“If It Means a Lot to You”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
VIEW CONTENT WARNING
Jules hadn’t told Enforcement—or anyone else besides Rory—what had happened to his office. He’d known from the start who’d done it. He’d taken steps to prevent a recurrence: placed a seal on the door, and Ordinators to guard it. Involving the authorities, he reckoned, wasn’t worth the risk of them snooping around, potentially figuring out what he was working on.
“Let no one enter,” he instructed the stone-faced sentinels as he locked up at the end of the workday, cast the seal, and started off down the hall.
Silas Eads, Teddy Grenville, and some other Hunter yes-men were hanging around near the bend in the hallway, watching him with predatory grins.
Jules looked first Eads, then Grenville in the eyes as he passed. “No more loitering in the hallways, Scholars. Doing so is punishable by suspension and demotion, effective immediately.”
“You’re going down, bitch,” one of them said as he walked away.
Jules stopped, turned back with a humorless smile. “I hope that was worth saying, seeing as I’ve heard it about a million times before. You’re all demoted one rank and suspended pending further disciplinary action. Get out of my department.”
They gaped at him.
“You heard me,” said Jules. “Out. Or the Ordinators will escort you out.”
They dithered a moment, then brushed past him aggressively one by one, muttering some choice epithets. Grenville, the last in line, shoulder-checked him hard enough to make him stumble.
Jules steadied himself on his feet. Sighed, without bothering to look at him: “That’s grounds for termination, Grenville.”
Grenville lunged at him. Eads stopped Grenville with a hand on his chest. “Teddy, bruh, calm down. Bitch’ll get what’s coming to her soon enough.”
Jules turned, watched as they all stalked off down the hallway.
Once they were gone, took a deep breath, checked his pocket watch.
He gave them a couple more minutes’ head start, then continued watchfully on his way to the emergency meeting Master-General Wade had called in Enforcement.
Jules stood in the cramped Enforcement conference room with about a dozen other equally-restless rookie Martial Magi. The Master-General was almost ten minutes late to her own meeting, and everyone was starting to murmur, speculating as to where she was and what this was about.
“All righty.” The door slammed shut in the back, and everybody turned, eyes following Master-General Wade as she power-walked to the front of the room. She was halfway through her next sentence by the time she got there: “I called all you rookies in here ’cause we’ve got a case our eyes in the Chicago PD shunted our way. It’s not exactly one to cut your teeth on, but none of the more experienced folks have time for it, given all the shit that’s been going on around here lately. So I’m giving one of you greenhorns a shot at it.”
Jules glanced at his pocket watch. He had no intention of volunteering for this, since his plate was overloaded already. Hopefully someone else would, and quickly, so he could get on with his to-do list.
“So what we’ve got”—the Master-General pried open the folder in her hands—“is some execrationist nut-job, running around playing God.”
Jules snapped to attention.
“Powerful motherfucker. We’re talking scary-powerful. Been offing mundane folks who’ve done some not-so-nice things and the mundane justice system’s let them off easy for it.” General Wade tossed a photo down on the table in front of her, of a pile of gore that might once have been a human being, and a second corpse alongside, the bottom half of which was scattered across the pavement. “These two college athletes participated with another young man in the gang rape of a female student.”
Another set of photos hit the table. “This sonofabitch here—acquitted of a hate crime: beating a transgender woman to within an inch of her life.”
Could it be…?
“Just these two incidents so far,” the Master-General went on, “but there’s already plenty of buzz in the mundane media and the public about the punitive and apparently-supernatural nature of these killings. They’re calling this self-important prick the ‘Hand of God Killer.’ There’s an internet fan site, for Chrissakes. Fucker’s trampling all the-fuck over the Occultation Protocols. We’ve gotta nip this in the bud, stat.”
One of the other rookies, a battle-trained pyromancer from Initiates of the Divine Flame, started to raise her hand to volunteer.
“I’ll take the case, Master-General,” Jules cut in quickly.
