couch potato

“Today was rough, dear,” Anders sighed as he flopped onto the couch, forgoing shedding his coat for the time being. “The police showed up again, this time questioning me if I’d had any disturbances recently since the neighborhood called a vigilance state, and a few of the subjects decided right then and there to completely lose any sense of respect they had and start acting like a den of zoo animals. They’re probably going to show up with a warrant tomorrow to search the place for illegal drugs. But anyways, how have you been?”

“I’m fine, love. Just a bit chilly since I couldn’t figure out how to adjust the thermostat from sleeping conditions.” Miranda tightened the knot holding his blanket around his shoulders, shifting on his stool and reaching for the grocery bag full of potatoes. See, Bes? Anders isn’t all gloom and pain. “I’m making baked and stuffed potatoes for dinner. I hope you didn’t mind me borrowing your tablet for recipes. You forgot it here when you left for work.”

“I don’t mind.” Anders stretched one arm to the coffee table he’d moved there yesterday and grabbed the TV remote, flicking it on and sitting up properly. “Just make sure that you don’t delete anything. I’ve got confidential records on there that I’d prefer not to lose.”

When the TV sound had loaded all the way and started spewing rushed words, Miranda stepped off of the stool with a potato in his hand and a knife in the other and leaned into the living room. His eyes transfixed on the TV, where a balding man was shouting unintelligibly at some younger reporting woman who was apologizing profusely. LOCAL MAN POSSESSED BY DEMONS? filled a good portion of the bottom of the screen.

“I don’t know what came over me,” an average-looking citizen blabbered as the screen focus cut to him standing in front of a desolate tree-filled park. “One moment I was driving merrily on the highway just a few minutes away from home, and the next thing I knew, all my limbs felt like they were being pulled like marionette strings-” he stumbled around awkwardly to demonstrate- “and making me turn off at the nearest exit and drive to some stranger’s house. I kinda blanked out after that, and I woke up at the side of the road in my car with a wicked toothache. None of the doctors that I’ve seen so far can really explain what happened to me, and my priest suggested that it might be the work of a demon wanting my body to commit some dastardly crime. If anybody wants to convict me of something I didn’t do, I’ve got lawyers!” He raised a fish to the air, and the channel shifted back to the balding man and the addled reporter, who were still bickering.

Anders settled off of the couch and was about to slip off his coat gently when the TV cut to a wide shot of his house. His limbs pulled back suddenly in a cringe, and the coat dropped silently to the coffee table. “And this happened two nights ago when I was gone?”

“Yes, dear.” Miranda tore his gaze from the TV and put the potato and knife back in the kitchen before picking up the gray coat. As an Anders overcome with shivers slowly settled back down on the couch, Miranda added, “I knew something was off about him from the moment he stepped in, and he started making all these wild claims about being from hell when I asked him why he’d come around.”

“Did he hurt you in any way? Do I need to file a police report? Was anything stolen?”

“Nothing was taken, love.” Miranda avoided Anders’ wide pleading eyes as he hung up the coat next to the front door and returned to the upstairs kitchen. “He said that I had a limited amount of time to make a decision which basically amounted to being kidnapped by him or being killed by you… I think.” He rubbed his chin for a moment before resuming his seat on the stool and picking up the knife again. “I was too busy trying to remember what the password to the emergency phone was to pay full attention.”

“I would never kill you. What would I possibly gain? And even if I could gain something, I wouldn’t do it. Killing isn’t in my blood or my heart.”

Miranda washed the potato before slitting its side and picking up another one from the grocery bag. “The demon would certainly beg to differ. How much cheese do you want in your potato?”

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some kind of handful

“Love? Have you seen my jacket anywhere?” Miranda could hear Anders’ feet stumbling around the stairway through the multiple pillows he’d thrown over his head a few hours prior to drown out the pounding in his head. “My gray one? I could have sworn that I hung it on the rack last night.”

