“…Can’t you send someone else? Anyone else?”
“Yes, of course I love you–and him, but–”
“…Yes, Count von Batstein III does deserve to become a household name. But are you certain you left it…you are…but do I have to…Leopold’s phone is off? Yes, I understand that this is a matter of life and death and that terrible, unspeakable consequences hang in the balance. Well, if there’s no other way…”
When Ophelia wanted something, she nearly always got it, one way or another. She’d learned from the best: our mother. Unfortunately, I’d humored her almost as much as Father had when we were younger, just so she’d like me more than Leopold…
And now I was paying the price.
I knocked on the door–so softly that a human couldn’t possibly hear.
But the person on the opposite side of the door wasn’t human. Or, apparently, fully clothed.
“Benny,” he said, his eyes widening in surprise. “Please, come in. …Is Ophelia okay?”
Ophelia. Of course he’d ask about her; I had no other reason to visit. “She’s the reason I’m here, as you suspected–well, Count von Batstein III is, to be precise. His favorite toy is missing, and he apparently needs it in order to achieve canine stardom, or else the world itself may fall to ruin…”
“…That does sound like Ophelia.”
And you’d certainly know what Ophelia sounds like, wouldn’t you? “Yes, well. If you’d allow me to look through your apartment…”
“Of course. I can help. The place isn’t big, but…” He trailed off, his eyes never leaving my face. “You’re a good big brother. I always liked that about you–it motivated me to pay more attention to my little sister, since Rhys was so busy with his acting.”
We both had older brothers and younger sisters. I’d almost forgotten. Had we ever really been friends? And was he “paying more attention” to my little sister because he thought I’d neglected her…?
“So you’re a butler now,” he said, interrupting my wandering thoughts. “I like the uniform.”
He’d aged well, like a fine plasma wine… He must’ve thought I was shabby butler in comparison–especially if he ever saw me side-by-side with Leopold. “I am,” I said. “The work is just as fulfilling as I expected. More so, in fact.” I tried to stand proud.
“I’m so glad, Benny.”
The gentleness in his voice–the casual affection, so reminiscent of summer days long-dead–made me look away. Down, to where dog bowls lay on the floor, each filled as though they were expected to be used soon. He didn’t have a pet that I could see, so they could only be for Count von Batstein III.
I felt something on top of my head.
Why was he so close? In my surprise, I tripped over my own feet, my backside hitting the floor with an undignified thump.
But that only had the unintended consequence of bringing him even closer. “Are you okay? Should I get you a plasma pack?”
…Could he honestly believe this was blood deprivation and not…not him? We’d always touched so much when we were younger–an arm around the other’s shoulder, an offhand joke followed by ruffled hair, leaning against one another as I showed him a dancing butler video on my phone…but that had been so many years ago.
No one had touched me like that in a long time. No one touched me at all.
“Finn,” I breathed. How long had it been since I spoke his name aloud?
“…What can I give you?”
A do-over, I wanted to say. That summer, if I’d known how everything would turn out, would I have done anything differently?
“I want to be friends again,” I said, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. No one got exactly what they wanted unless they were my twin.
“Of course, Benny,” he said quietly. “I’d like that. Here, let me help you up.” And then he got so close I would’ve forgotten to breathe, were it already not wholly unnecessary…
I closed my eyes, gripping him for support wherever my hands happened to rest…
A door swung open behind me. “Hey, have you seen my stupid script–”
“…I can come back.”
I scrambled to my feet–this time, without Finn’s help.
The woman–Finn’s sister?–gave me a look. “New boyfriend?” she said to Finn, who didn’t appear perturbed in the least.
“I asked you to knock first, Gal.”
“Yeah, but you gave me a key, and I really need to memorize my lines for this tampon commercial. There’s no way my show’s getting picked up.”
“Ah…I could return another time,” I said to Finn.
“Hey. You’re the creepazoid queen’s brother–the dorky twin–Benjamin, right?”
The dorky twin…? “Benedict…”
“Yeah, whatever. I need to look for that damn script.” She released me from her scrutinizing stare and made for the sofa. “This better not be sticky–or at least let me know if there’s a surface you didn’t fuck on.”
