know yourself and who you came in with (remember the devil ain't a friend to no one) - paperclipbitch (2024)

[prologue: thank you mario! but our princess is in another castle!]

The thing about Ian is that seeing him naked is just, like, a Thursday thing.

He was a lot more prone to ambling around in the nude in his thirties, claiming that clothing restricted his creative flow or whatever, which could have been a neurodivergent thing or a pretentious artiste thing. Or a hitting-on-the-entire-office-in-one-go thing, like how if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall something will stick. Maybe don’t say the spaghetti thing in the same verbal neighbourhood as mentioning Ian’s dick though, at least, not if you want some work to get done today.

The HR manager before Carol dealt with the problem by suggesting everyone use disinfectant wipes on their chairs before sitting down if they were worried Ian may have been sitting there before them, and by turning the communal air conditioning up a few crucial degrees until it was cold enough that Ian’s ego wouldn’t let him strip off completely anymore.

Ian has matured these days, or moved on to more insane but at least more fully-clothed creative flow activities, but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t still in various states of undress in a professional setting on a weirdly regular basis.

For reasons that have yet to become clear, both Poppy and Ian are both soaking wet. It’s not raining. There isn’t an issue with the sprinklers. Their shared office appears to be dry. Poppy is still clothed: sodden hoodie, jeans several shades darker than they were this morning and squelchy-looking sneakers. Ian is in some frankly uncomfortably skimpy briefs and nothing else. There’s no sign of where the rest of his clothing has gone. They’re screaming at each other; proper, ugly screaming, but neither of them thought to turn down the noisy clashing music that’s blasting in the office. It’s probable that they can’t actually hear each other over the music, but that’s maybe for the best. Being able to hear what the other person is actually saying does tend to make things worse.

Brad and Jo are leaning against the wall, watching the chaos unfold. Brad has an enormous involved frozen coffee concoction, and Jo just has her gleaming eyes. She doesn’t seem to have blinked for several minutes, pupils shiny bright.

“Neither of you work here,” David can’t help pointing out. He feels like this is something he has been saying on a regular basis for the last couple of years. Mythic Quest is maybe the new Hotel California: people check out all the time, none of them ever leave. He should probably have a word about that with security at some point, actually.

“Everything’s fine with Dana,” Jo says, in a tone that’s a mix of triumphant and disappointed. “It all runs very smoothly.”

“You gotta come to Mythic Quest for entertaining sh*tshows,” Brad agrees. He takes an extended pull on the straw of his coffee thing. “Here’s a thought, David: you should install cameras in the Creative Directors’ office.”

“Pretty sure that’s some kind of employee violation,” David points out, making a mental note to pop that phrase into his tired little speech for Poppy and Ian, when they’re not yelling anymore. They’re probably violating the MQ employees’ right to not see Ian naked, even though all the programmers are busy with their headphones on, not bothering to look at whatever their Creative Directors are doing. This isn’t technically anything out of the ordinary, after all: ‘cause you know, the Thursday thing.

“Livestream the creative process of making this game and you’ll never have to worry about monetisation again,” Brad offers. “That’s a free idea for Rachel, I won’t charge you for the consultation.” He clicks his tongue, does a finger-gun with his free hand, and mostly pulls it off.

David was never in control of this conversation so he doesn’t feel it being rapidly pulled from his hands; he was lost in the undertow years ago.

“No one would ever play MQ again,” he says.

Poppy unzips her hoodie and slings it as an awkward wet fabric bundle at Ian. Despite her general lack of coordination it manages to catch him full in the chest and he starts flailing; David’s no good at lip reading but Ian definitely says the word “nipple” at least three times.

“You don’t even need MQ,” Brad says dryly, “just lock Ian and Poppy in a room until they murder each other, get people to pay to watch.”

“That’s barbaric,” says David.

“Ten bucks on Poppy,” says Carol, who has popped up from… somewhere. Of course she has.

“Don’t insult me,” Brad tells her. Carol rolls her eyes.

Ian now appears to be trying to whip Poppy’s hoodie at her, sending beads of water everywhere. Poppy hops backwards to avoid a sodden sleeve and stumbles over a chair. Jo makes a muffled sound that could be one of several things.

“She’s scrappy!” Carol interjects.

Ian strikes a pose that he possibly thinks is reminiscent of a matador, and wow, his damp underwear is really not doing a great job of supporting… anything.

“So,” Brad says, bone dry, “what’s it like having the dream team back together?”

It’s too early in the day for a headache, David decides, pinching the bridge of his nose and taking a slow breath that he read about on the internet.

“You know when you’re adrift in the ocean and suddenly there’s a life raft and you clamber aboard and you think you’re safe but then the life raft turns out to be made of sharks?” he offers.

There’s a moment of quiet.

“No,” says Jo.

Ian snaps the hoodie again, and Poppy peels off a wet sock and throws it at him, missing. Ian, with admittedly fluidly graceful movements, drops the hoodie, removes his briefs, and chucks them at Poppy. He scores an impressive direct hit into her face.

David hears himself whimper.

Even with the music, even with the ringing in his ears, David can somehow hear Poppy turning toward the glass and yelling: “David, Ian threw his underwear in my face! That’s against my contract!

“Is it?” Brad asks, with apparent interest.

“I should not have let them dictate the terms of their new contracts,” David murmurs, but this was when he still thought they were a life raft, when he was clutching at straws and he somehow forgot that the straws were like this.

Ian has his fists on his hips, because apparently when you have an abdominal v-cut you don’t care when you’re completely naked in front of your colleagues past and present. David obviously wouldn’t know.

“This is fine,” David says numbly. “It’s fine. It’s just the Thursday thing.”

He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose again.

“David?” says Jo, sounding almost gentle. “It’s Tuesday.”

Of course it is.

[part one: sometimes i doubt your commitment to sparkle motion]

“You know,” says Ian, something like three in the morning, “if someone shot at you, I think I’d step in front of the bullet.”

Poppy is sitting on the floor, because after two a.m., sitting on the floor just seems like the most logical thing to do. Well, ‘sitting’; she’s more folded into a heap, a vaguely person-shaped crumpled receipt.

Ian is also sitting on the floor, a few feet down from her, but he’s managing to look cooler than she is about it. This is nothing new.

Whenever Poppy closes her eyes all she can see is scrolling code, and she’s pretty sure she can pick errors in whatever nonsense lettering her brain is generating. “Wait,” she manages, “why is someone shooting at me?”

“I don’t know,” Ian responds, in that way he does when he’s got the vaguest of ideas and expects Poppy to build an entire f*cking expansion pack out of a keyword and an ambiguous hand gesture. “Maybe you’re too successful,” he adds. “Or maybe they hate that thing you do with your hair-”

“What thing?” Poppy interrupts, but Ian is barrelling on.

“-but, anyway, the point is, if someone tried to shoot you, I’d take the bullet for you.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Poppy protests. “You love yourself, you have a great sense of self-preservation, you think your body is a temple!”

Ian screws his face up, annoyed with her getting sidetracked. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t regret it afterwards, I’m just saying, there, in the moment, my instinct would be to protect you.”

Poppy folds her arms across her chest, tries to process how she wants to take this. “I didn’t ask you to!”

“I know that,” Ian says, and now he’s using the voice he leans into when he wants to calm her down when he thinks she’s being unreasonable, like she’s a spooked deer and he’s a rational sane human being who has never inspired MQ employees to make deranged little voodoo dolls or anything. “Look, I’m trying to say a nice thing to you, no need to get all…” He does a gesture, a cross between jazz hands and spirit fingers, something petulant in the set of his jaw.

They have been yelling at each other kind of a lot this week: it’s possible this bizarre conversation is some kind of olive branch. At least Ian hasn’t turned it into a rousing speech yet: last time he did that to her, when they had a deadline to meet and Ian wanted to f*ck with a graphics thing at the last minute and needed everyone to stay late, he queued up a special playlist of orchestral movie scores to soundtrack his inspiring speech. It worked, of course it worked, but, like: Jesus.

“Okay,” Poppy sighs. “But you made it all-” She does the hand gesture herself, jagged and awkward, because apparently neither of them know the right word to put in there, “-by getting all disproportionate. No one’s trying to kill me!”

Ian sighs too, a fringe of frustration to it. “Yes, fine. But if they did, I would stop them. So. You’re welcome.”

“You just made up a hypothetical and then made yourself the hero of it,” Poppy points out, “you didn’t actually save my life.”

But it’s like three in the morning, and they’re on the floor, and David had to come see them the other day and talk about appropriate workplace behaviour and he a little bit looked like he was going to cry, and she’s so tired and has consumed so much caffeine that she’s tasting colours and they’re not even colours that exist in the actual world. She lets herself slide from where she’s propped against the wall, rolls onto her back to look at the ceiling. “I mean. I guess apart from all those times you actually saved my life.”

Ian sounds confused. “Me? I haven’t managed to stop you in your quest to get scurvy, or from doing that thing with your hair-”

“What is it about my hair,” Poppy mumbles, but doesn’t bother to press the question because she doubts she’ll get an answer.

“-and I feel like I’ve given you actual concussion on at least three occasions,” Ian adds. There’s a sort of panicked undertone to his voice, like he doesn’t mind inventing scenarios but isn’t sure what to do when Poppy replaces those with actual facts and feelings. Again: this is nothing new.

“Yeah, your practical life-saving has not amounted to much,” Poppy agrees. “But you saw me when I needed someone to, and you gave me a job, and then another job, and you’ve kept me going all these years. So…”

She rolls her head sideways to look at him. Ian looks a cross between mystified and terrified, but that might just be three a.m. Who isn’t mystified and terrified at this point. Plus, they’ve got a whole thing they’re supposed to be fixing right now, not having a warped heart-to-heart while sprawled around their office like broken dolls.

“So…?” Ian says, slowly.

Poppy could push this, or she could take the olive branch in the exact format it’s been offered and stop trying to noodle.

“So,” she says, heavy sighing, “thank you for taking a bullet for me.”

“You’re welcome,” Ian replies, gleeful, the worry in his voice vanished like it was never there and Poppy was just making it up, silly Pop. “I’ve got a pretty gnarly scar.”

Poppy flaps a hand. “Eh, girls love that,” she tells him. “You’ll be awash with puss*.”

Ian sputters, just briefly. “We were having a moment!” he says, too loud, indignant. “What have you done to our moment, oh my God.”

“I got you heaps of gash with it,” Poppy responds, cheerful, because there’s nothing like f*cking with Ian within the exact boundaries of his original terms. He flinches at ‘gash’, makes a disgusted noise that just makes her want to slip the word into more conversations over the next week. “Just say ‘thank you, Poppy’.”

It’s Ian’s turn to sigh, long and gusty, three a.m., and maybe neither of them will ever make it off the floor again. Maybe they live here now.

“Thank you, Poppy.”

[part two: like i understand where you’re coming from here but they very much did kill jesus]

“Okay, okay,” Ian says, “I get what you’re saying.”

Ian does not get what Poppy is saying.

“You don’t have this problem!” Poppy protests. “Your success is self-built, because you’re a white man with big shoulders. And also because you got C.W. to write you your own origin story with a bunch of cool adjectives in it.”

There’s a pause while everyone in the vicinity raises their mug or straw cup skywards and takes a swig of their mid-morning beverage of choice. Hopefully, none of those are neat whisky, but C.W. will always be in a league of his own.

“Also, it was adverbs,” Ian adds after a moment. “It’s all about the adverbs. And the chest hair.”

“Okay,” Poppy says, willing to let this go in favour of reaching for the bigger point. “But nobody is going to look at you and assume that you slept your way to the top!”

“Hey,” Ian snaps, looking hurt, “I could sleep my way to the top! These abs didn’t just crunch themselves, you know!”

Poppy has seen Ian’s abs so much now they have no effect on her whatsoever, he’s like a particularly whiny Ken doll, but presumably there’s people out there for whom this is not true.

“Gaming is a male-dominated industry,” Rachel finally interjects, looking up from her phone. “I mean, when I thought I wanted to become a writer, there were, like, no opportunities out there.”

“I literally gave you an opportunity,” Ian says. “You flunked it. And you nearly crashed my car.”

The side of Rachel’s mouth curls up. “And now I make more money than God.” Her expression goes a little guilty, but Dana is curled happily against her side - Poppy has definitely asked security to deactivate her keycard and they have definitely been ignoring her - and Rachel’s visibly getting her hair styled at an actual salon now and not in her bathroom sink, so she’s probably not about to hand back the HOMIE role anytime soon.

Ian already makes more money than God, and anyway his brow is furrowed. “I could still have slept my way to the top,” he announces.

Of course, of course, this is the bit of the discourse Ian has glommed onto.

“The gaming industry is like, eighty percent toxic masculinity,” Poppy points out. “I don’t think it’s full of gay CEOs just waiting for you to walk into their offices.”

“That’s very narrow-minded of you, Pop,” Ian says loftily. “They might be bisexual. I’m pretty sure everyone is bicurious, at least when it comes to me.”

There’s a very long pause.

“I’m so glad that I’m no longer head of HR,” Carol says into her coffee mug.

“I’m sorry,” Poppy says, holding her hands up, because she’s had enough practice at navigating everyone’s conversational digressions and she did have something to say, somewhere way back when. “I’m sorry, I’m sure that young twinky Ian would have done an excellent job seducing his way to success in the gaming industry, had he chosen that path.”