“It’s not in the bedroom.” Miranda wearily sat up to the sound of Anders moving the couch to check behind it. “And I highly doubt that it made its way down a tiny sliver of a crack. Have you tried the bathroom? You might have left it in there while changing for your shower last night.”

“Please, Miranda, I’m running late!” Anders unlocked the bathroom door, rustled a few things around, and then slammed it.

“And I’ve just been woken up.” He dragged himself out of bed and opened the bedroom door to find Anders tossing the cushions off of the couch, which revealed the jacket after the second one had been flung against the opposite wall.

“Then go back to sleep after I leave.” Anders slipped into the jacket and put the cushions back. Crossing the distance between the two, he came in close and grazed Miranda’s neck, planting a soft kiss on his partner’s neck. “I’m going to set off for a meeting at the city hall. Don’t open the door for anybody unless it’s urgent, don’t unlock any of the windows, and go to bed early tonight.”

“Alright, love…” His tongue quivered on the word love, and Anders turned down the staircase and abandoned the house, locking the door after himself. Miranda sat himself on the couch, adjusting the cushions until the doorbell rang a second time. “Who’s there?”

“I’m from the city hall. Has Anders Shew left for his meeting?”

“Just a few minutes ago.” Miranda rose and approached the front door, sneaking a peek through the tiny window next to it. A medium-sized man stood on the front doorstep, carrying a cracked plastic clipboard and a few pencils. “Why do you ask?”

“Power bills are due in a few days due to the end of the billing cycle approaching, and I’ve come to read the power meter. If you could let me in, please…” He fidgeted, readjusting his blue baseball cap.

Miranda shrugged. “Anders said not to let anybody in. Sorry.”

A pained expression ran through the man’s face, and he snuck a glance at whatever was on the clipboard. “Well, can you please let me in anyways? I’ll have to come back on a later day with more people and possibly the police if I can’t read the meter and Anders subsequently misses any payment to the city.”

Miranda sighed, unlocking the front door. “Fine.”

“That’s fantastic,” the power man intoned, wiping his blue tennis shoes on the outside mat before entering the house and taking them off. “I assume the power meter is downstairs?”

“I wouldn’t know. Anders dealt with all the maintenance stuff while we were moving in, and I haven’t seen that much of the downstairs anyways.”

“Why don’t we go look?” The man gripped Miranda’s forearm and led him down the stairs, taking a right and brushing aside the door to the laundry room to access the meter by the furnace. Kneeling down, he looked at the red number brandished at the top and started scribbling it in onto the second page on the clipboard.

“Is your paper supposed to be completely blank, sir? There isn’t some kind of form for you to be filling out?”

The man ceased writing and stared at his paper for a good minute, filling the room with silence so pervasive that the two could almost hear the cars passing by outside. “There is, but that’s the job for the Mithrals assigned to this case.”

“Case? Why do you need cases in order to read the number on a meter? Surely it can’t be that important? And what are Mithrals?”

The man rose, pulling off his hat and shaking out his hair. He popped out his contacts to reveal deep irises of gold and crimson, eliciting a shudder from Miranda. “You are indeed Miranda Loyalis Shew?”

“I…” He took a few steps backwards, stopped by the wall of the washing machine stack. Desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of composure, he mouthed, “Yes, sir. I am.”

He held the hat over his heart. “Am I correct in making the statement that you prayed to a god a few nights ago pleading for protection for your unborn baby?”

“I prayed to as many gods as I could think of,” he breathed, opening the laundry room door and sliding along the wall to the opening. “You’re not an employee of the city, are you?” Dropping to his knees, he pleaded, “please don’t kill me. I don’t have anything of value.”

“Calm down. I’m not going to help you. I came to bring some hope, if you were willing to accept it.” He touched his hat to Miranda’s head, and he stood back up. “You can call me Bes. I can’t stay for long as Anders is going to return soon and realize that there was no meeting planned for tonight. The next time that we meet, I’m going to take a smoky form like-” he pointed towards the ceiling behind Miranda, who promptly turned around to see a few wisps of smoke racing below the popcorned paint- “my friends Calum and Hayle. We’re working on finding a safe place for you to escape to.”

