Friday, 30 November 2018

Five: The Three Rules


"You look awful."
Vincent yawned again. "Mm. You're in the ICU, and you get to judge?"
Gill chuckled. "Another few days and I can get outta here."
Vincent reached into his bag and pulled out a burger. "Brought a little medically unapproved contraband for you."
"Ohh, my hero." Gill was thrilled. His hands were free for the first time and he happily unwrapped the burger. "Been stuck on hospital food for three days. That's seventy two hours of salt and grease you don't ever get back."
Vincent smiled tightly. It was the same old Gill. He hadn't changed. He'd tried to kill himself earlier in the week and he hadn't changed a bit.
Gill took a bite and read his friend's face. "I hud gut-"
"Don't talk with your mouth full." Vincent swatted him.
Gill swallowed. "I'm okay." He said gently. "It was a mistake. One that I lived to never make again. They took the cuffs off, they took me off the watch. I'm okay."
Vincent nodded. "I'm glad. But I feel... No, not responsible. But I can remember when I would have noticed."
Gill rolled his head back painfully. "You remember you said that when I show up on your doorstep with an overnight bag next week."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, for obvious reasons I don't have a lot of savings. I can't imagine I can just show up back at work like nothing happened." He looked at Vincent. "They've already given my job away, haven't they?"
Vincent sighed. "There's someone there. Officially, he's a temp. Just till you recover."
"Oh come on. Don't kid a kidder." Gill scoffed. "I'm damaged goods now." He said it with detached calm, but Vincent could sense the deep regret underneath.
Vincent bit his lip. "I'll see what I can do."
~oo00oo~
Davidson held up both hands, placating him. "Vincent, I don't have a problem with Gill. Everyone's got their problems, and I don't think anyone should be punished for them. But he tried it here. He did it in the staff only bathroom. He was found by one of the reception staff!"
"He's got some bridges to build, I don't deny it." Vincent said. "But if he never comes back... none of the others will get past what happened either."
"That's thin, and you know it."
"Maybe." Vincent conceded. "You just said you don't think people should be punished for their problems. He screwed up, no mistake, but it was because of something personal, not professional. His private life..."
"Stops being private when he tries to kill himself on company property. Y'know, we all knew he gambled too much."
"So did I." Vincent conceded.
Davidson sighed. "Does he want to come back?"
"Yes."
"Is he willing to clean up his act?"
"I've already got him into Gamblers Anonymous. His problems are not unique. If anything's going to give you a little clarity on your life, it'd be waking up in hospital." Vincent nodded, sensing victory.
Davidson licked his lips. "Well, Owen's good, but he's here as an intern. He's looking to gain points on the college transcript."
"Little old for college." Vincent was surprised.
"Not by much. I think he went back to school to get another degree." Davidson considered. "Well, we can afford to keep them both on. I don't imagine Owen will want to stay forever."
Vincent was about to answer when his cell phone rang. "Hello?"
"Vincent, it's Connie here." A familiar voice called. "I hate to keep calling you, but Lizbeth called in sick..."
Vincent sent his boss a glance, and Davidson nodded, ducking out. Their business was concluded anyway, and Vincent sat down at his desk, lowering his voice a bit. "She always does on Fridays. She's not sick, she's going clubbing." He said. "A little obvious, but it's hard to snap at volunteers for not being generous enough in their time."
"I hear that." Connie nodded. "Right now it's just me, and you know things can get when you're here on your own."
Vincent was smiling at her voice but didn't know why exactly. "See you at six thirty?"
"I'll keep your seat warm."
~oo00oo~
Yasi made her way through the Labyrinth as normal, when she heard a noise coming from the darkness. She was familiar with all the sounds that her home could produce, and there were plenty of them. Steam moving underground through pipes, concrete settling because of the temperature, rats crawling along... This was something else, and she had to take a look. Pulling out her Lantern, she crept up on it, edging around the corner.
The lantern flared into life, as Yasi caught a glimpse of something moving, a flash of metal, and she just reacted, her reflexes making her strike out.
Her fist struck something, and she heard a grunt of pain. The shape moved again, hard to define in the light that was flashing around crazily.
Yasi felt herself get taken in a tackle, and bent with it, wrestling her attacker to the ground. He was surprisingly strong, and as agile as she was. Whoever he was, he'd been trained.
He was fast, she was faster. She shifted backward like a dancer, moving just out of reach as he swiped at her, both of them moving more on instinct than sight. The second his fist passed by her, she pounced forward and let loose a flurry of short fast jabs, high then low, then high again, too fast for him to block, too many for him to handle. It was a technique she had used in battle before, and there were few who could stand up to it. The mysterious warrior fell back, and Yasi let out a heavy spin kick.
Dorcan came running down the tunnel behind her. "I heard..." He noticed the motionless body on the ground. "Who's that?"
"I don't know." Yasi admitted. "But you got great timing. I'd hate to have to drag him back alone."
Dorcan picked up the lantern and shone a light on their mysterious guest. "He's Lostkind. Not one of ours, but definitely Lostkind."
Yasi took Dorcan by the wrist and aimed the light lower. "I don't recognize these glyphs."
The warrior was marked with tribal tattoos, similar to Yasi and Dorcan. He was not part of their Secret City, but he was of their world.
~oo00oo~
The Chapel was the Lostkind Hospital. Dozens of sleeping cots in a wide art deco space, though only a few of them were occupied. Hooded figures moved back and forth between the patients, wearing large face-masks that made them all look like enormous birds.
Keeper entered the Chapel at a quick march and traded a nod with the Healers. Yasi and Dorcan were standing over their prisoner.
"He followed me home. Can I keep him?" Yasi quipped brightly.
"Oh, is that all it takes?" Dorcan commented under his breath.
Keeper strode over to check. "What do we have here?"
The unconscious intruder had been tied to the cot, but that didn't bother the Healers, who looked him over from behind their long full-face masks.
"We should post a few Shinobi guards." Dorcan offered. "To make sure he doesn't escape."
"Would be a lot easier if we knew the Healers would watch him outside the Chapel." Yasi commented.
"Y'know, my whole life, I've never got that." Dorcan complained idly. "Why do the Healers never leave this place?"
Yasi shrugged. "It's their way. Why do the Riverfolk always stay below the waterline?"
"Because they know you'll kill them if they come up for air." Dorcan retorted.
