, I mean. I think so.” Goth? Edgar internally grumbles. It’s not his fault it’s more convenient to wear his coat like this. And he likes his boots. Don’t goths wear boots with spikes or something? His don’t have spikes. Unless one counts the heels themselves, considering they’re pointy enough to be considered spikes, but still… “Why do you even remember what shoes I wore?”

“Well—” Ranpo shrugs. “I was paying attention.”

It’s probably the most obvious thing someone like Ranpo can say. “Don’t you always?” Edgar asks. “That’s like saying you breathe to stay alive or something.”

“What—no, it doesn’t! Don’t you get me?”

Edgar stares at him. Ranpo looks every bit surprised and confused that Edgar doesn’t ‘get’ him, but Edgar doesn’t doubt this man isn’t as good an actor as he is a detective. “No.”

Ranpo sighs and pops another biscuit in his mouth. “Hm, you’re a lot more dense than I thought, Poe-kun.”

“W… What’s that supposed to mean.”

“Nothing. Got any books? Not boring ones, mind you, and I trust you enough to know what boring is for me.”

Ranpo essentially lounges in the apartment all day until he proclaims Kunikida is nearby to pick him up, like a parent coming to fetch their child from a playdate. When he finally leaves, after pointing out every single little inconsistency he could find from the books Edgar’s collected over the years, the door to the guest room slams open.

Blood trails from Hawthorne’s coat when he walks out, looking positively murderous. “You,” he starts, which is already a pretty bad sign. “You were friends with a member of the Agency? This whole time? And he’s the one you were assigned to kill, isn’t he?”

Edgar’s heart thunders in his ears. “Listen,” he says, injecting every note of calmness he can into his voice, “I wasn’t fraternizing with the Agency, at least before the Guild fell. I did try to kill him, but I failed, and now he’s… well…”

“Inviting himself over to your place? Feeling at home enough to tease you and feed your pet and track mud all over the floor?” Hawthorne snaps, his voice rising with every (admittedly correct) accusation.

Edgar bites his lip and decides against pointing out how Hawthorne, though he doesn’t tease Edgar or feed Karl, definitely tracks blood on the floor on a daily basis. “That’s how he is,” Edgar says. “This is only the, what, fourth time we’ve talked, I think—you heard how he acts, he doesn’t care for social norms.”

Hawthorne huffs irritably, but Edgar says, “And I think I know what else you must’ve heard,” and all the fight flees Hawthorne’s person like papers to the wind.

He’s silent, for a while, burning a hole through the floor with his gaze alone, before finally looking back up at Edgar again. “Yes,” he mutters, “I think you do.”

Edgar waves a hand to a nearby chair, which Hawthorne collapses upon, massaging his forehead. “What will you do?” Edgar asks, trying to wind his tone back to something gentle. Lucy’s given him plenty of experience talking to agitated people. “I can’t tell you what to do, but—”

“Don’t,” Hawthorne snaps, though there’s barely any bite in his voice. “I suspect this is just a roundabout way of telling me to get out of your hair, but. But I.” He breathes in. Breathes out. “I don’t… know where to go.”

The helplessness in his words tugs at Edgar’s heart—he’s never seen Hawthorne so openly vulnerable before, even in times when their mission situation had gotten tangled, or when he couldn’t control his ability as well back then. He had always kept his emotions under such tight control that it hurts Edgar, a bit, to see him struggling to figure out what to do with his feelings now, after locking them away for so long. Logic and reason would tell Hawthorne to abandon Margaret, a weak link with an untrained ability, and escape elsewhere on his own—he had always done best by himself, after all, and the younger Hawthorne, the one who’d sneered at an Edgar fresh out of Japan, had lived by logic and reason alone.

But the wind carries things, carries logic and reason straight out of Hawthorne’s hands, plunges love into them instead.

“What do you want?” Edgar asks. Hawthorne’s head jerks up from where it had been facing down at his trembling palms. “Don’t think. Don’t reason your way out of this. What do you want to do?”

He says nothing, only averts his gaze and stares at a spot behind Edgar (or perhaps further from there, stares at a hospital bed where he’d left his blood, at a barely-breathing woman whom the wind answers to). Then, softly, carefully, as if saying it any louder would break whatever fragile hold he has on his emotions: “To help her.”

“Then you know what to do.”

Hawthorne is gone the next day, and so are a few spare clothes in Edgar’s wardrobe, along with a backpack he’d never used. Karl is awake before him, that morning, watching the front door, as if waiting for someone to come back.

“He’s somewhere else,” Edgar says, gathering Karl up in his arms and planting him in front of a bowl of cereal.

Karl, uncharacteristically enough, doesn’t dig in right away. He looks up at Edgar instead, silent and confused. Where, his gaze seems to ask.

Edgar shrugs. “Wherever he needs to be.”

Before Ranpo had left the apartment, he’d thrown the place a sour look and said, “Nice as it is, you haven’t decorated at all, have you? It’s all empty and boring.”

“Why would I bother with decorations?” Edgar pauses. What even counts as decoration? he wants to ask, fully aware of all his previous houses—a child’s room erased of all papers, a study desk filled to the brim with mind-numbing homework, a tiny unit tucked away and only good for resting after a mission, a rumbling airship. He’s never had to decorate anything in his life, if only because he’d always known the places he’d lived in would be temporary.

Ranpo looks aghast. “Even my office desk at the Agency has some decorations, Poe-kun. Come on, you’re not stupid, so don’t act like it.”

To decorate the apartment, to leave some sign that he’s here, that he lives here, that he eats and sleeps and is here—it feels dangerous, somehow, as if doing so would make it all the more permanent. What it is he doesn’t actually know, but after all he’s been through, permanence feels like a trap waiting to snap him up in its jaws.

But after a few days, Edgar dons one of those medical face masks not out of place in Japan and goes out for a shopping trip anyway. I’m going back to America, he thinks, but I might as well stay a bit longer… so not just yet. For now… for now.

There are an unexpected number of things he finds himself buying. Having enough money to get things he doesn’t strictly need is still a bit new, but he figures he’s allowed to splurge, after everything that’s happened—he buys some new blankets, for one, and then some pillows, and then he finds a stuffed cat in the kid’s section that he can’t forget about even after he’s circled the entire department store, so he surreptitiously dumps it in the basket. He finds a beautiful painting of the ocean, daffodil-patterned wallpaper, a precious porcelain tea set he will certainly not be using anytime soon, a music box with a songbird… by the time he’s finished paying for everything, he’s acutely aware he’s not going to be able to bring everything back by himself, and enlists the help of his notebook to store some of the bulkier items once he’s out of sight of the employees. It takes significantly more effort, considering they’re not readers, but practice had made perfect eventually.

This usage of his ability always reminds him of Lucy, and the memory stings.

Edgar passes by a flower shop on the way out, and doesn’t even think before entering and buying a number of pots, soil, and seeds—a bouquet on display catches his eye, and he barely hears the shopkeeper wax poetic about what the flowers mean before he offers them the money. Forget-me-nots, he remembers—he’d seen a field of them before, while on a mission with Steinbeck.

He buys a vase to go with them, just because. They wave in the wind, bending but never breaking. In a few days, they’ll wilt and wither away and leave him alone again, but—Edgar fiddles with the packets of seeds in the plastic bag. Run, his flowers had said, but these ones are silent. (Steinbeck would have relayed every little word they said.)

There’s a nearby cafe advertising a cake that looks sweet enough to be acidic, but the rest of the items on the menu look alright, so he cautiously enters (looks left-right-up-down-behind, checks for any security cameras and their blind spots, examines as many people as possible to assess their abilities and if they’re a threat—some habits are hard to break) and takes a seat furthest from the rest of the customers. He gets a black coffee and is pleasantly surprised when it’s way better than what he gets when he adds hot water to cheap instant powder.

He’s also pleasantly surprised when he hears a distant argument and sees vibrant red hair tamed back in twin braids, their owner scolding Nakajima Atsushi for mispronouncing her name. “Your accent is just terrible! Listening to you is giving me a headache!”

“Ah, wait, Montgomery-chan! I-I really need to learn English for this next case—”

“Why don’t you ask someone else in the Agency? Not that I think any of them would be better than me, but more because I don’t want a migraine while I’m working!”

“Erm… please? Just a bit more? I-I’ll keep ordering cake until I get this right, so you’ll earn, too!”

A contemplative pause. “You better get the expensive ones, then.”

An even more contemplative pause. “F… Fine…”

Edgar sips his coffee and angles himself so that Lucy can’t see his face from her position, but clearly he’s underestimated her, because she stands beside him carrying a pitcher of water exactly seven minutes later. “Poe,” she says, voice level and betraying nothing.

“You may as well sit down,” Edgar says.

“Pass. I’m still working.” She pauses—Edgar finally looks up at her from his coffee and finds her looking much the same as the last time he’d seen her, when she’d sent a teacup flying and slammed the door in his and Louisa’s faces. He’d almost expected her to have changed somehow, which is silly but a constant thought at the back of his mind anyway. “What are you doing here?”

“Drinking coffee?”

She rolls her eyes. That hasn’t changed either. “You know what I mean. I thought you would’ve gone back to America, after everything.”

“‘Everything’ is why I haven’t gone back yet, actually.” He stirs the dark liquid with the stirrer absently, watching faint wisps of steam drift up from it. “I will go, soon. For now, I—want to just… stop. And focus on myself while I can.”

“In a country where you’re a wanted criminal?”

“You say that like you’re not one, too.”

“Fair,” she scoffs, leaning back and giving Edgar that look that makes him feel as if Lucy’s examining him from head to toe—it’s an expression she adopted from Louisa, and it’s been making Edgar uncomfortable in his own skin since she was eleven. “They don’t actually have any photos of us, though—Lou’s always been good at destroying evidence. It’s safe as long as we take advantage of places like this.” She waves a dismissive hand at the bustling cafe. It’s more rundown than Edgar had first seen, but not enough to detract from its overall quaint and homely appearance. “They were desperate for new workers, so they didn’t ask any questions.”

Edgar scuffs his heel against the floor. “If you need money—”

“No,” Lucy snaps, “this isn’t about money.”

And Edgar thinks he understands that, from the way she so diligently serves dishes and greets customers, from the barely-there wistful tone when she says Louisa’s name, from how she’s both guarded and chatty even after their last encounter. It’s honest work, the furthest thing from the Guild’s businesses, and that’s enough for her.

“Do you miss them?”

Lucy blinks. “What?”

“Do you miss them? The Guild. Or at least some of its members.”

Lucy stiffens, and Edgar thinks he should’ve expected this. Calling them members or teammates or even partners may be acceptable for people like him, but for Lucy, an orphan who’s never known family—he feels something in his chest twist at the thought that for her, Louisa’s betrayal must have been more than just something a Chief Strategist did to minimize casualties. “That’s not your business,” she mutters.

Edgar gives her a second to compose herself before he replies. “Seeing as I’m one of those members,” he says, keeping his voice light, “I think it’s plenty of my business, really.”

“Don’t get witty on me, Poe.” She refills his glass of water, though there’s still over half left and Edgar doesn’t really plan on touching it. “Sometimes,” Lucy mumbles, stepping away from him and pointedly avoiding eye contact, “it still feels like they’re… there. Like I’ll say something and I’ll think of what Lou would have said. Or how Twain would’ve reacted. Or like the other day, when I saw this book on display and… thought of… you.”

She falls silent, but Edgar can see the way her eyes dart from his coat pockets and back, searching for a notebook or a slip of paper (both of which he certainly has in his inside coat pockets)—it’s a habit Lucy’s developed as well, to check all the weapons her opponent has on hand and how quick she’d be able to use her ability to snatch them away. She checks everyone, even Louisa, and she’s never stopped since she’d learned how to do it as subtly as possible, so Edgar isn’t offended, but—there’s something to be said, for someone to think even their closest friends (family) would hurt them still, after all this time.

He supposes it makes sense, for her to be wary so soon after Louisa.

“But you’ve made friends, haven’t you?”

Lucy jolts. “Friends?”

Edgar tilts his head in the general direction of Nakajima, who’s sullenly staring at the contents of his wallet, or lack thereof. “You looked like you were having fun, talking to him, ‘Montgomery-chan.’”

Shut up!” Lucy sputters. Her cheeks turn an impressive shade of red that almost match her hair. “And—f-fun? No! No way! He’s just easy to manipulate into buying more cakes for some easy English lessons!”

“You’re lucky he’s too nice to point out your Japanese accent.”

“Shut up, I only had a few months to learn. He’s lucky I can even carry a conversation in the language. And we’re not friends!”

Edgar tries to give her his best I-don’t-believe-you look; judging by the way Lucy’s scowl deepens, he succeeds. “You were like this when you first met Twain, too. Bickering but helping each other out all the same. Update me if you two start practice sparring.”

Poe!” Lucy stamps her foot with all the indignance of a young woman and nearly drops her pitcher of water. (A younger Lucy would have complained about how her arm aches from holding such a heavy thing for so long now; this Lucy has carried corpses of mission partners back to the Moby Dick, whispering, I couldn’t save them, I couldn’t do anything, I’m sorry, so sorry.) But the childish irritation fades into something oddly somber, and Edgar feels his hesitant smile drop as well at her change in mood. “It’s weird,” she mumbles. “No offense, but you seem almost… I don’t know… happier.”

“O… Oh?” Happy. The word sounds almost foreign, not in English, or Japanese, or Spanish or French or Chinese or German or any of the languages Edgar’s learned over the years, whether something he’d had to speed-learn for a mission or naturally picked up on after a while.

Lucy shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s just… well, maybe happy isn’t really the word just yet. But you’re—” She makes another vague hand gesture that Edgar is probably meant to understand but doesn’t. “Freer, I guess? Obviously, since the Guild’s… but I mean, you’re a little lighter. Like you have less things to worry about now.”

Edgar looks back down at his coffee. Less things to worry about… It’s true, in a way. He used to operate doing only what was necessary—complete missions, recruit members, make negotiations, research on the Book, form business deals, read over all the reports and data with Louisa, and then spend the rest of the night writing until the sun rose. There hadn’t been much time for anything else on a daily basis, but now here he is, having some coffee after a shopping trip, his notebook holding tea sets and flowers instead of bodies.

“I do miss them,” Lucy murmurs. She doesn’t meet his eyes, though Edgar doesn’t need her to. “To answer your question.”

I know, he thinks, and doesn’t say.

Lucy goes back to Nakajima after an awkward goodbye, and Edgar watches them through the menu on Nakajima’s table. Their conversation is natural, free-flowing, nowhere near the former stiffness and forced formality present when Lucy had just met him and the other Guild members. It feels like seeing her meet Twain for the first time again, finding someone who understands and keeps up with her in ways Edgar never could.

He remembers that eleven-year-old girl who had first brought him to his apartment in Midtown, so long ago, how she’d torn away from him as soon as she’d registered his location in Anne’s Room, and how he’d needed to send out a pair of paper wings to watch over her. Lucy is here, he thinks, so I can’t leave. I can’t leave her alone.

“Come on, get it right! I’ve told you this a thousand times already! And your accent still needs work!”

“You know, your accent isn’t the best either…”

“What was that?”

“Nothing! W-Want some cake?”

He knows she’s not alone, no, and never truly will be—but some days he still sees her when she was shorter and so much smaller than she is now, muttering her words, drawing in on herself to escape attention, when the only family she’d known was her ability.

They don’t know any better, our abilities. They act when we’re in danger because they’re protecting us.

Edgar finishes his coffee and leaves a nice tip. He may have taught Lucy how to check for weapons, how to bring out the fullest potential of her ability, how to order takeout for herself at a fast food restaurant when he’d been too injured to get up and buy dinner for them—but she’s taught him plenty, too.

When Edgar gets back to the apartment, Karl greets him with a demand for food, to which Edgar responds with a generous number of apples bought from the fruit stand not too far away. While Karl busies himself with his feast, Edgar brings out his notebook and draws everything out—Well, finally, the papers grumble. It was getting tight in there.

“Sorry. But at least it’s not…” He trails off.

Yeah. At least it’s not.

He leaves the blankets and pillows on the bed, along with the stuffed cat, which he tucks beneath the covers because who knows, it just might get cold—he sets the vase of forget-me-nots on a dresser beside the window, and finds a nice spot to hang the painting, admiring the delicate brush strokes for a little longer. (He remembers Louisa and her interest in painting, at least before Guild work had driven everything else out of her one-track mind.) It’s when Edgar’s mulling over how to put the wallpaper up when his phone vibrates.

It’s illogical, but he can feel his guard shoot up anyway—who has my number, who would call me now, could it be a Guild member, could it be Hawthorne, could it be Louisa, could it be Fitzgerald asking why I’ve abandoned him—and he’s already got his notebook in hand before he knows what he’s doing. As if my ability would be any use against a cell phone right now, he thinks, but his grip only tightens.

As it turns out, it’s a single text from an unknown number. poe-kun im bored, it reads.

Edgar’s honestly a bit ashamed that he hadn’t thought of this possibility sooner. There’s no harm in leaving Ranpo hanging, because it’s not as if Edgar has to reply, but… What do you want me to do about that? he sends. He realizes it probably sounds incredibly rude, but at the same time, he doubts Ranpo would care, shockingly rude as he himself is.

The response comes lightning-fast, as if Ranpo had been waiting—Edgar unrolls the wallpaper first and takes his time measuring, even though a few seconds of observation is honestly all he needed, before he checks his phone again. GIVE ME A BOOK OR SUMTHING!!!!!!!

 

Over the phone? That sounds hard.

 

UGH. u KNOW what i mean ヽ( `Д´*)ノ

 

Edgar gets a pair of scissors and listens to his phone buzz a number of times while he cuts the length of the wallpaper. When he checks again, the messages are all along the lines of STOP IGNORING ME!!! and why r u replying so slow poe-kuuuuuuun.

It’s nothing if not entertaining. I might have some drafts in the works. He sets his phone down again, ignoring the immediate incoming messages, and spends another five minutes applying the wallpaper before he replies.

 

REALLY REALLY WHAT R THEY ABOUT

poe-kun stop IGNORING ME

ure doing this on purpose and im getting ANGRY!!! ٩(ఠ益ఠ)۶

 

Sorry, I’m busy.

 

no u just think makin me wait is funny!!!

SEE URE DOING IT AGAIN.

cant believe u right now 。・゚゚*(>Д<)*゚゚・。

HELLO!!!!!?????

 

Edgar has a terrible feeling his phone is going to explode from sheer number of messages. What is it?

 

ure gonna make me wait 5 minutes for EVERY message

bring a manuscript to the agency next week!!!! ( ̄▽ ̄)

 

What?

 

cant u read (¬_¬)

 

It’s fine if you want to come here, but I can’t just go to the Agency. For one thing, Edgar mentally grumbles, they’d been on opposing sides of a war not too long ago. To show up at the Agency’s front door would basically be begging for them to arrest him and claim the reward money Edgar knows is on his head. How can he be sure this isn’t some elaborate ploy to throw him in jail? Ranpo, of all people, would be able to do that—curl someone’s trust around his pinky finger and use it to his advantage.

The thought shouldn’t hurt, not when Edgar knows it’s something he would do to complete a mission or kill a target—but Ranpo betraying him makes his chest twist in discomfort. It’s nothing like Louisa, when all Edgar had felt had been a numb sense of oh, of course she’d do that; here, the very idea has his fingers stuttering over the phone’s keypad. Not you, he thinks. Not you, too. Not after everything, not after Edgar’s started to think that this, this whole thing with him, isn’t so bad.

 

uh yeah u can???

 

If anything, the message only makes his heart beat faster, the paranoia surging up like an ocean wave. Edgar closes his phone and sets it down, clutching his chest and trying terribly to steady his breathing, but his lungs feel too empty, the oxygen too thin, the room too small—it was always going to be like this, he tells himself, it was always going to come to this in the end, who did you think you were, did you think you were friends. He should think, he should think and use his head and calm down and breathe, but he remembers Hawthorne snapping if you had been a little faster, the rubber bullet that had struck Lucy’s hand in his split second of hesitation, Margaret’s ability whipping the wind around them, remembers that feeling of complete and utter helplessness.

Nice try. You almost got it, Poe-kun.

When he opens his phone again, if only to prevent it from vibrating right off the edge of the table, there’s a flurry of messages that Edgar doesn’t bother reading. The last text reads this isnt a trick to get u jailed or whatever, btw.

That’s exactly what someone trying to trick him into getting jailed would say, and at the same time, exactly what someone as intelligent as Ranpo would say. Edgar swallows and tries to think of what Louisa would say—probably something along the lines of being careful, but she says that when Edgar’s just going out to the kitchen for a glass of water, so.

Said, his mind corrects. She said that. She’s not with you anymore. Nor are you still a Guild member, on the Moby Dick.

God, it’s like she’s dead or something. Edgar knows she could be dead right now, somewhere in Japan’s unfamiliar streets, and he wouldn’t even know it. She should’ve played it safe, he thinks, should have stuck to what she knew best instead of leaving the future of the Guild up to chance, should have stayed with him and Lucy and everyone else, should have should have should have. There are so many things he wants to tell her, so many things he wants to change about what had happened. Maybe if she had told him, they could have thought of something else, something that wouldn’t have separated them all and broken Lucy’s unfaltering trust in Louisa, but—but.

Louisa had done what she believed was right. Maybe there had been calculations in it, countless nights composed of analyzing her decision and its branching map of consequences, but in the end it all boiled down to simply doing what she thought would be best.

Edgar’s phone buzzes. The thing’s probably not used to all the action it’s getting right now. All these messages may be its form of exercise. helloooooo poe-kun r u there.

She’d done what she believed was right. There is no Louisa to tell him to be careful now, but he doesn’t need it anymore.

Yeah.

When should I come?

Edgar’s not good at parties, or celebrations, or any social gathering in general. Scottie’s birthday parties are what stick out in his memories, mostly because he’d spent majority of his time there avoiding other people and making conversation with the children’s books on the shelves, but that’s beside the point. He just doesn’t do well with strangers, and especially not strangers he had tried—and failed—to kill.

But a welcoming party is what Ranpo had invited him to, so it’s a welcoming party Edgar goes to. A child’s party, at that, one who had recently become a member of the Agency. He doesn’t know much about her (Izumi Kyouka, fourteen years old, ability name Demon Snow, killed thirty-five people within the span of six months), but she doesn’t attack him, so he’s fine with that. He’s aware his standards are a little messed up, but it’s not like it’s entirely his fault.

Edgar also brings a welcoming present of cookies (after much frantic texting to find out what the Agency would like, poe-kun literally nobody cares, also NOW u decide to be active and reply fast u are the worst, wait COOKIES!??!? nvm ure good), which Ranpo attacks straight away as soon as he opens the door—Karl hisses and tries to establish his territory, but mellows out fast once Ranpo feeds him right out of his hand. “Glad you could come,” Ranpo says, showing no sign he had remembered the manuscript Edgar had spent the better part of last week polishing, “but I gotta take care of something real quick. I’ll be back in a sec—make yourself comfortable! Also, you could make these cookies sweeter.” Then he zips over to the Agency president, leaving Edgar to fend for himself in an office where he recognizes no one.

Karl whimpers. Edgar feeds him another cookie, but he knows it’s not the same. “Let’s go sit down,” he mutters, both to himself and his raccoon, and scouts out an empty couch with a good vantage point for most of the room. Karl readily obeys Ranpo’s words and makes himself quite comfortable on Edgar’s lap, pawing at the box of cookies, but Edgar bodily blocks him from stealing any more—they are for the Agency, after all.

No one pays him much mind, true to Ranpo’s words, but Edgar fidgets anyway. He scans the office idly, already knowing what he’ll see before he actually sees them: two security cameras with one common blind spot (right beside the tall bookshelf on the upper-right corner), an alarm system by the door (he’d noticed it when he’d come five feet before the entrance, and had figured out how to deactivate it in less than a minute but decided it would be unnecessary), a generous number of hidden guns and other weapons scattered beneath desks, behind bookshelves, under chairs, inside drawers (Twain would have had a field day taking all of those apart). Honestly, he thinks, the security in the Moby Dick’s kitchen is probably better than this.

(Was, his mind corrects, because correcting his tense usage is its new favorite pastime, apparently. Was better. Edgar wishes it’d just stick to correcting his tense usage in his writing.)

He catches Kunikida Doppo glancing at him systematically, once every five minutes, which is a bit better than the rest of the security measures in the office. Edgar watches him back, timing his own glances to come right before Kunikida’s do, until Kunikida catches on and changes up the pattern, moving Edgar to do the same; it becomes a game of trying to catch the other looking at them until they make eye contact as a misjudgment on both their parts, and then Yosano Akiko breaks into laughter, loud enough for Edgar to hear from the other side of the room.

Kunikida turns to face her. Edgar’s a little put out he hadn’t won, but distributes his glances to the rest of the Agency members until, after an indeterminate amount of time (twenty-seven minutes), Ranpo finally flops down beside him on the couch. “Did I keep you waiting?” he asks, not waiting for an answer he probably already knows anyway—“So what’s the new book about?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it a book—”

“Then what else is it gonna be? If it’s too short, it won’t be as interesting!” Ranpo flips the box of cookies open and proceeds to inhale its contents without care for the fact that they’re supposed to be shared.

Edgar tries not to smack it out of his hands and lecture him on manners. (He tries not to think about how he’s done the exact same thing with Lucy dozens of times before.) “Short stories can be just as interesting as novels, Ranpo-kun.”

“So you say, but the shorter it is, the more obvious the detail I have to look for will be. There are less pretty words covering it up and disguising it as something unimportant.”

“True, for some texts—what about those that don’t say it outright and leave it implied or open-ended? That’s usually the case for shorter works, after all.”

