There is soft yellow light in the hallway outside my cube, diffused only slightly by the thin curtain over the door at our feet. Heavy footsteps shuffle outside, some soul coming to bed far too late in the morning to have been up to any good the night before. At the sound of their door slamming shut, my own nocturnal mischief stretches and rolls onto her back with a contented purr. She is a tangle of sheets and tiny limbs and dark hair so wild and full it enshrouds her like a cocoon. She is beautiful in the shadows, her bleary eyes shining behind heavy, smudged makeup that was probably applied days ago. She smells heavily of smoke–more cloves than fire–and reminds me of nights in the army, the few pleasant ones when luxuries like losticks could be savored, a small but welcoming salve to the unthinking panic and rage and chaos of combat. I could bury myself in that fragrant hair and live in those memories for the rest of my days.
But somehow, despite my better judgment, by whatever ill luck haunts me, I have found myself pulled back into that conflict, a blunt tool good for nothing but bludgeoning. In the clarity only a few too many drinks can provide, I have finally accepted that it is too late to hone myself for some other use. I might have continued here in C17 as in all the cities before it, performing as expected, keeping my head down, and waiting for the inevitable–death by accident, disease, or violence. That I have evaded it for so long is a cruel joke, and now that I have stuck my neck out, I can feel it looming over me closer than ever. The Overwatch is all-powerful and all-knowing and it is only a matter of time before I am found out. Before we are all found out.
And so I sit, smoking my first lostick since the war, exhaling smoke into the confined space of a room no larger than the cot we share, thinking of days gone by and how they have a funny way of coming back around again. The cube is crowded with our heat, my memories, and her cast-off clothing. I’d intended to slip out before she woke, but now it’s too late for that. She is alert and perceptive even on very little sleep, and she grins when she notes the stick between my fingers.
“Help yourself,” she murmurs, her voice thick and syrupy. “You earned it.”
She has a wide smile that is all teeth, reminding me of a fairy tale from my youth. She is probably too young to know the Cheshire Cat, but that is the name I have given her in my mind. My Cheshire Cat, who appeared out of nowhere and is like to vanish as unexpectedly. She even has purple hair. Never mind the aura of mystery cats and women alike wear like a second skin. Some women, anyway. There’s no mystery about me: I am what I seem, that blunt instrument, good for nothing but bludgeoning.
Until now, maybe. I don’t know.
I offer her what remains of the lostick, and she leans in to take a drag, her lips brushing my fingertips. She breathes a cloud of cool smoke against my wrist. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“No,” I say. “And unfortunately, I need to be going soon.” I finish off the lostick with a long inhale that spreads fire all the way to my core. Exhaling, emptying my lungs until there is nothing left, feels like dying. I lean back, toying with a strand of her mane. “I wish I didn’t have to,” I say, and mean it.
Her lips pout, but there is mischief in her eyes. “Well, when your all-important work is done, you know where to find me.” She plants a kiss on my wrist that raises goosebumps on my arms.
I can’t help but mirror her grin. I hadn’t expected to see her again, but the thought is the first pleasant one I’ve had in years. “A repeat performance?”
“Heavens, no.” She slides into my lap, lowering her lips to my ear. She hardly weighs anything, and yet what there is of her, the solidity of her form pressed against mine, is a comfort. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” she whispers.
I groan, burying my face in her hair to plant a kiss on her neck. She tastes of salt and that bitter perfume of smog and waste that taints everything in this city. “If I didn’t hate this job before,” I mutter, kissing her again, “I do now.”
She sits back with a curious look, but she only smiles. There is an unspoken understanding that we share as few personal details as possible, and that suits me just fine. It’s safer for everyone that way. Still, I can see myself making this a habit, and I feel a pang of guilt for the circumstances under which we came together. It should not have happened. But I can’t bring myself to regret this one decent moment I have had in C17. Not right now, anyway.
Still smiling, she hands me my pants, which spent the night crumpled up beneath her. They are warm and reek of sweat. I take them and lean in for one more taste of her thin, clever lips. She purrs again, a rich, throaty sound that sends shivers up my spine. I bury my hands in her luxurious hair, my fingertips brushing the soft bristles of the pattern shaved into her nape. Her tongue flicks across mine and I extract myself in a hurry. If I don’t leave now, I may not leave at all.
“I’ll look for you tonight,” I say, pulling on my shirt. She rolls onto her back to allow me the space to don my pants, her gray eyes studying me. There is just enough room for me to stretch out to my full height, but she hardly takes up any space at all–except for that mane of hers. “I’d like another shot at this when I haven’t had so much to drink and don’t have to work so early in the morning. I can be better company, I promise.”
“I intend to find out.”
She starts to sit up, but I lay a hand on her abdomen. “It’s early. We didn’t sleep much. Stay as long as you like.”
That mischief is in her eyes again. “You trust me not to steal your things or set the building on fire?”
“I don’t have anything worth stealing, and if you set the building on fire, you’d be doing everyone in it a favor.”
She hums her approval, lying back with another feline stretch. The arching of her back pushes her breasts in my direction. I plant a kiss between them, savoring her taste one last time, wishing I didn’t have to leave and at the same time pleased that I have something to come back to.
“Rest up. I’ll see you later.”
Later, I am lying face-down in the middle of a hastily-abandoned street with two corpses at my side and a bloody Overwatch gun shoved against my head.
My last thought is that I can’t say I didn’t see it coming.