“I don’t know that I was ever twinky,” Ian muses.

“I don’t want my legacy to be that I got to where I am because I slept my way there!” Poppy shrieks, having failed at getting to this point organically, hearing just how loud the words are once they burst out of her mouth.

She is very much aware of everyone participating in their little cross-company coffee break taking a moment to look at her. Yes, she is not wearing one of her better bras and she’s not fully clear on the last time she slept in a bed and she’s having a bit of a break-out because of an overabundance of Sour Patch Kids and a distinct lack of sunshine. But like. There is no need for that bitchy little eyebrow arch from Dana, or the way everyone is suddenly avoiding her eyes.

“Nobody thinks that, Pop,” says Ian, placating.

Poppy has been on reddit, though. “Plenty of people think I rode you all the way to the top,” she says.

Ian isn’t drinking anything but manages to do a pretty good spit-take anyway. Poppy watches him take the information in, examine it, and immediately discard it.

“It would be fine if you did want to sleep with me,” he offers after a moment, changing the terms of the conversation to something he’ll enjoy much more, that won’t result in him having to re-examine the world from Poppy’s perspective.

“Oh my God,” Poppy mutters, rolling her eyes, and pretending like half the people in here don’t think she and Ian have already slept together.

“Plenty of gamer dudes think I’m incredible,” Ian continues blithely. “One guy messaged me and asked me to bottle my sweat for him.”

Carol doesn’t say anything, but her entire body once again exudes the “I’m glad I’m not head of HR anymore” vibes. Like Ian would ever take this sort of thing to HR.

“Gross,” says Poppy.

“And then you got a restraining order, right?” asks Rachel hopefully.

Ian grins his favourite sh*t-eating grin. “Nah,” he replies. “I did it. YOLO, you know?”

Sometimes, Poppy daydreams about the position at Cold Alliance Games that was nearly hers, about the colleagues she might have had, the calibre of smalltalk they could have made.

“What do you think he did with it?” asks Dana, the human definition of popcorn.gif.

“Maybe he’s using it to clone me,” Ian says, shrugging casually. He turns to Poppy. “Did I ever tell you about that sex dream I had about myself?”

Cold Alliance Games probably have serious discussions about the issues for minorities in the gaming industry and everyone would instantly understand the problems with being a woman in the public eye and they would all nod sympathetically and bring Poppy delicious mugs of perfectly made coffee.

“I hate that you’re like this,” she mumbles.

“I know, babe,” says Ian, grinning with every last f*cking too-white tooth, and Poppy can just sense the others filing this away as proof of something that exists entirely in their imaginations.

[part three: all your base are belong to us]

There was this time when Poppy first moved to LA and was apartment-hunting and earning peanuts and getting by mostly on instant ramen and Ian’s enthusiastic backhanded compliments when he introduced her to industry contacts.

She was also living with Ian at the time.

Ian was freshly, rawly divorced; he took unnervingly lengthy showers at weird hours and listened to power ballads loudly enough to make the windows shake, closing his eyes at lines he deemed particularly apt, and kept f*cking about with his facial hair and then trying to make Poppy have long involved conversations about it where he was obviously furious about all of her opinions. They bickered at all times, on topics ranging from the dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen to Ian’s habit of ambling around in the smallest amount of clothing possible to Ian’s abrupt announcements that the colour of Poppy’s hoodie that day wasn’t really working with the “energy” that he was trying to “harness” in his “space”, whatever the f*ck that was supposed to mean.

She didn’t have to pay rent, though, and while she was no longer the wide-eyed ingénue who’d first stumbled up to Ian at MIT, she was still kind of thinking she might be able to absorb some of his genius via sheer proximity.

She absolutely did not, although she possibly did pick up a few of his worst personality flaws. Ian had a spare room, which she started out in, but then he came in to get her to do a coding thing on like day four and had a hissy fit about all the cereal she’d gotten on the sheets and the laundry in various stages of cleanliness piled on every surface (“How do you have this much laundry?? You haven’t worn this many clothes!”) and relegated her to the couch instead, which he said was easier to vacuum. Poppy put up a token protest but actually didn’t mind too much; her circadian rhythms were shot to f*ck anyway, and then there was a fun two-week period that was made up pretty much entirely made up of weed and Mario Kart where Ian ignored calls from his lawyer and his ex and his then-David-equivalent in favour of sitting in sweatpants with Poppy while she kicked his ass over and over and over.

Most of the time Ian treated her like his own handy little home programmer, bursting into whatever room she was in at weird hours to demand that she just invent things that didn’t exist yet; backbones of MQ nowadays that had to be built from scratch back then. Ian’s requests were many and varied and exciting and infuriating, and he didn’t like it when Poppy’s responses were reasonable things like “it’s four in the morning” or “hang on a minute didn’t you bring someone home - did you just leave mid-shag to ask me to do this” or “IAN I AM IN THE SHOWER HOW DID YOU EVEN GET THE BATHROOM DOOR UNLOCKED”.

Ian was in that post-divorce phase of f*cking anything that moved, more or less, but for whatever reason Poppy was never worried that her residency on the couch was dependent on whether or not she put out. She was vaguely aware that she should have been worried, that everything about this situation looked sketchy as all hell, that most young women would feel vulnerable and exposed living with a rich older guy who was famous in their industry and also apparently had no concept of personal space or appropriate boundaries or locked doors. With any other guy, Poppy would definitely have already moved into one of the tiny expensive roach-infested boxes she and her depressed real estate agent toured a couple of times a week. But Ian, although he was demanding and rude and at least partially nude too much of the time, never ever hit on her. Never flirted with her. Never touched her in a way that felt awkward, never left his hand on her shoulder too long, never gave her significant looks. Never implied that she’d have to do sexual favours if she wanted to stay housed and employed.

Poppy actually got pretty good at making smalltalk and breakfast with Ian’s hook-ups. She’s not sure who most of them thought she was - some kind of maid, or Ian’s mail-order bride, or maybe they thought all successful game creators just had a chatty Aussie in the kitchen for… reasons. It actually did wonders for Poppy’s confidence in talking to strangers; she’s still fed up of social niceties and unnecessaries, but managing conversation with people who didn’t matter and who neither she nor Ian would ever see again smoothed off a few of the edges that refusing to interact with her peers at school hadn’t worn down. Ian seemed mostly disconcerted when he found Poppy in pyjamas or sweats sitting around drinking coffee with whoever he’d brought home (“I made toaster waffles!” “Pop, I don’t own toaster waffles.” “No, but I do.”) but he didn’t try to put a stop to things, just snagged his own mug of coffee and made a run for it.

The kitchen situation actually ended up being a huge deal, leading to the absolute worst arguments between them, a clashing of opposites of epic and disastrous proportions. Poppy only really likes things with artificial colours and flavours and the kind of additives that always seem on the brink of being banned, while Ian was picking out a new douchebag diet every week and then stomping around yelling about Keto or Paleo or cleanses, running the juicer way too often. He’d chuck out half her snacks claiming he was saving her from herself and then try to make her drink alarming concoctions the internet had told him would make him live forever or something along those lines, and there would be screaming and chia seeds all over the countertops and a wide array of bruised feelings. There was more smashed crockery and screaming than was really proportionate for the actual issue, and that, more than anything, told Poppy that she really really had to find her own place asap.

Ian didn’t offer to help her move out and Poppy didn’t ask, since she suspected his ‘help’ would mostly amount to him watching her do most of the work while explaining that she was lifting everything wrong and trying to sneak out any belongings of hers that he’d decided personally offended him. Poppy just ordered an Uber and piled her couple of suitcases and a duffle into it, most of her sh*t still in storage while she crashed at Ian’s.

“You don’t have to go,” Ian offered softly, looking uncharacteristically small as he watched her, rings tapping awkward, arrhythmic on the front doorframe. Shoulders hunched in, lower lip between his teeth, something puppyish in those dark eyes.

“Ian,” Poppy said, “I will kill you in your sleep if I stay here.”

His mouth tilted, something fond in it, something smug. “It’s cute you think you could pull that off,” he told her.

They embraced, the Uber idling in the driveway; Ian briefly cupped the back of Poppy’s head with one large palm before he let her go.

[part four: somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me]

On Monday afternoon, Ian says: “I’m gonna Fleetwood Mac this sh*t. Playpen is gonna be our Rumors.”

Poppy tries to turn this around a few times in her head. “Who’re you having the affair with?” she asks. “It would have to be…” She does some calculations on her fingers. “...Rachel?”

“Rachel’s a lesbian, Pop,” says Ian, like Poppy is somehow unaware of this. “And why would I be having an affair with the HOMIE?”

“You know what Rumors is about, right?” checks Poppy, instead of offering up David as the sacrificial lamb.

Ian sighs and rubs his eyes. “Every time an NPC is killed in-game, they’re going to have your face,” he says.

Poppy thinks about saying that that’s not exactly what happened with Rumors, but she’s gotten his point. Also: “you don’t know how to code that.” She tips her head, lets a smirk spread across her mouth in a way that makes Ian wince. “I do, though.”

Tuesday night, Ian has gotten the shovel out from somewhere and is swinging it aimlessly in a way that could actually get somebody hurt, if anyone was stupid enough to get close when Ian is wearing that expression.

Poppy is in-game, with her own digital shovel, and is digging a dick. For, y’know, reasons.

Ian huffs, and smashes open an imaginary head. Poppy’s like seventy-three percent sure it’s not her head he’s picturing.

“You have so much face,” she finds herself saying.

That does get Ian to put down the shovel, at least temporarily. Poppy wonders if he’s going to make the shovel his co-Creative Director. It can’t code, but it can’t answer back either.

“You okay there, Pop?” he says slowly. “Do you want a tea?”

He’s trying this thing lately where he tries to force chamomile tea on her; Poppy doesn’t really like it and she suspects he’s trying to turn it into a gateway drug to drinking protein shakes or, like. Water.

“No,” she says, bats a hand. “It’s just, you know, I forget sometimes. That you shave now.”

“Pop, you have hated my facial hair since we met,” Ian tells her. He sounds weirdly put out, actually. “Like the third thing you said to me was to insult my beard.”

Poppy tries. Poppy tries. Poppy tries. “Seventh,” she says.

“Jesus,” murmurs Ian. He rubs a hand over all that face of his.

The thing is, really, that Poppy learned to read most of Ian’s more obvious facial cues around the beard. She factored it into everything; now it’s gone, there are all these things Ian can do with his mouth and his chin and even somehow his cheeks and Poppy is adrift. At least it’s no longer like the early days of GrimPop, when Ian would walk in and Poppy would turn her head too fast and briefly have no idea who this rando in their office was.

“It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve seen me without a beard,” Ian points out. “Although it was back when you still thought cutting your own bangs was a good idea so maybe you actually couldn’t see me at all.”

“I’m just saying,” Poppy begins, which is a stupid opening because she’s not fully sure what she’s saying, pretty sure that none of it should have come out of her head in the first place. She flounders, fails to come up with a follow-up, and Ian’s expression is doing this thing and it feels like it’s bad. “Just, you know,” she says. Waves her hand. Nothing new materialises. “Eugh.”

Ian blinks, settles into a pout that Poppy is more familiar with. “Did you just ‘ugh’ my face?”

“I did not ‘ugh’ your face!” Poppy protests, because she has a wide range of annoyed and helpless and demonstrative noises and by now she’d have thought Ian would’ve been more familiar with most of them.

“You’re not allowed to ‘ugh’ my face,” Ian says, folding his arms. “It’s in my contract.”

“It is not in your contract,” Poppy scoffs.

“It’s in my contract,” Ian repeats. “We need to get David up here.”

Poppy has no idea what time it is but it’s dark outside. “David’s gone home.”

“Then we need to get him on the phone,” Ian announces, and turns and stomps out of their office. He has his phone in his pocket, Poppy can see its outline in his unreasonably tight jeans, but apparently that’s not what he wants to call David on. Okay. Fine.

She looks back at her screen, at her half-dug imaginary dick, hanging just a little to the left.

“Fine,” she says, and heads out after Ian.

Wednesday morning, they split seven lots of coffee between them, three patches of bickering and the remnants of the I did not ‘ugh’ your face argument from last night that Poppy suspects is going to rear its head again at an inconvenient moment. Neither of them win, but also, neither of them specifically lose.

“I thought,” Poppy says carefully, spinning a little in her chair, “we agreed that this time we’d only upset David on days with an ‘R’ in them.”

“Huh.” Ian’s frowning. “I thought we said days with an ‘E’ in them.”

“Oh.” Poppy considers this. “I see where we’re f*cking up.”

Ian taps a knuckle against his lower lip. “What about if we split the difference and do days with an ‘S’ in them?”

Poppy does the maths. “That’s more days.”

Ian shrugs. “I mean. We’re still us, you know?”

Yeah. Yeah, Poppy knows.

[part five: it’s dangerous to go alone! take this]

It’s like eight a.m. on a Sunday, which is a time that nobody actually needs to see, and Poppy was up ‘til about five doing that thing where you’re definitely going to go to bed at a reasonable time and then you look up from your internet rabbit hole and the sky outside is lightening without permission. Her plan was to sleep until the early afternoon, and then do some laundry or something with about a litre of coffee and maybe some gummy bears.

Of course, Ian woke up today and chose violence, because Ian wakes up every day and chooses violence.

“What are you doing,” Poppy whines, sitting distraught and watching as Ian unpacks all these tote bags of groceries into her tiny kitchen.