He remained turned away from the power man, enamored with the floating shapes flitting among his furniture. “But why would I want to escape here? I love Anders. He gave me life and he takes care of me. I can take a few punches in repayment for being significantly better off than the majority of the world.”

“But what about your baby, Miranda? Do they deserve to be at Anders’ mercy?”

“Why are you making my fiancée out to be a psychopath? He just has bad days sometimes.” Miranda took a seat on his armchair that he’d moved from the suite, observing as one of the wisps twirled around the fingers on his right hand. “He never means it.”

“The bruises on your face beg otherwise, Miranda.”

He pressed his free hand to the bruise, feeling the tender skin under his fingertips. “What do you want, Bes? Why should I let you go and escape before Anders gets back to deal with you?”

“I want a promise from you that you’ll work with the Mithrals who come here over the next two weeks to safely escape from this household. Your baby is in danger if the abuse continues, you know. It’s unfortunate that it’s not common sense here.”

“And why should I trust you at all? You persuaded your way into my house and started spewing all this vitriol against my fiancée.”

“Shouldn’t the fact that I know that you privately prayed be enough to prove that I’m legit?” He flashed Miranda a wide smile just as he turned around to face him, showing off the fangs that had elongated over the course of the conversation. “I’m from Gehenna, dear. Otherwise known as hell. Surely you’ve heard of us?”

“Get out of here, Bes.” Miranda flung one finger towards the stairway to the door. “Leave before I call the police.”

“The police won’t do anything, Miranda. They’re corrupt too, and we know a way out… but I’ll respect your choices and give you some time to think about it.” He skipped up the stairway and left the house along with the wisps, who followed Miranda as he got up to watch the man leave and flew under the door to the outside world.

They’re corrupt too… Miranda locked the front door and retreated to his mattress upstairs, where he promptly turned off all the house lights and buried himself among all the pillows and blankets. As Anders threw the door open and swore loudly about a lack of meetings, Miranda conceded, I just want what is best for my child. But how can leaving the one person who could possibly care for me be that?

the briefing never ends

“I said come back in the morning,” Akov huffed, pacing back and forth behind his desk. The otherlings had lazily strewn themselves over a pile of beanbags, and Calum’s face was visible peeking out from underneath a green one covering up his body. “Not this late in the afternoon. You’re going to miss dinner and then blame it on me.”

“We had school, Akov,” Hayle retorted, pulling up her backpack and rustling through the papers inside. “You seem to forget that we’re just normal students who have a lot of lessons to catch up on.”

Normal? My dearie, you are far from normal.” Akov retreated to the far end of the room, pulling out an old and dusty book and laying it on his desk. He flipped through the pages, resting on one that had faded considerably and was now just a bunch of illegible scrawls. “You’ve experienced life up close among life forms that we haven’t gotten the chance to study in great detail yet since their planet is so young! The most experienced of us here haven’t gotten to nearly the level of the mundane that you all have! Most Mithrae your age would kill for that chance. Some have in the past, in fact.”

“And how exactly does that make us qualified in any way to mess around in somebody’s private affairs?” Hayle leaned back onto her previous place leaning on top of Calum’s beanbag.

Akov slammed the book shut, glowering at the insolent girl who’d pulled out her coat and a few notebooks. “Haven’t you paid any attention whatsoever in your Earthen studies class? No species is supposed to ever achieve immortality. Mithraes and Mithrals are supposed to be the watchmen to make sure that never happens.”

“So?” She pulled out her phone from the bottom of the backpack and immediately started texting. “What harm could possibly come to us, anyways? Humans can’t become Mithrae, even if they prostrate themselves to our president and beg and promise that they’ll do all their bidding. And anyways, when they’re at that point, they’re just hungry for power and have no morals anyway.”

