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Like One Sundered Star - Irons in the Fire

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Saturday, April 5th

He doesn't want to be here. Not even a little bit. First off, the lab's a goddamn wreck and Sollux wants to know what douchebag (read: Harley) relocated the rubble from the old lounge so that it's parked right in front of the entrance to the nearest kitchenette. Some other yet-to-be-identified asshole dumped their food down the sink drain in another lounge before evacuating, and wouldn't you know it, that food is still there rotting away, and there's no switch for a garburator or anything. Nasty shit.

Sollux finally locates a kitchen area that doesn't smell like the taste of gargling moldering mashed potatoes far from the main hallway, pours out the week-old coffee still sitting in the bottom of the carafe, and counts out pills while the coffee percolates. Aradia kept him on track during the sleep-deprived haze of the past couple weeks - which she goddamn better take responsibility for, dammit - but she also didn't stop him from supplementing the regular meds with steadily increasing amounts of amphetamines. He's not quite crashing because he's a fucking god of managing his own body chemistry, but his thinkpan wants to crawl under a rock and stay bluescreened for a week. When he drops, it's gonna fucking blow.

The solution is to not drop. As if he has time for that. Nobody has time for that. He dumps too much creamer and sugar in the coffee and takes the entire carafe with him, nodding to the rare scientists that pass by him as he heads toward the post-op ward. They acknowledge his coffee jug with understanding looks and nods, before heading the other direction. He's drunk a quarter of it by the time he reaches the ward and the heart palpitations kick him in the ribs, clearing his head of some of the gunk built up over the last half a day. Either it's psychosomatic, or caffeine and sugar are too much, even as a way to ease back off the Adderall.

So of course, he flicks the door open with his psionics, a little too jittery and fizzy, and the first thing he sees is Diamonds Droog sitting next to his doped up, dipshit of a custodian. She sits with her back to the wall, paging through a newspaper and occasionally rolling her ankle so that the joint pops. Menacingly.

Today is not his day. Rubbing his eyelids, Sollux tries not to feel shitty about his usual wardrobe choices, but there's some innate aura of snootiness around Droog that makes him feel a pang of gloomy guilt about the fact that he hasn't changed his shirt in two days, and the laces of his runners are undone with the ends tucked into the sides to keep them out of the way. There's still spots of Terezi's blood on the toe where he stepped in her inconsiderate death puddle on the weekend. He matted his hair back down after the hub shocked him one time too many, trying to while away the hours until Clubs was out of surgery, but it hasn't seen a comb in forever. "Thup," he says, finally, after enduring Droog's arched, judgmental eyebrow long enough to stop giving a shit. He raises the carafe at her in a mock toast, takes another hearty gulp, and decides slouching on the far side of Clubs's cot is for the best. Droog narrows her eyes at him as he walks around the end of the bed, folding down the top of her newspaper slowly, and Sollux wonders tiredly if he should make an effort to open his eyes further so it looks less like he's squinting her down. Or nah. With on-going sleep deprivation and genetics fighting him, it's a lost cause.

"Can I help you?" the human says coolly, not entirely a question. She starts to roll the newspaper up, which could probably be construed as a threat, but whatever. If Sollux can't take her and her newspaperkind (which he can), Jade has things covered. It's the only reason anyone would have left Droog alone in a room with two unconscious people.

"Nope," Sollux says, hoping to hell that ends the conversation before it begins. He's gone back through old text records with Clubs, and there's only ever been one DD that the dumbass had a pale crush on all these years. God. He wishes there was still alcohol around here so he could mix depressants with his stimulants and just fucking commence the antagonistic interaction tango. It would be better than knowing that this asshole is the person Clubs wants in their despicable family unit. Hell, he doesn't know if anyone remembers the part of the Meeting That Never Was where he may or may not have mentioned his lusus's criminal connections, but if any of them catch on, he's never going to live it down. He chugs down some more liquid heart attack and pretends to be absorbed in Clubs's monitor. Aradia's promised to bring an absolutely disgusting protein shake by later, after she's finished doing whatever the hell it is she does when she vanishes like this.

No dice. "Really now," Droog says, which means whatever hellish conversation is about to ensue? Entirely her fault. "Come to keep an eye on me? How droll."

Sollux can head this off. As long as he just continues to not respond in any meaningful way, there's still hope. "Meh," he says, the word half-gargled through another sip of coffee.

Droog wrinkles her nose in disgust and looks like she regrets her choices, so that's a job well done. "Children," she mutters vehemently. Sollux is a self-sabotaging bastard at heart, and the sound of 'children' being used as a curse word instantly makes the idea of telling her exactly whose adopted kid he is overwhelmingly tempting. He could wreck her day. Hell, he could wreck the rest of her existence. Next stop: midlife crisis. It would be hilarious.

...Or she might strangle him to make the problem go away. Sollux calculates how likely he is to doom himself to that specific pathetic death, and decides it's not worth it. He already has his double deaths on lock for this round and he's not borking it up this time. No permanent deaths, no half-assed deaths; he's going to come out the other side living. Self-control strikes again. Besides, he's still banking on the faint, distant hope that one day Clubs might acknowledge Sollux is a grown troll and fuck off forever so that Sollux can stop suffering age-inappropriate filial concern over a tiny criminal hobgoblin.

After Droog gives him the evil eye for a minute, punctuated by Sollux taking another drink of sugary sludge, she flips her newspaper back up with an impatient snort and fakes like she's reading again. Sollux considers pointing out that she's the suspicious criminal mob boss here, not him, but what would be the point. Just when he thinks they've moved past awkward suspicion into blissful not giving a shit, Droog slams the paper down against her lap and glares daggers at Sollux. "What. Do. You. Want."

"For you to shut the fuck up and ignore me like a thane person," Sollux says, instantly, because exposure to Karkat and Dave has reduced his already minimal mouth filter. On the cot, Clubs mumbles something in his drugged sleep. Great.

Droog doesn't seem to notice. "Think you can catch me in the act? You're another one of those brats playing hero, right? I'm not interested in playing with you right now."

Sollux rolls his eyes and heroically ignores the impulse to snatch the stupid paper out of Droog's hands and use it to whap her upside the head. "I think you're the bad guy here, not me. Tho I want to thtand here. Get over it." When Droog won't stop glowering at him, Sollux sighs, looks down at his half-empty carafe, and holds it out. "Coffee?"

"No." Droog looks at the coffee like he suggested she chug an entire bottle of old school absinthe instead. With a shrug, Sollux swirls the carafe so that the separating swirls of creamer sink back in, and takes another gulp. "I'm attempting to be civil about this," the mobster says, while Sollux rides out a buzzing head rush. For a second his bisected mind strains toward his dreamself, trying to decipher what the bees in this section of comb are distressed about now. His stomach protests, which means that's enough caffeine for the moment; his eyes feel dry but he's as awake as he's going to get. "But if you are being deliberately annoying, I reserve the right to remove you. By force."

That's just bullshit. "I'm attempting to thtand here without thaying anything. That would be a dream come true. You're the one who keepth talking and ruining it."

"Is someone mad?" Clubs says. The brownblood reaches up and scratches at the bandages around his head without opening his eyes, his uncoordinated claws bumping against his own horns. His eyelids twitch like he's blinking, but they never actually open wide enough for it to work. Droog sits bolt upright, still glaring at Sollux like she'll rip his bulge off if he comes any closer, but she glances down at Clubs with a cross between trepidation and irritated worry. Oh, god, she likes him back. There have to be good drugs lying around this dump somewhere; Jade will know where. Sollux cannot be expected to put up with this shit in his life.

"Shut up, you peabrain, you're fresh out of brain surgery," Droog says, smacking Clubs on the arm with the newspaper. The fact that Sollux feels the tiniest flicker of the need to defend his custodian is something he regrets deeply. Clubs is a grown ass troll and he can take care of himself. The human holds up two fingers in a peace sign, the saddest, most ironic thing Sollux has seen today, and smacks Clubs again with her free hand until the troll cracks his eyes open a little, unfocused and distant. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"...Two? Oooh, I have such a headache, Di." Clubs tries to lift a hand and pulls up short when the IV runs out of slack. "Did we get 'em?"

"Yes, we got 'em," Droog says, with the air of someone whose patience is being tried. Sollux leans back against the wall and ignores the way the mobster glares at him at intervals. "Just had to get your head fixed up. Now touch my finger, then your nose, and tell me about how you're a member of the Midnight Crew."

"With explosions! And nefarious deeds!" Clubs replies, cheery and slurred at the same time as he cracks his left eye open to focus on Droog's fingers. After a moment of hesitation, the troll beams lopsidedly and raises his own index and middle claw to tap against Droog's in a diamond.

Sollux wants to blame the urge to hurl on the sickening caffeine rush. He buries his face in his hands. There are some things that a troll is not meant to bear witness to, and watching his custodian do the corniest shit is one of them. How do human children put up with this bullshit? When Sollux recovers from the embarrassment, Droog appears to be pressing her lips together against some instinctive reaction. "I'm trying to test if they meddled with what's left of your brain, numbskull," she says irritably, flicking Clubs on the nose until he covers it with his free hand. "Nose. To finger."

It's too late, though. Clubs rubs his nose mournfully - and then Sollux shifts his weight to his other foot, and Clubs's head lolls to the side so that he lays eyes on Sollux. For a split second, they stare at each other, Sollux cringing internally as Clubs puts two and two together -

"Sollux!" the troll exclaims, sitting upright before Droog shoves him down again. Clubs beams at Sollux, his brown eyes welling up a little. "Oh, Sollux! How did you get here? I thought you were back home!" Then he sniffs, and schools his expression into a stern look as he pats the back of Droog's hand. "Oh, Diamonds, did you kidnap my smart, tall son just so he could be here to see me? That's terribly wonderful of you."

Droog may be about to classily projectile-vomit in Sollux's general direction. "No, I - your what?"

"You didn't? Oh! That's alright, too," Clubs says agreeably, patting her hand again and switching to look back at Sollux. "Sollux! How are you? There was something not right in my noggin, but it must be all fixed up now. How did you get here, my boy?"

"Long thtory," Sollux says. Clubs stares at him, expectant, and Sollux fidgets. "I - there'th a project I have to - will you thtop looking at me like that?" Droog is slowly resting her chin on her hand, staring blankly at the wall as though it will help things make sense. Her midlife crisis isn't giving Sollux as much joy as he thought it would; Clubs's unwavering earnestness is already starting to grate on his nerves. Sometimes he forgets that lusii are more annoying in person. "I thought you were dead or kidnapped or thomething when you thtarted texting me weird OOC shit all the time, and then I find out you've been brainwashed! Where have you been, you idiot?" he says, trying to change the subject.

"Oh, with Diamonds." Clubs gestures at Droog with the same claw currently clamped around Droog's hand. She gives a faint tug back, maybe trying to rescue her hand from the deathgrip, but she seems more preoccupied with slumping in her chair. The newspaper has falling onto her lap and is making a bid for the floor. "Come sit here and tell me about your project! I always have time for you!"

"You have a kid," Droog says.

Something in the tone of her voice must tip Clubs off that he missed a step - though Sollux would argue it takes more of a heavy bludgeon to get anything through that thick of a skull. The brownblood shrugs. "Oh, well - yes! But you always like keeping things professional, so -"

"Your kid," Droog says, with mounting aggravation, "is one of those hero brats!"

"- I always got Hearts to wrigglersit instead, except explosions happened and he said he hated children after that, so - wait, what?" Clubs rubs the side of his head, frowning.

"You're actually going to make a federal fucking iththue out of this?" Sollux says, folding his arms. "Oh wow."

"He wouldn't be here if he wasn't neck deep in hero bullshit," Droog snaps. She snaps her fingers in front of Clubs's face until he looks at her. "How long have you had a kid who's working against us, goddammit?!" Sollux wonders if he should be more concerned about this, but honestly? He's too apathetic to really give a shit past being entertained. Half the people in his immediate acquaintance circle act like they're scared shitless over Droog - but here's the thing. Anyone who thinks they're intimidating when they're trying to make Clubs see reason is in for an uphill battle.

Case in point. When Clubs finishes processing this news, he looks more startled than angry or betrayed. "Sollux! You - you're a hero? You've...chosen...the law?"

"Pretty thure vigilantithm is by definition not the law, but whatever. Aradia made me do it." He doesn't even want to get into the game shit right now; explaining away two different definitions of hero would just confuse Clubs, probably. Thank god Terezi's not here, or she'd be debating this shit for ages. Sollux goes to take another sip of coffee before he catches himself and shuffles his feet instead, feeling more uncomfortable as this conversation drags on. Really, he was both hoping Clubs would be unconscious a lot longer than he was, and that he would wake up and be fine so Sollux could stop worrying, and right now he wishes the former had happened instead. "Blame her for being a terrible, terrible influence."

"Terrible? Oh no, no! This is wonderful!" Clubs claps his hands to his cheeks, and Sollux realizes with a sinking sensation that the troll is starting to cry. "Do you need to arrest someone? Oh, I can be your practice run, I've busted out of the slammer lots of times before! I want to be as supportive of this as I can be!"

It's worse than Sollux could have imagined. "Are you theriouthly crying about this?" he says. He wonders how obvious it would be if he used psionics to launch himself into the sun.

Clubs gulps, almost seeming to swallow his tears - and then tiny brown-tinted tears start coursing down his face again, his lip wobbling dangerously. "Of course! I'm so proud! My son! On the straight and narrow!" He sniffles loudly, wiping at the underside of his nose with the hand that's still holding Droog's. Droog shakes off her second fugue of despair to freeze up, her jaw dropping in horror. "I guess I won't have to get that suit tailored to fit you, after all. Which is a shame, I thought it would be a good, hearty bonding moment after you and Di met, but I'm sure there will be other chances in the future! I even kept it after you started computer programming instead, just in case, but I'll have to hang it up for good now!"

Droog looks like she's about to start crying, too, for entirely different reasons. "What thuit?" Sollux asks. Even before the words are out of his gaper, he regrets. Oh, does he regret.

"I hate children," Hearts Boxcars whispers gruffly. When Sollux checks over his shoulder, the final Midnight Crew boss reaches over, takes a pillow from the bed next to him, and drapes it over his own face like that'll make the world go away.

-

Elsewhere

According to all known laws of apiculture, there is no way beehouse mainframes should be stacked this fucking high. Thankfully, thanks to incredible amounts of bullshit, the laws of apiculture no longer apply. Sollux passed the echeladder rank of Fatalapiarist a lifetime ago, and since Sburb told physics to get fucking wrecked before any of them were born, he's had the unique opportunity to replace an entire planet with silicomb. So much mind honey stuffed into fragile comb should have collapsed the whole thing like a sticky jenga tower, but again - it's not like reason and logic has stopped them so far. Building towers that stretch from Prospit to the Battlefield is just a way to pass the time, and boost his processing power. He loads up the alchemiters and levitates them along beside him to clone entire colonies wholesale, filling in spaces occasionally in the lower stacks for the satisfaction born only from a game of planetary Tetris.

Oh, yeah. And sometimes he remembers to shift the rest of the dreamself captchalogue cards up a level, so they aren't subsumed in the comb. Most of the game mod shit is hosted in the original mainframes, pretty much welded into place by molten honey despite the heat sinks. Sollux suspects that if he hadn't laid a geas on the queens of those hives, they'd have burned to a crisp weeks ago. He can't quantify how fast the supercomputer is anymore; faster than anything his split mind could have turned out on Earth. Faster than anything he slapped together for their last game; definitely faster than the ticker in his modified glasses can keep track of anymore (it's been stuck at 612 zettaFLOPS for days, so the readout isn't accurate at all).

And powerful enough to keep the game mods going while he tries to avoid Skaia cracking down on their entire timeline with the doom stick. Powerful to modify reality itself. He's not drinking any more mind honey unless it's unavoidable. The last time he tried it, the rush went beyond hallucinating in different wavelengths, and he woke up with no memory of what the hell he had done for the past twenty four hours with his dreamself pajamas on backwards.

Anyway. This latest mainframe tower stretches further than the rest, and Sollux has to flip himself when Skaia's gravity takes over from the relative neutral zone of the Medium. He's building down now, still in a single stack, leaving freshly alchemized bees swarming behind him as they settle into the combs. There are a few other hivestacks that reach Skaia's Battlefield, but this is the first he's aimed at one of the open gouges in the surface, a cut in the ground that reaches so deep he stopped scouting when he started to get freaky jitters in his thinkpan. He's not taking the stack all the way down; he doesn't plan to doom himself by being that stupid.

There's something in the core. Something alive, and vaguely disapproving. He's not risking a trip to the center of the Battlefield to find out what bee is in Skaia's cosmic bonnet now.

Aradia pops in out of nowhere in that way she has, twirling in loops around a stretch of silicomb while stretching her arms over her head and sprinkling liberal amounts of fairy dust literally everywhere. Sollux could off himself whenever he fricking well wants, and the main reason he hasn't gotten it over with is because then he might end up leaving green Doom sprinkles all over the place. After she's done cracking her joints, Aradia darts down beside him, her hair streaming out behind her as she beams and takes over levitating two of the alchemiters. "Need more grist?" she asks, probably out of some weird sense of politeness. Sollux grunts, because they've been shaving excess unused grist off doomed timelines for ages, so it's pretty much a non-issue, and mashes another cube of mainframe until it locks into place in the stack. "Where is this one going?"

"Dependth on how piththed she gets," he says, shrugging with one arm and activating another alchemiter with a sweep of psionics. "If she throwth a fit, the whole thing will have to be duthted like it'th time for spring cleaning."

