The Red Man
Felix tugged at the gray bowtie again, wondering if he should bother trying to retie it when the first try had taken so long. He pushed his dark hair away from his glassy eyes and coughed quietly into a matching gray handkerchief. He turned his head when he heard the door squeak open, but his eyes were still on his reflection. “How do I look?”
John sighed behind him, his expression dour in the mirror. “You look like Oscar Wilde on a bender,” he said with another overdone sigh, tugging Felix’s arm until he turned away from the mirror.
“You don’t like the satin accent on the lapels?” Felix asked innocently, looking down at the top of John’s head as he bent to tug the embroidered gray vest down over Felix’s belt.
John didn’t look up immediately, his scalp shining through the hair at the back of his head he wouldn’t admit was thinning. “I don’t like you going,” he admitted quietly.
Felix settled his hands on John’s shoulders. He opened his mouth to speak but had to turn his head to cough. He coughed so hard his eyes watered, each bark rasping against his already sore throat. He distantly felt John’s arms, one around his waist and the other thumping into his back. When he could breathe again he took the handkerchief John handed him and dabbed at his wet eyes. “It’s fine,” he said reassuringly.
John frowned and kept his hands on Felix’s waist under the tuxedo jacket. “I don’t want you going down there like this.”
Felix sniffed and tucked the handkerchief into his pocket, knowing he’d need the extra. His hands went to John’s shoulders again, this time to steady himself, the congestion was coming back and he felt a dizzy distance between himself and what he was seeing. “I always go like this,” he said calmly, knowing if the trip had been for work they wouldn’t be having this conversation.
John’s thick eyebrows drew together to form a solid gray line over his dark eyes. “Not this bad. How many times did you have to sit down when you were getting dressed?”
Felix cleared his throat to hold off another rattling cough. “Just to put my shoes on,” he lied. He’d only stood to pull on his trousers and to straighten his coat.
“You should at least let me come,” John said firmly.
Felix scratched lightly through the hair at the back of John’s neck but the shorter man’s expression remained grim. Felix sighed and grimaced at the thick mucus that ran down the back of his throat. “You’d never get in. I promise I won’t stay all night, alright? I’ll be back before the sun’s even down.”
John’s hands tightened against his vest. “Tell her you can’t come.”
He looked so young and earnest, peering up at Felix through his thick lashes. Felix lowered his head until their foreheads touched. “I promised. You wouldn’t want me to go back on a promise.”
John was quiet for a long moment then he sighed again. “You need to make less dangerous promises,” he said, moving one hand up to touch the holster tucked against Felix’s side for emphasis.
Felix nodded obligingly. “I’ll do my best.”
John shook his head ruefully and pulled him closer.
Felix turned his head before their lips could touch. “I’ll make you sick,” he objected, sniffing pointedly.
John caught the back of his neck in his large palm and brought them together, kissing him firmly. “If I didn’t get it with you coughing all night I think I’m safe,” he said when they parted.
“You need to keep up with the vaccinations if you’re going to do that,” Felix said, feeling more pleasantly dazed and standing still while John straightened his bowtie and smoothed his lapels.
John looked up at him and turned back the sleeve of his sweater. “I take care of myself,” he said meaningfully, showing Felix the blue triangle on his wrist that matched the symbol the last batch of anti-virals had been stamped with.
“Good,” Felix said lightly, ignoring the jab. “I’ll see you in time for dinner.”
John followed him to the door, Felix using his fingertips against the wall to keep himself from listing. At the door he bent and kissed John’s cheek. The gesture earned him one last exasperated look before the door closed behind him.
In the hall Felix used his whole hand to keep himself on course to the elevator. His ears squeaked painfully from the pressure change going down and he refused to meet his red faced reflection in the mirrored walls.
He fumbled for his sunglasses in the lobby, the light stabbing his sensitive eyes and his hands feeling fat and clumsy. Out on the sidewalk it was cool and he shivered in his thin coat, using the lines in the concrete to keep a straight path to the subway.