“I have someone,” I said quickly. “Someone else. It’s long distance, but we’re trying to make things work… Finn and I are friends, nothing more.”
“I didn’t ask, but okay. And you can be friends and fuck just fine–Finn does it all the time.”
“Sorry about that,” Finn said to me. “Don’t mind Gal. She’s a little anxious over her new job.”
“Am not. I hope it tanks.”
“Should I go…?”
“But what about Batty’s toy?” Finn said.
Right. The entire reason I came here in the first place. “I’ll look for it on my own. You can help your sister.”
“Thanks, Benny.” He joined his sister while I headed toward the stairs to the upper level. I knew Count von Batstein III had an affinity for beds.
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but Finn’s soft words carried across the room: “He just fell, Gal. I was helping him up.”
“…Yeah, how many times did Mom use that excuse right before she and Dad got back together?”
Was I an idiot to have agreed to come here? To have asked to be Finn’s friend, when he clearly didn’t need another one? They say you can’t go home again…but what about being friends again years after drifting apart?
Finn’s room. Finn’s bed. If I weren’t mistaken, it smelled faintly familiar, with a small whiff of bat fur. Interesting that he chose a bed instead of a coffin, but he was clearly a very modern vampire and needed the extra space…
Yes, he definitely needed room for two, judging by the…bosom-catcher on the floor.
I took a deep breath and secured my white gloves over my fingers. It wouldn’t do to leave it lying there, and I was a butler.
Yes, judging by the size of the…bosom-cuppers, I knew the owner. She was almost of a size with Mother… Father often liked to wish a similarly generously proportioned future wife upon me.
Why had she asked me to come here? She was never cruel to me, unlike Leopold. But there was no sign of her dog’s toy, and now I was sitting in Finn’s bed–alone, after he apparently so often shared it with her…
I made a hasty exit, feigning an emergency request from my employer. Finn promised to look for the toy in my stead.
I was a butler now–how could I still feel so deficient?
I have someone, I reminded myself. Or I would, soon. If that detective could just find him for me…
I found myself at his office door before I even realized where I was going.
The door opened…
“Hey, Mr. Lyons, was actually just about to call you.”
Call me…from the depths of hell, to devise yet another way to torment me today? “Have you discovered anything new about Leonidas…?”
“Did I wake you?” I asked. “I can wait for you to get dressed…”
“Wake me?” He followed the direction of my gaze. “Aw, nah, just a Strider family thing–pants are always the first thing to go when I’m home alone. Must be turning into my pops in my old age.”
“Sorry, thought you were delivering my pizza–otherwise I would’ve given you the real professional treatment.” …He didn’t wear a decent pair of trousers for food deliveries? Father would never let anyone other than Mother catch him in a state of undress, regardless of the setting. …Outside their bathroom, at least.
“I see,” I said again, even though I couldn’t.
“Lemme throw something on real quick, and we can talk about your case.”
I’d never seen such a hairy man before, not up close. It was…not unappealing, especially with a body as well-formed as his. I almost regretted the return of his clothing when he sat down at his computer, except we had a case to focus on.
“Okay, not much news on the guy’s identity from just poking around the internet–Leonidas’s a pretty common name,” he said. “But I managed to track down an old ButlerQuest dev who’s hosting a secret emulation of the game for hardcore fans. If he still has access to a lot of the old server stuff, maybe he’s got some info on your Leonidas too.”
My Leonidas. I liked that. “So that’s a good thing…?”
“Yeah–and probably illegal, but hell, so’s running this dead game, if the company still owns the IP.” I didn’t completely understand, but I liked the warmth and enthusiasm in his voice as he spoke. “I’m gonna reach out, see if I can find anything. What was your character’s name, in case it matters?”
“…Belladonna.” What would he say to that? Would he mock me, or–
“Got it. Pretty name.”
“I thought so too.” I wouldn’t tell him Ophelia picked it out.
But it was nice to talk to someone–someone who wasn’t Mr. Bingham-Long at work, brief as those occasions were, or Finn, who I didn’t know how to talk to anymore. I could talk to the detective and feel completely at ease…
He would help me find Leonidas. I knew it.