“Brain food,” Ian explains, like this is normal, opening the fridge and making a face. “Jesus Christ, Poppy.”

“I have food!” Poppy tries protesting. She’s not expecting this to work, and it doesn’t.

“This is not food,” says Ian sternly, shaking a half-full takeout box of unknown vintage at her.

“I do not want your eating disorder,” Poppy tells him. “I don’t want to do intermittent fasting or juice cleanses or high protein or whatever new weird thing you found on one of those men’s fitness sites that are really just inductions to pyramid schemes or a cult.”

Ian is obviously not listening to her, instead looking down at the label of one of her cans of energy drinks with his brow furrowed.

“You’re gonna die,” he says flatly.

“So’re you,” Poppy replies, knee-jerk. “So’s everybody, actually. Even you, with your whole30 thing.” She hates that she knows more about these bizarre diets than anybody should have to know.

“Pop,” Ian says,raising the can like he’s holding a ticking bomb. “This is crazy. This has so much caffeine in it. We’re gonna be in the office one day and your heart is just going to like, explode in your chest.” He uses his free hand to make a sort of exploding gesture, like Poppy might somehow be unfamiliar with the word. “You’re gonna be all dead on the keyboard and like, what are we going to do then? I can’t code my vision. You’ll be dead and I’ll be coding the new expansion and MQ will fold because I can’t get anything to look right and it’ll all be your fault! You and your f*cking caffeine!”

Poppy gives him a minute to make sure that he’s finished. “Are you done judging my life choices? Because I really wanna go back to bed.”

“Poppy!” Ian shakes the can, which he should probably stop doing, because any minute now Poppy’s going to crack it open all over both of them. “We need to get you healthy! I can’t have you dying on me while I’m trying to take MQ to even greater heights.”

She squints at him. “Are you tweaking, man? I know I haven’t tripsat you in years but you’re meant to wait until you get here before you get high.”

Tripsitting was another weird little angle of Poppy and Ian’s shortlived and carcrash cohabitation: she wasn’t sure if it was part of the divorce thing or part of the visualising Mythic Quest in its earliest stages thing, but Ian was regularly taking all kinds of weird sh*t and then drawing on an enormous whiteboard he was keeping in his living room for this very purpose. About a third of the time he just drew dicks, and about a quarter of the time the drawings were so disturbing that Poppy wiped them off before he sobered up, but he did come up with a lot of MQ’s core attributes while off his face with her that year. Sometimes, Poppy would join in, but she’s never much liked hallucinogens and they tended to make her either paranoid or giggly; Ian at least got a bit more work done.

Fun fact: the first time Ian told Poppy he loved her, he was on a truly face-melting amount of ketamine. Poppy just carried on working through the bag of Funyans she’d acquired and wrote it off as a side-effect.

Poppy hasn’t tripsat Ian since the time with the peyote, five years ago now, when he just lay with his head in her lap and cried for three hours. She’s absolutely refused to participate in any of that sh*t since then; she doesn’t know if Ian’s given up hallucinogens in favour of like, cardio, or if he maybe forces David to sit through it all with him. She can see Ian persuading David that it’s part of his job description.

“I’m being helpful,” Ian snaps, defensive. “I’m being a good co-creative director, bringing decent food to my partner so she’s in the best possible state to work.”

Poppy grudgingly gets up to investigate what he’s piled all over her tiny worktop. There’s a lot of packages of like, popular-with-rich-white-people grains and seeds and stuff, and a bunch of fresh vegetables she is probably not going to do anything with. There are packets of spirulina, for f*ck’s sake. But there’s also several kinds of rice, coconut milk, coconut vinegar, and a slightly startling bottle of banana ketchup, f*ck knows where Ian even found that.

“What?” says Ian, at the look on Poppy’s face. “Obviously I looked up Filipino culture when we started working together.”

Poppy suspects her eyes look like they’re about to pop out of her head.

“...why?” she asks at last.

“I’m a dick,” shrugs Ian, “but I try to just like, generically be a dick, not a culturally insensitive dick.” He waves a hand. “I also looked up Aussie culture, but that mostly just seems to be day-drinking and saying ‘c*nt’ at all times.”

Ian winces a little when he says ‘c*nt’; Poppy does not.

“Well, that sounds about right,” she agrees, putting the banana ketchup carefully back down. Ian’s trying to cram ingredients into her cupboards like he genuinely thinks Poppy is ever going to cook anything that isn’t ramen; it’s sort of cute of him. She pokes a packet of red quinoa with a dubious fingertip. “I think you pulling sh*t like this is what makes my family think you’re my common law husband.”

“What the f*ck,” says Ian.

Poppy shrugs. “I mean, it’s not like we talk that often; time differences, you know? But they definitely think when I say ‘partner’ I mean, you know, partner.”

Ian makes a face. “Jesus f*ck.”

Poppy makes the same face back. “Obviously.”

Ian shakes his head, visibly perturbed, and goes back to trying to cram what appears to be okra into her fridge. Why has Ian brought her okra. Poppy doesn’t want okra.

“Is this some sort of breakdown?” she suggests. “It’s like. Eight on a Sunday. Why would you come barging in here to bring me groceries I didn’t ask for?”

“It’s Acts of Service,” Ian replies easily, like this is a valid response.

It’s Poppy’s turn to say: “Jesus f*ck.” She flaps her hands. “We live in LA, Ian! It cannot be that hard to find a dominatrix! You do not need to Macgyver yourself one out of me for whatever weird sh*t you need.”

Ian turns to face her, pure horror etched across his too-expressive beardless features. “Poppy! Pop! Oh my God! Acts of Service. It’s my love language! Why are you like this!”

“Why would I know that?” Poppy demands in a similarly hysterical tone.

“Because people know this!” Ian replies, hands flailing. “It’s like, a societally known thing!”

Poppy rubs at her eyes. It’s still very early.

“Okay,” she says, “well, we can unpack all this later when it’s not… now.”

Ian is doing his thinking pose, tapping fingers against his chin. “You know, I think your love language is Acts of Service as well, Pop.”

“For f*ck’s sake, Ian!”

“Fine.” Ian raises his hands, fingers spread, using that placating tone he saves for when he’s doing something insane but somehow Poppy is the unreasonable one who must be soothed. “You go back to bed, I’ll finish up here. Where’s your juicer?”

“I do not own a juicer,” Poppy says, already stumbling back toward her bedroom.

“You’re an animal!” Ian howls behind her.

“Yeah yeah,” she says without turning around, “let yourself out when you’re done, ya c*nt.”

Ian makes a choking sound. “That’s a term of endearment in Australia, right? Right, Pop? Pop?”

Poppy lets her bedroom door close, breathes out slow.

Later, she finds Ian has crammed pretty much every kitchen cupboard she has with stuff, stuff she will not ever use, although on the plus side he hasn’t thrown out any of her existing food or drinks. There’s a bright yellow Post-It stuck to the bottle of vitamin gummies she thought she’d succeeded in hiding with Really??? REALLY??? in Ian’s blocky script on it.

She smiles, just a little, and lets it sit there for now.

[part six: something that is both normal to want and possible to achieve,]

“I’m sensing some distraction, Pop,” says Ian.

Poppy is not so much distracted as disassociating; Ian stopped bouncing ideas off her about twenty minutes ago and since then has been bouncing ideas off himself. She’s been playing Gardenscapes on her phone while he rambles; gardens look nice. Soothing.

“Mmm,” says Poppy without looking up. “Did you decide what you wanted to do with the thing and the… other thing? Because I can go start coding that in if you have.”

“It was a little more complex than that.” Ian sounds affronted. Poppy swipes a little bomb on her match 3 board and clears the whole space; it’s deeply satisfying. Her phone buzzes in her hand, the haptic so pleased.

“Was it though,” she says.

Ian sighs heavily, and when Poppy risks a glance up he’s kneading at his eyes.

“You’re mean today,” he says, like they’re five year olds. “Like. Super cranky.”

“If you’re about to suggest-” Poppy begins crossly.

“Nah.” Ian waves his hand, opens his eyes. “It was like, last week when you went ham on TimTams and made one of the programmers cry. Maybe the week before. Definitely not right now, anyway, give me some credit, Pop.”

Poppy considers the fact that Ian apparently keeps an eye on her menstrual cycle and then dismisses that as something that’s not worth the inevitable conversation. “Which programmer did I make cry?”

“I dunno, the twitchy one,” shrugs Ian.

“That’s all of them,” Poppy reminds him.

“Yeah,” Ian agrees. “Anyway, I am a man of great wisdom and sensitivity and I am not going to blame your hormones for your bitchiness, but I think you should get laid, work out some of that tension. Your shoulders are like, yikes.”

“Are you f*cking kidding me?” Poppy demands.

“Obviously we haven’t really got time for you to meet someone and whatever, and it feels irresponsible to tell my colleague to go have a hook-up with some random-” Ian begins.

“Oh does it really,” Poppy interjects.

“-so you’re just gonna have to like, solve the issue yourself,” he concludes.

Poppy waits for a second for a punchline or for another shoe to drop or maybe for the whole goddamn ceiling to fall in on them and then this won’t have to be happening.

“Are you telling me that we can’t get anything done unless I have a wank,” she says, flatly.

Ian nods, like he’s glad she’s got the thread of the conversation so fast. “Sure,” he replies, “though for obvious reasons I wasn’t going to say ‘wank’. I mean. ‘Wank’. What a word.”

Poppy takes in a slow breath through her nose, lets it out through her mouth. “I… do not need to… f*ck out any… tension I am carrying,” she says carefully. “That’s not a thing. I will absolutely get Carol in here.”

“Carol doesn’t work in HR anymore,” Ian says, bright.

“She will make an exception for this,” Poppy assures him.

“Pop,” says Ian, sounding like the most reasonable madman in the world, “this isn’t weird unless you want to make it weird! I’m just suggesting some normal, healthy ways you can release some of the stress you’re carrying so it doesn’t get in the way of work.”

“You’re the one who’s decided that I’m tense and that it’s getting in the way of work,” Poppy murmurs, because she knows he isn’t listening to her.

“We’re adults, we can talk about this,” Ian continues cheerfully, “and masturbation is a totally normal, totally healthy activity that people can-”

“Oh my God!” snaps Poppy. “Ian! I know! I know what masturbating is! I can masturbat* without needing a meeting room to discuss it!”

It’s not a good look, the one that settles over Ian’s face. It’s that is it though expression from the Thor meme. “Are you doing it right, Poppy?” he asks.

Poppy blinks once, and then twice, and somehow this doesn’t turn into a dream. “It’s pretty hard to get it wrong, Ian.”

“Hey,” Ian says, spreading his hands, face too innocent, rings a-glint, “I know that it can be more difficult for women to reach org*sm. There’s lots of varying factors and different women require different things, there’s no one blueprint.”

“Are you about to mansplain my own vagin* to me,” says Poppy. “Is that what you are doing right now.”

“I’m talking about the experience,” Ian explains, with a hand gesture that’s eerily reminiscent of Poppy’s Dinner Party hands. She kind of wants to ask him to stop, to wash that off and give her her own gesture back. “Like.” He spins back to the whiteboard, uncaps a marker and flips the board over. At the top, he jots: INSPIRATION: p*rnography - visual, written, aural.

“God, you’re really going there,” Poppy murmurs to herself.

“I know most video p*rn is aimed at the straight male gaze,” says Ian, all pious and woke and understanding, and Poppy’s unsure if she’s letting this play out because she’s trapped or because she wants to see what the f*ck he does next. “But lots of women do enjoy erotic fiction because it stimulates their minds.” He writes STIMULATE THE MIND in block capitals on the board. “Do you read erotic fiction?” Ian adds. “Oh, do you read Mythic Quest erotic fanfiction? I hear there’s a lot of that out there.”

“No,” says Poppy. “But that feels a lot like something that you would do.”

Ian’s eyes go kind of shifty.

Anyway,” he continues loudly, “you gotta treat yourself nicely, Poppy. Run a bath. Light candles! Draw it out with some stimulating material.”

Poppy is mostly willing to let this keep unspooling until Ian turns and writes cl*toral stimulation vs vagin*l penetration on the whiteboard.

“Okay cool,” she says, standing up in a flurry of crumbs and pens and knocked over cups, “I have to go and do something very very far from here that involves plucking out my own eyes, cool, bye Ian!”

She flees. It’s not subtle or cool or chill at all, but she f*cking flees.

Later that afternoon, David sends out a panicked memo to all staff that clearly no one else has proofread or approved: it’s basically a stream of consciousness on appropriate whiteboard usage in meeting rooms and how you should clean the board when you’ve finished your work so it’s ready and innocuous for the next people to use the room and they’re not ambushed by other notes, oh my God.

[part six point five: knowledge is power, france is bacon]

The thing is - the thing is, the thing is: Poppy is perfectly good at masturbating, thank you very much.

Despite Ian’s mystic bullsh*t, Poppy has two functioning hands and a functioning vagin* and the whole thing is pretty much Tab A, Slot B, Button C (which, ha, is actually a very good joke that she will not ever be sharing with him). She doesn’t have a crazy involved libido or anything, but she’s not really sure how she feels about other people being involved in her org*sms, if she’s honest, so, periodically, she is capable of taking care of herself. She’s got like, one pretty basic pretty bad vibrator that she bought immediately after getting her own apartment like it was some kind of rite of passage, but mostly she just goes low-tech for this stuff. She’s never had any issues, anyway.

