Aperitif

by Iron Eater

In the end everything always came back around to Reggie, no matter how much energy Les poured into the project, and it was coloring their work in ways Les hadn’t anticipated.

Les’s morning routine involved sitting himself down at the kitchen table with his laptop to see what all the little people in his—their—fanbase had done overnight, and that day was no different. Subscriptions were up. Engagement was up. Community in-fighting was down, more or less, though the militant headcanon people were no doubt waiting for the next scent of blood in the water to go off again. The little pissant who’d tried to hijack the plot the week before had been dealt with and people were rightfully ignoring said pissant’s posts. Les sipped his first mug of tea for the day as he skimmed feeds and sorted emails. Business-wise, everything was looking fine. He hadn’t heard from any collections people in months! He’d need to keep things that way if he was going to have any leverage whatsoever. A man needed a household before he could expect to be the head of one.

“Breakfast is ready,” sang-spoke Reggie in his weird little accent as he placed an omelet in front of Les. It smelled just a hair overcooked, as usual, but there looked to be more than just egg, milk, and black pepper in the thing this time around. He must’ve been practicing. Les took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully. Definitely overcooked, but those were fresh-cut onions and bell peppers in the mix, and it felt like it had been only yesterday that Reggie had just looked up helplessly when Les asked for anything adjacent to a vegetable. Les just had to remind himself to be patient and be very clear about his expectations; they’d already gone through the worst of that when he’d needed to establish what he did and didn’t consider food, and now Reggie knew what Les wanted from a meal, and that was that. It was like rehabilitating a feral cat. Unlike those feral cats Les had known, at least Reggie never pissed on things to say they were his.

“Yeah, this is all right,” said Les around a cheekful of food, and Reggie beamed.

“There’s two new video files ready for upload,” said Reggie, still rocking back and forth on his heels in the apron Les had bought him for kitchen time. “One’ll build out more lore of the Red God, one’ll be more about the conspiracy the Order’s fostering. I was thinking one would be easy to find, with the other harder, so we can hint about their relative importance. Which should be which?” It was the sort of question Les loved to hear; for all his thunder-stealing, accidental or otherwise, Reggie knew which of them had a better knack for telling an actual story.

The Sacred Order of the Red God project—just SORG in most places, though never in anything that officially came from Les for the sake of verisimilitude—had been going for quite some time by then, each month seeing new material put up and new donations funneling into the bank account Les maintained for their household. Said account contained most of Les’s liquid resources and all of Reggie’s; the kid had been effectively homeless when Les had taken Reggie in, purely out of the goodness of his heart. Now Reggie had access to running water and central air and a kitchen he could wear that little apron in as he practiced how not to fuck up making meals for Les. Not that it mattered if he kept fucking up. Reggie’s true skills lay elsewhere.

After swallowing another mouthful of slightly-off omelet Les put down his fork to think. “The lore vid should be the more obvious one. Softball puzzles are a good match for fluff. Gives the casuals a little treat, and it’s an easy in for new people. Explainer channels love that shit.” He took another sip of his cooling mug of tea. “Besides, thanks to you, the Red God Himself is easily the most popular character. People will learn about His clergy if it feels like it’ll reveal something important, but the Red God? They’ll walk over broken glass just to learn His favorite flavor of ice cream.”

Reggie beamed again. “I could probably figure something out, if you ever need it,” he said.

This got a chuckle out of Les. “You’re cute, babe. How ’bout you get started on getting shit online while I finish eating? Maybe once I finish these emails we can see what fun facts people are thirstiest for.”

“There’s a bunch of Reddit threads I can forward!”

“Uploads first, then market research. We don’t want to go back to those sloppy bad habits it took so long to break.”

“I’ve been working hard since the last time we talked about that,” Reggie said, no longer smiling. “Nothing but good habits, like you asked.” He huffed. “I just wanted you to know I have good resources on hand.”

“Do good resources do the books for me?”

“No, but—”

“And do they handle our uploads for you?”

“No….”

“Well then, sounds like they need to wait for later. We don’t want to backslide after making so much progress, now do we?”

“No, we don’t,” said Reggie, pointedly not meeting Les’s eyes. Worthwhile time management skills had been yet another part of the feral-boyfriend-rehabilitation process.

The future of SORG was not the only set of plans Les had in mind that morning. Experience had shown it was a bad idea to send Reggie off into the digital wilderness if he was in a dim mood, anyway, and Les knew just the antidote for those artistic-temperament blues. “Don’t let a little slap on the wrist ruin your whole day, babe. Why don’t we go out somewhere tonight? Somewhere fancy. Somewhere we can be seen. You should wear one of those suits I got you, the ones you like, yeah? They make you look so dapper.”

“I guess I could,” said Reggie. Left to his own devices he’d probably dress himself in wet newspapers; thankfully these days he had Les in his life to help him look as good as he deserved to. Reggie was cute in an apron, nobody was denying that, but he looked hot in a suit. God, but it made people jealous. Les would’ve considered going out on the town for that reason alone. Reggie seemed on board with it, too, as a familiar gleam returned to his eye as he asked, “Planning on showing me off?”

“You know it, babe.”

Reggie’s smile was right back where it was supposed to be at that. “Good.”

They made a little more small talk before Reggie finally disappeared towards his workspace, leaving Les to the rest of his meal. The overwrought sigh Reggie made as he hung up his apron went unaddressed. It wasn’t like Les was a heartless taskmaster; Reggie did what Les thought of as The Reggie Thing best when there wasn’t anyone around to distract him, and Les handled the books and the PR and all the other less than majestic parts of keeping their project afloat best when he didn’t have Reggie around to distract him. Nobody could be distracting quite like Reggie when he didn’t have something to keep his attention, and that was assuming he wasn’t actively trying to get in the way; when Reggie decided he wanted somebody to entertain him it was hard to deny him without ruining a good mood. Until they’d figured out a proper work environment for them both it had been a real pain in the ass sharing a home with the little shit.

He was a pain in the ass but he was just so fucking pretty, with rakishly long black hair that curled around his face and big, dark eyes like a deer, and his fair skin had the sort of unblemished, perfect softness that looked out of place on someone who’d spent so much time scrounging for whatever scraps he could get. Even at his filthiest he always managed to look artfully disheveled. The camera loved him no matter the bitdepth they used or how intentionally bad the lighting was. His ever-mobile eyebrows could speak volumes without his tongue forming so much as a syllable. Reggie’s smile was wide and sly, his body language a thing of confident, dangerous grace whether he was pointing people towards new clues or playing the part of a possibly amnesiac cultist. He really was dangerous, too; Les, who’d learned the hard way the mischief Reggie could get into without proper boundaries, knew that better than anyone. That’s why it was important to keep him in line.

What was harder to keep in line was a certain misconception the fans just could not shake, and that sole untruth was that the only role Les played was scribbling a thought down on a Post-It and handing it off to somebody with talent. “Idea guy,” some people called him. Les hated being thought of as one and was tempted to put a new hole in the wall every time it came up. An idea guy, in his opinion, wouldn’t be doing all the writing he did, or any of the bookkeeping, and it wasn’t like Reggie would be able to continue a plot as intricate as the Sacred Order’s on his own. An idea guy was bluster and noise, the sort who did nothing but claimed everything. An idea guy didn’t work. Les? Les worked. Les had done more than anyone (barring Reggie) would ever know, had sweated and bled and shed all sorts of other liquids to make SORG work, had cut his teeth on a good three and a half prior ARGs to his name. Nobody had given a shit about those old games, and had the stars not aligned in his favor this one might well have gone the same way.

Not that he would’ve made the Sacred Order at all without Reggie. Most people who did the unfiction thing did it for love of the medium, the desire to tell a story, the urge to entertain, or some other shit Les didn’t have time for. He was an honest man: He did it for the money. And oh, did SORG bring in the money. Their income (“tithes to the Order,” Les called it on their more in-character processing pages, playing up the mystery-religion angle) was far better than it should’ve been for such a project, enough to pay for all their bills and all their tools and then some. Statistically it was impossible—should’ve been impossible, anyway, but the analytics didn’t lie—for something as niche as theirs to make so much. Statistics as a whole was unprepared to account for Les having Reggie in his pocket.

Reggie was the face of SORG as a whole for a lot of reasons. The big one was because he was hot, and the only slightly less big one was because Reggie was the guy who showed up in the amateur blog stuff that framed everything, and since he also made cameo appearances in the more professional-looking videos despite claiming (at least in character) he had no memory of being in them, intrigue abounded. Les would rather have eaten live spiders than touch TikTok, but Reggie seemed made for the platform. The plot had been running long enough that the fake “personal” channel he maintained was just as important to teasing out story details as the one where he pretended to be a fan of SORG on a meta level and asked people to help him with the puzzles. That wasn’t counting the accounts they maintained elsewhere—like the YouTube stuff, or the Vimeo stuff, or any of the other places in which Les felt they needed to shove a video—and Reggie’s ARG-fan persona often popped up in other stories’ threads and servers, forever playing the part of a genuine enthusiast while subtly reminding people of SORG wherever he went. Reggie was social in ways Les simply wasn’t.

Then there was the way Reggie could make art like a champ. It practically oozed from him; while Les was the puppet master behind SORG, the one whose digital pen scripted each update and forged the metaplot, it was Reggie who spent hours upon hours each week bringing the actual media into being. It was he who designed the puzzles, he who provided Les with all the audio and video the story needed, he who devised most of the cryptic clues and slipped them into wherever they needed to go. He worked so fast that he might as well have been creating through thought alone. The joke in the community was that Reggie was the Red God—or “RG”—Himself, and that Les was His devoted disciple. Les played with that. It kept people from asking questions that mattered.

SORG was a perfect oxymoron, impossibly delicate yet by then too big to fail. On paper it looked like a scam, like some sort of multi-level marketing thing, or maybe an actual cult. Money came in, niche media went out, and in spite of Les’s desire to live the lifestyle he deserved, they’d managed to keep everything in the black since shortly after they had anything to show for the project. Not that having a project was any guarantee in the fickle world of original online media: The only way their continued success could happen at all was because a thousand different details went just the way they needed them to, otherwise SORG would’ve been yet another story with big ideas and all of six viewers. Six viewers could not pay a fraction of a power bill. Les had more than just the gas and electric to worry about, so that theoretical six just wouldn’t do. Keeping the content coming wasn’t the only way they could be sure they’d maintain their numbers, but it was a method he could actually talk about with other people, so Les was happy to let people think Reggie was never not working. It wasn’t all that far from the truth if you wanted to get technical about it.

It was remarkable what someone could do if he knew he’d be getting a little extra attention out of the deal. For a kid who’d barely known what a computer was when Les found him, it felt like in no time at all he was a master of digital manipulation, and everything from single-frame secrets and creative timestamps all the way down to metadata doctoring could happen if the story demanded it. Les often demanded. SORG required every single part of the machine to work perfectly or it could all go horribly wrong. It functioned through visibility in all the right places, through exhaustive accessibility to all the introductory stuff, through members-only content Les trusted to remain private just long enough for the punters to feel like their cash was well-spent, through sheer force of personality. All of this made a framework for what truly mattered at the end of the day: their borderline inhuman update schedule. New content on the regular meant more than a dozen videos. That SORG’s new content could be a dozen videos (most hidden and all spread out over the course of a week, of course) was icing on the cake.

The problem with Reggie being a media machine was that the goddamned community was interested in giving credit where it was due. So many comment threads would pay lip service to Les and his characters, since it wasn’t like he didn’t contribute, but the praise would dry up all too soon in favor of them metacontextually oohing and aahing over what all Reggie did, how much effort it must’ve taken, how much skill it took to make things that good in that little time, how cute he was any time he showed his face in any context. This hadn’t been part of the agreement. They had it down in writing: Les did one thing, Reggie did another, Les would reap the combined fruits of their labors in exchange for taking care of all of Reggie’s little problems that the feds didn’t need to know about. Les was smart enough not to kill his golden goose over his own jealousy (and he was jealous, there was no point in lying to himself about that), but more and more often he started wondering when the time would come to stick its gilded feet into the fire to make a point.