"Enough, both of you." Keeper cracked. "We have an Intruder. The first time in our history that we've had an Intruder. Look at him, he's not a New Yorker, he's not a tourist... He came here for a reason, and he found a way into the Labyrinth."
"Yeah, but he couldn't find a way out of it." Yasi snorted. "I took a look, and he found one of the dead end tunnels. I don't know how long he's been down there, but long enough to get lost, set up a sleeping bag and eat at least three meals."
~oo00oo~
Kamy hummed a Lostkind Lullaby, as Archivist read over her shoulder. "Very good, Kamy. Your penmanship is improving."
Kamy was gripping the pen tightly, trying to keep her fingers level. The rest of her class had already done this, but Kamy had trouble with her handwriting. "I don't need to know this." She groused, as only a four year old girl could. "Watchers only need this for reports, and I'm not going to be writing reports yet."
"If you go to the surface, you need to know these things." Archivist told her, not for the first time. "Plus, you're far too young."
"I already know where all the entrances to the Labyrinth are in Central Part." Kamy half-whined.
"Park. Central Park." Archivist corrected with affection. "This won't mean anything to you, dear; but I've taught five generations of Lostkind from your age up. Everyone wants to dance with the Upside. But suppose you get lost and can't find Central Park? What other ways home do you know?"
Kamy looked down, not having an answer.
Archivist raised his voice. "Tecca?"
Across the shelves, out of sight, Tecca shouted back. "Yessir?"
Archivist boomed over to him without moving. "Tell me a Midtown Entrance."
"The Empire State Building." Tecca called back without hesitation. "The foundation goes 55 feet below ground, there's a way in hidden there, but you only use it when you're dead sure you aren't seen."
Kamy gave an envious smile, despite herself.
Archivist chuckled. "He's not much older than you, Kamy. You've got plenty of time to get in over your head and do crazy, irresponsible things. Until then, be patient, help out at the Markets, listen to everything the Borrowers don't tell you, and work on your lowercase 'a's'; they're a little squashed."
Kamy dutifully picked up the pen again, and Archivist moved past the shelves to the other side of the Whisper Gallery, to join Tecca, who was writing in a large notebook.
"So, I know my stuff, and I can write okay." Tecca rubbed his eyes painfully as his tutor came over. "Do I have to do this?"
Archivist chuckled. "You want to be a Watcher, you have to keep the records. Our records are more than just the history of this place. They are the history of the city. Things even the press, or the police don't know. More than a few of these volumes were penned by your grandmother, and if you intend to take over when she retires..."
Tecca nodded, having heard it all before. "I know, but... my hand is cramping up." He yawned and adjusted the lantern on the desk before him. "I wish we used computers."
Archivist laughed. "Rule Three: Be Beautiful. How can a computer be beautiful, when it is obsolete so fast? Electrical power comes to us in secret, young one. We could have any toy the Upsiders play with; but how long would it be of use to us? We try it, and we'll be noticed, so much expensive equipment disappearing, so much more power needed..."
"Well..." Tecca picked up his pen stubbornly again. "Maybe one day."
One of the Gremlins came running in, and pressed a small slip of paper into Archivist's hand. The child ran out without another word, and the older man read the note quickly. Keeper had sent him a quick summary of recent events, and a drawing of the glyph the stranger had tattooed. "Interesting."
Tecca looked up. "What is?"
Archivist turned to the shelves of volumes, looking for a specific tome. He found it and drew the large hardcover book down from the shelf. "Tecca, if you want a break, can you bring me an Index please?"
The Index was the thickest of all the volumes in the annals of the Underside. It kept track of each reference to each topic. Tecca went looking for one, as Archivist brought over his own selection. When the boy joined him, the older man was carefully leafing through the book, comparing his sketch to the many pages of drawings within. "What's this?"
"This..." Archivist explained absently. "Is a record of all the Clan markings in all the known undersides, as well as Gang Signs, assorted Secret Societies..."
Tecca stared at the drawing Archivist had been given. "Where'd you see this Glyph?" The boy asked.
"Someone was brought into the Chapel today. I'm trying to find out where he came from."
Tecca nodded. "Any luck?"
Archivist brought a hand down to point at one of the pages in his book. "As a matter of fact, yes."
~oo00oo~
"We don't know that it's a risk." Yasi pointed out. "He could just be immigrating here. Something brought him to New York, and he decided to check in... We're not exactly easy to find, even for other Lostkind, and the Labyrinth did exactly what it was supposed to do."
Archivist came striding in. "I found it." He said. "The glyph tattooed on his neck is the mark of a Lostkind Warrior Clan out of Berlin Below, called the 'Wildmen'."
"Wildmen." Keeper murmured. "Never heard of them."
"I have." Yasi said grimly. "The Sensei said that they were pretty fierce. He said that during the Second World War, the Nazis found a way into the Berlin Underside, and the Wildmen held off a whole Regiment so completely that nobody ever knew where they went."
"That was sixty years ago; do we have anything since then?" Keeper asked.
Archivist shook his head.
"What is a Wildman Warrior doing in our Labyrinth?" Yasi demanded quietly. "He took one hell of a wrong turn."
"Maybe when he wakes up, we can ask him." Keeper suggested lightly.
Kamy came running into the Throne Room, forgetting to stop at the door. She made it halfway to the Triumvirate, remembered her manners sharply and quickly turned back, scrambling to the door. She knocked swiftly, barely able to contain herself.
The Triumvirate was amused by that. Without turning, Archivist spoke. "Hey guys, I think Kamy has something she wants to say."
Keeper chuckled thinly. "Come in, little Gremlin. What is it?"
"The Healers sent me." Kamy came running in. "The stranger is dead."
~oo00oo~
"You never leave the Chapel!" Keeper roared at the Healers. "You'd think one of you would be watching when we brought something interesting in!"
Yasi was far more restrained, but equally furious. "Dorcan? Explain."
Her Chief Lieutenant looked properly ashamed of himself. "I screwed up, Captain; no mistake. I was... He took poison of some kind, he might even have done it before you found him in the Labyrinth if it was slow-acting."
"Oh, don't even go there!" Yasi snapped. "I left you to watch him, and he managed to kill himself. How did this happen?"
"I was..." Dorcan surrendered. "You're right. It is my fault, I take full responsibility."
Keeper joined them. "The Healers say they checked when he came in and there was no poison. They say it was fast acting stuff. I assume you checked him for concealed vials of poison?"
