addi & the incubus

I feel like I preface all of these with so this one time I was thinking out loud on Twitter, but at the risk of repeating myself: so this one time I was thinking out loud on Twitter. I wanted to write something about a sex-averse asexual incubus or succubus who still has a job to do and a boss to report to, so they just show up and wake humans up to play board games.

As usual I thought I was just spitballing dumb ideas, and as usual the dumb idea stuck. I wrote this more or less in one sitting, at the total exclusion of what I was supposed to be working on. It’s too weird a length to send to many places, and given that it’s the most overtly ace thing I’ve probably ever written, and I’m constantly harping on how both ace stories and platonic love stories should be way more prevalent than they are, I thought I’d just…put this one out there, so it’s accessible to anyone who’s looking for such stories.

If you like it, please consider checking out my books, preordering my next one, joining my patreon, tossing a buck or two in my ko-fi, or simply spreading the word. I’d love to be able to keep simply putting my stories out there for pay-what-you-want, so if this works out, expect to see more of them in the future. 🙂

Hope you enjoy.

******

addi & the incubus

The first time Addi saw the incubus, she was seventeen years old, five weeks away from graduating high school, had just slogged through two consecutive recurring anxiety nightmares in which she realized she hadn’t attended one of her classes all year (AP English in one; gym in the other) and thus would have to redo twelfth grade, and woke in a sweat one hour before her alarm, which is to say three hours after putting her textbook down and going to sleep.

The sheer exhaustion of that second nightmare (trying to play five different sports simultaneously in order to make those gym credits: kicking a soccer ball while hitting a tennis ball while doing a backflip, and succeeding at each of these individually and all of them together about as well as could be expected) is part of what woke her. The other part was that someone was sitting on her bed. Watching her.

For one groggy moment she thought it was her mom, coming in with whatever kind of awful news would prompt her to wake Addi at four in the morning on a school day when she knew how late Addi had been staying up cramming for finals. For another groggy moment she thought it was her brother, here on the siblingly errand of pranking the shit out of her by planting his face straight in her line of sight when she splashed up out of the nightmare into the streetlit semidark of her room.

But no. Whoever this was—was someone new.

Later, aided by daylight and rationality, she’d wonder how she was able to see them so clearly, and it wouldn’t be until her eighth period study hall that she’d realize it was because they’d been casting their own light, or releasing some light they’d absorbed somewhere, like the glow-in-the-dark stars that still covered Addi’s ceiling, accurately depicting the autumn constellations in the part of the world where Addi lived.

In that light, whoever this was was the most beautiful person Addi had ever seen.

She spent about point-oh-two seconds trying to place whether they were male or female before concluding that they were a little bit of both and a whole lot of neither. She spent maybe half that long wondering whether they were human, but even without speaking, without moving, without blinking, it was obvious that they very much were not. They looked—okay, this part took her longer to process. Kind of like a slightly overdressed sexy librarian? More like if some kind of alien or angel or monster somehow glamoured themself to look like a sexy librarian. Effectively.

But all of this analysis came later. For now, Addi opened her eyes and there were eyes staring back into hers. Even behind the goldtone wire-rim glasses, it was obvious they had no pupils. Or else the irises were so dark that in the eerie half- or maybe quarter-light the pupils were swallowed.

“What,” Addi enunciated blearily, “the fuck.”

“Oh good,” they replied. “You’re awake.”

And that—the voice—was the thorn that would snag most at Addi’s mind throughout the days to come. Not only was it utterly unfazed, utterly level—even when Addi sat up and grabbed her bedside lamp, the nearest heavyish blunt object to hand—but the tone and timbre of it were unlike anything that had ever hit Addi’s ear before in seventeen years of life. She would spend most of math class clandestinely rolling descriptors of that voice over in her head, jotting them in the back of her notebook, and immediately crossing each one out, vaguely embarrassed, for florid (albeit, weirdly, mildly synesthesiac) inadequacy.

Like a lava flow descending on a sleeping town.

Like a razorblade dipped into honey.

Like the smell of an overripe hyacinth, half perfume, half rot.

Like nearly drowning. But not quite.

For now:

“Put that down, please,” they said, for by this point Addi had armed herself with the lamp.

“I’ll put it down,” Addi said, more alert now and appreciably angrier, “when you get the entire fuck out of my room.”

For some reason, for all the overt home intrusion, she didn’t exactly feel threatened. The next day she would conclude that this was due to a residual belief that she was, in fact, still dreaming. If she had known she was awake, there would almost definitely have been rather less lamp-wielding bravado and rather more kicking and flailing and shouting for help.

“All right.” The voice was all shrug now, and the shrug was all silk, if the silk had been sewn into a bag and the bag filled with rusty knives. “If that’s what you want.”

Addi opened her mouth to say of course that’s what I want—and closed it. She reflected on what had just been said to her, and specifically on how what had just been said to her was an obvious trap. Obvious on the level of Tom Sawyer conning the neighborhood kids to paint that fence for him, in that one scene that was all Addi remembered from having to read that book in ninth grade. Obvious on the level of a creep trying to lure a kid into a car with candy. Obvious on the level of—

All at once, Addi realized she didn’t care. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t even angry anymore. She was something far more dangerous than either of those.

She was curious.

 “Okay,” she said. “I’ll bite. Who are you? And what are you doing on my bed?”

The lenses of the goldtone wire-rim glasses gave a single shimmer, left to right, even though the—creature? entity? thing?—wearing them did not move and the light did not change. “What would you like me to be doing on your bed?”

“Excuse me?”

They shifted the tiniest bit closer. Their breath smelled like a campfire. Like cool running water in the deep forest. Like pavement baking in new sun after a summer storm. “I think you heard me.”

Addi spent a few seconds digesting this. Then she gave up. “What.

The entity on her bed didn’t quite pinch the bridge of their nose, but they looked like they wanted to. For the first time Addi noticed what they were wearing: white shirt, black vest, dark tie. But the white was the searing white of lightning, and the black was so black it made Addi dizzy to look at directly. The tie, when her eyes adjusted, was the meaty color of a bitten cherry.

Addi swallowed. The entity on her bed watched her do so. The lenses shimmered again.

“Look,” they said. “I’m on the clock here. I’ve got—” a pocketwatch was produced from a pocket of that vest, all verdigrised copper, like something dredged up from a seabed by archaeologists and put on National Geographic—“just under fifty-six more minutes to report here. If you want me to leave, would you mind if I just sat outside until my shift changes? That tree looks reasonable.”

