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What, Were You Expecting a Punchline?

What, Were You Expecting a Punchline?

Doug wasn’t quite asleep, but he was so zonked out of his gourd that he might as well have been. Regardless, he didn’t seem to notice as Kei unpeeled herself from the sweaty sheets and rose from the bed. The first time or two, she had to admit that even she’d felt a little weird fucking on a stranger’s bed. If only because said stranger wasn’t the guy she was sleeping with. Then again, it wasn’t as if the bed had actually been used in the last fifty years.

It took her a minute to locate all of her clothes, which were hopelessly strewn around the room. In that time, Doug either heard or saw her moving around, because he blinked a few times and tried to push himself up to his elbows. It didn’t work. But second time’s the charm.

“You takin’ off?” he asked.

“Yep,” she said, maintaining an expert poker face. “Believe it or not, getting high and fucking around are not the only things on my agenda today.”

“Shame.” He rolled over to reach under the bed, and somehow found another joint.

Kei blinked. “How in the—?”

“I told ya, they’re everywhere.” He lit it up and flopped back down, inhaling deeply.

“You might want these before you pass out there, cowboy.” She tossed him his pants. “Oh, and uh, I wouldn’t stay fucked up for too much longer. Don’t want you partied out before tomorrow night.”

He groaned. “Aw, shit. Aight, I’ll sober up. Just need a… nap first.”

Kei rolled her eyes and plucked the joint from his now limp fingers. He didn’t react, already fast asleep. She set it on the table next to the bed. At least here it wouldn’t start a fire. And just a half-an-hour ago he’d been accusing her of being a mess. The nerve.

As she made her way back down the circular stairs, she found herself smiling. But as soon as she noticed it, a pit opened up in her gut and it fell away. Stop it. Stop liking him. She desperately longed for the days she’d found his pathetic moments annoying instead of endearing.

How had that even fucking happened? He was supposed to like her, obviously, that was the plan. That was how she was going to get him to do whatever she wanted. But it wasn’t supposed to happen the other way around. This was utter fucking bullshit. Wasn’t she supposed to be the goddamn ice queen? She’d seduced countless men and fucked them over without a single thought, so how had that little screw-up managed to worm his way through the singular crack in her impenetrable armor? It was utterly infuriating, and she wanted these feelings to go away.

At the bottom of the stairs, she found herself gripping onto the banister tightly enough that it left faint marks when she finally let go. Goddammit. She was stronger than this. She’d put literal years of work into this scheme and she wouldn’t allow anything to fuck it up. Not Malachi, not Tommy, not some dumb shithead she barely knew, and above all else, certainly not any pesky little feelings.

The fresh air from outside helped to clear her head. She hadn’t realized how warm her face had been until the cool air hit it. She’d needed to get out of there, but she wouldn’t let anyone see her in this compromised state of composure. So Kei snuck around the side of the clock tower and nearly collapsed against its back wall.

Closing her eyes, she leaned back and tried to focus on the cold bricks of the wall, on her breath flowing in and out. Gradually, her heart stopped racing quite as quickly. The previous high hadn’t completely worn off yet, which was what she decided to blame her current state of anxiety on. All she had to do was wait it out.

“Looks like you’re in a bit of a pickle, eh?”

The introduction of an unfamiliar voice did not help the situation, and Kei jumped as she turned, only to come face to face with a rather disheveled individual, who was staring at her intently.

“Jesus christ!” It took her a moment to realize just who he was, but when she did, anxiety was quickly filled in with an intense note of loathing. She thought she’d assigned people to take care of him. “What the hell are you doing here, Jack?”

She’d only properly met him once, a very long time ago, when Malachi had formally exiled him from the city. Not that she was associated with the suit shark anymore, but she still considered Jack to be a wildly unsavory individual best avoided at all costs. She could have called for someone, but daemons talk. They would immediately clock her weakness. Better just to ward him off on her own for now.

Based off the look on his face, he clearly had much the same opinion about her. A strained grimace was spread across his features as he examined her like a piece of meat. She really didn’t like that look in his eyes.

“Well, you see,” he finally responded, “since some old enemies of mine seem to have been replaced by ‘friends,’ I figured it was time for me to say hello.”

Internally, she groaned. Kei prided herself on her ability to plug any and all holes in her plans, but even she had some blind spots occasionally. Most of Bacchae’s old cohorts had long since self-destructed or died, and of those who were still around, she’d figured Malachi’s former goons could take care of them. She’d forgotten that Jack was… well, Jack.

