“Sorry, You’re Not a Winner”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
Rory’s memory of the night before was patchy, as if his mind preferred to slide around everything that had happened after the blinding blue light had consumed him. There were vague flashes of tearing down the highway in Jules’s Volvo; the sound of Jules whimpering (but maybe he’d dreamed that part—Jules never whimpered); the Enclave’s ceiling trailing past like a bumpy conveyor belt as a stretcher bore Rory along; and, finally, a lean hand clinging tightly to his own, while the words Just breathe wafted songlike through his screaming skull.
When he came to, it was already late afternoon. The first thing out of his mouth was a groggy, “Where’s Jules?” but none of the healers flitting around him like moths seemed to have an answer.
One of the mediciners examined Rory’s shoulder and said it was regenerating nicely, then gave him some instructions for care he didn’t properly listen to before informing him that he was being discharged.
“Don’t I have to wait for Jules?” Rory asked. “I’m in his custody.”
The mediciner shrugged, shook her head. She reminded him comfortingly of a Creamsicle, soft and round and pale with bright orange hair. “Ordinators came by earlier. Said Enforcement gave the order you’re free to go.”
“Oh.” Rory blinked. “Do you know where Jules is?”
She shrugged again, this time with her eyebrows and mouth, and once more shook her head.
“But he’s okay? He wasn’t hurt bad?”
“He’s pretty much all healed up. We cut him loose a few hours ago.”
Rory bathed, dressed, headed out across the Enclave toward Alchemy. It felt strange to be walking the halls of the compound free and clear, something he hadn’t done in more than three years.
He reached the mole tunnels, almost got lost twice trying to find his way to Jules’s office in the back. When he finally reached it, he found the door locked, and a series of knocks got him no response. He listened briefly, but couldn’t hear anyone moving around inside.
At that point, Jules’s assistant—Winter, if Rory remembered right—happened by and informed him the Grand Philosopher hadn’t come in to work today.
That’s when Rory started to worry.
His next stop was the hotel room. Jules wasn’t there either. Rory dashed off a few texts to his old friend, but none of them went through thanks to interference from the Fathoms.
Next he tried calling. The first two attempts failed. The third made it through but went straight to voicemail.
“Hey, um, just not sure where you are. Wanted to make sure everything’s okay. This is Rory. I mean—you know that. I’m sure you know that. But anyway, give me a call if you get this. And I guess try the hotel if you can’t get through to my cell. Uh…bye.”
He turned. Walked into Max’s room next-door, forgetting to knock.
“Hey!” She pounced on him, not seeming to mind the intrusion.
He gave her a hasty kiss on the head. “Have you seen Jules?”
“Not since yesterday morning. I’ve been going bananas in here. Where have you two been?” Max eyed his bandaged shoulder, his splinted wrist. “Shit—did something happen?”
“He hasn’t been here at all? Where the fuck is he?” Rory started pacing. Jules must have gone out investigating on his own—might have gotten into trouble. Where would he have gone? Back to Lit Sister? “I have to go to Chicago,” he muttered. “No—wait. I should go to Enforcement first. He’s a Nimri, so they’ll actually hopefully give a fuck. Put out, like, a missing persons APB or something.”
“Please tell me what the fuck’s going on,” said Max.
Rory shushed her, tuned his ears to what sounded like the door swinging shut in Room 808. There followed a series of staggered footfalls and some rustling. “Be right back.”
He bolted into the adjacent room to find Jules seated on his bed, wearing one of his many seemingly identical gray wool suits and digging around in his satchel. “Thank fuck. Where the hell have you been?”
“I just came from a meeting with my dad and his campaign manager. What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean, what am I doing here? This is our room. My shoulder’s healing pretty well, so Medicinal Magic said I could go.”
“I sent word you were cleared to go home.”
“Well, I mean, yeah, but don’t we need to plan our next move?”
“Our next move in what?” Jules stood, shouldered off his suit jacket, hung it in the little closet beside his bed.
“The investigation.” Rory felt gaslighted.
“You’re not part of the investigation, Rory.” Jules took off his tie, hung it on his tie rack next to an army of its fellows. “I only took you along out of necessity. There’s no reason for you to stay involved.”