Not breaking Addi’s gaze, they lifted their chin in the direction of the window. When Addi turned to look at the half-dead old maple she goddamn already knew was there, she—couldn’t. There was a hand cupping her jaw. The fingers of it felt too long, reached the whole way up to her temple, traced the top edge of her undercut. They burned cold where they touched.

“Alternately,” they said, voice ranging down now through smoke and smoldering and embers hidden under ash, until it was less a sound and more a sensation in Addi’s molars and guts and the softs of her wrists, “I could find other ways to occupy your time.”

It came to Addi that she was definitely dreaming. Strange genderless inhuman sexy librarians in ties did not simply appear in one’s room and attempt to seduce one. She was overtired, she was overworked, she’d been studying too long, she—

—she—

They were watching her now over the tops of the glasses. The intensity of that gaze hit her palpably, behind the sternum and at the base of the spine. Addi realized she couldn’t have said what color their eyes were if she had a gun to her head; it shifted under scrutiny and she couldn’t pin it down. Those eyes are monster eyes, her brain screamed at her. Wake up. Run.

“Let me get this straight,” she said, because everything that came out of this entity’s mouth was utterly absurd, and Addi was a girl who loved herself a puzzle. Besides, if it was a dream, what could possibly be the harm? “You have to spend an hour here for work?”

Almost imperceptibly the hand tightened on her jaw, like she’d caught this whatever-they-were off guard. They pulled back a couple millimeters, slowly straightening, like they could better discern the trap from there. “Yes.”

“And this is somehow related to you trying to seduce me?”

“Well, usually it’s more successful more rapidly than it has been here thus far, but—”

“Did you…” Addi trailed off, trying to square this with literally anything that made the tiniest iota of sense. “Did somebody call you and you came to the wrong house?”

They nudged their glasses back up and inspected her through them. “Addison, yes?”

“Addi. Not Addison.”

“Then no.” The hand on her jaw was warming. A thumb was stroking her cheek. Somehow, this didn’t inspire her to pick the lamp back up. It felt like sinking into a warm bath. “I

didn’t come to the wrong house.”

“But I didn’t—”

“You didn’t need to.” That nearly-human, so-far-from-human face was terribly close now. “I knew.”

Addi swallowed again. “Knew what?”

“That I’d be welcome here.”

It came to Addi that she wasn’t sitting up anymore, she was being lowered back down with monstrous gentleness. All the blood had been removed from her veins somehow, had been replaced with something more slow-flowing, more deliciously languid, more—

“So what do you say, Addi-not-Addison? Am I welcome here?”

“Why?” she heard herself ask, half-jokingly, but only half, because she had taken a folklore elective in her sophomore year and was beginning to arrive at some suspicions. “Do you need to be invited? Are you some kind of vampire?”

“Vampires do nothing but laze around and drink blood,” that voice said, way too close, not nearly close enough. She wanted to eat that voice. She wanted to fold it up small and swallow it. She wanted to roll around in it like a dog in roadkill. She wanted— “I think you’ll find my skillset is rather more interesting.”

Belatedly, it hit her. “You’re an incubus.” She paused, unsure. “Succubus?”

If that voice speaking had caused her troubles in a visceral sense, it was nothing to the laugh, which caused the entire middle third of her body to clench nearly hard enough to cramp. “Dealer’s choice.”

Later, Addi would replay all this in her head a while. Then she’d replay it a bit more. Then she’d be done replaying it so she’d do it just once more, in case she missed anything. Her mind was so full of thoughts, she’d tell herself. Just a total whirl. It all happened so fast. Before she could get all these multitudinous and deeply intellectual contemplations in order.

All of which was, of course, a total lie. Because when the entity on her bed leaned in close enough to brush her lips with theirs, every single neuron in her brain blew out all at once like however many billion birthday candles, and her head was a bowl, and what it was full of was not thoughts but dark fire.

And then, from some immeasurable depth, one last gasp from the torpedoed ship of her intellect did bubble up. Addi, a few short weeks from graduation, for whom concepts such as attending college and entering the workforce and becoming a productive member of society had been fairly well bludgeoned into her brain, realized that even here, even now, even in the most perilous extremes of the most exquisite duress, she had a question.

“Do you like your job?”

When the incubus pulled back, it was like the whole world paused. Like Addi was a fish reeled up from the water, tossed ashore, left choking on air. The strange eyes narrowed, fractionally, suspicious. “Why.”

“Well, I mean,” Addi said, stalling while her brain struggled to reboot. “It’s just kind of weird. You show up here without being asked or invited or—or commissioned or whatever and you try to seduce a total stranger who may or may not even want you to do that. And then when the hour’s up, what then? You go somewhere else and do it again? I mean. I almost hit you with a lamp.

“I’ve been hit with worse,” the incubus said, almost proudly.

“See? Exactly!”

Another nudge to the glasses. “I’m afraid I’m failing to see the exactly in this argument. Are you saying you’d like me to go sit in the tree?”

“No! I’m—why aren’t you answering the question?”

The incubus opened their mouth. Then they closed it.

“So you do hate your job.”

They straightened further. Their posture at this point was really quite disgustingly good. Voice pitched slightly louder, as if the room might be bugged: “I didn’t say that.”

“Then say you don’t.”

Instead, they bit one lower lip. Sharp teeth. Very sharp. Out came the pocketwatch again. “Forty-nine minutes.”

Addi sat up. Turned the lamp on. In the light, the incubus was somehow even more beautiful, though kind of aesthetically wretched-looking at the moment. “Am I right in thinking,” she said, “that you don’t really want to be here?”

Silence.

“That you have zero interest in seducing me, or whoever you had to seduce before me, and whoever you have to go seduce after?”

Silence.

“That if you leave before those forty-nine minutes are up, or if you say, out loud, with your mouth, that your job sucks and you hate it, that you’ll get in trouble with your boss?”

The silence was very long this time. Then it went on longer. Eventually, after Addi had half-concluded their new plan was to run down the clock just sitting here refusing to answer the question, the incubus said something that Addi wasn’t entirely sure she’d accurately made out.

“What?”

“I said: or if you leave me a negative review.”

Addi stared. The incubus stared back. The eyes weren’t scary at all, she concluded. Not really. Just because she couldn’t get the color of them to stay still long enough to determine. Just because if she kept staring, the color started to seem incidental, illusory. Just because under that illusion what those eyes really looked like were black holes down which a billion stars had tumbled in and died. Five minutes ago, these would all have presented compelling arguments. Now, individually or in concert, they failed to move her.