General Wade looked him up and down, furrowed her brow. “Why so eager, Grand Philosopher?”
“Any excuse to…go to Chicago. You know me. I love to kick it in the Windy City.”
The General shrugged. “All right, Nimri. You spoke first. The case is yours.”
Jules felt a breath of relief go out of him. “Thank you, Master-General.”
Devisha handed Jules the project file. “Make sure you grab yourself some hex-defense amulets from the armory. Don’t want you out there taking any stupid risks. And let me know if you need help or have questions. Everyone dismissed.”
Jules’s thoughts were spinning as he breezed past the armory.
“Brown-noser,” the pyromancer muttered to him in passing.
Jules barely heard her; rifled through the photos in the file folder as he walked, feeling sicker and sicker to his stomach.
What the fuck are you doing?
Rory had been coming back to the Alfheim the past couple nights, even on Jules’s scheduled night with Max, to make sure Jules made it home safe and check in with him before he went to bed to see if he needed anything. Fabi was pouty about him bouncing, always tried to coax him into staying the night at the Bitch Pit. But Rory wasn’t moved. Their project was still important to him, he’d reassured her, and so was she. But on weeknights—at least for the next week—he had somewhere else to be.
Tonight, though, time had gotten away from him as he and Fabi had pored over the news, updating their shitlist, so he was rolling in late—which might mean he’d already missed Jules. Which made him feel like a total piece of shit. But he figured at least he could make sure Jules was safe at home, and Max was okay, and check in with both of them first thing in the morning.
Rory swiped his key card through the lock, eased the door open.
To his surprise, the common room lights were still on.
An armchair sat facing the door. In it, curled up asleep under a blanket, was Jules, his glasses crooked on his face. There was a sign taped to the front of him that read in black marker, with flawless penmanship:
RORY, please wake me up when you get home.
Fuck. Rory discarded his wallet and card on the kitchen island, shuffled over. Gently shook the alchemist’s shoulder.
Jules blinked his eyes open, raised his head—just managed to catch his glasses as they tumbled off his face.
At the sight of Rory, his gaze focused. “Talk outside?” He restored his eyewear to the bridge of his nose.
Jules shed both blanket and sign, led the way onto the balcony, hung back to close the sliding glass doors behind them both. Crossed to the railing, sank back against it, arms folded over his chest.
He stared at the ground, not speaking for a while. He was in his customary nightwear: a nondescript t-shirt and nylon shorts, his long feet bare. The glow from Delphi’s glamors formed an iridescent halo on the rumpled black cloud of his hair.
Just when Rory had started to think he couldn’t cope with the silence any longer, Jules took a deep breath. “Rory…what are you doing?”
Rory didn’t speak for a time. Didn’t know what to say. “Standing here talking to you,” he muttered finally. “Duh.”
“You know what I mean.” Rory forced himself to look his old friend in the eyes, and found the misery he saw there a thousand times more scorching than judgment. “Enforcement’s taken notice. You’ve gotta stop this shit. Now.”
Rory took a deep breath. “Stop what?”
“Rory.” Jules gave him a tired look. “It’s me you’re talking to. When the Master-General announced the case, I volunteered for it immediately, because I knew from the details of the crimes it had to be you. But I won’t be able to shield you forever. So I’m asking you, please, don’t put me in the position of trying.”
“Why don’t you just arrest me?”
“Don’t ask stupid fucking questions.”
“It’s not a stupid fucking question. It’s a serious fucking question. You think what I’m doing is fucked up, right?
Jules seemed to consider the question for a split second. “Yes.”
“Well, it’s in your power to stop me if you wanted. Why don’t you?”
“I’m trying to now.”
“Do or do not, dude. There is no try.”
“Don’t you dare be cute. You don’t get to be fucking cute anymore. You’re a cold-blooded fucking killer.”
There’s the anger. Thank God. “I’m not being cute. I’m asking you why the hell you’re protecting me.”