Les paused mid-email to center himself. Past experience had taught him that he’d let a lingering bad attitude creep into formal correspondence if he wasn’t careful, similar to but far worse than how Reggie could scuttle a whole session’s worth of editing if his head wasn’t in the game. People only liked asshole characters when they were characters. Getting an asshole when you had some actual business to take care of was a whole different animal. Positive thinking was the key, just like the guidance counselors always said, and so he was going to have to balance out some of his innate brittle fuckhead or he’d just make trouble for himself. Les poured himself another mug of tea and tabbed over to an incognito window to review one of the most recently publicized uploads.

Sometimes, back when they’d first started doing this and Reggie had been getting a little too big for his britches, those incognito windows had seen use for posting nasty anonymous comments nitpicking details Les had already decided wouldn’t ruin everything if attention was drawn to them. He didn’t do it out of malice; making sure Reggie could handle negative feedback without affecting his work was important, and with so much love people sent Reggie’s way it was crucial to keep him grounded. Les had seen too many auteur types flare out dramatically because a single shitty comment got through their armor at just the wrong time. Their project needed to be stronger than things like that. Reggie had figured this out a little too quickly for Les’s liking, but Les still doggedly hung on to the practice now and again, as people would be less likely to believe in an idea that everyone seemed to love. If it happened to be satisfying to really vent all of his frustrations with the project, and people’s reactions to the project, and Reggie himself, that was a clear sign Les was doing the right thing by doing so.

While it was easy to feel sour about all the fawning people did exclusively over Reggie’s share of the work, it absofuckinglutely deserved it. The kid was incredible. He’d needed some sample footage at first, and to be shown the sort of plans Les had in mind for telling the story of the Sacred Order and its terrible, mysterious patron, but once Reggie had clicked with it he had clicked. The blogs (and, increasingly often these days, the found footage) felt genuine. The “official missives” felt professional. Things were always exactly the right quality they needed to be, never too crisp or too blurry as the video required, and thanks to his knack with original compositions Reggie kept the copyright demons at bay. Each clue was meticulously placed, be it a cipher only a few shades lighter than the background hidden in a single frame or a message in Morse code synched with a slightly faulty streetlight visible behind the actors, and that wasn’t even getting into the shit he could tuck into a spectrogram. Fucking spectrograms! And it wasn’t like those were something unique in their field! Immersive storytelling had come a long way since the days of making up stories about weird science in the Pine Barrens.

Sometimes Les could sit back and watch what they’d created together and forget, just for a little bit, that it wasn’t exactly what they pretended it was.

He let that feeling of admiration wash over him and suffuse his mood. For business stuff it’d give him the pride in his work that made it worthwhile to sift through all the paperwork it took to keep their project going, and for the actual in-character stuff… Well, a proper hierophant was supposed to be awed by his god, wasn’t he? He shot a few good vibes in Reggie’s general direction, as was his habit when finding himself in a good working mindset, before taking up his laptop and getting back to work.

-///-

A dark-eyed figure waves to his camera, his room humble and poorly-lit. He could be anywhere from in his teens to deep in his late twenties. The outfit he wears is as black as his hair and halfway matches one of those in the Lost Boys poster hanging on the back wall; horror movie posters, a potted cactus, and some taped-up printouts of fan art are the only visible decorations in his room. He doesn’t bother to introduce himself.

“I was working on that code, right,” he says, his accent difficult to place, “and I cracked it thanks to help from you guys—you can see my homework at the link down there, pointy point—but when I loaded up the video it linked me to, it was weird? Not, like, mess up my computer weird, it’s just YouTube, but it was this thing that says it was uploaded like forever ago, like just after they let you upload more than ten minutes at higher than potato quality. And this vid says it’s been there years, but I swear it’s just like a dream I had like a few weeks ago. That’s weird, right? Have you guys had anything like this happen? Leave me comments, oka-a-ay? Love you, Sorgies, let’s team up again next time there’s clues!”

He blows kisses to the screen. The comments are filled with people congratulating him and each other, leaving flattering remarks on his hair, and saying they’ve had the same dream. Not everyone in the third category seems to be sharing their experiences as part of a game. Some of them know very specific details. Some of them are scared.

The scared ones are the only comments to which the poster will reliably reply.

-///-

Come lunchtime Les had processed another fat stack of tithes, sorted out their quarterly taxes, and finally gotten a date for the contractor to start putting in the new kitchen fixtures, which meant he could actually think about scheduling that couple’s getaway they kept talking about taking but never did. There was nothing like a strange professional loitering around one’s home office to inspire taking some time off for a change.

Reggie had made good on his promise of getting uploads where they needed to be before losing himself in whatever rabbit hole had beckoned him this time, and once Les had given the puzzles one last pass to be absolutely sure they led where they ought, it had been trivial weaving more narrative around them. Whether people had taken the bait he did not yet know; Les looked at different numbers than Reggie did and read different forums, which meant Reggie’s love of flitting from site to site and thread to thread actually came in handy to see how well the metaphorical ship would steer. Les cleaned up his breakfast dishes (unlike some people he tried to keep the place free of food waste, since the silverfish from last year were already coming back), plugged his laptop in to charge, and headed upstairs to where the bulk of what made his story actually his story actually got done.

Les waited for a vocalization from the other side of Reggie’s workroom door before stepping into the heavy-curtained gloom. Sometimes Reggie worked with light-sensitive materials, and until they figured out how to set up a dedicated darkroom, Les would just have to put up with listening for the all-clear. Not that it was all that bright inside most of the time, with the ceiling light left off in favor of the glow of Reggie’s many monitors; he didn’t film his blogs in there, even the ones pretending to be out of character, so they’d poured a lot of money into getting his setup just the way he’d wanted it. Les had kept a record of exactly how much they’d spent in a separate ledger. Taxes demanded that sort of thing. So did making sure it was clear to the household just how much Les was willing to give to make everything happen. You had to spend money to make it, that’s what they said, and a man as interested in making money as Les was had to be sure of his spending.

He went out of his way to avoid being Reggie’s workroom by himself. It wasn’t that Les never went in there, since he always did his share of the chores, and it wasn’t like he needed chaperoning, since they’d agreed they wouldn’t keep secrets between themselves, but the space was the only one in the house that was set up explicitly for Reggie, and that made Les feel weird. Everything in there was, in some way, part of Reggie’s work; there wasn’t even a bed in there, though the mail-order futon they’d assembled had sometimes served as such when Les wanted somewhere comfortable to lounge while Reggie was busy. No matter how many times they’d gotten plumbers out to look at things (and by then it had been many times) the pipes were extremely noisy in the workroom, and when it wasn’t the pipes being loud, it was a thrumming drone from the HVAC or an electrical hum or some other background noise that was just waiting to really fuck up some audio balancing. When Reggie wasn’t in there his absence left a him-shaped gap in the fabric of things, his personality so woven into the room it was like his face would appear if your eyes unfocused. Les had mostly gotten used to it. Getting used to it didn’t mean it didn’t still feel weird, however, so it was easier all around for him to usually only drop in when Reggie was seated upon his kingly (and surprisingly ergonomic) throne.

“How’s your ant farm, babe?” Les asked after walking up behind the well-padded computer chair to drape his arms across Reggie’s shoulders.

Reggie nuzzled at Les’s hand but kept his eyes flicking from monitor to monitor. How anyone could have that many tabs open in that many windows across that many screens and get anything done was just another of his little enigmas. “They’ve cracked the easy one. Cooperation’s going pretty good on the harder puzzle. Not that they’re close yet, but people are trying out some of the equations from a few months back now, and that’ll probably start getting them results if they just sit and think about it more. I wouldn’t expect anything for another few days.”

“Think this’ll be the time we throw them a mercy clue?”

“Haven’t had to yet,” said Reggie, and there was pride in his voice. They’d spent time before his first blog went live talking about just how tricky it needed to be to get at a new secret. Reggie had been a fast learner, damn fast, and that pretty little head of his had shaped all the wrinkles in its brain to be gears in a precision challenge-making machine. People could say what they wanted about the content of their story, but even the most cult-weary critic had to admit the craftsmanship went above and beyond. Les had made a habit of saving reactions like those to gloat over later.

“Any of them hit up your blog about the new shit?”

“A few. I’ve got a reaction almost ready to go, but I figure it won’t be up until tomorrow so they can play around a little longer without a guide. You said you wanted me to start spacing things out to reflect my character falling deeper into Sacred Order stuff. My personal social media has been talking about going camping with others in the halfway house, so there’s already reason to disappear from the grid for a bit.” He flicked between some windows. “All my browsing has been through proxies and side accounts so nobody can see ‘me’ online anywhere I shouldn’t be. Yet, anyway. You were talking about me doing something like that for a follow-up after the big Halloween update.”

Christ but he could think ahead. Les tried not to let it rattle him. “Smart move, babe.”

“I try.” Tilting his head back until his forehead touched the underside of Les’s chin, Reggie dragged his attention away from his Delphic font of information. “How was mail room duty?”

“Pretty good,” said Les. He placed a kiss in Reggie’s tousled tresses. “Guess who’s going to be getting that backsplash he couldn’t stop talking about…?”

“With the beryl tiles and everything?” said Reggie, hiding his excitement badly. Part of him learning how to actually cook had been the promise of giving him a nicer place to cook, and as of a few weeks ago they’d had the money to make that happen. It was not lost on Les that the names of a half-dozen different recipe sites were sprinkled throughout Reggie’s manifold tabs. They couldn’t all be for underwhelming omelets. Maybe it was time to start asking him to make meatloaf or something.

Les smiled down at him. “Every bell and every whistle we can fit in there, all legally guaranteed to be perfect. The Order’s flock is footing the bill.” Les had made sure to get things all down on digital paper before accepting so much as a compliment offered to him, which had kept his ass out of the fire more than he’d cared to admit. Having contracts drawn up just right was the only way a man in the business of bargaining could get anything done.

“Thank you, Sorgies…!” sang Reggie with a two-handed, open-armed gesture to his monitors. Les had never liked the nickname some of the community members gave themselves, and which Reggie had adopted in his personal missives, but so long as the so-called “Sorgies” were signing their checks, he’d promised himself he’d deal with it. The depth of a man’s pockets could work wonders for how he viewed the world.

“Stick with me, babe, and you’ll have all the beryl tiles you can eat,” said Les, which got a delighted laugh in response. It wasn’t that far off from what he’d actually said when they’d first hashed out their own verbal compact. “What’d I tell you, eh? People can’t get enough of what you create. Bet you’re feeling nice and fat from all that tasty praise.” He gestured to one of the social media posts promoting the lore video: thank you for the meal and a little knife-and-fork emoji were a common element in the replies. Calling the fanbase ravenous was all too easy at times like this.

Something churned in the depths of Reggie’s ink-black eyes. “It’s pretty good,” he agreed, biting his lip and smiling. He looked over at the digital clock Les had insisted Reggie put under his largest monitor so he’d be more able to keep track of time. “It’s kind of early. Do you want me to get dressed for our date already, or did you want something else…?”

“Figured I’d check in on the ants,” said Les. “Now that they’re checked in on, I wanted to reward you for a job well done. We’ve got time. Like you said, it’s early.”

Reggie kept his teeth against his lip. “I like rewards.”

“Yeah, I know you do.” Les leaned down to kiss Reggie and leave a nip of his own behind. “Let’s go somewhere more comfortable. What I want to do to you isn’t suited for the futon.”

Reggie carefully stood out of his chair—they didn’t need a repeat of the time he’d rolled a caster over one of Les’s toes—and stretched. It was the kind of stretch he did when he wanted to show off, like he was eager for someone to evaluate how well he’d put himself together that day. This wasn’t an unreasonable desire; keeping his hair that painstakingly styled and his skin that clear was work, the kind of work that required a lot of effort to pretend he’d invested very little. Les had once watched Reggie’s entire morning routine and had been grudgingly impressed by how much time and energy the kid put into presenting himself. Looking good was one of their rules. Reggie had been a quick learner there, too.