They've passed through the ripped up outer crust of the Battlefield and into darker stone now. Well, darker compared to the pale brown stone on the same level just a few meters away. The contrasting black and white coloration of the battlefield might be muted here, but the chessboard pattern continues beneath the surface. Aradia looks her age for a moment when they cross from the crust to what Sollux thinks of as the outer mantle. Unlike Earth, Skaia doesn't seem to get hotter or higher in pressure the deeper they go; the rock gives way to walls of dense, dark crystal, but that's about it. If he stares too long, the faint sparks of light visible in the depths of the crystal try to form patterns and constellations that are too familiar, so he avoids looking. "Coming down here..." Aradia says lightly, pressing her hand to one of the walls as the fissure narrows. "It might be a little too early."

Sollux shrugs. "Who giveth a shit? It'th not like I'm going all in."

Aradia falls silent again as they come up toward the bottom of the fissure, though Sollux can only imagine how this feels for her. Doom and Time are probably close, if there's any way to measure relationships between aspects, but it's like trying to imagine what an entirely new sense would feel like. For him, the jittery sensation is back, an insistent awareness that fate just sat up and is now regarding him. Intently. He captchalogues the alchemiters still under his psychic command as their descent slows to a stop, a safe distance away from the pale thing just barely exposed by the broken rock. Digging it up more might be fun, or it might kill them. Sollux figures any archaeological interest Aradia might have in the thing is balanced out by her own awareness of just how shitty an idea that would be. What little can be seen, though, looks like pale white, petrified wood: a branch with a half-buried leaf near the farthest end of the fissure that's the size of a house. "Incredible," Aradia says, with soft reverence.

For Sollux, it's just unnerving. It would be easy to let the strong flow of order and rightness down here roll over them like the tide, but if it does, he has no doubt he'd be found wanting. He's subverted too many of his doom powers and flipped them around to fakeout fate. She wouldn't appreciate that. "Yeah, that's far enough," he says, voice clipped, and he caps off the last mainframe with a bile-green geas. The power swirls between his claws like thorny vines before looping around the silicomb and sinking in. If that's not enough to keep the 'combs under his control, he'll shear the tower off somewhere higher up. Having sensor arrays this close to the core won't be worth it if Skaia starts overwriting his code.

He can't tell if going god tier would make it easier or harder. Doom is fucking annoying that way. Saving people's asses shouldn't be this hard.

Aradia lingers for a moment and Sollux edges toward her, wondering if he needs to drag her away, before she shakes her head and turns to ease an arm around his waist. She hums as they follow the line of the mainframe tower back up out of the fissure; she's pressed close enough that he feels the vibrations where their cheeks press together. "Will that help?" she asks, when the crystal walls lose their glitter and plain, solid rock takes their place.

"You probably know better than I do. I'm jutht throwing shit at the wall to thee what thtickth, at this point," Sollux says, pushing his glasses up into his hair so he can rub his eyes with his hands. One of his bodies needs to sleep soon, and it's not going to be him. "I wouldn't try to mod anything acceththible from down there, but it might help to have a better idea of how she'th reacting to shit. I jutht wish I knew where she drawth the line!"

Because he'd hoped to fuck and back that Skaia would stay quiet. Him modifying Prospit didn't awaken any sky god dickishness, but activating the god tier mods -

Oh. That might have pissed her off, if it's possible to piss off reality. Their timeline doesn't have the ominous, vomit-inducing flavor of a doomed session, but Sollux can't tell if that's because he and Aradia have threaded them as close to Sburb's usual track as necessary to keep things going, or because there aren't any other session timelines healthy enough to replace them this late in the game. He starts sparking a little, crunching lines of red and blue psionics between his fingers, and Aradia scratches in the small space between his doubled right horns, which always feels traitorously soothing. "You're doing a great job!" she says encouragingly, while Sollux closes his eyes and tries not to feel sick.

It's not quadrant apathy anymore - he's got a better read on it now. Aradia's doom is set in stone, sealed with a touch of fate that comes directly down the pipeline from Skaia's ordered influence. It's something Aradia has freely chosen, and he can't fucking believe she'd have the audacity to pull that kind of shit. No wonder the Earth part of his mind felt so unsettled yet grounded with her around. He wants to shake her and scream and cry, but he doubts it would make a difference. Aradia has her eyes set on her endgame, and he thinks any chance he might have had to talk her down from it passed a long time ago.

Sollux takes a deep breath, and pulls away from her. "Any word on the noodly asshole front?" he asks, picking up the pace as he zooms past one of Skaia's dense clouds.

Aradia shakes her head, pulling her hood up with a hand just in time to plow through the cloud without trying to avoid it. Sollux loses sight of her for a second while the cloud flickers through green and blue images too quickly for him to follow. Aradia poofs out the other side with her hood still low over her eyes, then tosses it back again with a huff of laughter. "I can hear them when I'm out by Derse still. It's - probably better that your dreamself not listen when it's out there," she says. Her tone is as light as ever, but Sollux can read the concern underneath. "Better that no one listen. They're too loud."

He rolls his eyes. "They're inconthiderate chaoth fuckth, when are they ever not loud?"

"No, it's -" Aradia breaks off, and slows to a stop. Sollux coasts a little before stopping as well, frowning back at her as Aradia drifts a little. She's staring out across the expanse of the Medium, toward the line of the meteors in the Veil and maybe past that. Sollux doesn't see any Horrorterrors looming from here, but the look on Aradia's face -

"They're loud," she repeats. She says it like any normal person who wasn't a Sburb player would say, "the world is ending" - like it's something too huge and overwhelming and terrible for them to fully comprehend.

"Your explanation ith, ath alwayth, enlightening as fuck," Sollux says dryly, since sarcasm is the last line of defense between them and the burgeoning implications of 'oh fuck' that Aradia is emitting. Aradia, who's the main mastermind behind this bugfuck insane plan they've put together to keep as many people alive and not-doomed as possible. Aradia, who is supposed to be on top of their shit as a whole.

She combs her claws through her hair, shuffling most of the wayward curls back behind the swirl of her horns, and then seems to catch herself, perking up in time to smile at Sollux. It doesn't help. "Just keep doing what you're doing," Aradia says, reaching out a hand toward Sollux and then hesitating, letting her claws curl back up as she retracts it. "I - may have to ask your help with something. Don't worry! It's something you're good at, and shouldn't be too difficult at all."

The last time Aradia said that, Sollux got multiple parts of his brain swept up in Operation Work With Gamzee To Murder People For Their Own Good.

"Yeah, whatever," he says, scratching the back of his head and sliding his glasses back down into place. "Lay it on me."

Along the bottom rim of the glasses, the countdown to his first death ticks quietly away.

Chapter Text

Friday, April 4th

Jade ends up having to help the scratch kids vamoose, because Bro turns up while the Midnight Crew are still on the chopping block. Well, she'd already been planning to help transport them part of the way to their destination, just to save them some time - it's a resource that's in short supply, these days! - but the car that she's helping them load up with supplies has four slashed tires before Jade can react to his arrival. Replacing the tires with miscellaneous spares isn't that difficult, but it means that Bro is most definitely onto them from the moment he shows up, which puts the abscond in jeopardy. "You guys are totally gonna have to make a break for it," she says, pursing her lips as she swaps out tires. "Before we run out of tires or something dumb like that."

"I'm surprised he didn't slash every tire here to cover his bases. It's what I would have done," Dirk says, stowing a cooler in the trunk of the car. They've got sandwiches and leftovers from the great John-and-Jane breakfast the other day, most of the casual clothes that Feferi helped get together for them, and some explosive materials that Jade is conveniently forgetting to ask about, since she has no idea how they keep getting their mitts on this stuff. These guys are pretty darn resourceful; Roxy talked extra void accessories out of Equius days ago, despite how stuffy and grumpy the troll is.

"Check underneath - he could have messed with something else so you couldn't go too far." Jade can feel gas still in the tank, so Bro must have been in a hurry, but that doesn't mean there isn't some other sabotage she's not car-savvy enough to sense, depending on how subtle the oldest Strider can be. "I've got a bead on him now, but I kinda don't want to tick him off too much! You guys had better go while the going's good."

"Damn straight." Dirk shuts the trunk with an unavoidable slam just when Jade takes the last slashed tired out, the white car rocking from side to side before she fits the replacement in. He snakes his way underneath the car super fast, and Jade pops the hood open with a finger snap to make sure everything's still hooked up right. Mentally, she tracks Bro as he flickers from room to room, hesitating briefly in the vents above the room where Diamonds Droog's twistiness is located before continuing toward Doctor Lalonde's office. Phew! Jade could grab Bro before he does something stupid, probably - but then Bro might cop an attitude with her, and that's total baloney.

Roxy's fiddling with an AUX cable and an iPod Jade's pretty sure is one of several Dave unwittingly pulled out of his sylladex this past week while leaning over the console from the backseat, her tongue stuck halfway out of her mouth as Jake and Jane move to get into the car. "We're bouncing?" she asks as Jade shuts the hood, satisfied that nothing important has vanished. Roxy pushes herself up from the console, the hem of her crop top riding up as she does, and uses the door Jake opened to squirm out past him. Jade meets the girl halfway, wrapping her in a hug that makes everything just a little bit void-y as Roxy launches herself at her. "You'll tell Mom that we're sorry for not saying goodbye and stuff, right?" she says, quiet and sounding a lot younger than normal. She's almost as tall as Jade but with less muscle, and Jade wants to squeeze her harder, reassuring, but doesn't dare. She starts to say 'Yeah, of course,' but then Jake rebounds off the car, his legs tripping over themselves as he awkwardly hugs her, too.

"I can zap you guys to Portland, but not farther. Not with Droog here that I've got to keep my attention on," Jade says, patting Jake on the back. She's not sure, but he might be crying; Roxy definitely is when she unwinds her arm from around Jade's neck, wiping at her pale pink eyes with quiet sniffles. "You're all positive you'll be okay on your own? You don't know how many people you'll be up against once you're there..."

Jane stands with one hand on top of the car, surveying their hug pile with only a faint, negatory shake of her head when Jade tries to wave her over. "We'll be fine," she says, with something that's not quite confidence - more like she's just stating facts. Dirk slides out from under the car and runs his fingers though his hair while Jane continues, "You have our numbers."

But not the coordinates you'll be at, Jade thinks. Roxy, Jake, Jane, and Dirk might be family, but Jade doesn't have the same innate sense of them that she does for John, Rose, and Dave, as players. The further they go, the harder it'll be for her to track them down manually. "Just call me exactly when you're about to start beating up that Die guy! And I'll make absutively posilutely sure that Bro stays busy here for a bit," she promises, crooking her pinky finger and holding it out to Roxy. Roxy takes it with an uncontainable smile, sniffing one last time and linking their pinkies together for a second. Roxy has a tiny ring from Equius there that bumps against one of the tiny rubber bands Jade has been adding to her fingers over the past few days as reminders.

Then Jade does a double take. "Hang on," she says, frowning a little, and then letting go of Jake to stick a hand in her sylladex to rummage around for her rubber band pack. She already has a reminder leftover from keeping an eye on Jake while he was still in prison escape movie mode, but she took it off to replace with Gamzee, Eridan, and Vriska themed bands.

She wonders why she hasn't tried this before. Maybe because she hasn't needed to experiment with it before; her sense of the other human players is already strong enough that she's never felt the need to fiddle with it. But while Jane frowns and Dirk starts to edge his way toward the drivers seat, casting unreadable looks at the lab behind his pointy shades (Jade could tell him they're still clear, but meh), Jade yoinks the old Jake rubber band out, plus a single new green band and two each of pink, blue, and orange. "C'mere real quick," she says, passing the second green rubber band to Jake, who takes it with a blink. Roxy takes hers with equal mystification but also with enthusiasm, stretching it between her middle finger and thumb instantly so she can snap it; Jane comes over to take hers, still frowning, and Jade ends up having to flick the orange band at Dirk's forehead when he gives her an impatient sigh. "Put them on your fingers and let me try something," Jade orders, stripping off the two bands already on her pinky (a plain old brown rubber band for Droog, since she deserves the most boring of colors, and white for Samuel Egbert) and relocating them to new fingers so that she can strap all four new bands on one finger for ease of reference.

"Is this going to be one of the One Real type scenarios, Jade?" Jake asks as Jade taps her foot and waggles her eyebrows until Jane and Dirk stop over-analyzing their rubber bands and put them on. "Rings of power? Or is it a secret?

"I'm trying to do a witchy thing! Equius had the idea first, but that doesn't mean I can't tweak it!"

Jade tries it with Jake first, hooking their fingers together and concentrating. It takes some fiddling at the quantum level to tie the rubber bands together and make it stick. For a second the atoms kind of want to snap together into one super-rubber band, but that would be dumb and defeat the purpose of the charm. Once she's sure the rubber bands are keeping their electrons mostly to themselves, she goes through the rest of the scratch kids' bands until they all have a faint synchronization with her own. There's no real way to test it, except to let the scratch kids go on their way and hope for the best; Jade waves them off and then heads back to the lab, tapping the bands on her pinky finger with the nail of her thumb and hoping to heck that if something goes wrong, she'll be able to pull them back.

After all, she's not going to figure out what her powers can do until she tries, right?

-

"She's dangerous," Bro snaps. It's a really weird sight, made all the weird cause Jade's tucked herself in the vents to peer down from a safe distance. Not that vents are particularly safe - as far as Bro goes, these are his natural hunting grounds. Or something. But Jade thinks she'll have ample warning before it becomes a problem, and since Bro definitely knows she's there, and she knows that he knows, that means they understand each other.

Also, he's too busy arguing with Doctor Lalonde to get mad at Jade. Jade is totally okay with that continuing to be a thing. "They're all goddamn dangerous, Lalonde," he says, pacing in front of Rue's desk with tight steps.

Doctor Lalonde is having none of it. She's typing something on her computer with a teeny bit more ferocity than an email probably calls for, but it's close enough to a disinterested, coolly intimidating scientist aesthetic that Jade could see it fooling Bro with the cranky mood he's in. "You think that I magically became unaware of that fact sometime in the past twenty four hours? I know, Ambrose. Which is why I would rather have her potentially working against the Felt than I would have any of the children have to fight her again."

"She won't. A twisted fuck like her? Even if she ain't lying to get you on your own, she's got an agenda." Bro leans over the desk, one hand clenching and unclenching reflexively in a fist and the other splayed out on a stack of files. Clear intimidation technique, which would probably work a little better for him if Doctor Lalonde didn't look like she was ready and willing to stand on top of the desk itself to table the turns.

Rue refrains - Jade wouldn't have, because standing on a table to argue with someone is just a fun idea in general - and just rolls her eyes. "Everyone has an agenda. I'd prefer you not stab Droog in the eye before we can get a read on how her agenda may have changed, thank you. I made the call. It's done. And if you run around stabbing people because you've lost all self-control, I'll stop you."

Jade's Pesterchum alert goes off. Considering the close quarters of the ventilation shaft, it's also really, really noticeable in the pause.

"You may want to answer that, Jade, dear," Doctor Lalonde calls, her breath still huffing faintly with exasperation.

"Will do, Doctor Lalonde!" Jade calls back, feeling her face burn as she squirms back away from the grate, grabs her phone, and checks her messages. She has a special chime just for interdimensional cosmogonic forces that it wouldn't do to ignore.

UU: good afternoon jade!
GG: hello calliope!
UU: hello hello! are yoU free right now?

Jade rolls onto her back with some effort and considers it.

GG: errrr...not really!
GG: just eavesdropping on some stuff.
UU: oh! i do apologize! is it something important?
GG: maybe! it's a little hard to say for sure. people are arguing, mostly.
GG: if doctor lalonde decides to throw down with bro i'll have to get video.
GG: did you need something?
UU: yoU had a spare moment and i thoUght i might answer some qUestions you might have, bUt i forgot that jUst becaUse i cannot detect yoU Using yoUr powers doesn't mean yoU are not bUsy u_u
GG: you can tell when i'm doing that? really?
UU: yes! it is very noticeable to me, becaUse it draws in part from my own aspect! i feel very close to yoU and kanaya as a resUlt.
GG: that's so cool! and weird. :P
GG: yeah, we can talk but i might cut out here and there if bro tries to pull some crap!
UU: i Understand completely!

Down below, Doctor Lalonde starts talking in a deliberately quieter tone. It doesn't work, since Jade's got a pretty good set of ears on her noggin, but splitting an atom would be easier than splitting her attention between the quiet argument and the Pesterchum conversation, just now. "Perhaps, if you please, you might consider the potential consequences of aggravating Droog into strife while she's still in a building full of my people?" she says. "With several of the children on site?"

"Oh, yeah. Because you're one to preach to me about considering the damn consequences where the kids are concerned." Jade can only extrapolate how sharp a jab that is by judging Rue's sudden, pained intake of breath. She thinks about turning back onto her stomach, but she can follow the two guardians' movements well enough without needing to see them. "You made a call, and brought another monster for them to fight right into their house. Great call."

"Ambrose, I know all this. How many times must I repeat myself?" Doctor Lalonde has stopped typing, knotting her fingers into a haphazard steeple and pressing it to her forehead. "You need to be rational about this."

Bro tells Doctor Lalonde exactly what she can do with her rational, with language strong enough that Jade squeaks and has to repress the urge to text it word for word to Karkat so he can be in awe, too.

Oh, to heck with it. She texts it to Karkat. His 'HARLEY GOOD FUCKING GOD WHY WOULD YOU UNLEASH THIS ON HUMANITY' never stops being funny, especially since he's such a hypocrite. He's totally said worse.