Rory stared at him. “You need me. Haven’t you thought about what could’ve happened to you last night if I hadn’t been there?”
“I’ve thought about what did happen to you because you were there.” Jules unbuttoned his shirt. “You’re a civilian. I shouldn’t be putting you in harm’s way.”
“You didn’t putme in harm’s way. I chose to be there.”
“The fact remains you got hurt on my watch.” Jules tossed his shirt on the bed, unbuckled his belt. Rory could see the outline of a Spandex-like undergarment beneath his white undershirt. “As an Enforcement agent, I can’t just take anyone who feels like tagging along into the field with me. It’s irresponsible. And unprofessional.”
“This case is personal to me.” Rory pulled in slow, calming breaths through his nose. “You know that.”
“I’m sorry.” Jules kicked off his shoes, dropped his pants, struggling briefly to get them past his injured leg. He bunched them together with his shirt and chucked them in the laundry bin, then hobbled toward the dresser, sans cane, still wearing his black socks and garters. He had on gray houndstooth boxer-briefs. Rory absently registered the gap between his narrow thighs.
“If you just can’t deal with having me around,” said Rory, evenly, “then I wish you’d come out and say it. You know I like to know where I stand.”
“I think I’ve been pretty clear about where you stand.” Jules plucked a pair of black jeans from his drawer, shut it a little too hard.
Rory called up the one clear memory he’d retained from those hellish early-morning hours in Medicinal Magic, of a tearful Jules, clutching his hand and repeating, I’m here, Rory. Look at me. Just breathe. An invisible band jerked taut around his chest. “You could be clearer.”
Jules hobbled back to his bed, sank down on its edge. He sat with his jeans rolled in his lap, staring at the floor. “I said to you, verbatim, ‘We’re not friends.’ I went out of my way to keep you at arm’s length. What do you want me to do? Take a baseball bat to your nuts?”
Rory didn’t reply.
“That is what you want, isn’t it? You want me to lose my shit on you—beat you up, spit on you, call you names, so we can finally call it ‘even.’ Is that it?”
Rory closed his eyes. Felt a throbbing in the front of his skull.
“You know what, Rory?” Rory opened his eyes, found Jules wearing a tired, half-delirious grin. “If it were that easy, I’d do it. If beating the shit out of you would actually set things right between us, I’d do it. I’d fucking hate it. It’s really not my style. But I’d do it.”
Rory averted his gaze, swallowed the lump in the back of his throat.
“But guess what?” Jules’s chin twitched. “Pain never cancels out pain. All you end up with is more pain. And believe it or not, I don’t like seeing you get hurt. In fact, I really fucking dislike—” He squeezed his eyes shut suddenly, bowed his head, breathing audibly through his nose. “Look—I can’t do what I have to do if I’m busy worrying what might happen to you because of me fucking something up.”
“Jules.” Rory couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Me getting hurt last night wasn’t your fault.”
“Really?” Jules counted list items on his fingers. “I blew our cover. I took you out there wearing dampening bracers so you were defenseless in a dangerous situation. I left you on your own in said dangerous situation. I drank on the job and got myself drugged. I fucking set you on fire.”
“The whole night was a fucking disaster, and if none of those things makes it my fault I don’t know what would.”
Rory almost laughed. “You’re a human being. Shit happens. Jesus. You don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘fuckup.’ Look that shit up on Wikipedia. It’s got my fucking picture on it.”
“Rory.” Jules looked at him with as transparent an expression as Rory had seen him wear in a very long time. “For the life of me, I don’t know how to make you understand this: I needyou off this investigation. I need this. I will never, ever, everask you for anything else again, ever. Which means this is the best chance you’ll ever have to make up to me what you did eighth year. Please. Please, Rory. Please…go home. Go back to touring with your band. Do whatever the fuck you want. Just promise meyou will stay away from this case. Do this one goddamn thing for me, Rory. Just this one thing. Please.”
Rory didn’t know what to say—didn’t know what to think. You don’t hate me, was the lone thought that kept circling his skull. But it was such an alien idea that it refused to come inside, settle down, take root.