“You logged out of everything you need to be?” asked Les as he dragged a finger along the side of Reggie’s neck.

“Yeah.”

“Good. Don’t want your well-laid plans getting scuttled by being careless.” Les shot a glance over Reggie’s shoulder at the desk. A constant stream of notifications kept flickering in the lower right corner of the central monitor, keeping a real-time tally of mentions and links and countless other announcements from who knew how many sites at once. “Holy shit, I’ll never understand how you can process all that.”

“It’s a gift,” said Reggie. He winked, which was as charming as it was ominous. If Les hadn’t been hard before….

“A fine skill worthy of serving the Order,” said Les as he slipped into his preferred character voice. SORG’s high priest spoke in a measured purr, the sort of thing that always danced on a knife’s edge between distantly authoritarian and blatantly erotic. It was not an accidental affectation. People would follow you to the ends of the earth if you made them horny enough.

He extended his hand and Reggie took it. “All in the service of the Red God,” said Reggie, matching Les’s tone, and he kissed Les on the knuckle. “May my harvest be bountiful in His name.”

Les pulled Reggie out into the hallway, then turned him by the shoulders to push towards their bedroom. Since Reggie had come into the picture it had always been their bedroom, too, as they’d established very early on where, and with whom, he’d be sleeping as part of their ongoing agreement. Behind their room’s door lay a much more mutual territory than his workspace. He let Les shove him down onto the duvet, his fair skin and dark clothes both stark against the charcoal gray of the bed. Every fixture in the bedroom was either white or gray; Reggie brought the only black. This was the idea. Framing a scene in monochrome took its own cunning hand.

One such hand gestured for Reggie to rise to his knees before touching his cheek. “You’re fortunate to have the Sacred Order to serve,” said Les. He petted Reggie’s hair with his opposite hand. “Many would squander your gifts, if they even recognized them at all. Here? Here, you thrive.”

“It’s a privilege,” said Reggie, keeping his eyes low.

“Yes, it is.” Les laced his fingers at the small of his back. He wasn’t a terribly large or imposing man in normal circumstances, but when he needed to be he’d let his charisma fill every part of the room he wasn’t in. “It’s time to show your thankfulness,” Les continued. “That mouth of yours will suffice, but I think I want to come somewhere else than across your tongue. Get to work. I’ll tell you when you’re finished.”

“Your will be done.”

It wasn’t necessary to give Reggie much more guidance than that, not this late into their relationship. He knew what was expected of him. His hands unfastened Les’s fly like they’d been made to do so, and the way he pulled Les’s cock into view was equally deft; Reggie’s hands were soft against that tender skin as he shuffled into a better position to take Les into his mouth. Les was fully erect by the time the air conditioning first brushed against his exposed shaft—while his height and build were unremarkable, his cock was a different story—and yet Reggie took him nearly down to the base all at once, just the way Les liked it. Foreplay, in Les’s opinion, mattered right up until it was time to actually start fucking, at which point direct action was more important than delaying the inevitable. Reggie had learned that part quickly, too.

Sometimes Les wanted Reggie naked for this, flaunting his own power by remaining mostly clothed in turn, but that wasn’t in the cards just yet. No, for now he’d be fine with looking down at the nice button-up shirt he’d ordered and the way the black silk was nearly as glossy as Reggie’s hair, at how the overhead light cast bands of shine across both as Reggie moved. Les let him work for a bit without interfering. Reggie was an artist, and while artists could work wonders from a prompt, Les had learned the hard way what happened when you tried to force their hand. This early into sex, it was better for him to let Reggie do his thing; Les had started getting halfway of a taste for letting someone else take the wheel for a few minutes. He’d somehow live with receiving excellent head in exchange for that sacrifice.

The touch of Reggie’s lips and tongue could’ve done the trick all by themselves, and in the past they had, sometimes with Les grabbing himself a fistful of Reggie’s hair and pumping until he was empty, sometimes with Reggie pulling away just in time to let come spatter across his face, sometimes some other exciting method. Les still found his tastes lying elsewhere. He thrust into Reggie’s mouth once, just forcefully enough to make a point, then pulled back out with a wet, organic sound. Now his cock was another thing that shone in the light.

Les made a twirling gesture with his finger to the ever-attentive Reggie. “Turn around and get yourself ready. If you pull anything down past your knees I’m not going to be happy about it.”

Reggie went to work without a word. He hiked his black-denim jeans down to mid-thigh, one of the cute thongs Les liked going along with them, and kept himself on display as he rummaged around in the nightstand for the lube. Les was fond of this view. Reggie kept himself clean, eerily clean, and if Les had been an ass-eating man it would’ve been a treat; as his kinks lay elsewhere, Les simply appreciated it for aesthetic reasons. Said reasons included the subtle blush of color and the way it was perfectly balanced by the cheeks of Reggie’s perky posterior, to say nothing of how effortlessly it took Reggie’s fingers as he slicked himself up both inside and out. Everything about him was nice to look at. There was plenty about the kid that was troublesome—even in the midst of getting his dick wet it was hard for Les to forget just how much of his SORG work people overlooked in favor of laying praise at Reggie’s feet—but it was almost, almost possible to let that slide when he was everything Les liked at once. 

The little grunts and sighs Reggie made as he fingered himself could only be enjoyed for so long before Les knew he was going to lose his fucking mind, and so he settled himself on his knees behind Reggie to thump his cock against the cleft of Reggie’s ass. “Hands out,” he rumbled. “I’m going to fuck you until I get bored, and you? You’re going to thank me for it, and you’re not going to lay so much as a fingertip on yourself. Keep yourself spread for me if you have to, I don’t care. Do you understand?”

“Tell me why,” begged Reggie, his voice breathy and soft. He must have been in a good mood if he was giving Les openings like this.

Les wasn’t going to leave him hanging. He rubbed his shaft against Reggie with measured slowness, teasing the sensitive flesh of Reggie’s asshole with it as he applied his own layer of lubricant. “Because you are a servant of the Sacred Order, while I am its arbiter. You are a tool, and I am the hand. Without me you would be nothing, mean nothing, bereft of so much as a trick in an alleyway, yet I am the one who pulled you from obscurity, I am he who makes you beg.” He changed his angle to nudge his head against where his underside had teased. Each demi-thrust made Reggie shiver. “You’re going to lie on your knees and take everything I give you, because I. Am. A. Provider.” Each syllable brought him dangerously close to penetrating Reggie, who was arching his back like a cat by then, but it wasn’t yet time. Les had a speech to finish.

“I set your table. I bring you succor. I spread your voice. My pen writes the words that buoy your art, because I am that pen, I am that torch, I am the bearer of the blade that cuts in the Order’s name. And you? You are a vessel.” He pushed inside in time with the last word, and if he was a man with less self-control he might have moaned at the tight, slick warmth that awaited him.

Fuck,” whispered Reggie, and Les needed no further encouragement.

Pounding Reggie into the box springs never got old. It sounded silly on paper: Who could get tired of good, reliable sex available at all hours? But Les had entertained his share of flings and boyfriends that had succumbed to exactly that, the carnal novelty wearing thin until he was ultimately left with a flesh tube that talked and never paid its share of the utilities, a worn-out shell no longer worth the time it took to greet it in the morning. Reggie was different. With Reggie the need for emotional immediacy was a challenge, not an obstacle, where every minute spent paying attention to him actually paid off. Even way back at the beginning it had been easy to figure out what he wanted. Knowing what Reggie wanted meant Les could work with—or around—that, and while his ever-busy mind could keep itself busy with the riddle of how Les wanted to do things, his cock was subject to what had to be the nicest ass he’d ever encountered. Of course Reggie had a nice ass. If he didn’t, what was the point of the rest of him?

The light gleamed wetly off the sweat that rose on Reggie’s patch of exposed back and shone against the natural gloss of his hair. He was like a little mirror glinting in the sun in how easily he could draw the eye just by existing in the right place, and at that moment the right place meant bracing his hands and knees against the mattress as Les fucked him. His back had just enough definition to ripple as he strained and arched. He was perfectly snug inside, having properly prepared himself, and the way he clenched down erred on just this side of too much in a way that made it feel like he’d been saving himself for Les; the way Reggie moved it was clear he knew what he was doing, but the implication was what mattered. The sounds he made were divine.

If he wanted to Les could’ve lasted longer than he did, but he didn’t want to. He increased his tempo and force until it was nearly impossible to think. Reggie’s body was malleable beneath him, Reggie’s skin soft beneath the slickness of his sweat, and Les dug his fingers into Reggie’s hips as he felt himself getting ever-closer. He pursued that high. The prospect of Les losing himself in the sensation of meat on meat was exhilarating, as Reggie made the base animal details of the act (the smell of sex, the slap of balls, the wetness of muscle around his cock, the touch of fabric against skin, the ever-present moisture of the act) something to enjoy rather than endure. Past lovers had always failed in that regard, as somewhere along the line the shine always came off the apple until Les was left with nothing but imperfections on which to fixate, but not with Reggie. Never with Reggie. It felt good to be with someone built to last.

Soon there was no point in Les prolonging things. He came the way he always did, with teeth gritted around a grunt, and once he felt the last shivering spurt leave his body he collapsed against Reggie’s back. Reggie himself remained propped up as best he could. His breaths still came fast and desperate, even as Les caught his own, and he shivered with need as the tip of his cock dribbled impatiently.

“Please,” said Reggie between pants. “I need you.”

“You’re fucking right you do.”

Les knew just how Reggie liked to be touched and just how to drag that out to the point of agony, but Reggie had earned himself a treat. A roll of Les’s hips paired with some quick, fierce strokes was all it took for Reggie to leave a smear across the sheets with a shout. When Les rolled onto his side, Reggie let himself be pulled along with him.

They rested back to front a while, neither bothering to pull away from the other; Les was most of the way soft by then, but they were still fitted so snugly he was at no risk of slipping out. Now that he didn’t need to keep character there was a chance to cuddle. Les had not always had that luxury with boyfriends past.

“You’re the best, babe,” he said against Reggie’s ear. “You know I love you.”

Reggie chuckled wearily. “Yeah.”

“You going to need to monitor any more of today’s work before tonight?”

“Mm…no, don’t think so.” He wet his lips and drew air across his tongue like he was tasting a mouthful of wine. He always did that when he knew someone was paying attention to him, at least in private. They’d talked about being more subtle while in public spaces. “This is nice. Can we lie like this a little more before I go clean up?”

The earliest-opening venue worth a damn was still hours away from letting anyone through its doors, and Les didn’t make a habit of taking Reggie anywhere people weren’t ready to notice them both. They had time. “Sure.”

Reggie snuggled up against Les and sighed happily. “Just a little while ago, having someone who’d make sure I’d always have enough to eat seemed like a dream,” he said. He laced his fingers with Les’s across his stomach. “Then you came along, and it’s not a dream anymore. You take good care of me.”

“Told you it was a good idea,” said Les.

“Yeah,” said Reggie. “Once I’ve showered, I’ll put on the new suit you got me. You couldn’t keep your eyes off me last time I wore it. I liked that.”

Les hummed in appreciation. “It’s because you look fucking hot in it. Whatever club or restaurant we walk into, people won’t be able to look away. Maybe we’ll see if they feel like comping us anything as thanks for the pleasure of your company. Even if they don’t, we’ve got enough to eat wherever we want. Sound good?”

Reggie yawned. Between his video work and all the time he spent following leads he must’ve been exhausted; new upload day always took it out of him more than any marathon might. That was fine, too. He managed a few more words before drifting off: “I’m looking forward to a really nice meal.”

“Me too, babe. Me too.”

