People have described Pine in many ways- cold, intimidating, strange- but ey thinks that meticulous is the most accurate. It is with a meticulous spirit that ey gets dressed for the evening: cufflinks placed evenly on the wrists of eir freshly ironed shirt, silk gloves recently dry-cleaned, shoes polished to a gleam. Ey checks eirself in the mirror by the doorway, avoiding eye contact with eir reflection as ey straightens eir already-straight tie. Ey tucks a handgun into the harness under eir jacket, but not before checking that it is loaded, that the safety is on. Ey doesn't need it, not tonight, but it never hurts to be prepared.
And since it never hurts to be prepared, ey slings eir bag over eir shoulder, the same shoulder it always rests on. Ey checks its contents, carefully but efficiently. One must always be efficient. After meticulous, this is Pine's favorite self-descriptor.
Everything is in its place as Pine steps out the door. Ey pats eir pockets to make sure ey has eir keys, eir wallet, eir phone, and then locks the door and turns the deadbolt. Ey turns quickly, and does not look back as ey walks down the hallway.
Ey takes the stairs out of the building, counting them as ey descends but not noticing the number. It's an easy habit, a safe rhythm. Someone else passes eir around the second floor, and ey does not lose count, although ey resents the possibility that ey could have.
Ey does not look back as ey leaves the condominiums. There is no reason to. Nothing bad has happened today.
Ey can't shake the feeling that something will.
Ey knows the streets in the neighborhood well enough to wander them without paying attention. Ey shakes the urge to continue counting eir steps. One must always be efficient, after all.
Ey turns away from other people anywhere they appear. As a result, ey ends up in the back alleys, the not-quite-suburban run-down houses whose owners pay more for the proximity to the downtown core than for quality of living. Ey has neither envy nor pity for them.
A shadow moves in the corner of Pine's vision. Ey does not turn around. A stray cat darts out from under an illegally parked car and crosses eir path. Ey hesitates, just for half a step, and then berates eirself for it. One must always be efficient. One must never show fear or hesitation.
The crisp night air refreshing against what little skin ey has exposed. There's a new moon, tonight. The stars seem to shine brighter to make up for its absence.
A streetlight flickers ahead. Ey watches the yellow light expose weeds on the sidewalk and then hide them again. Show and hide, show and hide, show and hide-
The light goes out completely as Pine passes under it. This is surely a bad omen. Something bad is coming. Pine does not hesitate, does not show weakness.
But ey does pat down eir pockets again. Keys, wallet, phone, gun. Everything is there. Ey is prepared.
A shadow moves in the corner of eir vision, and then another. Ey does not turn to look at them. Shadows cannot harm eir. Ey has not done anything out of place today, so they cannot touch eir.
In the back of eir mind runs a list of things ey messed up that week. On Thursday, losing count of the stairs on eir way back from a job. On Tuesday, placing eir keys on the coffee table instead of the hook by the door, and spending a full hour searching for them, followed by another hour of re-arranging everything ey had moved in eir search. On Monday, ey had almost been late to meet with the boss, though he hadn't noticed. None of it had been punished, and now, out of the safety of eir home, retribution was certain to strike.
But ey is prepared.
The shadow figures become more bold, reaching their hands towards eir. Running alongside eir, although ey is only walking. Walking quickly, now, but not rushed. Never rushed.
Ey rounds a corner, and on the next street, all the lights are out. Even the lights in the houses are darkened, though it is only ten. A power outage, perhaps. But more likely, the stage being set for Pine's punishment.
Ey undoes the buttons on eir jacket and places one hand on eir gun. It never hurts to be prepared.
One by one, the stars go out. Pine can hardly see where ey is going. Ey does not hesitate. Shadows pull at eir ankles. Ey keeps walking, though it is difficult. One must always be efficient. One must never show fear or hesitation.
The shadows pull at eir jacket. Ey cannot help but stop to readjust it. As soon as ey stops, a single streetlamp flickers to life above eir. It casts a sickly golden circle of light around eir, like a circle of salt around one possessed.