“And that if you come out and actually admit any of that, you’ll get in trouble for that too?” Addi noted the sudden shuttering in both the incubus’s expression and their entire body language, thought it over, and amended: “Bad trouble?”

The incubus sighed, dropped their face into one hand, and looked up at Addi through their lashes. It wasn’t a yes, exactly, but it felt a hell of a lot more like one than a no.

“Your job,” Addi concluded, “is shit.”

The incubus shrugged eloquently. Their gaze fastened on a far wall and stayed there.

Addi relented.

“Forty-nine minutes, huh.”

“Forty-eight,” the incubus said.

“Well,” Addi said, “I’m not tired anymore, and the yard is full of mosquitoes and the lawn is overgrown and that tree is half dead and will probably fall on your head and kill you.”

“It wouldn’t be the first thing to try,” the incubus said mildly, perking up a little.

Addi discovered she really wanted to ask about that, but it felt like kind of a personal question for someone you’d just met, monster or no. Meanwhile, there was a whole pile of stuff over in one corner of the room, the result of her pre-college decluttering of the remnants of her childhood, and something in it had caught her eye. “So tell me something. How do you feel about board games?”

All at once the incubus drew her into hard focus, which felt like sitting in the pinpoint of light made by a magnifying glass and the sun. They blinked. Then they blinked again. Their eyelids went sideways, like closing doors.

“Oh thank fuck,” they said. “I thought you’d never ask.”

By the time the verdigrised pocketwatch read nearly five a.m., Addi had determined the murder weapon (the candlestick) and the location (the library) but only had the suspects narrowed down to three. The incubus, on the other hand, kept making guesses they already knew the answers to, which meant either: a.) they were trash at games; or b.) they’d solved it already and were simply stalling out of either lack of confidence in their outclassed gaming skills or, more likely, a desire not to sit in the aforementionedly mosquito-infested tree before it was time to clock out.

Then, just as her alarm went off for the school day, Addi glanced up from her notepad and the incubus was gone. Gone like they had never been.

Addi surveyed the scene before her. She’d heard of sleepwalking, sure, in fact she used to do a bit of it herself as a toddler, but sleep…gaming?

“Five stars,” Addi said aloud, in case anyone was listening.

Alarm shut off, game cleaned up, Addi got ready for school. Weird dream, she’d write in her journal before bed that night, because what else could it be? It was an assumption that wouldn’t be entirely shaken until nearly a week later when she, changing out her sheets for laundry day, heard something clink tinily yet solidly to the floor. She fished around a minute before she found it. Then stood, throat tight, heart pounding, staring at a tiny revolver pinched between her forefinger and thumb.

The second time Addi saw the incubus, she was seventeen and a half years old, one month out of high school, stocking shelves three days a week at the supermarket, trying to convince herself she was really very much looking forward to heading off to college at summer’s end. She woke up from an anxiety nightmare in which the groceries were falling off the shelves as fast as she could restock them, and the incubus was there.

This time they looked like some kind of gothed-out dark elf, all bluish skin and hair the color of tarnished silver, crowned in metal filigree the color of lightning, set with garnets the meaty color of a bitten cherry. Even seated on the edge of Addi’s bed, she could tell that if they were to stand to their full height, the crown would come very near to brushing the ceiling. The glasses were nowhere in evidence.

Still—and this would strike her as strange later—even though they looked entirely and completely different, there was no doubt in her mind who they were. The likelihood of someone else appearing on the edge of her bed, someone the sight of whom was doing some kind of incipient-migraine-aura optical-illusion dazzle-camouflage fuckery to her vision, someone whose eyes closed sideways and the bones of whose face were too sharp and whose fingers were just the tiniest bit too long, seemed less likely than the alternative, probabilistically speaking.

You’re back, she wanted to say. Where have you been? she wanted to say. I missed you, she wanted to say.

“Nice outfit,” she said.

“Long story,” they replied. “Nice necklace.”

Addi’s hand went to the chain around her neck. Specifically, to the place where it had been threaded through the trigger guard of a miniature revolver. She refused to blush, blushed anyway. “Nice crown.

“Thank you. This look is pretty popular.”

“Is it.”

“You have no idea.”

Addi studied them. Under the flawless skin and the inhuman planes of the face and the instantly-familiar gutpunch of that voice, their eyes were tired. Not tired like shouldn’t have stayed up so late binging that show, tired like I have seen my whole life arrayed out before me and behind and the vision of it is a mouthful of rocks that has worn all my teeth down to nubs.

What do you really look like? Addi wanted to ask. Not the costume or glamour or work uniform or whatever this is. You.

“I dug more old games out of the attic,” she said instead. “You ever play Risk?”

The incubus eyed her majestically. “I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”

“One sec.” Addi reached in under the bed, pulled out a somewhat-battered box, held it out like a hunting trophy.

One side of the incubus’s mouth twitched up, giving them the sudden countenance of a master thief who’d loaded up their pockets with diamonds and strolled away whistling while the cops fumbled around ineptly in their wake. Addi’s pulse stuttered. “Had that right there, did you.”

“Ran out of room on the pile.”

“I see.”

“I mean, tree’s also fine. I probably have some bug spray somewhere.”

The incubus looked scandalized. “In this? Dry cleaning comes out of my pay. No thanks.”

“Okay. Well. In that case.” Addi scooted back against the headboard, smoothed the covers, and began setting up the game.

One hour later, they were approximately one-eighth through Addi’s remembered experience of a typical Risk playthrough. “Oh darn,” she said. “Ran out of time. Here. I’ll take a picture of the setup. You’ll just have to come back so I can finish destroying you another day.” She smiled beatifically.

The incubus raised one eloquent eyebrow. “Destroying me? Please. With what? Your forces are attenuated. Your strategy is noncommittal. Your days, in short, are numbered. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d say it almost looks like you’re—”

Addi watched the gears turn, all innocence.

“—stalling,” the incubus finished.

“Tomorrow night, then?” Addi asked.

“Probably not, if I’m honest.” The crowned head tilted fractionally, a mannerism Addi would come in time to recognize as sorrowing. “But—”

Unceremoniously, immediately, the incubus disappeared. Addi blinked at that empty space a few times, then put the game away and got back under the covers, careful not to let her feet disturb the imprint on the blanket of their vanished weight.