GG: how does that work, anyway?
UU: hmm?
GG: what made you a muse of space? :? and why is there a lord of time?
GG: you said that the reality before us had chaos and order, but why those two things?
UU: ohoho! i knew you woUld have good qUestions! ^u^. i can only offer yoU some specUlation of my own, for yoU are hinting at a topic which even i Understand only throUgh conjectUre!
UU: in part, it is simple - chaos and order were two fUndamental aspects in the previoUs reality, as space and time are for yours. they made Up the fabric of it, if yoU will.
UU: bUt why those two? why were they given sUch significance? that is a qUestion of extraversal metaphysics! how was it decided? we jUst don't know.
GG: i'm trying to picture a universe with chaos and order making up the basis of physics instead of space-time, and failing.
UU: isn't it interesting? sadly the records that i have are very corrUpted @n@ i inherited all of the data via skaia, yoU see, and she filtered everything in her reality throUgh order in a way that was...not mUtUally intelligible, as far as chaos is concerned.
UU: i have incorporated some elements of time into my reality, to make things easier on yoU gUys when yoU arrive. skaia did not make a similar effort for chaos-type beings.

"You don't know what she's capable of. You've never had to deal with her, Lalonde, and if you think she's the kind of person you can trust to hold up her end of a deal -"

Rue interrupts. "Ambrose, trust never entered into this for a moment. Will you just -"

"- with the kids' lives on the fucking line -"

"- sit down and talk with me about this like an adult, instead of working yourself up more -"

"- oh. Fuck you. Fuck you, Rue."

The arguing is less funny when it starts to make Jade's stomach feel funny. It's similar to the feeling she'd get back when Grandpa had to scold her about something he was well and truly disappointed in her over, but somehow the internal cringe feels all the stronger because Jade hasn't experienced it in a while. How do people with regular parents handle it when the parents argue with each other? Because as it turns out? That's not a skill Jade seems to have picked up over the years. She tries to ignore it and distract herself with Calliope's messages, but the vent is starting to feel kinda closed in.

GG: you know, we do have chaos here. though people differentiate between chaos theory as highly sensitive dynamical systems and chaos magic, which is more along the lines of what horrorterrors are about.
GG: i'm just saying, not everything is perfectly orderly here! people make mistakes, and things get interpreted wrong, and stuff can be nonlinear and impossible to predict.
GG: is it because we're so close to the end of skaia's lifecycle? with all these glitches coming from the lord destroying things?
UU: ^u^ it's a complex issUe.
UU: as far as chaos magic goes, it's not really magic according to yoUr reality's definition. it's an expression of a former aspect that cannot be translated correctly by the mUse.
UU: ...or which she chooses not to interpret correctly. glitches from the lord breaking things down jUst exacerbate it, and make it both easier for corrUption to wiggle in and harder for skaia to correct.
UU: plUs, while the firmament of yoUr reality is order, it does not control you or everything aroUnd yoU, per se. yoU have evolved, children of a transitory Universe on the brink of paradigm shift.
GG: does that mean there used to be a lot more order in the universe?
GG: multiverse, i mean.
GG: that sounds...almost as strange as a chaos-order continuum!
UU: heheh, it is all aboUt perception. a coUple million Universes ago, the sapient beings were probably very different and more in tUne with skaia's vision. a being of perfect order woUld be as alien to yoU now as a being of perfect chaos.
UU: bUt yoU still look for patterns in the stars, and yoU organize things in alphabetical or nUmerical or chronological order becaUse it makes things easier for yoU to find, and yoU experiment Until yoU Understand how and why things work the way they do. maybe yoU can't always agree on the order, bUt yoU try to find it nonetheless. it doesn't control yoU, bUt it is a part of yoU.
UU: it is very cUte! thoUgh chronological order is highly overrated if yoU ask me >u>
GG: heehee, you would say that! :D
UU: ^///u///^
UU: yet i shall emUlate it for yoU all the same! or else i woUld fear yoUr heads woUld be jUmbled. and then explode.
GG: D:
UU: indeed.

Okay, the wiggly stomach worms have gone away for now. Jade can still feel the faint cringey, nauseating sensation lurking around the corner, but by the time she tunes back into the conversation both Bro and Rue have gone silent. Rue's on her feet, and Bro's shoulders slump, the two of them standing like puppets with their strings cut, and the possibility that they might just launch into another round of sniping at each other almost makes Jade hop out of the vent entirely. Sollux might need help with the hub, after all.

It would be a nice excuse, anyway.

"You really wanna know?" Bro says, his voice barely more than a croak. "You really wanna know what she did to Dave?"

GG: hey, real quick, before i have to go...can i ask you one last thing?
UU: always! i like explaining things ^u^
GG: do you have therapists in your reality? because i think we're gonna need em. :(
UU: er. Um.
UU: i'm sUre everything will tUrn oUt alright!
GG: hang on, did you just spoilers block me without the spoilers warning?
UU: UUUUUUUhhhh...
UU: byeeeee!

-

GG: rose?
TT: Yes?
GG: we really need to talk to dave. :(
TT: I agree wholeheartedly.

-

Tuesday, April 8th

Jade drops in on Karkat in the middle of a snack run. John, Kanaya, Tavros, and Gamzee are scattered throughout the convenience store when Jade snaps onto the sidewalk outside and strolls in like a regular person, smiling at the bored-looking cashier. John must feel the air displacement when Jade arrives, because he's already holding up a small jug of apple juice when she joins him and Karkat in the back aisle by the coolers. He tosses it at her like a basketball and it wafts light as a feather into Jade's waiting hands. She turns it around to look at the label. "Where does Dave find the time to export apple juice with his face on it to Seattle, anyway?" John asks.

"Beats me!" Jade takes out a Sharpie and quickly doodles a mustache onto Dave's badly mangled JPEG face. For the greater good. She goes to stick the jug back on the shelf and then changes her mind, setting it on the ground and taking out the whole pack of Sharpies. "Hey, Karkat! Help me deface apple juice for science."

"Now you're speaking my language, Harley," Karkat says, dumping an armful of random junk on the ground and flicking the cap off the Sharpie she hands him with an evil glint in his eye. He crouches down next to her, wedging the next apple juice jug between his knees so he can draw with one hand and sip coffee with the other. John rolls his eyes at both of them, but he also takes the next Sharpie when Jade waggles her eyebrows significantly at him and joins them in defiling Dave's empire. Kanaya ignores them with extreme concentration from the cleaning supply aisle.

By the time Gamzee wanders over to observe the proceedings, it's clear that Tavros and Kanaya are the only responsible shoppers here, because all Gamzee has in his hands is a bunch of assorted candy. He leans his arms on Karkat's hunched shoulders to watch them with a mild expression; Karkat just grunts and adds another barely legible addition to the apple juice. "You know, we're gonna have to buy all these and plant them where Dave least expects to find them, right?" John points out.

"Oh, obviously." Jade's tongue sticks out a little as she adds furry cat ears to the next Dave-face. Perfect.

Dave mostly deals with stuff by not talking about it a lot, as it turns out. He came closest to totally freaking out that first day, while Doctor Lalonde and Droog were negotiating and before any of them knew the context for exactly why he and Bro were reacting so badly, and despite their best efforts, it looks like he's not gonna crack soon. All they can do is try to out-stubborn him until he's ready to talk, according to Rose.

Jade just hopes it happens soon. It's not like they have a lot of time left before the end (and she figures Dave's probably taking that twice as hard as the rest of them) and if Jade needs to take Vriska up on that not-very-discreet offer to help hide the hypothetical body if they decide to kick Droog's butt instead of continuing with this shaky alliance, they need to plan ahead.

Not that they'd really need Vriska's help. Bodies aren't actually a thing Jade wants to happen, regardless of how awful Droog might be. Jade's pretty sure between her, Rose, and John, they'd have things covered, but she's actively trying not to get morbid and creepy about it.

There weren't all that many apple juice jugs to start with, so when they're about to run out she (gently) elbows Karkat in the side. "Hey, Karkat? I need some advice. Where would you take someone out to eat around here?"

"One, that's way too fucking vague. Give me some parameters to work with or I'll give you directions to the nearest McDonalds and laugh until my cardiovascular system gives out." Karkat gets distracted for a second when Gamzee takes the Sharpie and starts backseat-drawing. "Two - what are you even talking about now?" He takes an irritable sip of his coffee.

Spinning the Sharpie between her fingers, Jade scrunches up her nose at him. "Well, Aradia wanted to meet up with me for lunch, and now I need to think of a place to go eat. You know this area pretty well, right? Maybe Thai food or something? I have a craving."

In response, Karkat spits out his drink, followed by an enormous intake of breath that heralds an oncoming shout. John lunges sideways to cover the top of the coffee so that the lid won't pop off under the pressure of Karkat's fist. Kanaya flinches and spins around to stare at them over the shelf between their aisle and hers. Jade floats up a little while Karkat's spluttering to peek back over at the cashier, who's now eyeing them suspiciously. She sticks her tongue out at him, with gusto. Not helping their case, here, but hey.

Meanwhile, a splatter of dark coffee and spit slowly drips down the front of the cooler. "If you get us kicked out of this establishment before I finish making a purchase, so help me, Karkat," Kanaya hisses, her teeth sharp where they peek out between her lips.

Despite Kanaya radiating disapproval, Karkat is unrepentant. "Aradia?" he repeats, sounding deeply offended. "Are you - are you two going on a date?"

Jade scratches the side of her head. "Maybe? Probably not? She just wanted to meet up, and it's hard to find that girl as it is..."

"What did she say? Repeat it to me, word for word." Karkat shrugs off Gamzee's arms and reaches up to grab Jade by the shirt, dragging her back down behind the shelving unit to crouch on the floor, his death grip on the coffee easing up a little as he stares Jade down.

"No more caffeine for you," John mutters, plucking the coffee out of Karkat's claws and passing it off to the first hand that comes up to take it from him. Jade's about to say something when John visibly rethinks his life choices and hastily takes the coffee back before Gamzee can do more than sniff it.

Gamzee on stimulants.

Jade tries not to think about it.

"Uhhhh, she said, 'want to talk over lunch?' And I said sure, why not, and she said to ask you about places to eat. That's literally all the context there is, doofus." Jade pokes Karkat's forehead. "So here's me, asking!"

"No, what else?" Karkat says, scowling. The scowl has the distinct look of someone who is reading way too much into something that's not really all that deep or meaningful. "This is vital, Harley. She has to have given you more to work with than that. What about tone? Body language? I'd say you have to have some fucking inkling of which way she's leaning, but given you're human-related to John, the hints would have to be laid on pretty fucking thick before the eureka moment hits."

"Aradia is rather an enigma. Perhaps there was nothing else," Kanaya suggests, pursing her lips in contemplation. She and Karkat exchange significant looks, like all of this has some hidden meaning to them. 

Before Jade can elaborate, John nudges Karkat in the side, protesting, "Bull! I was not that bad!" Struck by inspiration, John continues in a lower whisper, jerking his thumb at Gamzee. "I know when romance stuff is happening!"

"Yes, I've taught you well. It was a real fucking struggle all that time you thought my attempts to seduce you into a pile were offers of yet more friendship activities, but at last, we've climbed that entire mountain." Karkat pats John's shoulder, with a fond look on his face. Jade makes a heroic effort not to laugh, but it's hard! It's hard, and she only has so much self control, okay?

Then the troll realizes Jade's still there and slaps a scowl back on. "Maybe one day, you'll even notice when you salsa dance across the line into friends with benefits territory with your cadre of human asshats," he finishes, affectionate and grumpy at the same time. Then he narrows his eyes at Jade, and switches back to her. "Now. Tell me more, Harley."

Jade is seriously rethinking the wisdom of coming to see Karkat about this in person. She does a quick grid search for escape routes, which she doesn't even need - she could just go whenever she wants! Jeez! Faced with Karkat's intense fervor for quadrant analysis, though, Jade figures anyone could lose their bearings. "Karkat, I think I'm good. Seriously. It might just be a friend date!"

"It is never a 'friend date.'" Karkat makes air quotes with his claws. "You know fuck all, Harley. Why am I even trying to help you with this?"

As Karkat's voice rises, Kanaya glances over her shoulder. The jadeblood has been attempting to act natural for the sake of the clerk; Jade can practically see the wheel spin in her head and land on 'no more fucks to give.' Either way, Kanaya comes around the corner and joins them in the friend-huddle behind the aisle divider. Jade could point out the reflecting mirror up in the corner of the ceiling that lets the cashier get an angle on the far end of the store from a distance, but it's not going to help anything. Jade suspects they have maybe a few minutes left before the clerk descends on them and kicks them out for being rowdy. Time is of the essence. She needs to get Karkat back on track. "You're kinda not helping at all... Come on, there has to be some place with descent Thai food in a city this size! Stop imagining rom-com stuff, or I'll just google it, jeez!"

She jostles Karkat with an elbow again, and this time Karkat retaliates with an elbow of his own, looking vexed. By this point, Tavros has reached them as well, rolling towards them with a basket full of random stuff like trail mix and Clorox wipes. Kanaya half-drags Jade and Karkat apart, but Karkat's next elbow knocks into the cooler door with a loud bomp and at that point they all need to flee the scene of the crime. "Um, why were you guys drawing on Dave's face?" Tavros asks, as he helps John cart their assortment of graffiti'd juice bottles in a desperate bid for the self-checkout machine.

"To help cheer him up!" John says.

"Because they are all incredibly silly," Kanaya says.

Both are probably true. Jade shrugs, and elbows Karkat one last time. "Give me ideas. Tellll meee -"

She ducks before Karkat can brain her with a package of Starbursts.

-

Jade texts Aradia the name of the Thai restaurant that Karkat finally suggests, after much griping and speculation on the troll's part, and proceeds to spend the next half hour trapped with Kanaya while Karkat and Rose look on. Jade and Dave already got the please do not live in your god tier outfits lecture from Rose once, and once was enough. Despite Jade repeatedly pointing out that this isn't a date and she could teleport out of the apartment whenever she wanted to, Kanaya gave her a look and raised her eyebrows at Karkat. "Not in that outfit."

So, with Kanaya staring her down with implacable patience, Jade somehow wound up getting talked into wearing different clothes. Her shorts were deemed acceptable by the fashion committee, since they were a pair that she picked up during their mall trip, and when Kanaya hands her a sleeveless, minty-green shirt Jade decides it's easier to wear it than to provoke their judgment. "You guys are all butts," she informs them before leaving. Karkat gives her the customary middle finger, without any extra frills or anything, Kanaya holds up a pair of ivory heels with vaguely threatening aura, and John, traitor that he is, just gives her two thumbs up and a rueful grin before Gamzee snags his hand and tugs it down until John goes back to petting his hair. "Practice fight when we get back, buster. You, me, and Dave," Jade says before bouncing out the door, and John waves a hand in acknowledgement, his smile crooked but brighter than it has been in ages.

Of course, those guys are so off-base. Jade ignores the Karkat-brand romance advice he tried to shovel at her before she left - since hey, it took Karkat how long to get out of the friend-zone with John? yeah, that - and asks Aradia up front the second she teleports outside the restaurant. "Is this a date-date?" Jade blurts out, before her hair has finished post-teleport floating and falls back down around her shoulders. Aradia has transfigured her god tier stuff into something more casual and less recognizable as her hero garb, and Jade has never felt more exposed in a crop top than in those three seconds it takes Aradia to reply.

Aradia meets the oddball question with her usual good humor, which Jade has hypothesized is the result of Aradia having limited foreknowledge of most conversations before they ever happen. "Pff. Karkat, huh? You're lucky it wasn't Nepeta, or everyone would be gossiping about our chances by the time we got back." The troll cocks her head to the side, smiling half to herself with a dimpled cheek. "Or maybe they will anyway. Karkat's not exactly quiet! It's only a date-date if you want it to be."

Jade blinks; Aradia winks. Jade gets the feeling Aradia is just gonna keep messing with her regardless, so she really has no other choice but to respond with a grand flourish, bowing and offering Aradia her arm as she meets the troll grin for grin. "Well then! Date, start!" she announces, and when Aradia takes her arm with a fake-formal nod and a shit-eating grin, Jade nods gravely and leads the way inside.

The restaurant's crowded with the lunch rush, with a short but packed queue forming up right inside the door. The dining area's large enough to sit a good amount of people and there's hardly any space left between the maze of tables for the servers to bus through. It only takes a few minutes of waiting, Jade bouncing on her toes before hastily resuming Date Mode, and then a table opens up with room for the two of them and another couple to share. The other people tune Jade and Aradia out from the get-go in favor of talking amongst themselves, so Jade shrugs and flips the menu over. She already has her eyes on one of the dishes she can see on another table; the trick is figuring out which menu item it is. "Do you already know what we're going to order?" she asks, curious.

Aradia has her claws folded over the menu when Jade looks up, leaning against the back of her chair and looking utterly at ease. "Maybe," she says, smiling, "but this is more fun."

"So, what did you want to talk about, anyway?" Jade asks, before the waiter descends on them. Jade has to speedread the menu and pick out what she wants at lightspeed, while Aradia orders without having looking at the menu even once. She picks right back up after the waiter has scribbled down their order and left a yellow copy paper on the table. "You said it was important - not another evil wormhole, right?" That's only half a joke. Jade thinks she needs a break from Horrorterrors already, and she's only fought them once!

"There's really no rush," Aradia says, though Jade begs to differ - five days is five days, and since they're planning to head to Las Vegas in three... "I wanted to ask a quick favor, since I know you're going to visit your grandlusus's company later today."

"Uh, sure! Depends on what it is, but I can do my best."

The dimple deepens. "Great. Why don't we eat first? I don't know about you, but I'm starving."

"Eheh, yeah." Jade casts around for something to ask while they wait, and somehow picks the worst possible topic - d'oh. But once she's started, she has to follow through, since it has been worrying her. "Are you holding up okay? I know that you and Dave - um." Dying seems like too big and scary a word - getting stuck with the short end of the straw? Jade find herself fumbling, which seems pretty typical as far as this subject goes.