And then the enormous cardboard box turns up on her doorstep.

It looks pretty innocuous and Ian’s the one who gets weird gamer fanmail sent to him so Poppy brings it into her apartment and rips off the tape and has taken out the first few items before she realises what the f*ck is happening.

“IAN!” she screams into her phone.

“FaceTime me!” Ian orders when he picks up.

“Absof*ckinglutely not,” Poppy snarls. “Ian, you have sent me an entire box of sex toys.”

“That’s not completely accurate,” Ian protests.

“No,” Poppy agrees, all the way into hysterical now, “there’s like… Jesus, Ian, seven different kinds of lube in here.”

“See,” Ian says, “I knew you weren’t treating yourself right. This is why you’re tense, you know.”

“I’m tense because my co-creative director is a f*cking maniac!” Poppy replies.

“I didn’t log onto Lovehoney as your co-creative director,” Ian says, like that should be obvious. “I did it in my capacity as your best friend, duh.”

“You are not my best friend!” Poppy yells.

“Obviously I’m your best friend,” Ian scoffs. “We’re not arguing about that. And so your best friend decided to fix your sad lacking masturbatory life.”

“You said I was interfering with work!” Poppy pinches the bridge of her nose.

“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t work with your best friend,” Ian says, like this should have occurred to Poppy earlier. Like she has any choice in the matter.

“You did this because you’re such a control freak that you even have to have dominance over how I org*sm now,” Poppy snaps.

“Wow, Pop, that was illuminating,” Ian says drily. “For the record, I do not care how you org*sm.”

“You just sent me a box full of sex stuff!” Poppy shrieks.

“Yeah,” Ian agrees, “but I went for variety. You wouldn’t tell me how you feel about cl*toral stimulation versus penetration so I got you stuff for both. You can do whatever you want.”

“Stop making this sound like a nice gesture!” Poppy wails. “First you fill my kitchen with quinoa and now you’ve got me…” She rummages, grabs something at random, “...some kind of silicone rose?”

“Oh, that’s a lot of fun,” Ian says brightly. “What you do is-”

Poppy hangs up on him out of self-preservation. He does try and call back, but stops trying after she hits the reject call button three times in a row.

She leaves the box on the kitchen table and pointedly ignores it. And ignores it. And ignores it. She can feel it watching her, probably wearing that over-intense face Ian wears when he’s absolutely sure he doesn’t deserve what she’s doing to him. It’s almost never true; he absolutely deserves most of what she does to him.

There’s about half a bottle of vodka in her freezer that’s been there so long it’s basically frozen into place; Poppy hacks it out with the aid of a butter knife and brings it with her to investigate the Lovehoney box, letting out a deep sigh and switching her phone to Do Not Disturb.

The next workday, Ian is grinning at her across their office.

“So,” he says, when Poppy finally, reluctantly, removes her headphones. “You had fun blowing your own back out?”

“I used to daydream about sneaking into your home and shaving the front of your hair back a little bit once a week,” Poppy replies. “So you’d think your hairline was receding.”

“Jesus, Pop,” Ian says, but his eyes are crinkling in amusem*nt. “All you ever do is bring guns to knife fights.”

“I learned from the best,” Poppy replies with a salute. “Also,” she adds, “if you bring any of this week up ever ever again, I’m deleting the entirety of Playpen.”

Something like a smirk hovers for a long, long moment around Ian’s mouth. “Deal.”

[part seven: like oh great now i gotta be responsible for this water bottle]

It’s that time when everything has been going well for a non-specific period and now all of a sudden everything is on fire. Poppy is the little This Is Fine dog, clinging to her mug of coffee. She would love for Ian to be around to spike it for her with one of his hip flasks, but she’s unclear on where Ian is, other than Not Here.

That’s annoying, actually. Sure, Ian underfoot is aggravating, but then so is Ian mysteriously absent as well. Ian is annoying at all times, that’s his default setting, the man born with rip to ur grandma but im different tattooed on his soul, but, well, that’s why Poppy needs him. She’s pretty sure she looks slightly better in comparison, when the other option is Ian. Maybe. Probably. A bit.

Poppy finds herself doing that thing where she thinks briefly very hard about the fact that Ian saw something in her that made him pick her out of a whole class of people at MIT, which is probably some kind of psychological comfort blanket at this stage but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, okay. Well, some days. Other days, she feels like a puppy who pissed on Ian’s shoes, and he decided to take her home to see what trick she might do next.

It’s not like Poppy doesn’t know how this has all played out, didn’t watch Dana during her brief tenure at GrimPop realising that she had to pick either Ian or Poppy as a role model and that both options were pretty much horrifying. Dana leaned toward Ian, and Poppy couldn’t blame her, but then when it was just Poppy and Dana bobbing around in that big white fish tank, Dana seemed to realise that Poppy must have got that way somehow, and a lot of it had something to do with hitching her wagon to Ian. You spend enough time with a person, you pick up a bunch of their mannerisms, their turns of phrase, their megalomania: it’s just a hazard of social interaction. It’s part of the reason Poppy would overall just prefer not to.

Poppy could have pointed out eventually that Dana has a cute partner who loves her for who she is and supports her and her life choices, and a family who gets her and wants to spend time with her on a regular basis, and that means she’s already doing better than Poppy or Ian ever have. She didn’t, though. She doesn’t know if it was her inner Ian or her inner Poppy that kept her mouth shut.

It’s not like she isn’t pretty sure that she’s Frankenstein’s monster, a dreadful mash-up of the worst parts of Ian that she’s inherited and the worst parts of herself that she’s dragged to the surface over the course of too many late nights. The monster doesn’t get to have a name, but it gets to promote its maker’s, God forbid something isn’t all about the brand recognition.

Poppy wouldn’t be doing anything like as incredible as she is now if she’d ended up with another creator, if she’d started working for another company, hadn’t tumbled into the hotbox of Ian’s creativity and Ian’s crazy and Ian’s need. But it’s not like she doesn’t sometimes think that another mentor might have taught her to play the games of this industry. Ian doesn’t play the games, doesn’t need to, tramples over social niceties and hierarchies and expected conventions and f*cks up whatever he wants - and this is what Poppy has learned too. It’s not like she particularly wants to network, to socialise, to chat. But she can’t fake it and it’s too late to try and that’s fine, she doesn’t mind. Apart from the times when she remembers that what she has now has to work, because she’s pretty much burned every other bridge going.

Ian turns up at some point as afternoon is dipping toward evening, all bright bold energy and blinding white smile. Maybe he’s been having his teeth whitened, Poppy thinks sourly and slightly hysterically, having skipped real lunch in favour of eating like four packets of strawberry bootlaces. The day’s work feels more back on track, but Poppy herself doesn’t necessarily feel particularly on track herself. The sugar will probably kick back in in a minute.

“Hey, Pop,” Ian announces, “turn off your sadgirl music and tell me what magic you made today.”

Poppy is not in the mood. “Why don’t you tell me where you’ve been all afternoon?” she counters.

Ian takes a half-step back, expression all offended and like, Why Would You Ask Us, A Narnia Blog, This?

“I had an interview with a couple of gaming sites,” he explains. “You know, promising them that MQ is very much going to have a real actual expansion very soon.”

“You did it without me?” Poppy asks.

Ian arches that damn eyebrow. “Did you want to talk to some journalists? Because you know David said you have to have better press training after you called that guy a f*ck knuckle for asking about being a woman in gaming.”

“You’d hidden my Emotional Support Skittles,” Poppy counters, because those were absolutely mitigating circ*mstances.

“I’m saving you from yourself,” Ian says.

Poppy huffs, and looks back to her screen. “You ruin my life on a daily basis.”

“If the opportunity comes up for you to ruin my life, I promise I’ll let you know,” Ian says, placating. “And also I brought you one of those disgusting drinks you like that have never touched a natural ingredient in their short awful lives.”

“Fine,” Poppy relents. “But at least pretend next time that you might take me to an interview with you.”

“You hate interviews,” Ian reminds her. “It’s part of why we work so well, actually, because I love talking about me, and for whatever reason you… don’t.”

“Imagine that,” says Poppy, bone dry. “And you’re meant to talk about the stuff we create, I like talking about that!”

“Not in a way that anyone can follow,” Ian shrugs. “Also you struggle with making the fun stuff sound fun. Or normal. And then you call the journalists f*ck knuckles.”

“You’re a f*ck knuckle,” Poppy says, automatic.

“Yeah,” Ian says, “so. That is why I go to the interviews and you make the game actually work.”

Poppy feels herself scowl, folding her arms across her chest, small and defensive. “Well, if you wanted someone who can communicate with the world like that, then you should have tried harder to keep Dana.”

Ian’s eyebrows do a bunch of things. “Where did Dana come from?” he demands. “I feel like you’re inventing things to be mad at.”

This is entirely possible, Poppy can’t tell anymore.

“I’m just saying,” she says, “if you wanted someone who can do sh*t like you can, Dana would be a better bet.”

“Dana has her own goddamn studio with her terrifying henchmen,” Ian replies, “and she’s probably programmed all the office temperature controls all wrong, and sure, we think alike in a lot of ways, but then what do I bring to the table if she can do what I can do?” He gestures at Poppy. “You and I, we’re on the same page, but we come at it from opposite sides, that’s why it works. We did this, remember? ‘It is what it is’?”

When they wrestled this office back from David, the first thing they did was carve IT IS WHAT IT IS into the concrete pillar. Ian suggested matching tattoos, but Poppy’s not sure that’s a good plan. Maybe after they finish Playpen. If they finish Playpen.

“Yeah,” Poppy says, “okay,” and there’s the sugar hit, leaving her mouth tasting sour, her head thrumming, her fingertips numb. She reaches for the drink Ian brought her, the cup slick with condensation.

Ian huffs and throws himself into his desk chair, swings for a little bit. “You know,” he offers at last, voice too casual, too light, “you’re probably the longest relationship I’ve ever had.”

Poppy kind of already knows this, because she can do math and she can count and Ian doesn’t do calendars, but it hits different, changing from something she was aware of on a subconscious level into something with sharp focus when it leaves Ian’s mouth, hangs in the air.

“That’s worrying,” she replies, fighting to keep her voice as nonchalant as Ian’s. “You know, given one of them resulted in an actual human child.”

“What else would you call Mythic Quest?” Ian points out, and Poppy remembers the heady first hours of GrimPop, to Ian saying they’d conceive their child together.

Poppy knows childbirth is supposed to be unimaginably painful, just, the worst thing, and it can also kill you - but also, they let you have the good drugs and if you said you wanted the dad out of the room they’d take him out and make him be gone, and- she’s lost track of her analogy, but, yeah. That.

“God,” Poppy says, takes off her glasses so she can rub at her eyes. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind, you know. If you wanted to… take some of this weird intense energy and direct it at someone else. Find a significant other of some kind.”

When she puts her glasses back on, Ian is looking at her with an amused expression. “I don’t need a significant other, Pop. I have you.”

Poppy blinks a couple of times while she rolls that backwards and forwards in her head a little. “That’s either the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me, or the most insulting.”

Ian grins, sh*t-eating. Poppy glares at him and returns to her coding, like she’s shaken this all off, but she’s not sure she has. That dichotomy is going to keep her awake at night, she can already tell.

[cutscene: & b) not even one of the better-known clowns]

In a gesture that’s either sweet or absolutely Machiavellian, Poppy’s family invite her explicitly to come stay for a couple of weeks, and in a response that’s either endearing or even more Machiavellian, Poppy takes them up on it. They’re coming onto the final stretch of Playpen and a co-creative director vanishing off the scene is technically a big no-no, but Poppy promises to check in remotely and she has all these vacation hours accrued from hanging around fulfilling Ian’s whims instead of building her own life.

Ian decides at the last minute that Poppy shouldn’t go anywhere, actually, and gets himself in trouble with Poppy by saying variants of your family hates you up to and including during the ride he ends up giving her to the airport. It turns into mean sniping about each other’s families and social skills and Poppy slams his car door too hard, stomping off to get her flight and leaving her f*ck you stinging in the air behind her.

Whatever. Poppy can do whatever the hell she wants, Ian can build games without her, it’ll be nice to have the office all to himself again.

It’s not like they’re weirdly joined at the hip, Ian and Poppy spend loads of time apart. It’s just that Ian usually dictates that, goes on a vacation or a retreat or a self-aggrandising tour of international gamer cons, he’s the one that picks when he’s going to leave and then does it. Poppy doesn’t. Poppy doesn’t leave him in a way Ian didn’t get to have a say in, in a way beyond his control.

“So you’re sulking because your - well, whatever she is, your whatever is off playing happy families and you’re stuck here failing to make your ex-wife come?” Shannon suggests flatly.

“I’m not sulking!” Ian protests. “And I absolutely made you come earlier, it’s actually your turn this time.”

“That one in your kitchen?” Shannon shakes her head. “That one barely counted, I did most of the work. You gonna make me do most of the work this time too?”

Ian is fully aware that people think it’s weird he still hooks up with his ex-wife from time to time, but frankly the sex was never the issue with them and these days it’s much better without pesky sh*t like feelings and legally binding pre-nups getting in the way. They know each other too well - know each other’s worst parts and ugliest sides and were never any good at connecting on a valid emotional level but at least they’re not trying to these days.

