CHAPTER 7 (1.0) Sharks do it better

A/N I have to actively stop myself from converting Stuart into Stiles and it's becoming a problem.

Firstly, I died.

I flew up in heaven, had a nice kickboxing match against San Peter, gained the right to restore to material shape (because I won that bastard), resuscitated, lived long enough to remember the reason of my death, passed out, regained consciousness, remembered again and then died one more time.

Secondly, I shut the booklet, threw it back onto my desk and started planning for my deportation.

I could finally go to Mexico. Improve those five Spanish words I knew (four of them insults and one an anatomically correct term not learnt for medical reasons). I could dye my hair blond, buy rings for all my fingers and change my name into Gonzales (or is Gonzales a surname?). I could even open a food truck selling enchiladas and marry a girl name Constanza. I guess I look good with moustaches. And nobody can say I'm not a great maracas-shaker.

While my panic was getting increasingly racist and a quarter of my brain started picturing my old Mexican self lying under a sombrero sipping sangria, I coerced myself into remembering that I had precisely fifteen minutes before my team meeting (yes: we schedule team meetings now, it's all very professional). I dawdled on the edge of the bed, letting the urgency sink in. My body was clambering up the worst hangover from the time my brothers had me convinced that butterbeer was a cocktail made of butternoodles and scotch. My head was spinning, I was sweating in places I desperately needed dry, I smelt like vomit and couldn't help death glaring at my desk every three and a half seconds.

For something that was causing such palpitations, it sure looked creepily immaculate. It was just a thin, white, innocent stock of pages. Less than a nail in thickness of printed words. Nothing frightening about that, right? What worried me were two things: one, its content. That alone could have been a legitimate motive behind my suicide. Two: the red, elegant, Egyptian-styled handwriting topping off the cover that I had to decrypt against my headache's will.

The writing recited, cold and concise: 'Bibliography on the last page, don't mess it up.'

I said, desperate and aloud: "Someone really need to tell me what the hell happened last night."

Alright, calm down, I've got enough brain power to remember Bayes formula, I certainly haven't erased important recent events without my conscious consent. That does not happen, not on my watch. I'm usually the only source of lucidity in miles and miles of illogical people.

I stood up, teetered a bit, strengthened my spine along a perpendicular axis and then rotated on the spot a couple of times, so as to carefully analyse the crime scene. I was in my room, which was already great news. It was empty, another wonderful piece of information. Nothing particularly stood up: no signs of riot, no bras or Hello Kitty panties tossed on the floor, no bloody axes or chopped-up corpses waving at me from the bathroom and no dogs rescued on impulse from the side of the street drooling all over the carpet. Good. Very good. So the only thing off was…

That.

I approached the little booklet again, this time more cautiously, in the false hope that the terrifying words I had read before had somehow migrated from the pages. I had realized at that point that the dream I remembered having once I had gotten into bed may have possibly surely definitely been not a dream at all. And as all obsessively reserved people do when confronted with the possibility of having revealed personal information to unwanted guests, I instantly began to bash whomever was listening. But who was it?

For a split second I soothed my Mexican panicking self and believed it was Zach. The dynamics of the events weren't important: the essential was not to think logically and avoid reasonable deductions. Unfortunately, no narcissistic pompous pride–sucking serial careerist would have ceded the glory of announcing his new power over his prey. He had signed himself, right on the cover, below the bibliography nonsense.

G. Hawtrey.

I kept virtually giving mouth-to-mouth respiration to each and every of my neurons while showering and getting dressed. My curiosity was rapidly growing thirsty of details: how did I get to my room? Was Graham in there when I did? What time was it? Did I talk to him? For how long? What did I say?

By the time I was at the door, cultivating visions of litres and litres of black coffee sweetening my throat, I was…well, this close to be ready to taken on the asshole. I had thrust the booklet into my bag, squeezed it tight against two others to prevent the unacceptable falling out (nobody was going to know anything about it, that was sure), but I still hadn't read nothing more that the first two lines. Enough to assess the level of vulnerability I was in, not enough to actually work out how exactly Graham meant to use his advantage against me. For the time being, I was at his utter mercy. And I stepped out of the room with one goal in mind: reestablish the godforsaken balance of power.