"Checked him for everything." Yasi promised. "If he'd been awake, he would have been humiliated at how thorough I was."
Keeper let out a breath between her teeth. "Then somebody must have smuggled it to him." She looked at Dorcan expectantly, and the Shinobi managed to shrink further.
~oo00oo~
"I heard Gill is recovering."
"Owen, it's six thirty."
"Mr. Davidson spoke to me about my job here; and he's right. I'm here for credits. I could be gone tomorrow, I could be here a year from now. Depends on a lot of things."
Vincent yawned. "Yeah. Like I said, it's six thirty, and..."
Owen jumped up. "Oh, sorry, am I keeping you?"
"Not exactly. It's not like we have to lock up or anything..."
"Got a hot date?"
"I'm just wondering what keeps a young man here on a Friday night."
"Trying to catch up with my esteemed peers." Owen quipped. "Gill's got eight deals and permissions and feasibility studies cooking. So I've been looking through some old files, trying to figure out what he'd say."
Vincent was surprised by that. "Why?"
Owen looked embarrassed, ducking his head a little. "Look, I'm only a temp, and I don't want him wondering how I screwed up when he gets back. It's not my place to make decisions he disagrees with."
Vincent was stunned, and more than a little touched by the show of character. "I appreciate that. Gill will too."
Owen nodded. "Can I ask... About this deal a year or so back?"
"Which one?"
"Keist Telecommunications. Something about running Fiber-Optic cabling through steam pipes or something."
Vincent felt his heart give a solid thump. "What about it?"
"Well, it's a little out of character with some of the other deals Gill signed off on around that time. For the most part he lets people go right on and spend their money, at least where it won't interfere with other people... This one he said it was a waste of their time."
"Well, that was me." Vincent confessed. "I looked into it. Too much money for too little benefit."
Owen shrugged, taking that at face value. "Fair enough." He seemed to remember himself suddenly as Vincent let out another enormous yawn. "Oh, sorry. You were trying to get out of here weren't you?"
"S'okay."
Owen started collecting his things. "Think anyone will care if I take the paperwork for a night?"
"Don't see why anyone would." Vincent said, not really paying attention. He was already late.
Owen walked out with him. "I agree with you about Keist by the way." He said as they walked. "Seemed like a ridiculous waste of money."
Vincent didn't rise to the comment. "I... I don't really remember. It was what? A year ago?"
"About that. Thing is, it's not your money. That cash goes into the city. I can't imagine anyone around the City Planner's Office having a problem with that."
Vincent felt a sudden spike of worry. This had crossed a line from casual small talk to an actual discussion. "All I can tell you is that I did what I always do. I evaluate the expense, then the benefit, and I put both in a memo. After that, it's not my department."
Owen shrugged, not concerned at all. "Well, whatever. So, who's the lucky girl?"
"That's the second time you've asked me that." Vincent retorted.
"You're yawning, and have been most of the afternoon, but you bought aftershave and used it during the lunch break. Getting spiffed up for the subway, or you going somewhere else first?"
Observant too. Vincent noted to himself. "As a matter of fact, yes." He admitted. He tried not to read anything into the fact that he had, in fact, bought new aftershave to wear to the Soup Kitchen.
Owen smirked, and headed off. "Have a good night."
It was hours later before he realized that Owen had just changed the subject.
~oo00oo~
Around half the adult homeless population had a chronic mental illness, and while they rarely caused trouble for those who tried to help them, it often made the volunteers nervous to be there on their own.
And at the head of the line, with a smile on her face, and her frizzy brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, was Connie Harnell. She smiled when he came in, but then she was almost always smiling. "Hey."
"Connie." Vincent smiled, suddenly self-conscious. It was less than twenty four hours since he'd been trading longing looks with Yasi, but he knew in his heart that the exciting warrior woman wasn't a smart choice.
Vincent came over to join her at the serving counter, and she hip-checked him aside gently. "I got this, you go handle the Anti-Christ."
Vincent smiled at Connie's nickname for the Coffee Urn. A mistake on her first night volunteering had left her somewhat scalded, and terrified of the large battered pot for the rest of her time there.
One thing Vincent had told his friends over and over for the last year was that charity had provided more clothes than could ever be used, because that was what people gave away. More than clothes, people in need were desperate for food. With more than half the country on food-stamps, food was a blessing, but an expensive one to give.
Helping out in the Kitchen was sort of like being in a high school cafeteria, where people stared at their food unless they had a friend sitting close by. The majority of them hadn't had a good meal in a few days, hadn't had a shower in longer. They had dignity, but little else. Some of them were twitching and muttering to themselves, which put off a lot of the newer volunteers. Those with staying power had serious respect from the first-timers.
People like Vincent and Connie. Connie had shown up to help one night and hadn't missed a night since. She stayed later than any of the others, and often beat him there. Vincent knew the Revelation that had forced him to open his eyes and take a look at the world and wondered sometimes what Connie's driving force was. At first he was certain she worked too hard and too often to be doing it just out of the kindness of her heart. Then a few hours passed and he saw her with the homeless kids. He knew instantly just how big her heart was.
She had been as nervous as he was when he first arrived here. It really was as simple as making sandwiches by the dozen and handing them out to people, but very few had it in them to keep coming back.
Vincent hated closing the doors. There were always more than a few people gathered around at the door, hoping for a free seat. There were always more mouths to feed than food to go around. Every day, the shelters of New York turned away thousands of people. It was not a feeling Vincent liked, but it wasn't likely to go away any time soon.
With the doors closed, the pace settled, and Connie took the opportunity to bring over a cup of coffee. Vincent yawned again, and nearly cried in gratitude.
"Thank you." He said sincerely. "Come to think of it, didn't you vow never to make coffee here again when you got cooked?"
"You mean since the Anti-Christ attacked me?" Connie returned, pushing her glasses up her nose with one finger. "Special occasion. I heard about Gill."
"You did?" Vincent was surprised.
"Yeah." She said gently. "Are you okay?"
"Me? Of course I'm okay."
"Come on Vincent, this is me." Connie pressed him. "How long have we known each other?"
"Five days."
"Exactly." Connie said as though it had been a lifetime. "I know you. You're in here or someplace like it every night. You blame yourself every time we have to turn someone away. When it's one of your oldest friends? Someone you see every day? No way you don't take that personally."