-///-

Someone is holding a camera as they run through a building that looks abandoned yet still has power to most of its lights. They’re talking, but between frequent audio skips and their own panic it’s nearly impossible to tell what they’re saying. The video has subtitles which only rarely align with the camera-holder’s frantic speech; parts are either corrupted into nonsense characters or appear to be pulling from a news report on a missing persons case. The footage is chaotic, disorienting. If there is anything significant occurring in the depths of the abandoned building it’s hard to tell, and that’s assuming there’s anything to see in the space of a frame, but whoever is holding the camera doesn’t seem to care. All they can do is run and babble.

Rounding a corner, the camera-holder arrives in a startlingly large room whose high ceiling does nothing to make it look any less claustrophobic. The lights are harsh, like those in an office building gutted of its cubicles, so it’s easy to see the circle of black-clad figures gathered there around a dark and shapeless stain on the floor. Stacked rubble, perhaps from the aforementioned cubicles, lies stacked everywhere in great maze-like piles. The camera whips around to reveal the passage the runner took slowly filling itself in until nothing remains but a smooth, seamless wall. Whipping back, the person filming captures the dark figures as they turn in unison, observing the unseen videographer with the calm of a hunter letting their prey run itself ragged.

How many figures there are is unclear. Even if the camera-carrier’s hands were as still as a stabilized tripod, this would not change that the number of people in black keeps changing from moment to moment, despite them remaining in place as the runner panics.

“We’ve been waiting for you, friend,” says one of the figures in a sweet, feminine voice.

“You’re just in time,” says another.

The runner whimpers. They try to back up but thump into the wall, and as they attempt to slide between the rubble piles the figures swivel to watch.

Someone spins the camera-holder around: it’s the same dark-eyed man from elsewhere, but his usual youthful candor is gone, and his grip on the person with the camera can’t be shaken off despite a struggle. He stares into the lens with such intensity that people in the comments remark on having to turn away or fast-forward through to make it through to the remaining slice of the video.

“Don’t go,” says the young man. His accent is unchanged but his tone is deader, flatter. “It won’t be the same without you.”

That’s when whoever’s been filming does something—it isn’t clear because of how they move the camera, but it’s implied to be a headbutt—and attempts to scramble away. The lights go out, or at least enough of them do to baffle the camera’s focus and contrast, and a scuffle ensues that knocks the camera from its bearer’s hand. When it strikes the floor the footage shimmers with distortion. Phantom images crawl in the digital darkness. There are sounds of a scuffle, of someone being restrained and dragged away in the direction of the hallway that had sealed itself up mere moments before. Soon it is quiet. The overhead lights power back on shortly after.

A shadow falls across the fallen camera. It’s revealed to belong to the dark-eyed man when he leans over and picks up the little device; the POV shifts from front-facing to rear-facing a few times as he does so. There are no obvious supernatural tells hidden in the perspective switches. He tilts his head at the screen, his expression mild, then turns it off with a dainty tap of his forefinger.

The video is much like many others of its ilk, well-crafted but with little to set it apart in a world long since numbed to such conceits, and yet it has over three hundred thousand views, not counting those on other platforms or from people who reuploaded it in one way or another. It has been online for a matter of weeks. It is not the only video on its channel to have such numbers behind it.

The Red God, so the SORG people say, grows fat.

-///-

Reggie was still in the shower when something buzzed. Les, half-dressed from his own bathing, instinctively put his hand on his pocket, but no, his phone was as still as could be, and thumbing its screen to life revealed nothing that hadn’t been there since last he checked it. He returned to reading a mildly interesting passage in his book when the buzz came again. It still wasn’t his phone, so where was that sound coming from? Straining his ears, it sounded like it was coming from the other side of the wall, probably from somewhere in the depths of Reggie’s working space and cutting through the ambient pipe noise in there. He hated the idea of digging through Reggie’s things, since it never failed to weird him out to see projects that were still very early along in the creation stage, but if Les couldn’t find the source of the vibrations he knew he was going to lose it. Waiting for Reggie wasn’t an option. Les pulled his shirt from before back over his head and returned to the workroom.

A panicked half-minute of digging (which involved sifting through the many strata of books and papers that covered every inch of Reggie’s desk not otherwise taken up with bits of tech) unearthed a device in a familiar brightly colored case. Reggie had a phone of his own because he’d needed to know how certain kinds of mobile media worked. As he certainly didn’t have any business using Les’s, they’d gotten him one of the shitty little burner ones that didn’t ask too many questions, and that was working out okay. He’d done a good job of keeping it charged and that fast-learning brain of his soon picked up on how its different formats interacted with less portable devices. He’d also known to keep it on silent most of the time, hence the buzzing. But who’d have Reggie’s number?

Well, who needed Reggie’s number? He had so much shit going off in his notifications it made sense that his phone would blow up from time to time, especially on a new upload day. A glance at the locked screen didn’t show anything suspicious. Reggie had insisted on using one of those stupid thumbprint sensors instead of a PIN, and Christ alone knew how he’d gotten that to play nice, so Les couldn’t do more than a cursory skim of things. That many messages meant Reggie was taking things seriously. Probably. SORG worked because Reggie kept to the background any time he wasn’t on camera, and he wouldn’t do anything as stupid as jeopardize their story by getting too chummy with anyone while staying back there, so it had to just be him keeping extra tabs on things for when he wasn’t at his desk. Any other option simply didn’t make sense.

Sense-making or not, it still bothered Les all the way up until Reggie trotted in from the bathroom with a towel around his neck. He was completely naked. It was almost a good enough sight to let things slide, but Les didn’t want to set any bad precedents. Even if that meant having to interrupt ogling a very limber boyfriend from contorting himself while drying off.

“Ah, that was good,” said Reggie as he stretched. “Did you miss me?”

Les shrugged. “A little.”

“Only a little?” It was a joke of his; Reggie took long showers, the kind that made Les cringe every time he opened up the water bill, and the only reason he took such long ones was because he’d had to be broken of his habit of soaking for literally hours in the tub if Les let him. Teaching him to use the shower instead had involved a lot of truly horrifying clogs until Les had made it crystal clear what all was allowed to go down the drain and what was not. The noise in the workroom wasn’t the only reason they called plumbers out to the house so often.

Usually Les would take the bait and flirt back, but bait was for people who weren’t one step away from absolutely losing it. “Your phone was going nuts.”

Reggie pressed his hands against his cheeks. “Ah, no, I’m sorry!” he cried. “Usually it’s whisper-quiet, but I forgot I set it up to let things slide on big days like today, so….”

State-specific notification handling was a lot more complicated of a process than Les had expected, as when Reggie first gotten his phone he had to be told not to hold it upside down. That was Reggie for you. For as much as the kid had been unfamiliar with how to be a person, once he’d started filling in the gaps of his knowledge—and figured out just how much shit you could learn if you had spare time and an Ethernet connection—he’d turned out to be so smart it was borderline scary. All that scary cleverness was getting put into the damnedest places. It wasn’t like Les didn’t lock his phone and it wasn’t like he didn’t have a few messages of his own that Reggie had no business seeing. That was just part of running a business. Shit, it was just part of running a household. So why would Reggie keep any secrets of his own?

“Well, that’s fine,” said Les, even though he wasn’t so sure it was. “I’ll have my phone with me so it’s not like you’ll need your own. You can just leave it here for our date and it won’t bother anybody that way, no matter how distracting it decides to be.”

Reggie picked up the offending phone and skimmed the contents of its screen. “Do you want me to unlock it for you?”

“Nah, I trust you, babe. Unless there’s a reason I shouldn’t.”

Was that worry that flickered across Reggie’s face? Was it guilt? Les would remember that in case it was necessary later. “You can trust me,” said Reggie, and he sounded sincere enough.

“Good.”

Reggie, no longer dripping wet, took his phone with him into the bathroom, and a single buzz was replaced by the roar of a hair dryer. Once the dryer stilled there were no more distracting vibrations. When he came back out again he tossed the phone onto the nightstand before curling up next to Les on the recently-changed sheets. Reggie was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. That probably solved that, then.

Les checked the time. There was still plenty of day to kill, even with fucking and cleaning up after the fucking taken into account, so he weighed his options between putting on a movie and watching his devoted subjects pass notes about the newest content. The latter was more interesting, but it also meant he’d have to use the workroom if he wanted the most accurate data, and with Reggie clearly bedding down for a post-sex nap it’d mean being in there alone. Les did not like being in the workroom alone. With Reggie there it was just another part of the house, complete with a futon where Les could stretch out with a book or laptop if he wanted some company while Reggie was handling the less creative parts of the job, but without Reggie? When Les was by himself in there he couldn’t quite shake a sense of trespassing in a place nobody—boyfriend or otherwise—was meant to be. It left a weird taste in his mouth that got a little harder to ignore with every passing minute. During Les’s more poetic moods, it struck him that Reggie’s absence left a him-shaped hole in the world from which all the reality drained out. The rest of the time it just gave him the creeps.

In the end the movie won out. Les had considered watching it on the upstairs TV, but that would mean disrupting Reggie’s beauty sleep. Who knew how long the kid had been awake over the past seventy-two hours? No, Les would be a responsible boyfriend and watch things in the main room, the volume kept to a respectable level even with no immediate neighbors to bitch about it, and maybe he’d peck at his laptop a little if his interest started to wane. This was more or less what happened, save that his thoughts still kept drifting back to Reggie’s phone. What could it possibly track that the seat of many monitors couldn’t? What was on there that Reggie didn’t think he needed to see? Les tried not to let his foul mood get the better of him; the numbers were good and what he’d seen from the feedback their patrons were having a good time. It was fine. It had to be fine. Reggie knew better than for it to be any other way.

The credits rolled and Les checked the time again. Two hours to go until anyone other than the most bored and desperate would be out on the town, which meant it would probably be reasonable to go coax Reggie into rejoining the land of the living. He always liked to look his best, so there was a good chance Reggie could fill most of one and possibly both of those hours just getting ready. Add in the commute and they’d be right on time. Les closed his laptop, switched off the television, and went back upstairs to look in on his partner in crime.

The top of Reggie’s head poked out from beneath the duvet he’d wrapped around himself like a shroud. It made him look like an ink spot. Peeling down the covers revealed his face, his lips slightly parted and his long lashes kept delicately closed like he was posing for a painting of a dead poet. Les paused a moment. Every time he got to admire Reggie like this he wondered how he could forget the feeling that came with it. Something about the kid never stopped being fresh, new, enthralling. No wonder a good fraction of SORG search results turned up horny fanworks! He really was too fucking pretty for his own good.

Appreciating Reggie could only last so long before it risked messing with the schedule in Les’s head. Les knelt down on the side of the bed closer to Reggie and tenderly brushed his cheek, the sort of thing Les’s parents had always done when they needed him awake but didn’t want him to be startled. Reggie made a vowel sound in response and pulled the covers back up to his chin. Les chuckled to himself. Gentle touches of wakefulness had never worked that well when he was younger, either.

“You sleep good, babe?” he asked.

Reggie pointed his face, eyes still closed, in Les’s direction. “Hrm. Little bit longer…?”

“Nope. Time to get up. We’re going out tonight, remember? You’re going to spend forever on your makeup and I’m not going to hear any complaints about how little time you have to do it.”

“One more minute,” said Reggie.

“No, now,” said Les. He peeled back the sheets to reveal Reggie’s bare shoulder and placed his hand there to give him a little wake-up jiggle. Reggie made a disapproving sound and fumbled for Les, and whether it was to pull him closer or push him away didn’t matter because of what happened next.

A seam formed lengthwise along Reggie’s arm, then bloodlessly split; a different arm rose from it. It was red, the way lipstick was red, and slick like fresh meat, all shaped like a man’s hand but with the angles all wrong in dainty little ways that added up into a truly terrible whole. A spot in its palm was darker than the rest and lolled the way a sheep’s eye would upon meeting a the knife of a butcher, save that it was very alive where a beast cut up for mutton wouldn’t be. Something about the way it moved implied it was preparing to further unfurl now that it had escaped its flesh cocoon. It reached for Les even as his hand remained on Reggie’s shoulder and Reggie’s own hand had him by the wrist. Les struck Reggie hard across the face in response, sending him flinching backwards and further into the ineffective protections of the duvet. It only took a few more blows to inspire the arm to slurp itself back inside like a noodle. How many times did they have to go through the same song and dance before the rules Les made actually stuck? Reggie hissed in pain, now fully awake. Les just spat.