That elicited a sigh from Akov, who sat down on the floor next to the pile of beanbags and opened the book in his lap. “Nobody would be able to work at the soul recycling centers because all of the souls imported from other realms would first pile up with nowhere to go and then all be sucked out at the same time once some other realm called for a shipment from us. The whole balance of the universe would be thrown out of whack, Hayle, and you don’t want that because it would put everybody you know out of a job.”

“So, okay, take out Wickedness or whatever his name is and destroy all his research. Problem solved.”

“But if we did that, Hayle, then who would rise up and fill the void Anders left behind? And since the research for immortality is twisted up in lots of other projects, should we destroy all of Soona Bris’ progress in the sciences while we’re at it?” She didn’t answer, far too occupied with her phone, and Akov turned his stare to the rest of the group. “I want you to return here again tomorrow, this time in the morning like I insisted yesterday. I’m going to need somebody to make Anders go away to official business, a girl to be a public disturbance, and the person who reviles possessing people the least to be the employee from the electricity company who wants to check the power meters.”

“What exactly are you planning?” one of the otherlings from the opposite end of the room questioned, raising his hand to retract the blinds from the window above where he was laying down. “Is the energy meter supposed to reveal the secrets of the universe or something?”

“We’ve got to get Miranda’s trust before any of the Mithrals assigned to this case can help.” Akov slid the book onto his desk, slowly standing up.

“That’s a really flimsy plan. My baby sister could come up with something better than that.”

“It’s the best I could make up in the few seconds I had to think. If you bother to show up in the morning tomorrow, I’ll go over everything in far more details before we set out.”

“Why can’t we just go now?” Hayle tossed her phone back into her backpack, slinging it over her back and standing up, approaching the door. “Come on. Let’s go mess up some poor sap’s marriage. I’ll be the person who watches for signs of Anders returning.”

“We can’t because you showed up too late to do anything, smart one.” Calum came out from under the beanbags, grabbing the edge of her jacket and pulling her down to the floor with him. Ignoring her indignation, he added, “We waited two hours for you. Don’t mess it up tomorrow.”

briefing

“Maybe this is the building?” Calum grasped the faded scrap of paper tighter in his fingers, taking care not to smudge the black pen that the address to the meeting place was written on. Looking up to the sky with the sun beginning its downward descent, the building towering in front of him read DEPARTMENT OF EARTHEN AFFAIRS in white bold font against the tinted windows. “You know, because he couldn’t ever bother to give me any actual instructions.”

“Are you trying to look crazy?” A cynical Chinese-appearing Mithrae brushed past his shoulder and stood at his side on the sidewalk, clothed in a purple jacket and tattered jeans. “I mean, you’re talking to only yourself here, unless you’ve got some sort of an invisible friend.”

Calum averted his gaze from the building’s garden-covered roof, handing the paper to the girl who’d interrupted him. “Hey, I’ve seen you in school before. You’re in my Earthen studies class. Am I in the right place?”

“10821 Sanktajn Way? Yes, this would be it.” She returned the crumpled scrap back to him and continued approaching the doors, soon followed by Calum. “Why do you ask?”

He pushed past the revolving doors, allowing her to get in before cutting off the next person behind them. “Some official-looking guy woke me up in the middle of the night a few days ago and vaguely baited me into working for him. Something about a prophecy. You?”

“Same deal.” She shrugged her shoulders, immediately turning right and pressing the elevator button. “You’re probably Camael-athaelus, aren’t you? My name’s Hayle. I got taken by Allaketo at around the same time. Not in the same batch of otherlings, though…” Her voice drifted off as the elevator doors opened and she entered, pulling Calum in after her. “All the other Mithrae were in my group, though. There were a few Mithral, too. They’re doing something else for the old man, though. Did you leave anybody behind?”

“Another otherling.” Calum scratched his neck, trying to hide his nervousness. “A really pretty galaxy named Ophelia. I was never attracted to women, though, so we just stayed friends until the end. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her, though. I hope she’s doing okay.”