The third time Addi saw the incubus, she was eighteen years, one month, one week, and three days old, and she’d spent the past nearly half a year attempting to bear up under not only the stresses of life after high school but also the (somehow even more painful) sneaking suspicion, built and then shored up against her will by a lifetime of books, movies, and comics, that people entering adulthood simply did not continue to interface with the unusual. Their subscription to the weird expired when they came of age. Whatever part of their brain allowed them to see magical beings instantaneously, catastrophically, irreversibly atrophied. You can either be old enough to see otherworldly monsters or to vote for the mundane kind, not both. Etc. The fact that it was solidly spooky season by this point was not exactly helping. She walked to work under the kind of strange weather that makes you feel like any moment you’ll fall through into some other place, but then you fail to.

I’ve been left behind, she thought, which was a strange thing to think when all that was technically at stake at this point was her chance at microcosmic plastic global domination and an “interesting” story to tell her therapist about someday, but here she was. She kept the game-in-progress photo. She brought the rest of the games down from the attic. She did not set any of that teetering stack out at her mom’s yard sale. In fact she went out and thrifted more. And she waited, and kept faith, and waited a bit longer.

Tonight, Addi was lost in an anxiety nightmare in which she was standing in front of two mirrors, and in one of them she was maybe ten years old, all pigtails and Pokémon lunchbox and big shit-eating grin, and in the other she was middle-aged, wearing one of those blazer-and-slacks deals and a tasteful string of pearls, doing business talk in a business voice into a headset, looking harried. Both mirrors were also doors, somehow, and she was supposed to walk into one of them, but she didn’t want either one. She didn’t know what she wanted, exactly, but she knew it wasn’t this. It was something else.

She opened her eyes, cheeks wet, gasping, and somebody was wiping away her tears.

“Allergic to me, I see,” said a voice like a rope thrown to you when you’re mired in quicksand. “I’d say I get that a lot, but—”

She clawed toward the voice through the dark. Only when she had two fistfuls of the incubus’s jacket—some kind of dystopian gang leathers—and her face crushed against their chest—which smelled like a pine forest in deep winter—did she remember how to breathe.

“I thought—” she said. “I thought—”

And then there were hands on her shoulders, and she was being held out and inspected by a perfectly level gaze set in an infinitesimally tilted head. This look had more piercings than the others, not to mention the face tattoos. “Thought you were going to destroy me,” the incubus said. “Yes, yes. I remember. Well? Clock’s ticking. You want to put your money where your mouth is or what?”

Half an hour later, the game was at an impasse. Each of them controlled three continents. Just totally deadlocked. “I forgot how boring this game was,” Addi said, yawning. At the look on the incubus’s face, she hurried to add: “Which is not to say I want you to seduce me.” She paused, studying them. As always, they seemed to glitch a little around the edges, making them hard to look at straight-on. Addi persevered.

“What do you want, then?” the incubus asked.

“I don’t know. No, that’s not true.” Addi sat up a little straighter. “I want to know who you are. I mean really. Without these different looks you have to put on.” She swallowed hard. “If you want to show me, I’d like to see.”

She expected caginess. Guardedness. Irritation. Offense. Something other than—

“You know, I have no idea,” the incubus said easily.

“What, whether you want to show me or—”

“No, I mean I have no memory of what I look like without them.” A speculative pause. “If anything.”

Addi attempted to flail through this logically. “What about when you’re off work?”

“When I’m what?”

“When you’re off—oh no.” Addi blew some air out of her mouth, frustrated. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

She looked up and was met with a look like a field of fresh-fallen, untouched, unmarked snow, that blank.

“How’d you end up with this shit job anyway?”

“How’d you end up with yours?” the incubus countered.

“What do you know about my job?”

The incubus laughed a little, tiredly. “I don’t. It’s a safe assumption.” After a moment, almost shyly: “What is it then?”

“I stock shelves at the supermarket.”

“Well, that at least makes more sense than a sex-averse asexual incubus.”

Addi had to allow that it did. “How did you get assigned to me in the first place? I didn’t, like, go online and sign up for this.”

“That’s not how it works,” the incubus said. “Humans get trialed into the program at random. If you don’t unsubscribe, you keep getting visits. Simple as that.”

“Forever?”

“For whatever practical meaning forever can have to a species with an average lifespan of roughly seventy-nine years, yes.”

“For free?”

The incubus only looked at her, like she had asked them whether water was wet.

This only raised more questions in Addi’s mind, such as what the hell kind of business model is this anyway, but she swallowed those, because she had one that was more pressing.

“So why don’t you unsubscribe? Walk off. Do something new.”

“Did you know,” the incubus said, “that in two thousand, four hundred and sixteen years, I have had—guess how many service subscription terminations? Go on. Guess.”

 “You think you’re really slick at dodging my questions, don’t you?”

 The incubus rolled one shoulder sinuously, eyes glinting. “I do, yeah.”

 Addi folded her arms.

 A moment passed, and then the incubus let out a sigh that seemed to exceed their apparent lung capacity. “It’s a job, you know? I don’t have to like it.”

“So quit.”

‘Quit,” the incubus echoed. “Could you sound more like a human.”

 Addi gestured: the fuck?

“Where I come from there are Rules,” the incubus said, and even Addi could hear the capitalization. “And one of those Rules is: you take the job you’re assigned. You do it. You keep doing it. Eventually, after a very long time, you die. The end.”

“So have them give your—your client list or whatever—to someone who likes their job—”

Addi raised her eyebrows in a question, and the incubus nodded. “It’s definitely not the job. It’s me.”

“So get assigned a different one! Maybe one that isn’t so incredibly skeevy.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my job. I just happen to.” The incubus stopped dead. “Happen to.” They shook their head a little, swallowed hard. A muscle twitched in their perfect jaw.

“To hate it,” Addi finished. “Because it’s a shitty fit for you. Like, a really, really—”

“I’ll have you know, I maintain an average client rating of four-point-nine-fi—”

“I wasn’t talking about them, stupid. I was talking about you.

“What do you care about me? You don’t know the first thing about me.”

“Not yet I don’t, but if you keep showing up in my room in the middle of the night, I’m going to be forced to have to try.” Addi gave a sigh of her own. “The fact is? I missed you. More than I thought I should. I’d like to know you better. I hope you remember someday what you’re like when you’re not pretending, but I want you to know you never have to pretend anything for me.” Before the incubus could move, Addi’s hand shot out and took hold of their face. It felt like holding a live coal, or a chunk of glacial ice. She couldn’t tell the difference. “I just want to be your friend.”

There was a long, long silence. At the end of it, the incubus grinned. “Well, Addi-not-Addison,” they said. “Aren’t you an unusual one.”