Brendan… well. He’s still making a small fortune from Twitch, and they had a brief meeting last year in a non-public place. Ian showed him the cigarette burn on his arm and a couple of other scars he’s come up with cooler stories for if anyone ever asks, said: “courtesy of your grandfather”, and left it at that. Brendan doesn’t want much to do with him but Ian’s told him the door is open if he needs it, and if they’re not exactly peaceful they’re not acrimonious either. Besides, the kid’s earning enough money to get all the therapy he wants about his absent father if he wants, about the years he spent building a career by streaming the game said absent father had built. Hell, Ian knows all about utilising your daddy issues for fun and profit.

“You’re just mad that your emotional lapdog is out of the country,” Shannon concludes later, wearing his underwear and smoking a post-coital cigarette no matter how many times Ian has told her that his lungs are sacred and he is not adding nicotine to that, it’s not the f*ckin’ nineties anymore.

“She’s not my emotional lapdog,” Ian protests. “I don’t need that kind of support! I support myself!” Shannon arches a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “Yeah okay, I know, I know, but I’ve grown as a person, spiritually and emotionally. And physically I guess, you’ve noticed my guns are bigger these days, right?”

Shannon purses her lips, blows a slow obnoxious stream of smoke into his face. “Is the emotional growth in the room with us now, or…?”

Monday afternoon finds Ian back down in the white offices that don’t belong to GrimPop anymore and now houses Studio/Dana. It’s unnervingly quiet; Ian has no idea how anything gets done around here.

“Mr Grimm.” Jo steps out of nowhere, somehow, even though Ian worked here for months and knows exactly where all the doors are and that it’s actually almost impossible to sneak up on someone in an entirely white streamlined space. “Do you have an appointment?”

“Jo!” Ian says, throwing his arms wide. “I don’t need an appointment to come visit my old colleagues in their hell studios.”

“You’re interrupting the flow of the workday.” Brad materialises too, eyes very bright and very dark. Ian had some of the worst times of his entire f*ckin’ life down here and the workspace never felt this actively hostile.

“Okay,” Ian says, “I was pretty sure you and I were at least, like, work bros, Brad, and Jo, well, I guess I’m never sure what the metrics of your tolerance are but I thought we got on okay?”

“You’re a business rival now,” Jo points out crisply.

Brad tilts his head in that way of his. “Also, you cucked yourself.”

“Can someone do that to themselves?” Jo asks, as Ian feels his jaw drop open.

“You tell me,” Brad shrugs.

Jo looks at Ian, and then back to Brad; they seem to have a brief but convoluted discussion using only their eyebrows, which is cute and fun when Ian and Poppy do it, but is definitely cursed and evil when these two do it.

“Oh yeah,” Jo agrees, “he cucked himself.”

“What the f*ck,” Ian manages at last. He’s not sure he’s ever been this insulted. Ever. “I came here to see how a former protegee is getting on and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now.”

Brad and Jo wear matching pitying expressions; it’s unbearable. Brad hasn’t blinked in about two minutes. “You didn’t come to check on Dana, you came here because Poppy’s in Australia with your balls in her purse.”

Ian sputters. “That doesn’t even make sense, Poppy doesn’t even have a purse, she just has that dorky little backpack!”

It is not a good comeback, he knows, but the truth is that she’s had his balls in that f*cking backpack since about a week since they first met, because no one in the world is allowed to be sh*tty to Poppy Li but Ian himself, and even when he does it he kind of wants to rip his own face off afterwards.

“Unless you’re here to show Dana about the pitfalls of compromise, you don’t have much use as a resource at this point,” says Jo. “But feel free to make an appointment!”

“I am never coming back down here,” Ian says fervently, “it’s like the f*cking Shining.”

Fifteen minutes later, it turns out that Rachel is busy and frazzled. “Got a lot of math going on here Ian. Just… just so much math. Lots and lots of math.”

“...are you hydrated?” Ian checks. “Like, actually hydrated, with actual water and not soda with exclamation marks in its name?”

Rachel lifts up one of those eco refillable water bottles, like, of course she has one of those. “All set.”

“What about when you’re in the zone?” Ian checks. Rachel reaches under her desk and reveals one of those even bigger bottles that are only meant to be for serious workouts, the kind that holds a couple of litres of water.

“Okay,” says Ian, “how are you not peeing every ten minutes?”

“I am!” Rachel says in panicked-sounding whisper-shriek, her eyes opening up very big.

Ian is more used to dealing with the exactly opposite problem with Poppy, who is probably on the cusp of some kind of kidney infection if she doesn’t already have one. He takes another look at Rachel’s manic expression and decides to beat a hasty retreat.

“Uh-uh,” says Carol without even looking up from her computer. “I want no part in whatever sh*tshow, clusterf*ck or other stupid bullsh*t you’re doing this afternoon. Out.”

“I didn’t even-” Ian begins.

“Out!” she repeats.

Ian does peer through the glass wall of Sue’s office, now she’s upstairs with the rest of them; she and Tall Paul, that asshole, have a pot of tea and are gossiping away like harpies. Ian does not want to be involved.

He sits in the office and Poppy hasn’t even texted while she’s been away, not even once, and Australia’s a terrifying country full of murder creatures, divebombing birds and evil spiders and surprise snakes and all kinds of terrifying animals that Pop has used for inspiration for MQ foes on more than one occasion. She could be dead, how would they even know. He huffs and puts on his glasses and goes to poke at the code, even though the code is sacred and Poppy made him swear on his prescription vitamins that he wouldn’t touch it without permission. He pokes around a bit and there is a line of text: get the f*ck out of here, Ian.

Ian scoffs and scrolls down a bit and then: seriously, Ian, get out.

He wastes about ten minutes rummaging around for all the insults that Poppy has seeded through the Playpen code, anticipating Ian breaking his promise at some point. He loses a few minutes Googling the specifics of some of the more Australian insults she’s left in there and God, those guys are brutal down there.

Ian’s brain is completely full of bees when David walks into the office at some point… later.

“Wanna take a nap?” Ian blurts.

David blinks about six times. “With you?” he asks slowly.

“Jesus, man, no,” Ian replies. “You just. Nap in the same room. And then you compare notes on ideas you’ve had while you were napping, bounce some thoughts around, it’s a whole creative thing.”

David’s eyebrows go all worried. “You and Poppy nap on the clock? No wonder we all got more work done without you.”

“You didn’t get an expansion done, though, did you?” Ian points out.

David’s shoulders slump a little. “Anyway,” he says, loud and faux-cheerful, “I just wanted to check in, Ian!”

“I don’t want that,” Ian says.

“Well,” David replies, visibly recouping, “the programmers have complained that you’ve been hanging around too much, making them nervous and confiscating their snacks?”

“I’m inspiring them,” Ian corrects. “Who snitched? It was Glasses, wasn’t it.”

David looks briefly confused. “Glasses? Oh, you mean Anthony?”

“It’s Glasses, actually,” Ian tells him. “That’s the name on his birth certificate. I don’t know why he’s persisting with this ‘Anthony’ sh*t.”

David pinches the bridge of his nose and looks very, very tired. “The art department had similar complaints.”

Ian wrinkles his nose. “Was it Phil or DILF Kevin? Because that dictates on whether I’m apologising or not.”

David’s face does something kind of interesting and it occurs to Ian that maybe DILF Kevin is only known as DILF Kevin to him and Poppy - which is bullsh*t, by the way, because Kevin is very much a DILF and he really deserves to have that recognised - because there really are not that many secrets between them, in part because Poppy used to make toaster waffles for his casual hook-ups; she knows more about Ian’s sex life than Ian could ever remember for himself.

“You know what,” David says, “just… don’t visit the teams for a couple of days, how about that?”

“I’m a free agent,” Ian points out, “I gotta go where the muse takes me.”

“Hey, we wolves understand that,” David says, nodding, and f*ck, has Ian accidentally started this up in his brain again? “But if the muse could not take you into the programming or art departments, that would really? Help?”

Ian waves a hand and David scuttles off and Ian tries and fails to put on one of Poppy’s hoodies that she left behind because she’s a tiny hobbit person and he’s got these shoulders, man. He’s fine, though. It’s actually probably better this way.

Way better.

Normally, Ian gets what he wants done by steamrolling any protests or just by looking at Poppy until she does it for him, but he drops a couple of sentences into morning coffee with David and suddenly David’s the one running around pulling the art department off the day’s work to get them to make a special WELCOME BACK POPPY banner and corralling a group of people to drive out and meet Poppy at the airport. Ian makes it seem like he thinks this is all stupid and he’s dragging himself along under duress. It’s very chill of him, whatever, it’s not like he wants to check that Poppy’s back safe, or to find out if she’s still mad at him.

She looks like Poppy as she walks out, pulling her little wheelie suitcase: bad posture, messy hair, maybe a little more tan than usual because she’s been out in actual sunshine, oversized hoodie, hightops scuffing the floor. But she also looks somehow smaller than she normally does, somehow diminished, and Ian bites the inside of his lower lip momentarily and too hard.

There was a point in his teens when he didn’t think he was ever going to be capable of loving anyone, not after the combined number his parents managed to do on him in very different ways; and then again, after his divorce, when he was left wondering if he’d ever really loved Shannon or if he was just kind of puss*-drunk and obsessed and got that confused. He’s still not sure where he falls on the whole love thing; he’s pretty sure he’s not getting married again and the idea of shacking up with anyone, with having to maintain a whole relationship all the time, well, it sounds exhausting and maybe not even f*cking possible. But he knows he’s capable of one kind of love, anyway, and some of that is because he remains weirdly fond of the gang at Mythic Quest despite the fact everyone falls into a worrying Venn diagram of Loser/Asshole/Sociopath. And some of that is because he sees Poppy walking tiredly out of the baggage claim and his chest is momentarily tight with too many emotions, and he knows that that tangle means love.

It’s also true that absolutely nothing that he and Shannon said or did to each other, even knife-deep in an ugly divorce, was half as cruel as the sh*t he and Poppy say and do to each other on a not un-regular basis.

“This was nice of you,” Poppy says, sounding a little startled, when they’re sitting in his car later and she’s pulled open his glove box to reveal a bag of M&Ms Ian definitely doesn’t keep in there for her even though he’s not touching them. Her laugh and grin when she saw them all, saw the melodramatic banner the art department had whipped up, was genuine and relieved and happy, and Ian was privately glad. David was more loudly and publicly gratified, and that’s okay, because Ian’s reputation doesn’t need this sh*t.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ian replies easily. “Good trip?”

Poppy tips her head to the side. “Sure. My family don’t actually hate me you know.” She pours a handful of candies into her hand, crams them straight into her mouth. God, she’s disgusting, his girl.

Ian lets the silence sit for a few blocks and then: “I hate your family.”

He doesn’t have to turn his head to see Poppy’s frowning at him. “What the f*ck, Ian, I’ve been back for like, fifteen minutes.”

“They don’t appreciate you!” Ian bursts out, and oh, well, f*ck. “You’re Poppy motherf*cking Li and they still think you’re some freak kid who needs to get out more often. They don’t see how awesome and talented and special you are.”

Poppy eats another handful of M&Ms while she considers his words; the crunching of the sugar shells in her mouth is way too loud. “It’s weird when you make these big romantic declarations that aren’t big romantic declarations,” she decides at last.

Ian risks a glance at her and she doesn’t look too small any more: she looks just right.

“You wish, Pop,” he drawls, and she rolls her eyes and tips the next stream of M&Ms straight into her mouth.

“Can we go to a drive-through?” she asks, chewing. “I need something with fries.”

“Oh my God,” Ian says, “you’ve been back for, like, fifteen minutes.”

“You know airline food is sh*t,” Poppy tells him. “Let’s get me something valid and burger-shaped.”

“You’re not bringing fast food into this car,” Ian snaps.

Poppy huffs and gets out her phone. “Pull over,” she orders.

“What are you doing?” Ian asks tiredly.

“I’m telling David to come drive me the rest of the way back,” she replies, typing away industriously. “He’ll let me get fries.”

“Jesus Christ,” Ian mutters, already knowing she’s won and absolutely hating it.

Poppy grins wildly at him, lips tinted blue from the colouring in the M&Ms. “You know you missed me.”

“I really, really did not,” Ian replies, lets her keep laughing in his peripheral vision.

[part eight: someone who is good at the economy please help me budget this. my family is dying]

There are certain groups of people where you see them together and you just know that nothing good is coming from that unholy configuration.

Carol’s office door is ajar and Poppy can see that she’s in there with David and Jo and Rachel and Dana and Brad. That’s too much chaos energy in one place, especially given that nearly half those people do not even work here. She gets why David was so mad last year when she and Ian kept popping in and out: it’s annoying.

“I don’t think you can write that,” David is saying, as Poppy gives in to dread or curiosity or whatever and heads over.

“I think you can,” Dana replies. “She’s like an awful little gremlin version of Ian, you know? It’s like, Napoleonic?” She sucks her teeth. “Although I guess at least Ian comes by his personality honestly.”

“Okay,” says Poppy, walking in and making everyone except Jo and Brad jump, “first of all: f*ck you. Secondly, for the record, Ian got C.W. to rewrite his backstory long before C.W. did anything for Mythic Quest. So whatever you think he’s told you, it’s not true. And I’d say that Ian edits his own Wikipedia page but we all know that he makes me do it for him.”

There’s a moment of slightly startled silence, which is a reaction Poppy gets used to when she walks into a room and just sort of word-vomits for a minute.