Vincent chuckled. She knew him well. "Connie, do you remember the first time you came to help out at the Kitchen? Did you feel guilty the next day, when you ate a nice, big, hot breakfast?"
"Actually, yeah." She confessed. "Just a little."
"So did I." Vincent nodded. "So, you tell me, what's worse? Feeling guilty when there's nothing you can do, or not caring when there is?" He kept his eyes on the sandwiches, kept his hands busy making them. "Gill was a wake-up call. There was a time I didn't come to places like this at all. The last few months... I've been neglecting the people in my life." He shrugged. "I'll do what I can, for as many as I can, for as long as I can."
Connie smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. "You care too much, Vincent. I think that's what I like about you."
The tone was leading, and Vincent felt a knife edge of worry. He didn't know why, but Yasi came to mind just then. "How did you find out?" He asked suddenly.
There came the sound of someone clearing their throat, and Vincent turned back to the line to find Wotcha grinning at him from behind a pair of sunglasses.
"I think I just figured it out." Vincent added dryly, spooning the soup into another bowl for her. "Wotcha. New glasses?"
"The Borrowers had a swap-meet at the Market. Share and share alike. When are you gonna take pity on that nice girl and ask her out already?"
Vincent flushed and glanced over his shoulder, checking that Connie was busy at the other end of the table collecting used plates. He lowered his voice. "Did you hear from Yasi?"
"About Monroe?" The Watcher nodded. "The matter is closed. You were lucky." She shivered. "We don't like to involve the Captain unless we absolutely, positively have no other choice in the matter."
Vincent blinked. Yasi had told him that she was security, and he had no doubt she was quick with that katana, but the notion that Wotcha was secretly terrified of the Shinobi Captain took him by surprise. "So what happens now?"
"Now nothing." Wotcha shrugged. "We found the guy, there's nothing more to do. Declare victory, go home, and take the girl with you."
"The Girl?" Vincent repeated. "Connie?
"Yessir?" Connie responded promptly to the sound of her name, suddenly at his elbow.
Wotcha had already melted back into the room, out of sight. Vincent was about to say something when he yawned broadly again.
"You look... exhausted." Connie said lightly.
Vincent bowed his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose, forced to agree. "Connie?" He said tiredly. "Do you know you're wearing two different socks?"
"As a matter of fact, Vincent; I do know that." She nodded helplessly. "I don't know how it happens, I just know that somewhere between the Laundromat and the apartment, I manage to lose half a dozen socks. Next week's laundry, there they are, back again, but..." She chuckled despite herself. "Fortunately, I'm quirky. I can get away with wearing mismatched socks."
Vincent chuckled with her, and looked past her to notice Wotcha leaving the room, Tecca at her side. Tecca glanced back at Vincent, gave him a sly wink, and pulled up his trouser legs a little bit. He too was wearing mismatched socks, at least one of which Connie would probably recognize.
Smiling despite himself, Vincent started collecting plates.
~oo00oo~
"I'm gonna go. There's this pizza place I like, open all hours. They make great pasta, and free garlic bread." Connie said lightly as they cleaned up. "If you could see straight right now, I would invite you to come with me."
"If I could see straight right now, I'd..." Vincent yawned. "What was I just saying?"
"Earth to Vincent."
Vincent came out of himself. "Sorry, what were we talking about?"
"You've been off with the pixies all night, even before you fell asleep mid-stride." Connie joshed. "Something on your mind?"
She wasn't the first to make the comment and Vincent was tempted to tell her. The woman sought to find sweet and fascinating stories in everything she touched. He wondered what she'd make of something like the Underside. She was his friend, and dense as he may be, he could tell she wanted more than that. The Underside was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to him, and he wanted to share it.
But he knew he couldn't. "Nothing really." He said aloud.
Connie turned back to the dishes, overly casual. "Girl trouble?"
"Why do you say that?" Vincent returned, equally casual.
"Well, it occurs to me that you were free every night this week, so I doubt you've got a girl. If you do, then you're keeping her a secret… or maybe there's another reason?"
It was an invitation. She was giving him an out if he wasn't interested. A month ago, Vincent might have been tempted, but now Yasi had reappeared in his life, and even though he knew it was an impossible goal, he was still fascinated by the New York Ninja… But Yasi was a dream. Something out of a comic book. Connie was real. She lived in the real world, just like he did, even if part of him daydreamed constantly about being somewhere else. "Connie…"
"You know what?" Connie said suddenly. "It's none of my business. You okay to get home?"
"Yeah, I called a cab."
"Good. I fell asleep on the subway once. And when I woke up... Well, let's just say that it never happened again." Connie pushed her glasses up her nose again, and smiled shyly. "Sleep well, Vincent."
He nodded. "Same time tomorrow?"
"Probably. But if you wanted to meet me a little earlier, we could get coffee?"
Vincent's eyes focused instantly. "Like a date?"
"No. Like coffee." She said, a little too calmly. "And if you remember this conversation tomorrow, I'm sure you'll be able to come up with a response." She headed off. "Don't make me wait too long for an answer, Vincent; you know how neurotic I am."
She was very easygoing about it, but Vincent knew she was nervous, putting herself out there. His first instinct was to say yes. Then Yasi came to mind. He wasn't sure if it was Yasi holding him back, or if it was Connie. It suddenly struck him why Wotcha was gently suggesting he go out with Connie. Because she was already interested in him... and because if he was with Connie, he couldn't pursue Yasi, who terrified Wotcha.
He was too tired to keep it all straight in his head. He needed sleep.
~oo00oo~
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Vincent moaned.
Tap! Tap! Tap!
One eye opened unwillingly. He had come home, collapsed instantly and fallen asleep on his couch. He was still in his clothes. His watch said it was after three am. He'd gotten a few good hours, but could easily sleep for another...
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Vincent rolled his head painfully to the left, his neck hurting after sleeping on the couch, and...
Yasi was at the window. He rolled to his feet, and opened the window. The shock of cold air woke him completely in seconds.
"Hi." He yawned a little, rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I'm glad you came back."
Yasi didn't say anything, she just gestured for him to follow her, and she quickly scaled the fire escape.
Grabbing a jacket, and trying to smooth out his clothes, Vincent followed.
She was waiting at the top of the fire escape, on the edge of the rooftop. In the time it took him to get there, she had found a perch on the corner of the building, cross-legged on the ledge. He came up next to her. "Bad news?"