With a small shrug, Aradia says, "Oh, our time problem? I'm doing as well as can be expected, of course! No way am I giving up before I see this through." The food arrives in a hurry a moment later, the server barely hesitating long enough to set the bowls down on the table before he moves on to the next group. Aradia has pad thai, and Jade has steamed rice and pork which is - unfortunately, not the same thing she thought she saw on the other table. Drat. It still looks delicious, though! Aradia combs a hand through the curls falling over her shoulder as Jade starts in; the troll looks almost wistful, her eyes warm but distant. "No more scratches, no more games. It's hard to believe we've almost made it."

Jade remembers to finish swallowing her mouthful of rice and pork before opening her mouth, but it's a near thing; the sauce is just hot enough to burn satisfyingly behind her eyes, and she builds up a new spoonful of rice, meat, sauce, and pickled cabbage before tossing out a quick, "We're doing this, man!"

Another flicker of laughter from Aradia, her burgundy eyes crinkling. The people at the table with them think they're being subtle when they throw weird looks at Jade and Aradia, but Jade doesn't see the point in calling them on it. It's not as though they have the context to understand half the weird crap that comes up in casual conversation, lately. "Not everything's set in stone, though," Aradia says. "It'll be interesting to see exactly how it all falls out, once we get to the point I can't see past." She hesitates for long enough that Jade pauses between bites and lets her spoon clink against the side of the bowl, waiting. "...You asked if this was a date-date."

Oh. Uh. This might get really awkward, really fast. Jade sets her fork down too, in trepidation. Aradia smothers a giggle when she catches a glimpse of the look on Jade's face, and shakes her head, her smile more sad than before. "No, don't worry. Maybe, if circumstances were different - but no. For one thing, I technically have a few centuries on pretty much everyone here now, so."

Jade nearly snorts water up through her nose, which she figures is pay back for the Karkat coffee thing earlier. "I actually forgot about that," she admits. "You don't look a day over - uh." Actually, putting an age to Aradia's face is hard. Whoops. Jade wants to text Karkat to point out this really obvious factoid that he conveniently overlooked in his 'it's obviously a date' montage, but that would probably be rude. Better she save it until the practice sessions tonight.

Despite Jade not quite coming up with a definite number, Aradia takes the compliment for what it's worth. "Why thank you!" she says, shaking her hair back and turning her wry smile briefly on the very obviously baffled couple beside them before looking back at Jade. She gets more sober after they eat some more. "Yeah...All things considered, it...would not be a smart long term plan." Then she flicks Jade a pair of finger pistols with a sharp snap of her claws. "But in another life? Definitely!"

Jade cheers a little, pretending to fist pump with her fork still in her hand. Having thoroughly weirded out their tablemates, she and Aradia start to chat about more game stuff, exchanging glances and muffled giggles occasionally when they succeed in getting the other couple to look up, horrified, in unison. Mentioning people dying and coming back to life casually at lunch doesn't even faze Jade lately; it's nice to talk about it with Aradia, who could not care less about discussing Gamzee's murderpalooza and the issue of Horrorterrors in the same breath with witnesses around. Blasé nonchalance in the face of polite, neighborly dismay, and a good meal - just what Jade likes best!

"What is it you wanted me to do while I'm at the Foundation, anyway?" Jade finally asks, when they're almost done with their food.

-

Dealing with the Harley Foundation's board of directors is a pain in the butt, mostly. Jade's torn between being bored out of her mind and feeling equal parts restless and sad. She looks around the room with a smile plastered on, but she can't stop knowing that most of these people are gonna be dead in five days. Part of her keeps screaming that she should just captchalogue them and be done with it, but doomed people tend to stay doomed, and wandering around with a sylladex full of people is more Gamzee's strategy. Her stomach's tied in knots about it, and any second she feels like she's gonna snap and just - just screw the consequences, she could take them along. She's never tested the exact capacity limits of her sylladex, but she can probably carry more people than any of the others. It's not fair, it's not fair that they were born in a reality that doesn't care about nuking a planet full of people for the sake of a game.

Jade wonders just how fast Skaia would condemn their timeline to the scrap heap if she really did captchalogue so many doomed souls. Seeing Janine's face light up as she brings in files and pens for the board members and scrolls through the powerpoint presentation about the foundation's latest charity drives and projects makes Jade's insides twist up like curly fries. Janine's not going to outlive the Reckoning either, if the game has anything to say about it. Jade can feel her ability to brave through that reality washing way, each little reminder eroding away more of the beach of her mind.

Or maybe that's a silly metaphor. When Jade thinks of beaches, she thinks of Rose's land, after all, and that's even more sad-making. Does it still look all grimdark? What do any of their lands look like now? Lighting the Forge for the final alchemy might be a liiittle hard to pull off if Jade's land integrity is still compromised.

Finally, they reach the last of the projects in the lineup, and Jade can't keep up a smile anymore. Janine beams with pride as she passes Jade the sample discs, the board head chatters about how the pre-ordered copies on Steam are selling like hot cakes, and all Jade can do is stare down at the three discs in her hands like she's been handed the keys to the Death Star.

They're less than amused when Jade starts doing everything in her power to persuade them to push back the release date, sliding the game discs into her sylladex. 

 

Chapter Text

Saturday, April 5th

SS: There you are, yah blubbering goddamn pansy. Miss me?

The knife sinks into his back almost like an afterthought, scraping up against the bone of his rib cage. Nowhere near deep enough to cause damage that Karkat can't fix, but even before he's finished whipping around to roundhouse kick the perpetrator in the face, he knows who did it. An entire apartment complex full of violent fuckheads, a lab full of wanted felons on the side, and who else would actually fucking stab Karkat in the middle of a practice session for no fucking reason but the Serial Stabber himself.

Well. At least he gets a decent kick in. Spades tumbles ass over head and lands spluttering in the shallow end of the pool. Considering the person Karkat is actually supposed to be fighting is Nepeta, who's somehow even more bendy than Karkat himself, it's the most he's accomplished in the past fifteen fucking minutes of sparring. "Stop, just stop," Karkat says, before Nepeta can take advantage of his turned back to try to playfully maul him some more, and he glowers at Spades as the carapacian furiously swallows half the fucking pool in a garbled yelling fit before figuring out how to climb out of the water.

SS: You have such shit reflexes. Next time, do that before I stab yah.

Karkat rolls his eyes, kneading the stab wound in his back with his knuckles while it knits together. "Or - here's a wild and crazy idea - you could just not fucking stab me!"

SS: Nah, no way. It's a whatcha call it - it's what I do. It's my thing.

"It's you being an abhorrent stack of shitcakes, that's what it is."

"Excuse me! Is there a purroblem?" Nepeta calls, her clawkind sliding out of their slots with a snikt. "Wait, did that guy catually stab you?"

Karkat already has most of his blood back inside his no-longer perforated carcass, where it fucking belongs, so the concern comes a little late. "I'm fine," he says, wiping the last streak of blood off on his pants. "Mostly just annoyed. Also, where the fuck have you been?"

SS: Stop being a blubbering little brat. That was just for hauling your ass halfway around the planet without telling me. Not a goddamn ounce of courtesy, I tell yah.

SS: Been busy, that's where. I've got intel for yah, punk, so shut your trap and maybe I'll give you the lowdown if you don't piss me off some more.

Nepeta creeps over with negative amounts of self-preservation instinct, curiosity lighting up her olive green eyes with avid interest. "Is this guy a furriend of yours?" she asks, coming to a stop next to Karkat instead of getting all up in Spades's face, which Karkat considers miraculous. The vast majority of his friendcircle would've probably have gotten up close and personal with the pointy end of a knife by virtue of being idiots. The interest on Nepeta's face reads almost predatory, like Spades might be a fun new chew toy. "Or should we catch him?" she finishes, sinking into a low, crouching stance.

"Nepeta, do not provoke strange aliens," Equius orders from where he's sitting by the firepit, like that's going to do any good. It's fucking unnerving how easy it is to just forget that Equius is around; Nepeta never seems to lose track of him, and the moirails are rarely apart, and yet Karkat's thinkpan keeps forgetting to connect those really fucking obvious dots. One time he caught himself wondering why the fuck someone with indigo blood was wandering around the apartment complex before he remembered Equius existing was a thing that hadn't stopped happening.

Before anything monumentally stupid can happen, Karkat throws up his hands and then points at the door, giving Spades the evil eye when the carapacian starts squinting at Nepeta. "He's a worthless crotch-stained asshole, and if I had bullshit magical god powers I would use them for the express purpose of dropkicking him into the sun. Now get inside, Slick - I'm not peeling your sorry carcass off the floor if one or more of the people on this roof decide to pulverize you."

SS: Yeah, yeah, whatever.

"Sooo, you're quitting?" Nepeta asks, disappointed. "But you're one of the only people Equius will let me practice with here!"

The reminder just kicks Karkat's general irritation up into a froth, because the reason Equius 'allows' Karkat anything is because a) Equius is a hemoist fucking bulgemuncher who starts sweating whenever a warmblood blows off his orders, and b) not being god tier apparently makes Karkat less intimidating. Talk about a sudden fucking double standard that certain people - like Vriska - keep perpetuating. It's enough to make Karkat want to explode. "Go punch Feferi in the bonebulge or something and have fun with it, she's not god tier either," Karkat snaps, and, once Spades skulks his way into the stairwell, slams the door shut on the sight of Nepeta clenching her hands with a gleeful grin, Equius looking distraught in the background.

SS: 'Bout time you started recruiting. This gang isn't gonna draft itself, yah know. What were those two again? Void and something else...

The urge to lay down on the stairs and roll the rest of the way down, groaning in despair, grips Karkat in a vice; only the utter certainty that with his shit luck, Dave would be at the bottom of the stairwell with memes on his smug lips, stops him. "We're not your personal gang, for the last fucking time. Yeah, we went out and found the other players through a series of simple plans that went completely fucking wrong, so why don't you accept that not everything is about you."

...Though actually, something is bothering Karkat. Something about Spades's ridiculous belief that they were his own personal replacement goldfish/gang, since the Midnight Crew got hijacked by Doc Scr-oh fucking shit, no.

No.

NO.

SS: Wassamatter, kid. You look like you're about to puke. Do not goddamn hurl on me -

His strength leaving him, Karkat slumps against the wall, and wonders if he has time to call Jade and ask her to take him to IKEA, where he can purchase a nice cheap table, spend four hours assembling based on confusing pictoral instructions, and then flip the table into fucking orbit. She's probably do it. Jade's infuriatingly helpful that way. When slumping no longer fully conveys the depths of his weary resignation, Karkat turns a little and slides down the wall to sit on the stair. Spades stares at him with trepidation, one eye widened more than the other as though he can pierce the veil of Karkat's silent despair and come out the other side with a completely wrong interpretation of Karkat's thought process.

"I mean, this is amazing," Karkat says aloud, aware that he's not making sense and wondering if his sudden awareness of impending doom has drawn Gamzee's attention somehow. Not like that's difficult. "I'm actually in awe. What is this, anticompetence? How is it possible that we’ve succeeded in such an ass backwards way?"

No. It's worse than anticompetence. This is irony, in its purest anemia-curing form, and when Dave gets wind of it - no. If. If Dave gets wind of it (which he won't), Karkat will never live it down.

SS: Kid, you're freaking me out and that's bullshit. Do I need to go get the Prospit dame? She's gotta be better at dealing with this, right? Yeah.

"Don't bother," Karkat groans. "I have...great news for you, you douchebag. And after I tell you, I'm going to go find a nice quiet corner and think about what I've done."

It turns out, there is a bright, shiny light at the end of the tunnel. After Karkat breaks the news to Spades Slick that they've recently gotten buddy-buddy with Diamonds Droog, the carapacian hugs Karkat without stabbing him even once. A single emotional tear happens, after which Spades stabs Karkat to save face, but the point stands.

And then a half hour later, when Jade has rounded up the usual suspects to teleport out to the lab, Karkat's spirits are revived by the sight of Diamonds Droog clocking Spades upside the head with a lamp. He's not entirely sure who he's rooting for here but the schadenfreude gives him a new lease on life. So what if they accidentally fed into Spades's delusions of mob boss-hood! Hah! Haha! HAHAHAHFUCKINGFUFKDCKU-

-

John lays a cold cloth over Karkat's eyes, which helps to cool his face a little. "Fucking Midnight Crew," he mumbles, but his throat feels hoarse. Karkat can yell for days, but it turns out shrieking, hysterical laughter really takes it out of a troll's squawkbox. That was exactly the kind of blow-up Karkat's been trying to avoid, and wow, all it took was Spades Slick showing up in all his short, shabby glory to knock him flat on his ass. Chilly hands keep rubbing circles on the backs of Karkat's clenched claws, to try to soothe him, while John pats him on the head. Karkat considers asking if they can relocate from the apartment couch to his actual pile in his actual hive, but laying sprawled out over two laps with a couple of pillows supporting his neck is preferable to trying to sort out the disaster zone his respiteblock turned into after Gamzee paid a visit to it.

"You know, it's actually kind of funny that Slick asked you to help him pretend we're his gang, and then we managed to team up with his old gang palhonchos," John says, sounding way more chipper and thoughtful than he has any right to about a situation as unbelievably pathetic as this. Karkat tries to voice just how unfunny this is, but all he succeeds in doing is turning his head to the side and burying his face in John's shirt, the cold cloth making John squirm as it presses against his stomach. "Aw, cheer up, Karkat, it's not all bad!"

"I hate you," Karkat mutters, with no heat, and John snorts a laugh and keeps combing his fingers through Karkat's hair. Between that and the way Gamzee keeps massaging his claws out of tight fists, this is downright unfair. Karkat and John had to have a capital-T Talk about John's insecurities concerning the Gamzee situation just the other day, and yet here they are, colluding to cool Karkat down out of his rage episode like two seasoned pale conspirators. Or something. It's hard to put together a coherent metaphor when his thinkpan's making the transition from rageshouts to contented purring noises. They are pale sirens leading Karkat down the winding road to fucking debauchery in the form of pale snuggles, that's what's going on here. That's the point he's trying to make.

His phone starts buzzing in his pocket with pesterchum alerts; the only reason Karkat drags his eyes open and reluctantly removes a hand from Gamzee's to check the messages is because John starts giggling, and when John laughs properly it send quivers through his whole body.

-- temperedTitan [TT] at ??:??:?? opened memo on board let's do this shit --
EB: uhhh...
EB: who exactly did you invite to this memo? because i see some...really weird chumhandles...
TT: well I ain't having this talk in person, considering who's involved
TT: Captor, you got things on lock?
TA: waiit, me? uh, obviiou2ly, what kiind of que2tiion even ii2 that?
CC: W)(at is up, Clambrose? 38) Is somefin wrong?
TG: clambrose
TG: ohmygod
TT: Dave, control your impulse to be a little shit
TG: impossible
TG: feferi is my new favorite troll everyone else go home
TG: clambrose
TT: Only twelve lines to attain the maximum conversational absurdity achievement. Everyone, I do believe that is a new record.
EB: pfft! seriously! usually it takes us at least thirty before things get super weird!
AT: rEALLY, bECAUSE I THINK MOST OF THE TIME, uH, yOU ALL JUST START OUT WEIRD TO BEGIN WITH, aND CONTINUE ESCALATING INDEFINITELY,
AT: wHICH MAKES IT KIND OF HARD TO KNOW HOW TO JOIN THE CONVERSATION,
EB: our wacky friendchat hijinks can't be tamed.
TG: TZ quick i need you to help me photoshop bros face on some suitably hilarious manga character
GC: 1 4M ON TH3 C4S3! >:]
TT: seriously starting to understand why you punks have major issues with communication. really gotta work on your staying on topic skills
CG: I'M NOT ENTIRELY SURE WHY YOU EXPECTED ANYTHING DIFFERENT. WE HAVE THE COLLECTIVE MATURITY LEVEL OF A PACK OF RAVENOUS KINDERGARDENERS HIGH ON PIXIE STICKS.
DD: < Why.
DD: > Why am I here.
CG: FUCK OFF, DROOG, ONLY ONE PERSON CAN HAVE AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS IN THIS MEMO AT ONE TIME AND GUESS WHO BEAT YOU TO THE PUNCH?! HELLO. IT'S ME.
WQ: Oh dear. Am I interrupting something?
GA: No, Not At All, Please Feel Free To Join Us. There Are Already Enough People In This Memo That Controlling The Flow Of Conversation Is Most Likely A Lost Cause.
WQ: Ah, I understand.
CT: D--> Can someone e%plain the point of this 100nacy
DD: < I can only assume that this is an attempt at prying information out of me.
DD: > Unless you had some other reason for inflicting this on me, Strider?
CT: D--> Oh dear
DD: < What the hell is this?
CT: D--> Oh horsefeathers
DD: > Why.
AG: Okayyyyyyyy, wow, 8oth of you can cut that out any day now!!!!!!!!
EB: jeez, I guess that's just...game stuff?
EB: that's probably all there is to say on the matter.
TT: So it would seem.
TT: well it defeats the purpose of holding a damn conversation here, so reel it in, Zahhak
CT: D--> Apologies
CT: D--> It just keeps happening
DD: < ...Can we just get to the point already?
CG: I HATE THAT I'M AGREEING WITH THIS, BUT YEAH, I'D RATHER HAVE THIS OVER WITH SOONER RATHER THAN LATER, AT WHICH POINT WE'LL MOST LIKELY HAVE TALKED OURSELVES INTO EARLY GRAVES.
-- tartGuardian [TG] has joined the chat! --
TG: I am here now. Ambrose, is there really no way for you to be reasonable about this and let the conversation take place in person?
TT: do you want your pet murderer to still be in one piece by the end of the day or not, Lalonde
DD: > Oh, temper, temper...
TT: if shes talking, its all going down right here. for the public damn record.
TG: There, now. Is this acceptable for everyone?
DD: < Fine. It makes no difference to me, as long as this is secure.
TA: between me and CT thii2 ii2 probably a2 2ecure a2 iit get2.
TA: a2 long a2 no one triie2 two fuck off to theiir own memo and 2iidetrack me.
CG: YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW 'TEMPTING FATE' WORKS, DO YOU.