“Ahh.” Ranpo gives him a suspicious look. “I bet you’ve done a ton of those. You look like that kind of guy. You know, who writes deliberately vague stories just to piss readers off.”

Edgar feels the corner of his lips quirk up, in that odd facial tic that’s been bothering him for some time now. “You know me well. They’re quite fun.”

“To write, maybe,” Ranpo scoffs. “But we got off-track. Show me the story. Or, no, tell me about it first, then we’ll see if it deserves my attention.”

Edgar comes up with a brief summary of the first few events that lead up to the murder, but he’s only gotten as far as saying who the victim is before Ranpo puts up a hand. It looks half like he’s asking Edgar to stop talking and half like he’s a student in a classroom, raising their hand to recite. “Um. What.”

“It was the doctor.”

“No, it wasn’t.” It was, but the phrase comes out mostly on reflex.

Ranpo rolls his eyes. Nice try, Edgar hears, but he forces the memory down—knowing Ranpo, he probably doesn’t even remember it. The thought stings more than it should. “Come on, the doctor obviously stole the key card from the pretty boy—”

“The who?

“—and said it was ‘cause he was gonna check up on the pretty boy’s mom, which became his alibi ‘cause he did stay for a little while until he went out to kill the victim. Who, by the way, really should’ve been paying more attention to his surroundings, how do you miss someone sneaking up on you?”

“It’s quite hard to notice if the person’s particularly good,” Edgar mumbles, “and if you’re particularly dull. Also, pretty boy?

“What?” Ranpo pops another cookie in his mouth. Edgar glances down at the box, sees it’s almost half-empty, and sends the rest of the Agency a silent apology that he doesn’t really mean. “You said he was the rich son of some hot-shot politician. I thought he’d be a pretty kind of boy. You know, like how Reida looks exactly like how a tired, nerdy college student would.”

“R-Reida?”

Ranpo’s brow furrows. “Yeah. Reida. Your character. The student guy.” Another cookie disappears in his mouth. Karl curls up on Ranpo’s lap, and Edgar is forcibly reminded of how long it had taken the raccoon to be that comfortable with him, all those years ago. God, they’re both getting old. “You don’t remember your own character?”

“Wh—Of course I do!” How could he forget? Edgar remembers every single character he’s written, from the minor characters who get one line at most to the major ones he’s had to ask numerous questions to. Do you think you’d be interested in studying urban legends? Edgar remembers asking Reida while he’d been writing the book—What do you think is the worst way to die for you? What’s your greatest fear? What major do you want to take up in college? Characterization always came easier afterwards, when it wasn’t just him doing all the deciding for what his characters wanted. “It’s just new,” he murmurs, “for someone to remember them.” Especially someone like you.

Ranpo shrugs. “Kinda hard to forget someone who was a suspect in a case.”

“O-Oh. Right.”

He turns away then, grinning when Karl paws at him for attention. “Give me the manuscript anyway.”

“Even when you already know it was the doctor?”

“Yeah, I’ll pick at all the stuff I don’t like so you can make it more interesting next time. Also, you seem like the kind of guy who adds a bunch of flowery metaphors for everything, which are totally useless, so I’ll tell you in advance to cut those out now.”

“Useless flowery metaphors.” Edgar huffs out a derisive laugh, trying his best to ignore the glint of mischief in Ranpo’s infuriatingly green eyes. “Because those are obviously in the job description for a writer.” His official job is probably as a hired assassin under the Guild, and by the way Ranpo’s brows rise, it’s likely Ranpo knows that, too, but—Edgar looks away, trying not to sigh.

But all Ranpo says is, “They just get in the way of the story! What’s their use? Emotional impact? Boring.”

“Some people like those,” Edgar points out, well aware Ranpo knows that, too, and is probably only doing this to be annoying, if the grin on his face is anything to go by. “Some people also hide important details in those bits of description,” he adds, flipping through some pages of the manuscript. He’d done that once in this story—he doesn’t like doing that often, since it tends to feel like a cop-out to make the mystery more difficult for the reader than necessary, but honestly, it’s not like anyone actually reads what he writes.

Well. Except now there’s Ranpo, who makes a grab for the manuscript and leafs through it with significantly less care than Edgar. “Yeah, I know,” he says, looking—not ecstatic, but not disinterested either. “I guess those are more of a challenge. Because it sort of weeds out who’s really reading and who’s not. Oh, found it!”

A pause. “Found what?” Edgar asks, mostly because it looks like Ranpo’s actually waiting for him to ask instead of just spitting out whatever it is.

“The important detail you hid in a bit of description. You said something about how the neighbor’s garden had some flowers early on—that’s foreshadowing, right, because it’d lead to this part about how these sorts of plants will be in season or whatever—”

For someone who had figured the plot out in a minute, possibly less, Ranpo definitely seems to be enjoying himself when he goes through the manuscript and points out every little detail he either likes, or dislikes, or utterly despises, though that last one only applies to some of Edgar’s character design choices, for some ridiculous reason. “Come on, Poe-kun,” Ranpo dramatically sighs, tossing a hand into the air, “why on Earth would you give Pretty Boy black hair? Blonde! He’s obviously blonde!”

Edgar stares at him, in hopes his gaze will convey to Ranpo exactly how much he cares. Which is not much. “Since when do Chinese have blonde hair? Also, he has a name, don’t call him that.”

“So he’s not blonde or pretty? This book’s a joke.”

“Your concerns certainly are.”

Another Agency member flops down on the couch opposite them during that particular argument, holding a plate with a slice of cake and looking both curious and confused. Edgar vaguely registers that he has blonde hair and hopes that’s somehow a side-effect of his ability. “What’cha talking ‘bout?”

“Oh, Kenji-kun.” Ranpo leans over and borrows Miyazawa Kenji’s fork to eat a cake slice that is definitely not his. “This is Poe-kun. He was a Guild member, but now he’s… I guess you could call him my mystery supplier.”

“Mystery supplier? Sounds cool,” Miyazawa chirps, looking completely unbothered by the words Guild member and the fact that Ranpo has demolished half his cake. Edgar shoots Ranpo a sideways look at mystery supplier.

“Though right now, the only mystery he’s supplying me with is how hard I have to work to improve his character-making skills. Honestly.”

“I have no idea what to say to you.”

Miyazawa doesn’t seem to have heard, or doesn’t seem to care—either way, he still looks curious as he leans in to look closer at Edgar, smiling brilliantly the whole while. “So Poe-san came from the Guild? How was it there?”

“Um…” He’s fourteen. Fourteen… barely older than Lucy when she had first joined. “Messy.”

“So you killed and stuff?”

“I… Yes.”

“Hm.” Miyazawa draws back, and Edgar doesn’t know if he should find his unfaltering smile disturbing or not. “Makes sense. Want some cake? There’s still plenty left!”

“Sure, I want some cake,” Ranpo declares, bouncing onto his feet and dragging Edgar with him. “Come on, Poe-kun, this is good cake. I should know, I watched it go in the box myself!”

“So you didn’t bake it.”

“What do you want from me? A burnt office building? Being there when the President bought it at the bakery is all you’re getting. Now let’s go, or someone like Atsushi-kun’s bound to eat it all.”

Atsushi. Edgar lets himself be tugged along to where most of the Agency is crowding around, Karl hopping onto his shoulders. Right. It’s odd, that someone like Nakajima is the kind of person Lucy likes (or at least, certainly doesn’t dislike), but Edgar catches a glimpse of the hero who had saved all of Yokohama stuffing himself with cake and thinks, Well, maybe it’s not that odd.

He’s not so dangerous or heroic, seeing him like this. He just looks like a kid, if a little hungry.

Edgar doesn’t trust Ranpo with a knife, so he cuts a slice for him, and then for Izumi Kyouka when he sees her giving him an inscrutable look. “Hello,” he greets. Children can be strange, but they’re far easier to talk to than full-grown men who do nothing but dance around with words they don’t deserve. “Izumi-san, right?”

“Kyouka is fine,” she says, voice perfectly monotonous, followed by a robotic, practically rehearsed, “Thank you,” when Edgar gives her her plate.

“Congratulations on joining the Agency,” he offers. He can feel Ranpo’s stare boring a hole in his back, but Izumi—Kyouka is still looking at him like she has something she wants to say. “I heard you played a big part in saving Yokohama. Thank you for that.”

She cocks her head to the side. “Why are you thanking me? Wasn’t destroying Yokohama your goal?”

Edgar freezes—it’s probably not obvious to anyone who isn’t Louisa or Lucy, but he feels his limbs lock and his breathing become more of a forced than natural action. It’s true, he thinks. Not my personal goal by any means, but I definitely shouldn’t be thanking her for helping sink the Moby Dick and bring about the fall of the Guild… so why… “It was nothing,” he says, well aware she can tell it’s a lie.

“Oh.” Kyouka’s stare loses that intensity that makes Edgar think she’s about to whip a knife out and stab him in the gut, but then her gaze slides a little lower. “Oh,” she repeats, sounding more awestruck than unconvinced this time, “that’s a…”

Karl isn’t friendly, but he doesn’t bite Kyouka’s face or anything, only squirms around a bit and gives her a look that clearly asks who are you and what are you plotting, tiny human—Kyouka holds him firmly with both hands and brings him up to give him that same intense look at eye level until Karl stills. Then she places him on a desk and pets him until Karl is all over her like a trained pet.

Edgar pretends not to notice Ranpo laughing himself to tears just behind him. “Poe-kun,” he gasps, “do you like kids? Kids and cute animals? I can’t believe this!”

“Both of those are easier to talk to than people like you,” Edgar sighs. He makes a mental note to ensure Ranpo never sees the stuffed cat back at the apartment, if he comes by again.

“So you do like them.” Even when sitting on a desk, Ranpo has to look up at him to make eye contact. “I didn’t think you would’ve. You seem all dark and edgy and stuff.”

“I don’t dislike them,” Edgar says honestly, looking away. Everyone had looked dangerous, before, when he’d been young and watching a too-small corpse swaying in the wind—when he’d been young and had taken his first five lives. He’d looked at Scottie the same way he looks at Miyazawa and Kyouka now—I don’t want you to be like me.

He’s not sure if Ranpo somehow knows all of that just by looking at him, but when Edgar looks back at him Ranpo offers no comment. Instead he jerks a thumb over at the cake, which somehow looks like it hasn’t been dented. “There’s still a lot,” he says. “Get some before I eat it all.”

“It’s fine. I don’t like sweet things.”

“You what,” Ranpo gasps, sounding personally offended. “Gosh, Poe-kun, just as I was thinking you might be a child at heart, that’s when you spring this on me?”

Edgar gives him a look. “You make it sound like I’ve kicked a puppy.”

“You might as well have. Ugh. How terrible.” But Ranpo’s smiling, and somehow that eases the weight of his words off Edgar’s chest. “Fine, I guess that means more for me! Hey, you should bring those cookies here, I bet they’d taste good with the cake.”

At some point, everyone starts fawning over Karl, now comfortably curled up in Kyouka’s arms and basking in the attention. Ranpo takes photos and promises to send them to Edgar later, though Edgar hadn’t asked, and when Edgar’s finally retrieved his raccoon after a final head-pat from just about every Agency member, the sun’s setting outside. It’s nice, Edgar supposes, the buildings and telephone wires framed with a backdrop of oranges and yellows blending together—but it’s nowhere near as beautiful as the view he gets from the Moby Dick.

Ranpo follows him down, for some reason, still munching on a cookie and getting crumbs all over Edgar’s manuscript. The pages’ complaints fade into white noise when Ranpo speaks. “I didn’t finish reading,” he says, completely unworried, “so I’ll bring it home and get it back to you when I’m done, alright?”

“You’re not finished?”

“‘Course not, Poe-kun, you expect me to have read all of this in two hours?”

Edgar shrugs. “If you’d tried hard enough.” There’s mischief written all over Ranpo’s cheeky grin, and Edgar has a suspicion he hadn’t finished reading on purpose, but for whatever reason Edgar doesn’t know. (It’s possible he’s hoping to catch more Guild members hiding in Edgar’s apartment, by using the manuscript as an excuse to drop by, but Ranpo should know that’s highly unlikely considering it’s not as if Edgar’s broadcasted his location to everyone in the Guild, and surely Ranpo’s aware about Lucy and Nakajima being friends? And yet they’re not doing anything about that, either, despite everything—because she had saved Nakajima, in the end? So what has he done, Edgar frets, to deserve the same treatment?)

Ranpo just pouts. He probably knows Edgar’s exact thought process and is having the time of his life not caring about it. “Aw, come on. I’ll text you everything I care about.”

You’re going to leave me with him? the manuscript wails. I’ve got cookies all over me! This is terrible! It’s all gross and crumbly and oily!

Edgar sends a quick sorry the manuscript’s way. “Don’t get more cookies on it. Or food in general.”

“Okay, so no solids. See you, Poe-kun!”

“Or liquids. Or anything!”

After the fifteen-minute walk back to the apartment, Karl rolls around on the dining table and looks close to bursting with all the snacks he’d been fed at the office—Edgar had seen the Tanizaki girl feed him just about everything she could get on hand. “You really are fat,” Edgar remarks, setting dinner down (KFC takeout—Lucy would smack him). “You’re probably too full for dinner, aren’t you?”

Karl hisses and makes a grab for a chicken leg. Edgar sighs and lets him have it.

The place is still full of voices, from his notebooks in the drawer to the books on the shelves to the other miscellaneous papers scattered on his desk—but the manuscript’s absence is jarring, especially when Edgar’s gotten used to it talking to him all day and night throughout most of last week, when he’d been working on getting it finished. Now it’s at Ranpo’s place, wherever that is, and probably being rained on by cookie crumbs. Edgar closes his eyes and—there, he can see long fingers, a flash of green, cream-colored wallpaper—but nothing else. Too far away, then, and it’s probably not worth pushing it—he can reach much further distances than this, but then his vision blurs for hours afterwards, and the resulting headache is torturous.

But those slim, long fingers flipping through the manuscript’s pages remain a whisper in Edgar’s mind, singing him to sleep when he’s in bed. He still has my papers, Edgar reasons, so I can’t leave yet.

(He’s telling me to stay, he doesn’t want to think.)

Chapter Text

Ranpo barges his way in a little over a week later, his only warning being a text message reading im 5 mins away and nothing else. Edgar curses, kicks the small pile of dirty laundry beneath the bed, and jumps into the bathroom.

Predictably, Ranpo arrives after at least ten minutes, long after Edgar’s taken the fastest shower of his life and has hastily covered his stuffed cat under a blanket. He hears Kunikida first, through the poster in the hallway, grumbling about how this is ruining his schedule and Ranpo-san should really have more consistent visits if he plans to drag Kunikida with him all the time—then the doorbell rings, and Edgar has to pretend his hair isn’t still damp when he pulls it open, only hesitating for a moment before taking the chain off. “Ranpo-kun,” he greets; then, after a glance up, “Kunikida-san.”

Kunikida inclines his head in some kind of jerky nod. “Poe-san.”

“Do you want to come in?” Edgar asks—Ranpo’s already bounding in to greet Karl with a head scratch.

Kunikida looks like the very offer troubles him. “Thank you, but I should get going. Any longer and I’ll be a full minute late for an appointment.”

“I’ve been to big-name events whole hours after it started,” Ranpo calls from further inside.

Edgar tries a polite smile, but his facial muscles protest and he settles for a half-nod that probably looks exactly like what Kunikida had just done. Kunikida himself looks ready to burst a vein. “I’ll be back at 6pm sharp,” he says, then turns on his heel and walks out of sight. Edgar closes the door, replaces the chain, and follows Kunikida through the poster until he disappears into the elevator. There’s no reason to, but there’s also no reason not to, and old habits die hard.

“Ranpo-kun,” Edgar says once he’s gone back in. Karl is predictably pawing at Ranpo’s ankles and generally looking like an idiot, which Edgar tries to convey from looks alone. Karl seems to notice and shoots Edgar a whatever sort of glare. “You did bring the manuscript?”

“You only care about that, don’t you?” Ranpo tosses the papers onto the dining table, though with significantly more care than last week—they don’t land all folded, for one thing, and a cursory glance shows that they don’t look crumpled or food-stained, which is far from what Edgar had been expecting. “Surprised? I’m good at following instructions, you know,” Ranpo teases.

Edgar sits down and skims through the pages, both because he wants to check the rest and because he wants to hear it greet him after a long week. “Positively shocked. How was it?”

“It was fine. A bit boring, but that’s ‘cause I knew what was coming.” Ranpo shrugs, settling himself onto the couch and making himself far more at home than he probably has any right to be. “Got any more? I didn’t drop by just to give that back, y’know. And it’s the weekend, so don’t make me have come here just to waste my Sunday!”

“You say that like you actually work.” If the numerous texts Ranpo sends him during office hours are any indication, after all, then it’s obvious the man has barely worked a day in his life.

“You know me well, huh.”

“You can’t deny it, can you?”

“Shut up. Hellooo, books?”

Edgar rolls his eyes, remembers that’s rude, sees the grin on Ranpo’s face, and decides he doesn’t care. “Hold on.” He closes the manuscript and makes his way to his bedroom, but pauses when he hears footsteps behind him. (They’re strangely stealthy, light and matching his own footfalls—like how he would walk when following a mark.) “Um, you can wait there,” he says slowly, turning to stare down at Ranpo’s blank gaze.

“But I’m bored,” Ranpo just whines. Edgar can’t say he hadn’t been expecting that. “And I hate sitting still. It’s just your room, Poe-kun, you don’t have to hide your porn magazines or something—”

“M-My—”

“—I mean, honestly, nothing you say or do can surprise me anymore. Kids and cute animals are your weaknesses. That’s it! That’s all I’ll ever have to know about you! So what if you’re into bondage—”

“I’m not—where did you even get that—”

“—or you’ve got some other weird fetish I don’t know about. You’re just Poe-kun to me,” Ranpo finishes, sounding incredibly proud of himself.

Under normal, non-fetish related circumstances, Edgar would probably care a bit more about that last sentence, but mostly he’s trying to will the heat out of his cheeks. “First of all,” he starts, with great difficulty, “even if I did have a weird f-fe-fetish—which I don’t—you wouldn’t exactly be the first person I’d talk to about it. I wouldn’t tell you at all. And second, I don’t even have any p-porn magazines. They weren’t exactly a priority. T-They still aren’t.”

“Oh. Boring.” Ranpo looks disappointed. “Now I’ve got less things to tease you with. But give me a few more days and I’ll find out what you’re into, alright?”

“No.”

“Che.”

Ranpo follows him into his room anyway, and finds the stuffed cat in under a minute—Edgar’s duly unsurprised. He leaves Ranpo to coo over the doll for a minute as he sifts through some drafts he’s been working on, when the laughter suddenly stops from behind and an uneasy feeling settles on his shoulders, sinking to churn in his gut. “Ranpo-kun,” Edgar says, turning around to face him, “I might have somethi—”

His own face stares back at him from a newspaper clipping. HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY, the decade-old headline screams. His notebook—the notebook—is in Ranpo’s hands, holding it in a way Edgar knows it isn’t accustomed to, because no one has held that notebook but him for as long as he’s known it, and—and there’s the article about the missing boys, another about mass murderer and ability user Edgar Allan Poe, a messily-written poem he’d used just two months ago to suffocate someone who’d betrayed the Guild—

Edgar can feel the air go still around them, the tension turning so thick it feels tangible. Right, he thinks, of course. He’s not sure what they are, exactly, if Ranpo considers them acquaintances or regular correspondents or friends or whatever, but Edgar had let himself settle into some sort of pattern—Ranpo would text him, usually about the story or something stupid, and Edgar would reply, usually an hour later just to be annoying. His days had begun to start and end with text messages, and he hadn’t noticed—or, well, he had, but he’d chosen to ignore it, to let it go on until it’s become almost odd to not get a text from Ranpo. But there’s history, there are indisputable facts about the two of them—Edgar hates him, and Edgar had tried to kill him and another Agency member, and Edgar had almost succeeded. They aren’t supposed to be having conversations about mysteries and metaphors and cookies. They aren’t supposed to be visiting each other’s houses. They are certainly not supposed to be anything approaching friends.

And yet—Edgar had thought that could happen, somehow.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because in his head there’s only This is your fault, only You did this to yourself, only You open up to someone and love them and think you’re worthy of love after everything you’ve done and then they turn around and stab you in the back. He thinks of those casual touches, those soft kisses, three words his tongue had stumbled upon and tried to let spill onto hard barren concrete until Royster had said I’m sorry, the same words in a far more different voice than what Edgar’s using now. He uses this apology because everything else he should be saying, the explanation Ranpo deserves, dies on his tongue like cicadas in the summer—Royster had chosen those words like a murderer among their knives.

Edgar inhales, deeply, but the air comes out too quick, and his lungs feel too small for all the oxygen around him—he presses his back against the wall behind him, looks down, stares at the floor and he can’t think, can’t face Ranpo because what can he say—

“What are you apologizing for?” Ranpo asks. The room is quiet save for the soft murmur of traffic outside. “It’s just you.”

“What?” Edgar croaks. The air feels so heavy, and he wants to sit down somewhere because he doubts his legs can hold him up any longer.

“It’s just you,” Ranpo repeats, but it doesn’t make any more sense than when he’d said it the first time. He closes the notebook and sets it down on the bedside dresser, then leans back against the wall opposite Edgar. Edgar’s glad he hadn’t tried to come nearer—the room is suffocating enough as it is. “I don’t care,” he continues. He doesn’t sound much different, aside from his voice becoming less playful. “How many people you killed, if you ran away from your family, whatever. You’re an ability user. It’s not like that’s uncommon.”

“You don’t care?” Edgar murmurs. He grabs onto the desk beside him to steady himself, and the room stops spinning long enough for him to breathe again. “I could kill you. Right now. Could open up my notebook and just—” His hand moves, maybe consciously, maybe not, and he can feel that familiar power gathering at his fingertips, ready to be let loose, ready to extinguish the light in those green eyes. “Make you disappear.”

Ranpo scoffs. “No, you couldn’t. You’ve tried, remember?”

Nice try, Poe-kun—

“Besides, even if you brought me into another one of your books, or poems, or whatever, I’d find a way out. The thing about your worlds—it gets rid of abilities, but that just means you don’t need an ability to get out of it, either.” Ranpo thumbs the notebook open again, flipping it to the first page, where Edgar’s messy scrawl spells out his name. “You could try to kill me,” he says, voice light, “but would you?”

(I don’t hate you. And I know you won’t kill me. You’re not a bad person.)

Edgar doesn’t—can’t—reply, not when his throat feels ready to claw itself to pieces, so he turns away and grips onto the edge of the desk hard enough for his hands to hurt. Ranpo says nothing, thankfully enough—it feels like a single word might take up all the oxygen in the room, and it’s hard enough to breathe. He stares at the desk, at the rest of the papers strewn on it, at the fountain pen Louisa had bought him for his birthday before, at his fingertips still brimming with power. He closes his eyes, remembers that story from six years ago—how it had begged him to murder Ranpo—and the book he’d spent so, so long on, how it had asked Are you going to kill him, like that was a question Edgar had any other answer for.

He had said yes, that time.

When he turns around, Ranpo is still there, his hand still resting on the notebook. He peers up at Edgar, looking uncharacteristically serious, until finally he lifts his hand and crosses his arms instead. His notebook flutters shut, yellowed papers crackling with age. “So?”

“So what?” Edgar manages. His lungs don’t feel quite as constrained anymore, his throat not so constricted. The air still feels thin, but he can breathe, and for now that’s enough.

“So, what were you going to show me? I didn’t come here just to stay bored, did I?”

“O-Oh. Um. Right.” Edgar waves at the thin sheaf of papers held together by a paperclip—a rough draft of another idea he had gotten, most of it written in the dead of night when the muse refused to leave him. He steps away and lets Ranpo skim through it quickly, and he finds that breathing has gotten easier, now, his chest loosening. A bead of water from his still-wet hair drips down his neck, and it’s somehow refreshingly cool in the suddenly stuffy room. “I-It isn’t—c-complete—” Damn it—he clears his throat and tries again. “It isn’t very complete yet. But, um. The idea’s t-there.”

Ranpo makes no indication he’d heard, except for asking, “What’s with the stutter?” There’s no irritation or judgment in his tone, just something like curiosity.

“It’s…” Edgar picks at a loose thread on his sweater. “Just. I don’t know. I’ve had it for a while. I thought it went away by itself, but it comes back whenever…” Whenever I’m scared, he should say, but the years have taught him that fear and anything even vaguely related to it is how the enemy strikes back—so he mumbles, “Comes back randomly.”

When he looks up, Ranpo’s staring right at him instead of at the papers; Edgar knows he’d caught the slip-up and probably filled in the blank himself, but he can’t bring himself to care. If there’s anything he truly wanted to hide from Ranpo, he wouldn’t let it come to light so easily. “Isn’t there something for that?” he asks. “Like therapy or something.”

“My parents didn’t think it was important.” Edgar worries on his lower lip, a nervous habit he’s used to hiding, but he figures he doesn’t really need to, this time. My parents. He doesn’t remember the last time he’d said that phrase, or even referred to his parents at all, to absolutely anyone. Who is he even talking about—Da and his thunderstorm-glare, or Mother and her flower-soft voice? In the end, he supposes it doesn’t matter, not when they’re both gone and far away from whatever Edgar might want to tell them.

“Oh.” Ranpo looks back down at the papers, before shooting Edgar a grin. “This isn’t so bad. Got a lot of plot holes, but I can tell you wrote this at two in the morning, right? Plus, I think I like some of these characters, they look like fun. Do you have snacks?”