Addi grinned back. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

The seventh time Addi saw the incubus, she was nearly twenty years old, studying comparative folklore at the community college, still living with her parents, and had gradually sold off most of those vintage games online and used the funds to buy a few more modern ones. She’d made a few friends in college, kept in touch with a few friends from high school, but most of her anxiety dreams these days revolved around the incubus’s absence, and how it might go on forever this time, and how she had no idea why that idea bothered her so much except that she’d brushed against something numinous, something ineffable, to borrow some terms from class, and the thought of having it torn away at this point felt like how she imagined losing a part of herself to feel. A tooth, perhaps. A limb. A heart.

Maybe, she wondered from time to time, the incubus puts some kind of spell on people. To make us like them. To make us need them. The phrase four-point-nine-five average client rating rattled around in her head a while.

But if I was being manipulated, she argued with herself, I would have let them do their job that first time. I wouldn’t have broken their script like that. I wouldn’t have been able to.

And then, one night, she woke from an anxiety nightmare in which what arrived was not the incubus but a note they had sent, which read: it’s been okay, I guess, but I have way cooler friends where I come from. She woke, and the incubus was there, and they looked like some kind of abstract agglomeration of limbs and eyes—“don’t ask,” they said later, “you truly do not want to know”—but under one of these arms (?) they had a plastic shopping bag full of chips and salsa, and under another there was a six-pack of hard pineapple cider, which they had no way of knowing was Addi’s favorite, and yet here it was.

“What’s your name?” Addi asked.

If she had expected her lack of preamble to startle them into a straight answer (she did), she was disappointed (she was). The incubus gave an indolent smile, just with a whole bunch of eyes, seeing as they had no mouth that Addi could discern. “My name?”

Addi couldn’t even tell where the voice was coming from. “Yes. Your—you know what, can you just, I don’t know, put something on that has a face?”

“Like this?” the incubus asked, and suddenly instead of whatever kind of dollar-store The Thing impersonation had been slopped onto Addi’s quilt previously, now there was some kind of twenty-foot-long snakelike creature with vestigial-looking, axolotl-ish limbs and a human head. The transformation was so sudden that Addi had to dive for the six-pack before it shattered on the floor.

“Next time put the drinks down and then lose all the arms,” Addi said. “That was close. You want one? Actually. How’d you even know I liked these?”

“Do you have any idea,” the incubus asked, “how many years of practice I have gotten in knowing exactly—exactly—what people want?”

“Two thousand,” Addi said. “I remember.”

“Two thousand, four hundred and seventeen. And a half. Also last time I was here, there were some empties in the trash can by your desk. You should really recycle more.”

“I will,” Addi promised.

“Your parents let you drink those?”

“No.”

“Am I being a bad influence on your upbringing?”

“We don’t have enough time,” Addi said, “for me to give that question the proper answer it deserves.”

“Tonight? Or in general?”

“Yes.”

While she dug around in her messenger bag for her multitool, the incubus fixed a bottlecap between several rows of sharklike teeth and snapped it off. They had arms now, Addi noticed. In fact, they looked nearly—though never quite—human. But they also looked old. Not old like Addi’s grandparents. Old like fossils peeled out of a tar pit. Old like redwoods. Old like stars. They handed her the bottle and cracked open another.

Addi took it in a silence she could not hold for long. “All these…” She cast around for the right word, and her folklore courses saved her again. “Aspects. Who chooses them?” Then, feeling like she already knew the answer and didn’t like it much: “Do you?”

The incubus looked at her for a long slow moment. Then they took an equally long slow drink. Then they sighed. “Well, usually it goes like this. I get my assignment. I show up on-site. Sometimes I’ve been there before, I know what the client wants to see when they look at me. Lots of unrequited crushes, lots of fictional characters, lots of. You know.” They waved their bottle irritatedly. “Types.”

“Sexy librarian,” Addi offered.

“One of my most popular.”

“I believe it. Is that why you had that one on when you first came here?”

“Standard first-session protocol. Try a popular look, see how the client’s desires customize it.”

Addi, mid-sip, nearly choked when she realized what she was hearing. “You can read minds?”

“Not exactly. Desires tend to be drawn less finely than thoughts.”

“A broad brush,” Addi said, helpfully.

The incubus snorted. “More like throwing the whole can of paint at the wall.”

Addi laughed. “That’s fair. I mean, it worked on me.”

At this, the incubus went very silent, very watchful. “Did it.”

Addi nodded. “Oh yeah. I was in big trouble there for a second.” She gave a dismissive wave of the bottle. “But I don’t care what you look like. I guess that’s why you just, what, come here in whatever you had on for the client in the timeslot before me?”

The incubus shrugged a little. “You’re harder to read.”

“Maybe,” Addi said, “I just like your company. Maybe I don’t feel inspired to customize it.”

 They rallied at this. “Maybe you just like getting completely slaughtered at every game we play.”

Addi decided to let them have this one. “Maybe.” Still, it bothered her. Everything about this bothered her. “But, I mean, if people know you hate doing this and they still want you to…” She trailed off, because the incubus’s mouth had given one tiny twitch at that, and Addi found it impossible to tell whether they were about to laugh or cry. “What?”

“Nobody ever asked me before. If I.” The incubus swallowed, jaw set, like they were trying not to puke. “If I.” They fought it out for a moment, visibly, then shook their head. “Nobody ever asked me about that.”

What?”

“Going on two thousand, four hundred and eighteen years,” the incubus said softly. “Three hundred and eight thousand, two hundred and two clients. You’re the first.”

They stared at each other a while, and then the incubus shook themself a little and pulled the pocketwatch out from nowhere, like a magic trick. “Fourteen minutes,” they said, and shuddered a little, like there was something invisible clinging to them which they thought might shake free. “Sorry, got a little talkative there.”

“It’s no problem,” Addi rushed to say. “I like just hanging out with you. We can play something next time. I’ve got a couple new legacy games I want to try. Those should keep us busy for a while. You’ll like them. They have all these little mystery boxes…” Realizing she was in real danger of rambling, she trailed off. Then, almost shyly, not wanting to be the clingy friend nobody wanted: “It’s a long time between visits, though. Every thirty-seven-point-four weeks on average.” At the incubus’s fractional head-tilt: “I mean. Somewhere around there, probably.”

“Probably,” they echoed, tilting a couple microns deeper.

Addi nodded tightly, blinking. “Yeah.”

Without another word, the incubus pulled Addi close and held her there, her back to their chest, stroking her hair with their too-long fingers. They stayed like that in silence, together, until suddenly Addi wasn’t leaning on anything anymore and very nearly fell clean off the bed.

