It was raining when he found him.
He’d been out looking for the skunk for what felt like far too long, considering how little time he knew he had. Possibly also considering how long it had been, depending on just what he meant by that. But the longer term version of it was neither here nor there, not anymore, never again, probably. It was the most immediate version which had to take precedence this time, he tried to tell himself.
He loved the rain. It was a cold comfort, but he welcomed it. Needles of water everywhere.
It was the next best thing to being underwater, better in some ways, because you could also find surface dwellers in it. He’d just tracked down the skunk in an alley, the skunk carrying his umbrella over his head, him with his trusty staff in his hand by his side. At first Klein couldn’t make out more than the small frame of his silhouette in the rain, but he was taken quite off-guard when he did get a close enough look to be able to tell who’d found him after all this time.
Klein hadn’t seen Fugue since the few weeks he’d spent in Brazil on a capoeira seminar all those years ago. It was the same time period during which the skunk had first met Mano, Elizabeth had even still been alive at the time. Fugue had been an expatriate acupuncturist who’d settled in Brazil for emergency medical work that was rough on his nerves as all get out. The skunk had met him in a nightclub one evening, and had spent the night with him, which had ended up evolving into him offering to let Klein stay over at his place until the end of his trip.
“Fugue! It’s you! What’s it been, a few years?” The doctor didn’t seem all that happy to see him, the skunk noticed with some measure of dismay. “Several,” he replied coldly. Fugue did seem glad to have found him, but there was an underlying bitterness to his tone that was making the skunk wait for the other shoe to drop. “What have you been up to?” Klein tried to ask conversationally. “Oh, you know,” the fish answered as he extended his arm to hold up his staff vertically by his side, “this and that.”
The skunk, while he wasn’t sure of what was about to happen or not, tried to coolly close his umbrella over his head. He pulled its handle over his shoulder with its tip toward the fish and his other palm in front of himself, two fingers up, as the drizzling rain slowly began to cover his body. “Is that meant for me?” the skunk nudged his head at the staff with an attempt at detachment.
He saw a thousand thick, long needles sprouting all over Fugue’s body right in front of him. While he was a little startled by it, he wasn’t as shocked by it as he could’ve been if he’d been a different person. Not only was it not the first time that Klein had seen him this way, he’d even survived having been stung by them more than once before.
Normally, the fish’s skin was smooth and he appeared small and unassuming, but when he had a panic attack – claustrophobia, agoraphobia, OCD, general anxiety – his needles would pop out involuntarily all over his body. On their own, they’d have paralyzed someone completely for over a day, but the blowfish had synthesized a shot which could bring it down to half an hour. The skunk had found it an easy enough hurdle to work around, even after an interesting morning or two. It hadn’t been the worst thing he’d had to deal with, that had been for sure.
Fugue twirled his staff behind his back while bending and arching his back in front of and behind it. A shiver went down Klein’s spine as he saw some of the blowfish’s needles come out of his skin to attach themselves to the staff on its way, both tremendously increasing its range in every direction around it and making it a much more piercing than blunt weapon as they did. While the needles might not kill him, it occurred to him that, if he were paralyzed, there’d be nothing stopping his erstwhile lover from doing so in any other number of ways, if he meant to.
“I wish,” the fish sighed, dropping his ready stance pitifully.
“I was sent to kill you,” he continued as his needles retracted, “and part of me does want to, admittedly,” he glowered, “but I can’t really afford to right now, unfortunately.” Fugue was meticulously picking his missing needles out of his staff as he spoke. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he chuckled bitterly. “I see,” the skunk reeled, “I, uh, thank you for not killing me... I guess.” It was a strange thing to thank someone for, but it seemed like an important one. “I’m sorry to have done anything that would’ve made you want to.” Klein had thought the fish had liked him.
