The Angel and the Devil had dressed up to play cheerleader to their Juniper, the Narrator.
The Angel was Fenn, of course, the one who had died to poison and then gone to heaven, where she’d spent approximately three years with the Narrator, lounging about and getting a taste of the heaven that everyone else now enjoyed, though with perhaps less than her fair share of the modifications. She had hobnobbed with the Pantheon, and occasionally spoke with the Dungeon Master, though despite the fact that he’d put her in heaven, he seemed somewhat disinterested in her. Most of her time was spent watching television, chiefly anime, which could be had at incredibly high resolution compared to VHS copies pulled from the backpack to play on Mary’s homemade television.
The Devil was Fenn, the other one, who had died of poison and then woken up in the hells, going on to follow Uther Penndraig down the Long Stairs. She had put an arrow in him, as she would tell anyone who listened. She still had that arrow, which was kept on display in a glass case.
They were more alike than they were different, and they went through phases where they did more or less to differentiate themselves. Sometimes they would make themselves exactly identical, down to their makeup and how their hair fell, and other times they would wear different bodies entirely. They also merged specific memories with some regularity, usually when one of them had something they didn’t want the other to miss out on, which made them even more identical than they otherwise might have been. Still, they had started with a rather large divergence, and it had grown somewhat with time.
The house the three of them shared was a sleekly alien thing, constructed of curves and sharp edges, then decorated with all kinds of plants and comfy, furry bits, and occasional pieces of wood. It was expertly designed, just the right juxtaposition that made it clear that anything was possible. There was no kitchen, since none of them had any interest in cooking, and their bathroom had a large bathtub but no toilet. Beyond the boundaries of the house were clouds, and getting to the rest of the property involved dropping down from the sky and gliding, which took half a minute, if you didn’t elect to just teleport. There was a large beach beside an ocean with a coral reef, and a little villa that they used when they wanted a more rustic experience. The villa came with thick, muscular, well-oiled men whose hands were perfectly suited to giving massages. They ‘unfortunately’ took liberties with the Fenns sometimes, those wicked men.
The two Fenns stood on either side of the Narrator, watching the game he was playing. The Devil was dressed up like one of her namesakes, though an Earth interpretation, with a slender tail, horns growing from her forehead, and a pitchfork that she kept using to poke at things. The Angel had a softly glowing halo that floated above her head, and a pair of small white wings that grew from her back. They’d been having great fun with the whole concept, which the Narrator suspected would last for another few days, and then be resurrected periodically as a callback.
“How are you so bad at this?” asked the Devil, peering down over the Narrator’s shoulder. The game was played mentally, but with voice channels layered on top of it so there could be some ‘normal’ communication. The game board appeared fifteen feet across in their hyper-modern living room, having required a bit of an expansion to accommodate it. Within the hexagonal board, there were mountains and grasslands, seas and trees, a whole world rendered in unbelievable detail, and you could only get a sense of what was actually going on by wildly enhancing your senses or getting a direct feed into your brain.
There were tiny cities down there, with tiny people living in them, all played by the ‘spian. Their lives, such as they were, were influenced but not decided by the three gods above them. The Narrator was one such god.
“I’m not bad at this,” the Narrator grumbled. “They’re both better than me. There’s a distinction.”
His opponents were Juniper and Juniper. One of them was the Juniper of Legend, the dream skewered boy from Earth, while the other was the Other Juniper, who had defeated the Union Empire of the Other Side with his harem.
“Doing this three-way is hard,” said the Narrator. “There’s too much potential for ganging up, and with the cognitive limits it’s a strain to figure out what themes you’re working against.”
“Boon,” that was B-side Juniper, “has crisis, books, and puzzles,” said the Angel. “I will bet thirty million dollars on it.”
“You’re not allowed to help,” said the Narrator. “Though I was able to hear that, so I suppose it must not have been that helpful.”
“Color commentary is allowed,” said the Devil. “It’s in the rules, we added that clause.”
“Hey, shouldn’t you be good at three-ways?” asked the Angel.