“So,” says Carol slowly, “you saw Ian and everything he is and deliberately chose to emulate that.”

It’s a little more complicated than that, Poppy’s pretty sure, but then Ian’s mentoring philosophy has always been along the lines of If You Can’t Make Your Own Tragic History And Several Undiagnosed Quasi-Debilitating Mental Illnesses, Store Bought Is Fine. Obviously, Poppy can’t relate at all.

“Yeah yeah,” she says, “I rode the crazy train until I became the crazy train. Why are you all holed up bitching about me?”

David’s eyes go all panicked. “Maybe we’re not… talking about you.”

“You were describing someone as ‘Napoleonic’ and ‘an awful little gremlin version of Ian’,” Poppy says, because she’s heard worse and also seen worse underneath video posts she’s put on the official MQ feed. “That’s me. That’s only me.” She can own this: Ian’s said these things to her face on occasion, although only when they’re fighting.

“We’re getting you a present,” says Rachel, at the same time as Jo volunteers: “we’re having an intervention.”

They make faces at each other for a minute, having a silent argument Poppy can’t understand and doesn’t particularly want to understand.

“We’re gonna help you get over Ian,” Carol says, maybe trying for sincere and falling very short.

“I don’t understand,” Poppy says. “‘Get over’? What does that mean?”

“Means we’re signing you up for every online dating site on the first page of Google,” says Brad, not looking up from his phone.

“We were gonna ease her into that,” David hisses.

Brad shrugs. “I’m saving time.”

“I’m still stuck on ‘get over’,” Poppy says, deciding to ignore ‘online dating’ for a moment because it makes a high-pitched ringing sound start in her ears. “Can we dial back to this ‘get over Ian’ thing? What do I need to get over?”

Everyone’s faces go worryingly pitying.

“I told you she was still in denial,” Rachel hisses.

“You need to get over that sex you had,” blurts Jo.

The brief noise that comes out of Poppy’s mouth kind of sounds like a car alarm; everyone but Brad and Jo flinches.

“THERE’S NO SEX,” she shrieks.

“Well, not now, obviously,” says Dana, which is kind of mean but not the point right now. “But you know. Clearly you did at some point.”

“Hopefully not when you were 19 and crashing on his couch,” Brad offers up.

Everyone turns to look at Brad.

“How do you even know that?” Poppy demands. She just gets a shrug and a spread of Brad’s hands like, hey, he knows everything, you should know that already. “Okay, well, no. Not then and not after then and not now. Not ever. Never ever any sex. If he didn’t wear his jeans so tight I’d just assume that Ian is all smooth like a Ken doll.”

“So all this pining is over…” Carol begins doubtfully.

“Oh my God,” says Poppy. “It’s not pining! It’s like, a totally normal respectful working relationship with some outside friendship from years of mutual support and also a reasonable amount of wanting to murder each other because we’re both creative geniuses and all of it is very, very platonic.”

“Stockholm Syndrome,” Jo says at last.

“You know,” says Rachel, “Stockholm Syndrome is actually not a thing, it’s not a valid psychiatric diagnosis, it was actually invented to discredit female victims of violence-”

“Okay, Rachel!” Poppy interrupts. “If I ever want to know this I will watch an hour-long YouTube unpacking of it at like four a.m. when I’ve got a deadline, that’s how humans learn things! Why are you guys doing this?”

“We get you a boyfriend, you get over Ian,” Dana says like it’s obvious.

“You. You all decided that I wanted a boyfriend,” says Poppy flatly.

Rachel looks horrified. “Oh my God, we leaned into heteronormativity.”

“Most of these sites have a multitude of gender dating options,” Brad says. He’s looking back at his phone again. Poppy has a horrible suspicion he’s swiping.

“Okay,” she says, raising her hands. “Okay. Let’s all just. Get onboard this crazy train for a minute, shall we?” She gives it a second. “For the sake of the hypothetical, let’s say that I’m okay with you catfishing all these people and setting me up on dates that you were presumably going to try and trick me into going into.”

“I don’t think it’s catfishing if it’s actually you,” mutters Dana.

“Tell me: what exactly am I looking for in a man?” Poppy asks.

“A beard,” says Jo, way too immediately.

“...shoulders,” offers David.

“An ass that won’t quit,” Carol sighs wistfully.

“I really could not care less,” Brad says.

It’s not untrue that Poppy has no idea what she is looking for in a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, or a whatever-friend, but if she admits that she’s pretty sure she loses the moral high ground and she likes it up here, the view is great.

“I think you need to take your godawful plan back to the drawing board,” Poppy tells them.

David looks vaguely crestfallen, Rachel is still making a distraught face that she was tricked into compulsory heterosexuality, Carol is clicking too many things on the screen, and Poppy assumes that everyone else is here for the lols, which, okay, she can see that. She would probably do that too if this was happening to someone else.

It’s not quite a mic drop but Poppy will take her moments where she can get them, and spins on her heel to flounce out. She all but crashes into Ian, who has apparently walked into Carol’s office at some point during this sh*tshow, presumably quite recently because Ian feels uncomfortable when we are not about him.

“Pop,” says Ian, “the new patch isn’t working. You need to recode. Am I missing a meeting?”

Poppy thinks about it for about five seconds and then thinks, f*ck it. “They’re holding an intervention,” she says.

“Is this about your caffeine addiction?” Ian asks. “Because I really think you might actually be legally dead at this stage.”

“They’re trying to get me a boyfriend,” Poppy says.

Ian freezes, and then turns to glare at everyone huddled around Carol’s desk. “You can’t do that,” he announces. “Poppy can’t have a boyfriend. It’s in her contract.”

“It’s not in my contract,” Poppy puts in.

“If Poppy has a significant other, she can’t dedicate her entire life to Mythic Quest,” Ian says. “What if I need to drag her in to code my latest vision at four a.m.? Significant others will want Pop to be free on weekends and national holidays. Can’t have that.”

“It’s still not in my contract,” Poppy tells him, and then wonders exactly who’s side she’s on here. Hers, probably - it’s not like anyone else is.

“Man, you’re both just walking HR violations,” Carol says, in that tone that reminds everyone that that is so much not her problem anymore and she’s super gleeful about it.

“I give up on the intervention,” Rachel decides. “You two are much too weird about each other.”

Ian nods grandly and Poppy spares a hope that he has no idea what he’s nodding about. He slings an arm around her shoulders that’s half friendly gesture and half chokehold. “C’mon, Pop.”

“I told you,” Dana hisses as they walk away, and Poppy swallows something that might be a howl, might be a giggle.

[part nine: elmo is just checking in! how is everyone doing?]

Montreal insist that they go to a major con to talk about the new MQ expansion and the mess that was GrimPop and to assure the fans that there will actually be a product at the end of all this, and while you can’t make Ian do anything he does love talking about what a goddamn genius he is so on the understanding that he gets a fancy suite he and Poppy go. Ian talks a lot and waves his hands around and gives Poppy a lot of compliments that sometimes feel overwhelming and sometimes feel like deeply veiled threats, though that might be her own periodic imposter syndrome rearing its head. There’s an afterparty of sorts, what feels like half the US gaming industry crammed into a room drinking beer and doing tequila shots and yelling in each other’s faces over the music and not listening to a word the other person is saying.

Poppy nurses a beer and is ready to loop in under Ian’s arm when there’s one shot too many, to tug him off to his stupid suite that’s like four times the size of her own hotel room. She’s loosely aware that half the room think she’s sleeping with Ian, or using Ian, or, well, there’s that common law husband thing again. She kind of wants to turn around and announce at large to the party that this is just her and Ian, it’s not like that, but no one would be able to hear her and they wouldn’t listen anyway.

Ian rallies in his suite, falls into a plush couch and sets his feet on the coffee table and gets Poppy to raid the mini bar for snacks. He’s pretty disappointed, left to a handful of gourmet mixed nuts - Poppy has no idea what makes them gourmet - while Poppy cracks open fancy potato chips and too-small bags of candy and lectures Ian on how if he ate real people food he’d be way less wasted right now.

“I’m not wasted,” Ian protests.

“You’re drunk enough I had to get you back up here,” Poppy points out, rummaging amongst bottles of hipster kombucha and artisanal sodas, none of which look particularly appealing, what’s wrong with regular drinks? “This is why literally everyone thinks we’re sleeping together, by the way.”

Ian makes a dismissive noise; when Poppy turns her head, he’s waggling a hand, rings glittering in the low light.

“People have no imagination,” he says, “that’s why they need us. To have it for them.”

“Sure,” replies Poppy, and discovers that her latest bag of candies are all dark chocolate, the humanity. “Obviously,” she adds quickly, “I’m having loads of sex, just, not with you. Loads. Almost too much, really.”

Ian is quiet for so long that Poppy wonders if he’s passed out, covered in pecans and Himalayan sea salted cashews.

“You know,” he says finally, “you know it’s okay, right?”

Poppy gives up the rest of the minibar for lost, moves to one of the armchairs, because this suite has seating for about 25 people for whatever reason. “You’ve lost me.”

“You don’t have to fake it for me, you know?” says Ian. His eyes are all sure and dark and determined and Poppy has no idea what is happening.

“...is this a sex thing?” she asks dubiously. “Because aren’t you supposed to have, like… prowess?”

Ian lurches upright. “Oh, I do!” he replies. “This is not about that. I’m great at sex. I’m very creative.”

“I don’t want to know!” Poppy insists, because she already knows way more about Ian and sex than she could ever ever want to have in her brain. She swallows tightly. “But also yes. Me too, obviously. So creative. With sex.”

“Yeeeeeah.” Ian draws out the word into multiple syllables and a world of doubt that makes Poppy curl her toes in her sneakers. “But it’s also okay if you…” He waves a hand in the air in a way that could literally mean anything. “If you don’t. You know?”

“I am creative!” Poppy insists, no idea why she’s sticking with this except that she’s started down this road so, you know. Choo choo. Hang on, that’s trains. “Wait,” she says. “Is this like. Are you f*cking negging me?”

“No!” Ian insists, flailing so hard he nearly overbalances. “No, Pop, oh my God, no. Never. I would never.”

Poppy isn’t sure what her face is doing; maybe it’s confused. Maybe it’s relieved. Maybe it’s sort of insulted. It feels awkward, anyway.

“No,” Ian says, clearly not liking whatever expression she’s making, “no, because I mean, you know, obviously I thought about it-”

“Wait,” Poppy interrupts, “what?”

Ian isn’t listening. “-because despite your general, you know, dumpster fire vibe, you’re an attractive woman, Pop.”

Poppy opens her mouth to thank him, and then thinks, no, because that’s never the kind of validation she’s ever sought from Ian and she’s not goddamn starting now. “So you’re saying you’ve thought about shagging me but you… don’t want to?”

She was fairly sure this was all an unspoken understanding between them for the last, well, ever since they met. It becoming a real conversation is not pleasant.

“I mean, it would probably dislodge a fairly vital Jenga piece in my life,” Ian points out, but his brow is furrowed, like he’s really considering all this. “But I feel like I would. I might. But you wouldn’t want me to.”

Poppy’s throat and chest feel too tight, a panic response beyond her control. “I wouldn’t?”

Ian arches an eyebrow. “Do you want me to?”

“No!” Poppy snaps, because they know this, they’ve done this, it’s weird bringing it back up again, it’s making her lungs hurt.

“Right then,” Ian says, like something is settled. “I’m just saying, you know, that it’s okay. That you don’t want to. It’s not a Thing.”

Poppy pulls the cuffs of her sweatshirt down over her hands and debates going and rummaging for those dark chocolate candies after all. “Your ego is horrifying,” she scoffs, to cover the way her stomach is still clenching.

“This isn’t about me!” Ian insists, a row of exclamation marks in his voice. “Except for the bit that was specifically about me, and that was more of an example than anything else, but, I’m trying to tell you that it’s normal and not weird and you don’t have to be awkward.”

He really means this, Poppy realises - his face is all earnest and soft like it only is at the most important of moments. It would be cool if she had any idea what the f*ck was happening, if she felt reassured by whatever Ian wants her to understand rather than this clawing gnawing dread in her stomach.

“I feel like we’re having two different conversations,” she hazards.

“We usually are,” Ian agrees. “We’re on the same page, though, Pop. Just different line breaks.”

That tight awkward feeling isn’t dissipating; Poppy’s face feels hot, feels cold. “I don’t feel like not wanting to have sex with you makes me abnormal,” she clarifies.

“I’m trying to tell you,” Ian says, flinging his hands up, “you’re not abnormal! But also, pretty much everyone does want to have sex with me. At least once, anyway.”

“Ew,” Poppy mumbles.

“Not really,” Ian replies mildly. “But I do feel like I shouldn’t have used me as an example, I think we’ve muddied the waters.” He taps his fingers on the arm of the couch, rings clinking together. “I’m just trying to say… sex doesn’t have to be a big thing. Or a thing at all. And like, that’s not weird, Pop. It doesn’t need hiding, it’s chill.”

Something in his innocuous words, his determination to reassure her, slips a blade into that thing Poppy doesn’t look too hard at. She’s busy really, there’s a lot going on, they had a f*cking pandemic for God’s sake, and Ian always needs something unreasonable built like, yesterday, so she hasn’t had a lot of time for self-examination. She’s not scared or anything, she’s just. She’s been busy. And sure, there are those long silences on the phone to her parents, and her sister always seems to have a new boyfriend and Poppy has no one to report on, and there’s this weird hot panic and guilt whenever someone at work is talking about their partner or their hook-up or whatever, but it’s not a thing, Poppy just doesn’t look at it too hard.