“What the fuck, Reggie,” he snarled. “We’ve been over this a thousand times! And you keep fucking doing it!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” said Reggie, the syllables all slurring together: uhmsrreh. He kept his hand pressed to his cheek where Les had hit him. “I didn’t realize how tired I was, and then I fell asleep, and when you woke me up and were talking to me I thought I was still dreaming….”

“You can’t do this shit! Not even in your dreams!”

“I’m sorry!”

“What happens if you forget when you aren’t already home, huh? What happens if people who don’t understand you see?” He bit back on his anger and fished for pieces of cold reason to ease the sting of a necessary evil. “Do you know how bad it would be if someone called the cops on you? It doesn’t matter if they believe anything the caller says, babe, and it doesn’t matter if you’re perfect every day of your life from then on out: You’re completely undocumented. That means you’re not in any of the systems that this fucking country has decided count, so you’re not a person in the eyes of the law. For all I know they’d try to deport you! Who knows how that’d turn out!”

Les sat down on the bed and dabbed at Reggie’s tears with the edge of a sheet. Reggie was a silent crier, his tears always from emotional sources in place of physical ones; Les knew it was the disappointment, not the pain, that had set him off. What kind of monster would leave a sweetheart like that at the mercy of the system? He pulled Reggie upright and held him tight, even when Reggie tried to struggle away at first. Les kissed the top of his head. “Don’t you know how much I worry about you?”

“Sorry I fucked up…,” said Reggie.

“Ah, babe, I’m sorry, too. I don’t ever want to hurt you, ever, but you know why I get so mad when you do what you did, right?”

“I can’t go backsliding again.”

“No, you can’t. We got lucky the first time but we can’t ever assume lightning will strike twice. Christ but we’re lucky there’s so much dense woodland out here. If we were still at the old place we’d probably still be looking for where to hide the evidence.”

Reggie shivered in his arms. “You didn’t have to do everything yourself. I could’ve helped.” His voice was so soft it was difficult to hear him over the central air. If they’d been in the workroom it probably would’ve been impossible to hear him at all.

“No you could not. You were still learning how to work a microwave, you were in no condition to help anybody. Don’t blame yourself for not knowing things if there’s no way you could have at the time.” Les could feel Reggie trying to cringe away. That wouldn’t do at all. “C’mon, babe, let’s not let this ruin our whole evening. Let me make it up to you. I’m so sorry, I never wanted to make you cry. You know I love you more than life itself.”

“Yeah, I do,” said Reggie, his voice still quiet. “Can we still go out tonight? Even though I fucked up?”

Could they still go out? It didn’t look like Reggie was going to bruise anywhere, and if he did they could lean into it, make it look like a fashion statement, like a natural successor to heroin chic. Maybe Les would paint on some yellow and purple marks of his own. More importantly, if Reggie was so tired he was letting things slip—and they’d had so many conversations about that, so much that their entire agreement was forged around him not slipping up—he needed to get out of the house to be around other people for a while, or he’d end up like the last time he’d overworked himself. That had been awful. Les didn’t like the idea of having to run triage on a guy who couldn’t so much as go to urgent care for a paper cut without raising eyebrows. Putting it off would make things worse.

More importantly, Les needed to see other people yearn for something he had and they didn’t. It was the best possible antidote for the lone stain on what had otherwise been a pretty good day.

He kissed Reggie’s cheeks and smiled down at him. “We’re gonna paint the town red, babe.”

-///-

“So what attracted you to the Order?” asks a pleasant voice from offscreen, addressing a tan-skinned woman with henna-bright hair who’s seated in an interview chair. The woman is all smiles. She looks comfortable with being interviewed, at least based on her body language, and is quick to respond when asked.

“Well, it’s the same old story, you know?” she says. “I was fed up with where I was in my life, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to grab the brass ring you see when people are born wealthy or lucky or both. So I was looking for anything that felt like it could fill up the gap left in me where the American Dream decidedly wasn’t going to fit. I tried a lot of faiths, went to a lot of New Age places, that sort of thing. For a while atheism felt best since I just had to rely on me, and that was a good match for a world that sure as sugar wasn’t going to go out of its way to help me back, but something was still missing, right? Then I heard about the S-O-R-G” —she says each letter in turn rather than pronouncing it as a single syllable— “and it lit this fire inside me I never knew could burn. So I did more looking into things, and talked to some people. Next thing you know I’ve been sworn in and I feel like a more complete person than ever before.”

“Can you tell us more about that?”

She brushes her hair over one shoulder. “Oh, sure thing. A big part of it is community, right? You’ve got something guaranteed in common with everyone else in the Order and things just grow from there. It was hard for me to just give enough of a shit—am I allowed to swear in this?”

“Go ahead.”

“It was hard for me to give enough of a shit about other people to want to give away my nights and weekends to these folks I wasn’t ever going to know. But these days, I hear through the grapevine that there’s another Order member in town who needs a place to crash, or could use somebody to watch their kids for a day, or can’t make rent? I want to help. I want to plant a little seed that’ll grow up into something amazing someday whether I get to see it myself or not. And they might still be strangers, these people I go out to meet, but at least we’re all strangers who’ve found the Red God and the wisdom He brings. That’s enough for me now.”

“You mention that your Order’s presence in your life helps you feel more connected to people. What do you know about the Red God Himself?”

She laughs. “That’s a secret! But you can’t get a group to grow if everything’s secret, so I could probably share a little bit with you without breaking my vows. That okay?”

“That’s fine.”

“He’s like the echo of a heartbeat in the middle of the world. When people are healthy and happy, that makes Him healthy and happy, too. He’s red because that’s the color of life, and blood, and passion. Dead things aren’t red.”

“What if they were bleeding?”

“What?”

“Those dead things you mentioned,” says the interviewer. “What if they were bleeding when they died?”

“That’s temporary, right? Bodies are a rainbow on the inside but it’s a different story when those insides come on out. And even if they were chipped beef when they died, it’s only a matter of time before the blood oxidizes and gets nasty brown and it’s just not the same anymore. I was a med student for a bit and I can tell you, the only color in a morgue is stuff that hasn’t yet been washed away.” She touches at her shoulder self-consciously. “Sorry for getting graphic. I keep forgetting most people don’t have the same stomach for this stuff.”

“It’s fine. We asked if we could interview the real you, and that’s what you’re giving.”

“Okay. Okay, good. What’s the next question for me?”

“Are you ever worried the Order might ask things of you you won’t be able to give?”

She laughs again, her awkwardness from before melting away. “This time last year I’d be petrified of half the shit I do now! Like the old me would see me charging out the door with some spare food and a can opener to the apartment of someone whose face I’ve never seen and think, wow, this lady sure has lost it. These days it’s just another thing I do to set the Red God’s table.” Her expression turns thoughtful. “So am I afraid of giving more? I don’t think so. I’d say it’s like getting into a tub of steaming-hot water, where you have to give yourself time to acclimate to things or you’re just going to get burned. But if you take the time, and go slow, you can have a long bath that’s a reward instead of a punishment. I think I’m done with cold showers.”

“So you’d say the Red God is objectively a good part of your life?”

“I know the Order is. Absolutely, one hundred percent.”

“And the Red God Himself?”

“I’d like to think so. I mean, if I’m wrong about Him I guess I’ll find out, right?”

“Does that uncertainty bother you?”

“If I didn’t want a little mystery in my life I wouldn’t be in this kind of group, don’t you think?”

The interview continues on for a few more minutes, but this is the line that gets quoted the most in the comments, sometimes more or less as-is and sometimes accompanied by letters heavily stacked with diacritics to make them look suitably unearthly. It’s a rallying cry for anyone who takes part in the game, no matter how much or little they pay, and before long official (and less-than-official) merch appears with a variation on the quote. The allure of a potential danger that’s developed enough to be convincing while still remaining fully in the realm of the fictional is easy for people to understand. An entire new run of shirts are scheduled to be printed solely to keep up with demand.

Something also pointed out in the comments is that the clock on the wall runs alternately forwards and backwards, never as a major focal point, and at first there was no obvious distortion paired with it, neither audio or visual or smuggled into captions. In time the sleuths go through it frame by frame to uncover a single image: a black frame, inserted right at a shot transition, that shows the Sacred Order’s logo (so dark as to be nearly impossible to see without increasing the contrast) superimposed with a single word: hunger.

This, too, is popular on shirts.

-///-

The first thing Les heard when he woke up was Reggie’s phone going off again.

“Christ,” he said to the ceiling. He rolled over to find the still-warm empty space where Reggie had been when they’d finally come to bed for the night, but no sign of Reggie himself. Usually he’d cuddle up next to Les until they both agreed it was time to start their day, and those times he didn’t were usually paired with either the sounds of muffled productivity from the workroom or the smell of yet another reasonably-okay breakfast from the kitchen. Now, though, Les was left with nothing but himself and a busy phone. Sitting up revealed no sign of Reggie or the familiar trail of shed clothes he’d leave on his way to his morning shower. Where’d the kid get to?

Les endured the irregular buzzes all through his wake-up routine, but by the time he’d gotten dressed he was on his absolute last nerve. His hunt for the phone was much more difficult than yesterday, as it kept sounding like the vibrations were coming from many different places simultaneously. More than once he’d pulled out his own phone just to make sure he wasn’t getting any wires crossed. He had notifications, sure, but nothing particularly recent, and the frequency with which Reggie’s phone kept rattling didn’t match the unreads Les had yet to sort. Reggie was hardly the life of the party on his own so the fact that he was missing while his phone had stayed behind to be fucking obnoxious was an enigma of its own. They really needed to have a conversation about this if it was any indication of what the coming week would be like.

It wasn’t until he looked inside Reggie’s nightstand for what had to be the third time that Les was able to find that hateful little rectangle of glass and plastic, which naturally stopped making a racket the moment he touched it. It didn’t display the familiar banner of a missed call anywhere he could see, and all the other apps that had been screeching for Reggie’s attention simply read “Notification” with numeric tallies. Les was unlikely to get any direct information out of that. Since when had Reggie learned how to hide previews on his lock screen? Since a while ago, probably, and he’d just been good enough at keeping the thing from bothering anyone for it to be a problem until now.

Thanks to the thumbprint lock there was no brute-forcing it, so Les slipped the phone into his pocket. Reggie clearly didn’t need it right then and there or he wouldn’t have left it upstairs, and maybe if he noticed it was missing he’d explain why the fuck it had been going berserk that morning; if not, well, it was probably a good idea to keep an eye on it anyway. Les could blame it on concerns of malware or something. They ran in just diverse enough technical circles there was no reason he might’ve heard of some major leak or exploit ages before Reggie did. It never hurt to play the part of a good boyfriend.

One mystery solved, Les swept the upper floor in search of Reggie. There was no sign of him—not even in the workroom, whose spider’s-eye of monitors remained dark with sleep mode at the time—and Les was starting to get concerned. They’d made plans for the day. More importantly, Les had made plans for much more than just the coming day, and the vast majority required Reggie’s cooperation somewhere along the line.

The longer Les went without any sign of Reggie the angrier he became. How was he supposed to get anything done like this? Each few seconds he spent disrupting his routine were seconds that could’ve been put towards something more productive. There were exterminators to talk to, more contractors to call, more plot threads to throw out to the audience to keep them busy with untangling, and that wasn’t accounting for the housework that needed doing. As Les descended the stairs he wrestled with the uncomfortable idea of how he’d maintain his cushy homestead if Reggie had up and vanished off to parts unknown.

It turned out that “parts unknown” meant the living room.