The Narrator turned to her, though almost all of his attention and sensorium were on the game. “Why would — oh,” he turned back, having seen Fenn’s grin.
The Narrator’s primary theme was Ruin, his secondary theme was Hope, and his tertiary theme was Harmonic. He was attempting to use his limited power to make a world that was maximally conducive to those themes, as measured by the collection of the best stories that took place within the world, though it was sufficient for them to have happened, even if they weren’t recorded. The most expensive (but also most impactful) method was through injecting a magic system, which everyone had already done, but another magic system, especially so late, would have driven any of them to bankruptcy, and would mean that they were virtually locked out of the rest of the game, which usually lasted five thousand years (some of which was sped through by mutual agreement).
The Narrator was, at that moment, attempting to make a religion, which was rather difficult, given that he didn’t want to spend too much of his godly power on it. This was made doubly difficult because his primary, Ruin, wasn’t terribly conducive to it, though he had gotten lucky with having Ruin and Hope together, since they could play off each other. The real trick with playing this variety of Godsgame was that you didn’t know the themes of the other players, which were guaranteed to be unique from each other but not necessarily in conflict. There was a hidden roles aspect that the Junipers found themselves quite liking, because it meant that you were not only creating, but attempting to read meaning into the world.
The Junipers had invented this game, with the rules and mediation largely through assistants. They loved it with a passion, and loved it even more when playing against other Junipers. Sometimes the Narrator played mirror matches against a temp clone of himself, but often it was with the original Juniper. The Narrator lost more than he won, especially in three-way games like this, enough that he’d been offered a handicap of some sort. It was an offer he’d rejected because he didn’t lose that much, and the fun was mostly in the playing, at least for him. He’d given some thought as to why he was worse than the other Junipers, and he thought that perhaps it was his tendency toward a certain kind of thematic pareidolia. At the end of the game, he would sometimes find that he’d been reading the themes almost entirely wrong, picking up on things that hadn’t been there.
“We should do sexy Godsgame sometimes,” said the Angel. “How have we been in heaven this long and never thought to do it?”
“Not even sure how that would work,” said the Devil. “We’d get themes, but they’d be sexy themes?”
“Fetishes,” said the Angel. “We’d each get three fetishes, and at the end of five thousand years, we’d get scored on the best sex scenes to come out of it.”
“I think you’d run into some problems,” said the Narrator. He was looking down into the game world, which was momentarily paused, trying to hastily construct a Divine Revelation for someone in what was presumably an opponent’s religious order (though it was often hard to tell).
“We’d just have assistants take care of the nitty-gritty,” said the Angel. She looked over at the Devil. “We could do that now, if you’d like?”
“I want to spectate,” said the Narrator. “Can it wait until after this game?”
“Temp clone?” asked the Angel, seeming quite hopeful. The Narrator only rarely went for it though. He liked linear chronology too much.
“Request for a visit,” chimed the assistant. She spoke as a disembodied voice, one modeled off GLaDOS, at the Narrator’s insistence. The Fenns might have preferred something different, and could have changed their perception of it to something else, but part of living with someone else was sharing experiences. They had played Portal, the two Fenns working together, and not really gotten all that much from it.
“For whom?” asked the Devil. She put extra emphasis on the ‘whom’.
“Fenns,” replied the assistant. “The visitor has identified himself as Nellan.”
“Alright,” said the Angel. “One of us needs to not panic, not it.”
The Devil rolled her eyes. “It’s fine, we need to treat this like it’s normal. Be normal!”
“Do you need me?” asked the Narrator, looking away from his game for a moment, his attention fully on them.
“No,” said the Angel. “I think we’re getting better at this whole estranged mother thing.”
“We’ll give you the full debrief when it’s over,” said the Devil. “Now, what to wear?”
“Just have the assistant pick something,” said the Angel.