Edgar grudgingly pulls out some pudding he’d been saving for a special occasion—then again, he doesn’t really know what he’d consider a special occasion when he’s not exactly doing much, so. Ranpo wipes out half the sweet in less than five minutes, all the while pointing out mistakes in the writing Edgar hadn’t noticed, which surprisingly isn’t much. When Ranpo’s done nitpicking, and subsequently done eating, he lies back and stares hard at the pages. Edgar lets him do so for a few minutes, listening to the paper talk about how this guy is actually kinda smart, you know, when finally the silence becomes uncomfortable. “What is it?”

“You think you could put me in another of your stories again?”

Edgar’s glad he hadn’t been holding anything, because he would definitely have dropped it and squashed his own foot. “W-What?”

“You heard me. I’m not repeating myself.”

“Er. I-I did hear you, but—” Edgar turns away and sits down heavily on a chair—he can’t even sit on his own couch, because Ranpo’s taking up all the space. He looks at Ranpo, sees bright blue eyes in place of green, remembers a clear voice asking, Can you bring me into a book, remembers he’s never going to hear that voice again. It hadn’t been anyone’s fault, but it still feels like it’s Edgar’s, somehow, like if he had done something else differently, brought about even the tiniest, most insignificant change, it would have stopped a child from dying.

Ranpo nudges his leg. “Hellooo, Poe-kun?”

“O-Oh.” He shakes the thoughts away, but doesn’t look back at Ranpo, afraid he’ll see blue eyes again. “No. I can’t d-do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s—”

“Not safe?” Ranpo shifts, and Edgar looks up to see him move from lying down to sitting up, the draft still in his hands. His grip is surprisingly light, and Edgar can’t see nor feel any new creases on the papers. “I think we’ve established that. I found a way out of your book, I can find a way out of the rest. And if I can’t—which sounds unlikely—” He shrugs. “You can always just pull me out.”

“You can’t just—” Edgar bites down on his lip and looks away again, but Ranpo makes an annoyed, huffy sound and suddenly there’s a hand on his chin, forcing him to turn back and make eye contact with the other man. Edgar hadn’t even noticed Ranpo getting up from the couch and walking closer. His first instinct is to jerk away, to retrieve the paper in his pocket and draw Ranpo into it, because he can’t remember the last time he’d touched someone aside from Louisa and Lucy, but—

“Can’t just what?” Ranpo asks.

—but his fingers are warm on Edgar’s skin, and all Edgar can do is freeze in place, mind stuck between wanting to back away and wanting to lean into the touch. Ranpo’s moved close enough that their faces are near—too near, maybe, for two people alone in a quiet living room—but Edgar doesn’t move. Can’t, maybe.

Edgar swallows. He watches Ranpo watch him, green eyes tracking the movement of his throat, probably still a bit damp from his wet hair, before saying “Let go”—except it comes out as a croaked whisper, barely louder than a breath, instead of the firm tone he’d wanted to use. “I’m… I won’t move.”

Ranpo huffs again, but drops his hand—the area he’d touched, however small, feels freezing cold from the absence of his fingers now, but Edgar tries to ignore that. “Can’t just what?” Ranpo repeats. He doesn’t move back, or move at all, and Edgar stays still as well. There’s no reason to, but there’s no reason not to, either, and Ranpo’s face looks even more—more something, up close, his eyes sharper than Edgar had thought they were, the curve of his mouth not, for once, curled in a smug grin. It’s unnerving, and Edgar has a feeling Ranpo knows it.

“Y-You c-can’t—” Again—“You can’t just. Just trust me like t-that.”

“Yeah? Why not?”

“For one thing,” Edgar snaps, “I tried to kill you.” He hadn’t meant for his voice to come out that sharp, but instead of anger, there’s an edge of panic to his words that had somehow snaked its way there. He’s not sure if Ranpo notices, but he doesn’t look surprised or move away, though his brows crease a little.

“That again? We just talked about this.”

And Edgar’s not sure why—maybe because he just sounds so calm and unworried and like this is nothing, but Edgar’s lived with the complete opposite all his life that he can’t help it when he stands up, the chair’s legs screeching against the floor. “Don’t you care?” he practically begs—“It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how good your ability is, there’s always going to be a possibility that something could happen, you can’t blindly trust a known murderer who almost killed you—”

“Hey,” Ranpo cuts in, irritation creeping into his own voice, “you didn’t almost kill me. You didn’t even come close.”

“That is not the problem here,” Edgar grinds out through gritted teeth. Why can’t he understand? Why does he trust me so much?

“Fine.” Ranpo sits back down on the couch, looking up at Edgar with an annoyingly defiant expression. “I don’t know why you’re so insistent on saying you’ll kill me when I know you won’t,” he says, the words taking a long time for Edgar to process properly, “but it’s unnecessary and a real pain. You could kill me. Fine. I know that. You don’t think I could kill you?

Edgar pauses. The paper in his pocket feels warmer, as if energy has begun to gather there, readying itself for use. “I…”

“Probably not.” Ranpo pouts, and it looks so childish and out of place in the situation that Edgar has to sit down again to gather his bearings. “Maybe in the beginning you thought I was talking to you and stuff just to lead you into a trap? Like inviting you to the Agency for the party. But you stopped, eventually. Didn’t you? I was the same.” He leans back, arms behind his head. “I was a little careful. I had some paper from Kunikida-san’s notebook when I first came here. But that was mostly ‘cause Kunikida-san insisted, so I didn’t really have a choice.”

Seriously? Edgar hadn’t heard it, but he hadn’t been trying to anyway, and he’s grown used to the voices of papers and how they differ from people—almost all of them are light, airy, and generally only try to get his attention if they want to warn him of danger, so he hadn’t listened very intently. He supposes that it must have kept quiet, too, if it knew it would be targeting someone like him. “And?” he presses, when Ranpo seems unwilling to continue.

“And look at me now.” Ranpo spreads his arms. The sudden movement makes the poem in his pocket grow even hotter. “No weapons. No notebook paper. Just my glasses and a cell phone, really. Know why? ‘Cause I know you, and I trust you.”

“You don’t,” Edgar says, except the words sound like an awful lot like You can’t. You shouldn’t. What do you know about me? We barely know each other, I tried to kill you, I tried to kill you and still, still—

“Don’t tell me what I do and don’t know, Poe-kun, you’ll find that that’s a really stupid thing to do. And you’re not stupid, usually.”

“Gee. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Ranpo’s eyes narrow even further, until Edgar can just catch a glint of green. “Come on. We’ve shared cookies and cake, we’re alright.”

“I don’t think I can really agree with that criteria.” It’s ridiculous, but Edgar can feel himself relaxing anyway, even when he still can’t wrap his head around just how Ranpo can trust him so easily, when Edgar’s done nothing to make himself trustworthy. The seriousness blinks out of Ranpo’s expression, replaced by a typical cheeky grin, and the heat in Edgar’s pocket begins to fade as well.

Ranpo just shrugs. “Why do you care so much, anyway? About how you could so totally kill me, or whatever.”

Edgar should probably find the sarcasm in those words irritating, but he has a feeling he’s already gotten so used to it that it no longer affects him. “It’s dangerous.”

“Aww, so you’re worried about me.”

“That’s not it,” Edgar sighs, though he thinks that might be part of it. Judging by the smug look on Ranpo’s face, he probably knows what Edgar doesn’t say, which is just infuriating. “My ability’s not… It’s not something really used just for fun,” he mumbles, looking away. Maintaining eye contact throughout that charged conversation had been hard, and he doesn’t want to think about why, not when he knows he can stare fellow criminals and murderers in the eye without blinking. “It’s dangerous. I’m dangerous. I don’t know why you don’t understand that.”

“What about, I understand that, and I don’t care?” Ranpo suggests. It’s not much a suggestion as it is a fact. He doesn’t call Edgar out for not looking at him, though, which is a welcome relief. “Honestly, Poe-kun, you can be so dense sometimes. Makes me wonder if you’re really as smart as you act.”

“I’ve killed dozens of people, and you don’t care?”

“You could kill thousands.” Ranpo rolls his eyes. It’s annoying, but just about everything Ranpo does is annoying anyway. “I already told you. You’re just Poe-kun to me. Okay?”

Edgar frowns. “I… still don’t understand that very well.”

Ranpo groans and lies back down on the couch, draping a hand across his forehead in the most overly dramatic, theatrical manner Edgar’s ever had the honor of witnessing in his life. “You call yourself a writer?

“Don’t be insulting. This is still my house.”

“And what’re you gonna do? Kick me out?”

“Yes.”

A pause. “When you say it so bluntly like that,” Ranpo grumbles, “I can’t not believe you. And you’re probably heartless enough to actually kick me out, aren’t you.”

Kunikida arrives at 6pm sharp, as he’d promised, and Ranpo brings the draft home with him, unaware of the papers’ desperate pleads to stay with Edgar. “You did a nice job decorating this place, by the way,” Ranpo comments on the way out. “Really like your stuffed cat.”

“Goodbye,” Edgar says, closing the door in his face. With the apartment finally quiet again, the softer noises come into focus, like Karl scratching at a table leg and the papers whispering to one another. One voice sticks out in particular, one that Edgar had been expecting to sound more agitated than it currently is. “How are you?” he asks, when he enters his bedroom and collapses on the bed.

Um. Manhandled. What happened there? You went all strange for a second, his notebook mutters. It’s still sitting on the dresser Ranpo had left it on earlier, and Edgar has to sit up to reach it and flip through the pages, more to comfort himself with the familiar action than anything else.

“It just. You know.” He thinks back to that sunny afternoon, fresh out of the hospital and missing a notebook that had been thrown down to his feet. That had been the first time he’d heard Royster sound so angry, and he can’t blame him, not when Edgar had lied about just about everything except for… “It reminded me,” he mumbles, “of… that time.”

Oh, with Oyster Sauce.

“With who.

You know, that guy.

Edgar breathes out a laugh. “Yeah, I know.” His smile fades fast when he remembers how his notebook had looked on the pavement—like a dead bird, he’d thought. Later on, when he’d checked up on it, there had been papers crumpled, ripped, torn half-out of the binding, and every new sign of damage he saw as he turned the pages felt like wounds opening up along his own arms and legs. “What do you think, this time?”

What d’you mean?

“Do you think it will…” Work out, he wants to ask, but that sounds too hopeful. “Do you think…” He’ll like me, but then that sounds even worse, and Edgar ends up just sighing and dropping his head in his hands. “God. I don’t know.”

His notebook huffs. It sounds an awful lot like Ranpo, which is such a disturbing thought that Edgar almost laughs again. You know what I didn’t like last time?

“Um. What?”

He made you think you didn’t deserve it. Right? He made you think you didn’t deserve love.

“Oh. That’s…” That’s because I don’t, he wants to say, but his throat feels all choked up again, and speaking feels like it’d take all the breath right out of his lungs. He lies back down, the notebook sliding down to his stomach, and he massages his temple, trying to will the pounding in his head away. That’s because I don’t deserve it, he thinks. Not after everything. Not after all I’ve done. Not after trapping Da in a poem, not after taking those first five lives, not after all the bodies contained in the same notebook he’s talking to right now. Not after having this ability, this curse, this devil curled up inside him.

You do, you know, the notebook says, after they’ve both let the silence hang in the air long enough for it to grow stale. Deserve it, I mean.

“Really,” Edgar murmurs. It’s far from a question, considering he doesn’t need an answer.

Yeah, duh. Didn’t you hear what this Edogawa guy said? He doesn’t care about whatever you did in the past. You could kill millions and he’ll still steal snacks from you, won’t he?

“He said thousands, really.”

You know what I mean.

“Maybe.” Edgar removes his hands and looks up at his ceiling, counting the cracks and forming constellations out of them. Do I deserve love after everything, he asks himself, and wonders if that question even needs to be asked anymore. The answer hasn’t changed in so, so long, when all the word love reminds him of is hard eyes, apologies, and the past tense.

Sometimes Edgar wakes up, and just knows. Ah, he thinks, it’s one of those days. Then he closes his eyes and goes back to a restless sleep for another two hours before Karl begins to paw at his face.

That used to be enough to drag him onto his feet and get to work, whether it had been at a newspaper agency or aboard the Moby Dick, but over time all it does is make him bury himself even deeper into the blankets until Karl gets tired and shuffles away. Today he peers out at his room from beneath the covers, etching every little detail into memory even though he already has, just in case something happens and he needs to know how many inches away his desk is from his bed. (It’s fifteen.)

Before, he would have had to get up before lunchtime, at the latest, more because he knows he can’t leave Louisa alone—she’d work herself to death without either him or Lucy to remind her to rest. Now there’s nothing—no responsibilities, no obligations, no one to care about. He sighs into a pillow. What’s the point, he thinks. What’s the point of anything. How many times has he asked that question, over and over, when he’d been crawling through the streets or laden down with Guild work? How many times had he given it an answer?

Shafts of afternoon sunlight have crept in and already warmed up the room when the buzzing of his cell phone stirs Edgar out of a hazy sleep. bored, it reads. Ranpo has, apparently, given up on typing in at least semi-complete sentences. There’s no other message, which is normal—usually Edgar replies with Okay or Then work or How’s the book? Or—something. Anything.

He sets the phone down and stares at the distance between the bed and the desk again. Fifteen inches. What’s the point.

Another message comes in, a minute and thirty-three seconds after the first one—Ranpo’s patience has not improved. poe-kun i am BORED, the notification declares, and soon after more start pouring in. are u there, reply reply reply, are u busy working, do u even have a job.

Edgar watches the notifications pop up one after another, but does nothing else. There’s a twinge of guilt pulling at his chest, and the nearby papers ask if he’s going to answer that so it’ll quit vibrating the rest of them off the dresser, but he rolls over to face the wall instead. The buzzing continues intermittently, an average of fifty seconds between each of them, before finally stopping after five minutes and twelve seconds—Edgar hopes it’s because he’s gotten some interesting case to work on, or maybe a coworker had bought him a bag of snacks. It’s definitely something worth his attention.

What’s the point? he asks, except this time he’s directing the question to Ranpo. What’s the point of talking to me? What have I ever done to deserve it? Why did you come by and get my number after I tried to kill you, why don’t you hate me, why are you trying so hard, why do you care, what’s the point?

He hears his phone buzz, once, then fall silent again—with a resigned sigh, he rolls back and picks it up, only to see the message say, otw.

Edgar thinks he can feel his heart stutter right out of his ribcage and drop on the floor with a weak splat. He’s no expert with abbreviations in text, but this one is something he can infer fairly well. Please don’t, he sends. It takes an unbelievable amount of effort to type out those scant few letters.

The reply comes almost immediately. oh so now ure talking

 

Please don’t come.

 

u cant tell me what to do ヾ(`ヘ´)ノ゙

 

Shouldn’t you be working?

 

they dont need me rn

 

I still don’t think that’s good work ethic.

 

poe-kun ure literally jobless dont talk to me about work ethic (눈_눈)

 

Edgar massages his forehead in a pathetic attempt to fight off the incoming headache. His phone buzzes again, and then again, but he already knows there’s nothing he can say that matters. What’s the point? he wants to ask. Why are you doing this? But he’s not sure what Ranpo would say, and if he’s being honest, he doesn’t think he wants to know either.

So instead he types, I’m out right now.

 

rly? where?

 

Busy

 

wow no period u really are busy huh ヽ(°〇°)ノ

 

Edgar hopes that’s a genuine observation and not sarcasm, because he’d deliberately left the period out to look busier than he actually is. But Ranpo is Ranpo, and to see through that sounds exactly like him. Don’t come, he adds, just to be sure.

 

ok FINEEEE ure no fun

now im stuck in the office thx a lot  (#`Д´)

when will u be back?? im gonna be bored after work 2day (。•́︿•̀。)

 

Late. He usually—always—sends an exact time, but he doesn’t want Ranpo to see him at all today, and probably for the next few days, too. There’s unwashed laundry all over his room, scattered papers, probably raccoon fur where he can’t see. He’d forgotten to do the dishes, too, for pretty much the whole of yesterday, so there’s the pile of dirty plates in the sink, and he’s pretty sure the whole apartment smells, though he can’t be sure—in conclusion, he sulks, the place is shit.

But he can’t bring himself to get up and do anything about it. He doesn’t plan on going out anyway, so there’s no point in doing the laundry—he’ll just skip lunch and dinner again today, so there’s no point in washing the dishes—there’s no point. Edgar ignores the incoming messages and lies back down, burying his face in a pillow. He knows he shouldn’t stay like this. He knows this is unhealthy, and he should probably get up and do something, and there isn’t even a reason to act like this, when his life isn’t in constant danger anymore and all he has to worry about is feeding Karl, there’s no reason to feel like this—but. But.

Everything just feels wrong, and he’s just so tired.

He thinks about going back to sleep, but he’s too awake now, so he manages to crawl out of bed for a few minutes, long enough to get Karl’s attention and toss him the last apple from when Edgar had gone grocery shopping. Karl catches it deftly, but looks up at him before eating it right away. What’s the matter? he seems to be asking.

“Remind me to go for groceries soon,” Edgar mutters, slipping back to bed. Karl doesn’t reply, obviously, and busies himself with the apple instead.

The papers keep him company for the rest of the afternoon—he doesn’t have to talk, thankfully, when they like to ramble on uninterrupted about themselves and their stories anyway. He tunes in to each book on his shelves, each sheet of paper on his desk, everything with a voice, listens and hums absently when they check if he’s still awake. The daylight begins to fade into a warmer shade of orange, enough that Edgar can sit up and draw the curtains back to watch the sunset through the glass balcony doors. Small black silhouettes fly overhead—birds, probably crows, considering how common they are in Japan. He feeds a few of them whatever he has on hand every time he has to go out.

On a whim, he steps out onto the tiny balcony, where he usually hangs his clothes out to dry—a cold breeze ruffles some papers inside. Edgar digs around in his room for a bit before finding a handful of peanuts to leave on the small table outside, and it doesn’t take long for a crow to land on the railing, cawing curiously at him. “Hello,” he greets, voice rough from disuse—even that single word makes it feel like his chest might squeeze in on itself, but he forges through when the crow doesn’t fly away. “Hungry?”

It pokes at the peanuts cautiously, at first, before cawing and splitting the shell open with its beak, gobbling the nut inside with admirable speed. Edgar drags a nearby chair closer to sit beside the table while one, two, four more crows swoop down to join in. It’s nice, Edgar thinks, and familiar—it feels so long ago that he had been sitting by the window in an inn room, feeding ravens his leftover lunch. Has it been seven years? Eight?

Karl comes out after a few minutes, nosing his ankle until Edgar scoops him up and gathers him in his arms, the soft fur warm against his wind-bitten arms. The crows watch them for a moment, before apparently deeming Karl unthreatening and continuing with their little feast. “What should I do, Karl?” Edgar mumbles, absently stroking the raccoon’s head. “Everything feels so… you know, like it isn’t… worth it.”

Karl looks up at him, but the expression on his little face is inscrutable. For once, Edgar supposes he can’t project whatever he’s feeling onto his pets. “I probably shouldn’t be asking you these sorts of questions all the time.”

Yeah, you shouldn’t. Karl scratches his wrist, not hard enough to be painful.

“But this is… okay? Maybe? Sitting here.”

It’s cold. Come back in.

“Right. Alright.”

He waits a little longer until the peanuts are finished and the crows have flown away into the night before heading in, closing the balcony doors behind him. The chill has crept into the room, though, and Edgar sighs as he shuffles into the covers once more, Karl hopping up to curl beside him. The dull ache of hunger in his stomach keeps him too awake to sleep, but just the thought of making dinner physically hurts, so he closes his eyes and tries to slip back into, at the very least, a light nap.

The doorbell rings. His phone buzzes almost right after. open up, Ranpo’s texted. Edgar groans.

Texting Ranpo to go away doesn’t sound effective, so Edgar changes into the last clean sweater and pair of trousers he has and trudges over to the front door to check the poster’s eyes. It’s Ranpo, alright, arms crossed over his chest and looking impatient. Kunikida isn’t there, for once—the other man likely has better things to do than escort a coworker somewhere at six in the evening. Edgar pulls the door open a crack, keeping the chain on. “Ranpo-kun,” he mutters.

He can feel his mouth drying up as soon as those green eyes meet his through his curtain of bangs. “So you’re here,” Ranpo says. There’s a touch of agitation in his voice, but Edgar can’t pinpoint the exact emotion. More impatience, maybe? “Where were you that had you so busy, Poe-kun? Job interview?”

“Um. No. I went g-grocery shopping.” Not a bad lie.

The edge of Ranpo’s lip curls downwards, and Edgar decides that was probably a pretty bad lie after all. “Oh, really,” he says, then shakes his head and sighs. “Whatever. Let me in! I brought the draft back. We can work on it together inside.”

“W-What?”

“The draft—”

“No, Ranpo-kun—” Edgar turns away to hide his face behind the door, breathing in deeply before speaking again. If he looks at those eyes any longer, his throat might close up on him entirely. “Now’s not a good time. I’m tired, and… and it’s late. Maybe in a few days?” He pauses for a second, long enough for Ranpo to say something—when he doesn’t, Edgar swallows and tacks on a, “P-Please?”—but the way his voice cracks is pathetic, and he shuts his mouth to keep from stumbling on any more words.

Ranpo huffs. “What’s making this not a good time anyway?”

“I can’t—” Breathe, breathe, breathe—“It’s n-not—I’m j-just—” Fuck—“I’m—I’m—” But he can’t breathe and the words aren’t coming out right again, the unsteady tremor of his voice spreading throughout the rest of him until he has to hold onto the door handle to keep from falling forward and he can’t stop shaking and—and he doesn’t know why, it’s just—all too much, but he can’t let Ranpo see him like this again, pathetic and broken, a scared child hiding from a thunderstorm—

“Poe-ku—”

Stranger, the guard paper says. Dangerous. And fast.

It takes him too long to take the chain off the door—he can see the exact moment the stranger’s ability activates, because the green in Ranpo’s eyes dull like emeralds cast into shadow, and his whole person seems to slacken. Edgar grabs his wrist and pulls him into the apartment, treating the surprised grunt as a good sign, and tries to close the door, but whoever is outside pushes it right back open. (What kind of ability had that been? Not instant death, but it had been some altered state of consciousness—or maybe a general weakening? What can I do to avoid it? Not eye contact—not proximity, they’re right there—physical touch?)

Something white darts from around the door—a hand (small, frail, nineteen-year-old American woman), trying to clamp down around his wrist. Edgar jerks away, the door falling open and slamming against the wall beside it. “You,” the woman standing outside snarls, “you’re him—” and she’s reaching out again, fingers claw-like; from this close, Edgar can see the way the veins on her hands go from pale green to blue-black, ability activates through physical touch, but all his instincts to flee, the ones honed from years of coming a hair’s breadth away from death, pale in the realization that Ranpo is directly behind him.

—could but I can’t, I can’t, I shouldn’t, I said I’d never do it, no, but it’s practical and safe and it’ll work and he’ll be fine because that’s what it’s made for but it’s dangerous I’m dangerous I could hurt him I could hurt him—and those nails are so sharp

There’s no time to think, only to act, so Edgar whirls around, his back to the woman, before shoving his notebook into Ranpo’s face. “I’m sorry,” he says, unsure if he’d even strung the words together correctly, and all he catches is the surprise on Ranpo’s face and the beginnings of Poe-kun forming on his mouth before the bright white of Black Cat in the Rue Morgue draws him into a poem—a safe one, it’s safe, it’s about flowers—and then cold, cold fingers clamp down on his wrist, and everything goes numb.

It’s like everything in the world falls out of place. His vision explodes into a dizzying array of colors, physical sensations heightened and dulled at the same time, all the power draining away from him like water dripping down a drain—those freezing cold hands are still on his skin, their grip so tight Edgar thinks they may leave imprints on his arm. “Edgar Allan Poe,” a voice growls, tongue curling over each syllable, “Guild member and murderer.”

Get away, he thinks, pull her off, get away, drop her in a book. And all of that makes sense, it does, but he can’t move, his limbs locked painfully in place. It’s getting harder and harder to think, when his head is pounding and the colors are so bright they’re torturous—“Do I know you?” he gasps through gritted teeth. His notebook is still in his hands—he’d managed to draw it back against his chest right before the woman grabbed him, but if he can’t even move to open it to a different page…

“You killed him!” she screams, right in his ear—it’s a hundred times louder than it should be, and his head rings with pain. “George Orwell—ring any bells? He was my leader—our leader, and—and we were just trying to get back at the Guild for everything they did to us—for everything you did to us!”

She’s still screaming, and it hurts, his ear is going to start bleeding if she keeps going on like this, but he still can’t move more than his mouth. Orwell? The name is familiar, and it takes him another split second to remember who he was—George Orwell, ability Nineteen Eighty-Four, essentially mind control with occasional long-lasting effects, leader of a budding Secret Society called the Party. He’d been a spy aboard the Moby Dick, and Edgar had killed him with a pendulum. A Party member, then, he thinks, but something feels wrong about that—something feels missing.

“Do you even remember who he was?” she hisses. Something cold is pressing against his neck, and Edgar doesn’t have to look to know it’s a knife. (Clean. Smells of blood. Has definitely seen use.) “Or have you killed so many people that their lives stopped mattering to you?”

What are the immediate and obvious effects of her ability? Incapable of movement, strange sensations, dizziness—Ranpo-kun’s expression had turned neutral, body slackening—the way she talks about Orwell—it’s been eight years, and Fitzgerald had ensured the remaining Party members had been wiped out—I hadn’t experienced Orwell’s ability for myself, but his eyes had been—Edgar inhales sharply, cautious of the blade at his throat—just like these colors.

“I remember. George Orwell, Party leader.” He closes his eyes—he can move those, then. What can I do? What else can I move? His legs and arms are out of the question, but somehow he can wriggle his toes in his socks, though just barely—which means his fingers…

“Then you should know what I’m here for.” The knife presses in closer, cold and colder still—any deeper and she’ll be drawing blood. Edgar stops himself from swallowing.