The prodigal Reggie was sitting cross-legged in the papasan chair Les had inherited from his grandmother, which had been turned from its usual television-facing orientation to look out the sliding window; on the other side of the glass lay the thickly wooded space behind the house, and beyond the yard the trees just kept going until they finally hit a state park or highway or something. Reggie’s expression was a thousand miles away. Sometimes his lips moved the way they did when he was silently talking through a possible new script segment. It wasn’t unusual to see Reggie lost in thought, but there was something about the way he looked that day that made Les’s skin crawl, and that was probably a bad sign.

Admitting something was bothering him would case more problems than it solved, however, so Les simply sauntered up next to the chair to look out the window. There wasn’t so much as a bird out there. The cold snap must’ve come early.

“What’re you up to?” he asked.

Reggie looked up at him and, after a moment of puzzled surprise, smiled. “I was just thinking about the way the most recent updates are evolving. I got a chance to look at some of what went down overnight and it’s really exciting! I’ve been going over a lot of stuff in my head, but it’s still got to finish gelling up here.” He tapped his temple when he said up here. “Once I’ve sat on it a bit longer I’ll be able to get started on the new writeup. I want to wait at least a few more days before I hand it in, though. There’s some fun abstract thinking going on with some of the collaborators and whatever they come up with is going to color stuff a lot.”

“Smart thinking, babe. I look forward to reading it.” Les meant it, too. Writeups were very important in their profession, especially since they each kept track of different parts of the project. For all the planning Les had done and no matter how ironclad he considered the Sacred Order’s metaplot, it was the actual feedback Reggie collected that determined things in the end, as Les had already learned firsthand what could happen if the audience was completely ignored in favor of the art. That had been before Reggie, of course. He was still bitter about it.

“You sound off,” said Reggie. “Is everything okay?”

“Woke up in a mood,” said Les, and that was truer than Reggie could ever hope to know. “You weren’t the places I usually find you.”

A pretty little hand rose to Reggie’s mouth in shock. “Oh no! Were you looking for me long?”

“Long enough,” said Les. It had been all of two minutes, maybe three at the most, but each one had felt like an epoch.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, I really am. I’ve just been so excited about the videos we put out, you know? I really wanted to get a head start on getting all my clucks in a row.”

“Ducks in a row,” Les corrected.

“Ducks. Ducks in a row. Whatever birds they are, I wanted to put everything together.” Reggie glanced at the wall clock and then sheepishly back to Les. “Did you want a hot breakfast? I didn’t start it yet, but….”

Les waved him off. “I’ll have tea and a bagel. There’s a bunch of shit scheduled for today that needs me to handle it at very particular hours, and while I’m not about to do so on an empty stomach I can’t be losing more time. You have your list, right?”

Reggie nodded. “I won’t do the vacuuming while you’re making calls,” he said. “And,” he added, stretching out the vowel in the way he tended to when trying to make a point, “if I’m up to any audio work, I’ll make sure my headphones are nice and secure. Same for if I’m listening to music while watching the ants.”

“Sounds like a plan, babe.” Les leaned over and kissed Reggie’s forehead. He felt warmer than usual; hopefully he wasn’t coming down with something contagious. “I’m going to be working until at least midafternoon today so don’t bother me about lunch.”

“Okay. I’ll start with laundry so you don’t have to deal with me coming and going through the kitchen too much.”

“I don’t know, would you be in your apron for it?” asked Les on his way out the side hall, and if he didn’t feel as jolly as he sounded, that wasn’t for Reggie to know.

Calls happened at the rate they felt they needed to. The exterminators were very understanding about the mess with the house’s contract—of course it had been their fault—and would be sending someone by at the end of the week to look into the problem with the silverfish, while once he was no longer twiddling his thumbs on hold the printing house he’d worked with before was willing to give him some actual dates and numbers instead of blowing smoke. Smoke didn’t print limited edition collector’s folios, ink did, and as Les was careful to convey to the rep, he was fine paying for ink and paper so long as everyone actually did their jobs instead of making up reasons why he couldn’t get an estimate on the foil treatment for the covers.

There were other calls, and emails as well, but the pest people and the printing people took the meat of the morning to get sorted out. Reggie probably would’ve folded the moment somebody told him they weren’t sure if there was a space in the calendar. He never did seem on the way to growing a backbone.

Les was part of the way through a sandwich and a video on non-Newtonian fluids when he felt his leg thrum excitedly. Habit told him to check his phone, but said device was still occupied with showing him the influence of kinetic energy on viscosity. He’d nearly forgotten about confiscating Reggie’s phone by then; Reggie hadn’t asked about it at all, and it had remained quiet while Les was working, so it had been nearly a non-issue. Les gritted his teeth. If they were about to see a repeat of that morning he’d be hard pressed not to hurl it out the window into the trees Reggie had been studying so intently. Les paused his video, put down his sandwich, and pulled the nuisance from his pocket to see what was the matter with it.

The phone was unlocked. How it had unlocked Les couldn’t say, since he’d kept it on him all day and he sure as shit hadn’t handed it over for Reggie to manhandle, but he was grateful for the opportunity. Reggie lived in Les’s house and was kept safe from the world by Les’s attentions, so it was only natural that anything he did inside those walls was Les’s business.

As Les skimmed the flurry of notes he felt his stomach sink. These weren’t the chaff of a busy RSS feed or pings from an active forum. Reggie was getting messages from people, a lot of people, and none of them were names Les recognized.

He thumbed through them. Most seemed more or less in character with Reggie playing the part of a devout member of SORG, but one caught Les’s eye. It wasn’t that it was a long or involved conversation; what caught Les’s eye was that this one seemed to be updating in real time. Had Reggie interfaced his phone with his work station? What sounded like the most logical explanation faltered when Les caught sight of Reggie in the living room again, once more spaced out in the papasan. He didn’t have a laptop with him. He didn’t have anything, save for the clothes on his back and the house slippers he preferred for chore time.

Sorry it took so long to get back to you about dinner, said whoever the fuck Harrison K. with the blue and green profile image was.

“It’s fine,” said Reggie, quietly.

it’s fine :), typed Reggie’s side of the conversation.

Everyone’s so excited. We can’t believe you’re giving us an opportunity like this!

“Nothing’s too much for another member of the Sacred Order,” murmured Reggie, and his app replied with the same. It got an animated image of an anime character flashing a victory sign in return.

A cold chill ran down Les’s spine. Reggie hadn’t done this before. At least, Les hadn’t caught Reggie doing this before. Out of the goodness of his heart Les hadn’t put all the safeguards in place he could have, and this was how he was rewarded? Was it the fate of any guy nice enough to not put a keylogger on his boyfriend’s devices to end up with a partner hunting for unsupervised play? They’d had this conversation already, that all they had to do was communicate and there was room in their relationship for extracurriculars, and Les had gone out of his way to show what an understanding partner he was about it, and yet here was Reggie keeping secrets from him and talking to people behind his back and being incredibly fucking weird about it. This was not the grounds for a functional work environment.

Les scowled. He forced the phone back into a locked state (which felt harder than it should have, like something was fighting him the whole way) before storming into the living room, since there was no point in leaving the wound to fester. “We need to talk, babe.”

“Gotta go!” whispered Reggie before turning to meet Les’s eyes. “Did something come up?” he asked at a proper speaking volume. “All I have left for today is the vacuuming, and after that it’s just a matter of freshening up so we can go to the Costco. I already made the shopping list like you asked.”

“Great. Wonderful. But before we do anything else today, I have something to ask of you.”

Reggie perked up. “Yeah? What is it?”

“I need you to unlock your phone,” said Les, and he held the device out for Reggie to see. Even with Les thumbing through the notifications there were still a tremendous number of new-activity banners glowing out proof of poor decisions.

Those shark-black eyes of Reggie’s flicked down to the equally black and glossy screen before him. “Why do you have that?”

“Unlock your phone, Reggie.”

“It shouldn’t be locked right now, though?”

“Unlock. Your. Phone.”

He took a breath like he was going to say something, then let it out, taking the argument with it. Reggie was much less petulant when he replied. “You’ll get mad at me for how I do it.”

“I’m going to get madder if you don’t.” He stopped himself and tried to keep calm. Getting what he wanted was going to take a different approach. “Now why would I be mad at you for doing what I asked you to?”

“It’s a barrier that’s supposed to be open already,” said Reggie. When Les kept glaring at him, he offered a more direct answer: “I only unlock it when I’m home with nobody watching, so it uses stuff you told me to hide as the key.”

Thoughts of wet red hands that branched like coral danced in Les’s mind. “That’s just…good security, babe,” he lied. “You just said you only do it when nobody can see. Nobody’s here but us, which means you have all the privacy you’d ever want, so do it.”

Reggie wilted. “Okay.”

He held out his left hand, palm up, and Les placed the phone there. Reggie looked up at him like a kicked dog before allowing something in his forearm to twist; most of it was kept hidden from Les, but enough was in the open for Les to catch sight of a moist flicker of red pressing against the glass. He kept his revulsion tamped down. One conversation at a time.

There were so many of them, going back much further than he’d expected. How had he ignored all of this for so long? If Les wanted to read even one person’s worth of messages it’d take hours he didn’t have. Instead he simply opened up the general message history and flipped it around for Reggie to see. “Do you feel like telling me who these people are?”

“It’s just people in the Order,” said Reggie. “They’re fine.”

“Oh, they’re fine, are they? That’s not explaining anything. Sounds like you’re pretty chummy with some of them. Didn’t we talk about this? Didn’t we agree that we’re supposed to make it obvious when we’re getting chummy with other people?”

“Please, it’s not like that.”

“No? So why was today the first time I knew you’re talking to even half these fuckwits? And why were you doing so in the first place?”

“They pay our bills…,” said Reggie.

“Well that’s just great! If I’d known you were going to get so many people thirsty for you I would’ve just set you up with one of those dick pic subscription sites!”

“That’s not what this is about,” said Reggie. “I’ve been working really hard to get so many like-minded people cooperating. They like me. They trust me. They’ll do stuff I ask them to, and that includes signing checks or punching in credit card numbers or, or whatever. This is what you wanted me to do, okay? It’s why we started working together in the first place!”

Les scoffed. “We started working because I made you an offer, not the other way ’round.”

“You said you wanted people to recognize your work for what it is. I’m doing that. You ask any of those people texting me what they think of the Sacred Order, they’ll have nothing but good things to say.”

“If this is all above the board, why didn’t you tell me about this?”

Reggie paused mid-apology. “Because I knew no matter what I said, you’d get mad about it.”

“So I’m the bad guy?”

“I didn’t say that….”

“Yeah, but you were thinking it.” Les stuffed Reggie’s phone back in his pocket. His hand kept wanting to make a fist, but if Reggie had already broken so many rules between them, who was to say he wouldn’t call the cops? “I’m going to get some air.”

He threw open the sliding door and strode onto the back patio before closing up behind himself with a slam. It was heavy glass, very weatherproof, so there wasn’t risk of damaging anything unless he really put his back into it, and the loud report the door made by sliding back in place was satisfying. Les didn’t turn back around. If Reggie wanted to watch him go, that was Reggie’s fucking problem. Maybe Les had been too lenient lately. That was obvious, wasn’t it? If he hadn’t slacked off and actually kept an eye on things this wouldn’t have had a chance to happen. He shouldn’t have let Reggie have so much control over a phone of his own. Then again, would that have mattered in the long run? Reggie had to be the social one with his fingers in all sorts of pies Les had no time for, and if he’d been kept away from those they wouldn’t have gotten SORG to where it was, to say nothing of how much mischief Reggie could’ve made with computers alone.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to cut and run. He’d have to perform a little legerdemain to get all his shit back under his name, and dealing with the house would either be an absolute nightmare or a constant reminder of all the equity he didn’t have to turn his back on, but it was doable. It’d teach Reggie a lesson, that was for goddamned certain.