Jules was silent a moment. “Because I know you’re not a bad person.”
Rory couldn’t help but laugh. “Why would you, of all people, think that?”
“I don’t think it. I know. I know you well enough to know that, in your whacked-out dumbshit brain, you think what you’re doing is good.”
Rory’s chuckle subsided to a smile. “Jules. You should understand better than anyone what a shitsack I am.”
“Don’t you get it? This is a way for me to do something. To use my shitsack-ness to help out people who aren’t shitsacks—people like you, people who are good and deserve to win for once but shouldn’t have to get their hands dirty. My hands are fucking filthy. I can take the trash out for them, yeah? If I’m past redemption, then why shouldn’t I make the world a better place by taking other bad seeds down with me?”
“I don’t like that talk.”
“You can’t argue with the logic.”
“It’s not about the fucking logic.”
“Then what’s it about?”
Jules stared intently at Rory for several seconds.
Rory stared back. Waiting.
“I just…don’t want…” said Jules finally.
“Don’t want what?”
Jules took a shaky breath. Lapsed into a stone-faced silence.
Rory felt his grinning mask re-form. “Stop trying to protect me. I don’t deserve it, least of all from you. Take me into custody. Better yet, wash your hands of the whole gory business. Give the case to someone else, let them take me down. I’ll make it very clear if anybody asks that you had nothing to do with any of it.” He heaved a sigh. Hesitated.
Turned to go back inside.
Rory looked back. Saw Jules staring at the balcony floor, making a face like he’d swallowed something sour. “I don’t want to see you get fucking tranquilized, okay?” He looked up, looked straight at Rory, his black eyes almost pleading. “I don’t want to have to watch you to go down this fucked-up road, period. Do you fucking understand?”
Rory held his breath.
“And it’s not because I’m ‘such a good guy.’” Jules made exaggerated air quotes. “I know you think that’s all I care about, doing the ‘right thing,’ and I guess that ought to be a fucking compliment, but it just makes me feel like you think I don’t have my own stupid feelings like a normal stupid human being. I want to protect you because I fucking want to. I know I said that one time I’d never ask you for anything again, but I guess that was a lie, ’cause I asked you to help me with Max, and now I’m asking for this. And I think I’m entitled to it. ’Cause God knows, Rory Navarrete, you will never stop owing me. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, then I guess you’re right—you’re not the person I thought you were.”
Rory was silent a moment, letting this soak in. “You really don’t think I’m a lost cause, huh?”
Jules’s only answer was a shrug.
“Just so you know,” said Rory, after a long pause, “this is a pretty weird not-friends thing we have going on here.”
Jules side-eyed him. “Human relationships aren’t always easy to define.”
They stood there, looking at each other.
“Okay,” said Rory.
“You win. I’m done.” Rory pulled his phone out of his pocket, sent a text to Fabiana that he knew might never make it:
i’m out. can’t do it anymore. sorry.
Deleted and blocked her number.
He restored his phone to his pocket, looked up. Found Jules watching with a question in his eyes.
But rather than pry, the alchemist simply said, “Thanks.”
“For agreeing to be a less-than-completely-shit human being? You’re welcome.” Rory paused. “Just, um…how much do you know about what I did to those guys?”
Jules looked a bit sick. “We don’t have to talk about it.”
“What will you tell Enforcement?”
“Nothing. The killings stop, I lose the trail, the case goes cold. Mundane public has to calm the fuck down eventually. Failing to solve a case won’t be an ideal start to my tenure with the Martial Magi, but I’ll make up for it in time.”
“You’re so very right, you know.”
“Of course I am.” Jules squinted at him. “About what?”
Rory looked his old friend in the eyes. “I’ll never stop owing you.”
“I’ll never stop cashing in, either.”
They exchanged small, wry smiles.
I give it three more seconds before this gets weird…two…
Jules sobered, averted his eyes. “I have to get to bed. You should do the same.”