“Fine,” he heard himself say at last.
“Thank you.” Jules gave a small sigh, took off his garters, started wrangling his jeans onto his injured leg.
Rory shuffled over. Sank down on the edge of his own bed—or what had been his bed. “Been a hell of a week, huh?”
Jules let out a spare little laugh—really just an expulsion of air through his nose. “Yeah.” He pulled the jeans over his other leg and stood, yanking them up over his hips, snapping and zipping them in place.
“I’m really, uh…glad,” Rory went on, “you know, that we…that we got to do this. I mean, of course the circumstances were fucked as hell.”
“You can say that again.” Jules grabbed a black-and-red plaid shirt from his closet, shrugged it on, started buttoning.
“But, uh, you know.” Rory fidgeted. “I’m really glad we sort of…caught up.”
Jules eyed him. “Yeah, me too.” He shifted his gaze back down to his shirt.
“I know where you started out,” said Rory. “I know how hard you must have worked to get where you are. So seeing you again, all grown up, kickin’ ass and taking names—Iunno. I guess it’s good to know that sometimes people actually get what they deserve.”
Jules didn’t look up again, but his mouth gave the faintest upward twitch. “Thanks, man. I’m glad things are going well with your band.”
Rory chuckled. Jules cracked a smile.
The alchemist put on his shoes, took his trench coat down from the rack and shrugged it on. “I’m heading out now, so…I guess this is goodbye. You can leave your key card on the nightstand when you go. I’m sure you’ll want to come by and say hi to Max now and then, so maybe I’ll see you around.” He pocketed his wallet and keys, then hobbled over and extended a hand. Rory eyed it for a moment, then took it in his own. Jules gave Rory’s hand a single firm shake.
“Hey,” said Rory, as his old friend turned away. “I mean, so…this hasn’t been all that bad. Has it? You and me? Like old times?”
Jules looked back with a small smile. “It’s been all right.”
“We should do coffee now and then.” Rory’s heart drilled like a woodpecker was trapped in his chest. “At least, you know…kind of keep in touch.” He knew he was toeing the line, but he had an overwhelming feeling it would pan out.
Encouragingly, that little smile lingered on Jules’s lips. “I think we should quit while we’re ahead.”
Rory kept smiling back at him for the precious few seconds he had before those words sank in. “Oh,” he said then, going numb. “Okay.”
Jules hesitated, then limped over and clasped him in a bro hug, carefully avoiding his hurt shoulder. Rory stood stiffly. “Don’t carry it with you,” Jules murmured in his ear. His hair smelled faintly of Old Spice. “There’s no point, Rory, okay? Just let it lie.”
The door swung shut, clicked behind him after he left.
Rory stood several seconds in silence.
Then, robotically, he went around shoving his scattered things in his duffel. Tossed his key card at the nightstand, not bothering to see where it landed. Went next-door to Max’s room.
“Did you find him?” Max looked up from her perch on the bed, eyed his packed bag. “What’s all this?”
Rory dropped the bag on the floor and crawled onto her bed, ignoring the pain in his shoulder as he lowered her onto her back. She made a little sound, slipped her arms around his neck as he kissed her.
“Where’d this come from?” She gazed up at him softly.
He kissed her again, grew painfully hard as he rutted at the little hollow between her thighs. She groaned, responded with needy hip-thrusts of her own.
“Hey.” She clamped his face between her hands, looked him in the eyes. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, baby,” she whispered with a sad smile. Her fingertips grazed his lips. “Neither am I.”
Rory worked loose his belt. Max wriggled her way out of Jules’s old pajama shorts. She was already wet. She took him to the hilt from the first thrust.
In the end, Rory came too soon, and on her stomach—a last-minute attempt at contraception—but Max didn’t breathe a word of complaint.
“That was terrible,” Rory muttered afterward, as he cuddled up to her chest, zoned out on the circus noise of Cartoon Network in the background. “I’m terrible.”
“Stop.” Max stroked his hair, kissed the top of his head. “You’re definitely one of the least terrible things I know.”