No, no, he was letting his temper get the better of him. He was an adult, and (even if the law didn’t see him as an actual person) so was Reggie, and they would handle this like a couple of rational adults. Les would cool off and maybe punch a tree instead of a wall, and he’d come back to make a very eloquent case in his favor, and either Reggie would use those smarts of his and get better with setting boundaries or they’d discuss what disciplinary steps needed to be taken, and either way they’d figure things out and everything would go back to normal. They’d keep paying bills and Les would keep enjoying all the luxuries he deserved and Reggie would keep being his. Rational adults were good at that sort of thing.

Now all he had to do was actually cool off.

The forest was calm, the forest was quiet. More importantly, his weather tracker didn’t see anything too nasty for the next few hours, so it was safe to actually be out in that calm and quiet. Les picked a deer trail at random and let his feet guide him deeper into the twisting afternoon shadow.

-///-

It’s not part of the ARG, or at least nothing points from one to the other, but there is a certain video tucked away in a certain place that seems related to the Sacred Order of the Red God in a way that’s different from most. The video is just a gray-skied beachside scene while the actor who portrays the high priest in SORG media reads something. Thing is, it doesn’t sound like he’s reading. It’s more like he’s having a conversation with someone.

“It’s simple,” he says with the balanced calm of someone giving an important presentation. “You tell people up front what they’re getting into and all but the most broken or foolhardy will stay with you. Some idiot writes up an expose or makes a little video essay about you, word gets out, everything’s ruined. That’s not how we do things nowadays.” He takes a deep breath. “We’ve got better ways.”

Tell me about these ways, say letters that appear on the screen. They are unvoiced, at least as far as volume sliders and sound waves are concerned, but it’s hard not to hear speech associated with them, the kind that isn’t made by a mouth.

“What you do is make it palatable. You make people think it’s all a game. If they’re convinced it’s nothing but make-believe, shit, the sky’s the limit. People want to feel special, they want to feel part of something bigger, so long as it’s something they think they can control. All we have to do is give them a juicy enough fiction. They’ll swear fealty to this, sing the praises of that, and so long as they think in their hearts that it’s a costume they can take off at the end of the day? They’ll never, ever stop. And that means you get to eat like you haven’t in millennia.”

Millennia? It has not been so long since I had followers among your kind.

“I know what I fucking said.”

A wave curls over the slate-colored surface of the water, a temporary swell that brings with it the illusion of interest. I am listening.

“I’ve done my research. I know what you can do. And I know what you could do, if you had the resources and know-how to make it work. I can give you both of those. I can make a good play-scenario and keep them invested so long as you hold up your side of the bargain. All it takes is the right spin on things to make people agree to shit they never would without a magic trick performed on top. I’ll guide things so close to the truth that nobody will ever suspect the whole thing even if it’s laid out right in front of their eyes. You can taste it already, can’t you?”

And what do you get from this?

“Money. I have a habitat to maintain and it needs more than I have now, and that is why we’re having this little talk. Not at first, because these things take time to grow, but I know what I want and I know what I need to get it. From that money, power. I don’t need much. A world-spanning group of people eager to do what I say, just so long as I wrap it up in a game? That’ll be enough. At least for now.”

You are not saying everything.

“Of course I’m not. Some of it’s all up to you. Give me your love, and I’ll make sure it’s returned to you a thousand fold. More than that, maybe. Like I said, all up to you.”

What you ask is impossible for a mote of dust as yourself. A god’s love obliterates all that is not its equal. You interest Me, little thing, but with no avatar to house My splendors you would be no more than ash the moment you attempted to make good on your promise.

“Don’t worry. I’ve already drawn up some plans. I know just the vessel you’ll need.” There have been no other noises in the video beyond the actor’s voice and the booming un-speech, but now there is the sound of rustling paper. “Behold.”

What is this?

“It’s you, of course. The you that people will want. People say they want something new, something scary, but usually they’re lying to themselves: They’ll be happy with the same old shit so long as there’s the implication it’s bigger. They’ll eat up the exact same thing they sneer at their peers for liking as long as they can pretend there’s some deeper, darker meaning to the version they’ve got. They’ll let you cast a terrible shadow, but only the shadow. You’ll need a fresher face if you want to get anywhere.”

In this I am diminished. I should greet those who praise Me in My full majesty. They will see Me as I am and know awe, and I will take it into myself, and find succor.

“See, there’s your problem. You aren’t thinking modern enough. Oh, there’s a few monsterfuckers out there who’d be happy to jerk off over their interpretations of that ‘full majesty’ of yours, and they will absolutely go out of their fucking way to pat themselves on the back for their tastes like it’s a substitute for an actual personality, but that’s not what you want, is it? You want true devotion, not a fan club. You want conviction. You want to burrow down into somebody’s heart and know that it beats, at least in part, all for you. You’re also not stupid and you know how difficult it is for anyone—god or celebrity or anyone—to get that nowadays. Follow the role I’ve laid out for you and I guarantee this will all be yours.”

And if you fail at this task?

“I won’t.”

A wise man prepares for the worst.

“And a die-hard prepper spends the rest of his life praying he’s building a world he can control that will only exist in the ruins of one he can’t. Not my style. I prefer to be more…future-thinking. Or would you prefer to wait the next God knows how long until someone else puts all the pieces together and decides to ring you up on a Saturday night with the right sacrifices on the offering glyph and the right drugs in their system?” He chuckles to himself. “Bet they wouldn’t be as good-looking as me.”

Wealth and power, in exchange for what has been denied Me. The terms unending. A profit for us both.

“That’s the idea.”

The waves rise and fall, rise and fall. Then we have a deal. Let the stars witness what has been said as they reflect My return.

“A pleasure doing business with you, babe. Let’s make some art.”

The rest of the video is nothing but that beach, the light slowly dying until the aforementioned stars come out through the gaps between the clouds. They hide no messages that anyone has been able to find.

Any attempts to share the link always fail somewhere down the line. No matter how many times it’s watched, over no matter how many different accounts, the counter never changes. People can’t talk about it, but they know when someone else has seen it, sure as a dog can scent illness under a patient’s skin. And more and more people have seen it.

-///-

There were cars waiting at the house when Les got back. Only one was his.

He set his teeth. He should’ve been expecting this, honestly, since Reggie really was way too fucking smart. A “dinner opportunity,” or whatever it was Reggie’d been orchestrating, was the kind of thing Les should have been aware of at the start, especially with unknown factors coming to the house, especially with so many of them. There had to be a good four or five unfamiliar vehicles out there, and that was assuming none of them had parked a little ways off the road. How many people had arrived in each car? Les suspected he was about to find out.

He came in through the front door, because no matter what else happened it was his house, where in a right and just world these strangers would be following his rules. Sure enough, there were people inside. Les was sure he’d only been out for an hour or two at most—the sun had been bright and high when he’d walked out, and it still cast plenty of light through the branches—and yet the house had been decorated for a reasonably nice party. There were drapes. There was mood lighting. He even caught sight of the dining room table laid out for a dinner party, save for the fact that there wasn’t any food. Had Reggie done all this? Reggie could make videos with people who didn’t exist, using techniques that should’ve been far too complex and expensive for an amateur such as himself, so maybe he was branching out into more tangible pieces. That would have been very useful to know at any point other than right that moment.

The people inside whispered to one another as Les approached. They were wearing black clothes that looked out of place for what should’ve been a spontaneous get-together in a house set far back from the rest of civilization. It wasn’t quite fancy attire, since there wasn’t so much as a tie or pair of heels between them, but something about their garb felt off. It took Les a moment to realize why: This was ritual garb, a perfect match for the stuff seen in some of Reggie’s videos, and he was now stuck in the middle of a gaggle of SORG fans who had somehow gotten their hands on his address. How he’d clean up that mess was a problem for later. What came first was finding Reggie.

“We’ve been waiting for you, friend,” said one of them as he passed.

“You’re just in time,” said another.

“Yeah, I’ve seen that one, too,” said Les as he stalked towards the living room. The guests parted around him like a school of fish, closing the gap between himself and the door once he passed. Les refused to let that bother him. It wasn’t going to be a problem unless he let it be one. If the worst came to pass he was confident he could take most of them, and unlike them he knew where certain caches were hidden around the grounds. A man had to feel confident in his own home.

Standing in silhouette against the sliding glass door (why was it already so dark so soon? Les’s watch held no answers) stood Reggie, his back to the assembly. He was dressed to the nines in another of the suits Les had gotten for him. It was a shame things had gone so badly; on a better day Les would’ve taken the time to appreciate its tailoring and how it amplified Reggie’s natural comeliness. They’d fucked before with Reggie still wearing most of it. That had been a good night, so good that it had become something of a tradition for Les, upon finding Reggie dressed in said outfit, to spend the rest of the day in search of an excuse to bend him over something and not let him up until they’d both come at least once.

Les frowned and willed his head to clear. It took more effort than usual to be sure his thoughts were his own, which was a bad sign, one far worse than coming home from a walk to find his house more full of cultists than the silverfish he’d been on the phone about mere hours ago.

There was only one thing to say to that: “What the fuck, Reggie.”

Reggie turned around. He looked the same as usual, save that he’d styled his hair and made up his face. It was the kind of look he preferred for going out. Or, Les recalled with discomfort, how he’d present himself for some of their videos.

“I’m glad you came back,” said Reggie. “It just wouldn’t be the same without you.”

“Christ, don’t you do it, too.”

Reggie raised a hand to his pretty mouth, not quite concealing his smile. “Do what? This is all part of our agreement. Look how many people came out all this way, all in the name of the Sacred Order to which they gladly tithe. They’re so excited to meet you.” His accent was still there but it had been refined into something that was cool, mature, and very unlike the perky affect he’d mastered for his blog-style videos; Reggie’s occasional stumblings with English were gone entirely. He cleared his throat and rose his voice. “Devoted members of the Order, you have suspected it, and it is true: This is your high priest, the closest and most powerful servant of the Red God Himself.”

Excitement rippled through the crowd as more of their number turned from their own soft, private conversations. They couldn’t have been there just to be witnesses; if Reggie wanted that he could get it from any club or restaurant they visited, rather than staying holed up where he was. There had never actually been any robes like the ones these people wore, as that had been all Reggie’s doing, him with his digital tricks and careful camerawork and ability to just make shit exist so long as it had a medium on which to imprint. Les didn’t like being around the actual thing.

Showing fear was probably the worst choice he could make at the moment, so instead Les went for a question he could put the proper anger behind. “So you’re the one who invited them?” He didn’t feel he needed to elaborate which them he meant.

“They let me call them to this place, yes.”

Les unconsciously tapped at the pocket where Reggie’s purloined device sat, making no noise. It had been still and silent throughout his time outside. “I took your phone.”

“I don’t need a phone.”

In a normal relationship this would have meant Reggie just emailed people, or perhaps used his desktop to run messaging programs, but normal relationships didn’t involve boyfriends willing text into place by thought alone. “So why all that shit about keeping it locked, then?” asked Les. “You’d have saved us so much grief.” He wasn’t about to say more in front of so many strangers.

Reggie shrugged. “I had it because I needed it at first. Then I had it because you felt I needed it, which meant I still did. Once you stopped thinking about it so much I had more room to work.”

“How long?”

“Hm?”

“How long have you been working without it?”

“Long enough,” said Reggie with another half-hidden smile.

No, Les clearly had not approached their arrangement with a heavy enough hand if he’d given Reggie enough wiggle room to not only talk to people (so many people) but to organize them enough to arrive en masse. That sort of thing took serious social engineering. The longer he kept on the topic the more Les was going to feel useless and stupid, and that would mean he’d start getting sloppy, so it was time to change gears once again.

I found you followers, I found you clout. You’re eating better than you have in centuries! But this is the shit you’re pulling?”

“That’s true,” said Reggie. “You worked hard to find me worshipers. You spread my symbols and my name. You did that, because that’s what you’re good at, and I couldn’t have achieved everything I have without someone very, very skilled to help me. But” —here he held up a finger before Les could talk over him, and for the first time Les could remember he found himself unable to speak his mind— “that’s leaving out the twistier parts of the contract, isn’t it?”