“Who are you?” His hand twitches, just barely. He can feel it, now, the power flowing to his fingertips, the pages of his notebook humming to life. But he can’t move his arms, and if the woman isn’t reading the words, he can’t activate his ability…

Her grip on his wrist tightens, and the myriad of colors dancing in his vision become painfully vivid. Turn around, something tells him, and he can’t stop his body from doing so, his entire person twisting around like a badly-made puppet. Behind him is the woman—so young, he thinks, staring up at stringy blonde hair and a thin, sallow face. Her eyes are a swirling mix of colors. Just like him. Just like Orwell. But this isn’t mind control. “Atwood,” she says. “Kneel.”

He tries to resist the order, and regrets it immediately—pain flares up his entire lower body when he forces his legs to stay straight, and he ends up buckling to his knees anyway, his notebook tumbling out of his hands. The pages are facing up, where Atwood can so easily look down at and read—but she keeps her eyes on him, hand fisted in his hair. “I wouldn’t recommend that,” Atwood sneers. Her knife glints in her other hand, held steady at her side. “There are much worse things I can make your body do.”

Control over bodily movements. Similar to mind control, but less refined and more suited for torture—and considering Edgar can still move the smaller parts of his body, then it must mean she’s focused on simply keeping him in place and ordering him around. What can I do? What can I do?

She nudges his notebook closer to him with the head of her shoe, and Edgar has to bite his lip to keep from cursing colorfully. “Use your ability.”

No.

“Let him out. That Edogawa.”

No. No. Please, no—

Her face splits in a grin. “You killed the person who mattered most to me. Wouldn’t it be only fair, to do the same to you?”

No!” Edgar shouts—the colors flicker, twirl, jump all around him. “N-No. No. Don’t. I won’t. Me,” he gasps, “kill me instead. I’m the one you want.” Why am I doing this? Why do I care so much? “Please.”

“Aw,” Atwood practically croons, “look at you, begging for your own death. How heroic. But I don’t care. I was a torture specialist, you know, still am—I don’t stop until I get what I want.”

Lift your arm, that voice says, and Edgar bites back a cry when pain lances up his right arm. His hand settles on his notebook, and power hums at his fingertips—but Atwood is still only looking at him, eyes never once facing down at the words she knows he can trap her in.

Please, no, not after everything, not after six years of waiting and waiting and finally meeting him and now—and now—please—I can’t fail—I can’t fail again—

“Let him out.”

Nice try, Poe-kun—

Something zips out from behind, crashing against Atwood’s legs with the force of a bowling ball—the moment she shrieks and lets go of his head, Edgar almost topples over backwards as the world rights itself. The colors blink out of existence, replaced by the regular creams and browns of his apartment walls—feeling returns to his arms and legs, accompanied by a stinging, lingering pain—and then he’s scrabbling for his notebook, flipping it to an old page, and flinging it into Atwood’s face. She moves to cover her face, but Edgar can feel it, the exact second her eyes land on a word, a letter, a single pencil stroke—and then there’s that darkness, swallowing her whole.

Her knife clatters onto the floor. The apartment is silent. Karl’s ear is torn, his fur mussed, but all he does is nuzzle Edgar’s ankle until Edgar sinks to his knees to hug him. “Thank you,” he whispers. His cheeks are wet and his body protests at the abrupt movements and there’s a rapid th-thump echoing in his head, but all he can think of is the crumpled body of a raven that had saved him, too. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Karl blinks up at him, cooing softly. I don’t think I’m the one you should be apologizing to right now, he seems to say.

Edgar breathes in, breathes out, and closes his eyes. Atwood is occupied—Ranpo is not. He reaches for that power, ignoring the way his hand is shaking uncontrollably, and draws Ranpo out. The light fills the entryway for a moment again, and Edgar vaguely notes how rare it is to see white light in place of blue or green or black.

And then Ranpo is there again, staring at him, glasses perched on his face. “What—”

“I’m sorry,” Edgar blurts out. “I’m s-sorry. I’m so—”

“Why are you apologizing?” Ranpo cuts in. There’s that same agitation in his voice again, more prominent now, enough that Edgar can tell it’s not anger, or impatience, or even panic.

“I—That was—”

“I know what that was. An enemy you made while you were in the Guild. You took care of her?” He gestures to the notebook, and Edgar’s barely finished a nod before Ranpo’s speaking again. “Okay. All’s fine, then.” And, like an absolute maniac, he kicks off his shoes and places them by the entryway, like that is at all important right now.

“R-Ranpo-kun.” Edgar swallows. “Listen. I—I’m sorry, I couldn’t—I couldn’t think of—of a-anything else, and I—had to—”

“Hold on.” Ranpo puts a hand up and looks up at Edgar through his glasses. “Are you apologizing for putting me in your book? Notebook? Whatever?”

“I… thought that was obvious,” Edgar mutters.

Ranpo looks exhausted. “Why?

“Why? I mean—well—” Edgar angles his face away, just enough to break eye contact, and inhales deeply. The pause is long enough for Ranpo to interrupt if he so wants to, but he doesn’t, and Edgar takes that as a good sign. “It’s just—it’s my fault she targeted you in the first place,” he says, all in one breath. “S-She was going to make me k-kill you, and—and it’s my—my fault for—having this… ability. I mean, that s-sounds ridiculous, but—but it’s… all it does is hurt others,” he mumbles, voice so low he wonders if Ranpo can even hear him. “All it’s good for is killing.”

I’m scared, he wants to say. I’m scared that you’re going to realize how all I do is hurt others and you’re going to leave me alone and I’ll end up missing you while you forget about me and I have to refer to everything in the past tense, again. I don’t want an apology. Stay. Please.

But he swallows the words down, because—what good had they done him, back then? What good will they do now?

“Maybe.”

Edgar blinks, looks up. He hadn’t realized he’d started staring at the floor. “W-What?”

“Maybe that’s true.” Ranpo shrugs. He looks so calm and untroubled that it’s giving Edgar a brand new headache. “Maybe that’s all your ability is good for. Maybe you think that’s all you’re good for. But—” And his brow furrows, like he’s genuinely confused about something—“you know you just used your ability to save me, didn’t you?”

“T-That—That’s not the point—”

“It is very much the point, Poe-kun,” Ranpo interrupts, frowning. “It’s not all about hurting and killing and being a murderer. Like how you’re not all about hurting and killing and being a murderer. You like kids and cute animals and you’re into some kinky stuff I haven’t figured out yet—”

“Um—”

“—and you bake cookies and you like flowers. You’re not just one thing.” His frown fades. “I told you this already. You’re Poe-kun. So why are you saying sorry? It’s just you.”

Edgar doesn’t know if the words are meant to comfort him or something, but his eyes are starting to grow hot again and the absolute last thing he needs is for Ranpo to see him cry, when he hasn’t in so long—he breathes in, feeling the air rattle down his windpipe, and turns away. “Oh,” he manages. It’s pathetic, but it’s something. “That… makes sense.”

“‘Course it does. I always make sense.” Ranpo strides further in, stopping for a moment to bend down and scratch Karl behind the ears.

Edgar’s mind unfortunately decides to remind him about how the place is a mess and that he hasn’t showered today, and that thought rapidly evolves into the irrational worry that he smells—actually, that the whole apartment smells, dear God. “Um. Ranpo-kun?”

“What?” He’s already settled himself onto the couch, which seems to be his favorite piece of furniture in here. “Are you gonna make me go all the way back home after everything? That’s lame!”

“Oh.” Right. That’s probably rude. Edgar gingerly takes a seat on a nearby chair, even though there’s still space on the couch—being too near Ranpo right now seems dangerous, though he can’t exactly place why. “Um. You. Uh. W… Why did you visit, again? For the story?”

“Yeah!” Ranpo brings the paperclipped drafts out of nowhere. “Come oooon, I was thinking up plot points for you all day, that’s how bored I was at work.”

Edgar’s too tired to even move, much less get up and start writing, but for some reason Ranpo doesn’t push him—instead, he lies down on the couch, kicking his feet up onto the armrest and chattering on about the draft, which somehow eventually leads to stories on what had happened in the office today (which is: not much, according to Ranpo, but Dazai Osamu bringing in handheld fireworks to prank Kunikida sounds rather eventful to Edgar). He pauses in between every few sentences, looking over at Edgar like he’s expecting a response, and Edgar manages to come up with something to say every now and then, or at least nod, but that’s it—Ranpo carries the entire conversation, if it can be called that, by himself.

It’s not something Edgar’s used to—with the Guild it had been quiet, peaceful, calming. Noise meant danger, meant problems and trouble and missions and a body count. Edgar had come to treasure what sounds he had—the scratch of pencil on paper, teacups clinking gently on their plates, Louisa humming whenever their workload was lighter than usual. But here Ranpo’s talking, the up-and-down cadence of his voice driving away any other thought Edgar might have, and—in a way, it’s quiet, too. Peaceful. Calming.

Ranpo stays for dinner, because of course he does. Edgar washes the dirty dishes in record speed and digs through his cabinets. “How does tonkatsu sound?” He has the ingredients for it, mostly because he’d tried it when Lucy had bought takeout before and he’d been enamored ever since.

“Anything’s good,” Ranpo replies, sounding distracted—Edgar chances a glance behind him and catches Ranpo tossing biscuits at Karl at varying heights, making Karl scurry and jump for every treat. Edgar’s not sure if that’s good exercise or if it’s going to make him fatter, but they both look like they’re having fun, and something in his chest twists at the sight.

The recipe he finds online is easy enough to follow, and only takes twenty minutes, but Ranpo is impatient as always and peers up at Edgar from where he’s heating oil. “Why were you tired?” he abruptly asks. “When I came in.”

Edgar pauses. Probably not a good idea when he’s trying to cook, but he can’t help it. “Um. I had to go out for a while, so.”

“Did you really?”

Edgar rubs his temple. “How do you do that?”

“What, figure out when you’re lying? It’s easy. For one thing, you’re not a good liar.”

That sounds unlikely, when Edgar’s been running on lies since he was nine years old, but he briefly notes the word choice—Ranpo hadn’t said he’s a bad liar, and that probably means something. “Anyway,” Ranpo continues, “you didn’t answer my question.”

“It was j-just—” Edgar swallows, takes a breath, dips pork chops in flour. Again. “Just one of. Those days. When—When everything feels—tiring, and wrong, and just… bad.” Eloquent of you, he tells himself. And you call yourself a writer.

“Oh.” Ranpo’s still staring at him. “Why?”

“Why? There isn’t always. Um. A reason, for when it happens. I-It just… does.”

“Oh,” Ranpo says again. He doesn’t sound bored, just thoughtful. “When did it start?”

Edgar pauses, staring at the bread crumbs beneath him. “A long time ago.” After I met you. “Is there a reason you’re asking all this?” He bites his lip—he can feel his voice hardening, that sharp edge that always creeps in when he least wants it to. It had happened with Royster, all those years ago—he’d been concerned, asking questions, and Edgar had driven him off. (Always. It’s always my fault. All I’m good for.)

But Ranpo doesn’t look annoyed, or offended, or confused. Mostly he looks hungry. “Nope. Just curious. Are you done yet?”

Dinner isn’t as full of awkward questions, because Ranpo’s completely focused on the tonkatsu and Edgar is fine with keeping it that way. He’s not hungry—or maybe he is, and he just doesn’t want to eat, but going to bed with an empty stomach means he’s going to get up at one in the morning and bake cookies again, so he forces some food down his throat. It’s, well—surprisingly not bad.

“Do you cook a lot?” Ranpo asks, through a mouthful of pork.

“Sometimes. I had to, before, when I lived by myself for a while, so.”

“Hm.” Ranpo swallows, and follows that innocent question up with, “Where’d you put the ability user?”

Edgar nearly chokes on his glass of water and has to hastily set it down before he spills it all over his front. “S-Sorry?”

“The one from earlier. You know. What’s her name?”

“Um, Atwood. She, er…” Edgar turns away a bit and closes his eyes, feels around for her heartbeat. It’s weak and barely there anymore, where she’s chained against the wall and flanked by two skeletons—James and Gibson, the other Party members Edgar had trapped in this story years ago. He sifts through her thoughts and picks out the important details, just like every time he’d had to gather information on a mission. “Ability is control over bodily movements. The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s… the daughter of someone I killed in the past.”

Daughter. Orwell had had a daughter. How old had she been when Edgar had killed him? Ten? Eleven? Orwell’s file hadn’t mentioned any living relatives, which means he had kept her so well hidden that not even the Guild had known about her. Since they don’t share the same surname, it’s likely she had changed her name or used a fake one to disguise herself, too. And she had been waiting all this time to get revenge for her father. She probably thought I’ve let my guard down since coming here, he thinks. She’s probably right, too.

He looks up at Ranpo, and remembers how close he had come to killing him—remembers that wicked grin, the wink of a knife, his hand shaking over his notebook. He had been so close. Again.

“Are you still thinking about that?” Ranpo asks. He’s still eating, like he doesn’t have a care in the world, and Edgar doesn’t know if he’s supposed to be reassured or annoyed.

“About almost killing you? It’s a bit hard to forget.”

Ranpo sets his chopsticks down with a clack that echoes in the quiet apartment. “Poe-kun,” he says, words slow and deliberate, “so what if it almost happened? It didn’t. Because you helped me. That’s all there is to it.”

“But—” Pause, swallow, breathe. Ranpo doesn’t speak to interrupt, and Edgar’s thankful for that. It feels like he actually wants to listen, even if Edgar keeps stumbling over his words. “I could have. I was so—close. Aren’t you ever scared? That my ability will just… trap you forever, or something.”

“Nope. ‘Cause I’ll always find a way out.” He cocks his head a little. “No such thing as an unsolvable mystery. And even if there were,” he adds, “I’d still solve it. I’m the best detective in the world, after all.”

“An unsolvable mystery,” Edgar repeats, under his breath. The words sound right, coming from him, like he’d been born to say them. Ranpo’s still looking at him, a smile playing on his lips, and Edgar finds himself returning it. “I’ll have to do my best, then.”

“Hmm? To what?”

“To write a mystery so difficult,” he says, tearing off a piece of pork to feed Karl, “that even you couldn’t solve it.”

“Ohh, Poe-kun. Such aspiration. Too bad it’ll never happen.”

“I won’t know until I try.”

“I guess you’ll have to spend the rest of your life trying, then!”

Edgar scratches Karl behind the ears, and watches as he scampers over to nuzzle Ranpo’s foot on the other side of the table. “Maybe,” he murmurs, watching Ranpo grin and ruffle Karl’s head. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

A ragged Nakajima Atsushi shows up a few minutes after dinner, bowing and apologizing profusely for Ranpo’s intrusion—“He ran off on his own and it took us ages to figure out where he’d gone, and then we got caught up with a robber on the way, and then there was an accident on the road—” He groans and bows again. “I’m so sorry for troubling you, Poe-san! We’ll keep a better eye on him next time!”

“Um. It’s fine.” Edgar glances over at Ranpo, who seems to be busy staring out into the night. So he can get here by himself after all. “Thank you for coming out here. Do you…” What would be the polite thing to do? Lucy likes this guy for some reason, doesn’t she? Am I supposed to invite him in for tea or something?

But Nakajima is bowing and apologizing again, possibly for the seventh time, and then he’s gently pulling Ranpo down the hallway and into the elevator. Edgar watches them through the poster for a little longer, then scans the rest of the building for any odd individuals—when there are none, he breathes out a long, heavy sigh and slips back into his bedroom, Karl following close behind.

It’s been a rough day, his notebook remarks.

“Mhm.”

It’s also been a while since you’ve gotten into a real fight.

“Yeah.”

Are you… feeling okay? it asks, sounding cautious. I mean, after everything.

“Just tired.” Edgar changes into some more comfortable clothes, telling himself he’ll do the laundry tomorrow morning, first thing, then lies back down on his bed. It’s cold now, but he wraps himself up in blankets and feels warmth begin to seep in. “Atwood?”

Dead.

“Okay.”

She had been Lucy’s age. Edgar thinks about the children he’s spoken to, the children he wishes never end up like him, and decides it’s probably too far-off a hope. Scottie is dead, and Izumi Kyouka is a murderer. But—if someone had told his sixteen-year-old self that, after murdering dozens of people, he would be living in Japan and making friends with enemies he’d tried to kill, he would have laughed in their face.

Brush your teeth before you sleep.

“Right. Thanks.”

He’ll go back to America, someday—but not now. He doesn’t know what they are, exactly, but there are still things he has to do here, and he wants to finish what he’s started.

Chapter Text

“I gotta go buy catnip seeds.”

Edgar stares at Ranpo from where he’s seated on the couch again, flipping through a book he’d nabbed off Edgar’s shelves. He’s dressed casually today, in a dress shirt a size too big for him and dark brown trousers. “Okay?”

“Come with me,” Ranpo says, looking like he’s wondering why he even has to voice that aloud. “You need to go grocery shopping anyway, don’t you? You’ve been putting it off for a while.”

“Did you figure that out just by looking in my cupboards?”

“There’s not much to look at in there.” Ranpo hops up and shrugs on his green jacket. “I was hoping you’d go soon so you could get me sweets, but I guess I have to take matters into my own hands after all.”

There are a number of pet shops along the streets they pass, but none of them have catnip, much to Ranpo’s consternation. Edgar tries, really tries, to help him search up stores that sell it, but whenever they enter a new place, he winds up staring at the pets they have on display until Ranpo pulls on his sleeve. “Do you really want more tiny animals in the house?” Ranpo asks, when he catches Edgar looking at a kitten. “Karl’s a handful already.”

“You’re not the one feeding him.” The kitten’s a maine coon, with rare black fur interspersed with white streaks. Beautiful, in other words. He steps closer, ignoring Ranpo’s eye-roll, and bends down a little to be eye level with the cat now staring at him. “Hello,” he murmurs.

It says nothing for a while, just stares even more with its bright yellow eyes, then meows. Hello, it seems to say. It’d probably say, How do you do, too, because it looks like the polite sort of cat.

“Poe-kun,” Ranpo sighs.

“Sorry,” Edgar says, not meaning it, “it’s just…”

He wonders if Ranpo just knows, somehow, because he doesn’t speak again. Edgar lays a hand on the enclosure’s glass wall, smiling when the kitten paws at it from inside. “You remind me of someone I knew,” he says, too soft for anyone else to hear.

They have to leave eventually, because Edgar can hear Ranpo scuffing his shoes and generally being restless, but he glances over at the information card on the maine coon’s cage. Male, six months old, selling price…

“I know you’re rich and all,” Ranpo says, tugging on his wrist, “but that’s so not a reasonable investment.”

“It’s just a thousand dollars,” Edgar sighs. Converting the currency in his head makes the six-digit price a bit easier to bear. “Not that I was going to buy him.”

“Oh, really?”

“Ugh. There’s another pet shop a ten-minute walk from here, let’s go.”

They finally find some catnip seeds, but only after Ranpo drags Edgar away from making conversation with a parrot; afterwards, Ranpo steers them over to a grocery and even offers to push the cart, something Edgar hadn’t expected, if only because physical labor doesn’t seem like his thing. It’s even stranger when Ranpo acts perfectly normal and civil, pointing out ingredients for recipes Edgar’s been thinking of trying, and he only makes bad jokes about the health benefits of eggplants twice.

Then when Edgar turns his back on Ranpo for one second, he finds out it’s all been an act because Ranpo runs off and races the cart around the aisles, laughing like a madman as he nearly runs little children down. The peaceful grocery trip rapidly turns into Edgar snatching canned goods off the shelves at lightning speed and taking off after Ranpo, both so he can get the groceries done and ensure nobody gets murdered—it’s frankly the worst trip to the grocery Edgar’s ever been on, but at least he’d gotten a load of exercise done along with it.

He also doesn’t miss how grocery shopping together is something married couples usually do, but he tries to ignore the thought anyway. It’s not hard, especially when keeping Ranpo from barreling down aisles requires most of his attention, but it’s still a niggling thought at the back of his mind that he can’t fully get rid of.

Edgar draws the grocery bags into his notebook, finding a story that contains a fridge so he doesn’t have to worry about the ice cream (courtesy of Ranpo) melting—they’ll have to share the space with a corpse, but it’s nothing new. Ranpo peers over his shoulder while he does so, and when the light fades, he says, “Your ability’s weirdly useful.”

“‘Weirdly?’”

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t look like much at first glance. Drawing people into books, I mean. I bet everyone would think, meh, that’s alright, but then you do stuff like this and it turns out to be surprisingly okay.”

Edgar rolls his eyes. He’s long given up on trying to hide it whenever he does so, and he has a feeling Ranpo gets some kind of sick amusement watching him grow annoyed. “I could literally do whatever I want with you once I put you in a book.”

“Oh?” Ranpo grins. “Are you trying to tell me something, Poe-kun?”

Edgar stares at him. “I detest you.”

“And you need to work on your dirty talk.”

The walk back to the apartment will take half an hour, at least, considering how far they’ve wandered—Ranpo declares he’s hungry and pulls Edgar into a cafe he’s heard has the sweetest cakes. It doesn’t sound great for Edgar, but he’s craving for non-instant coffee again, so it should work out, he thinks, until he notices it’s the same cafe Lucy works in.

Well, surely it’s not her shift right now, he tells himself, right when a familiar redhead looks up at him from behind the counter.

Edgar has never wanted to sink into the floor so badly.

Ranpo gets himself one of those acidic-sweet cakes, which Edgar had been expecting—he manages to cough out an order for a black coffee, which Lucy jots down without a change in expression. She does great pretending nothing is wrong until Ranpo is distracted by his cake, at which point Lucy shoots Edgar a look that screams, what the hell?

Edgar tries to subtly break eye contact with her, but there is simply no way to subtly break eye contact with someone, much less when it’s Lucy staring daggers at him, so he sips his coffee and fixes his gaze somewhere to the left of Ranpo’s face.

Ranpo keeps himself occupied by scouring every other dessert they have on the menu, then starts listing them down on his phone, not unlike a to-do list. “You know I know who she is, right?” he suddenly asks, not even looking up at Edgar when he speaks.

“Er?”

“You heard me.” Ranpo closes his phone. “That’s Lucy Maud Montgomery. Ability’s Anne of Abyssal Red. I mean, you don’t seriously think I don’t know who she is, do you, Poe-kun?”

“Um. I was hoping you didn’t.”

“You’re funny,” Ranpo says, sounding genuinely amused. Edgar’s hand stutters over where he’d been stirring his coffee. “Hold on, I’m gonna go get takeout for Dazai, he said he likes the cakes here too.” Then he’s standing up and strolling over to the counter, which someone who is decidedly not Lucy is currently manning.

Edgar swallows and turns around. Lucy is there, hands on her hips and brows raised. “I can explain,” he starts, because those are the first words that come to mind, and he feels terribly like a character in a bad sitcom.

“Oh, you better.” Lucy waves a dishrag in the air in a vaguely threatening motion. “Is he your boyfriend, Poe? I knew you were head over heels for him, but you sure move fast.

“Boy—no! Lucy, no! We’re just—” Do you think you’re friends? “Just… out… together.”

“So,” Lucy drawls, “a date.”

Edgar pauses. “No.”

“Poe. Face it. You’re on a date.

“We are not. There’s nothing date-like about going to pet shops and grocery shopping.”

“Oh, my God.” Lucy pretends to gag herself with the dishrag. “You went grocery shopping together? Forget it, he’s not your boyfriend, you two sound like you’re married. And it’s only been, what, over a month since we’ve come here? I don’t know what to say.”

Edgar massages his forehead and tries to tell himself that Ranpo is not going to dawdle by the cakes display forever, so he has to finish this conversation now, without giving Lucy any more wrong ideas. “Alright, fine, maybe it seems like a date, but it isn’t one, because neither of us think it is.” Probably, he internally adds. Ranpo doesn’t seem like the type to treat an unplanned outing like this as a date, anyway, and Edgar hasn’t been thinking about it much. (Rather, he’s avoiding thinking about it, but in the grand scheme of things there’s hardly a difference.)

“You are on a date,” Lucy insists. She doesn’t sound like God Himself could convince her otherwise. Edgar opens his mouth to protest, thinks better of it, and lets Lucy speak again, a mischievous light in her eyes. “Not that I mind or anything, because I know you’ve wanted to see him again for, what, five years—”

“Six,” Edgar quietly corrects, more on reflex than anything.

“—so I’m on your side. Anyway, are you paying yet? Your boyfriend ate, like, five thousand yen worth of cakes.”

“Oh.” Not as bad as it could have been, Edgar supposes. He pays for both of them and watches Lucy head back behind the counter just as Ranpo returns to his seat with a pink, ribbony box. “That’s for, um. Dazai-san, was it?”

“Yep. He’ll love this.” Ranpo lifts the box up. There are drawings of cute little bunnies along the rim. “I think I’ll cut the cake open and dump some chili sauce inside. That’ll do it. Oh, and look there,” he adds, jerking a thumb behind him, “it looks like your friend’s got a visitor.”

Edgar doesn’t really have to look to know who it is, but he turns to watch anyway, just to use it as blackmail someday. Nakajima is in front of the counter, as he’d expected, with a small container in hand—it’s also got cutesy decorations, but Edgar’s not one to judge. “Montgomery-chan!” he calls. Several heads turn, one of them flushing when she sees who it is. “I’m glad! I remembered it would be your shift right now—”

“Why do you know my schedule, weirdo!”

“—and I found this in the Agency office!” He presents the little box to her like it’s a White Day chocolate. By the way Lucy’s face is getting redder and redder, Edgar decides she’s probably thinking the same thing. “A sewing kit! No one was using it, and you mentioned wanting one before, so.”