The eighth time Addi saw the incubus, she was twenty years and nine months old, maintaining a solid three-point-seven grade point average, had spent a total of thirty-one hours and fifteen minutes over the past eighteen weeks in gradually, sneakily, methodically concocting a surprise, and here, now, at three in the morning, she was ready.

This time the incubus looked like an obscure side character from a popular anime she’d watched a few episodes of with her brother. The kind of fandom catnip character who has six actual minutes of screen time and four actual lines of dialogue, leaving a plausible deniability gap big enough to drive a bus through. In short, Addi was fully unsurprised at today’s appearance.

“Close your eyes,” she said, not even realizing until later that she hadn’t woken up from an anxiety nightmare this time—that, in fact, she hadn’t even had one in weeks.

She stood in eager silence as her face was inspected, warily, looking for the catch. Then the sideways-closing eyes did so. It was like watching two galaxies be switched off.

“Hold out your hand.”

The incubus was already holding some kind of overly-elaborate (probably) prop weapon, which they stowed with a rote yet tired flourish. Then, obediently, the too-long-fingered hand was held out. Addi took it.

“Walk with me.”

The incubus did not move. “Why?”

“Because it’s April Fool’s Day and it’s time for your prank.”

“It’s February.”

“I was joking. Are you always this resistant to surprises?”

“Usually.”

“You can open your eyes if you want. It’s okay. I just want to show you what I made for you.”

The incubus opened their eyes. Then they looked at Addi. Then they shut them again. “Lead on.”

So Addi led them over to her closet. It was only about four steps, not really much of a journey when held against the lead-up. “We’re here.”

“I was about to ask. I was trying to land on the perfect intonation for my Are we there yet? human impression.”

“You can do it now if you like.”

“Eh. It’s less fun with permission.” Then they noticed Addi’s upheld pointer finger, and looked at where it was pointing. “A duffel bag.”

“Good,” Addi said. “It’s working.” She got up on tiptoes and pulled the bag down off the topmost closet shelf. Above it, in the ceiling, was a pretty sizeable hole. Its edges were ragged, uneven, as though someone had stood on a chair and sawed away at the drywall not only inexpertly but in a hurry, as if in small stolen two-minute increments while that someone’s work-from-home mother finally left the house to check the mail.

 “I didn’t have anywhere to hide a ladder,” she said, pulling over her desk chair. “Hold this steady for me, please.”

The incubus favored Addi with one long, slow, unblinking look.

“I swear it’s a good surprise. But if you want I can tell you what it is.”

A moment passed while the incubus visibly weighed something in their mind. “It’s just,” they said eventually, and then stopped again. Addi waited. “I’m not sure I’ve ever had a good surprise before.”

“That’s cool,” Addi said. “I mean it’s not cool, like, at all, but I absolutely do not want you to be nervous. So it’s nothing big, but I thought maybe if you had someplace to crash, you could cut down on your expenses and be able to maybe afford to quit your job someday and take on something else instead? I mean, I know you said it doesn’t work like that where you come from, they can’t reassign you, but we’d run a killer gaming channel together and you can actually pull in pretty decent ad revenue from those, plus, like, merch, if we felt like going that route—t-shirts and stuff. I was hoping maybe there might be some kind of, I don’t know, loophole somewhere in your…contract? I have a friend who’s studying law, I could get her to take a look at it if…” The incubus looked so utterly dejected that Addi trailed off in horrified startlement. “I’m sorry,” she rushed to say, unsure what exactly she was apologizing for but sensing the need for one loud and clear. “I just—”

“I’d love to see it.”

“What?”

The incubus raised their chin toward the hole with what looked an awful lot to Addi like defiance. “Your surprise.”

Addi lit up. “Yeah! Okay! All right, hang on. Hold onto this chair for me, it’s a little sketchy.”

The incubus leaned the wrist of one velvet sleeve on the chair-back, which somehow was tantamount to bolting the chair into the floor. Addi stared, impressed. Sure, in the incubus’s current form it looked like they worked out quite a bit, but that didn’t account for it. She aimed an experimental kick at the seat. It may as well have been of a single solid piece with the foundation of the house.

“Okay, now this is the tricky part.” Addi pulled a box down from the shelf, wedged it between the back of the chair seat and her feet, stepped up onto it so that now her head poked through the hole. She reached up into the dark, dragged down a knotted rope, gave it a hard tug. “I tied this off to a rafter up there. It’s pretty solid. I’m not too good at climbing it—I don’t get a ton of chances to practice—but I’m working on it. Anyway, I’m thinking it won’t give you much trouble.”

She scrambled up. It was a little easier than last time. Next time would be even easier. “Just a second while I hit the light,” she called down, fumbling around for the power strip she’d requisitioned from the Christmas tree storage box and left by the hole for easy access. Clicked it on and the attic lit up. “Okay, you can come up no—what the hell,” she gasped, catching sight of a sudden dark shape to her right where there had previously been nothing but some trash bags of old clothes waiting to be donated. Then she noticed that the shape had green hair and too-long fingers and a velvet coat the color of a bitten cherry. “How,” she began, and then realized that she’d never actually seen the incubus use something so mundane as a door, let alone a questionable rope ladder through the jankiest possible DIY ceiling hole. “Well,” she said instead, “here we are.”

Where they were was: a nook in the corner of the attic, walled in on its two open sides with stacks of old moving boxes, piled with spare pillows from the guest closet that nobody ever used and cushions from Addi’s busted old yard sale loveseat where she sat to do homework when she wasn’t feeling the desk. The whole thing was lit with a string of fairy lights, half-dead now, which last saw service on a camping trip when Addi was ten. In the bluish light of this, Addi glanced up at the incubus hopefully. “I can add more to it,” she said. “And you could bring in whatever you want from your place. Nobody ever comes up here except to bring down holiday decorations, and that’s always been my chore. So it’s not like my mom’s going to come up the stairs like what is this anime character doing nesting in my guest room pillows or anything. And you can come down into my room whenever you want to get the functionally-immortal shit kicked out of you at Settlers of Catan.”

The incubus side-eyed her. “I utterly obliterate you at Catan. I extirpate you from the indifferent face of the earth at Catan. When I am finished with you at Catan, there is nothing left of you but a smoking grease-spot on a chair and a swiftly fading memory.”

“That only happened once.”

“We only played once.”