“I suppose you wanna see him, huh?” Kei’s mind raced for any excuse. Doug might have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of the general citizenry, but if he couldn’t fool Malachi, then there was no way that he could fool Jack.

It seemed, however, that luck was on her side. “No need,” Jack shook his head. “I already have. You should be proud. Even without the horns, he nearly had me fooled for a minute. Resemblance is bloody uncanny.”

Without the horns? When the hell had that happened? Goddammit, she needed to keep a closer eye on Doug.

“How much work it’d take to get him to look like that?”

“None at all, actually,” she tried her best to hide her pounding heart. “I found him like that.”

“Fascinating…” he trailed off meaningfully.

Ah, so that was it. She’d finally figured out what he wanted. He must have been here to threaten her. Okay, that was something she could deal with. “Alright, what’s it gonna take to keep your muzzle shut, hmm?” she sighed.

“Zero for two, Kei,” he waggled a finger at her. “I don’t want anything from you.”

“Then why the hell are you here?” She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. She would do anything in her power to prevent him from realizing just how fucking terrified she was. If she said something wrong or showed him any sort of weakness, he might just kill her. You couldn’t predict a person like that.

“Dunno,” he had to think about that one for a second. “To gloat mostly, I think. You’ve got a rough choice ahead of you, huh?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

His grimace was slowly morphing into a rather aggressive smile. “My head might not be quite what it used to, but I’m not stupid. Why on earth would you be satisfied with playing second fiddle to a child? I can only imagine that’d be downright humiliating to you.”

As usual, Kei stuck to her policy of avoiding straight answers at all costs. “So then, what ‘do you imagine’ is your place in all of this?”

“At the moment, I’m not quite sure,” he admitted. “On the one hand, the kid seems like a rather pleasant bloke, and you’re a fucking cunt. But on the other, things can’t stay the way they are. Your little pawn is going to implode eventually. Maybe it’s best to put him out of his misery, eh?”

“Hold on,” she stopped him. “Are you… encouraging me?”

“Who the hell knows?” his laugh almost came out a growl. “I’m of two minds about pretty much everything these days.”

“So is that it? You just wanted to laugh at me?”

“Now that I think about it, pretty much, yeah.”

“Well then fuck off.”

“Anything to please the future Lady of Discord.” He turned, and sauntered away off into the alleys of the city. “I don’t envy you,” he called back. “That’s a rough go of it, trying to play with fate and win.”

Kei watched him disappear between the buildings. She had no idea what he’d been trying to say. He probably hadn’t meant anything. He was a fucking nutjob, after all.

But he had a point. If she was going to enact the final stage of her plan, she had to do it soon. Or else she wouldn’t be able to do it at all.

~~ o ~~

Doug wasn’t quite asleep, but he was in a similar state of delirium that left him mostly alone with his very scattered thoughts. This kinda sucked mostly, as when he did grasp onto something material, it frankly kinda just bummed him out. Man, he’d gotten high in the first place to forget about all that. He figured he’d had a fifty-fifty shot of finally having a couple hours of peace or fucking himself up even more. Well, looked like he’d lost the coin toss on that one.

Why was he even doing this? He’d been clean for over a year, despite several temptations, despite everything. It was just pot, of course. He could just get sober and feel no real urge to pick it up again, but that also meant he had no excuse why he’d decided to back-flip off the wagon so spectacularly in the first place.

He blamed Bacchae. Might as well. The bastard left so many goddamn joints around the place that Doug wouldn’t run out for a solid month at least. And he knew it had been his doing. Why? Because the instant Doug imagined just where he’d stash a joint if he was Bacchae, he’d look and there it would be.

It was like having some sort of doppelganger, but one that was so much better than him in every conceivable way. That was the other reason Doug blamed him. Every time he had to ‘be Bacchae’ it was like some switch in his brain flipped and he knew exactly what to do and say. Even Malachi had been scared of him, and he knew for a fact that Doug was just some loser teenager.

All he’d had to do was stare at him a little too long and he’d nearly jumped out of his skin. Hell, he’d just done the same thing to Kei not even an hour ago now, and she’d flinched. She’d never even met Bacchae. And that time he hadn’t even really been trying all that hard.