--

-- arachnidsGrip [AG] at ??:??:?? opened memo on board >::::D --
AG: Suckerrrrrrrr!
CA: wwhat
AG: Not you, dwee8.
CC: S)(oaldn't we be paying attention on the ot)(er memo?
AG: Like hell! We can always go back and read it all later anyway. As if I'm interested in watching those losers make fools of themselves in front of Droog.
CA: yeah okay that is kinda embarrassin to wwitness
AT: uH, yOU INVITED ME HERE,
AG: I invited the people who wouldn't be l8me. You're not going to be l8me, riiiiiiiight?
AT: i GUESS NOT, pROBABLY,
TG: youre just inviting people who dont usually talk so that you can dominate your own conversation, arent you.
CA: not subtle vvris
AG: Well, I invited Aradia 8ecause she's just cool, duh. 8ut it looks like she's a no show, so whatever!!!!!!!! Like I care!
TG: haha, oh wow.
AC: :33 < *ac perks up her ears, curious about this new memo! she curls up in your lap and purrs happily*
AT: (wAIT, wHOSE LAP?)
AC: :33 < (yours! :33)
CA: wwait are wwe roleplayin noww
CC: O)(! Sounds fun!
AG: W8 no.
GC: *TH3 M1GHTY DR4GON SH4K3S OUT H3R W1NGS 4S SH3 L4NDS 4ND CURLS 4ROUND YOU BOTH, H3R T33TH B4R3D 1N 4 W3LCOM1NG Y3T D4NG3ROUS GR1N*
AT: *uH, i GUESS I LEAN BACK TO GREET THE DRAGON,*
AT: *wHILE HOPING THAT SHE IS NOT HERE TO EAT ME,*
AT: *oR MY CAT WHICH I AM AGAIN NOT ALLERGIC TO, iN THIS SCENARIO,*
CA: wwhat fuckin scenario are wwe wworkin wwith here, i need a starter prompt
TG: *hell yes. hell fucking yes. a massive fucking orange griffin lands on the dragonladys head. caw caw motherfuckers.*
GC: *SNORT1NG, TH3 DR4GON 4LLOWS TH1S. FOR NOW. B3C4US3 SH3 1S BUSY W1TH 4N 4RT PROJ3CT TH4T R3QU1R3S GR34T 4TT3NT1ON TO D3T41L.*
TG: *apex predator my feathery ass*
CC: Ooo)(, can I be my old mermaidsona? 38)
AC: :33 < *the sl33k, mighty huntress nods sagely. she bats at the water of the lake in search of prey...and an old furriend!*
CC: *A mermaid stret)(es )(er arms over )(er )(ead. Today is the day s)(e will visit her dear surfacedweller friends, so she )(urries to swim up tuna surface and sit on top of a rock at the edge of the water, )(er tail dipping down into t)(e water wit)( )(er beautiful fuc)(sia scales glittering in the sun.* I am )(---ER---E!
TC: *there is also a brother gettin' his chill on at the beach*
TC: *HE HAS MOTHERFUCKING PIE FOR EVERYONE*
TC: *that tastes like cherries and not slime and was made by a windy bro*
AC: :33 < *ac hisses, narrowing her eyes in suspicion, but allows it*
CA: come on you guys i dont knoww wwhere to start
CA: fef throww me a line here
AG: I h8 all of you. So much.
-- arachnidsGrip [AG] has left the chat! --

-

Karkat's legs get jostled as Gamzee adjusts the way he's sitting. The purpleblood winds up with his long legs folded up crisscross, resting an elbow on his bent knee and staring at something in the kitchen. His hand keeps tangling and untangling his fingers from Karkat's in a repetitive motion, never completely shifting away. When Karkat cranks his head up enough to follow Gamzee's stare, the only thing that seems to be in the juggalo's line of sight is the microwave. He lets his head fall back onto the pillows, grumbling and then subsiding as John very carefully adjusts his seating, too.

TA: iit feel2 liike...
TA: 2omeone...
TA: ii2 blatheriing on iin another goddamn memo.
CG: I FUCKING WARNED YOU.
AG: Just ignore it, you're im8gining things! Where were we?
GC: D4V3 4ND 1 W3R3 JUST 4BOUT TO UNVE1L OUR L4T3ST M4ST3RP13C3!
TG: behold
TG: clambrose.jpeg
DD: > I am not opening that.
TT: no one is opening it
EB: too late! how many filters did you guys use?
TG: so many
GC: G1V3 M3 4NOTH3R T3N M1NUT3S 4ND 1'LL H4V3 4N1M3 G1FS, FR3SH FROM TH3 M3M3 F4CTORY.
TG: (where the heck is jade anyway shed love this shit)
EB: (avoiding bro due to reasons)
TG: (shit thats right)
TT: (tell that kid shes still on my shitlist)
EB: (she's, uh. pretty aware.)
TG: I believe that at this point it might be beneficial to start discussing the information that we were promised.
DD: < Oh, no, I would be loathe to disrupt this travesty.
CG: STOP PLAYING FUCKING COY YOU FUCKING FUCK. IF I WASN'T BUSY DESPAIRING OVER MY LIFE CHOICES, I'D BE CONSUMED WITH RAGE OVER HOW THIS CONVERSATION HASN'T EVEN GOTTEN TO THE POINT YET, AND THEN I WOULD FLAME YOU INTO NUCLEAR HATEBLIVION.
DD: > Charming.
DD: < Where should I start, then?
TT: It may help to start by describing what kind of numbers we may expect to face, give a summation of any possible superhuman abilities possessed by the Felt members/Doc Scratch himself, and then move on to detailed plans of the building layout itself.
DD: > Given this some thought, have you?
GA: You Should Also Make It Clear What Your Own Plans May Be If You Involve Yourself In This, So That We Can Avoid Killing You While Thinking You Are Committing Some Sort Of Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal Mid-Fight.
TT: This is a genuine concern. Trust me.
EB: also, how many people are gonna turn out to be brainwashed? seems like something we should watch out for...
TT: yeah, alright
TT: good questions, kids
TG: Whenever you're ready, Diamonds?
DD: < Hmph. Fine. The short answer: ninety nine percent of them.
GA: ...Are What?
DD: > Brainwashed. Mindgrubs were introduced primarily to encourage loyalty in the rank and file.
DD: < As far as I'm aware, none of the Felt were ever tagged, but as has been made painstakingly clear, I didn't know jack shit.
CG: OH, RIGHT, OF COURSE. CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ALL ARE AT LEAST TWICE AS FUCKED UP AS I HAD PREVIOUSLY ASSUMED. AND I WAS ALREADY ESTIMATING PRETTY HIGH.
DD: > The more you children interrupt, the longer this is going to take.
EB: i think i'm gonna - uh. be right back.

"You need a break?" Karkat asks. He's not sure why, but this is just the mucus on the grubcake - not so much the confirmation that basically the entire Crew is brainwashed, but the fact that Droog can just say it that casually. They're dealing with a violent sociopath, and just because she's pretending to play along with this insanity with a facade of weary endurance doesn't mean she's not completely fucking out of her gourd.

"I'm fine," John says, his face contorted into a grimace. Then he shakes his head, and levers Karkat up abruptly by the shoulders until the troll's mostly sitting up in Gamzee's lap. "Gotta hurl," John says tightly, and then he covers his mouth with a hand and vanishes in a clap of rushing wind. The bathroom is right fucking there, across from one of the bedroom doors, so John could have walked there - but Karkat feels like a fucking asshole for thinking that when he hears John retching instantly the moment he lands in the bathroom with a bang.

"Motherfucker's not alright," Gamzee says, which is just stating the fucking obvious. He doesn't appear bothered by having his intense staring contest with the microwave interrupted, wrapping both arms around Karkat's waist absently. "Getting all kinds of re-acquainted with breakfast all over again."

"Yeah." Karkat moves to squirm free, since he has a duty to hold John's hair back. Or something. "Come on, dumbass, let's go make sure he's not puking up anything important." Gamzee honks a laugh at him and instead of letting Karkat go, picks him up and starts walking toward the bathroom. Karkat squawks in indignation, which doesn't change anything except to add a brand new noise to his ongoing list of sounds he should never allow his shoutgaper to emit ever again.

Once John's finished upchucking and being offered a questionable bottle of flat soda that Gamzee produces from either a sylladex or a nightmarish pocket dimension from hell (if there's a different between the two), Karkat checks back in on the conversation to see Diamonds Droog's black text marching down the screen like ants. Actually, no. A few of the black-text lines have an entirely different set of chumhandle initials. Goddammit. As if this memo wasn't already enough of an eyesore with the two human custodians throwing their metaphorical head coverings into the ring. Karkat would love to know what kind of bullshit excuse the Striders and Lalondes have for repeating their handle initials and text colors like a clan of utter douchebags. And by 'love to know,' he means 'wishes he could throttle all of them.'

DD: < Apart from Scratch, the only ones you need to watch out for are the Felt hat members themselves. They all have - something.
DD: > A few are simply dangerous morons, but the key word is still dangerous.
TT: scared, Droog?
DD: < Not particularly. But you should be. One on one, you might be able to take them down, but a few of them require special handling, and others become exponentially more formidable when working in concert. Take Sawbuck, for instance - he's one of the most annoying.
TT: Why him in particular?
SS: 'Cause if yah hit him, any injury triggers some kinda defense mechanism. Jumps yah back to a random point in the timeline.
SS: Ain't exactly safe to dick around with him when time itself is going to shit.
DD: > Stop helping. I don't care about half of this nonsense you're spouting.
SS: I remember more than you do, get over it.
DD: < Will someone kick this delusional carapacian out of the chat? One of you must have the power to ban users here.
TA: there'2 a fuckiing rp board ii need two anniihiilate, hang on.
TA: vrii2ka you a22 ii can 2ee your handle on thii2 affront two my eye2.
AG: Don't 8lame me! They're the ones who started roleplaying like a 8unch of little wrigglers!
DD: > Ugh. Sawbuck and Clover can't be handled with half measures; Clover, you can probably ignore altogether. He's far too lucky to die, the twit, but too passive to fight.
GA: Luck? I Thought Their Powers Had To Do With Time?
DD: < I never bothered to ask. They don't trust us, we don't trust them. For good reason.
SS: Gotta watch out for Cans, too.
DD: > Cans? You mean Cassandra?
SS: Cans is Cans.
CG: SPADES, SO FUCKING HELP ME I WILL COME OVER THERE AND CHANNEL ALL THE POWER OF MY CURRENT MIGRAINE INTO MY FIST AND -
SS: Fine, whatever.
DD: < Cassandra and Boxcars got into a tussle once, and, from what we could determine later on, literally punched him into next week. Or at least, Boxcars was MIA, and turned up without explanation in a supermarket in New Hampshire with no memory of how he got there. Very unpleasant.
DD: > I haven't seen most of the newer Felt in action. Not that I recall, anyway. Rue, I've sent actual dossiers that I have on file for your perusal, but for some of the Felt, I've seen little evidence of 'super powers.'
DD: < Crowbar just...has a crowbar. He is capable at managing the others, but...well.
TG: That should do. I'll attach the files to this memo - for the record.
TT: mmph.
TT: not gonna mention Noir?
DD: > How do you know that name?
TT: picked up a few things over the years. i know some of the skeletons you’ve got in your basement
EB: uhhh, i don't know about that, but also he killed us a lot before, so we all pretty much know him.
EB: no wait, hang on. you did say something about that. that was ages ago! jeez!
DD: < I don't even...You know what. Fine. I accept it. If Noir is more than a rumor meant to frighten underlings into submission, I haven't seen evidence of it of late.
TT: not even the Boulder City bombings? 1996 and '97 ringing any bells?
DD: > ...
GA: I Remember That.
TT: Wait, you do?
GA: Oh Yes. A Series Of Explosions Near The Hoover Dam That Went Largely Unexplained At The Time. Low Levels Of Radiation Were Detected At Each Site, But No One Was Ever Arrested. Too Little Evidence, And No One Ever Found Any Recognizable Fragments Of The Explosives. So It's Still An Open Federal Case.
TT: that's the one
WQ: He is of Space, now, not Blood.
SS: The fuckin' prick.
TT: s'what I figured, too, a while back - maybe there was no bomb because he was the bomb
TT: definitely wasn’t the cops who picked him up, but the timeline of events I pieced together gets fucked after the Crew hits Boulder City. but Noir aint been active since.
TT: you asses ever wonder why theres no clear way to tell when exactly the Crew and the Felt joined up? you can't. no matter how you do the math, it goes to hell in a handbasket
DD: < Try having to live with it. I despise time travel.
CG: HOLD YOUR DISGUSTING HOOFBEASTS, PEOPLE.
CT: D--> Please do not malign the e%quisite hoofbeast like that
CG: I'M IGNORING YOU RIGHT NOW. WQ WHY DID YOU SUDDENLY JUMP IN LIKE THAT. WHAT DO YOU KNOW, AND WHY DO WE HAVE TO PUT UP WITH TWO OF SLICK IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE? THAT'S JUST OBSCENE AND I DON'T THINK ANYONE IS COMPLAINING ABOUT THIS NEARLY AS MUCH AS THEY SHOULD BE. DO I NEED TO PRICK MY FINGER AND MAKE SOME NEW BLOOD PACT TO GET A STRAIGHT ANSWER HERE?!
WQ: I am glad that you asked. My cousin-queen and the Archagent here returned with news of Noir.
SS: Don't call me that, and don't ask me why there's two. I'm clearly the superior original version.
WQ: Most likely a glitch. As the BQ noted, Noir is of Space, and I speculate such an immense shift in his fundamental nature would have differentiated him from your iteration to such an degree that Skaia simply could not reconcile you two as a single entity.
SS: Or he's just a fuckin' prick who doesn't know when to die.
WQ: Yes. Or that.
GA: What Does That Mean Exactly. This Space Thing.
SS: Means you don't hafta worry about this blood schlub over here tripping into another blood pact by accident.
CG: YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF MY BLISSFUL IGNORANCE YOU FUCK.
WQ: It also means you should take the utmost precautions if you must fall unto strife with him, dear Sylph.
WQ: Because Noir appears to be a destroyer to the core.
DD: > Well, since clearly these two have taken over, can I blow this sorry excuse for an intel exchange?
TT: Sorry, no. I'm afraid I have some points of clarification I want to go over now, and you have yet to answer the question about your own plans.
EB: aka lol, no way. you're stuck with us now.
CG: WELCOME TO HELL. YOU DESERVE IT.
TG: okay terezi and i have the latest coming to you straight outta photoshop
GC: F34ST YOUR 3Y3S! >:]
GC: H3Y4MBROS31STH1SYOU.g1f
DD: < That - that file ending shouldn't even work.
TG: Oh, my. That's - very creative, you two.
TG: next step is a full length animu music video bro are you ready for this
TT: I just realized I can pretend that ninety percent of my failings in raising you as a functional human being are Droogs fault here, so yeah, hit me with your best shot punk
EB: thaaaaaaaat...is so not how it works, i'm pretty sure.
TT: let me dream, kid. let me dream

Chapter Text

Saturday, April 5th

 

PM and AR stare up.

It's not that particularly uncommon a habit for carapacians - the majority of the sentient beings and the buildings of this planet are far taller than anyone has any right to be. Still, an Arch Deaconstructor is a rare, neck-straining sight away from the Battlefield, and PM finds herself wondering just how out of the loop she's been that this is news. Bishop Bastion hardly ever leaves Prospit! The bishop of the war titan leans over the lip of the helm, peering down at them with an ambivalent expression, before raising his hands where the two of them can read the signs. Static riddles his voice.

BB: Is that a Parcel Mistress {PM} down there?

BB: By any chance, are you familiar with parking boots and their removal?

As a matter of fact, PM is! Humans and trolls tend to attach parking boots to her vehicles at the worst possible times, as though that would stop her from completing her DELIVERIES. They can be so silly.

PM: We might be able to help! But also, I have never seen parking boots that were Arch Deaconstructor sized before.

AR rocks his weight from his heels to his toes before waving a claw until the bishop frowns in his direction.

AR: ...Why are you locked here in the first place? A sternly worded traffic citation would normally serve for a first offense. Or a spray of warning shots from a safe distance -

The bishop huffs and rolls his eyes at them so strongly that his pointy bishop mitre hat thing wobbles.

BB: Hmph! Dersites! Always asking impertinent questions!

BB: I'll have you know that some fools think that they can control where a carapacian may go with their quaint, doomed 'legal system' {LS}. Our King {WK} Protector {GP} has attempted to negotiate for our release, without avail, and so we have moved on to the plan which grants him an equally quaint thing known as 'plausible deniability' {PD}.

AR: So...you broke a rule.

BB: Never mind that. Why do they even have these?!

To emphasize his point, the bishop has the Arch Deaconstructor shuffle its feet to draw a shrieking groan from the metal of the three enormous boots restricting its movements. The shuffling sends tremors through the ground, causing the group of locals to mill around in excitement outside the vehicle impound lot.

PM: Is there a key? We could retrieve it and D E L I V E R it to you!

BB: The one called Ace Dick {AD} may possess such a key. But he is a pernicious being who will not listen to reason, and every time I move from the Deaconstructor he attempts to inflict 'fines' on me.

BB: If you cannot assist me, however, we intend to wait it out.

PM elbows AR in the side before his mouth emits more than a single click in the negative. With a reluctant nod, he turns with her away from the bishop so they can put their heads down in a group huddle. From the corner of her eye she spies a couple humans and trolls from the spectating crowd as they edge closer; if they got as nosy about someone else's private mail as they're acting about a semi-private conversation, PM would charge them extra for postage and handling on any future deliveries.