And go to my team meeting and win the internship and get a job, of course, that was important too. I mean: this was the only goal, you understand? This. Not whatever my reluctant roommate was planning to do to ruin my bubble of a life. I'm a focused, distant person. Focused and distant.

I shut the door behind me feeling dangerously dizzy. The world is a goofy festival of unpredictable shifting objects when you're not one hundred percent in posses of your physical faculties. Out of the dorm, I dove into a stream of cheering people wondering why couldn't everybody just stop moving that much. I started noticing the downside of working in a place that let colours and shapes scamper wildly: there was too much unnecessary creativity playing around with no supervision and I was back feeling like my two-year-old self having trouble placing the blue cube into the green triangle-shaped hole.

The morning light was carving into my eyes like a scalpel, I lacked both balance and patience and my reflexes almost had me killed by making me accidently join some dude's Tai Chi routine.

I crossed the campus, threw myself into the main building and finally reached the group of dishevelled heads sat in circle around a small table and a big dose of shame. I'm not gonna lie, I was pleased to see my teammates. I was especially pleased to see them in as much of an indecent state as I was.

"See who's back from the fun train." greeted me Bill with a thumb up and a colossal yawn. "Our sexy man."

"Yeah, yeah." I let myself fall on the first empty surface available. I landed on a pouf.

Nick barely lifted his head from the couch to worry about me: "We lost you there, buddy, where did you end up after we left?"

"Hell." I said.

"Amen." mumbled Lyle, huddled in the corner of the other couch.

I clipped my cap on my forehead and ironed myself out enjoying the almost fluid texture supporting my spine. Nobody can appreciate the unnatural design of a pouf more than an hangover survivor.

The group was destroyed. Four nerds with more hours of coding in their résumé than minutes in the sun and two grown men on their way to retirement? We were lucky to be alive.

"The whole world looks like a giant pinwheel of death right now." I heard myself moaning.

"Price of making memories, Stewie."

"I think my liver hurts."

I couldn't pinpoint where the voices came from or who they really belonged to. But I was okay with that.

Aside from that one, I recognized that one: "Astonishingly, you app…" I jumped on my comfy pouf just in time to see Chetty materialize behind Nick and welcome us with his familiar unimpressed scold of indifference. "…received ten thousand more downloads that any other team's." Wait, what? "It appears that you have won your first challenge."

I heard nothing after those words. Clapping hands and bumping fists bloomed inside our circle of shocked expressions, all searching for each other's eyes as to check that nobody was actually sleepwalking. A wave of pride suddenly got injected into my body to suck the last drops of alcohol out of my blood stream and breath confidence into my lunges. We had a shot. We really did have a shot. Playing a gayer form of Quidditch was not going to be the only disturbing achievement I could vent in front of my brothers for the next ten years of Thanksgivings.

Yoyo's stomach aside, we were all ecstatic.

"We're back on, ladies and gents." Bill drew us to him in a spiritual moment after shoving Yoyo's face out of the bucket. "Like Simba on our stone trampoline, we're gonna drop our mouse-eater tattooed uncle off the cliff, get our place back among the cute lionesses and finally go second base with our bestie, alright? Yeah? Hands in, guys, on the count of three. Neha, get in, girl."

"Hell yeah, boys!"

"Lyle, Yoyo?"

"We're gonna bang her to the Pride Lands!"

"Stewie? Stuart, buddy. Bonding moment, get in. "

I wanted to. Get in, I mean. But my bonding spirit was momentarily out of order, as my hands tightened around the pouf's love handles, rage filling my nostrils. Just half a second after Bill decided to leave the 80ies movies to his pub pals and blessed us kids with an easier reference, I saw him. He was there, diabolically walking with that evil nonchalance of his, just to vanish out of the room.

Graham.

"Yes." I finally said. "Yes, akuna matata."

"Akuna matata indeed, bitches!"