Of course Ian stomps right in, gives that thing a shove.

“Okay,” Poppy says, “well, we’ve eaten everything in your minibar, I have to go.”

“Pop, don’t,” says Ian. His tone is soft, kind. Poppy hates it with a kind of deep sick humiliation she can’t describe, doesn’t want to look too hard at. “I just wanted to tell you that-”

This is her thing, and she’s hidden it so well that even she doesn’t notice it, and no one else thinks about it, and it’s all fine. It’s all fine.

“I have to go,” she repeats, and slams the suite door behind her before Ian can even try and lurch off his couch. In the mirrored elevator walls on the way to her own room, Poppy avoids her own eye.

[part ten: the cake is a lie]

Ian says: “Poppy. Poppy. Pop. Poppy. Poppy poppy poppy. Pop-Tarts. Pop-a-doodle-doo. Good Pop, Bad Pop. Poppy Poppy Pop. Pop pop pop.”

Ian says: “Poppy, are you ignoring me?”

Ian says: “Poppy, you’re literally not allowed to ignore me. It’s in the terms of my contract.”

Ian says: “What the f*ck, Pop?”

Ian says: “Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.”

Ian says: “I’m getting David so that I can sue you for breach of contract. You don’t even have your headphones on.”

Ian says: “Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy. Poppy.”

Ian says: “Poppy.”

[part eleven: *loading a pistol and getting back on the rocket-ship* moon’s haunted]

“I don’t like this,” David says.

Poppy’s running on two hours of bad sleep and so much caffeine the world has little fizzy sparkles outlining every solid object and some objects that might not actually be there in reality. Who needs the metaverse, when you can just chug energy drinks until it feels like you can control the world with your brain anyway.

“It’s a bit late for that,” Poppy reminds him, “we’re headed for code-lock in a couple of days. If you have an issue with Playpen-”

“I meant you and Ian,” David interrupts. “You’re being very… quiet.”

Poppy had kind of assumed that people would be enjoying the lack of yelling that usually accompanies the creative process, but she had reckoned without David and his many different levels of fretting.

“It’s fine,” Poppy says, automatic.

“It’s not fine,” David says. “It’s not fine when you’re getting on, it’s not fine when you’re screaming at one another, it’s not fine when Ian frisbees your tablet across the office and breaks a glass wall-”

That happened the one time and everything has shatterproof glass now, which is probably for the best. Poppy and Ian are the most volatile, she can accept that, but they’re not the only dramatic bitches around here.

“We are civil,” Poppy explains, “and we’re set to get Playpen in by the deadline, and none of the programmers are crying, and, yeah, I get there’s a weird vibe in that office, but on the other hand, Ian and I aren’t being mean to each other until it hurts, so, I think you can count this as a win, David.”

She’s mad at Ian and she’s not mad at Ian but every time she looks at him right now she has this weird hot pain in her stomach that’s part too much candy and part phantom and part something that might be humiliation and she’s not… completely sure what to do with all of that, so it’s much easier to brush everything aside and focus on the stuff she can control.

“I like it when you’re both wearing your emotions very publicly and you both have your hands where I can see ‘em,” David tells her, firmly.

“What the f*ck,” says Poppy, and picks up the cup of more coffee she was getting herself when David ambushed her with handwringing, and goes back to get some work done.

“What’re you doing?” Ian asks about half an hour later, announcing his presence with a rap of knuckles on the wall by the door. It’s a courtesy thing they’re doing in this shared space at the moment, weird and awkward, because all they’ve ever done for the last decade and change is barge into one another’s personal space and refuse to apologise for any of it.

“I’m Googling if one of David’s parents stabbed the other one,” Poppy tells him. “He’s got this special brand of trauma and I figure we’d know by now if his ex-wife stabbed him.”

“Huh.” Ian sounds thoughtful. “That weirdly makes sense, actually, what did you find out?”

“Nothing,” Poppy sighs. “Absolutely nothing.”

“We’ll have to ask him,” Ian decides, “we’ll save it for a really awkward moment in a multi-departmental meeting.”

“Sounds good,” Poppy agrees. She closes the web browser, returns to tidying up the loose threads and ragged edges of Playpen.

A couple of minutes, and Ian sighs.

“Pop, if you keep ignoring me like this, I’m gonna have to come back in here with a guitar and play Taylor Swift songs at you.”

Poppy doesn’t look away from her screen. “You can’t play the guitar.”

“Uh,” begins Ian, “I definitely can-”

“And you hate Taylor Swift,” Poppy concludes.

“Did I say that?” wonders Ian.

“Someone made that fanvid to Anti-Hero and you did a livestream to say that MQ and Taylor Swift should never go together and that you were going to find out which player made the vid and have them banned for life.”

“Okay,” Ian says, “but I feel like that’s taken out of context-”

“And then the Swifties came for us and Sue got upset because of all the death threats, and they made #SWIFTIESHATEMQ trend for multiple days straight and it turns out David is a huge fan and you told him he wasn’t even a beta, he was a gamma, and then half the office got into a debate about which Hulk film is sh*ttiest-”

“POPPY,” Ian interrupts loudly, “I will literally disregard all of that if you go back to normal.”

“We’re not normal, Ian,” Poppy reminds him. She sighs. “Look, we’re not fighting. We’re not tanking the game. It’s just. I just. I need a couple of days when I’m my own person and not, you know, one-third me, one-third you, and one-third you-and-me.”

“Sure,” Ian says, like it’s easy, like it’s that simple, like it can be that simple. Poppy might almost believe him, if she couldn’t see his face, the brittleness in his expression.

“Look,” she says, “come back in like an hour, there’s some game stuff to review, okay?”

Ian lingers for a moment, lips pursed like he’s thinking about saying something else, but instead he nods, tugs together something that barely resembles a smile, and gives her her space.

Poppy types for about half an hour, nothing but her and the caffeine tide and the constant flickering of her fingertips, steady and sure. This, this, doesn’t need labelling, doesn’t need working out, doesn’t need to do self-examination and peel off a mask it wasn’t always sure that it was wearing.

The door opens again. “Poppy, Dana wants-”

“No, Brad,” says Poppy, refusing to be curious about why Brad is running Dana’s errands and not Jo, maybe he just wanted some daylight, maybe he’s just here to lay the groundwork for a whole new set of mindgames. Another day, she might indulge him, but not today.

“I’m out of office autoreply, Brad,” she says without turning around. “Also, leave whatever weird frozen coffee thing you have.”

“Alright,” he says, putting it carefully on the edge of her desk. “Go girl, give us nothing,” he adds, and walks out.

Alone, Poppy chews furiously on her lower lip for a moment, forces herself to swallow, and keeps going.

[part twelve: you f*cked up a perfectly good monkey is what you did. look at it. it’s got anxiety]

Montreal splash out for a proper party when Mythic Quest: Playpen launches and proves to be an enormous success. They fill the offices with well-dressed servers with platters of fancy hors d’oeuvres, pyramids of champagne flutes that aren’t full of champagne but are full of an alternative sparkling wine so good it’s almost not noticeable, a half-decent DJ and towers of flashing lights. Everyone does their version of glamming up, all the departments descend on the main offices, and everywhere Poppy looks there are drunk programmers grinding on drunk lawyers grinding on drunk PR copywriters. There’s a lot of glitter and noise and some sort of slightly hysterical glee/relief mood infusing the air and making everyone worse.

Poppy eventually eases off the heels she can’t really walk in and sneaks off to hide in the office. Just for a bit of course. She loves parties, she’s great at them, they’re not overwhelming and exhausting at all.

Ian is already in the office, sprawled on the floor on the sheepskin throw. There’s a weird split second when Poppy thinks he might be dead, like he put all his energy into getting the new MQ expansion out and now there’s nothing left in his actual body. Then his eyes shoot open; Poppy has to stop herself from jumping out of her skin.

“Ian?” she says carefully. “You okay down there?”

“Pop,” he responds, blinking owlishly up at her. “You look good like this.”

Poppy bites into her lower lip, but lets herself smile. It took like an hour and a half and in the end some help from Dana, but she actually got the winged smokey eye right and she’s well, a little smug about it.

“I look okay,” she demurs, doing a weird sort of half-curtsey and having no idea how to stop herself. It’s just Ian though; he’s used to her terrible body language, her awkward flails. “I feel like the dress is doing a lot of heavy lifting.”

“Success suits you,” Ian replies simply.

“It’s your success,” Poppy tells him.

Ian sort of attempts to sit up, fails in the middle, and drops back onto the throw again. “It’s our success,” he corrects her. “We’re a team! We’re basically extensions of each other at this point.”

Poppy thinks about it, and then drops her heels by the door and pads over to sit next to Ian. He shuffles over a little bit to make room for her, resting the side of his head against her thigh.

“So,” she says, casual, “what’re you f*cked up on?”

Ian shrugs, eyelids drifting shut. “I forget. The art department were handing them out. We’ve got some crazy motherf*ckers in there, you know?”

Poppy sighs a little, props her chin on her hand. “Ian, you won’t even f*cking eat bread, why’re you taking mystery drugs the art department probably cooked up in their weird little gloomy den in the middle of the night when you were refusing to let them go home in case you had another idea and needed to see it rendered from multiple angles?”

“I’m a rockstar,” Ian responds, drowsy, genuine. This exploding feeling in Poppy’s chest is some weird mix of fondness and frustration, and it isn’t anything new.

“You’re exhausting about your physical self-care routine,” Poppy reminds him. “Pretty sure you’re too old to be pulling whatever… this is.”

Ian makes a grumbling sound. “I’m at peak physical and age levels. I’m gonna live forever, Pop.”

“Sure,” she agrees mildly. “Do I need to drive you to the ER?”

“I’m fine,” Ian grumbles, bats vaguely at her. “I was good until you came in with all your… your fussing.”

“Mmm,” Poppy says. “Where are your shoes?”

Ian says nothing, but his petulant scowl deepens.

The silence between them stretches and lingers, but it’s not a bad silence. It doesn’t sting, it’s not awkward, it’s not thrumming with imminent recriminations. It’s just a silence, punctuated by the song switching in the office outside, a cheer going up from the dancers as they recognise the tune.

“I’m sorry, Pop,” says Ian at last. He lets out a long, slow breath. “Sometimes we spend so much time in each other’s heads that I forget we actually aren’t. We’re extensions of each other until we’re not, and I can overstep.”

Poppy’s had some time to think while she was coding at all times of the day and night and trying not to talk to Ian and sitting there at like three in the morning poking at her feelings with a bag of jellybeans. She’s not quite ready to work through all the implications yet, but they’re there, and she’s… heading toward being okay with them.

“You weren’t… necessarily wrong,” she allows. “But I wanna work out the next bit out for myself, thanks, without you getting there first and chipping in from the cheap seats.”

Ian briefly leans into her thigh a little more, a brief press of affection. “Uh, I will be in the most expensive seats, cheering you on. Respectfully. Helpfully.” His mouth curls. “I like it when you’re happy.”

Poppy pokes him in the forehead. “You like it when I say you’re right.”

He laughs. “Hey, me being right is a good look on everyone.”

“You’re such a bag of dicks,” Poppy says, but it’s quiet, it’s too fond.

“I’m a superhero,” Ian counters, looking up at her with his big dark brown jail for mother! jail for mother for One Thousand Years!!!! eyes. Poppy’s pretty sure everyone has let him get away with most of the sh*t he’s ever gotten away with because of the way his eyes go all soft and melty and hurt like that. He blinks a couple of times, long lashes and pupils like quarters. “Sometimes, though, you do make me want to be a better man.”

That has the tinge of a line about it, something Ian has told girls in the past, and it doesn’t fit here, not with her, not with them. They’re honest with each other, even when they shouldn’t be, even when it sucks: Poppy doesn’t need or want platitudes.

“Okay,” Poppy says, “but you haven’t gotten better, if anything, I think I’ve actually made you worse.”

Ian’s glare sharpens. “I didn’t say I’d become better, you really need to work on your listening skills, Pop.”

“You talk at me so much,” she says, “if I listened to all of it I’d be even more insane by now. You’re like a white noise machine.”

“I’m telling HR,” Ian tells her, but his eyes are still molten so Poppy’s pretty sure she’s good.

“Nah,” she says, “nah, you love me.”

Ian huffs quietly, annoyed but not, and Poppy’s leg is starting to cramp but it’s sort of nice to have him there next to her, like a cat, head warm where it’s pressed against her thigh.

“I actually struggle with saying ‘I love you’,” Ian says, in that special slightly deeper tone of voice he saves for admitting things he’s been holding onto. “You know. To my family. My wife. My son. But not to you.”

Poppy’s heart leaps and pounds but not in a romance novel kind of way, and she’s fully aware how this would look or sound if anyone came up to the office, if they weren’t all downstairs drinking and shoving canapes into their clutch bags. How things look on the outside isn’t always what they are on the inside, though, and Poppy will probably always worry too much about what people think, but maybe not about this. This doesn’t need it.

“It’s because I’m an extension of you,” Poppy says, letting Ian and his drug-loosened tongue off the hook. “You are a huge fan of yourself.”

“It’s because you’re Poppy,” Ian replies.