“You… You…” Lucy tentatively reaches out for the sewing kit; then, when Nakajima isn’t about to pull it away or anything, she grabs it out of his hands and ducks back to hide behind the register. She looks like she’s about to collapse on the spot. “Y-You don’t just come in here and give me stuff and then not order!

Nakajima blinks. “Oh. Right.” A pause. “Um… what’s the cheapest thing I can get for takeout?”

On the way out, Edgar manages to catch Lucy’s eye and mouths, boyfriend, huh? She gives him an unimpressed look and a colorful hand gesture back, which has Ranpo cackling all the way down the street.

They pass by a secondhand bookshop on the way back to the apartment, and at first Edgar only means to look at the new titles they have on display, but it takes him a minute to realize he’s stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and people are grumbling and pushing past him. “Sorry,” he manages, hastily stepping to the side when someone on a bicycle nearly runs him over.

“What d’you find?” Ranpo scans the display, eyes cracking open before they slit shut again. “These all look boring to me.”

“Just give me five minutes.”

“What am I supposed to do, read one of these?”

“It’d do you good.” Edgar ducks into the bookshop, suppresses a sneeze, and wades through the dust inside to come to a relatively secluded corner of the shop. No security cameras, and the counter is on the other side. “Hello,” he mumbles.

There’s barely a breeze coming from the stuttering air conditioner overhead, but Edgar thinks he can hear pages fluttering open. The soft susurration of voices rises to a harmony of excited voices all talking over each other, and Edgar doesn’t bother biting down on a smile. It’s not so hard listening to all of them at once, not when he’s had to deal with life-or-death situations on a daily basis—he steps closer and runs a hand over some spines, not minding how his fingers come away darkened with dust. “It must have been a while since someone talked to you,” he muses.

No one’s ever talked to us, period, one of them replies—Edgar turns a little and finds the book right away. A dictionary.

I miss my writer, another sniffles. A children’s book about elephants.

Is this your ability? An obscure sci-fi novel.

Edgar replies to them as best as he can, keeping his voice low but otherwise forgetting it’s probably long past five minutes when Ranpo finds him flipping through an autobiography. “We should go,” he says, and though there’s a hint of a whine in his tone, he doesn’t sound as bored or impatient as Edgar thought he would be.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, both to Ranpo and the books. “Did you find anything you might like, at least?”

“I think you know the answer to that.” Ranpo shakes his head. “Are you ever going to publish your works, Poe-kun? It seems a waste to just write and write and not at least get some money out of it. ‘Sides, you already have some completed books, don’t you?”

Edgar takes a moment to breathe in some fresh air when they walk out of the bookshop—it’s still tinged with traffic smoke, but it’s composed of significantly less dust motes. “Those were printed and bound as a favor,” he says, carefully. He’d been in Iceland for a mission a few years ago when he’d passed by a rogue ability user robbing a local printing company, and—well. It had hurt, to hear books and manuscripts terrified of the fire the man had been threatening. “It would be—nice, to publish novels and all, but I’m… well… a criminal. For one thing.”

“Sheesh, just find a publishing company you worked with before. Like, connected to the Guild, or something. Shouldn’t be so hard.”

Edgar shrugs, trying not to make the movement too obviously forced. He remembers Louisa’s words from before, telling him about a publishing house in Japan Fitzgerald owns. Owned. He’s not sure if it’s still under the man, but he remembers its name and office location anyway. “When you put it that way—”

“I’m right, aren’t I? Of course I am,” Ranpo preens.

“—um, I meant it sounds a lot easier than it actually is. But—” Edgar worries on his lower lip, not worried about Ranpo noticing. (That’s become the norm for a lot of things, hasn’t it.) “It’s… dangerous, alright?”

“There you go again!” Ranpo sighs dramatically. “What, do you think you’re going to start sucking people into your books for no good reason? Maybe if you were insane, or a really terrible person, but so far you’re neither of those, so where’s the danger?”

“It’s just—” Why don’t you understand, Edgar wants to ask, but he looks away and swallows the words down because he can’t expect Ranpo to understand. Ranpo’s never seen papers shrivel up in flames from all the hatred in them, never watched four boys get themselves murdered while their heartbeats went out one by one in his ears, never tortured other people for information then killed them when they thought they were safe—Ranpo doesn’t have his ability, doesn’t have Black Cat in the Rue Morgue, and if Edgar’s expecting him to understand that, he’s just being selfish all over again.

So he breathes in, breathes out, and says, “It’s just not safe.”

His thoughts probably show on his face, because Ranpo doesn’t immediately say something like, geez, fine, or, you’re just being boring—when Edgar looks down, Ranpo’s mutely staring up at him, expression unreadable. “What?” Edgar finally caves.

“You don’t trust yourself, do you?”

“Um?”

“You don’t trust yourself,” Ranpo repeats, instead of saying you heard me like Edgar had been half-expecting. “I’m not saying you’re, like, wrong for being scared. There’s no wrong reason to be scared, period, but—I mean, think about it. I’m not gonna bother telling you what to do. You’re smart enough to figure that out for yourself, at least.” Then he shrugs, the seriousness gone to make way for his usual grin. “Or, you know, just stay jobless forever. I don’t care.”

“That’s reassuring.”

“I do my best. Ah—” Ranpo blinks, and tilts his head back to look at the sky. Edgar pointedly looks away from the curve of his throat and follows his gaze instead—a mass of dark gray clouds are rolling over and blanketing the previously-clear sky, fast. “Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

It starts as a manageable drizzle for all of one minute; afterwards, when the rain comes pouring in buckets, Ranpo starts jumping into puddles and generally being a nuisance to  everyone around him. Edgar tries to corral him like the grocery all over again, but Ranpo just runs further out of reach—he’s annoyingly fast, for someone with such short legs—until they’re sprinting towards the apartment, Ranpo obviously having the time of his life while Edgar’s slipped on the slick pavement at least thrice by the time they get back.

“Don’t track mud inside,” Edgar calls—Ranpo makes a little oh sound and kicks his shoes off at the entryway, but that doesn’t stop him from dripping rainwater all over the floor. At least that will be significantly easier to mop up than blood, Edgar tells himself. “Stay until it lightens up,” he says, aloud. “You can take a shower, if you like.”

“‘Kay!” Ranpo shucks off his soaked jacket and hangs it up on the coat rack, where it proceeds to drip enough to form a growing puddle beneath it. Edgar doesn’t bother hiding his sigh. “Don’t worry, Poe-kun, I heard that a storm that arrives fast leaves just as fast,” he chirps.

“Er, really? From where?”

“Oh, you know, around.”

“Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“Fine, your loss!”

While Ranpo uses his shower, Edgar tosses Karl a grape bunch then heads into his bedroom, where half a dozen crows, cawing and shaking their feathers out, are perched on the railing of his balcony. “Hello,” he greets, stepping out and pouring some peanuts into the little bowl he’d left on the small table. The crows descend upon it right away, apparently unbothered by his proximity. “Stay dry out here, alright?”

At first glance, Edgar assumes they’re probably paying him no mind, but then he sees where their beady eyes are looking and smiles—right, they observe people from their side profile, probably to be stealthier. Then again, he doesn’t know many crows who stay this close to a human, but he’s not complaining.

“See,” Ranpo says from behind him, “you have way too many pets already. A raccoon and a bunch of crows.”

“You shower fast.”

“Just enough to wash my hair. You go now, you’re the one tracking mud.”

Edgar looks down, but he’s definitely wearing socks instead of the boots he’d left by the entryway—Ranpo breaks into laughter, and Edgar wants to simultaneously throttle and laugh with him. The latter one is probably absurd, but he looks at that unapologetically happy face, beads of water hanging onto his lashes, and the only thing he can do is bite back a smile. The fact that Ranpo’s wearing Edgar’s old clothes, an old gray hoodie that reaches his thighs and loose black pants, doesn’t help. “What is it, Poe-kun,” Ranpo asks, grinning, “are you plotting something against me now?”

Edgar flushes. “No, I’m—” definitely not looking at how your hair looks longer when it’s wet, or how good my clothes look on you, or how natural it feels to let you use my shower, or—“not as low as you, Ranpo-kun.”

“You wound me.”

“I do my best,” Edgar says, echoing Ranpo’s previous words—Ranpo rolls his eyes, but he’s still grinning. “Watch Karl for me? And don’t scare the crows away.”

“Who do you think I am, Poe-kun, a barbarian?”

Surprisingly, Ranpo keeps his word, as the crows are still on the balcony railing after Edgar finishes showering—Ranpo himself is on the couch with Karl curled up on his lap, probably soaking up warmth, while he reads a collection of Edgar’s older poems, neatly clipped and arranged in a newer notebook. “Poe-kun,” he starts, looking up, and doesn’t continue—instead, he sort of stares at Edgar’s face for a second, like he’s just remembered something important.

“Yes?” Edgar eventually prompts, sitting beside him. (Natural. It feels so natural.)

“Oh.” Ranpo blinks. “Oh, nothing. Just.” He waves a hand in the air. “Your hair makes you look like a wet cat.”

“You really have never heard of manners.”

“Those are for boring people.”

“You mispronounced polite.” Edgar takes a look at the page Ranpo’s on, making sure to still keep enough distance between them. “Why are you reading those? They’re far from mysterious.”

“Couldn’t find anything else.” Ranpo shrugs. “The only thing mysterious about them is how long-winded you can make your metaphors.”

Is he always this rude? the notebook asks. It’s more pompous than Edgar’s usual one, probably as a result of too many flowery metaphors.

“Yes,” Edgar answers—Ranpo gives him an odd look, and he says, “Not you.”

“Right. Who’re you talking to, Karl?”

I despise him, the notebook says.

Edgar smiles. “Me, too.”

Ranpo stares at him. “Have you been lying to me this whole time, and your ability actually lets you talk to ghosts or something?”

Did he just call me a ghost? Do I have permission to stuff him in—

“No,” Edgar interrupts, sharp fear driving the amusement away for a moment—the notebook goes quiet, then huffs but doesn’t speak again. Sorry, he privately adds. I’m a bit—well, you know.

“Will you start paying attention to me now?” Ranpo asks, sounding both impatient and curious.

“Right. Um. I can talk to books.” Edgar shrugs and looks away. He’s never explicitly told anyone like this—even when he’d been in the Guild, everyone had mostly assumed the papers acted as something like hosts for him to see through, or foot soldiers to control. Not—people, Edgar supposes he can call them that—not people who talked, and felt, and wanted someone to listen to them. “Well, papers, really. In general.”

“Seriously? What do they say?”

“Just… I don’t know. Anything. Whatever they want to talk about. Usually themselves.”

Ranpo laughs at that, leaning back against the couch and flipping through the notebook. “So they’re a lot like people. What was this one saying?”

“Called you rude. Despises you.”

“Ohh. I see they take their attitudes after their writer.”

By dinnertime, Edgar’s exhausted from relaying conversations back and forth—letting Ranpo and his books communicate is, actually, not one of his best ideas, because of how talkative both of them get—and the rain still hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s probably gotten harder. Ranpo busies himself looking through the bookshelves while Edgar makes dinner, glad they’d gone to the grocery today, because his cupboards really were bare of anything except for a pack of expired instant noodles, which he decides is still probably edible for a later date.

It feels right, he thinks, as he prepares curry rice for two. It feels right, for him to have dinner here, and to talk to the books, and to play with Karl. With the Guild, it had taken him ages before he could even stomach the thought of leaving Karl alone with Louisa or Lucy—coffee and tea together had been the norm, but he’d never really had meals with someone unless it was during a stakeout mission, like with Twain munching on fast food in the car seat beside him.

But it feels right, with Ranpo. Like they’ve been doing it for years. Like they should keep doing it for years.

He feels his cheeks warm at the thought, and tells himself that’s from the boiling water.

Ranpo bores easily, something that should go without saying, which is why Edgar tunes out his frequent exclamations of boredom like he tunes out the background voices of papers—when he hears nothing but the low hiss of the food cooking, though, Edgar looks up and finds Ranpo staring at a book. “Do you know that one?” he asks, but he’s met with silence. “Ranpo-kun?” Edgar tries again, after letting a few seconds of quiet pass.

Ranpo looks up, looking—disoriented, somehow, or—Edgar stares. There’s something wrong with his expression, like it doesn’t and shouldn’t fit on his face. “It’s,” he says, and stops, looking away. Anger? Agitation? Confusion? Surprise? No—“Never mind.”

“What is it?” Edgar gently prods—he’d go closer if he could, but the curry sauce hasn’t completely melted yet, and he doesn’t want to hear Ranpo complain about the food later on. He focuses on the book in Ranpo’s hands—this far away, he can’t see the cover and read the title, but he should still be able to hear it.

But there’s nothing—it’s quiet. Silent. There’s life, Edgar can feel that, at least, but it says nothing. Like it’s confused, or surprised, or—

“It’s nothing,” Ranpo says, voice so light, Edgar almost believes him. “Just had a thought. Hey, isn’t it done yet? I’m hungry!”

Edgar frowns. It’s definitely not nothing—Ranpo may be the best detective in the world, but Edgar’s spent far too long watching people, noting down every little chink in their defenses and waiting for the perfect chance to strike at them. Few things can get past him, and even then, that only happens if he wants it to. But—he places two plates of curry rice down on the table, watching Ranpo jump into his seat with an excited grin. “Here.”

“Ohh! It’s beef, too!”

Edgar looks over at his bookshelf, but he can’t immediately pinpoint where the book is, if Ranpo had even put it back or if it’s somehow hidden in his clothes. He sighs, murmuring a quick thanks for the meal before eating (not bad—he’s strangely good at this whole cooking thing). He’ll have to wait for that perfect chance to strike again, but—in a way, it’s different from all the other times he’d done it.

There’s no awkward silence, or faraway looks, or any obvious sign that Ranpo’s uncomfortable—mostly he talks about whatever comes to mind, which happens to be a lot of things, and occasionally he reaches down to feed Karl a piece of carrot or two. “Rain hasn’t stopped,” he comments, once his plate is admirably clean. “I hope all the stray cats that hang around the office building found shelter.”

“So you have your own pets, too.”

“Just so you know, they obviously love me. More than the President, at least. That’s why he’s always asking me to get catnip.” Ranpo looks at the window, where a small flower meekly peeks out from its pot. “You should plant some here, too. I bet the cats could climb a couple floors, and then you’d have even more cute animals in this place. A raccoon, crows, and cats—”

Lightning flashes outside, followed by a crack of thunder that rattles the windowpane and makes the light flicker overhead—Edgar grips down on his own wrist, hard enough to distract him from associating the sounds with someone else. Ranpo abruptly cuts himself off, eyes growing wide for a second, before the tension in his shoulders falls away—but Edgar watches his fingers tug at the hoodie, his brow furrow just slightly, his eyes dart from the window to the floor and back.

Ah, Edgar thinks. A chink in the defense.

“You’re not going out in that,” Edgar says, standing up to look outside. He can almost feel the strong winds, even with the window firmly closed, and the rain battering against the walls is almost as loud as the thunder. “Even if you had an umbrella, you’d just fly away with it.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Just because it sounds like something you’d do doesn’t mean I’m going to actually let you do it.”

“Still sounds fun,” Ranpo says, pouting. Thunder booms outside again, but clearly Ranpo isn’t as taken by surprise, because he doesn’t so much as blink—Edgar looks at him, and sees the amount of concentration it’s taking for him to not react. On any other person, the focus would stand out clear as day, but Edgar has to really look to see even a hint of it, and… and. “What do I do, then?” Ranpo whines. “Do I have to talk to books until the rain stops? Not that it’s not nice, but sometimes I get the feeling you twist their words, Poe-kun.”

“I do not.”

“You listen to them for forty seconds and tell me all they said was okay?

“Fine, I paraphrase them a little,” Edgar admits. Mostly he just gets lazy to relay everything the books had said. “Besides, it’s not like I—”

More thunder—the light blinks, sputters, and then they’re plunged into darkness. In the midst of Karl’s panicked yelps, Edgar wonders if he and his bad luck should have expected this.

Ranpo jumps on the idea of a sleepover—not that Edgar had called it such, but Ranpo repeats the word enough that it’s all Edgar can think of it as now—though he huffs when Edgar shows him to the guest room. “It’s so cold in here,” Ranpo mumbles. “And empty and boring! And it smells like blood. Don’t tell me this is your secret torture chamber, Poe-kun.”

“Um.” After Hawthorne had stayed here, Edgar hadn’t been able to get the smell of blood out, no matter how many cans of air freshener he’d wasted trying. “It’s not.”

Ranpo’s eyes light up in realization. “I got it! Blood play!”

“No. Go to sleep.”

It feels right, Edgar thinks, when Ranpo brushes his teeth with his finger beside him, then suggests letting the crows come sleep inside (which Edgar vetoes immediately), then flops onto Edgar’s bed and sighs about how it’s much warmer. It feels right, and that scares Edgar, that something so new can feel so normal.

It’s around nine when Edgar finally convinces Ranpo to head back into the guest room, though he repeatedly asks if Edgar has any candles at all, for even the slightest bit of heat—Edgar doesn’t, because he’s always had excellent night vision, and he’s never needed much light to navigate places, probably as a result of going on missions in the dead of the evening. (It’s also because Edgar’s never trusted fires and how easily they can eat papers up, but he doesn’t bother mentioning that.) Ranpo slinks off eventually, pouting all the while, but neither of them have much of a choice when the rain is still going strong outside.

Edgar’s not used to sleeping so early, but he doesn’t want to waste the battery on his flashlight just to stay up writing again, so he checks on the crows outside and bids them goodnight before closing the balcony doors and drawing the curtains—Karl clambers up the bed to curl against his chest, and Edgar sighs a little at the bit of warmth. It is rather cold in the apartment.

The minutes creep by until they coalesce into an hour that Edgar spends the better half of staring at his ceiling. The storm is only getting louder outside, thunder making the house rumble every few minutes and Karl twitch in uneasiness. Judging by the occasional caw from outside, the crows haven’t left either—Edgar wonders if they’ve flown too far from their territory and can’t risk flying out in the heavy rain; otherwise, why would they stay on his balcony for so long? Has he really been feeding them that often? Or do they live in the city, perhaps in some dark alleyways, with nests made out of metal scraps and old newspapers—

Thunder rings again—Edgar breathes in, breathes out, smooths Karl’s fur down when the raccoon shakes in his arms. What if a flash flood comes around? If the rain doesn’t lighten up by morning, it’s entirely possible…

His door creaks open.

Edgar has a hand on his notebook in less than a second, Karl jumping to hide beneath the bed, but one look at the small silhouette by the doorway is enough for him to settle back down. “Ranpo-kun?”

“It’s cold,” Ranpo mumbles. He sounds like he’s just as restless as Edgar’s been for the past hour. “And it’s… it’s really. Dark.”

Oh.

“Do you want another blanket?” Edgar offers, coaxing Karl out from under the bed. Ranpo steps closer, and Edgar can see the way his green eyes aren’t as bright as they always are, laden down with shadows he doesn’t know the stories of. “You can have the flashlight, too. I can always recharge the battery when the power comes back.”

“No, that’s not…” Ranpo sighs and looks away, for once. Edgar can’t remember many instances where Ranpo had broken eye contact so easily. “Can I sleep with you?” he finally mutters.

For a moment, Edgar’s brain processes nothing; then, when he can finally bring himself to open his mouth, “What?” is all that comes out.

“You heard me. It’s cold, it’s freezing, Poe-kun, no amount of blankets can fix this, and also, I—” Ranpo pauses, for the shortest of seconds, so fast that Edgar barely catches the hitch in his words. “I can’t sleep in the dark,” he says. To anyone else, there might not have been a significant change in tone, but—Edgar hears it. It’s barely there, and for all he knows he could have imagined it, but—there’s fear, tingeing Ranpo’s voice and making Edgar’s chest clench.

“Alright,” Edgar says.

Ranpo blinks, the green light in his eyes gone and there again. “What?”

“I mean, alright, you can—sleep here. It is cold. Stay here,” he tells Ranpo, dropping Karl in his hands, “I’ll get the blankets from the other room.”

Ranpo doesn’t say much when Edgar comes back, bearing the two blankets from the guest room, aside from commenting on the crows still present, before flopping onto the bed without much shame.

And the thing is—well. Edgar’s bed is, thankfully, big enough to hold the two of them without too much squeezing, but it’s the sliver of distance between them that has Edgar’s nerves lighting on fire. In all his years, Edgar’s never been so close to someone before—it’s possible he’s sat this near Louisa, or maybe stood in a train jam-packed with people and had to press up against someone, but the situation is just so intimate that all his thoughts sound like they’re coming through a phone with horrible signal.

They lie down with their backs facing each other, but Edgar can tell by the way the bed dips that Ranpo is curled up, likely with his knees pressed to his chest, possibly to preserve body heat despite the multitude of blankets draped over them already. At least being cold hadn’t been a lie, Edgar thinks—not that there’s a reason for him to lie, because he doubts Ranpo actually wants to sleep in the same bed with him, unless Ranpo’s planning on knifing him in his sleep. Which sounds unlikely, but there’s still a possibility…

“I’m not planning on knifing you in your sleep, by the way,” Ranpo mumbles, voice barely audible above the rainfall. “Figured you might be thinking something like that.”

“You know me well,” Edgar weakly returns.

That gets a laugh out of Ranpo, and Edgar feels his own mouth pull up in a small smile—this laugh is soft, so unlike the loud boisterous ones he’s grown used to. Both of them are endearing in their own ways, but it makes him feel almost special, to be able to hear such a vulnerable, happy sound. To know Ranpo is letting him hear it. “I used to do this a lot,” he says, sounding both thoughtful and solemn. “Sleep with someone, I mean. With the President when I was younger, and with my—” Another, barely noticeable pause—“parents, before that.”

Ranpo usually goes on and on when he talks, and if he wants a response he’ll ask an obvious question or look up at Edgar—but neither of those apply in this situation, because  Ranpo doesn’t immediately speak again; so Edgar awkwardly asks, “How are your parents?”

It’s a conversation starter if he’s ever heard one, after all.

“The best, of course,” Ranpo says, and this time he sounds far more like his usual self. “My dad was a police detective! He solved cases with the police all the time, even dug up some cold ones and figured them out in two seconds. He told me he retired when I was born, but sometimes the police went to him for hard cases and asked for his help. They weren’t hard at all,” he adds. Edgar can almost hear the grin in his voice. “I mean, I could solve them almost as fast as him.”

“He sounds like you,” Edgar muses. “Your mother?”

“She was a housewife, and she said she was never in the detective business, but she beat my dad in arguments all the time. They also—” Ranpo breaks off for a moment, then continues, more cautiously, “They also thought they should share some of the… the cases my dad had to deal with, before. The weird ones, the ones they loved talking about. So my dad, he was also. Also a—” He sighs. “Also a writer.”

Oh, Edgar thinks, again. He thinks about that book Ranpo had been holding, how it had gone completely silent, that odd confused-surprised-sad look on his face. He thinks back to years ago, when he’d been curled up on his bed aboard the Moby Dick, listening to a book narrate grotesque, macabre stories based off real-life experiences. My writer was the most excellent detective, it had said. His son loved hearing those stories. Said he’d make his own someday, when he grew up, it had said.

It’s been years since his death now, and his son must be an adult, it had said.

“They died when I was fourteen,” Ranpo says, apparently not needing a response—maybe he already knows, Edgar thinks. He wouldn’t put it past Ranpo. But he doesn’t continue right away, pausing for far longer this time—Edgar’s not sure if Ranpo’s trying to gather his thoughts, or has already gathered them and is just trying to get them out. “It was hard,” he finally says, “sleeping by myself. It sounds stupid, that that would be what I focused on, but at the time I couldn’t—” Edgar hears the telltale sound of an unsteady inhale and a determined exhale. “I couldn’t think about anything else. Didn’t want to, maybe. It was…” Breathe in, breathe out. “Dark. And cold.”

“Oh,” Edgar says, very softly. It’s all he can come up with.

“Then I met the President,” Ranpo continues, and by the way the bed shifts Edgar thinks he curls up even tighter around himself, “and I thought it’d be okay, but it isn’t the same, you know. The warmth is there but it doesn’t feel the same and—it probably never will.” Several shuddering breaths fill up the silence not even the low thunder outside can penetrate. “I hate it,” Ranpo says, voice sharp and shaky at the same time, “the dark, and the cold. It makes me think that I’m back—there, on the streets, alone.”

And Edgar doesn’t know what makes him say it—maybe it’s the darkness all around them, maybe it’s because there are no green eyes to look away from, maybe it’s because he can see himself, too, alone in the alleyways and wondering if anyone would care if he died—but he whispers, “You’re not.”

Pause. “What?”

“You’re not alone. You’ve—You’ve got the President, and the rest of the Agency, and—” Me, Edgar wants to say—me, I’m here, I’m here, you’re not alone and neither am I. “And everyone,” he mumbles. “You’re not alone.”

Ranpo is quiet, and for a while there’s only the rain beating down around them. It seems to be growing lighter, but Edgar can’t tell. “I know,” Ranpo finally murmurs. It’s the softest Edgar’s ever heard his voice get. “It’s just hard to remember that, sometimes.”

Edgar is, among other things, a light sleeper, something brought about more by necessity than anything else. There had always been a reason to get up and to get up fast —because he was juggling several jobs at once in a dirty old inn, because staying stationary in one place for too long in Portsmouth’s dark alleyways would kill him, because Guild work was demanding and more and more missions kept pouring in. Over time, plain fear had begun to settle in—fear of an intruder, fear of some disaster, fear of anything that can possibly be feared.

But sometimes the exhaustion catches up with him, and he sleeps straight through everything in the world—like Ranpo, beside him, moving little by little until Edgar wakes up to the sunrise and ruffled black hair tickling his chin.