“Lucky for you, there’s an easy solution to that.” Addi turned to face them. In the moonish glow of the fairy lights, the velvet coat looked black. She reached up, took the incubus by both shoulders, shook them gently. “Come on. At least give it a try.” When the silence stretched: “At least tell me whether you like it.”

“Whether I like it,” the incubus echoed, then made a bitterly amused little sound. “It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me. Even if it was up against much competition, which it isn’t, it…” They trailed off, doing something complicated with their face that Addi only later realized was what it looked like when a monster struggled not to cry.

“At least think about it,” Addi said. “Just promise me that.”

Gently, gently, the incubus disengaged themself from Addi’s grip. “I’ll think about it,” they said, in a voice like January wind through the ghosts of last summer’s reeds. And then, not twenty minutes into Addi’s hour, they were gone.

She saw them later, up in the low branch outside her window, head tilted back against the trunk, gaze fixed blankly at the stars. Impossible fireflies circled them in loose orbits, weaving in and out among the redblack velvet and the too-long fingers and the slumbering weight of the tree.

Any minute, she’d push up the window and call out. Any minute now.

She stood there and stood there until the tree was empty, and then she stood a little longer while the not-quite-fireflies scattered slowly back into the dark.

The ninth through fifty-seventh times Addi saw the incubus, she was dreaming. In the dreams, the incubus would sit on the edge of her bed, and they’d talk for a while. She could never remember those conversations. The incubus’s various glamours, yes. The sound of their voice, of course. The details of the room, absolutely. The actual content of the conversations? Gone as though it had been redacted in a classified government file. She’d wake, and to open her eyes on that empty room felt like standing on a broken bone to see if it would take her weight, and she wouldn’t remember why. And then she would, and that was worse.

The fifty-eighth time Addison saw the incubus, she was thirty-two years old, renting a fourth-floor walkup with her husband of eleven months and the kitten they’d adopted six weeks ago, working twenty-five hours a week at the local indie bookstore, five years into trying to make a serious go of being a novelist.

She woke from an anxiety nightmare in which she had to both untangle and keep lit the entire string of fairy lights from that one camping trip when she was ten, but she couldn’t do both at once, because the lights only stayed on when the string was in an impenetrable snarl, and every time she got part of it free of the knot, every light along that section burned out.

She woke, specifically, because the kitten was hissing at something.

Addison opened her eyes and aimed her phone light into the dark, expecting a.) the squirrel to have gotten in again; b.) to spend the next hour chasing it out of her room, unsure which among the squirrel and the kitten she was more meaningfully protecting from the other; c.) to have lost all chance at sleep for the rest of the night, because vertical Addison meant breakfast for kittens, non-negotiably, full stop, whatever cursed hour of the morning it happened to be at the time.

Instead what she saw was d.) an entirely normal-looking total stranger in a cable-knit sweater and jeans, fairly nondescript except for the eyes, rendered in the phone light not as eyes but as fields of black static, bounded irregularly.

“Wake up,” Addison said.

“I’m awake,” the incubus replied.

“I’m not talking to you.”

Addison blinked. Then she blinked harder. Then she sat up fully and switched on the table lamp. Then she slapped herself hard across the face. Then she did it again—but couldn’t, because something had hold of her wrist. She looked down. It was a hand protruding from a cable-knit sleeve. The fingers of the hand were longer than they should have been. The sleeve was the color of a bitten cherry.

“Fuck,” Addison concluded.

The incubus nodded solemnly. “If I let go,” they said, “will you stop hitting yourself?”

Addison scrutinized them. In the dreams the incubus had always been slightly off—the fingers were too short, the eyelids went the wrong way, the bitten-cherry color was too purple or too red, or the voice was just normal, or their touch on her skin didn’t feel like licking a live wire, or—

Addison analyzed all this. Then she nodded.

“Good.”

The incubus let go. Being disconnected from that touch felt like having her plug ripped out of a wall. Addison’s heart stuttered, just a little.

“Why were you hitting yourself in the first place?”

Addison found that a.) she had several answers lined up; b.) a not-insubstantial subset of those were really quite angry; c.) she was unsure who exactly she was angry at, if she was honest; and d.) none of that shit suddenly even mattered, at least not for now.

“I was trying to wake myself up,” she said.

“If it worked,” the incubus said, voice velvety with amusement, “would you know?”

Addison opened her mouth. Then she closed it. She was blinking hard now. Her allergies must have been acting up again.

“I’m glad you recognized me,” the incubus said. “I was worried I might scare you.” They looked down at their lap, plucked the hem of the sweater a little. “At least this one’s fairly innocuous. Somebody’s ex, I think.”

Where in fuck have you been? she wanted to say. It’s been over a decade, she wanted to say. I wasn’t trying to offend you or whatever, she wanted to say. I was trying to be a friend to you. I was trying to help. I was trying to make sense of why, even though my life’s been pretty much okay so far, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. I’ve spent the last twelve years trying to understand it. Alone.

But she didn’t get a chance to say any of that, because she was looking at the incubus’s face now, really looking, and what she saw there was not what she’d expected of someone who had, to all appearances, straight-up abandoned her for over a third of her life.

“I missed you so much,” the incubus said, in a voice like reprieve. “I’m so sorry, Addi.”

“Addison,” Addison said.

The pile of the velvet was thicker now. “What?”

“Don’t you what me. I’m, like, ten years away from menopause. I’m trying to get a career together. I’m not the same person I was when I was seven. Or seventeen. I can’t be.” To distract herself from the prickling in her eyes, Addison snapped: “You’re the same, though. I guess twelve years isn’t much for you, huh?”

“Depends on the twelve years,” the incubus said, causing Addison’s allergies to increase acutely in severity for absolutely no reason at all.

She’d held it in for over a decade. Suddenly she couldn’t do it anymore. “Have you been mad at me about the attic thing this whole time?”

“What?” the incubus said. This what was different. “Oh fuck. You really thought I—oh no. Wait. You didn’t get any of my messages?”

“No,” Addison said frostily. “I can’t say that I did.”

“You didn’t dream about me?”

“No, I did,” Addison said, and then wondered if that sounded weird, and then didn’t care because she realized what the incubus meant by that. “Shit. Shit. But I never got any message. Um. You talked to me for a while, pretty much every time really, but I could never remember what it was about.”

The incubus made a face at that like they had bitten into something vile. “I was afraid that might be the case. My bosses were not happy about me making friends with you. Breaking protocol, you know. The attic thing was the last straw, I think.”

“I’m sorry,” Addison said helplessly. “I didn’t—”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” the incubus said, in a voice like a tornado ripping through a junkyard. “Fuck them.”