Because the assistant was linked into their minds, the thought went through in an instant, and a mannequin Fenn stood in front of them, wearing a somewhat conservative cream-colored dress that had a few layers to it. Certain aspects of the body (which was part of the outfit, in this day and age) had been changed, de-emphasizing the breasts, cutting even more of the muscle, and shortening her slightly. It was an attempt to project ‘motherly’, and perhaps a bit too obvious as that, but part of the complex signaling of clothing was sometimes over- signaling so you could really drive the point home.
“Good,” said the Angel. “Let’s make like The Fast and the Furious 3 and drift.”
Being two people was, sometimes, complicated. Clones were much more common now than in the beginning of heaven, but having two clones that lived together and shared memories so much wasn’t how most people went about it. In Fenn’s case, the clones were also more divergent than most people got, by virtue of their unique circumstances.
When it came to what to do about this, there were several different options. Sometimes both Fenns were present, but some people felt that was a little much, either because of being outnumbered, or because they bounced off each other, and it just changed the dynamic of interaction too much. Sometimes they engaged in memory sharing, but that wasn’t perfect either, because they were divergent, and if it was important to both of them, they sometimes had different takes on what to do and who to be. There was little more annoying than sending your clone to a social function and then getting a chunk of their memories only to see that they had done things in a very different way than you would have liked. The final class of options was a temporary merger of one kind or another.
There were two basic schools of thought. The first was that the merger should be like Dragonball Z or Steven Universe, creating a composite of the two halves. There were a number of benefits to this, like it being easy, but it had drawbacks, like sometimes saying things that weren’t what either half would have chosen to say. A composite was a third person, in a way. The second school of thought was that it should be more like two people in one body, agreeing or disagreeing on various courses of action, or, sometimes, with control switching seamlessly from one to the other, driver and passenger.
There was also a hybrid model. This was the Pacific Rim school of thought, and the Fenns had seen it with the Narrator on movie night shortly before they’d decided they needed a better merging solution. As it turned out, they were drift compatible (“What a shocking stroke of good luck!”). They could work as one, with some minor overlap of their minds mediated by the Authority. In some ways, it was the best of both worlds.
“Okay,” said the Angel as she strapped in. Their cockpit was modeled after the movie, with little suits and helmets and things, though for the most part their ‘attention’ was on the outside body they were sharing, with the internal part only there for a shared fiction of convenience. “Good to go?”
“Good to go,” said the Devil.
They walked to the door in their approximately motherly body, and opened it wide to see Nellan coming up the path, part of the garden area which was attached to the house. The timing was perfect for him to arrive just as the door opened, because this was heaven, and if you allowed it to, heaven could have impeccable timing like that.
“Hi Fenn,” said Nellan. He was a lanky boy, though not even really that much of a boy anymore, well on his way into adulthood. He could pass for human, though he was tall and had a skinny muscularity that you didn’t often see people go for by choice. In the middle to high heavens, bodies were a matter of convenience and aesthetic preference, but Nellan was comfortable in his own body, and had kept himself mostly as he was, though it was possible that he only did that for these visits.
“Hello Nellan,” said Fenn as he walked up. “What brings you by?”
“I just wanted to talk,” said Nellan, shrugging. “Are you free?”
There was a bit of awkwardness between the two of them. The relationship was too new. The Angel had written him a letter, which the Devil had revised, in part because the Narrator had thought that it would be good for them. They had fired the letter off, pressing a symbolic red button together, and then waited, not knowing whether it would be delivered, or whether he would read it, or whether he would have a good reaction. One of the frustrating things about heaven, which the Fenns had talked to the Narrator about quite a bit, was that people could just opt out of talking to you, or have preferences that meant you were basically a ghost to them. Worse, other people could set it up so that it was difficult to check whether they could see you or not. The Narrator (who hadn’t actually been the one to set up the heavens, not really) had argued that other people fundamentally had no right to each other, not even a single bit back, the 0 or 1 of read or unread.
Almost no one actually did that though, and Nellan had gotten a response back to the Fenns later that same day. From that point on, their contact had been in bits and pieces, with a few meetings and the occasional dinner, and they would sometimes bump into each other while out doing other things, in the way that the heavens sometimes arranged, if you were into it.