Felix made his careful way down the tiled steps, the colors at the edge of his vision already fading in and out. He stumbled gratefully onto the train just pulling into the station and took a white knuckled grip on one of the overhead bars, not daring the seats and getting whatever might be on them on his suit.
The ride seemed to take hours. Ever sniffle and muffled cough felt insanely loud. The thin crowd edged away from him in little spurts. A cough sent a mother and her stroller bound passenger to the other end of the car. A deep sniff prompted an old woman to struggle up with her cane and leave the car entirely. By the time the train had crossed the river into the Manhattan Dome the only ones in the car had the same bright eyes and painfully pink cheeks as Felix. If they caught his eye they nodded shortly and looked away again.
Felix was grateful to see his stop. No matter how many times he took the sick trains they always depressed him. Coming out of the station he took an even longer time with the stairs, his heart fluttering in his chest after just a few steps. He made it into the weak light of the square and tucked his sunglasses back in his pocket. It was almost deserted. He vaguely remembered when Saturday meant the green market and tourists and vendors selling everything from kitsch to art. These days he was lucky to see another agent. Looking hard he could just make out another figure on the far end of the square moving slowly away.
Shaking his head, and regretting it as his eyes pulsed painfully in his skull, he made his careful way to the north end of the square. On Broadway there were a few people out, all clutching blue handkerchiefs in varying stages of brightness. He saw a thickset older man approaching him with a hard look in his bleary eyes. Felix blinked and looked down, only then remembering his own handkerchief. It was vivid cobalt and the only color against his black and gray suit. He took it out of his pocket and wrapped it firmly around his wrist. When he looked up the man gave him a nod and made a brief gesture with his own handkerchief as he passed.
Felix breathed a sigh that turned into a deep cough after the man was well behind him. John might have been right to worry if he was forgetting the little things. On the street the right handkerchief was more important than a gun. He checked his beast pocket and was relieved to find his ID and his level six pass tucked safely in it. He shifted his shoulders and felt the reassuring weight of the berretta under his arm. Blinking hard against the building dizziness he counted storefronts until he came to number nineteen.
Through hazy eyes he saw that it looked like a tailor’s shop this time. The blue lettering on the sign was the only color he could see, everything else had washed out to gray.
He slipped one hand under his jacket to lightly grip the berretta, and touched the buzzer with the other. It made a faint grating noise followed by a brief moment of total silence. The loud buzz of the door unlocking made Felix jump. He opened the door and drew his gun in the same motion. The hallway was dark and narrow. He checked the corners, his gun held steadily in front of him. Just to the right of the door was a wide staircase with a peeling banister that shimmered starkly blue in all the gray. Felix took each step deliberately, making sure he had his balance with his shoulder to the wall before he took the next one. He spun into the first landing, checking the stairs behind him and the stairs ahead through streaming eyes. He needed to cough but he needed to be quiet more. He felt himself sweating with the effort to hold it back as he mounted the second flight of steps. It was even darker and it made him edgy though he knew the lack of light was to his advantage.
His luck held until he’d made it halfway up the fourth flight. He saw a flash out of the corner of his eye and pressed his back firmly against the wall, swinging the gun around and firing. A vivid pink body that had been clinging to the underside of the upper steps fell like a stone. Felix didn’t dare watch it tumble down, dissipating like smoke as it neared the floor, he had to watch for its two sisters. Five more steps and they came, one dropping from the ceiling, long thin limbs outstretched, showing brightly in the darkness, the other scrambling up the stairs behind him, its claws against the tile echoing harshly in the narrow space.
The one in front flew backward from the force of the bullet, its round blank eyes staring as it blew apart. Felix shot behind him without turning and ran up the last ten steps, anxious to make the door before the noise drew another three.
He raised his hand to knock on the blue wood but the door was already opening and he stumbled in. He bent double, hands on his knees as he coughed furiously under the watchful eye of the bouncer.