Doug had never been able to do that before. Before coming to Discord, before Bacchae, Doug had liked to imagine himself pretty forgettable. Now he was having trouble walking into a room as himself without people stopping whatever they were doing to pay attention to him, let alone when he actually had the horns on.

Though he hadn’t been here all that long, the line between himself and that long-gone monarch was becoming dangerously thin. The weed and the booze were either helping, or they weren’t. It was impossible to tell at this point.

His head was scratchy, weighed down by those stupid horns. But when he made to pull them off, he remembered that he wasn’t wearing them in the first place. So why did his head feel so heavy?

He tried to raise his hand to check again, but was surprised to find that he couldn’t. Gradually, he felt cold metal wrapping around his wrists. Wait, that couldn’t be right. Bacchae’s bed was nowhere near this hard…

Ahh, he figured it out as soon as he opened his eyes. Doug must have managed to fall asleep properly at some point, because he knew for a fact that he couldn’t possibly be here. This place didn’t exist anymore.

Abigail’s laboratory looked exactly as he remembered it. Dim, yet nearly neon lights cut through the gloom, and all the tables around him were piled high with beakers and book and all sorts of other instruments of science.

The only thing that was missing was her. Doug was alone, strapped to the metal examination table. But he wouldn’t be for very long. That wasn’t how he remembered this moment going.

“Don’t blame us for being predictable,” Cancer said, glancing down at him with large, luminous eyes. “We’re figments of your imagination, remember?”

“Me?” he asked, already sick of this shit. “I’m the most spontaneous person there is.”

“I’ll believe you as soon as pot stops being your immediate coping mechanism.” Cocaine, if anything, seemed amused. She tilted her head at him as she leaned over the little cart of torture implements placed next to him. As he looked at them, he almost laughed. He’d dreamed about a lot of fucked up things in his time. But come on, sexy nurse outfits? That went a little far, didn’t it?

But then he registered her comment, and frowned. “Well, you try having to suddenly live your life as a completely different guy and see how you do under the pressure.”

The two giggled at that, though he had no idea why. “Is he really all that different, though?” Cancer asked.

“Of course. He’s a goddamn god, and from what I’ve heard, a real crazy son of a bitch.”

Curiously, Conscience stared at him for a moment, looking confused. But as usual, she didn’t say anything.

So Cocaine spoke for her instead. “Oh yeah? And what are you?”

“Not that.”

“C’mon, Doug. Even you admit you’re loony. Isn’t this where it happened, after all?”

Despite the restraints, Doug’s hands were shaking again. He only really noticed because oddly enough, they had stopped doing that as much lately. “Why you gotta remind me of that all the damn time?” he muttered.

“Because it’s our job,” Cancer smiled cheerfully, despite the hollowness of her cheeks.

“Oh yeah, well who hired you?” he pouted. “Cuz it sure as hell wasn’t me.”

Cocaine was fiddling with a scalpel, but glanced up at his remark. “That’s a complicated can of worms you’re about to open.”

“Wait. I was just making a joke. What the hell does that mean?”

“We’re not allowed to tell you that,” Cancer cut in as Cocaine opened her mouth. “Suffice it to say that you’re not the person who hired us, but you did ask the questions at the interview.”

Okay, that was it. Doug had to lay off the Mary J cuz goddamn it made his dreams weird. He had no idea what they were talking about anymore. He opened his mouth to make what would most likely be the most scathing zinger of his life, but just then Cocaine leaned over him and cut him off.

“Aww, are metaphors too much for your smoov wittle bwain?” She laughed as she mocked him. “Don’t worry, this will all make a little more sense soon. He’s just been dying to meet you, after all.”

“Who?” Doug managed.

But the response came from an unexpected place. The metal door, the one all the way across the room with the frosted glass top, was very firmly knocked upon.

All three of the girls’ faces lit up. “Looks like its time,” Cocaine grinned.

“The doctor will see you now,” Cancer waved, and all three of them made their way to the door. Only Conscience hesitated, looking again like she wanted to say something. But Cocaine grabbed her arm and after slamming the door behind them, they were gone.

Once again, Doug was the only occupant of this particularly torturous part of hell. Yet this time, he got the feeling that he wasn’t alone. Then, someone stepped in front of the door; they must have been just on the other side, their silhouette clearly visible through the glass.

It was… a very familiar silhouette.

The door creaked open, and Doug suddenly knew exactly what Cancer had been talking about.

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