Still, there was some awkwardness. There were times when the Fenns wanted to propose retroactively adding in memories for the three of them, of a happy life in some alternate timeline that hadn’t actually happened.
“I got into the program,” said Nellan. “I’m going to be a runner on the barrisball team.”
“Oh!” said Fenn. “Well, congratulations, I know that you were waiting on tenterhooks for that. But that means you’ll be gone for a few months?”
“Six months,” he said. “I could run a clone on the outside, but part of what I enjoyed about the proposal was the sequester, so … that’s part of why I’m here.”
“To say goodbye?” asked Fenn.
“Well,” he said. “Not for good, obviously, but six months can be a long time.”
“And you think you’ll do well?” asked Fenn.
“It’s not really about doing well,” said Nellan. “It’s more about … being a part of a team, being a part of the experience. They managed to attract a lot of players for it, and they think the audience is going to be even bigger. The team I’m on won’t necessarily do that well, but so long as we don’t end up in the bottom tier, I think I’ll be good with it.”
“Could that happen?” asked Fenn. “Ending up in the bottom tier?”
“Sure,” he said. “There was a proposal to include some ‘spian teams, or players, or something like that, so you could always be better than someone, but they decided against it.”
“Ah,” said Fenn. “Well, then, I hope you do well.”
(“More supportive,” said Devil Fenn.
“Yeah yeah,” replied Angel Fenn.
“Fucking frightening to have a risk of failure like that,” said Devil Fenn.
“That’s why it’s better not to try,” replied Angel Fenn.
“Important life lesson, that,” said Devil Fenn.)
“I’ll be fine,” said Nellan, giving her an embarrassed smile. “You’re worried about me.”
“Competition isn’t how I like to spend my time,” said Fenn. “It gives me nerves, unless I go in knowing that I’m better than everyone, or I don’t care about the outcome.”
“Don’t you, the two of you, compete?” asked Nellan. “Archery competitions and things like that?”
“We do,” said Fenn. “It’s different though, especially because she’s me. I never have to feel inadequate if she wins.”
“I’m not worried about feeling inadequate,” said Nellan. “There was a screening, they rejected people they thought would have a bad time.” He was watching her. “I’ll be fine. I’m glad you care.”
“Of course I care,” said Fenn. “And you should know that I’ll be watching you the whole time.” She glanced at the house. “Are you staying for a bit, or leaving?”
“Leaving,” he said. “Just a quick visit, to let you know I wouldn’t be around for a bit. I’ve got other people to see and talk to, stuff to prepare.”
“Well, I appreciate it,” said Fenn. She beamed at him. It was hard to think of him as her son, given how much time they’d missed together, but —
“Alright, later mom,” said Nellan. The word seemed to slip out of him, and for a moment he just stood there, awkwardly.
One of the weird things about sharing a body like they did was that some things could cascade onto themselves. Angel Fenn took a faltering step towards him, and Devil Fenn pushed it harder, and then they had reinforced each other’s decision and had moved forward to wrap him in a tight hug. He accepted it, with his strong arms around her, so grown up, nothing like the hugs that he’d given as a child. They stood there for a moment, and Fenn turned away to compose herself.
“It’ll be okay,” said Nellan. “It’s only six months. We’re sequestered, but it’s only one way, so I can give you a shout out every once in a while.”
“Thanks,” said Fenn, beaming at him.
He left back down the path, fading away to smoke almost instantly as he departed to elsewhere. The Narrator was always changing up the special effects used to mask transitions and make things feel more magical.
The Fenns split apart, back into Angel and Devil, though neither of them had the same costuming on.
“He called us mom,” said the Angel.
“Maybe he was just confused,” said the Devil. “I mean, he does have a real mom.”
“We’re his real mom,” said the Angel.
“We’re his bio mom,” said the Devil. “He never had anything bad to say about the people who raised him, except that they were a bit too human for his tastes.”
“Still,” said the Angel. “He did call us mom. And then he gave us a hug.”
“We gave him a hug,” the Devil corrected.
They were both still standing there, looking at where he had been, and the smoke that was languidly rising into the air.
