Turn the lights off when you leave.
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He often wondered if he preferred the company to the silence. They never judged him through the screen.

Three knocks on the front door sent Noah Schalit rolling to the floor. He could have gotten up if he cared to, if his willpower hadn't been weighed down by a bottle of Irish whiskey, if he could bear to be seen by anyone with a pulse.

The last point was assuaged by the voice coming over the intercom buzz. "Noah? This is Lue. Is everything alright?"

Noah opened his mouth, letting something between a moan and a whine fall out. He'd have rolled over if his spot on the carpet wasn't so comfy.

"Noah." 'Agent' Cimxeeb Lue Xong spoke like a parent lecturing a rotten child. "It's been three days. I know you need time to grieve, but locking yourself in isn't good for anyone." Lue paused. "You'd know."

Noah did, in fact, know that. Over the last twenty-something years of service, he'd seen enough of the Humanoid Division to know what being locked inside a small apartment did to people. Part of his present despair might have been driven by the extent to which he understood this. Hard to tell through the whiskey haze. He was still unsure over whether or not the irony was amusing.

Noah didn't know why his body lurched to the door he swore he wouldn't open. Maybe he was hungry, or tired, or delirious. Whatever the case, his worn little limbs found irregular purchase on the curves and contours of floor and wall, just enough to drag himself to his feet and open his door for the devil.

"Jesus, Noah." Lue was unshaken by the sight of Noah, probably. Nothing shook his heart anymore. "That bad?"

'What do you think, asshole?' came out as a noncommittal "yeah" came out as slurred affirmation. Noah might've said more, if his stomach hadn't began revolting against his new posture. For all they'd been through, there was a part of Noah that still insisted Lue didn't deserve to be puked on.

Lue nodded. "Right, uh… right." He smacked his lips, and leaned into the doorway. "…Okinawan folk, huh. Never pegged you for the type. You have the radio on?"

It was the TV, actually. SCP-B81 had infected Noah's apartment some time ago, sticking him with the International Music Station and a few dozen cognitohazards. Didn't matter to him — 6E8 muscled the worst of it out of his head.

In lieu of talking himself into an upchuck, Noah beckoned in Lue's general direction and stumbled back in.

Noah was too tired to clean these days — hard to find the energy between bottles — so the living room was still unsuitable for (normal) guests. Cigarette smoke had perfumed the walls in rancid brown, mixing with the stench of old liquor bottles in a way that made you feel higher and deader the longer you shut yourself in. When Noah could stand to take the trash out, it followed him all the way to the dumpster; he was content to let it linger for now. Wasn't hurting anyone but him.

Muscle memory shoved Noah through the mess and onto the couch. The robed lady on TV was replaced by a lounge band, crooning a lazy tune in a gently swaying bar.

Lue brushed the trash from a sofa chair, sitting down like nothing was wrong. It felt deliberate, almost. Like he wanted to comfort Noah. "…it's nice. Reminds me of when MTV still did music."

"Barely a'thing." Noah rolled to his side, attention not quite on Lue or the TV. "'swhat we used to say. To'old, man. Real… real old."

"Yeah." Lue nodded. "It's that feeling, right? You've lived too long in too little time, and you've also lived too little in too much. It never feels like you're living life like you're supposed to."

A chuckle bubbled up from Noah's throat. "'unno. A'ways wanted to… t'be somethin' out've a movie. Ne'er knew what movie. Litfic works, heh." His hand unconsciously wrapped around an empty bottle, bringing it up to his lips. Empty. "S'I guess 'mliving the dream."

Lue nodded like he'd said something intelligent.

The silence hung.

"… you know." Lue shifted in his seat. "Molly misses you."

The laugh that ripped out of Noah's chest was sudden and violent, and he would have rationalized it as an act of rebellion had it been intentional. As it stood, it was yet another symptom of his failing body, and prelude to a sudden, violent lurching in his stomach.

Noah stumbled off of the couch, sputtering over to the bathroom in pursuit of dignity. He got as far as the carpet before his stomach gave, adding yet more grime to that shameful tapestry of bodily fluid that coated his floor.

To his credit, Lue pretended not to be disgusted, simply walking over to the kitchenette and fetching some paper towels. He took barely any time to find them — more proof they were watching Noah — before Lue was beside the poor bastard, wiping away the remnants of Noah's latest shame. The whole thing was vaguely nostalgic, or predictably sickening, or vanishingly tender.

Noah's chest tightened, and he struggled for breath — except his chest had only heaved in prelude to an ugly sobbing. Why? Noah wasn't sad. Noah wasn't anything but drunk. Noah wasn't anything.

Foundation should've known that. They knew everything already. They knew how to drag Noah back onto the field, how to stand him up and pump him full of praise and panic. Shouldn't they have known what it did to someone, to work 40 after 48 after 60 after 80 after 60? Shouldn't they have known what it meant to drag a man from the arms of his family? They had to. What did they see on the other side?