His first thoughts, even after all these years, are heavy hands and alcohol breath, thunderstorm-footsteps and thunderstorm-glares—but then he looks down, and sees Ranpo’s sleeping face pressed against his chest. The storm from last night has passed, too, Edgar thinks, otherwise the sunlight wouldn’t be filtering in through the curtains and illuminating Ranpo’s pale skin.

Edgar has absolutely no idea how it had happened, but he knows he moves around in his deep sleeps sometimes, and apparently Ranpo does too, because Edgar has his arms thrown around the shorter man, their legs hopelessly tangled with each other and the blankets. The chill the rain had brought with it is gone as well, replaced by warmth that’s almost comforting enough to lull Edgar back to sleep, if it weren’t for the fact that he can’t take his eyes off Ranpo.

That’s probably a little creepy, but—Edgar blinks and tries to look away, really tries, but all he manages is a glance up at the clock (5:01am) before his eyes go straight back down, like Ranpo’s a magnet. A warm, cuddly magnet. He shifts a little in his sleep, but only to bury his face further into Edgar’s chest and breathe out a soft, satisfied sigh.

And then, as Edgar watches the sunlight grow brighter on Ranpo’s face, he is hit with the most sudden and most terrible realization of his life—I want to wake up to this everyday.

Everything feels right—the bed sharing, the cuddling, Ranpo hogging the blankets, Karl asleep at the foot of the bed, the sunrise light on Ranpo’s face. The complete and utter warmth, from the sunlight and the hugging and the heat in Edgar’s chest. Everything feels right, and Edgar doesn’t want to leave this bed, doesn’t want anything but this ever again, and he can’t remember the last time he’s felt so perfectly safe.

It’s been two months since he’s moved here, in this apartment unit, with Karl and a stuffed cat and a vase of forget-me-nots—but now, only now, does he think he can really look at this place and call it home, because Ranpo makes it complete.

I love you, Edgar thinks. It doesn’t feel like fireworks, or thunderclaps, or anything more than something he must have already known, for a long time. Maybe I don’t actually love you yet, maybe it’s just something I want eventually, but I want to see you smile and hear you laugh and talk to you and cook us dinner and make sure you never feel cold and dark and alone again. Maybe I’m not supposed to, not after everything we’ve been through, not after everything we’ve done to each other, when I chased after you for six years and tried to kill you—but you’re here now, because you gave me a second chance, because you came back to me, because you stayed, and I want to stay and I want you to keep staying and I love you.

“Ranpo-kun,” he murmurs, barely louder than a breath—and stops.

How many people have you killed? some poisonous voice inside him whispers. How many have you taken away from their families, trapped in your sick writings, tortured within an inch of their lives until you finally let them die? How many of them never got to say ‘I love you’ to someone ever again? You couldn’t even tell Royster.

I’m sorry, he had said, that time. I’m sorry. I can’t. Edgar had never even gotten the rest of the words out—he had stuttered, had slipped and stumbled until the words spilled back down his throat like swallowing bile.

He looks down at Ranpo, imagines his face twisting into shock, anger, disgust. Imagines his voice saying it, too: I’m sorry. I can’t.

Do I deserve to love after taking lives, Edgar wonders. Do I deserve a life after taking so many of them.

He drifts back to a hazy sleep after that, not daring to move from his position, and wakes up five hours later when Ranpo stretches and accidentally knocks him in the chin. “Whoops,” Ranpo says, visibly unapologetic. “Morning, Poe-kun.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, you’re definitely not a morning person. Look at your hair,” Ranpo gasps, “it looks like one of the crows flew in and made a nest out of it!”

“Stop talking to yourself so early in the morning.”

“First of all, it’s 10am. And—” Ranpo blinks, looking like he’s just remembered something. “And second of all,” he says, a little slower, “I’m late for work.”

The streets are still slippery and riddled with puddles from the storm, but Ranpo is as Ranpo-like as always and purposely jumps into them instead of stepping around them like any normal person (read: Edgar). They make it to the Agency office in fifteen minutes, and Edgar’s about to head back down the stairs when Ranpo tugs on his sleeve. “Poe-kun,” he says, drawing out the honorific, “stay with me a little longer? Let’s get lunch together later, it’s almost noon anyway.”

“Stay with you?” Edgar parrots dumbly—surely he can’t be blamed, considering the last time he’d been here had been during a party he was invited to, not a regular working day. “Are you… Are you sure I’m welcome here? I mean—”

“Think about it this way, Poe-kun: Do you think anyone’s going to question me?”

Edgar checks the security again, even if he can still reliably remember the exact locations of the hidden weapons from the last time he’d visited, and finds all of them are the same—he takes a seat beside Ranpo and angles the chair so that his back is against the wall—he finds escape routes through the windows and readies his papers in his coat pockets.

But no one questions him, and no one kicks him out. Miyazawa even visibly recognizes him and waves a hello (Edgar awkwardly nods back), and though Kunikida stops to blink at him for a bit, looking somewhat constipated, he doesn’t say anything.

An hour later has Ranpo heading out to help solve a case the police are having trouble with—there’s a brief discussion as to who should go with him, until Ranpo effectively ends the conversation with, “Poe-kun, let’s go,” and the office falls silent. Edgar stares at the floor and trails behind Ranpo until the doors fall shut behind them. “So silly,” Ranpo says, hands behind his head. “I know they play rock-paper-scissors every time. Atsushi-kun always loses because he always picks scissors like an idiot.”

Why do you need an escort, Edgar nearly asks, before catching himself and saying, “Is that so,” instead. Ranpo doesn’t have an ability, but might as well have one, when his intelligence is practically supernatural—but he has less to defend himself with than someone like Nakajima or Miyazawa, and Yokohama’s dark alleyways are known to house less-than-friendly individuals.

“I can defend myself, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Ranpo says, not even looking at Edgar, and Edgar wonders why he even bothers hiding his thoughts by this point. “It’s just that getting on trains is way too boring for me, so.”

“Are you telling me you don’t know how to take the train?” Edgar slowly questions. The train system hadn’t been hard to understand when he’d first come here—he was even asked to accompany others on missions in Japan to help out—and hasn’t Ranpo probably lived here his whole life?

Ranpo shrugs. “I told you, it’s boring.”

“What, efficient public transportation?”

“You know what I mean.”

Unfortunately, Edgar sort of does. “Is this like how you think remembering routes is boring and that’s why you don’t know how to get to the Agency office by yourself?” (But he’d showed up at Edgar’s doorstep that one night—)

“Ugh! It’s just common sense, you know,” Ranpo sighs. “It’s so obvious and boring and, just, what’s the point of it? Plus, having to do everything by myself when there are plenty other things I could be doing instead—sounds like a waste of my talent to me!”

“That—” Edgar starts, but there’s something familiar in Ranpo’s voice that stops him from continuing. Familiar? He’s never met someone like Ranpo, so that would be impossible, and yet—“sounds more like a bad decision to me. I mean, that knowledge is called common sense for a reason, too.”

Ranpo pouts. “Fine, fine, maybe. You really do sound like Kunikida. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.”

“He seems like a decent man, so I won’t take it as an insult, either.”

Edgar doesn’t want to believe it, but when they get to the train station, Ranpo really doesn’t do anything —he can’t tell if his acting is as good as his deduction skills, but Edgar can’t find any signs that he’s lying about not knowing how the train system works. It means he might be that much more prone to getting abducted, considering he might not even know what’s happening around him. But Ranpo, whose observation skills Edgar couldn’t dream of matching, being unaware of his surroundings simply sounds absurd.

When they finally get to the investigation scene, Ranpo greets the middle-aged police officer with an enthusiastic hello and says, “Promise you’ll buy us lunch first.”

The officer, whose name tag reads Minoura, pinches the bridge of his nose in a recognizable attempt to fend off a headache. “I told them he’d be like this,” he mutters. “I told them.”

Edgar isn’t overly worried about being recognized by the police—no one has a recent image of him and his name and ability are the authorities’ only hints, after all. But he still sticks to Ranpo, avoiding eye contact with anyone else and silently taking in the scene, following Ranpo into the small area sectioned off by yellow tape and coming to a stop when he sees dismembered body parts. Huh, he thinks. He stares at their surroundings a bit, taking in the disturbed garbage cans and the state of the plastic-wrapped body parts. This is a bit easier than I expected, is his next thought.

The case is simple—a young adult man murdered, his body chopped up into pieces and separated. The police had only retrieved his left foot and right hand from plastic bags thrown carelessly into an alleyway, not even into a trash bin, and they’re at a loss for the rest of his body, much less the murderer. No fingerprints, no obvious hints of a perpetrator, and no witnesses nor security camera footage.

Right, perhaps it’s not as simple as Edgar thinks, but he chances a glance beside him, and—there Ranpo is, looking as bored as ever. “Man,” he says, clicking his tongue, “you guys couldn’t even figure this one out? You’d be at a loss without me, I swear.”

“We get it,” Minoura grunts. His voice is gruff, but he doesn’t sound annoyed or impatient. “We were thinking it might be the work of the Port Mafia, but—”

“It’s not,” Ranpo says. When he turns to blink up at Edgar, Edgar realizes he had said it, too. Unperturbed, or perhaps too tired to care, Minoura wordlessly gestures for them to continue. “Well,” Ranpo goes on, slower than usual, “it’s needlessly theatrical, for one. Chopping up and scattering body parts takes way more time than people probably think, ‘cause there’s the problem of keeping them fresh long enough in an unrefrigerated environment until someone finds them. A decayed hand is creepy, but not as much as a fresh one, right? And seeing as you found these in relatively good condition—”

“Can’t say the same for the poor guy,” an officer mumbles from behind them.

“—then whoever did it really thought it through. Like…” Ranpo steps closer, crouching down and looking over the right hand without even a hint of queasiness. “Look, you can tell they used a hacksaw, instead of a knife or even a chainsaw. That’s the most efficient cutting instrument a murderer can use. Who even has hacksaws lying around at home?” He stands back up and shakes his head, stepping back to stand beside Edgar again. “Anyway, it’s not the Mafia—they don’t have this much time on their hands. If they wanted to send a message, they would’ve sent it to someone specific, but you guys found these in trash bags. They’ve also never done anything like this, and the victim isn’t special enough to warrant their attention.”

“Special enough to have this happen to him, though,” Edgar mumbles. This time, he’s at least vaguely aware he’s speaking aloud—drawing attention to himself probably isn’t a good idea, but he can’t help it, not when he’s almost missed solving cases like these. Ranpo looks at him again, and Edgar half-expects him to ignore his words, but instead Ranpo just keeps looking at him, and it takes Edgar’s mind a second to realize: oh, he’s listening.

Edgar turns to look back at the detached foot and hand, cut off at the ankle and wrist respectively—there are no papers to talk to, no newspapers with transcribed interviews to see through, but Edgar doesn’t need them. “You’ll find other parts in groceries, I imagine. In the refrigerated section. I estimate it’s been two or three days since the victim was killed, and without proper cooling, the rest of the corpse will decompose soon. The murderer wants you to find the rest of this man fresh, not decayed, so.”

“Maybe he was hoping to pass some off as fruits,” Ranpo says. It doesn’t even sound like a joke; he’d snicker at himself if it were.

“Or a vegetable,” Edgar suggests. “The abdomen turns a greenish color once putrefaction takes place.”

“That sounds terrible. What if someone actually tries to buy it?”

“It’d raise enough of an alarm that we wouldn’t have to go around visiting every grocery looking for it.”

“That does sound convenient.”

“Excuse me,” Minoura interjects, sounding exhausted. Edgar does his best to adopt a properly sheepish expression; Ranpo innocently blinks up at him. “We’ll conduct a search for any body parts in groceries ourselves, and other places that may have refrigerated areas—but do you know the culprit or not?”

“Minoura-san, as if I could ever not know the culprit to anything,” Ranpo sighs, sounding supremely disappointed. Edgar watches Minoura visibly take several deep breaths. “Of course I do. It was his brother.”

“His—” Minoura stares. He looks at Edgar, as if for confirmation, and when he doesn’t look away, Edgar nods once. “His brother? Seriously? We questioned him as soon as we discovered these, and—” He freezes, then turns to look at an officer standing by. “You… said it was cold in the house, wasn’t it?”

“I-I thought that was the air conditioning—”

“It’s obvious no matter how you look at it.” Ranpo shrugs, getting Minoura’s attention again. “If you want, you can bring him back for another interrogation. Or you can arrest him now and waste less time, not my problem.”

“It’s possible the victim’s head is still within the house,” Edgar says, when no one else seems willing to break the stunned silence, “if the murderer wanted to preserve a part of his victim. Hair or fingernail clippings can be obviously overlooked, since the culprit can explain that away by saying his brother had visited before, but an entire head is a bit harder to cover up. That, or blood, though that sounds less likely. If I had to guess, it was death by strangulation, or some other kind of suffocation.” He points at the hand. “It’s not obvious, but the nails look close to breaking. Most probably because the victim had struggled before death—trying to claw at his culprit’s hands around his neck, for example.”

Someone mutters urk from behind him. Ranpo rocks back and forth on his heels. “Do we get lunch yet?” he asks.

Minoura groans and fishes a number of bills out of his pocket, slapping them into Ranpo’s outstretched hands. “Thanks for the help,” he says, looking more at Edgar than Ranpo, then turns back to direct the officers to the nearest groceries and where Edgar assumes is the culprit’s house.

“That was fun,” Ranpo remarks, once they’re settled in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with appropriately-priced menu items and excellent dessert.

Edgar raises an eyebrow. “Fun? I was expecting you to be bored the whole time.”

“Well, I kind of was.” Ranpo shoves a huge spoonful of rice and tempura shrimp into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully before continuing. “But it’s the first time I had someone else solving a case with me in a while,” he says, once he’s finally swallowed, “instead of just watching by and asking how I knew all that. There were a few times with Dazai, but he’s always kinda, you know, detached. The last time anyone really cared was—” He waves his spoon in the air. “You know. A long time ago.”

When my parents were alive, Edgar hears. “Ah.” He sips his water, telling himself his mouth dries up only because the restaurant’s a bit hot. “I see.”

“But it really was an obvious case. Still! I hope I see my name on TV again when they talk about this on the news later. Dismemberment cases are rare, so this’ll be reported for sure. Maybe they’ll even mention you, Poe-kun!”

“Um. I hope they don’t.”

“Oh, right, you’ll probably get jailed.”

Ranpo goes on to talk about other topics again, and the conversation shifts to become one-sided as usual—Edgar tunes him out just enough to know when to nod and hum affirmation every few seconds, and thinks about the familiar tone in Ranpo’s voice. Obvious. Boring. It sounds like—

How can’t you see it? It’s right there, it’s so obvious! All the information! I don’t just think I’m correct, I know I’m correct—why can’t you see it? It’s just so obvious!

Edgar doesn’t need confirmation, or second thoughts, or more time to think, because he already knows.

Oh. Of course. It sounds like himself.

There had been that first morbid sense of satisfaction when he had accused the minister of murder, and the same feeling when he had laid out Orwell’s careless mistakes in front of his face. Even further back, he had liked uncovering secrets, had possessed that burning need to know more, learn more, about everything he could possibly know and learn about. But over time, the need had dulled—solving mysteries as a Guild member had grown boring too, when it was the same thing again and again without any new challenges: find someone, bring them into a book, get answers out of them one way or another. There had been days he wanted to pick his target’s mind instead of just sifting through their thoughts without struggle when they were already trapped in a poem, but he’d always stuck to playing it safe instead of trying to quell that hunger to solve a puzzle, deduce his way through a mystery.

And now—Edgar looks up at Ranpo, who’s talking about something involving wasabi, a live octopus, and Tanizaki Junichirou—he’s getting to do that again. He’s out of the dull, work-all-day routine of the Guild, and he doesn’t find himself being bored as often anymore, not when Ranpo is constantly pestering him for more mystery stories to pore over together. Mystery stories that are up to both their standards, specifically—Edgar doesn’t remember the last time he’s pushed his brain so far, challenging himself and, well, probably just entertaining Ranpo for about a minute (or less) before he figures it out. But it’s still something, and…

You’re not writing to kill, the paper had told him, when he’d sat down to write. It feels so long ago. Just for yourself.

But he isn’t writing for just himself anymore, and the idea of that is almost strange—to write for someone other than himself, to write something other than murder weapons. The last time he had done this—he swallows. The last time he had done this, a poem that had once glowed a beautiful blue drowned a man.

“Do you ever get bored?” Edgar asks, when the conversation (more specifically, Ranpo’s monologue) lulls a bit. “When you’re reading my works, I mean. I want to… make them more engaging, I suppose.”

Ranpo peers up at him. “I dunno. Not really. Sometimes I think I get bored a little, but it’s not for long, ‘cause then I point out all the things I don’t like about it, and that gets me thinking about how to make it better. Plus, your mysteries are still better than most of the bestsellers I’ve read,” he adds.

Edgar dearly hopes Ranpo continues staring thoughtfully into space instead of look at him, because Edgar’s absolutely sure his face is bright red.

“Not that that says a whole lot. A whole lot of stuff is better than those bestsellers.”

He huffs out a laugh, and it takes him a second to realize that he hasn’t laughed in front of Ranpo like this, openly and not derisively—Ranpo is looking at him, not quite staring but not just glancing either. “Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Edgar says, after smoothing down his face to its typical indifferent expression.

Ranpo looks at him oddly for only a moment longer before grinning. “No problem. Why d’you ask? Are you planning on publishing?”

“No.”

“Is your fetish being jobless? That’s really strange, Poe-kun, but don’t worry, I don’t judge.”

“Also no. Finish your food, it’s probably past your lunch break.”

It was the only time another detective gave me chills, Ranpo had said, after he’d escaped from the book. I look forward to your next challenge. Edgar sighs—he tucks the words into the colder crevices of his chest, feeling them warm him up. This particular realization is probably two months late, but Edgar looks down at Ranpo, walking along beside him, and thinks, He meant it. He really meant ‘next time.’ He stayed.

And he’s still staying. Even after everything.

Edgar turns away, enough that Ranpo wouldn’t be able to see the look on his face. I love you. He’s read about how people have their worlds turned upside down after realizing they love someone, but mostly Edgar thinks his world just slots in a little righter in its axis. Maybe it’s fine, if Ranpo doesn’t love him back, doesn’t even know about how Edgar feels—who does he think he is, anyway, to believe he could be loved back by someone like Ranpo? The last time he’d told someone… the last time he’d tried to tell someone…

For now, he’ll keep the words locked deep in his heart—for now, it’s fine. He doesn’t want another apology to knock him out of orbit.

Chapter Text

It’s strange. Not in a bad way, but it’s strange, and Edgar has grown to be wary of change, for good reason.

But after that first day, Ranpo continues to invite him to the Agency. His methods evolve from texting him for lunch and then dragging Edgar back to the office with him, to outright showing up at his doorstep (with a bedraggled Kunikida or a sleepy Nakajima) in the morning, far earlier than Edgar is used to, and tugging him along. Sometimes he’ll send Edgar a random location in Yokohama, and leave Edgar to rush for a train because that usually means Ranpo is lost from trying to walk to Edgar’s apartment on his own.

That’s not what’s strange, though—well, alright, it’s a bit odd, but nothing Edgar hadn’t expected. What is strange is how he’s becoming more and more welcome in the office.

He doesn’t notice it, at first. But one day he loses a pen in the office and frets over it for several minutes before Tanizaki passes by to subtly whisper that Ranpo’s hidden it in a clerk’s desk drawer. Nakajima asks him to come with him to visit Lucy at the cafe, and then insists on being called Atsushi when Edgar calls him Nakajima-san, protesting that it’s too formal. Tanizaki Naomi pampers Karl every time Edgar brings him along, and she always compliments his clothes—“Where did you buy those heels, they’re just amazing!” or “That coat looks so designer! It smells a bit like blood, but that adds to the whole goth aura you’ve got going on, Poe-san!” Ranpo laughs himself to tears upon hearing that.

He helps Kyouka retrieve items from the top shelves. Kenji introduces Edgar to his potted plants—all five of them with a first and last name. He and Yosano Akiko exchange book recommendations. Even Fukuzawa Yukichi nods at him whenever they happen to pass by each other, which, thankfully, isn’t very often.

It’s Dazai Osamu whom Edgar is most uncomfortable around, unsurprisingly enough—he seems nice enough at first, sort of like a polite nuisance who’s just as obsessed with pranks as Ranpo is, which probably explains why they’re good friends. But what bothers Edgar most, aside from the irrational jealousy, is how he catches Dazai watching him from the corner of his eye, the lighthearted smile he’s always got plastered on his face dropped like a discarded mask in favor for what Edgar recognizes as a calculating gaze. It reminds him of himself, and that sends a chill down his spine.

Edgar remembers what Dazai’s information file had read—his ability No Longer Human can cancel out other abilities through physical contact, and he defected from the Port Mafia four years ago. There had been little else about him, and for someone like Louisa to not know much about someone… well.

So Edgar watches back. Dazai is intentionally letting Edgar catch him watching, so Edgar does it back. He lets his glance linger a split-second long enough for Dazai to notice, and the third time he does this, he hears a darkly amused chuckle from behind him that raises the hair on the back of his neck. Trust a former mafia executive to creep him out, Edgar thinks.

The more he watches, though, the more he picks up on how many of Dazai’s habits he recognizes; his gaze, most noticeably, never seems to settle on one thing for too long, like he’s trying to assess every single thing in his immediate surroundings all at the same time. There’s a shuttered light to his eyes, some kind of hesitation Edgar can’t quite pin down without Dazai averting his head or turning away to prevent him from looking too long—from what Edgar can tell, it’s almost like he doesn’t want to be happy, but that doesn’t sound right.

He doesn’t believe he deserves to be happy, a voice murmurs. Edgar glances up and catches Dazai seated across him, picking a book up, but with his eyes visibly fixated on Edgar himself. Like you.

That book. Edgar’s eyes slide down to the cover. The Complete Manual of Suicide.

“Interested?” Dazai asks, an amused smile dancing on his face. “It’s quite the comprehensive book. It might help in giving you some story ideas for Ranpo-san.”

“Thank you for the offer,” Edgar cautiously says, chancing a glance around them. No one seems to be paying special attention to their conversation, and Ranpo is on the opposite side of the room, asking Kenji for tips on how to take care of his cactus. “But I’ll, um, pass.”

“Oh, shame.” Dazai turns a page, never taking those piercing dark eyes off of him. “Well, you probably know all about this book’s contents, don’t you, Poe-san?”

“I’ve run into some cases where prisoners killed themselves, yes,” Edgar allows. He has absolutely no idea where this conversation is going, and he’s slightly terrified. Has he overstepped his boundaries? Had the Agency members being friendly all been an act, and now they’re going to kill him for infiltrating their office near-daily then make it seem like he had committed suicide to draw attention away from themselves?

Dazai cocks his head to the side. “I meant because of your ability.”

Oh. Right. “I… I suppose?”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t held a conversation with my favorite book,” he says, pouting. His tone is playful, and he sounds a bit like Ranpo, but Edgar isn’t lowering his guard. “Ranpo-san didn’t tell me about that part of your ability, incidentally. I figured it out myself, since you like to stare at books without actually reading them sometimes. What does my book say about me?” He places the book next to him on the couch so he isn’t touching it, his smile looking a bit more real now.

“Hold on.” Edgar forces a smile that probably looks more like a grimace, then tunes out all background noise and reaches out to the book. Hello?

There’s a moment of silence before it speaks again. Hello, it greets. Its voice is soft and low, a bit like how Edgar imagines a younger Dazai might sound. Did you hear me? I spoke earlier.

I did. You’ve been with him for a long time, then, if you know that much about him.

Oh, well… the book pauses, and if it had a face, Edgar imagines it would look unsure. Yes. A long while now. I, ah, didn’t mean to… make assumptions about you, though. I’m sorry.

It’s no problem. Edgar looks back at Dazai, who still looks amused, as if he can hear their conversation. Honestly, Edgar wouldn’t put it past him. You heard him, right? What do you think about him? Or—is there anything you’d like to tell him?

Another pause, longer this time—then, when the book speaks again, Edgar has to strain his ears to hear it. Tell him everything is alright, it whispers. That everyone here cares about him. That his happiness is valid. That he’s… home, here, and that I’m happy for him. If—If that’s okay?

Edgar swallows and nods without thinking; Dazai leans forward, looking like an excitable child. He and Ranpo really are so alike. “What did it say? Or… what did he say? She?” He frowns down at his book. “Do books have genders, Poe-san?”

“As far as I know, they’re all gender-neutral. Unless they want to be a specific gender, but that’s not common. They’re not really concerned with social constructs like that.”

“So they’re different from people in that way.”

“Well, a bit? Plenty of us don’t care about such petty things either.”

“Like you, then?”

Edgar feels his brows rise of their own volition. “And you, Dazai-san?”

Dazai leans back, his smile genuine. “I can see why Ranpo-san likes you so much. So what did they say?” he asks, before Edgar can dwell too long on his former words.

Edgar relays the book’s words, slowly, so Dazai can take the time to commit each one to memory, which seems to be exactly what he’s doing—when Edgar finishes, Dazai is motionless for a moment. Not staring into space: motionless, completely frozen, in the way Edgar realizes he’s stopped moving before, when he’d been inches away from being discovered by his target during a mission. “I see,” Dazai says, when he’s relaxed again. He had only stopped moving for a second, maybe less. “My book cares about me that much, huh! That’s so sweet!”

His voice is meant to be light and upbeat, Edgar knows, but the light in his eyes seems to be more obvious, now, and less hesitant.