“We’re the best moms in the world,” said the Angel, grinning at the Devil.
“Come on,” said the Devil. “We’re going to have to learn all about barrisball, and also tell Juniper, so he’s not bored out of his mind when we’re competently talking about what’s surely the greatest game in the world.”
“One sec,” said the Angel.
“Yeah?” asked the Devil.
“Have you ever,” she paused. “Thought about having more kids?”
“Meh,” said the Devil. “Thought about? Yes. Seriously entertained the idea? No.” She looked at the Angel. “You know that if you have a kid with him, then we’d basically both be raising her together, right?”
“Her,” smiled the Angel. “And yet you haven’t seriously entertained the idea.”
“Whatever,” sighed the Devil.
“Juniper Prime wanted kids,” said the Angel. “Amaryllis is pregnant again. Just sayin’.”
“Yeah,” said the Devil, crossing her arms. “I hear ya. But, and I know asking this is a bit too on brand for us, what if we fuck it up?”
“It’s simple,” said the Angel. She leaned close and did her best conspiratorial whisper. “We blame Juniper.”
“Fuck we’re brilliant,” grinned the Devil. “He’ll never know what hit him.”
As it turned out, barrisball was fucking complicated and absolutely enormous. The Fenns had a philosophy, which was that you should extract as much fun from something as you could normally, then have assistants or modifications do the rest. For whatever reason, they’d felt that learning barrisball was something that had to be done properly, but the rulebook was thick, and it had lots and lots of tables.
“It’s a middle heavens megasport,” said the Narrator, as though that explained everything. He had lost his Godsgame match, and came to help them. “You’re not meant to sit there and read a rulebook, though it’s designed so you could, you’re meant to either get the whole thing downloaded straight into your head, or you’re supposed to listen or watch with active commentators to help you make sense of what’s happening. If you’d like, I can do the download and then explain to you? I have some contact knowledge of barrisball, since it’s shaping up to be a big thing, but I wasn’t going to go through the rules.”
“Sure,” said the Angel. “We know you love explaining things.”
“Okay,” said the Narrator. “Well, to start with … huh.” He paused, as if trying to make sense of what he was seeing. “It’s pretty clearly of the ‘lots and lots of things’ school of design, more than other megasports. I think the overall aesthetic is that it’s never the same game twice, kind of a … descent into madness type thing? So, there are a hundred teams of a hundred players, divided into squads of ten. Nellan is part of Squad Furlow on Team Echelon, and the team’s unique power is shapeshifting, while the squad’s unique power is a shapeshifting version of rubber band stuff. Each individual team member has their own unique specialty within the squad focus.”
“Is this the most fucking anime thing ever?” asked the Devil. “Everyone, all ten thousand people, they have some unique power, and they’re in matchups together?”
“I mean, I guess,” the Narrator said. “So, the goal of the game always involves a ball, sometimes multiple balls, and sometimes it’s about possession of the ball, sometimes it’s scoring goals, sometimes it’s stealing someone’s ball … there are a lot of variations. Typical match time is about two hours, but there are also some long runners. The matches can be either squad on squad, or team on team, which is less common. There are arenas, lots of them, with —”
“Fucking Christ,” said the Angel. “How long does this go on for?”
“— modifiers that can be purchased with points won, random modifiers, and a bunch of other stuff,” the Narrator finished. “Basically, you can think of it like anime, yeah. Nellan will have a squad, which exists within a larger team, and will face down other squads, which have their own superpowers. So, standard sports anime, I think? Except the ‘cast’ is probably too large for that. The rules and teams get more complex over time, and the special properties of each arena and match mean that everyone is always figuring things out.”
“Well, no way around the download,” said the Angel, sighing.
“Wait,” said the Narrator. “Maybe partial download? Only the stuff you need to know? Rules that get introduced to you as you see them in the game? Because I’m not going to lie, barrisball has an absolute fuckton of rules, and I think if they get introduced slowly, that’s the only way you’re going to have fun with it.” He snapped his fingers. “Hey, if you’d like, we could actually make it into an anime, if you want to watch it that way?”