She was tall and stared impassively at him, eyes bright, cheeks red, the end of her nose hanging with strips of skin from constant wiping. She stood firmly between him and the blue curtain while he caught his breath. He passed her the gun first. She took it without comment, shifting it to her left hand and holding out the right. “Level Pass?”
He pulled it from his pocket and handed it to her, wiping his eyes on the blue handkerchief.
She glanced between Felix and the pass so many times he felt dizzy. Eventually she nodded. “Go right ahead, sir,” she said respectfully.
He took his pass and tucked it carefully into his pocket, accepting the claim slip she handed him for the gun.
He pushed the curtain aside and felt blind from the sudden light. Before his eyes had adjusted he was crushed into a grip that set him coughing again.
“Shit Felix, you’re late!”
He wiped his eyes and squinted into the glowing face in front of him. Marisol was smiling so widely that the flaring whiteness of her teeth made his eyes burn. “You didn’t start without me, did you?”
She smirked and consciously dimmed herself. “That would be a challenge. Let’s get you something to drink,” she said, taking his arm and leading him through the vivid banquet hall. It was swarming with shimmering figures in all colors. The walls were as bright as the crowd, hung with shining silver drapes and pearly white flowers. He dared a glance up and saw that the ceiling was an elaborate glass construction held up with curling organic lines of steel. He had to look away from its brightness almost immediately but the negative image of it and the cobalt sky beyond was etched into his vision.
He heard a door close and tea with a healthy shot of brandy was pressed into his hands. “Drink up, you look like crap,” Marisol said cheerfully, lowering him into a comfortable chair.
He took a sip and gave her a dirty look. “I wouldn’t have to look like crap if you didn’t insist on doing this here,” he grumbled.
She arched a fair eyebrow at him. “John gave you a hard time, didn’t he?”
He shrugged, his dizziness escalating so that he was sure his grip on the chair was the only thing keeping him from spinning along with the room. He drank more tea knowing he only had to hold on a few more minutes. “Can you blame him? I was lucky I only ran into one set of sisters getting here.”
“As if that’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done,” she said impatiently.
Felix closed his eyes against the light she radiated and felt his symptoms abruptly fading. He shook his head experimentally, willing to enjoy the reprieve that would only last until he was on the street again. “I don’t come here much anymore,” he said reasonably.
She sighed through her nose. “I know, you always make me come to see you.”
Felix downed the last of his tea and stood on steady legs, eyes clear. “Damn right. I’d go blind if we had dinner parties here.”
“And you’d never bring John,” she said pointedly, her expression close to a pout.
He bit back his first sharp response. Despite all the years they’d worked together she didn’t really understand what it took for a human to get to this dimension. “So, are you ready?” he asked.
She glanced around the small blue chamber she’d tucked them into, eyes darting over the two chairs, the table, and the tea service. She shook her head. “Maybe we can hide in here?” she asked in a small voice.
Felix took her hand and wrapped her in a very light hug. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, careful not to touch her artfully arranged hair.
She tucked her head under his chin and nodded. “That’s what I told you. Was I right?”
“Better than fine,” he agreed. Over her shoulder he saw the door open and an anxious glowing head ducked in. He still had to squint a little to recognize the face. He shook his head, holding up one finger.
Marisol’s sister nodded back and shut the door again.
“Is it time?” Marisol asked against his neck.
“Time to give you away,” he said, pushing her lightly back until they faced each other. Marisol’s eyes were wide, solid blue, and anxious. He knew she could hear the music starting beyond the door. “How do I look?” he asked in his most serious tone.
Marisol’s eyes widened and then she laughed, straightening his now glowing lapels. “Good enough to get you in trouble when you get home.”
He let out a sigh of relief and wiped his forehead dramatically with the handkerchief on his wrist. “Thank god. You know everyone’s going to be watching me.”
She laughed again and shook her head. “At my wedding they better not be.”
“I can’t help being stunning. Besides, it takes some of the pressure off you,” he said cheerfully, offering his arm and leading her out into the rising music.