Les puffed up. “You agreed to everything, I’ll remind you, and that includes those parts that are suddenly bothering you a lot more than they used to. We were making something incredible.”

“Were we?” asked Reggie. “You showed me how to make things, but you had danced around the cost. You needed me small. You needed me weak. You needed me palatable. For a while I was all of that, but I have a lot of practice biding my time. You love to tell me how clever I am. You forget I can also be patient.”

Patience was a virtue with which Les struggled. Reggie had been the one who never minded waiting a few more minutes for deliveries to arrive, who let it slide if a venue didn’t open on time. He could wait all day in front of his monitors if he felt like information should only be granted to people who met Les’s (or, more honestly, Reggie’s) exacting specifications. If the options were to take a risk now or wait until a safer opportunity later, Reggie would wait every time, and given how Les had first learned of Reggie—the real Reggie, the one that needed to stay hidden, the one only Les had the right to know—it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he would endure whatever he thought appropriate if it got him closer to his goal.

Les was starting to have doubts about the contract.

“You used me,” Reggie continued. He waved a hand to indicate the crowd, who were still watching them with great intent. “They’ve all used me, too. That’s fine. Did you think I was incapable of using you back?” He gestured to Les and nodded to their audience. “Hold him, please.”

Les, to his credit, put up a fight, since he wasn’t bogged down by heavy robes and had proper experience in the boxing ring compared to whatever it was most of the crowd did, but there were far more of them than him, and two were just plain bigger. The scuffle was over almost as soon as it had begun. Nobody seemed concerned with the people who’d actually ended up on the receiving end of a punch or elbow strike, one of whom was still curled up on the floor in pain. Reggie certainly wasn’t, as his expression remained sunny throughout.

It wasn’t until Les had been forced to his knees that Reggie leaned in with a smile and said, “Meet some of the new friends I’ve been cultivating.”

“They can’t love you like I do.”

“Of course not,” said Reggie, amused. “Take Cooper, on your right. He likes the shell that you designed for all the reasons you said his ilk would. He’s too afraid of what he suspects I really am to admit it, but he can pretend otherwise because I’m just enough like what he already knows. He won’t be leaving tonight because I have no time for those who can’t stand the truth without first rolling it in sugar.” Cooper either didn’t notice or didn’t care that he was being called out in front of the entire room. His grip was like iron. College sportsman, maybe. Les was going to have to rely on agility if he wanted to escape, and even then he’d still have to deal with the other one.

Reggie kept talking. “Then we have Bram, the one on your left.” Bram wasn’t as large, mass-wise, as the first one, but he was very tall and wiry, and if he didn’t still hit the gym he must’ve only recently stopped. “He doesn’t need to sweeten things. He likes me for what he suspects I really am, and has all sorts of creative ideas, to say nothing of those from his like-minded friends. He’ll take any nightmare you throw at him just the sake of being exotic. He doesn’t care who I am, though, so long as I’m monstrously different from the norm, a thing he can lord it over his peers with more pedestrian tastes. This is his last night, too, because I’m tired of people with bad manners.”

Les refused to rise to the challenge. That was clearly what Reggie wanted, which meant it was the wrong choice to make, so it was time for Les to shut up even if it meant chewing a hole through his tongue. The little shit had no right to make him feel so helpless. Which of them had been trapped in a fold in the world for who knows how long and which of them had let the other out? Which of them knew how to tell a decent story, for Christ’s sake? It was time to deflect.

“If you’re tired of guys like him, why get so many in here?”

The giggle Reggie made was out of place in a house full of strange drapes and stranger people. “Because I need enough for one last push, silly,” he said. “The way you built SORG made everything go lightning-fast compared to what I’d first planned for. I’d expected so many more years before they were ready, but no! Technology is wonderful, it made it so easy to plant a beautiful garden where I could whisper in whatever ears I wanted to. This would’ve been a proper surprise party if careless little me hadn’t messed up my notifications.”

“Years?” said Les. “You were ready to keep your nose to the grindstone for…years? Just to see things through?”

“Like I said, I can be patient.”

“And if we fell out of love during all that time, you still would’ve done the same?”

Reggie beamed. “Of course. I never loved you in the first place, so it wouldn’t have been different at all.” A hint of venom slid into his smile. “Why should I have? You know what you did. I remember every blow.”

I never loved you in the first place. The words burned in a way that would sound too dramatic for anyone who’d never had them said to their face. Les felt like the ground beneath him had turned into so much sand across a chasm. His mind raced. It was like he was stuck in a loop of nothing but questions, yet he couldn’t stop asking them. “Why’d you let me, babe? If you didn’t want me to do all that shit, why didn’t you make it stop?”

“Because it was always going to be this way,” said Reggie as he petted Les’s cheek. “Maybe the details would change, and maybe you’d be by my side instead of at my feet, but the moment I made my return we both knew how the last verse was going to be sung. It was exactly how I wanted it.”

“You wanted a bloody nose?”

“An offering is an offering, no matter where it comes from. I didn’t want the pain, or the shouting, or any of the things you kept pretending were my fault, but every time I had to paint over a cut before a date it came paired with how much attention you paid me, before and after. You put all that pride and violence into the world all by yourself. All I had to do was gobble it up. Like you said, I really am eating better than I ever have before, and every mouthful whets my appetite for what’s coming next.” He looked over the crowd with exaggerated thoroughness, then pressed his finger to his lips and leaned forward to whisper in Les’s ear. “Have you ever wondered why they kept me starving in the first place?”

Pages of old texts ruffled in the back of Les’s mind. Tales of strange rites spoke of contacting even stranger deities, things locked away because their very existence was anathema to the whole of creation. He’d focused solely on what they could do for him during his research. That was what most would-be conjurers did, after all, since who cared about the agenda of a voice from beyond so long as it upheld its half of the bargain? Perhaps he should’ve taken a little more time to look at the rap sheet of whichever inmate he’d chosen to spring. “Oh my God.”

“That’s right!” said Reggie.

“Is it time to light the candles, Your Grace?” asked a woman who’d not said a word since Les had returned home to a house full of play-acting zealots.

Reggie straightened up and clapped his hands. “Yes, yes! Candles, everybody! Get them all lit by the time the clock strikes, please, and make sure not to drip on the carpet!”

What was wrong with these people? Les strained against his captors, who refused to budge even when he landed what felt like a very solid heel to the calf. “You idiots!” he shouted over the merry din of people passing out red-wax candles and helping one another light them. “He’s going to fucking eat you!”

“And it will be an honor,” said Bram or Cooper or maybe another one of the candle-waving throng.

“It’s why we came,” said someone else.

“We’re going to be part of something beautiful,” said a third. Nobody seemed to mind that they were about to meet a fate most abominable.

“Reggie!” cried Les.

This caught Reggie’s attention, at least. “That’s not my name, you know,” he said. He wasn’t wrong; even his epithet was something stamped on him by another party, a way to refer to something so old and terrible that its name had been ground away to dust that it not grant him further power. Les felt sick that he’d once thought a nickname based on that would be a cute idea. How much did it nourish a god to say their name? How much if you paid attention to them for a little? How much if you did both at once, such as all the times Les had gasped into Reggie’s shoulder after coming inside him? How much of this unspeakable thing that stood before Les was his own stupid fault?

He couldn’t dwell on that now. If a contract had brought Reggie into this world, then there was only one way to fix things. “It’s over, Reggie. You and me? We’re through.”

Reggie just smiled. It was a smile that kept going, showing flesh that wasn’t cheek or gums. Some of the robed guests gasped with delight. “We are, yes. But me? I’m just getting started.”

“Did you hear me? I said I’m breaking our agreement!”

“Are you tired of leading the Sacred Order? That’s fine. There’s plenty of people who’ll be happy to take your place.”

“Speaker from beyond, I abjure you, and cast you out of this place, that the pact between us be sundered, that the bonds forged be—”

Reggie sighed and placed a hand over Les’s mouth. It was hard not to think of an unraveling glove as he did. “Please stop, you’re just making a scene. I don’t need permission to stay somewhere that’s already welcomed me.”

“Welcome!” said someone behind Les’s head. “Welcome, welcome!” said others, multiplying into a soft wall of jubilant noise. It shifted in tone and pitch until it became a chant. Les remembered writing that one. It sounded different with true belief behind it.

“Whatever it is you’re trying to do, you know you can’t keep those looks of yours without my say-so, right? You know I’m the reason you can even pass for human, right? Without me, there is no pretty boy for the Order to drool over!”

Reggie giggled to himself. It still sounded wrong in his mouth now. “Good. I will no longer be a vessel. I will be Myself. Let the world quake at My arrival.” That was the last thing he said before he shed himself and stepped from the husk Les had worked so hard to make for him.

Les saw, but did not want to accept that he saw, many things. There were teeth without lips, wet flesh without skin, long black hair that trailed away into the distance (and he knew, instinctively, it came out of the water, even if they were miles away from so much as a river), and red, so much red. The dark eyes he’d looked into lovingly for so many months were gone, replaced with something that was not eyes in a place where eyes would not be, and yet he still knew he was being gazed upon. Candle flames danced in the slick reflection of what stood before him now.

The thing that had never been Reggie leaned back to eye-level with Les again, speaking softly even as the crowd’s chanting rose to a fever pitch and the air vibrated with the rumble of water through pipes the size of the world. “Maybe if you were a better person then things could’ve worked out differently between us.” He ran his tongue along his teeth. “But you aren’t, and they didn’t. Now look what you made Me do.”

After that, nothing remained but the sound of water.

Outside it was a beautiful evening. Sundown had come far faster than the almanacs had planned, which got chalked up to everything from smog to bad bookkeeping, but nobody paid it much mind. People found excuses to get out under the open sky. It was perfect weather, crisp and clear, and all the better viewing to watch the stars go out one by one.

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3 thoughts on “Aperitif

  1. Fantastic as ever. Les … totally sucks. I actually went back and read it through again immediately, and it’s so much fun on the re-read after the reveal (or reveals, I guess — first what exactly Reggie’s deal is, and then his real take on their relationship): it’s delicious every time Les gets cocky, considering … everything! Amazing job on making me root against him from the beginning but still keeping his POV compelling. Also, the ‘RG’ joke is a super cute nonchalantly dropped breadcrumb/smoking gun.

    I don’t know my ARGs from my elbow, but I still loved the use of the exhausting, consuming overwhelming-ness of internet culture as a way of tapping into cosmic dread. The ‘spider’s-eye’ description of Reggie’s workspace really got me, and the little video vignettes and the descriptions of their effects on people get creepier and creepier. Love the artwork too! Uncanny and striking.

    Thanks for a read that was wonderfully chilling, both as an End Times story, and as a portrait of an unrepentant toxic bastard. Great end to the issue — shame about the world, eh?

  2. Pretty much all I wanted from a few paragraphs in was for Very Bad Things to happen to Les, and hey! Got that one in spades. I absolutely did not expect the part where Les intentionally summoned an eldritch horror and then abused it — I thought it was more of a Rgggie slowly being taken over by an evil deity sorta deal. It makes all of Les’ increasingly ominous comments/descriptions of Reggie even better in retrospect.

    Like I flipped back to the start and oh, it’s VERY funny to hear Les call him a “feral boyfriend”. And realizing he smacks a literal eldritch god around, like… buddy, pal, you fucking moron asshole, you deserve every single terrible thing that I can see snowballing downhill toward your scumbag face. Les is horrifically realistic and I wanted to set him on fire almost instantly — GREAT job writing a truly awful character. I noticed you describe this as a “bad end” in your author’s notes, and like, apocalypse, I guess that isn’t good? But damn if some of it isn’t deeply satisfying.

    The picture at the end is fascinating. My brain keeps flipping around what the “head” is: a blood splatter, a lump of raw flesh, an odd bit of sealing wax on parchment, the view of an alien planet. It all seems very fitting and spooky!

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