PM: It would be nice of us to bring a key back for him. Those parking boots look very uncomfortable, you know.

AR: Depends on what regulation he broke. I don't want to step on a law enforcer's toes without due cause.

PM: Really?

AR: Really really.

PM: Alright then.

She turns around to sign up at the bishop.

PM: Which rule did you break, exactly?

BB: Eh. Just multiple clauses of the Vienna Convention {VC} of 1950 -

At that moment, AR screeches so loudly that one of the nearby humans screams back out of shock. Clapping a claw to her forehead, PM rubs her carapace just under the brim of her mail cap and wonders just what the humans and trolls are picking up from the increasingly sloppy sign language as AR and the bishop's telepathic communication start to cut in on each other without taking turns. The bishop keeps using his crosier control wand to underscore his points with pointed jabs, which makes the Deaconstructor itself start to gyrate its hips, swinging its arms at its sides. At this rate, it's going to fall over.

AR: YOU - WHAT?!

BB: - in our defense, the {VC} clearly displayed rampant xenophobia in crafting a post-war treaty that deliberately targeted us -

AR: THAT SEEMS WAY MORE SERIOUS THAN JUST BREAKING SOME TRAFFIC LAWS!

BB: - and after we dealt with that horrid mustache man for them, too -

PM: Okay!

She lost pretty much all of her patience while fighting with AR on the way here over how traffic lights and stop signs worked - PM being of the opinion that they were nice suggestions, AR being more inclined to sympathize with the local police - and she has none left to spare for this. PM is...okay, it's a little odd that the ring is already in her hands, but she's caught herself playing with it a lot on the crosscountry roadtrip, letting the cold metal roll between her claws to pass the time when AR insisted they listen to the police scanner instead of news reports.

But having it on hand makes it convenient in the event they're attacked. Or for situations like this one. Mundane utility is everything. Switching the ring out for its sword form, PM tugs on the brim of her mail cap and swings the sword up and over her shoulder.

PM: Special delivery!

Then she dashes forward, blithely ignoring AR's attempt to sign at her in mid-century legalese, and raises the sword up higher. Her faith in the bishop's ability to see what's going on in front of his titan is rewarded when the Deaconstructor's swaying dance cycle jerks to a stop, and the Plucky Maverick leaps high in the air to swing the sword in a downward arc. It's the kind of dramatic gesture that rarely pans out unless Skaia is on one's side, and as it so happens, the swordkind slices through not one but all three metal parking boots in a single swing. The cuffs around the legs themselves drop with a crash, hanging around the titanic carapacian's pedes like ankle bracelets, but with the metal struts connecting them hacked in two, the bishop is able to raise the crosier with a triumphant, crackly cackle while the Deaconstructor raises one leg to test its new freedom. PM lands in a crouch, the sword ablaze with white hot flames.

She does a double take.

The sword snaps back into a ring before the splotchy afterimage clears. Frowning at her own hand, PM slowly uncurls her claws.

But the ring is just a ring. It hums with a faint note of power, but that's to be expected from any specibus that involves mass displacement or magical nonsense.

...

Ugh. The sooner they reach the players, the better. With any luck, PM's intuition will hold true, and the Querent will still be with them so she can go back to being a Protégée and maybe return the borrowed weapon. Scrounging up a new Regisword might be annoying this far from any carapacian settlement, but...

She toys with the ring for a second longer, before she realizes with a blink that the roar of noise washing over her is coming from the humans and trolls outside the gate. Quickly, she restrings the ring on a length of cord and hangs it around her neck to tuck into the folds of her wrappings, before scurrying out from under the Deaconstructor. AR makes grabby motions with his claws, one pale eye twitching and his jaw slack as PM comes back to pat him on the shoulder. What she just did was probably ten different kinds of illegal, and now AR's radiating 'I need a gun' like an police siren.

PM: It's over with and done. Sorry!

AR: Ghk - gah -

PM: Bishop, do you need any other help?

BB: None at all, {PM}. We are off!

PM: Okay! Bye!

The Deaconstructor casually steps over the fence behind AR and PM. A good chunk of the onlookers start running around in panicked circles, and the bishop has the war titan gently shoo them out of the way with a light sweep of a claw before stepping over the road beyond. Though no one gets squished, they keep screaming, which PM has noticed is a common reaction to things that freak people out on this planet. Judging by the familiar song of someone slamming on the brakes coming from the road, the people driving past the impound lot aren't taking it all that well, either. A chorus of sirens joins in, and this time they're not metaphorical.

PM: Right. Now we go.

AR: Ggahlg -

PM: Oh, shush, I just saved us a bunch of time. Players, remember? Horrorterrors? Important news that needs delivering?

AR stops making garbled noises and gives her a pained look. The Dersite's not all that good at guilt tripping - PM is pretty much immune to that kind of tactic - but she clears her throat and adds, with forced cheer -

PM: And maybe we'll find someone who can get you a legal assault rifle! Sound good?

AR: ...gbgbkgbetter.

-

Sidetracking to check out the giant robot impound lot paid off coincidentally in that they reach the center of Seattle later in the evening. Both carapacians pop their hoods up after they leave the vehicle parked in a public garage, and with the light fading no one gives them more than a few curious looks as they make their way down the stairs and out onto the street. PM brushes her claws over the bump where the ring settles under the cloth, wishing irritably that she could make herself stop fiddling it for more than a few minutes at a time, and tugs AR along.

AR: There are patrolmen everywhere. We should turn ourselves in.

PM: No! Don't be silly!

AR: Or I could ask to borrow one of their ticketpads and just fine us myself.

PM: That's even sillier. I'd just add that to my pile of traffic violation paper napkins in the backseat. Come on, we're almost there! Resist the addiction!

AR: We broke an impounded vehicle/man out of custody without even apologizing to the regulatory body in charge of holding him! There are rules, PM! They're what separate us from the undulating morass of chaos that haunts the collective unconscious of our reality!

PM: ...Okay, yeah, but I think you're overreacting here.

"You kids alright? You know how to find your way home?" a passing human in a police uniform asks, and PM gives a frantic nod and shoves AR along to forestall his lunge toward the policeman. As long as they keep their heads down and don't run into anyone who knows two carapacians busted the Deaconstructor out of the impound without paying the fines or anything, she's fine with being mistaken for human or troll young. AR's claws skitter on the sidewalk as PM determinedly hauls him away by the elbow, but they're not loud enough to draw attention to them. He then plants his feet and leans until PM's pulling him upright as well as dragging him in the direction that feels right. This might go faster if she just tosses him over her shoulder and carries him the rest of the way.

Before she can move from speculating to actually doing it, however, they reach the end of a quiet turn off, a street that smooths from busy thoroughfare to rows of neat apartments and trees. AR's eyes almost bug out of his shell as they pass the first few cars idling illegally beside a sign that indicates they're not allowed to park along the first part of this street. This - feels like the place to be, PM is sure of it! But uncertainty nags at her; the sense of rightness that directed them this far peters out under some obscuring influence.

Thankfully, the slender figure waits patiently on the sidewalk, and raises a pearly white claw before PM finishes registering that someone's come to meet them. AR, twisted around to hunt for another law enforcement representative, flinches with his whole body when the White Queen's voice filters through, and to be fair, it's been long enough since PM heard the WQ in person that her own knees get a little shaky. The urge to bow or kneel or retaliate in greeting is strong.

PM's brow furrows. It's not exactly her first or even second instinct, but underneath the relief and happiness at seeing the White Queen, there's something else. Something burning in the center of her palm.

When did she reach up and grab the ring, again?

WQ: Greetings, my Protégé. How do you fare? Hello, little Regulator.

AR: (A Queen spoke to me. Oh. Oh my.)

AR: PM? Um.

WQ: Hm. It is as I thought.

WQ: PM, all is well. You are with friends.

The being who came to greet them is a Queen, not tucked away in the persona of a Querent. PM is not entirely sure when that thought became troubling. Her visceral, gut reaction is to sidestep a little so that more of her is between the WQ and AR, but why? She's not quite trembling, not quite ready to yank the ring off the cord and summon its sword form, but the balance point between her native trust in the Prospitian queen and this sudden rumble of defensiveness deep in her carapace leaves her out of sorts.

WQ: There is something I gave you for safekeeping. For protection. And to test your ability to bear it.

WQ: But it is readying for war, now. If you wish, you may return it. Be at ease for a while longer.

PM: My Queen -

PM: You told me this was a regular sword/ring.

WQ: Yes. I did. I'm sorry. At the time, it seemed safer, a way to protect you and the ring itself. If I had kept it on my person while interacting with my cousin queen, she would have known it for what it was in a heartbeat.

The White Queen holds out her hand, claws loose and elbow slightly bent, emanating calm and reassurance and understanding. It's a formidable combination in the claws of a monarch who knows how to leverage it, yet PM pulls the ring off still conflicted. Hastily, PM steps forward and places the ring in the WQ's palm, her own claws throbbing with some odd phantom sensation as she skips back a pace and shakes off the weird mood.

PM: Right, right! Sorry about that.

With a quiet hum, the WQ closes long claws around the ring, her sleeve dropping to cover her hand as she lowers it to her side. When PM searches the taller carapacian's face, trying to sort out her jumbled feelings, she sees the WQ's face looks weary and sad for a second before the smooth mask of duty slides into place. PM huddles her shoulders and holds up both her claws, rubbing at the palm of the hand she always wielded the sword with and trying to pick out the shape of the ring. She's half sure she can feel a circle scored into her shell, but she can't see it.

Funny. Carrying the ring all the way here hadn't been that hard, apart from a few hiccups - but now that it's away from her, it feels like it was the work of years rather than weeks. What would have happened if she'd slipped up between then and now and put it on her ringclaw? Rrrrgh. 

WQ: There now. All is well.

PM: ...Please warn me next time.

WQ: I shall do my best.

AR: Wait. That really was a - I cannot believe you used a queen's ring to do that. There has to be regulations on that sort of thing. How long have you been under consideration for promotion?!

WQ: Did something happen?

AR: Pretty much an actual literal jail bre-

PM: HORRORTERRORS.

The distraction is super effective. Which is great, because when PM launches herself at AR to make him stop talking, the slight height difference between them isn't enough to give her an advantage. His arms are still long enough to hold her off, and for a few seconds after they scuffle, both throwing elbows while the White Queen watches. It's probably not a good way to resolve conflict, but oh well.

WQ: Verily.

Both smaller carapacians keep going at it until the word sinks in. They freeze just as PM manages to get AR in a chokehold, and AR has sharp teeth inches from gnawing on her arm.

WQ: Their repeated interference in the session has been most portentous. Do you bring word of some new movements on their part?

PM: Oh, yeah. Yup!

AR stamps on her instep and the two of them jump apart, coughing awkwardly and trying to sign at each other on the downlow with varying degrees of success. The White Queen's patience is truly awe-inspiring as they get themselves together.

AR: (Am I giving the report?)

PM: (Are you going to try to file something in triplicate before spitting it out?)

AR: (There is actually a formal method needed to approach a Queen -)

PM will never understand why anyone would come up with silly rules to make delivering messages harder. Honestly.

PM: The Horrorterror from the Ukraine has come to the east of the United States! We need to do something to keep the players away from it, or they might get hurt!

WQ: They confronted it already, alas. It would be better if their contact with those beings were minimized, and yet...

...She did not just hear that. Those are not the words that PM just heard.

PM: You're kidding...we're late! I'm late! Again!

PM: If you had just let me break 100 mph across the land of Kansas -

WQ: You did what you could. There is no shame in that. Some things cannot be avoided or rushed through. They must be lived.

WQ: And you are here now. I think there is someone here you may want to meet.

Chapter Text

Before

Nepeta suffers from extensive damage to her upper body: five broken ribs, one almost entirely pulverized, a pierced lung and considerable internal bleeding that leaves her breath gurgling deep in her chest, choked with blood. All the way here Equius burned with soul-sucking fear that he'd crush her himself. His touch is an accident waiting to happen. Even now that she's hooked up to a dozen different lines and monitors - that Equius should be able to identify but cannot - he keeps his distance. Safer that he keeps his hands off. Never before has he wished so profoundly that he wasn't this strong. A better moirail would be able to stroke her hair without fearing he'd smash open her skull; a better moirail still wouldn't have let this happen at all. Exarchaeopoulis and the other members of the trauma team removed Nepeta's shirt and coat and other clothing at some point, covering her with an oversized hospital gown, so Equius takes the bundle of her things to his defensible corner of the room. It is far more acceptable for him to squeeze clothing close than it would be to risk hurting Nepeta by hugging her.

They do not tell him that there's nothing more than can be done at this point; Equius strongly suspects that no one remembers he's even in the room. The doctors leave off to tend to Eridan and Kanaya, both in tattered clothes with their skin covered in acid burns, without acknowledging Equius once. He finds this perfectly tolerable. There's a tiny line streaking along Nepeta's chin and jaw, leftover from when she gave a gurgling, convulsive cough earlier that nearly stopped Equius's heart before her oxygen levels began to stabilize. Once most of the doctors have vacated the space, he extricates himself from the corner and dodges the hovering nurse to dab the olive green, sticky line off with every iota of care and caution he can muster. It doesn't make the sight of her uncharacteristically slack expression any easier to bear, but it's all the contact Equius can allow himself until he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nepeta is back to her old, robust self. His claws itch to do - something - but there's nothing left but to wait, and ignore the breathing tube and the unnatural evenness of Nepeta's assisted breathing, and knot his hands in the fabric of Nepeta's worn shirt. His thumb claw punches through near the hem, and oh, Nepeta will be so cross.

Once she's awake. She'll be awake soon. For now, Equius stays by the wall and lets the static wash over him, in the comforting grip of numbness. The nurse occasionally frowns over his head, but does not otherwise appear to register his presence. Some of the others filter in and out of the room, usually to keep tabs on Eridan; only Rose meets his eye through the void that layers around him in a muffling blanket. One of the younger ones - Roxy - wanders in on wobbling legs like an overgrown foal, and actually pats Equius on the head with words that sound like white noise to Equius's ears. The shock of having someone interact with him after so long watching and waiting and cultivating the void around him snaps him out of it long enough to check the time. The past few hours feel distant and unreal, but they've passed nonetheless. He hasn't done much other than stare at Nepeta, and at his hands, and then back again.

??: __________

The void presses closer, lightless and deep and heavy. When Equius raises his gaze to scan Nepeta's monitors again, he can just make out the bend where the light from overhead warps and parts around the edges of a cradling absence. A turn of his head, to check where Roxy has gone, and he catches the briefest flicker of his own hair, dark and heavier than a helmet, a curtain of black that doesn't look oily anymore. More like a hole where the universe should be.

??: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Then he blinks, and the perplexing illusion is gone. His hair has no particularly notable qualities, apart from its greasiness. Unsettled isn't the right word for what he feels; the weight of void welling up inside and gathering around him doesn't inspire much by way of feeling at all. For example: he's aware of the olive green splatters that cover the shirt in his hands and his own dark blue hoodie; then the void sinks in and there's nothing there at all.

He could disappear, like this. He could take Nepeta, and obscure them so well that not even Makara could find them. It would be like they never existed, and how would anyone hurt them then?

??: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

He'll have to ask Nepeta first. Once she's awake. Long experience has taught him that Nepeta will fight tooth and claw if she hates an idea, regardless of whether Equius's suggestions are for her own good, but making a decision and bulldozing her into going along with it would leave her in a furious sulk. And unfortunately, matters of her own safety and well-being rarely hold weight when arguing with Nepeta. She would call him a stuffy, hypurrcritical 'fraidycat, and then knead poor Arthour's best teatowels into rags.

His phone jolts him out these pointless ruminations. The last thing he wants right now is to deal with more of the dangerous nonsense that appears to characterize the daily lives of the hooligans he has somehow landed himself and Nepeta in the company of. But if there is an emergency that may necessitate moving Nepeta, he needs to know. It's the only reason he puts up with distractions like this.

-- apocalypseArisen [AA] began pestering centaursTesticle [CT] at ??:??:?? --
AA: sorry about the mess
AA: just so you know
AA: by the time youre reading this...
AA: nepeta will be waking up :)

The words don't compute for a long second. Longer than a second - time does odd things when the void eases in close against his back. But there's utter clarity when a faint noise rises up from the cot nearest him. The nurse is closer, though Equius launches to his feet with a shove that dents the wall behind him and leaves it weeping dust and chunks of plaster. Throwing the nurse out of his way would undoubtedly damage the nurse; Equius has to content himself with lurching around her, ignoring Eridan's muffled snort as the violetblood jerks out of a doze, and crouch on the other side of the bed, his fists clenched so tightly that dark blue blood starts streaming out down his palms and wrists to soak into the long sleeves of his shrouding hoodie. Nepeta, being Nepeta, starts fighting to claw the breathing tube out before she's finished opening her eyes, writhing with a vengeance while the nurse attempts to persuade Nepeta to lay still. A half-yowling, half-choked noise emerges from Nepeta's throat as she swipes at the nurse, her claws hooking on one of the lines as she does her best to squirm free.

Equius holds one of his hands over her own, trembling with the effort of not-touching. He doesn't dare try something so foolhardy. The next time Nepeta moves to grab at the nurse, her green eyes cloudy with confusion and pain, the back of her hand smacks the palm of his own and stops. He doesn't feel any of the fragile bones snap under his touch, but Nepeta is so breakable now that he can't fully trust his own staticky senses. Nepeta jerks and her eyes snap to Equius -

- no, past him.

She doesn't see him, and for a moment, Equius wants to scream. So this is what fear feels like; cold and slippery as it creeps into his chest, wraps around his heart, and twists.