“Me too. I left behind my vessel’s cousin. Her name was… something like a May? I’m not sure. I escaped and found the family that my vessel hailed from. That old man exorcised me in the middle of the night while I was sleeping, so I just woke up in the middle of the forest by the traditional summoning gate without a warning.”

The figure who had accosted Calum a few days prior was waiting at the entrance when the elevator door finally opened, this time clothed in a white uniform with the nametag Akov resting smugly on his chest. “There you two are. I was just beginning to wonder where you were. Have you seen any of the others?”

“How would Calum know any of the others?” She rounded the corner, Calum and Akov accompanying her close behind. “Camael’s only ever seen me, and we met just a few minutes ago. The others weren’t in the same wave of otherlings. Didn’t you do any research into our circumstances?” She promptly threw herself onto a bean bag, disregarding the two others who took proper seats on the floor. “They’d recognize him, though. He’s pretty notorious for stealing a skyskipper and setting part of the palace on fire. Not that you’d know anything about that.”

Calum rolled his eyes as a few more Mithrae slinked into the room, silent with pale and guilty faces as they took their places on the floor. “Can you please give us the shortest lecture as possible? Because I could be spending this time with my family right now, and I’d really like to catch up with my sisters.”

“Patience, Calum.” Akov stretched his hand out, smothering Calum’s face for a few awkward seconds before he retracted it. “Now we may begin. Children-”

“I’m an adult,” one of the latecomers blurted, raising his hand. “Not a child.”

Anyways, We’re all gathered here because all of us, with the exception of me, have been used by Allaketo against our wills to wreak havoc on Zorphia. Not much due to his failure to actually mobilize a campaign, but it’s something. I do not hold any of that against you unless you genuinely wanted to help that bastard because you agreed with what he believed in. In that case, you might as well exit this building now and go possess some poor sap of a human now, because I won’t have this mission bogged down by any betrayals.” He pointed a bony finger at the door, setting it down when nobody took him up on the offer and just stared at the finger. “Very well, then. We are gathered here today because Allaketo, during the war, secretly adopted the current head of administration of the Labs of Soona Bris under the pretense that he would exchange any future birthrights his biological children might have held in order to buy immortality. Granted, Allaketo is now too dead for anybody to resurrect him, and his soul is currently going through the deepest class of the purgatory cleansings, but his son Anders still lives and is- yes, Calum?”

Calum set his waving arm down. “Can you cut to the chase?”

Akov waved him off. “I can’t skip vital information. Sorry. But anyways, Anders is alive, albeit not heir and king of Zorphia because Queen Emma regained her throne. Thanks to an early warning from the Mithral, we’ve identified him as the Wickedness that the Skribrulajxo in the Capital’s archives mentions. Being that Soona Brisian records identify him as engaged and the Skribrulajxo calls for Wickedness to be married to Innocence, we have to act quickly.”

Calum raised his hand again, not waving it this time to Hayle’s relief. “Forgive me for seeming a bit off, but how do you know for sure that Anders is this… Wickedness? How do you know for sure that any of this is legitimate? You could be setting demonic forces on an innocent person, and that’s a pretty severe crime.”

“Because I’m an adult and I know what I’m doing, Calum. Do you want to return to having a human vessel and being stuck on Zorphia for the rest of your life? Because I can arrange that.” Akov took a deep breath, resettling himself in his seat. “Also, the Mithral are more adept at telling lies from reality than us, and their warnings have never failed anybody.”

“What about the time that the dam broke? No Mithral warned us of the houses that were about to be destroyed.”

“That was false information from a rogue Mithral exploiting our trust. That doesn’t count.”

He slouched over. “That’s not a valid excuse for interfering in somebody’s marriage, though, and that spiel wasn’t much of an explanation.”