"Somewhat." Yasi admitted. "When I got home last night... Keeper was waiting for me."
"Ah. She was angry?"
"She was… concerned. It's the first time we've ever had an outsider giving orders to our Watchers." Yasi explained. "I told her it'll never happen again."
The word 'outsider' hit Vincent harder than he thought it would. For all the changes he had made to his private life over the last year, he was not one of them, and likely never would be.
"It's been noticed, and not in the good way." Yasi summed up. "And... the inevitable result... resulted."
Vincent felt something deflate inside him. "Well." He said simply. "We knew it would happen I guess."
"We did. In fact I remember warning you about it."
"We got the answer we needed, I was able to tell Gill to relax, and he could keep his job. All in all... Mission Accomplished."
"Not such a bad thing." Yasi said. "So. This is goodbye."
Vincent took it in and kept his chin up. "It would... appear so."
Silence. She wasn't moving. He came off the fire escape and came around onto the roof itself, standing behind her, and keeping away from the edge. She swiveled in place, sitting to face him, the drop inches behind her.
"When I graduated high school..." Vincent said finally. "My friends were the best I'd ever had. We promised that would never change. I haven't spoken to any of them in ten years. People move on."
Yasi seemed more interested in that than Vincent would have thought. "Wow. I honestly can't imagine that."
"What do you mean?"
Yasi shrugged. "I've never... ever, drifted away from any of my friends. We all live together underground, it's the ultimate closed community."
"That sounds... awkward."
"Not that much. We recruit now and then, we have regular trade with the surface, even if you don't know about it; we can come up whenever we like. Some of us even move up here permanently, seeking an Upside life, but... It's a huge Culture shock going back to surface towns." She shrugged. "I've never drifted away from anyone before."
"Must be nice." Vincent said quietly. "Can we... talk for a bit before you go? If only because it's the last chat we'll ever have?"
Yasi nodded. "Yeah." Nothing else, no particular emotion. Just the one word.
"Can we do it inside?"
Yasi grinned. "Cold? Bearing in mind that of the two of us, I'm the one wearing a leather vest, and you're the one in an overcoat and mittens."
"Not the first New York Winter I've survived, but-"
Yasi snapped her fingers. "Fear of heights!"
Vincent ducked his head.
Yasi leaned back on the edge of the rooftop, perfectly at ease with the fact that she was hanging out over a five story drop. "Vincent, I was born and raised underground. You think I don't understand a fear of heights?"
"Not heights. I'm fine with heights. Put me in a skyscraper I'm fine. Put me in a plane, I'm fine." Vincent looked a little embarrassed. "Put me on a five foot step ladder with nothing to hold onto and I get vertigo."
"Ahh. Fear of falling. That's different." Yasi swiveled around in place and dangled her legs over the edge. "I've had that before. Not in years, though."
"How'd you get over it?"
"I had to do it a lot." Yasi shrugged. "Most of us stick to the Underside, but Shinobi and Watchers have to go Above fairly often. I know the hidden highways of this city like you know the Midtown traffic. I can tell you which stone gargoyles will keep you hidden from the street level. I can tell you the location of every manhole cover in this city that actually leads to one of our tunnels. I know what graffiti is put on the walls by kids, or gang members, or by us as signals to each other. I can tell you that if the train at 82nd and Metro is late, you can get to Central Park in ten minutes riding on its roof; and I know exactly how fast it can move before it's too dangerous to jump for it."
Her voice had taken on the dream-like quality again, like she was telling a great old folk-tale. "What must it be like to be you?" Vincent asked wistfully. "Walking through walls like that?"
Yasi met his eyes for a moment, before she swore under her breath. "Keeper's gonna kill me."
Vincent blinked. "Huh?"
"Go to your regular subway station, and get on a train to the Met." Yasi told him, rising to her feet without using her hands. "Wear something comfortable. Something in black if you've got it. I'll meet you."
"No reason we can't both take a train." Vincent pointed out. "We've done it before."
Yasi perched on the edge of the rooftop. "I know. But I travel faster if I go my way."
Vincent was about to respond when Yasi rolled backwards off the rooftop without hesitation. He ran to the edge quickly, looking over the side in shock.
There was no sign of her.
~oo00oo~
Twenty minutes later he was on a subway train. It felt like a hundred years since the last time he'd taken a train with Yasi. He was sure she was here somewhere, but he couldn't guess where.
There was a tapping noise beside him, and he turned in surprise. Yasi was six inches away, on the other side of the window, hanging upside down from the roof of the train. She waved at him, smiling brightly. The rushing wall of the subway tunnel was less than a foot behind her, and she didn't seem the least concerned.
A short scream of shock came from behind him and he spun to see one of the passengers staring at the window, pointing at Yasi with his jaw hanging open.
Vincent turned back to the window. There was nothing there. She'd vanished again.
"Did... Did you see that?" The passenger asked Vincent in shock.
"See what?" Vincent asked innocently.
~oo00oo~
He got off the train, and made his way toward the stairs. When he hit the street, he wasn't a bit surprised to see Yasi leaning against the nearest light pole. One circle of light on a dark street. Vincent made his way over to her, glancing over his shoulder to check that they were alone.
By the time he looked back to the streetlight, she was gone. He paused in the middle of the empty street.
A moment later she reappeared, stepping into the light. She had been less than two feet away, and he hadn't seen her. "Miss me?"
"How do you do that?" Vincent asked.
"There are Three Rules. Call it our philosophy, if you will." She held up three fingers, her long coat waving a bit around her ankles. "Be Invisible. Be Daring. Be Beautiful." She stepped back again, and was swallowed in the darkness, invisible again. Vincent grinned and followed her. The streetlight was bright against his eyes, and once past the light, he could see the shadows clearly.
"It's a trick of the light." She explained. "You can't see through bright lights to darkness. It's like when you're trying to see outside your windows at night from a well lit room. Easier to see in than out."
"And just like that, you're invisible." Vincent nodded, getting to know the rules of this new viewpoint.
"We're invisible." She corrected primly. "You're right here with me."
She was standing very close to him again. He suddenly noticed and swallowed, reminding himself that this was goodbye.
She turned to walk, and he followed, both of them trotting down the street. They didn't speak for a while, but the silence was comfortable between them as they walked. "Where are we going?" He asked finally.
"Field test." She said easily. "First exam on being invisible."
She had led him to the Museum of Natural History.