??: _______________________________________________

Something reaches through the void, and pokes him in the - okay, that felt like his left kidney. It startles him in a cough of his own, and he tears his eyes away from the horror of Nepeta not seeing him to grit his teeth in Eridan's direction in case the violetblood has decided to do something. He's not to be trusted. No one but Nepeta is to be trusted, really. The prodding pressure doesn't let up, but Eridan's not looking at Equius, either, preoccupied with watching Nepeta fight the nurse. One final poke makes Equius wonder just what it would take to bruise his kidney from the inside.

When he looks back, Nepeta stares him square in the eye. Her hand twists up under his in an instant, latching on with a powerful squeeze, and she coughs up yet another horrific gagging sound around the tube. "You will desist," he says, swallowing hard. "Until you are able to breathe on your own, you need to leave that be."

Another muffled hgrhk from Nepeta. She glares at him and squeezes his hand tighter; he doesn't dare return the pressure. The fact that she stops pawing at the breathing tube with her other hand is a cold comfort, given that her left leg is slowly bending in what Nepeta must think a passably stealthy effort to reel it in and kick the nurse in the stomach. His own first instinct is to swat her knee back down, which would be an awful idea even if he could trust himself to do it gently. "Do not," he insists, and Nepeta has the presence of mind to look admonished s she straightens her leg and bows her back, trying to make it look like a full body stretch. Her immediate regret is evident: what little color has returned to her face drains out of it in a rush, leaving her corpse-pale with pain again and turning Equius's stomach. He anticipates her next move just in time, holding out his other claw over her knee to keep it pressed to the bed when Nepeta tries to cringe and curl up in what would have been an equally painful ball.

"- it is very important that you stay still," the nurse is saying, her hand clamping Nepeta's far shoulder to the cot as she inspects the oliveblood's face with concern. "Now that you're awake, the doctors can come back and assess whether you still need the breathing tube or not. I've already paged them. You're doing very well. Just hang on a few minutes longer."

Nepeta mrrfles, the aggravation giving way to less volatile pouting. The effect is limited by the fact that she can only communicate said pout with her eyes and eyebrows; Equius would normally shake his head at the silliness of it, because such an expression generally appears only when Nepeta is being particularly petulant about schoolwork or otherwise querulous over not getting her way.

He can't summon up the will for that kind of response. Instead, his stomach full of burning cold relief, he spends the next minute bowing his head down in increments, until Nepeta is able to tilt her forehead up ever so slightly and meet him with a tiny bump.

??: ________________________________________________________________________________

And something unknots, deep in his chest.

-

Sunday, April 6th

Small aliens make navigating the apartments incredibly difficult; they have the ability to end up right underneath one's feet if precautions aren't taken. There are four, or perhaps five, now - Equius ventures out as little as possible, and his main focus stays divided between keeping Nepeta close and trying not to mash the smaller carapacians into a pulp by mistake. Wrapping himself and Nepeta in the void doesn't help; the last time he tried it, the mailpersonage rammed into his knee at top speed. He does not see the point of keeping an accurate headcount on them; the carapacians leave and then reappear whenever they feel the need, bouncing between individual apartments like they're in a pinball machine, and occasionally huddling in out of the way corners for slap fights and to sign nonsense at each other. It is easier (and more prudent) for everyone if Equius gives them a wide berth. The knife-hoarding one in particular must be avoided; the fact that everyone around them takes having a violent, lawless alien in their ranks as a matter of course is some of the purest hoofbeastshit Equius has ever had to put up with. And yet, it still doesn't compare to the fucking atrocity that is the alliance with Droog.

Pardon his language. Constant exposure to certain people has filled Nepeta's vocabulary with excremental language yet again, and it has even started to lurk in Equius's own mouth, expletives rolling out without warning whenever he expresses disgust or displeasure. He wishes he could put his foot down and insist that these foulmouthed heathens think before they speak, instead of mindlessly spewing highly inventive cusswords where Nepeta can hear them. But that would require that he lift the veil of twisting static that keeps people's eyes slanted away from him, for the most part, and he finds that the security of controlled obscuration isn't one he's willing to surrender in a building that hosts multiple murderous fucks.

Fiddlesticks. Not again.

??: _______________________________________________________

No, reprimanding the scoundrels and upstarts that they've fallen in with will have to wait - except Karkat. As the one of the lowbloods Equius has deemed (surprisingly) conscientious enough to trust not to harm Nepeta when she loses patience and tries to push herself too far, Equius will need to speak with him about the need to tone down the absolutely appalling word choices he makes. It wouldn’t be his place to rebuke the Heiress, for one thing, though she's thankfully not one of the worst offenders. Moreover, he strongly suspects they'd disregard his orders the second he walked away, one of the downsides of maintaining his shroud of nothingness. It keeps him safe, but at what cost? Parting the veils of static takes considerable effort on Equius's part now, and each time he peels away the protective shell, he can swear he feels the eyes of the purpleblood on him.

On Nepeta.

He's already failed her three times over. Failed to protect her, failed to notice she was struggling for breath while he zeroed in on Makara, failed to - to watch out for her. All his efforts to properly apologize for his slipups have made no impact on Nepeta herself, who mercilessly forgives him with the kind of fierce pity that Equius has no defense against. He's weak. But if the other Heir hadn't said something, would Equius have realized on his own in time to save her?

He fears that the answer would have been no. He doesn't deserve Nepeta's pardon for something as awful as that. It doesn't matter that in a building - neigh, an entire city - full of people who neglect to notice Equius's presence with comforting regularity, Nepeta is the only one who can meet his eyes without fail, combing her claws through his null-black hair without appearing to notice that the strands are the color of the void. He doesn't deserve that. He failed in his duty to her, yet, like the stubborn fool that he is, Equius can't bear the thought of refusing her trust, either. Moirallegiance is an powerfully addictive thing.

??: ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

So, he'll just have to make do with what has been handed to him. Forgiving himself is entirely secondary to ensuring that Nepeta never hurts like that again. He bends himself to the task, doing the one thing he can think to do short of drowning himself and Nepeta in an abyss where nothing could touch them again.

The problem is that he has managed to fuss this up in a completely backwards fashion. Imbuing the retractable claws of Nepeta's best clawkind requires next to no conscious thought on Equius's part these days; he crafted this specibus himself for her use years ago, though at the time he had no grasp of the essence of the aspect around him. The metal is almost as receptive to void as Doctor Lalonde's specially engineered metal cuffs were, and he pours nothing from his hands until the claws are almost invisible to his own senses.

This naturally makes it next to impossible to slot them back into the gloves again. And the gloves have to stay real, or Nepeta might not be able to fight with them at all. 

He really should have seen this coming. Curses bubble up behind his tightly-closed lips as he manages to stick himself with the barbed end of the claws yet again, and he grits his teeth hard enough that the crown of a molar shears off and lodges in the skin of the inside of his cheek. Swallowing both tooth and blood without pausing, Equius steadies the clawkind blade with a hand that's almost nonexistent, working through senses that can't be expressed in material terms to perceive what he's doing. Once he finishes reassembling - horsefeathers, he's stuck himself again - the clawkind, he can pass it on to Nepeta, confident in the fact that she'll have a weapon only the two of them can notice. Whatever providence allows her to know him and see him even in the deepest void he can summon, he thinks it will hold true for this much. Sink enough power into it, and perhaps the enemy won't even notice the wounds inflicted on them. 

The lightless metal skitters out of his cautious grip yet again, and one point jams into his thigh. This is raising his temper to a rapid boil. He takes his hands away from the claws and closes a fist around his own wrist, which gives him some incentive not to squeeze until the thing under his hand breaks. Not that it's stopped him from accidentally dislocating or snapping his own bones in blind anger before. After he seethes for a minute, he uncurls his claws with some effort and forces them to restrain their strength for a while longer as he picks up the offending clawkind and tries to line it up with the retracting mechanism without warping the metal.

He slots one into place and nearly punches the wall in victory. But the others have expressed their displeasure at having the apartment complex collapse around their ears, and this is a loadbearing wall that he's leaning against, so he resists the urge. Instead, he allows himself a steady sigh of relief.

With a schnick!, the claw pops out and stabs him through the palm. 

For a long second, he stares at the metal blade sticking out of his hand. Then he raises it and slams it down against the bench. Said bench splinters like kindling, dumping him on the floor, while the clawkind slides the rest of the way through muscle and skin to fly out the other side. Making a fist with that hand hurts, which just infuriates him more; if there were a practice robot in the vicinity, he'd be halfway through dismantling it in seconds. If the next person he sees is not dearest Nepeta, he is going to quite literally punch them through the wall, structural integrity be damned -

"Do you require assistance with that?"

Equius launches himself at the offender blind. It's an awkward lunge, going from flat on his hindquarters with only one foot under him, and reason tentatively prods at him with a reminder that most of the people in this building are fragile, particularly the little carapacians, and the rest are entwined in quadrants so unhealthy/lewd that there's no way to reliably predict who would come down on him in retaliation. He snaps his bared, snarling mouth shut and checks his horns back so at least he won't gore them, but that's the limit of what he can accomplish in the split second before Kanaya Maryam catches him by the wrists and uses his own momentum to flip him over her shoulder and slam him down against the floor. "I will hurt you if I have to," she hisses with perfect enunciation as she flips from mild to unforgiving, spinning so that her knee pins Equius's chest and one hand comes up to shove his head down and to the side against the floor. "I'm adverse to letting you go if you are just going to attack any innocent bystander who happens to loiter around you, minding their own business." 

??: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

He could buck her off - despite the force of her grip and clearly excellent training, Kanaya's pressing weight would be no match for Equius's strength. But there is something cold and sparking and uncomfortably real in her other claw, pressed ever so softly against the side of his neck; if a buzzing wave of static didn't wash over him in a roll of warning, he might have roared at her and not noticed the lipstickind before it swapped forms and sent a chainsaw whirring through his throat. Reining in his temper without Nepeta there to soothe it away leaves a sour, sticking taste in his mouth, but the mindless anger leeches away until all that's left is a dull, sullen irritation unbefitting someone of his blood. "I will not," he says, nostrils flaring as he forces himself to breath out.

"Really?"

"Yes, really." He flattens his claws against the floor and waits, ignoring the spiderwebbing cracks he can feel where the impact left an Equius-shaped dent under him. The seconds tick by before Kanaya gives a curt nod and stands up, watching him with a keen eye and a single tooth skirting out over her lower lip, a silent warning against sudden movements. Having that kind of admonishing gaze reprimand him without a word, from someone confident in throwing her weight against trolls above her hemotype -

He's going to stop. Before he starts sweating. The sweat disappears into the void these days, but it would still be. Awkward. Bad enough that every time he catches a glimpse of Aradia, all he can think of is how it felt to have someone crush him without a hope of fighting back.

Getting involved with any of these people would be beyond inappropriate - it would be lunacy.

"Now then," Kanaya says, using the same lipstick to reapply a coat to her lips as she monitors Equius. Her claws and palms, he sees with a twitch, are already covered in dark, mottled bruises where catching him on impact must have bruised muscle-deep. "Do you want help, or should I just have minded my own business and avoided this entirely pointless altercation from the start, and let you stab yourself with invisible knives to your vascular system's content?"

Said invisible blades are scattered across the ground now; Equius stiffly stands and starts stooping to gather them up in his hand. The third one gives him some trouble, and he has to cast around with a searching claw before the void ebbs a little and he can spy it out of the corner of his eye again. "...Yes," he says, which unfortunately answers both questions - he sees Kanaya's eyebrow arch skyward - and he grits his teeth before clarifying, "I require...help. Attacking you without provocation was inexcusable rudeness on my part."

Kanaya steps over the broken remains of the bench and picks up the glove part of the specibus, inspecting it with a critical eye. "These are for Nepeta?" she asks, turning the leather and cloth over in her claws.

Belatedly, the skin of Equius's neck crawls, and he wipes at the streak of lipstick left there. "Yes," he says, shortly, as he begins painstakingly inspecting each barbed claw for signs that he damaged them in his outburst. The one that stabbed him is now scrunched up on the end that needs to slot into the glove; better that than having the barbed hook flattened, but still annoying. "I...cannot protect her the way I want without drawing her ire," he says, his shoulders huddling a little. 'Drawing her ire' is an understatement. She would hate him - as well she should - if he removed them from the fight entirely. If he were stronger, maybe he'd be able to endure that hate without flinching. But he's not. "Arming her is the next best policy."

"Hmm. That is probably the right attitude to have, I think." Kanaya pinches the glove and squints as she holds it up to her eye, peeking into the sheathes. "Ah. The mass displacement springloaders have turned invisible. Is that supposed to be a thing that happens? It doesn't happen with my chainsaw, but I am not an expert at designing these things."

It's not, as it happens. Dismayed, Equius moves closer and inspects the glove himself. He doesn't even have to wonder what caused this - the void that was supposed to stay sunk in the clawkind's blades is evident to his senses now that he knows to look for it, seeping into the metal of the retraction mechanism. It comes when he calls it to join the void swirling around him instead, but the fact that it was there at all is simply sloppy work. Attention-deflecting static hides the flush that rises in his face as he and Kanaya sort the claws out between them, but clearly this is an area in which he needs more practice. He'd inquire with the other Heir about how to communicate with one's aspect, but from what Equius has observed absolutely no one apart from Aradia seems to have the slightest clue of how their powers work at any given time.

It doesn't occur to him until later, after Kanaya insists on patching the gloves where Equius's ill-thought fumbling has worn the stitching thing, that he failed to consider Kanaya when he listed the people who could still reliably see him, despite the void.

Chapter Text

Monday, April 7th

They have to move outside the city limits to get away with training, eventually. It's one thing when it's just the dweebs and the goobers going at it on the roof, goofing off like a bunch of dorks, and another when Vriska declares that it's time to play catch. Then it's all 'you're a wanted felon!' and 'with our luck you'd lodge a baseball where Mayor Brinner's face is supposed to be' and 'Vriska, no,' when it should be more like Vriska yes.

If Eridan is going to make aaaaaaaany progress at all, they need more room to work with, and with the dweeb squad dragging their feet about every single eency weency suggestion Vriska makes, she's ready to punt Eridan off the roof and whip him into shape the old fashioned way. She gets the feeling old man Strider would approve, anyway, but he and Doctor Lols are still at odds, and does it look like Vriska cares about their opinions? No. The answer is no.

Anyway. It's whatever. After enough coaxing and schmoozing, Vriska convinces the weakest links that cooping violent, crazypants trolls up in a single building is a terrible idea. This should have been first grade basic level shit, but apparently not!!!!!!!! Terezi claims that Vriska's 'being completely fucking annoying,' but what does she know?! She thinks everything Vriska does is annoying, sometimes. If the sex weren't mindblowing in either quadrant, Vriska would be at a complete loss for what's going on there. The point is, Vriska's right. She has to pull out all the stops to convince Great Friendleader Rose, who is slightly less of a weak link compared to the other humans when she's on her game, but once Vriska charms her way into Lalonde's good graces, it's all smooth sailing.

-

AG: Please?
TT: No.
AG: Pretty please? ::::)
AG: Look at that smile. That is the smile of someone who has everyone's 8est interests at heart.
TT: I would admire the sophistication of your impeccably crafted argument a little more if it were not for the fact that I'm somewhat smarter than your average Ursus arctos.
AG: ...
AG: Pleeeeeeeease?
TT: That time you almost persuaded me. Well done. The answer is still no.

-

They wind up at some park about twenty minutes from Karkat and John's neighborhood that starts with a P - Vriska doesn't pay attention after the words, "Okay, okay, we're going, jeez!" emerge from John's mouth. It's not half bad compared to some of the crappy parks Vriska hung out in as a kid, scrounging around for cigarettes and something fresh to feed to her lusus; in fact, the general atmosphere of wholesomeness makes her wish she had spraypaint or something to liven the place up a bit. They came in the middle of a school day, so there's no kids running around. A guy and his dog are going around the trails, but who even cares about that newly-unfortunate loser? She claims a soccer field, the one furthest from the gazebos, for herself and Eridan to do target practice, while the others spread out across the other field and the playground area.

Eh. It's not like most of these pricks are actually here to practice, anyway. A couple of the people who tag along for the ride are here to keep an eye on her. A couple extra are here because of Eridan. But she's learned to embrace the constant supervision. They're too dumb to realize that Vriska can juggle her fiery irons like the sneakiest of sneaks, with none of them the wiser. Terezi would say that was a mixed metaphor, but Terezi decided to stay behind and grab bubble tea with the midget carapacians and Dave, so Vriska's brain can stop bringing up Terezi-esque thoughts whenever it feels like it. Love/hate is an annoying thing. If Terezi thinks being friends with the guy who thinks opening with 'how about them sick ironies in the Fieris' is an acceptable way to try to invite Vriska along, it's her own funeral.

Vriska tosses the baseball and catches it without looking, smacking it against her palm a few times just to make Eridan sweat.

After some due consideration, she winds up, and launches it right at his face. The first five times, Eridan waffled around until the ball hit him, and since Vriska has the luckiest aim, his nose is now kinda wonky and swollen and violet all over - now he remembers to dodge out of the way. "God dammit, Vris!" he yells, but puh-lease. He obviously saw that one coming! In a real fight, people aren't going to yell the names of their attacks ahead of time or anything else obvious, so he should appreciate that she's going through this at a wriggler's pace.

"I can tell you're not trying! Slacker!" Vriska yells back, rolling her eyes. Part of it, she suspects, is that Eridan came out here still in brooding mode. Practically everyone else who came along on this field trip changed into workout clothes - Vriska has figured out how to manipul8 her god tier stuff into thigh highs and short shorts that make her butt look fantastic - but Eridan's got long sleeves and black pants on, and is acting like it's the middle of a real Chicago winter instead of sixty five degrees of Seattle spring. Even with John dicking around with the wind while sitting on top of the tower in the playground, it's not that bad. "You agreed that I could train you, so stop acting like a thirteen year old fresh out of Hot Troll Topic!"