Just outside of the circle, a shadow figure stands before eir. Ey stares directly at it, and it does not shift or disperse. Eir pulse quickens. Ey tightens eir grip on the gun.
The shadow figure reaches towards eir, dark fingers casting a new shadow in the circle of light around Pine. Ey takes a single step back, and curses eirself for it. One must never show fear or hesitation. Ey draws eir gun and levels it at the shadow's head.
The shadow, though it has no face, seems to smile, seems to mock eir. Its long fingers get closer and closer. Its arms are in the light now, and yet, they do not disperse. Its shoulders enter the light, wretched and twisted.
Its horrid, mocking lack of a face enters the light, and Pine realizes that if it won't disperse on its own, ey has to force it to disperse. Ey cocks the gun quickly, aims with a practiced ease, barely needing to think about it.
Ey fires the gun.
The shadow cackles madly, and a sharp pain blooms between Pine's eyes. Ey screams.
All the lights come back on at once. Eir head is coming apart. Ey is splitting in two. Ey is dying. Ey doesn't notice eirself sinking to eir knees until eir knuckles fall weakly against the sidewalk.
"Shut the fuck up!" someone shouts from a window. "Some of us are trying to sleep around here!"
Pine closes eir mouth quickly. Ey drops the gun to clutch at eir skull, trying to stem the bleeding, trying to hold eirself together. A liquid runs down eir wrist, but it's not blood, it's black. It's contaminated.
Ey bites eir lip to keep from screaming again. Black liquid fills eir mouth, bitter and rancid. Ey coughs roughly, doubling over on eirself. Black liquid splatters against the sidewalk. Ey can feel eirself shaking, can feel the sweat starting to soak eir shirt.
Ey removes eir hand from eir head and desperately grabs eir phone. Ey has to tell the boss. There's a threat, ey has to warn him.
"Pine," the boss says coldly. His voice feels like cold water, like relief.
"Boss, the shadows," ey starts, horrified by eir own incoherence.
"Breathe," The boss commands eir. Ey listens, taking a deep breath. Eir two halves start to knit back together. "Pine, the shadows cannot harm you."
They did though, Pine wants to tell him. Ey is bleeding out right now, eir blood contaminated with shade, terminal.
"You have my protection," the boss tells eir. "Look at your hand."
Pine removes eir glove and does as ey is told. The eyes of the Cobra stare back at eir. Eir head is still burning, and yet at once cold. Frost spreads out from the hole between eir eyes.
"They got me, boss," Pine says. "I hesitated, and-"
"You never hesitate," the boss cuts eir off. "You are perfect, and perfectly prepared. You can handle anything, as long as I am with you."
The boss is never wrong.
The black stains fade from the sidewalk. Pine can hear cars rush by in the distance, two families bustling about their houses. The street lamps are all working. The stars above, too, are all in their places.
Pine counts the constellations. Draco, Cepheus, Cassiopeia. The light from the town makes it difficult to place them, but they're all there.
And Pine, too, is all there.
"I'm sorry," Pine says into the phone. "It's nothing."
"I know," the boss replies, and hangs up.
It was nothing.
Pine picks up the gun with shaking hands, and tucks it back into the harness at eir side, but not before checking that the safety is back on. Eir head is still throbbing, iced over, on fire.
But it's nothing. Ey stands up and straightens eir collar, runs one hand over eir hair to make sure it's all still tied up. Ey does up eir buttons. Ey tucks eir phone back into eir pocket, and picks up eir bag, pulls the strap over the same shoulder it always rests on.
Eir head pulses, as if it might explode again at any moment. The shadows reach for eir out of the corners of eir eyes.
But it's nothing.
Ey pats down eir pockets. Keys, wallet, phone, gun, all in place. Ey takes one step forward, and then another. It is five-hundred sixty-three steps until ey is back at eir doorstep. A prime number: bad fortune. Ey puts one hand to eir aching head. Whatever black sludge has replaced eir blood now does not get on eir fingers, this time.
Because it was nothing.