Rory shrugged. “I got nowhere to be in the mornings.”
“Do it for your health, dude. You should see all the studies on shift work.” Jules pushed himself up off the railing. “And, hey, you should sleep with Max tonight. I mean—if you want to.”
“Why? Er, not that I don’t want to. Just wondering why you want me to.”
“If I’m being honest…I could use the night off.”
“Ah, word. I hear you.”
“I also just think it’d do her good to spend more time with you.” Jules aimed a half-smile over his shoulder as he headed indoors. “She’ll be happy to have you around more now that you’ve given up your other life as the Punisher. Goodnight, Rory.”
“Hmm?” Rory looked up as Jules suddenly turned back toward him.
“Got something I’ve been meaning to show you.”
Rory lingered curiously as Jules vanished inside, then returned holding a yellowed sheaf of papers bound crudely with twine. “Found this in Grand Philosopher Lockwood’s office library.” He handed it to Rory. “Please, please promise you’ll be careful with it. I haven’t had a chance to get it copied. Actually waiting till I find time to do it myself. I’m worried if I send it to the Enclave Scriptorium the higher-ups might find out about it and have it burned.”
Rory raised his eyebrows, peered down at the cover of the tract, read its hand-calligraphed title out loud: “Anatomancy: A Unified Theory of Execration, Medicinal Magic, and Alchemy of the Far East.”
“I know you hate academic reading,” said Jules. “But I think this one might interest you, uh…personally.” He hesitated. “It would mean a lot to me if you’d give it a look.”
“Okay,” said Rory. “I will.”
Jules half-smiled. “G’night.”
Rory’s eyes trailed the slim shape of his old friend as he disappeared into the hall.
He glanced down at the pamphlet, thumbed through it gingerly—resolved to go through it in detail once he felt more chilled out and could focus. Right now, he was kind of hoping Max was awake and in the mood for talking or fucking or both, because he was feeling amped up, anxious—that weird, fluttery kind of anxious that, if he remembered right, meant he was happy.
“Guess I should be glad people don’t always get what they deserve.” He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand, shuffled inside.
i’m out. can’t do it anymore. sorry.
Fabi stared down at Rory’s text with a whispered, “Fuck.”
Her thumbs flew.
ayyyy whats the matter b?? come over lets talk about it????
cant quit now were doing godds work ykwim???
seriously tho…..u ok?
When a few minutes passed with no response, she called him.
One ring. “We’re sorry. You have reached a number that—”
“FUCK!” Fabi shrieked, threw her phone down on the floor so hard it flipped and went skidding under the bedsheet-curtain, out of sight. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had him. I had him. What the fucking fff—?!”
“Fabi?” came Matt G.’s voice from outside the curtain. “Yo, just found your phone out here on the floor and it’s, uh, ringing?”
Fabi jumped up, flung aside the curtain. Snatched the buzzing device out of Matt G.’s hand.
Froze when she saw it wasn’t Rory’s number on caller ID.
It was Christian’s.
“No no no no no,” she whimpered.
“Is everything okay?” Matt G. asked.
“Fuck off.” Fabi shut the curtains in his face.
She stood staring at her phone as it buzzed and buzzed, till finally the call went to voicemail.
Typically for Christian, no voicemail came. Instead, when she didn’t pick up, he sent a text:
Saw RN’s latest masterpiece on the news. Beautiful work. Call me when you get a chance. Let’s talk next steps.
“Fuck.” Fabi raked a claw through her tangled mane. Her voice cracked. “Thought it was you and me, B…us against the world.”
She shuddered, gritted her teeth, tightened her grip on her phone.
Pull it to-fucking-gether, Sosa. Fabi closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Christian’s gonna fucking kill my ass. But fuck…maybe he’ll know what to do. I just gotta face the music.
She hit callback, grabbed her lighter and pack of Marlboro Reds. Made a beeline for the back alley exit, phone pressed to her ear.
NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER FORTY-THREE
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