“Shut up, Calum, and stay that way until we meet here early tomorrow morning. You’re all dismissed.” Akov passed a hand over the group, and all but Calum and Hayle left his presence. Turning to address them, he spoke, “As to your doubt, Calum, Miranda prayed to a proxy for the Mithral king yesterday asking for protection for her unborn child. The Skribrulajxo mentions that there will be a child mercilessly sacrificed. Do you want that?”

“No, sir… why didn’t you tell the rest of them any of this?”

“Because I can easily convince them to do what I want, Calum. You, however, seem to be a little more… obstinate. Go home and rest on it and come back in the morning. You too, Hayle.”

homecoming

“It would have been nice if you’d given me your name before you left, mysterious Mithrae,” Calum muttered into the demon portal assembled out of sticks laid before him. Ophelia had left the apartment hours ago for the work day, leaving Calum to wake up and drag himself out of his hammock alone, but not before finding the twigs left on top of his canopy by some bird who’d given up trying to nest on such an unstable surface. A dash of sugar mixed with salt had been sprinkled on a scrap of paper and placed in the middle as a precaution against any Mithrae gone rogue and seeking premature souls to collect. Any attempted possessions would just send the spirits back to their origin as the granules were too potent for any of them to be in the presence of. “You could have left me a sigil to read from, at least. I can’t exactly summon the correct being if I don’t know their name.”

“You won’t have to.” The same figure as a few nights before materialized behind Calum, eliciting far less of a shock as he had last time. He stood a good foot taller than he had at his last appearance, however, and still towered over Calum when the latter rose from the floor in deference. Casting his gaze to the rudimentary demon portal, he sneered, “Honestly, Camael-athaelus, what is this crap you’ve laid before me? None of this is in any proportion, and none of the protective runes are present! Are you trying to invite a malevolent spirit into your home?”

“No- wait, what did you call me?” Calum took a few steps back, stepping into the middle of the inactive demon portal and clenching his fists.

“I called you Camael-athaelus. You know, your actual name. Kiel stulta vi estas?” How stupid are you? The figure waved his hand over the demon portal, conjuring a purple glow to cover the place where Calum was fidgeting. “You haven’t been away from us long enough to forget your real name, Calum. I’d do my best to remember it. Nobody’s going to want to call you by your human name.”

“Are… are we going home now?” Calum queried with trembling feet.

“Please get out of the gate, Calum. I’ve got to ask an associate over the caverns if they have the specific bottle I need.” Calum hesitantly nodded, stepping out of the purple glow’s reach as the figure pulled a pouch from his belt and tossed a pinch of scarlet power in. As the portal shimmered to a golden shade, the figure shouted, “Agave-lupas! How far along is MB-298?”

A beam of light shot out of the middle of the portal. “Very far along, unfortunately and inextricable from Group 78. They’ll be fully mixed in and ready to go back to Earth by the end of the month. Why do you ask?”

“I need a soul to fill the vessel of Camael-athaelus. I’m reclaiming him.”

“That’ll be a good present for his family. The whole lot’s been depressed since he was claimed by that dupe Allaketo. I’ve got a few hundred souls that came to us via accidents and could use a few more decades. Is that good enough for your uses?”

“Yes. Please send the capsule up after a few minutes.” He turned away from the golden stream, stepping over to Calum. “Can you lay down on the floor and place your hands on your chest, please?”

He obeyed in silence directly next to the portal, staring straight up at the ceiling and avoiding the gaze of the figure. “What about Ophelia? What’s she going to say when she comes back from work and there’s some clueless person in my body? Can’t she come with us since she’s an otherling too?”

A sigh escaped from the figure, who fumbled around with a few more poiches until he found a pink one. “Since she’s neither Mithrae or Mithral, she unfortunately cannot come back with us, Calum. If it’s going to be a barrier for getting you to cooperate with us, we can figure out a way for her to return to her proper place in the cosmos, but that’s the best we can do.”

“That sucks.”

The figure closed Calum’s eyelids and sprinkled a few dashes of golden powder on his eyelids and lips, refusing to comment further. He shouted back to the portal, “Do you have the jar yet?”