Weezer was next, covering something that sounded Korean. A star-shaped bruised burned in Noah's temple.

Lue settled back into his seat, finished with yet another of Noah's messes. Something pensive, or that only looked pensive, settled over his face. "… command is thinking of taking us off the field."

Noah's words swirled around his throat.

"Been a good few years, yeah?" Lue chuckled. "I mean… sorry. Am I talking too much?"

Noah rolled over. "… you're g-good, Lue. Yrgood."

Lue nodded, or smiled, or shot Noah a thumbs up. "Thanks." Another chuckle; he was almost starting to sound human again. "You know, I think I'm going to miss it. Driving down the back roads, getting plastered with marks… even the gunfights, a little."

Noah nodded, or did a sit-up. "Don't… don't miss'ose. Too bloody."

"Don't get me wrong, was always tragic when we had to resort to that." Didn't sound tragic to Lue. "You know, they're never as bloody on film. Never as deadly. Kind of odd, really."

Lue reached into his jacket, pulling out his service pistol, and for a second Noah hoped he'd shoot him with it. Instead, Lue examined it, his expression slightly more human than last Noah checked, before holding it out to Noah.

"Take this one. Small thing, no secrets, none of that fancy stuff they do in R&D. Shoot a man in the belly, though?" He made a gesture with his hand that Noah was too drunkover to recognize. "Sometimes it comes out the shoulder. Grisly stuff."

Lue paused, setting his gun on the end table and looking over to the TV. "… you know, they get a lot wrong about guns. Like… okay, take headshots, right?" Lue looked back to Noah. "Gun to temple, gun to the roof of the mouth, probably going to kill you fast, right?" He paused, as if he was waiting for Noah to agree; he did another sit-up. "Good, right. But that's… I get why they might not want to show it, but that's not actually the easiest lights-out. You actually want to go for that, you gotta hit the brain stem." Lue opened his mouth and pointed. "Here."

Noah's throat was parched.

"I don't know. Is this helping?" Lue scratched at his head. "Sorry. I… I'm sorry, man."

Noah shrugged, an act that dragged him either forwards or backwards across the carpeting.

Folk song from the TV. Sounded African. Noah wouldn't have been able to tell you which part.

"…you're here t'get'em back to Ffffffound…" Noah's throat cleared itself. "Foundation, rnt'you." Rolling over to face Lue, Noah tried to focus in on his face. "Always do. Always do."

Lue sighed through what might have been a smile, might have been a frown, something that, either way, would have looked more natural flipped upside-down. "… listen, Noah. You know how the Foundation gets. They're never going to let us leave."

"Ne'er gonna make me, make me work, 'ther." Noah rolled onto his back, and slowly, carefully worked his way back up to sitting. "Ffffffuck the threats. Fuck money. Muscles are—" a belch escaped his throat. "—muscles are shot t'pieces. Brain's full. No good."

"What about the others? What about Molly, or Spinoza, or Whateley?"

Noah's eyes refocused on Lue. How clean he was. For all the lingering stink of the apartment, none of it seemed to sink into Lue as it had Noah. Lue could have waded through a swamp of literal shit — had waded through a swamp of literal shit, several times — and come out spotless. When he finally walked out of the apartment, there'd be nothing of Noah to show for it. The thought burned in Noah's chest.

Noah forced a laugh. "Fuck 'em. Fuck'm!" He laughed again, careening into a self-satisfied, hollow giggle. "Fuck'em all. No fffffriends o' mine!" His left hand found a bottle, and on instinct he grabbed it by the neck and raised it up. "No more strrrings on me!"

"Noah, you're drunk."

"Bingo! Tha's a bingo!" Another laugh, or sob, or routine muscular contraction.

Lue opened his mouth to speak, only to pause. "… you know," he licked his lips. "They did a study. Any amount of alcohol increases the risk of cancer."

"Baruch Hashem!" He raised his glass again, too fast this time; it sailed into the ceiling with a dull clunk. "Noah Schhhhhhitter's gonn'die early. Next year'n hell." Noah picked the bottle back up and put it to his lips. It was empty.

"Noah—"

"S'maybe, 'fya wan'ta gemme back, fffffuck off!" Another laugh; Noah's throat was starting to hurt. "I've got not friends. N'family. Nothin'."

Was that genuine emotion on Lue's face? Noah's eyes kept falling up, rising down, swirling side to side to side. Hard to focus for longer than a few seconds.

The thought struck Noah that, whatever organ Lue now worked for, the Foundation must have considered its iron grip strategically more important than the bonds between coworkers. It wasn't rational, but then, was it even supposed to be rational? Every twist of the vice-grip felt crueler, more pointed — not the cold calculations of a machine, but the legs of a hateful spider, creeping through the Foundation's veins in search of something to punish. Had the cruelty always been the point?