It’s just as well it would be impossible for her to fall in love with him, Poppy thinks, because this sort of thing could really f*ck her up. She makes a vague humming sound, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“It’s okay,” Ian says, reaching around until he manages to pat her clumsily on the knee. “I know all that hero-worship can get jumbled in your head.” He tries to sit up, fails halfway and collapses back down, this time mostly into Poppy’s lap. She considers shoving him off, but doesn’t. Not yet.

“I hero-worshipped you for like ten minutes when I was nineteen,” Poppy corrects him. “And now I actually know you.”

The party is carrying on downstairs and technically one or both of them should be down there, being the life and soul, basking in their triumph. It’s not bad up here, though.

“So now you know what a hero I truly am,” Ian tells her.

“You’re a hot mess with a god complex,” Poppy counters.

Ian pouts, brow furrowing, apparently considering her words. “Hot, though,” he decides after a moment.

Someone downstairs whoops in a way that means people are climbing on tables, someone is probably going to drunkenly code something NSFW into MQ in about an hour and Poppy will be there trying to mop that up in the morning, and it’s okay. They’ve done well, putting up with deadlines and pressure and Ian and Poppy moving the goalposts at every possible moment and disrupting everyone’s work in favour of screaming obscenities at each other just when it started to look like things were going smoothly. Everyone here deserves to kick back, to relax, to enjoy what they’ve made.

“You wanna go back to your party?” Ian asks. He looks a little drowsy, a little young, a little sad. He can get like this sometimes, especially after a new successful launch: riding the megalomania until it turns into paranoia. It used to drive Poppy mad way back when, but she understands better now, the fears that dog every triumph, the knowledge that you have to top this and top it quickly. The high, and the drop afterwards.

Poppy shrugs. “You wanna go back to your party?”

Ian screws up his nose, does something complicated with his mouth. He still has so much face; maybe as part of the next expansion process, Poppy can encourage him to grow some more facial hair, just a bit, something she knows how to work with. He rolls onto his side, making a mess of the whole process, settling himself more comfortably on the floor and his head still firmly in Poppy’s lap. She should really nip this in the bud if she doesn’t want him to fall asleep and wind up trapped here.

“Tell me I’m pretty, Poppy,” Ian says, words blurring at the corners. His hair is soft when she slides her fingers into it, and when she lets out a sigh, it’s almost silent.

“The prettiest, Ian,” she murmurs. “So pretty.”

Outside the office, the beat drops, the air briefly full of breathless sparkles; Ian exhales.

[epilogue: wake the f*ck up, samurai! we have a city to burn]

It’s official: Playpen is a success. Oh, there are the usual assholes who complain whatever an expansion pack contains, who’d like to play MQ in its purest, most pixelated form, the time when it was a basic avatar for a player, and you had access to a horse, one sword, and a tavern you could visit and pay too much for barely better equipment. Those people are par for the course, and apparently also hate fun. Overall, though, the reaction has been hugely positive: they have a huge number of new players, the critics praise Ian and Poppy for the fresh spin on the classic game and revitalising everything in a way that’s hugely fun and hasn’t alienated the older faithful players either. There’s a buzz of interest in the movie, the money is rolling in, and pretty much everyone is happy.

The next expansion might have to be a little more like previous expansions to give players who prefer the original game format something too, but that isn’t something any of them have to worry too much about for… a few weeks, anyway.

Except that the whiteboard in the main meeting room has MYTHIC QUEST: f*ck YOU IAN written across it in big black lettering that turns out to be Sharpie. Underneath, in slightly smaller letters, Ian’s spiky script reads: great idea, Pop, people would spend a fortune to f*ck my avatar. Turns out that’s in Sharpie too. On the board beneath are a whole bunch of valid ideas in blue whiteboard marker, all swept aside for now.

Clearly, David thinks, he’s going to have to send out another memo about appropriate whiteboard usage. He feels like the last one really got his message across, but they could apparently do with a reminder.

The offices are pretty quiet at the moment: a lot of people took their stacked-up vacation time once it was established that Playpen was a hit and functioning as it should. A skeleton crew of testers and programmers are around to crush bugs and keep things running, but there are a bunch of empty desks right now. It’s sort of peaceful, dormant, the calm after the storm.

Something in the Creative Directors’ office crashes. Maybe it’s just the eye of a storm that never stopped.

David sighs, perpetually caught, as everyone here is, in Ian and Poppy’s perpetual game of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them, probably can’t murder them until we’ve learned to function as two separate people”. He knows he needs them himself, that MQ isn’t MQ without them, but it would be nice, maybe, if they could go a couple of days at a time with a minimum of screaming.

The stairs up to the office are littered with Post-Its, covered in what seems to be the same Sharpie that’s all over the whiteboard.

Mythic Quest: (Taylor’s Version)

Mythic Quest: Milkshake Duck

Mythic Quest: Electric Boogaloo

Mythic Quest: Will It Blend

Mythic Quest: 30-50 Feral Hogs

Mythic Quest: Sk8er Boi

Mythic Quest: f*cken Wimdy

They’re like a hydra, David thinks, as he collects up brightly-coloured pieces of paper covered in nonsense that they cannot use. More and more heads, no matter how many you cut off or placate or diffuse. Except that the heads don’t just try to eat you, they also try to eat each other. Or - wasn’t there that dog with multiple heads that guarded hell in a myth? C.W. wanted to bring in a whole plotline with one of those a couple of years back; Ian insisted that J.K. would find some way to sue them for copyright infringement even though she didn’t invent multi-headed canines, C.W. claimed to have no idea who J.K. was, and Poppy settled it by refusing to code anything that people would think ‘we stole from a TERF’. Did the dog heads bite each other, though? They need C.W. for things like this, he’d know.

“Did you just Hotline Bling meme my idea?” Poppy is demanding as David opens the door to the office.

“Jesus Christ!” Ian yells, possibly at Poppy and possibly at the room in general, and rubs his hands across his face vigorously. “Yes, yes I did. Or maybe no, I didn’t. Pop, I am so f*cking tired, I don’t know what my face is doing anymore.”

“It’s being disapproving,” Poppy says accusingly.

“It’s not my fault you keep coming out with stupid sh*t!” Ian replies. “Maybe the wind changed and now it’s stuck like this!” He blinks rapidly. “Obviously I’d still be enormously hot if that happened!”

David finds himself wishing that Ian and Poppy had also decided to take vacation like everyone else; Ian could go on one of his weird alpha male retreats that Poppy keeps insisting are just an excuse for ‘a no-hom*o gay orgy’, and Poppy could go… well, and be somewhere else.

“You know,” he offers tentatively, “you don’t have to settle on the new expansion idea tonight. You could both go home. To your separate homes. Separately.”

Mythic Quest: 2 Mythic 2 Quest,” Ian throws out, doing v-signs with his fingers for the numbers.

“It’s not the second expansion, it’s the third,” Poppy sighs, and then she and Ian add in unison: “Mythic Quest: Tokyo Drift.”

There’s candy and stationery all over the floor, and both desks look much emptier than usual. David looks at the scissors and wonders why both Poppy and Ian need to have them there amongst the usual array of pens and pencils; neither of them do tasks that would require them to have cutting implements. Sure, the office is covered in an array of blades, but those are mounted on the walls and theoretically display items; a pair of scissors is much more readily accessible, much… stabbier.

He makes a mental note to have someone sneak anything with a cutting edge out of the office the next time Poppy and Ian are out making another department’s lives miserable. They do that a lot; it shouldn’t be difficult.

“Weren’t you gonna go on vacation, David?” asks Ian. “You know, some R&R, get less… pasty?”

David splutters. “I live in LA, we get loads of sunshine.”

Ian shrugs, spreading his hands like hey, what can you do.

“I guess he could get an artificial tan like you do,” Poppy hisses from where she’s sprawled in her chair with what appears to be some kind of dark blue energy drink staining the front of her hoodie.

“Do you ever think about getting therapy instead of designing a new expansion?” Ian snaps back.

Poppy shrugs, insolent but unrepentant. “Do you?”

“I will be getting you both couple’s counselling,” David tells them, unsure if it’s a threat or a plea.

Poppy screws up her face and Ian says loudly: “No! I didn’t even get couple’s counselling when I was actually married!”

“Yeah, and look how that ended,” Poppy snipes.

Ian spins to glare at her. “Whose side are you on?”

Poppy sighs, tips her head back to look at the ceiling. “I think I’m just firing at anything that moves,” she admits. “We’ve been doing this for so long. What time is it? Like, three a.m.?”

“It’s four p.m.,” David interjects.

Poppy and Ian both stare at him. “...is it still Tuesday?” asks Ian.

“When was it Tuesday?” Poppy demands of him.

Ian waves a hand. “I dunno, it was Tuesday at some point?”

“Yeah, last week.”

“Hey, they have them weekly, Pop.”

David thinks it’s best not to tell either of them that it’s Friday. He’s fairly certain it wouldn’t mean anything. He was sort of planning on leaving a little early today, letting anyone not immediately involved in the running of the game clock off early too, but he can’t do that if there’s the off-chance that they’ll come in on Monday to find their Creative Directors dead in their office, probably stabbed by scissors.

“What if you went home?” David tries again. “Get some rest. Change of scenery. This really doesn’t need to be done now, Jacques and Jean-Luc aren’t expecting to talk about a new expansion until next month.”

Jacques and Jean-Luc actually want some movie-related things slipped seamlessly into the game before the movie actually comes out, a subtle in-game promo that’ll get less subtle as the release date clears. He hasn’t mentioned this to Ian and Poppy yet; he might send them an email about it, let them have their tantrums well away from him. It’s negligible whether Ian actually reads his emails at all anyway.

Ian is staring into the middle distance, brow carefully furrowed; it’s a toss-up if he’s having an inspired idea or if he’s still trying to work out which Tuesday he’s thinking of.

“You know,” he begins slowly, “there’s that myth about that guy who has to push a boulder up a hill every single day.”

David admits defeat and sits down; he briefly debates grabbing one of the wrapped candies from the floor while he’s at it. Clearly no one’s leaving until Ian and Poppy have finished… whatever this current lock-in is.

“He pushes that boulder up the hill every damn day,” Ian continues, deep in story-telling mode, and David is reluctantly drawn in because Ian is many things but charismatic will always be one of them. “And then the boulder turns around and it punches him in the face.”

There’s a moment of silence. “That’s not a thing,” says Poppy.

You’re the boulder,” Ian snips at her. “The boulder tied to me that’s just always dragging me downwards to drown.”

“Where did the water come from, I thought we were on a hill?” demands Poppy. “Also: f*ck you in every single one of your facial orifices.”

“People get rocks tied to them to drown them,” Ian insists.

“Yeah, alright, Virginia Woolf,” Poppy mutters.

“Oh, like that Sheryl Crow song,” David says over her. They both turn to stare at him, but they’re not screaming, so he adds: “you know… queen of south beach, ageing blues, dinner’s at six, wear your cement shoes…

Poppy blinks. “I thought the lyric was ‘where you see men’s shoes’.”

After a moment, Ian puts in: “I thought it was about sem*n.”

A startled second of silence, and then Poppy bursts out laughing, a hysterical edge to it, pushing her face into her hands. Ian watches her, a wry smile tickling the corners of his mouth, and David feels something in the office relax, just a little.

“You know,” he offers, pushing his luck, “that song is actually called A Change Would Do You Good.”

“Okay, now you’re just overdoing it, David,” Ian says.

“Yeah,” Poppy adds, “bloody hell, we get it, oh my God.”

“We should get margaritas,” Ian decides abruptly. “C’mon Pop, we can noodle on the napkins.”

David thinks about reminding them that it’s four p.m., but actually, it’s great when Ian and Poppy are someone else’s problem. Besides, he wants a relaxing evening and an early night: he’s planning on getting his farmer’s market on in the morning.

“Okay, but you’re letting me crash in your spare room if we swap to shots,” Poppy counters, plucking at her stained hoodie and then apparently deciding that she can wear that to a bar, it’s fine. It’s not fine, but if David points that out then maybe they won’t leave.

“You can crash on my couch,” Ian counters, already leaning in the office doorway.

“I hate your couch,” Poppy grumbles.

“Well, you’re not having my spare room,” Ian tells her firmly.

“Then I’m sleeping in your bed,” Poppy tells him, shrugging into her backpack.

David gets the sense that they’ve forgotten he’s there; he considers reminding them, and then decides that it’s probably better if he doesn’t.

“f*cking no,” complains Ian. “You’re so kicky in your sleep.”

“Well, you talk too much,” Poppy replies. “Like, you feel the need to monologue even when you’re unconscious, that’s definitely a personality flaw.”

“I’ve just got too much wisdom for one consciousness to hold,” Ian replies, holding the door open for Poppy. “Did you ever consider that?”

“No,” Poppy replies. “I mostly just thought ‘f*cking hell this man is chatty’.”

“Um, rude,” Ian tells her, and the door swings shut behind them.

David thinks about wondering, and then remembers that every single answer he has ever gotten about Ian and Poppy and their tangled and involved relationship has been awful and bizarre and just prompted about fifteen more equally terrible questions. He’s just going to leave all of this well alone, go home, and have a very quiet, very peaceful evening where he will absolutely block all of the calls he gets from the bar in about four hours’ time.

He leaves the office empty, still trashed, and with all the notes cleared off the glass wall/board except for the blocky letters that read Mythic Quest: None Pizza With Left Beef.

know yourself and who you came in with (remember the devil ain't a friend to no one) - paperclipbitch (2024)

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