The team celebrated its victory with a savage howl and a wheel of raising hands like the true cheerleaders we all deep inside had always been. At that point, yanking ourselves out of the arms of the couch was, if not an easy dream, at least a realizable one. I was the first one realizing it. As the others started picking up their things, still lighting each others up with big fuzzy smiles, I lifted my bag on my shoulders, gave up my smile for a focused and distant front and headed where Graham had just disappeared.

"Where're you going?" called me out Neha.

"On a mission."

"But we got class now."

I looked into her eyes, feeling the weight of a soldier leaving for war, and replied, focused and distant: "Asante sana Squash banana."

I had no idea what I was going to say to him, of course. I marched into his wake fully charged, but at a dangerous loss for words. The booklet was still there in my bag, I could feel it, calling for its master.

It didn't took me long to find him. He hadn't tried that hard to conceal himself, for that mattered, and looked seemingly unaware of the danger he was in, standing there at the end of the line, talking on the phone in that miffed tone he used when he wasn't attempting to impress anybody. Usually I avoided the bar, the guy working there reminded too much of Cindy Lou Who and I bore her a decennial grudge for the way she had plagued the Grinch with compassionate feelings. But, as I said, I was on a mission. So I slowly moved in his direction, hoping he could feel his fate looming over him.

The bar looked crowded, people still moved too much, so I had to resort to a couple of mean tricks to conquer my place right behind him. I figured my lawyer wouldn't have been interested in the story of how I disarmed a girl in a wheelchair with a pencil, after I told him I had feasted over my roommate body and drunk his pancreas secretions.

Once I finally managed to position myself where I could stab him in the back with no chance of missing, the phone call was over. Graham was now busy typing. He had one hand in his pocket, a relaxed pair of shoulders, the most bewildering designer shirt I had ever seen on him and didn't show signs of noticing me. No worries: I would have made myself noticed.

I looked around with slight apprehension, sure of meeting the curious eyes of one of my teammates. Nobody on sight. I leaned in and hissed, in the best Batman voice I could master: "You're a dead man."

"I thought we were clear about not causing any more drama." he said, serious, without even turning to face me. "You had three hours yesterday and two this morning: I don't really think there are any more excuses you can bring that are gonna make me change my mind. It's clear you have done absolutely everything in your power to be out of this team, so I'm here to grant your wish: you're out, Zach."

It took me a while to figure out he had just started talking back into his phone.

Damn, you microscopic earphones.

Deep breath, Stuart, remember your tax code. You'll need it when you're thrown into a cold cell charged with your first murder.

Apparently I had no choice. I grasped those earphones, violently and uncompromisingly pulled them out of his ears, sucking his phone along with them all the way into my hand, so that he was left with no way of overlooking my presence. "And on the sixth day God created silence and blessed the Man with the inability to shut the fuck up."

Graham turned just to bumped into my angry Batman face. There was a millisecond of awkwardness I didn't expect from him, just a tiny bit of hesitation on his lips like he had jumped into a sentence and regretted before even seeing it coming out, soon all swept away by the usual overconfidence: "Brilliant: the children are back."

"Sorry to bother, but the time has come for you to justify your existence in this big beautiful universe."

"My phone, Sean."

"I'm not gonna hurt it, you'll get in back on good behaviour."

"Are you threatening me?"

"If I was threatening you I would have a pool filled with sharks with your phone hanging over it by one of your hair." I said. "I'm barely informing you that I really really really wish I had a pool filled with sharks right now."

The line was moving on.

There were only two people in front of him, now.

"My phone, I said." He was visibly resisting the impulse to throw himself at me. In a lethal, non sexual way, of course. "Now."

"Listen. Let's get this clear already: what happened last night was…"

"Oh god, don't thank me." he stopped me. "It just makes it harder to forget how much time I wasted because of you."

I couldn't have heard right. I certainly hadn't heard right. "Thank you." I slowly repeated, now more bemused than angry.

"You're welcome."

"You are the definition of the criminally insane if you think even for one second that what you wrote in that… thing applied to me in any way and, for the record, even the thought of thanking you makes me crawl out of my skin in disgust."

"That is such an interesting thing to say."