“But,” Addison said, feeling that she was putting this together a whole lot slower than she ought to, “so your bosses…stopped you from seeing me?”

“Yes.”

“And you managed to get around this somehow by visiting my dreams?”

“Loophole,” the incubus said, with visible pride.

“Which were censored.”

The incubus made a face of pure murder. “I wasn’t aware of that until now.”

“But then how are you here?”

“Further loophole,” the incubus said, in a voice like a cat at a mouse buffet. “You changed your name. That put you back in rotation, and the whole northwestern quadrant of this county is mine. It’s a good thing you didn’t move far.”

Addison narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t, though. Change my name, I mean. Addi was just a nickname, I’ve always—oh.”

“Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

“Where is he, anyway?”

“Graveyard shift. He’s a nurse at the hospital.” She paused. “That was almost a year ago though. Wh—”

“Paperwork,” the incubus said. “Paperwork like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Huh,” Addi said.

“I’d say actually, it’s an interesting story, but frankly I’d be—”

“Can you just. Stop talking. For just a minute.”

The incubus stopped talking.

“Sorry. It’s just. You have to understand. I was angry with you. I was so angry with you. For—for leaving, just—no reasons given, no hey Addi, I’m pissed at you, let’s talk it out, just gone—and I was angry at myself too, for doing whatever I did to make that happen, and—and—” Addison stared at the wall a second, revisiting some life decisions. “I’m thirty thousand words into a novel about how pissed off I was, okay, and now it’s like the whole last twelve years of my life were wrapped around this—this core of anger, this everlasting burning flame of what the fuck went wrong, and here you are telling me it’s okay, it’s always been okay, nothing went wrong at all in a way that meant I lost my friend, in fact you’ve been here with me every time you could manage it and I couldn’t remember it, I wasn’t allowed to remember it, and all because of your stupid fucking job?

The incubus regarded her levelly. “That’s about the whole of it, yeah.” They sighed. “I wish I’d known you weren’t getting the messages. That explains a lot of things. I thought you didn’t want me to come back.”

Addison started laughing. Or crying. She couldn’t super tell which. When she’d gotten it together, she pointed at the shelves on the far wall. “Does that look like I didn’t want you to come back?”

The incubus turned to look where she was pointing. “That’s a lot of board games.”

“Some really good shit’s come out since last time,” Addison said, sleeving at her face. “How long until your bosses catch on to the name change thing, do you think?”

“You know, Addison-not-Addi, I have no idea,” the incubus said. “But when they do, we’ll find another loophole, I imagine.”

“Even if it takes another twelve years,” Addison said.

“Even if it takes twelve thousand,” the incubus added.

“Unfortunately, not all of us have that long.” Addison sighed.

“Or perhaps,” the incubus said, “another way of looking at it is: not all of us know how long we have.”

Addison sat with that a minute. “Well, from now on, however long that is, you can go back to calling me Addi. You and my mom and nobody else on the face of the earth.” She grinned. “Actually. Speaking of loopholes.”

“Yeees?” the incubus said, their whole demeanor doing a hard one-eighty into wariness, like their boss might materialize from a rip in empty space and drag them into the office for a talking-to.

“There’s clearly nothing in your contract that says how you have to spend that hour with a client, right? Or else you never would’ve been able to hang out with me.”

“Right. As long as they don’t l—”

“Leave you a negative review, right, yeah, I remember.”

“Four-point-nine-seven these days, by the way.”

“Sure, great. But do you like the job any more than you did the first time I asked?”

The incubus did something eloquent with an eyebrow.

“That’s what I thought. So listen. Do you want to, like, borrow some of these games? See if any of your other clients want to learn Catan? There’ve been, like, eighty expansions since we played. And that’s just the beginning. I’ve got stuff over there most people haven’t even heard of.” She paused for breath. “And before you ask, no, it didn’t take me this long to think of it. I actually had this idea like eleven years ago. And as it turns out I’ve been kind of…adding to the collection ever since. Very casually. Total coincidence.”

“Collector value,” the incubus said.

“That’s right.”

“Playing them will cause that value to depreciate,” the incubus said.

“No doubt.”

“Shall we play one anyway?”

“Oh thank fuck,” said Addi. “I thought you’d never ask.”

The nine hundred and twelfth time Addi saw the incubus, she was sixty-seven years old, twice a mother, three times a grandmother, nearly a decade into a stage IV breast cancer diagnosis that wasn’t supposed to see the end of year two.

Her attempt at becoming a novelist fizzled out in her early thirties, but she’d spent nearly three further decades as a semisuccessful 2-player board gaming YouTube cohost, along with a mysterious sequence of playthrough partners who looked wildly different from each other but all had three things in common: their fingers were uncommonly long; the camera did something glitchy to their eyes; their clothing and accessories tended to favor a strange blood-clot color described in the comment threads as anything from “luscious garnet” to “coagulated roadkill.” Strangely, though, over time, her pool of gaming partners seemed to narrow down, even as the individuals within it began to look more and more alike, until eventually it had narrowed to one. Whoever this was, the camera absolutely hated their guts—it rendered them as a vaguely humanoid-shaped blot of static much of the time—but it was a lot more consistent than the apparently endless parade of high-budget cosplayers and “random strangers pulled off the street” (as one popular theory hypothesized) that had made up most of the Player Two pool until now.

The episodes themselves were irregularly released and each ran one hour more or less exactly. The running gag, the channel’s trademark, was that at the end of each episode, mid-game, mid-turn, sometimes mid-sentence, Addi’s partner would simply disappear, the trick behind which remained the source of much online debate. Yet, thirty years in, no conclusion had been unanimously reached, nor did one seem likely to do so anytime soon.

 Tonight, Addi woke from a dream that was really quite nice, actually, and her head was higher on its pillow than before, and this was because it wasn’t lying on the pillow at all, it was lying on an arm that was completely sleeved, from wrist to collarbone to shoulderblade, in a tattoo of a primeval forest rendered in monochrome ink the color of a bitten cherry.

“One more loophole to go,” said a voice very close to her ear, a voice like summer sun on a meadow at the end of the world. “This one’s tricky, and I had to call in a lot of favors with my colleagues in other departments, and the higher-ups are not going to be happy about it, but that’s only our problem if they catch us. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said Addi.

The incubus pressed their forehead to hers. “Good.”

It ended up being an empty-coffin burial, a family scandal, a run on all the remaining t-shirts in the merch shop, and a minor Netflix documentary, but none of that was their problem either, not even a little.