Ranpo asks Edgar to wait for him, that day, so they can get dinner together again, so Edgar does so—he likes having dinner with Ranpo, not just because of the whole, well, love thing, but also because he gets to try out new recipes he would be too lazy to cook otherwise. It’s probably a little strange, that he finds a bit of a hobby in cooking, but the process is peaceful and he likes seeing the result of some honest hard work.

(Maybe he’s a bit more similar to Lucy than he thought he was.)

But when the sky begins to fade into the soft orange of the sunset, Edgar finds himself nodding off in his seat, even with the in-progress poem on his lap—he’s grown used to falling asleep to the light, airy voices of papers, and the quiet bustle of the office is so, so familiar to an office he had worked in, once, before everything had gone downhill…

When he blinks awake, it’s to the smell of coffee under his nose. Edgar cranes his neck to look up at Kunikida, stern-faced as always, holding the mug out to him. “Here,” Kunikida says. He doesn’t sound suspicious, or annoyed, or… anything, really. Like he’s done this a hundred times. “You seem like a coffee person,” he adds, when Edgar doesn’t react.

“O-Oh. I am. Thank you.” The mug is pleasantly warm, and Edgar takes a sip. Just as bitter as he likes it. “You didn’t have to. Um, Ranpo-kun—”

“Restroom. He asked me to make you coffee before you left.” Kunikida shrugs, and at first Edgar thinks that’s that, but the man doesn’t leave—he looks to the side, expression torn, and Edgar patiently waits another few seconds before Kunikida sighs and turns back to him. “I happened to, er. Overhear your… conversation, with Dazai, earlier.”

“Ah.” Edgar takes another sip, giving Kunikida time to speak again. When he doesn’t, Edgar carefully ventures, “Do you want me to talk to your notebook?”

Kunikida visibly stiffens. “That’s, ah, well, you don’t have to, but—well, I was just—thinking, and it might improve my performance in combat if I understand it—them a little better, because I never thought that they would have their own feelings and thoughts, and I understand it’s quite presumptuous of me after everything, but—”

“Kunikida-san,” Edgar gently cuts in, “it’s, um, fine. I don’t mind. Take it as a thank-you for the coffee.”

“That doesn’t… seem like very equivalent exchange.”

“It’s fine,” Edgar repeats. Kunikida looks at him a little longer, before sighing and taking a seat opposite him, placing his own coffee mug on the nearby desk. When Kunikida makes to hand over his notebook, Edgar shakes his head. “I don’t need to, ah, touch it or anything. Just being near it is enough.”

“Ah,” Kunikida says. It’s both a sound of affirmation and a sigh of relief, which Edgar can relate to—he, after all, can’t imagine handing over his own notebook to someone who’s still practically a stranger. (Ranpo is… an outlier.)

Edgar clears his throat, then reaches out for the green-and-white notebook clasped in Kunikida’s hands. It’s worn, but still somehow in decent condition. Hello? Can you hear me? It’s no ordinary notebook, after all, and he’s never heard it talk before, not even occasional murmurs from when Edgar had happened to stand near it or Kunikida.

Silence. A long silence. Edgar counts the seconds and nearly reaches a full minute before a voice remarkably like Kunikida’s rings in his head. What? it asks, short and sharp. Edgar’s not sure if it’s angry or if it just naturally sounds like that.

Um, it’s nice to meet you. We’ve crossed paths, but we’ve never really spoken.

Yes. Because there had been no need to.

Edgar’s come across standoffish and outright rude papers before, but he’d never had to interact with them for very long—his book had been an exception. He swallows and decides to get straight to the point. You heard your owner, right? He’d like to know what you think of him, or if you have anything to say…

Why should I tell you? the notebook snaps. Edgar nearly bites his tongue in surprise. You—I don’t trust you just yet. You’re still an unknown factor. You haven’t done anything to make me trust you. I don’t care if you can talk to me, I’ve lived all my days doing perfectly fine without conversation partners, I’m not letting my guard down. If you touch a hair on my writer’s head—

I won’t hurt him, Edgar reassures. He’s not sure if interrupting the notebook’s angry tirade had been a good idea, but the notebook is silent, so he continues. If you want, you can access my thoughts, I’ll let you—and you can see if I’m trustworthy or not. He focuses, closing his eyes and hoping Kunikida doesn’t mind, and relaxes himself as much as he dares, enough that the notebook shouldn’t have any problems delving into his thoughts. If this were a person, he’d rather jump off the top floor of a building than even think about letting them get inside his head, but—he’s always trusted papers before, even ones that weren’t his own. Maybe too much, but they had been his only friends, once upon a time.

The notebook stays quiet for a minute, and Edgar can feel himself getting a headache, one of the usual side-effects—thankfully, it ebbs away before it can get worse, and the notebook speaks again. Fine, you won’t hurt them, it grumbles. But I still don’t feel very safe telling you anything.

I suppose I can’t force you, Edgar replies.

The very moment he tries to come up with what to tell Kunikida, though, the notebook mutters, Take care.

What was that?

Take care of himself. Tell him that. That’s all. And the notebook goes silent again.

Edgar relays as such, leaving pretty much everything else out—Kunikida’s ears go pink, and he looks down at his notebook incredulously. “It—er, they said that?” he murmurs. “Nothing else?”

“Well, it had quite a lot of side-comments, but nothing important.”

“Oh.” He blinks, and Edgar wonders if he should leave before Kunikida abruptly stands up and bows at a scarily perfect 90 degree angle. “Thank you very much for your kindness, Poe-san.”

“I-It’s nothing?”

“I will do my best to take care of myself,” he says, though Edgar has a feeling he’s talking to his notebook more than to Edgar. “Please enjoy your coffee. If you’ll excuse me now.”

“A-Alright? Bye?”

Ranpo returns a few minutes later, wiping his hands on his pants and heading to his desk to gather his things (specifically, he throws some candy wrappers into the trash bin and tucks his Nintendo DS into his pocket). “What’s for dinner?” Ranpo asks—they pass by Yosano on the way out, and she clearly overhears the question, because she turns to give them a baffled look Edgar studiously ignores.

“If you don’t mind waiting a little, I can make us karaage—I bought the ingredients this morning.”

“‘Kaaay. I’ll read your new manuscript. They’re getting less predictable, you know.”

“Really?” Edgar turns away under the pretense of scratching his neck, but he really just doesn’t want Ranpo to see his reddening cheeks. “That’s high praise, coming from you.”

Ranpo glances up at him, and for a moment he looks like he’s realized something—but Edgar wonders if he’d just imagined it, because then he just says, “Duh! I’m me, after all.”

His papers don’t complain anymore when Ranpo holds them, and Edgar has a feeling that’s because Ranpo is more careful with them now, or at least less careless—he only ever accidentally sits on them when he’s distracted once in a while, and Edgar can usually stop him before he does so. He spouts off comments while Edgar cooks, most of which Edgar memorizes and files away for later—but when he quiets in the middle of a chapter Edgar knows he’d meant to be suspenseful, he glances up from the frying chicken. Ranpo is staring off into space, obviously thinking. “What’s wrong?” Why does this always seem to happen when I’m cooking?

“Nothin’. Just thinking.”

“Hmm.” Edgar turns back to the chicken. “About?”

“Just stuff.” Though Edgar doesn’t look at him, he can feel Ranpo staring at him now, manuscript forgotten. “Poe-kun, what’d you do before you joined the Guild?”

Edgar nearly knocks the entire pot of oil onto the floor. “What?”

Ranpo blows a flyaway strand of hair out of his face, turning away from Edgar. “Knew you’d say that.”

“What, what? Well, it’s—quite the sudden question.”

“S’fine if you don’t answer,” Ranpo says, obviously not meaning it. Edgar appreciates the attempt, all the same. “Just curious. I mean, I think I already know, but I wanna hear it from you.” He shrugs. “Not from something I wasn’t supposed to see.”

“Oh.” His notebook. Right. Ranpo had never brought that up again, and neither had Edgar, for obvious reasons, but he supposes someone as constantly inquisitive and impatient as Ranpo has limits. “Let me… Let me finish dinner. Then we can… um, talk.”

“Okay.” And then Ranpo returns to criticizing the main character’s fashion choice, like the past few minutes had never happened. Edgar allows himself a sigh of relief, and tries to prolong the cooking for as long as possible.

He can’t avoid it forever, though, and when he sets the plates on the table, he has to stare at his food for several long seconds to calm his thoughts down. Ranpo, thankfully, doesn’t bring it up, though that might just be because he’s too preoccupied with the chicken to speak just yet. Now or never, Edgar tells himself, again and again until he can’t bear the oppressive silence another second and blurts out, “I had a cat.”

Ranpo blinks, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. “Unsurprising.”

“His name was, um. P-Pluto.”

“Pluto, huh?” Ranpo’s accent lengthens the word a bit. Pu-ru-to. “Was he a black cat?”

“What do you think?”

“Well, your ability name kind of makes that really obvious.”

Edgar chokes out what he’d meant to be a laugh—it sounds more like a sob, and Ranpo looks somewhat alarmed, but Edgar speaks again before Ranpo can say anything. “He was my first, um. Friend. That wasn’t… someone or something I created, anyway.”

“Oh.”

“What do you think happened to him?” Edgar asks. There’s no way Ranpo doesn’t know, after all—he may have only caught quick glances at the pages in his notebook, but at the same time, he doubts Ranpo hadn’t gathered as much information as possible on him and the rest of the Guild members. That almost undoubtedly includes news articles.

Ranpo shrugs, but the movement looks forcibly casual. “He died, didn’t he?” Edgar watches him a little longer, and Ranpo mumbles, “Killed. But I don’t know how. No details. I can’t talk to newspapers like you.”

“There were these… these boys. My age, a year older.” Edgar closes his eyes, breathes, forcing his voice to stay steady. He can still remember their faces, a bit blurry around the edges but clear enough that he could describe each of them in perfect detail. (He can still remember their voices. The sobs, the screams, the threats. The apologies. And then—and then nothing, nothing but the gray of his arm.) “I was walking home from school when I saw them—saw them kicking this c-cat around. A kitten, really, he was so—small—”

Breathe—he thinks he tells himself that, but he realizes it’s a paper’s voice. For once, he can’t identify which one it is in the immediate vicinity. Maybe it’s all of them.

Ranpo doesn’t press, seemingly focused on the plate of chicken. Edgar can see tension in his shoulders, though, and the way his eyes flick up to look at him every few seconds. Edgar sighs, gives himself a moment to calm down again, and continues. “Anyway, I—I don’t know why I d-did it, but. I walked up to them, and. Brought one into a poem. It killed him.”

Ranpo nods. He looks unsurprised—this had probably been in whatever news article he’d read. Edgar thinks, for a second, about how thorough Royster had been in collecting information from his notebook. “So I brought that kitten home—washed him and fed him and—named him—and when I came home the next day, he was dead.” He’d been so small. So young. The branch didn’t even bend. “The other four boys, they hung him from a tree.” It was my fault.

“Oh,” Ranpo repeats. He doesn’t sound sorry, or angry, or anything. Just oh, like he’s collecting information like he always does. “So that was your motive.”

“For k—k—” Breathe. “Killing the rest of them. Yes.”

“I see.” Ranpo chews another mouthful of chicken and rice thoughtfully. When he swallows and speaks again, Edgar’s managed to push the heat out of his eyes. “Then you left, right? To Portsmouth, wasn’t it? And worked there as a journalist, for a little while.”

“That’s… yes, that’s it.” That’s not all of it, but it’s probably nice to be succinct.

“Then some guy found you out.” Ranpo’s brow furrows. “Aren’t you the sloppy culprit, Poe-kun.” He doesn’t sound teasing, but he doesn’t sound serious either. Just stating facts.

Edgar tries to smile, and predictably fails. So much for being succinct. “It’s not quite as simple as that, unfortunately.”

Ranpo stares at him for about a second, which is apparently all the time he needs to figure out what exactly Edgar means. “Ah,” he says, after the longest second of Edgar’s life. “Still sloppy,” he adds, “but at least it’s a tiny bit more understandable now. Just a bit, mind you. If my boyfriend were a journalist, I’d just make sure to be even more careful with where I leave my damning evidence sitting around.”

“It was a bit of a life-or-death situation, at the time.”

“Oh, you used your ability in front of him.” Ranpo shakes his head. “If you were the culprit in one of your mystery books, I’d toss it in the trash.”

Edgar rolls his eyes. “Thanks.”

“No problem, I live to serve. Then—” Ranpo’s face twists into something resembling confusion for a moment, before he continues with, “Then you joined the Guild? Right after?”

“I…” Right after doesn’t sound correct at all, not when it feels like so much happened in between: Lenore, crawling through the streets, Fitzgerald and Louisa (Alcott, then), meeting Lucy, living in Midtown… and his first step into Japan. “You could say that,” he murmurs.

Ranpo pouts. “Don’t leave important details out!”

“You mean yourself?” slips out before Edgar can stop himself. He can’t exactly grab the words out of the air and stuff them back down his throat, so he swallows and looks down at the table instead. Belatedly, he realizes that his food has been pretty much untouched. Maybe he can heat the leftovers and have them for lunch tomorrow.

There’s a second of silence, then Ranpo says, “Me?” For possibly the first time in the conversation, he sounds almost surprised. “That was… You meant it?”

Edgar looks up. Ranpo is staring at him, the green in his eyes reflecting fluorescent lights. “Meant what?”

“When you said you joined the Guild to challenge me. You actually…”

“Why are you so surprised? It’s making you sound humble,” Edgar dryly remarks.

Ranpo probably has some sort of phobia for anything related to humility, because he physically recoils and says, “No way! I’m not surprised, just… okay, I’m surprised,” he admits, “but only at how single-minded you are! Meeting me was what made you join the Guild? And all so you could challenge me again? That doesn’t sound like a motive I’d come across in your books.”

Because I can’t put what I feel into words, Edgar thinks, turning away to focus on a spot of dirt on the dining table. Because it wasn’t a motive for murder. It never was. “Do you remember that day, when… when Atwood attacked?”

“That bad day you had.” There’s an odd tone to Ranpo’s voice. Agitation, Edgar thinks, but he can’t pinpoint what kind of agitation again. Not anger, not impatience…

“Yes. That. I…” Edgar sighs. “It’s happened to me since I was a teenager. Everything just feels wrong, and I don’t want to—to do anything. Because I end up thinking—” What’s the point? “—that… that I just don’t want to. Sometimes there’s a reason, sometimes there isn’t. But it was never very bad, especially when I was younger. What made it worse was—” He cuts himself off, there, because when he looks at Ranpo’s face, he can finally pin down that emotion.

It makes sense, in hindsight. Edgar doesn’t remember a whole lot of times he’s encountered it. Maybe Louisa, or Lucy, on those late nights on the Moby Dick, but those are fuzzy memories at best, nothing but footnotes amidst every other emotion he’s had plenty of experience with throughout the years—anger, fear, panic, pity. He could identify those in an instant.

Concern, though.

“It was me,” Ranpo says, when Edgar can’t bring himself to speak again, “wasn’t it?”

“I-I—”

“I remember it well.” Ranpo picks at his empty plate, the chopsticks clicking and clattering. “When we first met. I saw you and I thought—that you were like me.” A pause—Edgar doesn’t bother filling it up. “That you were bored with everything, too,” Ranpo continues, voice low. “Everything was too easy, too obvious, and everyone else was just too slow, right? No one saw the things I saw, thought the same way I thought.” He swallows. “But I saw you, and—I just thought, it’s someone like me. Someone who sees the same things and thinks the same thoughts. So I probably kind of… got excited, I guess.”

“Excited?” Edgar weakly repeats.

Ranpo huffs. “You know, like I-wanna-make-a-new-friend excited. ‘Cause that was the first time I met someone who might—match me, aside from my parents. And you didn’t even need my ability.”

What ability, Edgar nearly asks, before he bites his tongue. He’s not sure if Ranpo truly believes in the existence of Super Deduction, or if it’s some sort of coping mechanism he’s hiding behind, but it’s not in Edgar’s place to press on that. “I didn’t know,” he says instead, voice soft.

Ranpo looks at him, somewhat amused, and for a moment Edgar sees that young face from six years ago again, looking up at him in—excitement, that’s definitely the word to describe how he had looked, back then. Edgar just hadn’t known all those cheeky grins and casual Poe-kuns had meant he wanted to be friends. “I see that now.

“I’m—”

“Don’t apologize. No one can have as perfect social skills as I do, after all!”

Edgar scoffs. “If that’s what you tell yourself to sleep at night.”

“But—” Ranpo pauses, looking contemplative for a moment. “I didn’t know, either.”

“Didn’t know…?”

“I told you, I remember what happened. And what I said.” He’s not looking at Edgar, and he doesn’t seem keen on doing so anytime soon, gaze fixated on the table. “It didn’t seem important at the time, right? For me, at least. But it made things worse for you. I should’ve…” His face scrunches up. “I’m…”

“Don’t,” Edgar gently interrupts. Ranpo’s head jerks up, green eyes boring into his own, and Edgar has to tamp down the instinct to look away. It’s times like these that he’s grateful for his hair, because it makes eye contact easier than it otherwise would’ve been. “It’s fine.”

Ranpo scowls. “No, it’s not fine, don’t be an idiot. I know you’re not stupid.”

“Thank you?” When Ranpo makes an irritated sound, Edgar pulls up a smile, and finds that it does come a little easier this time. “Alright. It’s not fine. But the things you said—they pushed me to chase after you, didn’t they?”

Ranpo gives a jerky nod, though he doesn’t look very happy about it.

“And I found you again,” Edgar continues. His voice is growing softer, but there’s no need to be loud, not when it’s just the two of them right now. “You wanted to be friends, didn’t you? I hope that hasn’t changed. Because I—” He swallows. “I’m here now.” I want to stay this time.

The silence that follows is lighter than what Edgar’s used to—there’s the faint hum of the ceiling light, the distant caws of the crows outside, Karl chewing noisily on some chicken on the floor. Perhaps silence isn’t quite the right word, Edgar reflects, as he waits for Ranpo to say something. Calmness, maybe.

“No,” Ranpo mumbles, “it hasn’t changed. Of course it hasn’t, isn’t that obvious, Poe-kun? I told you, I know you’re not stupid, so quit trying to prove me wrong.”

Edgar smiles, and realizes his eyes are hot again, and there isn’t enough time to stop them from watering before Ranpo looks up and catches sight of them, even through his bangs. “What the—are you okay? You don’t need a hug or something, do you?” he sputters.

“N-No, I don’t—” He can still remember the warmth on that morning, arms around Ranpo’s smaller body, the way he had felt completely at home— I don’t want to remember, I don’t want to be reminded. “I don’t. I’m fine.” He coughs out a laugh.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t sound as miserable as he thought it would.

did u finish the revisions for the golden circle?? bring it when u come overrrr

its so hot today!!! (; ̄Д ̄)

 

It is. Edgar’s tempted to tell Ranpo he’s busy and can’t come to the Agency, if only because he wants to stay in his air-conditioned apartment longer, but instead he texts, It’s Golden Hour, not circle, then reluctantly gets up to change out of his pajamas. He has something he wants to surprise Ranpo with, as surprised as someone like Ranpo can get, anyway, so.

The fifteen-minute walk from his place to the office sounds like absolute torture in this heat, so Edgar digs through his (far from sizeable) wardrobe and finds a relatively thin white dress shirt he can roll the sleeves up of. It feels jarring, walking around without his coat—he feels so exposed like this, but he tells himself, again and again, that there’s nothing to fear and that if worse comes to worst, he has a paper folded up in his trousers pocket.

After a moment of consideration, he opens his desk drawer, then sits down in front of his bathroom mirror, hair tie in hand.

As expected, he begins to sweat a minute after he steps outside, and he hurries to shorten the fifteen minutes into ten, breathing out a sigh of relief when he enters the Agency office and feels a rush of air conditioning sweep over him. “Good afternoon,” he murmurs, nodding at the workers nearest the door. (He used to whisper pardon my intrusion, before Tanizaki Naomi had heard and told him that isn’t how he should greet friends.)

Instead of nodding or smiling back, like Edgar’s grown used to, nearly everyone does a double-take when they see him—well, except for Kenji and Kyouka, who are the same as usual—and Dazai, especially, stares at him shamelessly. “Well, good afternoon, Poe-san,” he says, clearing his throat perhaps a bit louder than normally. “It’s a hot day, isn’t it?”

“Um. Yes.”

He clears his throat again, and this time Edgar’s sure he’s being purposely loud enough that the sound carries over to the opposite side of the room. “You’re here for Ranpo-san, right? Ranpo-san,” he calls, voice sing-song—Edgar can hear Kunikida twitch from his own desk—“look who’s here! Ranpo-san? Look, it’s—”

“I heard the door open, Dazai,” Ranpo says, rolling his eyes. He hadn’t looked up from his DS, though Edgar knows it’s because he’s likely busy with a tough battle or something.

“Well, yes, but I thought you’d like to be notified,” Dazai says, a little grin creeping onto his face. Edgar watches him warily as he makes his way to Ranpo’s desk. A grin like that is usually a harbinger of destruction. Maybe there’s a prank waiting for him somewhere in the office?

Ranpo looks up at Dazai, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why would I—”

His gaze flicks over to Edgar, who carefully takes a seat on his usual chair. “I brought the manuscript,” Edgar says. There isn’t a fart cushion on the chair, then.

“Uh,” Ranpo says, after a lengthy second, “okay.”

Dazai bursts into laughter—Edgar watches him be abruptly shut up by Kunikida drop-kicking him in the face.

Ranpo coughs. “Give it here.” He shuts his DS and sets it atop a small stack of books on his desk, then snatches the manuscript out of Edgar’s hands and pores over it right away. “Oh, good, you followed the stuff I said. Is it a little longer than before?”

“Character development for the dentist. I saw an opportunity.” Edgar glances over at Dazai, who’s still smiling to himself. Right. Definitely some sort of prank. He fiddles with his ponytail as he runs through a list of possible pranks—it’s a bit odd, having the back of his neck exposed, but at least he still has his bangs. He hadn’t realized how soft his hair actually was until he’d begun tying it again, more carefully than he had the first time around.

Ranpo swallows. “Oh. Right. Okay.” He looks vaguely like he’s having problems breathing.

“Are you feeling alright, Ranpo-kun?” Edgar tentatively asks.

“What? I’m fine! I’m great. Anyway—” Ranpo points at Edgar’s bag, and his loud voice does make him sound a little more like himself. “What’s that you’re carrying around? It looks suspiciously like a certain something.

“You make it sound like a—” Edgar stops.

Ranpo grins. “Like a whaaat, Poe-kun?”

“Like a nothing.” Edgar retrieves his laptop out of its bag, setting it on an empty space on Ranpo’s desk. It’s not like Ranpo ever actually uses his desk for work, anyway. Ranpo oohs and peers at it. “It’s just a laptop, no need to get so excited.”

Just a laptop? Sheesh. I don’t even have enough cash for one.”

“You have a Nintendo Switch,” Edgar points out.

“Duh? It’s essential for my continued living?”

“You’re impossible.”

“You’re just bitter ‘cause you don’t have a Level 99 Eevee.”

“Only 99?”

“He’s gonna be 100 soon. Just give me some more time, it’s hard leveling up in Let’s Go.

“If you say so.” Frankly, Edgar has no idea what Ranpo is talking about—games hadn’t exactly been a priority in his life—but he has seen what an Eevee looks like, and he has to admit they’re adorable. He’d probably want one, too, though he wouldn’t want it to battle or whatever it is Ranpo does in his Pokemon games.

Ranpo grins and pushes his revolving chair nearer to Edgar, propping himself up on his elbows atop his desk. “Sooo. A laptop, huh.”

“Yes. A laptop.”

“What’cha gonna do with it?”

Why do you sound like you’re setting me up for a dirty joke? “Use it?”

“Ugh. Poe-kun.

“Fine, I’m using it for Google Docs,” Edgar sighs. “It’s quite convenient. Um, more convenient than I thought. It’s certainly easier to edit and revise than if it were on paper, but…” I can’t talk to it, he wants to say, but by the way Ranpo’s cheeky expression sobers into something more understanding, he supposes he doesn’t need to. “Well, that’s about it,” he mutters. “Sometimes I play chess.”

“Seriously?”

“What else do you expect me to do on it?”

Ranpo shrugs. “You would like chess. You’ll still write your stories down and bring them here, though, won’t you?”

“Of course. I get to talk to them first, that way, before I transfer them to something more convenient for sharing,” Edgar muses. “And I don’t want to link you to any of my documents. I know you’ll leave ugly kaomoji all over them.”

“What the—you really do think I’m some kind of barbarian, don’t you! I can’t believe you!”

Ranpo has an errand to run with Fukuzawa that night, so he doesn’t go to Edgar’s apartment for dinner—still, he gets long strings of messages detailing exactly how bored he is, along with the ever-present kaomoji. Edgar’s never seen the same one twice. It’s a bit admirable.

LOOK AT THIS, the most recent text reads, followed quickly by an image of a candy store front. IM HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!!!!!

That’s nice, Edgar writes. Dinner consists of cup noodles, expired by a few days. They still taste good, and food poisoning is the least of Edgar’s concerns.

 

the president didnt even give me that much cash he is EVIL (`皿´#)

want anything poe-kun??

 

No, thanks

 

too late, bought u somethin

arent i so kind?? <( ̄︶ ̄)>

 

You can keep it. I’m not that fond of sweets

 

u take me for a fool!??! of course i remember how uncultured u are

and its not that sweet cuz its coffee flavored

i wouldnt waste my money like that!!! ٩(◕‿◕。)۶

 

That’s the creepiest one you’ve sent so far.