“Forget it. It’s stupid,” the blowfish shrugged. “Well, I’m sure it’s not stupid,” the skunk said while gingerly re-opening his umbrella over his head, shaking rainwater out of his striped hair as he did. Fugue paused. The skunk waited for him to find his words, and as time passed the pause simply kept getting longer and longer. “You can pull them right back in at will now,” Klein observed about the needles, “that’s pretty impressive. You didn’t use to be able to do that.” He hoped a well-deserved compliment about self-control might break some of the tension.
“I thought you’d stay,” the fish blurted out. “You did?” He could hear the skunk was genuinely surprised. “All the way back then, you mean?” The blowfish was sheathing the needles he’d pried off his staff into a sling he’d installed around his torso, ostensibly for later use as paralyzing throwing darts. “Well, you didn’t seem to mind the darts, or how ‘eccentric’ I was, like most guys tended to. I guess I got attached,” he almost apologized, “didn’t think I’d drive you away.” The skunk couldn’t believe his ears.
“I already felt like I was imposing by staying at your place for as many weeks as I did! I felt guilty, like I was taking advantage of your hospitality. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome,” was all that Klein could say. “I had no idea you felt this way. My life was a mess when you and I first met, I was running from everything, but, if I’d known, I’d have stayed here,” he admitted. “My whole life would’ve been different. Bridges wouldn’t be in jail, Shinai wouldn’t have joined the army, I would’ve never gotten my leg bitten by a chimera...” the skunk trailed off uneasily.
Fugue laughed the mirthless laugh of the damned in the rain. “It sounds like you’ve been having an interesting time. I guess I can’t resent you as much, knowing how things seem to have been for you as well since then.” The skunk furrowed his brow. “And how have things been for you since then, that this is what would occur to you about something like that?” he inquired. “Remember when you told me about this chameleon chap who fucked you up something fierce?” the fish asked. “Wish I could forget.” How could he forget losing himself so completely?
“I guess you could say something kind of similar happened to me when you left,” the blowfish’s voice broke. “It was just around that time that Elizabeth killed herself, and...” Klein jumped. “MANO’S Elizabeth?” he yelped. “Yes,” Fugue continued painfully. “The rights for her work ended up going to the president of her fan club at the time. His name was Atlan,” he explained. “He was very passionate about his interpretation of Elizabeth’s work. Only he didn’t call it poetry,” he added grimly, “he called it prophecy.” That was getting to be a lot to take in.
“Holy shit!” the skunk exclaimed. “He made her poetry into a religion?” he shook his head. “Mano was always talking about how Elizabeth hated religion and all it stood for!” The fish shrugged helplessly. “She was an angry fish activist. So was he. We all were. It still sucks to be a fish in this society, Klein, I’m sorry I can’t put it any better than that. He was charismatic. She used vivid metaphors, but he interpreted them very literally. He began selling us on the idea we had to lead fish-kind to victory on her behalf, to get revenge for her murder by the world.”
The skunk’s skin crawled as he tried to imagine just how dangerous someone like Boko could’ve been if he’d had a legion of fanatical followers at his beck and call the way this Atlan apparently did. “He got the idea from all the global warming activism. He figured that if the world really did become covered in water, without any more land for the surface dwellers to dominate as they always have, they’d be the ones who’d be forced to adapt to us, and we’d reign as the true masters of our rightful environment. So he’s been building something to do just that. He can.”
The skunk’s hand found his forehead as he shook his head again. “We have to tell Mano about this.” He furrowed his brow. “Why are you telling me all of this? What made you change your mind?” It seemed like it could be a relevant question to ask. “I realized Atlan isn’t just another misguided ideologue,” the blowfish said ominously, “he’s a monster. Not only would his plan for social levelling leave many innocents dead, but he’s been killing more and more of us fish-folk who are supposed to be on his own side. He’s torturing my friend. He has to be stopped.”
Klein nodded in agreement. “I’ll go and find Mano. Come with me,” he said as he dashed along in the splashing rain. “And your friends,” Fugue warned him, “they could be in danger.”