Yasi ignored the steps completely and took him around the side of the building. The maintenance doors were marked staff only, and had keypads and card readers…
"We don't have a ticket." Vincent teased.
She just grinned back. "We don't even need a key."
The door opened before her like a magic trick. She'd done something to it, but Vincent couldn't for the life of him guess what. She was as human as he was, he knew that, there was nothing supernatural about anything he'd seen. But she could disappear in the simplest shadow, locks and doors were nothing to her, she could dance on a spire and run on a wire…
For some reason Connie came to mind just then, and Vincent found himself feeling guilty. Like he was hiding from the real world; running around Neverland so he wouldn't have to grow up…
She clearly knew her way, glancing up at the cameras every now and then, leading him along the narrow corridors to evade them with an almost bored expression on her face.
Once they got out into the exhibits, she loosened up considerably. He walked with her through the floors. Coming and going between levels was easy with Yasi to open the security grates for them. Vincent had seen them before, but the exhibits all changed in the dark. The Ocean creatures were more mysterious, the tribal huts looked more threatened, the carnivore statues and models looked more menacing. All of it seemed more natural, the dim light glinting off glass eyes, making them seem more alive, though still…
"You've obviously done this before. You come here often?" He asked her.
"There's a subway station, down a few levels." Yasi said. "A few guards, several cameras, lots of unusual shapes and shadows. We bring the kids up here sometimes, once they hit six years old, sort of like field trips, let them get used to being invisible…"
Vincent smirked, despite himself. "My first day of school?"
"And your last." Yasi commented without joy, opening yet another security door without hesitation.
The night tour took them all over the building, across five levels and dozens of rooms. Yasi told him that there were guards, but she knew their schedules.
Vincent had been there before of course, but not for years. The exhibits had changed dramatically since then, as interests and technology changed. More screens, more exhibits about the history of cars and planes and spaceflight… It was damn spooky with all the lights off, and the few lights from outside made some rooms glow, while others stayed pitch black. Shadows extended from the skeletons of dinosaurs and made monsters on the walls.
He felt like he was going to get in trouble. If somebody catches us, I most certainly will. He thought. The fact that he was trespassing had never entered his mind until that exact moment. He looked back for Yasi…
She was gone.
Vincent froze. The huge echoing room, full of shadows and imaginary monsters was suddenly suffocating. The dead eyes of African predators glared down at him from behind their enormous teeth… He hadn't felt this out of place since walking through the Underside's darkness…
And then he saw movement. He spun to face it… And saw Yasi sitting on the elephant exhibit, resting on her elbows, lying prone across the elephant's head. She waved down at him like she was riding the huge animal through India.
"Is that safe?" Vincent asked.
"Likely not." Yasi agreed, and slid down to land neatly on the floor without blinking. "You want to see things like we do, you have to learn it. It's not something we're born with. You remember what I told you about the Rhythm? Pick a place in this room, and ask yourself how to get there. That's what we do. Anywhere in this city, above, below, outside a building, inside a building. It's all the Rhythm, it's all pathways to follow."
Voices. Distant voices, echoing off the silent walls.
Vincent froze and looked over his shoulder. Yasi just grinned, in her element. She caught his arm and pulled him into the shadow of one of the exhibits. Not behind it, not under it, just next to it, away from the moonlight.
"You said you knew their schedule." He hissed.
"I do." She shot back quietly. "But what's the point of being invisible if nobody's looking?"
They stayed still, in the shadow of an African hut, with a hundred odd stuffed birds in the next room, and a gift shop on the other side, and two guards coming through. The guards didn't notice them, and were in fact more interested in talking to each other.
"She's starting to think you were just humoring us all that time. It took me an hour to convince her she wasn't a horrible cook, and then you canceled on us again..."
"She is a good cook!"
The guards were having a private conversation as they walked through the museum they were guarding, shining their torches over the exhibits.
Vincent and Yasi weren't hiding behind anything, they weren't under a table, they were just standing there... With only a protective layer of shadow covering them. Yasi's hand was over his lips, the other over his watch...
A reflective surface. Vincent realized. Light could reflect off my watch, and draw his attention to this exact shadow.
One torch beam went less than a foot to their left over the exhibit. One of the guards… was staring right at them. Vincent felt his heart stop. The guard was looking right at his face. How was he not seeing them? He was close enough for Vincent to read the name 'Vossler' on his name-tag.
Vincent couldn't believe it was really happening. It was insane. He and Yasi were two feet from the nearest of the two guards, two feet from his flashlight, his radio, his nightstick, his gun...
"Don't get me wrong, I love coming over." One was saying. "You and Kathryn are family, but…"
"But what?"
"Look, it's not a huge deal…"
Vossler paused, still looking in the direction of Yasi and Vincent. "Oh my God!"
Vincent felt his heart stop.
Vossler spun to his friend, struck suddenly by a revelation. "Oh my God, it's her breath isn't it?"
Yasi was biting her lip to keep from smiling. Vincent was trying not to breathe so loud. It took him a full four seconds to realize they were still having the conversation they were having when they walked in.
"I know exactly what you mean! It's this new cabbage diet she read about." Vossler said forgivingly. "I wake up to it every morning, the pot plant in our room is dying!"
"Oh thank God, I thought I was about to get my teeth bashed in. You talk to her about it?"
"And tell her what? Her new diet makes her breath stink so bad it brings tears to my eyes and makes our friends avoid us?"
Their embarrassing little conference continued till they were out of the exhibit and off into the next room. Yasi signaled the all clear and the two of them came out of hiding.
"Wh... Why didn't they... How could they not notice us?" Vincent demanded.
Yasi grinned winningly at him. "Same reason you couldn't see me at the streetlight. The dark hides us. You cannot see into dark places when you're standing in the light." She smiled brilliantly, suddenly exquisitely beautiful again. "Is that a great metaphor or what?"
~oo00oo~
The Tour of the Museum ended with the rooftop, and they got a great view of Central Park by night.
Vincent was still breathing hard, feeling his heart race. "I don't know why that was so nerve-wracking."
Yasi chuckled. She wasn't mocking him, she was just amused. "Well, that's part one."
"What's part two?"
"I told you. Three Rules: Be Invisible. Be Daring..."
"Be daring how?"
"Like me with the Elephant. Pick a place and go there."
Vincent shivered, and not because of the cold.