“Could we do that?” asked the Devil. “Doesn’t that count against creative scarcity?”
“Eh,” said the Narrator. “I would argue to the Authority that it’s a form of format shifting, which is usually allowed. Translating things into different languages or formats … usually you can squeak by with it and not be considered part of the upper middle heavens by the preference clusters. Okay, I just checked, and it would be fine, but the quality is going to be a little bit lower than you’re used to. Or we could consume the media that’s going to come out of this thing, which I imagine there will be a lot of, and all that will probably pre-digest the games into something a bit more palatable. Or we could move to a place without creative scarcity.”
“Would you want to do that?” asked the Angel. “I thought you said you’d feel like there was no point in your hobby if you did that.”
“Eh,” said the Narrator. “I’m coming around to Valencia’s way of thinking, that life is in the living, and you shouldn’t just be doing things because they’re hard. I think I would still enjoy creation if I knew that I could just get an assistant to do the creation for me. I think it would still be worthwhile. And heck, we could just do a split heaven, where you can have all the anime or movies you want, and I could still toil away at my games and novels. Having the assistants mediate with the preference clusters might get annoying, but,” he shrugged. “I kind of feel like it’s been a long time coming.”
“Sweet,” said the Devil. She looked around. “Shit, we’re going to have to get ready to move, huh?” She eyed the couch, as though they would have to lift it. “Wait, what am I thinking? We’ll just hire movers.”
“Yeah, but how are we going to pay for them?” asked the Angel.
“I’ll take a look at the budget,” said the Narrator. “We might have to cut back on those well-oiled men.”
“Never,” said the Devil.
“You’re not getting rid of the well-oiled men, Juniper,” said the Angel.
“But thank you,” said the Devil. “For suggesting a move, I mean.”
“We appreciate it,” said the Angel.
The Narrator snapped his fingers. “And done.”
“Nice place,” said the Angel, looking around at the unchanged house. “Much more spacious than the last one.”
“Luxurious accommodations,” the Devil agreed.
“Good neighborhood, I guess,” said Juniper.
“Nice place to raise a family,” said the Angel.
There was a bit of silence between the three of them, as the two Fenns stared innocently out at the house. Eventually, the Narrator cleared his throat.
“That’s, um,” he said. “Something the two of you agreed on?”
“It’s something we very briefly discussed a few hours ago,” said the Devil, looking at the Angel.
“Some things would have to change, if we had a kid,” said the Narrator. “No walking around half-naked.” He looked down at their outfits. “I guess we could do some perception stuff and present differently to the kid than we do to each other.”
“Kids,” said the Devil. “One for each.”
“Yeah?” asked the Angel.
“It would also mean less time for other stuff,” said Narrator. “Less time for games. I mean, you can have a ‘spian take care of your kids, but if you’re going to do that, why even bother? And there are temp clones too, I guess.”
“Is he saying no?” asked the Angel.
“He’s doing a Juniper,” said the Devil.
“Ah, so he is,” nodded the Angel.
“I’m making sure that we consider it carefully and understand the impact that it would make on our lives,” said the Narrator. “Do I need to engage serious mode with you two?”
“Well we’re not deciding today, duh,” said the Angel, who always disliked serious mode. “We just moved our house.”
“We’ll give you time to think, and us time to think,” said the Devil, “And think about how we’re going to do it, and what it will mean, and we’ll petition the Authority to see whether we’ll even be allowed —”
“Already did that,” said the Narrator. “A hypothetical request was sent and answered, we’re fine to have kids.”
“And when did you do this?” asked the Angel.
“Just after you guys sent a letter off to Nellan,” said the Narrator.
“Well, be that as it may, we’re waiting,” said the Devil. “At least a day.”
“Such restraint,” said the Angel. “Such character growth.”
“He always did like our arcs,” said the Devil.
“Also, we were supposed to play Sexy Godsgame,” said the Angel.
“Yes,” said the Narrator, smiling. “One shitshow at a time.”