 

(◕‿◕)(◕‿◕)(◕‿◕)(◕‿◕)(◕‿◕)(◕‿◕)

 

Edgar heads out to his bedroom’s balcony to feed the crows, as has become the usual—they caw a hello and dive for the peanuts. He doesn’t fight the smile that comes up unbidden; he thinks he can differentiate them well by now, despite the few differences they have in appearance. It’s mannerisms, mostly, like how there’s one friendly crow who lets him pet her, and another more standoffish one who ignores him and perches furthest away from the rest of the group.

They always show up at lunch and dinner time, and sometimes they wake him up in the mornings with their cawing, asking for breakfast. He’s taken to leaving the balcony doors open at night—they never enter, though, and it’s fine that way. Edgar doubts he’s even legally allowed to own them as pets.

He looks at them, and feeds them, and greets them all hello—they only remind him of Lenore on some days.

Leaving the doors open means the cool night breeze comes in, too, and he can listen to the wind whistling outside on the nights he can’t get to sleep. He remembers when the wind had roared into a furious tornado, when it had hovered and swept around him while searching for lost items, and both of those times had been because of one woman. The wind has always brought things back to me, she had said, and he wonders if it still does, when until now she hasn’t woken up.

It’s odd, that there are so many things in the apartment that remind him of the Guild—he talks to the row of potted plants on his windowsill whenever he waters them, and Edgar thinks about that flower Steinbeck had given him, how it had liked books. It had withered and died after maybe a week—he plants more now, and reads to them when he can. When he makes Karl sandwiches, he wonders where Lovecraft might be now—Edgar had never quite figured out exactly what Lovecraft is, human or god or in-between, and he supposes he’ll never find out now. The guest room still smells of Hawthorne’s blood, and the poem box Twain picked open for him is still sitting on his desk; the calendar on his table has October 26 encircled because he’d forgotten to stop remembering Scottie’s birthday, and the cartoon whale print on one of his mugs reminds him of Melville.

When he makes tea, he thinks about Louisa, wonders if she’s accomplished what she set out to do, and if he’ll see her again.

He drops by the cafe Lucy works in every so often, too, for good coffee and the occasional plate of cookies when it isn’t her shift—she presented with him a little hand-sewn doll the other day, looking remarkably familiar with its white hair and cat tail. “I found out by accident the other day, but I can control other dolls besides Anne,” she explained, setting it on the table and flicking her wrist. The doll had shuddered, as if brought to life, and began to walk across the table’s length. “Can’t do much with it yet, but I’m definitely getting there. And aren’t they cute?”

“He certainly is,” Edgar had levelly replied. Lucy scowled, snapped her fingers, and sent the tiny tiger-doll pouncing onto his arm.

On his way out the door, though, something tugged at the hem of his pants, and he looked down to find a small doll with messy dark hair tagging behind him. Ranpo had seen it the day after Edgar had set it on his desk, and now he always makes it a point to barge in the bedroom and pet its head with his finger every time he visits.

Karl climbs into bed with him when Edgar shuts the lights off, curling up close to his side as always. “Goodnight,” Edgar says. A chorus of goodnight s from the books and papers in the room answer back.

It’s pleasantly warm, with both a raccoon and several layers of blankets to keep out the evening chill, and his phone buzzes from another text message. He closes his eyes and feels that rightness again—that feeling of home.

“Help me sort some books, Poe-kun?”

“Sure.”

For some reason, the office had gotten a little banged up—apparently a robber had come in the middle of the night, but Kunikida had been working overtime, as usual, and had taken the man down with his ever-grumpy notebook. Edgar had offered to help, but everyone practically forced him to sit back down—he supposes that’s typical Japanese politeness or something, but sitting still and feeling useless is worse than rearranging upturned shelves.

It’s odd that Ranpo, who had had his feet propped up on his desk, would actually get up and tug Edgar with him to a smaller storage room, but Edgar isn’t complaining.

The shelves there are nothing new for Edgar—he’d scanned the entire office top to bottom the first time he’d come here, after all, and many times afterwards, he can probably pinpoint the exact location of the rat that lives in the walls. He hasn’t had to check his surroundings for danger during visits anymore, and it’s strange, that he can feel comfortable in a space outside of his apartment—that he doesn’t feel threatened anymore, because there are others here who make him feel safe.

The books had been swept right off the shelves and fallen in a heap on the floor, complaining incessantly enough that it hurts Edgar’s ears, so he gathers them up in his arms as quick as he can and whispers reassurances to their covers. Ranpo finds a chair by the side and makes himself comfortable, which is more along the lines of what Edgar had been expecting. “You treat them like they’re your babies, don’t you.”

“They are virtually defenseless,” Edgar says, probably a bit defensively.

“Unless they’re within, like, fifty feet of you, I get it.”

The books tell him their positions, and though they’re all talking over each other it isn’t so hard to slot them in the right order as Ranpo… sits there. Well, sits there and watches him, really, though Edgar’s not sure why—but he can feel those eyes on his back, as if waiting for something. “What is it?” he asks, after the pile of fallen books has decreased significantly. “You look like you want to say something.”

“Eh. Just thinking.”

“About?”

“That it’s nice.”

Edgar pauses shelving to look Ranpo’s way, a couple of books still in his arms. “What is?” On good days, his face doesn’t protest when he smiles, and sometimes his voice goes soft when he doesn’t mean for it to. He thinks about what Lucy had said, about being happier now, and decides that maybe she’s right. It’s been a long time since he’s felt so at ease with everything that he can smile without feeling like he doesn’t deserve to.

Ranpo shrugs and gets up to stand beside him, eyes skimming the book spines on the shelf. “Being with you.”

Edgar nearly drops the books. “Wh—um—What?”

“It’s nice being with you,” Ranpo repeats, as if Edgar needs to hear it again. “And I like that you like being here, too. You like this place, right? The Agency, I mean.” He looks up then, blinking up at Edgar. He doesn’t say the office, and Edgar thinks that’s important.

“That’s…” Edgar turns away. It’s true. He likes this place, and he likes the Agency, but above all he likes Ranpo, but unlike Ranpo himself, he can’t just come out and say something as embarrassingly sappy as that. “That’s… t-true…”

Ranpo clicks his tongue. “Poe-kun, look at me.”

“I-I can’t, I—” If I look at you right now, I might explode—

Edgar.

“This is unfair,” Edgar mumbles. His heartbeat is so loud, it’s resonating in his ears like he’s trapped in one of his own books. When he turns to face Ranpo, he can see that knowing expression and immediately looks away again, because God, he should have expected this, of course Ranpo would know about his feelings, of course—“If you knew, you should have said so earlier,” he rambles, staring at one of the books in his arms, “so that—I could—”

“What, hole yourself up in your apartment?”

“You don’t understand,” Edgar snaps. It feels like the room’s shaking and shivering right along with him. “It’s not like—I didn’t want to feel like this, not when I know I don’t d-deserve it—and I was scared the same thing would happen if I told you, so you don’t get to say that to me, d-don’t—” I’m sorry, he can already hear—“don’t—p-please—”

“Poe-kun,” Ranpo is saying, softly. He’s never soft. “Look at me.” A pause. “Please?”

Edgar squeezes his eyes shut, tightens his hold on the books, and sucks in several shallow breaths—if he tries to speak, he’s almost certain all that will fall out of his mouth is some wordless sob. He’s shaking, so bad, and it’s so humiliating that Ranpo has to see him fall apart again, but he can’t stop, not when all he can see is Royster’s face, the shape of his lips forming an apology when they had whispered sweet nothings just days before—

“Poe-kun—you’re doing something—”

“W-What?”

“The books. They’re…” Ranpo trails off, and that’s when Edgar opens his eyes and sees—that the room had been shaking, but it’s because the books are humming with power, the ones nearest him already emitting a faint darkness oozing anger. The ones in his arms have flipped open, pages spitting and cursing—kill, they’re hissing, who’s hurting you kill them kill them kill him—

(Kill him! He deserves death. He deserves me!)

No,” he whispers—“No, stop, please, I-I’m sorry.” Accidental ability usage. It’s been so long, but this level of hatred, the way he’d poured his panic into books he doesn’t even own—how close they’re coming to targeting—“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

The blackness shifts, slowly, into dim blue glows, then into nothing—the room seems to settle. Edgar doesn’t, though, because he can’t possibly turn around and face Ranpo, now that he’s seen what he does. The same thing had happened, with Royster, when he couldn’t control that stolen letter, when he’d nearly killed two men—but it’s worse now, because it had been himself he couldn’t control, and this time it’s Ranpo on the receiving end.

The only thing he’s good for, the only thing he’s ever been good for, is hurting, and hurting, and killing.

“You okay?” Ranpo finally asks, after several long minutes of silence.

“I s-should be asking you that,” Edgar mutters.

“I’ve had worse, Poe-kun. Will you look at me now?” His voice is still soft, so unlike his usual self, and maybe that’s supposed to mean something, but Edgar can’t think.

“Didn’t you see that?” he blurts out. “Didn’t you see how—how bad it can get? How bad I can get? I kill people, Ranpo-kun, I’ve told you this again and again and—I know you’re getting tired of hearing this, but I’m just so terrified that I might hurt you again, that I might lose control and do something I can’t fix, because I love you—” Edgar shakes his head, clutches the books closer to his chest, thinks about anything but how easy the word leaves him, “so much that if anything happened to you, if you got hurt because of me again—but that d-doesn’t matter, s-so you should just—leave, alright, just leave me here f-for a while, please, I promise I’ll—I’ll go away soon, I just—” wanted to stay, I just wanted to stay here with you and Lucy and the Agency in my apartment and feel like I don’t have to run anymore, that I’ve finally found somewhere I don’t feel like the devil, somewhere I can call home—

There’s a familiar tug at his sleeve, and Edgar reflexively tries to pull away, but Ranpo grabs his wrist and turns him around with surprising strength. “Poe-kun—Edgar,” he says, staring up at Edgar with those green eyes—those sharp, piercing eyes that haunted Edgar’s dreams for so long, and still do. Edgar bites down on his tongue, looking down at the floor—except there’s barely any space between them anymore, because Ranpo is stepping closer until Edgar can see every individual strand of hair on Ranpo’s head. “Look at me, alright?” he’s saying. “Just—Just look at me for a sec.”

Edgar swallows, but forces his gaze back to Ranpo’s eyes—no, a little lower, to his cheeks. He doesn’t think he can stand looking into those eyes for too long, or else he’ll collapse. “Just say it,” he breathes.

Ranpo’s brow furrows. “Say what?”

“That you—that you’re—y-you’re—” Again. Again. “You’re—s-s-sor—” But he can’t, he can’t do this, and he’s shaking his head again, if only to gather his bangs in front of his face again. He remembers what his relatives had said, whenever they saw him—he’s the child of the devil, look at those eyes. He doesn’t want Ranpo to see them and see him for what he really is, doesn’t want Ranpo to look into the devil’s eyes and realize that they’re nowhere near as sharp or piercing or beautiful as his own blinding green ones. He doesn’t want another apology, can’t hear another one, because then he doesn’t know what he’ll do after—run away again, drag himself through unwelcoming streets again, leave again, find himself back to mindless murder again just to drag his thoughts away from another I’m sorry.

“I’m not sorry,” Ranpo says, when it’s quiet for another minute. “Why would I be? I didn’t do anything I need to apologize for.”

“But—”

“If I wanted to reject you,” Ranpo cuts in, words almost too fast to follow, “then I would’ve done it a long time ago, as soon as I thought you might like me. I wouldn’t have let it drag on, Poe-kun—God, I wouldn’t have slept with you, I’m not that awful of a person.”

“But… Then…” Edgar stares at him. He’s so close now, it’s almost scary—if it weren’t for the books still in Edgar’s arms, they might be chest-to-chest by now. “What are you…?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Ranpo sighs. “You can figure it out. I know you can. You’re smart, Poe-kun.”

It isn’t you’re not stupid, and that definitely means something. Edgar worries on his lower lip, and sees the way those green eyes flick down to his mouth. From a purely objective viewpoint, there’d only be one conclusion he could draw from this—but that can’t be, because—because he’s him, and Ranpo is Ranpo, and… and. “You can’t,” he murmurs, which is as far as he gets before his throat closes up at the touch of Ranpo’s finger to his chin, angling his face downwards and closer to Ranpo’s own.

The first time Ranpo had done this—it had been to make Edgar look at him, too. That time—that time, Edgar had swallowed, and Ranpo had watched that movement. Even after Edgar had told him to let go, he hadn’t moved away. Their faces had been so, so near—too near, for two people alone together.

That time, Edgar had almost jerked away. That time, he had asked Ranpo to let him go. Now, he doesn’t do either.

“I’m going to kiss you now,” Ranpo says, like he’s describing the weather.

“Oh,” Edgar breathes. He’s sure now—Ranpo is definitely looking at his mouth. “Oh, God. Okay.”

Ranpo remembers to tilt his head a bit, thankfully, because Edgar doesn’t have a single coherent thought in his head aside from how soft Ranpo’s lips are, and that he had never thought this constantly curving mouth would be against his own right now—alright, so he’s actually thinking quite a bit, but those thoughts, too, are wiped clean out of his mind when Ranpo’s hands find their way down to his hips. “Poe-kun,” he’s murmuring into Edgar’s mouth, thumbs hooking into Edgar’s belt loops and using those to pull Edgar closer until they’re pressed flush against each other.

Ranpo tastes sweet, almost too sweet, but for once Edgar doesn’t mind—he wants more of it.

There’s a series of thumps, which Edgar vaguely notes are the books in his arms tumbling onto the floor—he cups Ranpo’s face in his now-free hands, whispers Ranpo’s name back, parts his lips when Ranpo’s tongue prods at his mouth and begins to lick at the inside of his cheek. “R-Ranpo,” Edgar gasps, forgetting the honorific for one blissful second; Ranpo shudders against him and pulls back to suck in air before sliding their lips together again, his hands drifting lower. Edgar’s breath hitches. “Ranpo-kun—”

“Not now,” Ranpo purrs, voice breathy.

Edgar almost squeaks, “W-We’re in your—workplace—”

“Come on, like that’s ever stopped anyone—”

“Yes, plenty of people, for good reason,” Edgar gasps, fending off another attempt to kiss him. Ranpo huffs, but he doesn’t try again. “And—And you… are you—”

“I’m sure,” Ranpo interrupts, looking seconds away from rolling his eyes into the next dimension. “You tried to kill me, you can probably kill me again, yeah, whatever, it’s honestly kind of hot sometimes, Poe-kun.”

“It’s w-what—”

“Kidding. Not really. But I am sure.”

“But—” Edgar sighs, resisting the urge to look away. “But… me? Why?”

“Because I love you.”

Edgar nearly kicks himself, or Ranpo, or both of them. “Wh—y-you can’t just say that out of nowhere!”

You did,” Ranpo points out.

“You… are not wrong,” Edgar admits.

“Duh. I never am.”

“But—” The rest of Edgar’s words die on his tongue when Ranpo tugs him down by his coat lapels and kisses him again, lips still as sinfully soft and sweet as two minutes ago. “Ranpo—kun—just, wait—”

“I have been waiting so long,” Ranpo sighs, pulling back. “You must be a real sadist to make me wait even longer. What, so you’re into BDSM? How vanilla.”

“I—I don’t even know what to say to that.”

“Really? So can we kiss again?”

“No, wait—” Edgar pulls Ranpo’s hand off his coat, then belatedly realizes Ranpo had probably planned that, because the skin-on-skin contact is enough to make Edgar freeze up all over again. Ranpo, unexpectedly, stops after a light peck, grinning to himself the whole while. “Sneaky of you,” Edgar mutters. His face has been feeling hot for a while, but now it just feels even worse.

“I know.” They haven’t let go of each other’s hands. “So? What do you want to say so badly that you’re delaying—”

“How?” Edgar asks, before he can bite the question back—“How can you do it?”

Ranpo stares at him. “What? Kiss you? Give you a handjob? Correctly guess your fetishes? Be a little more specific, Poe-kun.”

“H-How can you love someone like me?” Edgar stammers—he catches a glimpse of Ranpo’s brow furrowing before he looks down, staring at the fallen books. He should apologize for dropping them, but under these circumstances, they’d probably understand. “It’s—I just, I don’t understand, because—I never thought—I still don’t, and…” How can you love someone like me? How can you love someone who doesn’t deserve it?

Ranpo reaches up, and with his free hand, he brushes Edgar’s hair out of his eyes—his fingers linger on Edgar’s forehead for the briefest of seconds, just long enough for Edgar to notice and for Ranpo to notice he’s noticed—and then Ranpo’s hand drops back down to his side. “Don’t be silly,” he says. He’s speaking slower than usual, eyes wide and scanning every inch of Edgar’s face. It’s then that Edgar realizes Ranpo’s probably never seen him without his bangs in the way before, and that only makes him want to sink into the floor more. “I love you because you’re Poe-kun. Isn’t that enough?”

“I…” You can’t say that, Edgar wants to tell him. You can’t just come out and say that, even after knowing everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve killed—after I tried to kill you and set your home on fire, you can’t… But Ranpo is still looking at him, his eyes greener than green, and Edgar remembers a time his chest had twisted sickeningly every time he thought of those eyes, and how he had mistaken the feeling for hatred.

He looks down again—without his hair in the way, everything looks oddly brighter, and he’s not used to it until he’s facing the floor and thinking about that night in Seoul, about a man with vibrant green eyes and who had called him sweetheart. “I don’t understand,” he whispers miserably. Look at me, he’d said, that time. He can’t remember much, considering it had been quite some time ago and he hadn’t been in the most sober state of mind—but he can still feel the shiver that had run down his spine when those green eyes fixed themselves on him, brilliant and shining in the dim light.

This time, though—this time.

Ranpo huffs. “Fine. I’ll show you, then.”

“Wh—?”

“Look at me, Poe-kun.”

Look at me. Edgar swallows and drags his gaze back to Ranpo, desperately wishing he could flatten his bangs over his eyes again. But he knows Ranpo would probably just sweep them back, so he bites down on the inside of his lower lip and watches Ranpo fumble with something in his pocket before retrieving his cell phone. “Okay. Watch.”

“I don’t—”

He goes silent.

There’s a picture of him on Ranpo’s screen, probably taken during one of the times they had gone out for lunch somewhere—Edgar hadn’t noticed, and he realizes that’s because he’d been focused on writing something down on his notebook. A plot idea he had gotten on the spot, most likely. But what’s most jarring about the image is how different he looks—it might just be the afternoon sunlight coming in through the window beside them, but he looks less pale, less starved, less sleep-deprived, less everything he had thought would always stay with him.

He’s smiling, very faintly. He looks happier, like what Lucy had said. Not just freer, or less tired—happier, plain and simple.

“That’s not the only picture I have, you know,” Ranpo says, when Edgar’s stared at himself—he doesn’t even look like himself—long enough. “I have one of you taking a nap, that time at the office, and one with Karl on your head, and a bunch of others. But my point is—” He double-taps at the image, zooming in on Edgar’s face—“look at your eyes, will you?”

“My—?”

“Just do it.”

Edgar does. At first he doesn’t see much difference, though the bruises under his eyes are far less prominent than they had once been—but then Ranpo turns the brightness up, and Edgar has to stare again, because they don’t look as hollow and sunken as he remembers. They don’t even look gray anymore, more—he can’t remember the color, but—

“Violet.” Ranpo closes his phone and tucks it back in his pocket before leaning in to kiss him again. Edgar doesn’t tell him to wait this time, not when he doesn’t know why he’s ever wanted to stop Ranpo from kissing him. “With a bit of blue, in the sunlight,” Ranpo adds breathily, when he pulls back for air.

Ma’s eyes, Edgar remembers. The kind of eyes people fell in love with.

Edgar doesn’t realize the wetness on his face are from his tears until the adoration on Ranpo’s face turns into alarm. “Wh—Poe-kun! Don’t cry! Aren’t you supposed to be happy?

“I—” Edgar coughs out a laugh, or a sob, or both at once. “I am, I—really, I really am—” And, okay, it’s definitely a sob, and he’s definitely sobbing now. Everything inside him feels like it’s about to burst—his lungs, his throat, his stomach, his heart. All of me, he thinks—you have all of me. “I love you,” he says, even when he knows Ranpo’s aware. The words are so easy to say—he doesn’t stumble over them at all, doesn’t falter or second-guess their meaning, because he’s known it for so long. He’s known it since he had woken up with Ranpo in his arms, since he had watched Ranpo solve the mystery of his book, since he had first looked into those green eyes and seen that curling grin. “I—I’m in love with you.”

Ranpo sighs and presses his face against Edgar’s chest. “I know, silly. I am, too.”

Edgar takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets it out in an even deeper exhale. “What, in love with yourself?”

Ugh. You’re the worst.” Ranpo smacks his arm, but reaches up and pulls him down for yet another kiss Edgar complies to. Edgar doesn’t think he’s ever going to get tired of this, of touching and touching and loving, and feeling loved back, like he deserves it just because he’s him. When they separate for air, Ranpo stares into his eyes, lips red and kiss-swollen, and breathes, “Gorgeous.”

Edgar freezes. “What?”

“I said, you’re gorgeous,” Ranpo repeats, tongue curling teasingly over the word. Edgar can feel his whole body heating up. “You like that, don’t you?”

“W-What do you…”

“I figured it out some time ago. Praise kink.” Ranpo grins, the curve of his mouth so sharp it looks like it could cut. His hands are wandering again, dragging themselves down Edgar’s sides, hips, thighs—“Aren’t you adorable?”

“R-R-Ran—po—”

“I locked the door. No worries.”

Edgar buries his face in his hands—either Ranpo’s forgotten he can talk to every single book around them, or he thinks Edgar likes exhibitionism, too—but whatever complaints he might have wanted to voice are drowned out when Ranpo presses close and kisses him again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“… and the athlete’s motive was way too obvious, I bet even Karl could figure it out,” Ranpo finishes, petting the raccoon in question. “But I think that’s it. Aside from all the other stuff with character development, that’s your problem.”

“Mhm.”

“Come on, that’s all? Thank me for all my hard work!”

Edgar rolls his eyes. “Thank you, Ranpo-kun, for all your hard work. Your turn.” He sets the dish of fried rice on the dining table, watching as Ranpo and Karl alike race for their usual seats. The sky is clear outside, just beginning to fade into the sunset’s pink and orange hues.

“Thank you for the hard work, Poe-kun, but don’t expect me to compliment you on how good a cook you are tonight. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue right.”

“Save the dirty jokes for when you’re not in the kitchen.”

“So I can say them anywhere but the kitchen? Hm, sounds like an awful lot of choices to me.”

Edgar lets Ranpo dig in first, and heads over to his windowsill—he’d been busy all day and forgotten to water the flowers there. Persephone is lounging by the catnip, meowing up at him when he comes near. “Hello,” he greets. “Hungry? Your bowls are full.”

She meows again, then stands up to stretch before hopping off the windowsill, nearly knocking one of the pots over, and trotting over to where her food bowls are. Edgar wouldn’t exactly call her friendly, but she and Karl play with each other a lot—probably unsurprising, since they’re both strays. She also happens to be scared of Ranpo, which Edgar has found amusing since the rainy day he had taken her in.

He waters the flowers, noting their conditions and murmuring greetings he knows they can hear. Ranpo is talking to Karl at the dinner table, and then half-shouting a side-comment to the book he had left on the couch. It’s still strange, for Edgar to see his words, once scrawled messily on the margins of his already-filled notebook pages, now printed neatly in a hardbound book with a pen name on the cover. It hasn’t been very long since it had gotten published and started selling in bookshops, but the reviews online have been nothing but kind and encouraging.

Ranpo, of course, still manages to find things he dislikes, even after he’s reread it for the seventh time, but mostly Edgar knows he just likes having something new to say.

“Poe-kun, are you dooone? If you don’t come back in the next thirty seconds, I’ll finish everything and then you’ll have to go without dinner,” Ranpo calls.

“In a minute.”

Edgar watches the flowers sway in what little wind comes in through the window, and thinks of what they might tell him now. Run, they had whispered, all those years ago, cowering in fear on his bedroom floor; run, they had urged, when he had left Richmond in the middle of the night; run, they had cried, when he had tore away from Royster and left his apology dangling in the air; run, they must have said, when Louisa had told him about the fate of the Guild.

He had always listened to them, had always run away—it had been the only thing he knew how to do. But that last time—that last time, he had stayed put. He had made up excuses. I will, he told them, in his head. But not now. I can’t leave yet.

Edgar looks around him—at the daffodil-print wallpaper, at the shelves crammed full of his books, at Persephone curled up by her food bowls, at his bedroom where he knows the crows are waiting at the balcony within, at Ranpo and Karl at the dinner table.

He looks back at the flowers and thinks, No, I can’t leave. All his life he’s been running away—from places, from people, from what-could-have-beens—but this time, this time, he doesn’t want to run away. He doesn’t think he can, when Ranpo is here, feeding Karl bits of fluffy egg—when he’s finally found somewhere he can call home.

What do I do now, Mother? he thinks. Her voice had always been flower-soft.

And, here—he thinks the flowers might tell him to run, to save himself from what must be another disaster waiting to happen. He thinks they might tell him, run, because no one will ever know how to love someone like you. He thinks he might not be surprised. He thinks he might listen.

Edgaaar. Thirty seconds is very nearly up.”

“Alright, alright.” Edgar heads back to the table and slides into his usual seat, raising an eyebrow at the nearly depleted plate of rice. “Ranpo-kun, you know it’s important to be honest in a relationship, right? You can tell me if you have a black hole for a stomach, I won’t judge.”

Please, Poe-kun, do you hear yourself? ‘Honest.’ You probably have a million other secret fetishes I still haven’t figured out yet. And you should be happy I held back. That’s just how compassionate I am.”

“Yes, yes.” He smiles. “I’m happy.”

No, the wind whispers in his ear. Edgar thinks of Mother’s feather-light touch, of her voice telling him she loves him. This is where to stay.