It took another shift from the TV (was this Arabic?) for time to move again. "Come on, Noah. There's… there's people who care about you, who'd hate to see you…"

Lue trailed off, but Noah interjected before he could continue: "Fuck'm! Fuck'm. Fuck… 'em!" He laughed(?). "Coworkers can… can fuck off, y'know. Real ffffunny people w'got workin' there. Molly'sa… 'sa fuckin' creep, prying. Whateley can fuck 'erself. Brother'sno better." Noah tried to find his balance. "An… an 'fyou gonna bring up that fuckin' Spinoza creep, I—"

Whatever Noah was about to say, he didn't get the opportunity before gravity took him back down to the floor, all the fluids and sounds in his body rushing to his face — and oh, he was crying again.

Noah tried to rein his face back in, compelling imaginary muscles to fold it back into his head and leave only a dark hole. He was too angry to be crying. He was too proud. He flashed back to a young boy falling off a swing. He was too hateful for emotional integrity, had allowed himself to be a monster far too many times to do anything remotely sympathetic. Why wasn't his flesh melting with every desperate grasp of his face? Why? Why? Why?

Noah thought back to that one game Daniel always went on about, something about robots and missing children. His mind was stuck on an image from a video he'd seen on it, of a blue rabbit — or was it purple? — pulling its face off. It was supposed to be terrifying.

The thought swam back. 'Lue is watching,' it whispered. 'Lue is getting a front row seat to your every shame.' The thought giggled, or maybe that had been the TV. 'That means he's winning, and if he wins… well, back to grinder with you, no?'

'And what then?', thought Noah.

'Did it ever matter?' The thought was grinning, now, or looking at Noah with resigned anger, or disappointment, questions of 'Why?', 'Why weren't you there for me?, 'Why didn't you consider me?'. 'If you never cared what they shore from your body and mind, why do you care for what's left to shear?'

French lounge music.

Noah forced himself to sit back up, biting his tongue to ground himself. If the thought had hands, it might've clapped. "… not goin'bck. Can't. Won't."

All this time, Lue had been patiently sitting there, looking at Noah like a sick dog. "It hurts to see you like this, Noah."

"Good." Noah's smile gave out. "Ho'pit kills ya'."

"This…" Something on Lue's face twitched. Hard to discern what exactly it was. "…this isn't what they would've wanted, Noah. What would Danny and—"

"Shut up!"

All at once, balance seemed to return to Noah, and he was standing on steady ground to the tune of a break-up ballad.

"Twenty. Four. Years." Noah swallowed. "Twen'four years, I been… 'vbeen killing lives, Lue. Puttin' people in prison for fuckin' anything, magic or freedom or, or money." Noah planted his feet harder into the carpet. "What'd I get? My head's fucked, my body's fuckin'… donor kebab for monsters, and my fuckin' family's gone. Dad's dead, mom's, mom's gone, Mel hated me to the end, Danny…" He readjusted his balance. "Ne'er gotta chance to say goodbye to 'em, Lue. Too busy with work, and guns, and…"

Noah's face was contorting again.

"… Danny'n Melissa." When did the room get so cold? "That's what you… you fuckin' psychos got me with last time. Told me to do it for 'em." Something forced itself out of Noah's throat. "Too bad! Too fffuckin' bad. Not any more!"

Lue was shivering, too. "N-Noah, I—"

"They tell how they found'm?" Another laugh ripped out of Noah. "I saw. What are they gonna do, fire me?"

"Noah, please—"

"Did Danny a fuckin' deer and Melissa a pig. Hog-tied. Head on th'wall. Hung like… like a piece'a meat. Carved weird letters in her hips." His next laugh was a scream. "'n y'know what they found in Mel, Lue? Know what they fuckin' found in her?"

Lue didn't say anything.

"Worms. They, they found worms in…"

And then Noah was back on the floor, wailing through tears for something he couldn't possibly articulate. Noah wanted to lie there forever, wanted to die on his carpet never to be removed, to stew in a rot that condemned his and every other apartment in the building. He wanted clarity, wanted blindness, wanted something he could name, claim, and shame. Every pathetic contraction and expansion of his facial muscles was a plea to die, to stay dead, to be reborn a complete man who could take revenge, to whither so hard that the world withered with him, to forget about Melissa and Daniel Schalit and Nigel Cunningham and Dr. Molly Chen and Cimxeeb Lue Xong and the man who used to be Cimxeeb Xong and Noah Schalit and, and why couldn't they let him rest, why couldn't they let him die in peace?!

But the tears had to dry up, eventually; there was only so much fluid left for Noah to expel.

When he finally came to, the TV was droning, his head was pounding, and Lue was looking at him with a look that nearly brought him back to weeping.

Lue opened his mouth, looked around, closed his mouth, winced, tapped the end table with his fingers. "… enjoy your freedom, Mr. Schalit. You've earned it."

Lue got up from his seat and left, slamming the door on the way out.

He didn't take the gun.

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The TV switched to gospel.

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