~oo00oo~
"Sorry to be so slow." Vincent croaked.
"You're doing fine." Yasi called back. "Plenty of people would have chickened out by now. Or fallen."
"True." Vincent called back, trying not to think about that. "On the other hand, my underwear is riding up into places I'd rather not think about."
"Can't help you with that." Yasi said blandly. "I never wear any."
Vincent missed the next handhold and dropped. Yasi's hand flashed out, quick as a whip-crack, and steadied him. "See you at the top."
And with that, she clambered up the side of the wall, finding grips in the brickwork that Vincent couldn't even see. Vincent was holding onto the ladder with a death grip, trying not to think about how high he was.
She had taken him to the train tracks, to where the elevated lines were. She had scaled up the side of the nearest building; an apartment block that was quiet for the night. Vincent craned his head back and saw that the building had two rooftops, one section of the building going higher than the rest. The taller section had a ladder near the top that lead up to the higher roof, above the train line. The second rooftop, much lower, was where she waited for him.
It was a struggle, the grips seeming to be much narrower than they looked. Vincent was struggling to meet the challenge. He tried to keep himself in good shape, and could do more push-ups than most office workers, but the building had him exhausted by the second story. Every time his foot slipped, or his fingers gave out, she was right there to catch him, and Vincent was grateful. But at the same time, he couldn't comprehend why he wanted to do this. Why wasn't he at home asleep like a sane person would be?
He grabbed the largest ledge yet. It was a windowsill, not unlike his bedroom window. Yasi could sit comfortably on one, waiting for him to wake up. Vincent gripped the ledge and prayed the people inside didn't hear him puffing outside their room. If someone opened the window he was a dead man.
Another few feet, and Vincent was stunned to realize he had reached the rooftop. As exhausted as he was, he wanted to cheer at the top of his lungs. He'd done it! He'd climbed up the side of a building! He felt like jelly, he was sweating through his clothes, and he still couldn't look down, but he'd done it.
Vincent clambered over the ledge, gulping air. She was waiting for him at the edge, eyes closed, cross legged, serene expression. She was on the edge of emptiness, meditating soundly.
Vincent put his head between his knees and focused on breathing.
"Do you remember the day we met?" She asked him finally.
"Vividly." He whispered. "You changed my whole world view that day."
Yasi nodded, not at all surprised. "The day we met, I led you through the darkness. You trusted me, and you had a lot less reason to." She held out a hand to him, and he took it. "I told you that I wouldn't let you stumble or be lost. Did you believe me then?"
"Yes."
"I won't let you fall off the building, won't let you drop." She intoned. "Do you believe me now?"
Vincent bit his lip, still breathing hard. "Yes."
Yasi grinned. "This next part is tricky. You go up the maintenance ladder, but after that, you have to climb outside the safety cage to get to the roof. You'll have to push off, and grab onto the ledge. There will be no way to reach. You'll have to jump it."
Vincent swallowed, and went to the ladder. Up above, the next rooftop up was above the railway, and had a phone exchange, or an electrical transformer... The ladder was caged, which meant workmen went up and down it often. It also meant that the ladder was locked off, so that nobody could climb it without permission.
Which is exactly what Yasi did. She scaled up the outside of the ladder cage, using the metal cage as her handholds. Once she got to the top, she pushed off, using her whole body to jump a few feet to the rooftop ledge, which she caught and climbed over.
Vincent swallowed and started to copy her, much slower, more awkward, and terrified at every inch.
Climbing a cage was the same as climbing a ladder, but the higher he got, the more aware he was of the huge drop behind him, only getting longer. Sooner than he would have liked, he reached the top of the cage. The ladder met the roof in a safety rail, so Vincent could not simply reach out and grab it…
Yasi was right. He would have to jump it. The ledge to catch was four feet away. Practically a stretch of his arms, though he would never be able to twist that far. There would be a moment where he was between both solid things, with nothing to hold onto. There would be a moment when he was airborne.
He knew he shouldn't have done it, but he looked down. Suddenly, everything was ice. His hands were ice, his stomach was ice…
Yasi was waiting, legs dangling over the edge. He knew she'd picked the easiest possible place for him to do something like this. It was a kiddie jump. He'd seen Tecca do something a hundred times harder, and he was a kid, not even a teenager yet…
"Come on!" She encouraged.
He knew the Shinobi wouldn't let him fall...
Vincent looked down again. "I can't." He called back, hating himself.
Yasi didn't try to stop him back up as he slowly climbed down.
~oo00oo~
Vincent couldn't stop staring at his shoes. He was humiliated.
Yasi wasn't showing him pity, wasn't crowing or being forgiving. It was like it had never happened. But when he got back on the train, she joined him, sitting next to him, though not close enough to touch. "Vincent." She said finally. "You wanted to know what it was like to be one of us. Well, now you know."
"And I know I'm not up to it." Vincent admitted softly, regretfully. "Keeper's right. I'm not like you guys."
Yasi nodded. "That's not such a terrible thing. Lostkind aren't magical beings, Vincent. We're just from a different place, and lived a different life. Do you remember what you said? About how it changed your whole world view?"
"Yeah."
"Plenty of people would have turned us in and made money off what they knew. Plenty of people would have forgotten about it once it was done and missed everything you now see. You didn't do so bad."
Vincent knew she meant it, and was grateful, but it didn't change any of the facts. "Still. Lousy way to end an evening."
"Agreed. Which is why we're not done yet."
"No?"
"Well, there are three parts to being Lostkind." Yasi reminded him, counting on her fingers again. "Be Invisible. Be Daring. Be Beautiful."
Vincent looked her up and down and managed to swallow the first thought that came to mind. She smirked a little, and Vincent knew he didn't have to say it; she already knew. With a slight grin, she led the way. "Let's get Chinese food too, I'm hungry."
~oo00oo~
She took him to the Metropolitan Opera House.
"Back in the 1880's, when this place was just starting out, we put our speaking-tubes in with the steam pipes. Get a better sound that way." She said, as though taking him on a tour. "Archivist says that back then, the management wanted everything performed in Italian. Even the German operas. Then they decided everything should be performed in German. Even the Italian operas."
Vincent chuckled at that, as Yasi led him through the corridors and stairwells behind the scenes. When she opened the last door for him, they were high above the stage. Down below he could hear and see the orchestra setting up for a rehearsal. The lights up above were low, in a way that made the stage and orchestra pit shine up at them. Yasi led him across the gantries, hanging from the rigging. Here above was where the stage hands could control the backgrounds, the lights... but during this rehearsal, they were alone, swaying gently and securely high above it all. The only audience of the show.