“I do, in fact…let me send it up now.”

A small capsule swirling with pearly liquid popped out of the portal, and the figure caught it in his hands. Uncapping it over Calum’s body and balancing it in his bellybutton, he intoned the words, “Estas tempo por vi kuri libera.”

Calum’s body sagged violently, and a smoke rose where the bottle was draining itself out through the glassy bottom. Waving his ashy limbs about, unsure how to react to the sensation of being weightless, he murmured, “I…”

“Now if you could please go through the portal with me, Calum, we will be returning to Gehenna shortly.” The figure gestured to the slowly closing purple pool, which Calum lazily drifted into, disappearing into the other side before the figure stepped in and closed it behind him. The interstitial period between the two worlds was still the same dark and unstimulating void that Calum was all too familiar with, and when a hole formed to allow the two to step into Gehenna, they did so.

From where Calum could stand once he’d switched back to a humanoid form, only slightly different than the body he’d left behind on Earth, the sky had shifted into a reddish hue. Small little oak trees dolloped the landscape between earthy hills, and a breeze brushed past Calum’s cheek, warm and inviting the stray Mithrae home.

welcome to the broken home

“Miranda? Where are you?” Anders’ feet could be heard pattering up the stairway, most likely bringing in the very lightest of the moving boxes first. “You promised that you would help me unpack, and now you’re just lounging about.”

“How many boxes did you bring this trip, anyways?” He slowly got up off of the neatly-made mattress and stepped into the living room, where he’d been contemplating the calmness that settled in his bones whenever he stepped foot in the house a few hours prior. Seven opaque and blue shoebox-sized containers glared back at him with their packing tape still fresh and shiny. “Where is all of this stuff coming from?”

“I, well…” Anders scratched his head as he set down two more boxes of the same size. “Old baby clothes, mostly. The bigger boxes have furniture.”

“Why would we need baby clothes already, Anders? We aren’t married yet, at least last time I checked.” The two of them exited the house and unlocked the trunk of the van they’d rented, pulling out one microwave-sized box each and transferring it to their overflowing pile of boxes. “And even then, it would be quite a while before we’d actually need the clothes.”

“Thank you, master of the obvious.” Anders grabbed Miranda’s forearm, and he turned around in front of the stairway, ready to go get another box. He pulled out a few long packages from his pocket and handed them to Miranda, instructing, “I want you to go pee on one of these and bring it back to me. Put the rest in the top empty drawer.”

“You got me pregnancy tests?” Miranda stepped away from the staircase, closer to Anders in the living room. “But I-”

“Just do it, please.” He released Miranda, who dashed off to the bathroom and locked the door for a few minutes. Collapsing into a corner of the living room to the sounds of normal bathroom function, he loosened his muscles and relaxed into the carpet.

“Anders, you bloody bastard of a liar!” Miranda shrilled into the air, flying out of the door and shoving Anders up against the wall. With a hand on his neck, he snarled into his captive’s ear, “You promised that we were protected.”

“It was an accident!” he retorted, although his removal of Miranda’s hand and subsequently overpowering him to reverse the roles didn’t help his position. His face darkened as he lowered his voice and explained, “Look, I thought that this would have gone far better, but you will not leave and abort that child. Your menstruation process is different than normal women, and the usual procedures would kill you.”

“I’M NOT A PRIZE BREEDING DOG-”

Anders struck Miranda on the cheek, letting go of his throat and sending the wild woman to the floor. He lay motionless save the up-and-down of his breathing as Anders spat, “I never said you were, now, did I? You have nowhere to run to, Miranda, and you can’t go anywhere without the documents that verify your existence.” His face lightened as he helped Miranda up, remaining limp as Anders picked his unconscious partner up and deposited him gently on the bedroom mattress. “Please forgive me for this tiny error, love. It’ll be for the best. A home can’t be made if everybody’s dead.”