"And why is that."

"Because you're the one who begged me to write it."

"I…" What? "Of course I didn't. Your bat habits have seriously damaged your brain, 'cause there is no way in hell that I asked you to prove if I was…"

I couldn't finish the sentence. I just chocked on that last word and gulped it down. Which wasn't a great strategy, because what followed was a pause. But not a generic, innocent pause: a meaningful pause. The kind of pause you see on TV shows after a juicy revelation and before the beginning of one cheesy, completely forgettable pop track. Now Graham looked precisely as I didn't want him to look. Proud, aware and not-so-subtlety overjoyed.

"Oh." He went, arching his eyebrows and curling up his lips into an effective Joker expression. I tried to look elsewhere but his evilness was hypnotizing. "Polly can't remember."

My face went white, my throat dried up and the line move on. We were down at one customer before him. I was still on my mission, still focused, still distant. I had just lost those two grams of confidence I had gleaned from my hangover.

"You're a dead man." I hissed again.

"Yes, but even dead men can take their five-o'clock tea in peace, so vanish."

"It's eight in the morning and you drink coffee."

"I thought you Americans needed stereotypes to relate to the rest of the world."

"Don't waste your sense of humour." I snarled. "You can't afford it."

I was facing his back again. Graham had turned to scan the wide offers of beverages in front of him, pretending he wasn't like all those arrogant douches who enjoy saying 'I'll have the usual please' to sound like they're perfectly at ease in surfing the overwhelming options of our consumerist society while the rest of us perish in a constant state of self-doubt. But I knew I had his full attention, I was holding it, right in my left hand, now crossed behind my back with the right one, to cut the odds of him retrieving his phone. Which was, by the way, still talking.

Let's all take a minute of silence for the poor guy amiably chatting with the air.

"You'd better start talking, Hawtrey." I growled between my teeth.

"I think you covered the talking part last night."

"I told you: what happened last night was…"

"You have no clue what happened."

"Well how lucky you are: you can be useful for once in your life."

"Really? And you think between helping you nurture your fragile self-esteem and selling you out to your little friends to watch your team implode I would…?" He chuckles. "Come on, if you need hugs, call your mommy: don't impose your over sensitivity on us."

"This is the part of the evil laughter, right? Don't worry: I got the Cruella De Vil's downloaded on my phone."

"The truth is that you are a painfully emotional over-sharer when you're drunk, Sean."

"Stuart."

"No difference."

"I'll kill you." I stated, simply. "I just know it. Don't know when or how, but I will."

"The usual, please."

I inhaled and exhaled a few times while Cindy brought him his damn coffee and I cursed the heat because my glasses where ice skating towards the end of my nose. Suddenly, caffeine felt irrelevant. Not only I was fully awake and embracing the excitement of that horrible day, but I was also in a hunting mode.

Too bad the clock was ticking and I had to remember that getting blackmailed wasn't as productive as attending class.

"My phone."

That mellifluous British accent was really fuelling the waves of hatred I was keeping under the body temperature to avoid blowing up. Graham's open hand silently suggested it was time to cut it out. We both had a seminar to go to and opposite life values to comply with. But it wasn't over, that was sure. He knew that, not matter how well he pretended not to.

I slipped out of the line into a sigh of temporary defeat while the guy at the bar started seeking attention: "Sir? What can I give you, sir? Sir it's your turn, sir?" I ignored him.

I handed the phone back to his legitimate owner and looked that owner straight into his eyes: "It wasn't your smartest movie, Graham." I warned him. "Making things personal pushes people to unlucky places."

"Everything you need is in those pages, Sean." He replied, ending the call at last without much of a 'bye bye' to the poor man still hanging there. "How much of a threat do you really think you are when you can't even find the courage to read them. Have a nice hangover."

"We're not done."

"We shouldn't even have started."

"Just so you know: only my parrot can call me Polly, alright?" I managed to say, before we split our ways, regardless of the fact that we were heading in the exact same direction.

He barely sniggered at me, walking away: "You're embarrassing yourself."

A/N We're getting there. Somewhere.