"We open up the steam pipes to this chamber fairly often." Yasi said, and her voice resonated in the air. The acoustics of the place were pitch-perfect, and she spoke too softly for it to echo down to the floor, lest any of the musicians hear them. Vincent didn't know quite how she did it, but as a result, her voice seemed to come from around him like a living thing. "The place charges hundreds of dollars for people to come and hear the best shows New York can put on. Every night, we gather in one of the Eleventh Level Chambers, and sit in the dark, letting the words, the music, the applause wash over us... You wouldn't think it to look at us, but we've got some real high culture lovers down among the Lost Boys and Girls."
Vincent pictured it, the people down below, the people out of a carnival sideshow, listening to classical music in the chambers their secret city. It was an oddly unsettling and wonderful image. "Can I ask you something?" He said finally.
"Does anyone ever say 'no' to that question?" Yasi quipped.
Vincent smiled. "Wotcha... and most everyone who knows about the Lostkind that I've spoken to? They're... well, scared of you."
"Yeah." Yasi didn't seem surprised.
"I'm not scared of you."
"I know." Yasi sighed. "If you were, we wouldn't be friends. Still, it would make tonight easier."
Silence. She clearly had more to say. Vincent waited.
"Keeper says..." She paused, thought for a moment, before shaking her head and spitting it out. "Keeper says that I'm as fascinated by your world as you are by ours."
"Why?" Vincent seemed truly surprised by that. "You know my city. You know all the movies that play, you know the music playing at the Met every night..."
"Yeah, but we never stay with any of it." She shrugged. "I have a library card. It has a fake name and address, but I can borrow books. I have to take them down below to read them. When I'm above the surface... I am a ghost. I go unnoticed, I stay outside when I am not invited. I've never spent a winters night inside an apartment, or had school friends that I lose touch with. It's a whole other world, and whole other people live there."
She looked at him and he looked back. Something had changed between them with that admission. Even more so that from the kiss the night before. They were more than acquaintances now. It was something that neither of them had planned, speaking honestly about things that neither had ever shared with anyone. The conversation had made them closer, and they both knew it. A line had been crossed that couldn't be taken back.
For a long moment, they just stared at each other.
"Yasi…" Vincent said finally. "You know that-"
"Just…" She interrupted him, and suddenly realized she didn't know what to say. "Just listen to the music."
Vincent nodded and fell silent. He didn't know what to say right now either.
Down below them, the rehearsal took several turns to stop and start. A musician would ask a question, or play a solo so that everyone could hear it. The conductor would say a few words, or the usher would do a sound-check in various locations around the auditorium.
"Last week they were performing Henry V." She told him as they waited. "A story of a king who goes undercover, hiding what he is so that he may walk freely and unnoticed among the people."
"The Lostkind Childhood Folk Tale?" Vincent quipped.
"Personal preference." She retorted. "Tonight they're rehearsing an orchestral arrangement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata number 14." She said. "They call it The Moonlight Sonata."
That was when the conductor tapped his podium, and began. The music started gently. The piano began a soft soulful pattern, and the cello and the violins chose their moment to join in.
They hung there a while, swaying gently on the gantry, as though on a hammock, with food between them, and beautiful music slowly echoing up the chamber to their ears. A secret audience listening to the music of the night.
The harmonies echoed off the ceilings in a way they never would at the ground level, the acoustics of the chamber making the music swell off the walls as the chorus sang their answer to the strings of the orchestra. Vincent shut his eyes and let the resonance envelop him. He forgot the platform, forgot the height... He was infinitely aware of the open space all around him, as every direction gave him another harmony. It seemed to become him, go through him... The shadows and dark corners were such that the rest of the world could be forgotten. Just a ten foot square space in the open air, nothing but this enthralling woman and the music.
For just a moment, in mid-air, Vincent forgot he existed, ceasing to be earthbound, just for a moment, becoming something else entirely, floating in nothingness, wrapped in a Moonlight Sonata...
Beautiful. He thought distantly; the only thing he could think. Rule Three: Be Beautiful...
Connie would love this...
~oo00oo~
Vincent was still smiling as he let himself into his apartment. He'd spent most of his life unaware of the world around him, and then a year barely checking in with the people in it that mattered to him. He'd experienced the folly of both extremes, and it was time to find balance. Take from the full experience what he had learned, and have a better life ahead for his trouble.
Yasi was impressive, exciting, mysterious, even beautiful. But they both knew there was little chance there for them, and it was now a certainty that they'd never see each other again. They'd had one night left, and they'd made it fun. The vague fantasies he'd had of pitching his life in the city and going to join the Lostkind vanished once he'd proven he didn't have it in him.
The adventure was over.
Time to get back to real life.
As if to demonstrate the point, he closed the door firmly behind him, shutting out the City at Night, and he scribbled down a note to ask Connie out for coffee. Neverland was real, but now it was time to land.
~oo00oo~
Yasi was expecting to be met when she got back to the Entrance. She was expecting Keeper, but instead it was Archivist. He waited for her at the start of the River, long before she got back to Twelfth Level.
For a long moment they didn't speak to each other. Finally, Archivist held his arms out and she stepped into the hug gratefully. "I'm sorry you had to go through that." His deep voice rumbled kindly. "It's never easy to lose a friend. Something you have little experience with, my dear girl."
"I told him goodbye, just like I promised." Yasi said simply. "I won't see him again."
"You okay?" Archivist asked her gently.
"I'm fine." Yasi shrugged that off. "I've always been fine on my own before, and Keeper's right. He's not one of us."
"Connie will be good for him." Archivist offered. "A natural match to the best parts of what he has become with our help."
"I know. That's why Wotcha put them together at the Kitchen." Yasi said, calm again.
"I know." Archivist said forgivingly. "You did a good thing, Yasi. You did really well."
"You were right. The First Duty of the Shinobi? Protect the secret. I'm the Captain. I can't be the one that screws that up." Yasi squeezed the older man tightly for a moment and broke the hug. "Let's go home."



~oo00oo~~oo00oo~~oo00oo~

If you're enjoying 'The Lostkind', but don't want to wait for the next chapter, you can get the whole thing here in ebook and paperback format.