Eridan huffs. "It's just Hot Topic, Vris. Why do we put 'troll' in front of things like peoples' names, anyway, it just seems like a lot of pointless rubbish when we already know they were trolls to begin with -"

She lobs another baseball at him, and puts her whole body and an extra lucky oomph into it. To her delight, Eridan screeches and dives out of the way on the first try, even though she was aiming at his stomach instead of his face. Finally!!!!!!!! The troll can be taught! "Getting better! Stop dodging like a scared baby!" she says, slipping her toe under the handle of the baseball bat and kicking it up so she can grab it and practice her swing. Time to get serious.

Eridan glares daggers at her as he pushes himself up and blows a bunch of hair out of his eyes. Vriska would point out he could will his hair into listening, but honestly, she's more concerned with whipping his butt back into fighting shape. Him not capitalizing on his powers for mundane things is his own problem, and Vriska can't be expected to fix everything around here. She already fighting valiantly in the face of some serious weaksauce - Eridan may not be a lost cause like Tavros, but the more he drags his heels, the more she questions that assessment. "Dodging is the normal fuckin' response to having projectiles thrown at your face!"

"Stop acting like a normal person, then! If life gives you baseballs, throw the baseballs back in my face!" Vriska crouches to pick up another baseball and tosses it in one hand while Eridan gets back upright, holding the ball out so she can measure her reach against the baseball bat. "Make the baseballs into bombs! Get creative!"

He gives her another angry, pouty look, brushing dirt off the arms of his jacket with jerking motions. "Makin' things into bombs sounds like somethin' that would get me killed through stupid happenfuckery," he says stiffly, his eyes darting toward the soccer field where Jade's turning cartwheels and handsprings. The rando with a dog has stopped to stare, bewildered, because the cartwheels are happening about a solid foot and a half off the ground.

Again, not Vriska's problem. "You say that like it would be a bad thing!" she says, mockingly, then tosses the ball up and uses the bat to whack it at Eridan's general face region with flawless precision. By some remarkable stroke of luck, the baseball bat doesn't crack in two with the force she puts behind it.

(Vriska can't tell sometimes if she's consciously using her powers or not. She's just that good, obviously.)

The baseball blows up in a crackle of white light, but the overall bang is goddang wimpy. No oomph behind it - Vriska barely bats an eye while her hair and jacket give a half-hearted flutter. "Marginally better," she says. "Now do it with more boom, and we'll call it real progress."

-

AG: Oh come on, give me a 8r8k! Am I the only schlu8 in this dump who cares about training properly? Eridan needs to work on his 8lowing-up-stuff powers and I assume you don't want him practicing that around here?
TT: He committed a minor act of genocide.
AG: And now you're discrimin8ing against him! 8ecause he got possessed and made some bad calls? Total hypocritical 8S!
AG: We can't all 8e creepily overpowered thanks to the reality-warping power of literally insane amounts of rage like Honks McGee! Some of us need practice! Even if sometimes we fuck up!
TT: You may very well have a point.
AG: Come oooooooon - w8, really?
TT: We do need to be fully prepared for the game ahead. We're up against an enemy we technically cannot beat; all we can do is win as much time as we can before he destroys it, and hurry to complete the tasks set to us by Calliope. Hobbling you, Gamzee, and Eridan doesn't work in our best interests, considering you're some of the heaviest hitters we have.
AG: Yeah! Now you're talking!!!!!!!!
TT: Of course, I already agreed with you in principle before the twenty minutes-long spam of 'please' hit my inbox.
AG: So you were just dragging this out to mess with me?
TT: That is entirely within the realm of possibility. In fact, I would not rule it out.
AG: ...Okay, fine, whatever, I can respect that.

-

Eridan looks around them, but when Vriska sighs heavily and does the same, nothing has changed. Same old sunny day, same old line of trees cutting off the view of the road and the parking lot.

Oh, right. And Jade and Karkat, hopping off the top of the rope jungle gym thingy, are coming at them. Now, Karkat's always ready and raring to throw a hissy fit, but Jade's the one who Vriska keeps a multi-pupiled eyeball on. Of the four human game players, it's naturally Jade and Rose who are the main meddlers who could pose threats to Vriska's plans. Combined with Kanaya, they're some kind of unholy trifecta of meddling busybodies, and Jade does it with a smile. Dave and John miiiiiiiight have power but they're both on shaky ground these days; Vriska may not empathize, but she can sniff out weakness like Terezi on a candy binge. Jade's straightforward - doesn't mean she isn't smart, though.

"Vris made me do it -" Eridan starts to blab, jabbing a claw at her before either of them is halfway to the far soccer field. Karkat has farther to walk and Jade has the advantage of being able to bounce yards at a time, twirling a little and kicking out her leg, arms stretched up over her head as though she has all the time in the world to come investigate. As tempting as it is to smack him with the baseball bat, that would get her Negative Attention, and Vriska wants to stay in the green. For now. So she shifts her shoulders as though she's gonna throw the new ball at Eridan, then switches up her trajectory, tosses it vertically instead, and hits the ball out over the field in an incredibly lucky arc when it comes back down. "Harley! Go long!" she challenges.

Jade whoops instantly, pinwheeling backward and zapping all the way back to the gazebo area in a wink to snatch the ball a foot off the ground. "Harley, can you not?!" Karkat shrieks, but it's too late; an even shriller skree rises up as the lusus sprawled on the shaded floor of the covered area skuttles upright, swinging its head around in blind confusion before clacking its claws and galumphing after Karkat. Jade zaps to another corner of the soccer field, laughing off the chaos she's just unleashed at the sight of Crabdad tackling Karkat to the ground in some broken-ass custodial instinct, and then launches the ball at Eridan with a burst of green. The resounding cries of, "No! Go - fuck off and bother John, you - AUGH!" almost drown out Eridan's yelp of renewed terror.

It's glorious. Eridan smacks the baseball out of the air so hard it ricochets off the ground and slams into a tree, leaving a suspicious charred mark after it pops like a grape against the trunk. "Just make sure you don't hit anybody with that, okay?" Jade says, zooming over to grab a baseball out of Vriska's pile of not-stolen goods. "Because then we're gonna have problems!"

"Hey, get your own," Vriska says. She smacks the baseball bat against her palm before she thinks better of it; play nice, play nice. Be the nicest, most sickly sincere teamplayer ever seen. Spinning the bat instead, she flashes her teeth in a hearty grin at Jade. "Unless you're gonna help me put this sorry sap through his paces! God knows he needs all the help he can get."

"Will you stop disparagin' my character, for fuck's sake!" Eridan stamps his foot. Between that and the now smoldering tree, this is gr8! Sure, it's progress in the form of Eridan whining, but Vriska believes that this can be cultiv8ed. Unlike certain brownbloods who don't speak to her that she could mention but won't because psssh, who cares about that guy, or the fact that he still has a stupid, handsome, punchable face, or the way he hangs out with Nepeta and Equius and deliberately avoids her - after all the time and effort she poured down the drain trying to help him out last time - so what if she killed him a little -!

Ahem. Anyway. Vriska realizes she's glowering at the soccer net at the opposite end of the field, wringing the handle of the bat with her claws, and kinda wishes she could kick the shit out of something. Her momentary distraction couldn't have taken all that long, yet when she snaps out of it, Jade and Eridan are starting some twisted game of physics-defying catch, with Jade clipping around the soccer field while Eridan, harried but engaged, tries and fails to turn the tables by grabbing an armful of baseballs to throw back. Ugh, whatever. Once Eridan's warmed up, they can move on to actual fun stuff - explody hope-y stuff. Jade just did her a favor by taking over the basic stuff. One eye twitching a little, Vriska scoops up the last baseballs - she'll have to 'borrow' some more, if they keep blowing stuff up to make progress - and heads to the gap between soccer fields, where Karkat is still getting his ass handed to him by overgrown seafood. Time for an intervention. Vriska wants to throw her head back and laugh at his dumb predicament, but she smirks instead. Much cooler.

"Need some help there, you dork?" she asks, resting the baseball bat on her shoulder as she saunters over to Karkat's crabby trainwreck. "You know everyone can see you being totally lame over here, right?"

At her words, Karkat kicks his ex-lusus off, rolling his eyes at Vriska with an extra tight squint pinching the corners of his eyes. He's got the candy cane red covered up with rusty contacts; apparently no one has gotten it through his skull that being a fakey faker to blend in doesn't matter when the world's got a shorter expiration date than a jug of milk. As if Vriska or someone else here wouldn't step in to save his butt if some douchebag tried to go after him for being a freak. "This is me, cordially inviting you to fuck off," he says. The lusus gives a shrill skree and buffets him again. Before Vriska loses patience, Karkat shoves the lusus back with a decently solid push, and the custodian appears satisfied with that. It bounds back over to harass John instead, like it can't make up its mind who it's supposed to be coddling. Soooooooo typical, that they'd get stuck with the world's dumbest, most overattached lusus as their resident wrigglersitter.

Heh. Still, better than if Vriska's lusus were here. That massive 8itch would have totally munched on someone by now. Talk about a critical lack of self control. But if Vriska keeps thinking about that, she's gonna get as crabby and bitter as Karkat here, and nobody wants that to happen. Nobody. "Jade totally barged in on Eridan's super important training sesh, so now I'm bored," Vriska drawls, before an idea occurs to her. She starts poking Karkat's leg with the baseball bat, bouncing her weight from one foot to the other. "C'mon, wanna fight? Betcha I can kick your butt into shape, too!"

See, she's got a tiny smidge of liking for Karkat. He's a cranky little shit with no filter on the crap that comes flying out of his protein chute - by god, he does not shut up sometimes - but he's got a leg up on Tavros and Eridan by virtue of being a real self-starter. He whines, but when the going gets tough, he starts slicing. So hey, she doesn't hate him. As long as she doesn't let on the true nature of her flaming hot irons, he may even be useful! Perhaps even, dare she say it...a useful friend?

Or not. He'd probably hold a grudge for the rest of eternity if she helped him out in the most useful way. Ah, if only Gamzee weren't sprawled out like a slinky on the jungle gym bars. The purpleblood's staring up at the sky overhead, but Vriska doesn't think for a second that means that creepy bozo isn't paying attention. At least her convo with Aradia gave her some warning. "Uh, wow, no? Nice try though," Karkat says, with a fake shudder. "I just came over to make sure you fucks weren't about to blow yourselves up. If you think you're subtle, I'm sorry to tell you but you wouldn't know subtle if it bit you in the bulge." He gives Jade and Eridan one last look, and then tries to head back to the playground.

Vriska walks backward alongside him so she can keep talking to his face, trotting to keep up when he lengthens his pace, then bumps him with her shoulder and lets a little teeth show. "Hey, come on, don't blow me off," she starts to say - and then the world tips over funny, and Karkat flips her into the dirt. It smarts a little, but she cackles anyway.

"I'm onto you and your fucking bullshit, Serket." Karkat's bristling all over, his posture reminding her of that dumb crab lusus only because she literally just saw it in action. He doesn't pull a specibus on her - both smart and dumb of him, really, since she could tooooooootally wipe the floor with him even if he did. When he goes to sidestep around her, Vriska rolls and tries to sweep his feet out from under him. He's good enough to skip over it despite the way he has to blink furiously to keep the contact lenses from muddling his vision. "I'm not going to jump into some assheaded fight with you just so you can fakeprovise killing me by accident!" he explodes.

The cold sting of fucking busted flickers through Vriska's guts; she laughs through it boisterously, floating herself up with a flick of dusty blue wings before folding them back away. "As if I would do something so obvious," she says, spinning the baseball bat in one hand. "I'm soooooooo subtle, thank you very much."

"Great job. Hearing this is basically killing me, so congratulations. You've hit my weak point for massive fucking damage - shitty acting."

Karkat is not quiet. He's shouting practically in Vriska's ear at a volume that reminds her distinctly of that one time she dragged Terezi to a sludge metal concert just to see her wrinkle her nose in disgust, and as she watches, Gamzee sits upright on the jungle gym. John's hanging upside down from a part of the main structure, his shirt riding up a little and his eyes fixed on Karkat and Vriska. She can't read his expression from here, not without taking valuable focus away from Gamzee. Again, John's not someone Vriska's overly concerned about - not when there's freaks like Gamzee to deal with.

She socks Karkat playfully in the arm, all fake lightness. He smacks her claws away and snarls like she legit tried to hurt him. If she were trying to kick his ass, he'd know it. None of these dumbasses seem to appreciate how nice she's being. "Fine, no fighting!" she says gaily, matching Karkat volume for volume and tossing her head back solely so she can roll her eyes to their fullest extent. "Just us! Being pals! Best pals."

Karkat facepalms. "Why are you so predictably terrible?"

-

TT: There's just the small problem of all three of you proving dangerous to yourselves and others with unfortunate regularity. Combine that with the fact that you possess superhuman powers that are, as you pointed out, capable of warping reality...
AG: Would if help if I pinky-promised we'd 8e good? ::::)
AG: I mean hell if I can vouch for Gamzee, that's all Karkat and Johnny 8oy's pro8lem, thanks. 8ut I want to play the game. More importantly, I want to win. So you can totally trust me not to get up to any funny 8usiness!
TT: You fill me with such confidence.
TT: Let me make a proposal: you listen, and promise not to 'improvise,' murder someone for their own good, or otherwise disrupt the plan that we implement when the game begins.
AG: I'm listening, yeah.
TT: And in exchange, I promise that you can have a pivotal role in taking on the Lord of Time. You'll be right there in the middle of the most important fight of all.
AG: Oh man.
AG: Are you serious?
TT: Dead serious.
AG: You know, I wasn't too sure about you as our friendleader at first, Rose. 8ut I am so down for that plan. Democracy is a wonderful thing.

-

"I'm predictably awesome, thank you very much." Vriska sniffs. 8anter. She can do banter, if it'll get Gamzee to cool his jets. As if she'd seriously kill Eridan or Karkat in some random suburban park, when she has at least one opportune moment to look forward to? She's not sure exactly who she's trying to convince here, but maybe if she convinces herself, everyone else will buy it.

"Let's play a game!" Jade calls, a convenient excuse for Vriska to keep an easy smirk on her face and turn away from Karkat without seeming like she's backing down or anything. The space witch has three baseballs turning in orbit around her, one looking like it's seen better days. Eridan has his hands on his knees, out of breath and face streaked with sweat after just a couple minutes of running after Jade. Vriska mentally schedules more early morning jogs/obstacle courses for him, because this lack of stamina is so unacceptable. "We have baseballs, a bat..."

"Hell yeah! I call team captain!" Vriska slings the baseball bat up into the air and catches it, surging forward and pulling Karkat after her with a claw on his shoulder. "Dibs on Karkat!"

"First off, we don't have enough people," Karkat snaps. "Second, there are things called baseball diamonds. We're not on one of them. And third - no!"

Jade's smile takes a turn for the mischievous. "That's fine! I get John," she says, winking. "I - uh, don't think Gamzee's playing, so Eridan can be on your team. To even the odds."

Sure enough, when Vriska checks over her shoulder, Gamzee's flopped back down on the horizontal bars. John's saying something to him, but Vriska can't hear anything from here over the wind. Not that she was worried or anything. "Up and at 'em, Eridan!" she orders distractedly.

"Don't play catch with space witches," he mumbles from the ground. "It's. A bad idea. Deliver me from this anguish. Please."

Karkat scowls at Jade this time. "Or, I could go sit over there, keep an eye on Gamzee, and not participate in any kind of competitive activity with Vriska, aka one of the Scourge Sisters, aka the fucking last person on the planet you want to get involved in violent games with, Harley. She won't stop until she shits all over you. You can't win with her."

Well, he's not wrong. In fact, Vriska feels like she needs to keep a testimonials page - that's definitely one of the best compliments Karkat has ever accidentally paid her. Jade arches an eyebrow high, mostly just looking amused at Karkat's protests. "Maybe. I guess we'll see!" she says, shrugging. "But there's one thing you're forgetting, Karkat."

Vriska answers for him. "Yeah, what?"

John lands in a rush of wind, and the circle of floating baseballs expands easily to encompass him as well. "[Aerospace]," he says, his expression disturbingly similar to the twinkly bullshit mischief on Jade's as the two human siblings highfive. Ominously chipper music starts playing in the distance.

That's so cheap. Vriska's lucky, but god, look at what she's working with, here! By the time she has to insist the end of the game be postponed - they haven't lost, no matter how much Eridan bitches - she's had it up to here with this shit.

Maybe Aradia's too busy with her time shenanigans to confront Gamzee. But Vriska does not play with deadweight.

-

AG: Hey.
AG: Uh.
AG: Soooooooo, I'm in a 8it of a pickle, here.
AG: A little 8irdy tells me that you're gonna cause pro8lems over certain people potentially dying a little. Temporarily.
AG: Which is pretty disappointing, to 8e honest! I thought you were 8etter than that!
AG: I mean, is Tavros even talking to you these days? :::;)
TC: shut the fuck up.
AG: Ha, I'm shaking in my 8oots! Not.
TC: MAYBE YOU SHOULD MOTHERFUCKING SHOULD BE.
AG: Oh, put a sock in it. You forget, I already know Pupa Pan. I could have told you he doesn't appreci8 people like you and me.
AG: The real us, I mean. Now that you're not doped to the gills, or pretending to play nice, he's just...not that into you, am I right?
TC: if you've got a point, vrissis?
TC: MAKE IT.
AG: Look. My point is, they'd only 8e a little dead. You know it, I know it.
TC: you're making all kindsa unfunny noise at me right now, motherfucker.
AG: It's for their own good. Don't 8e that guy. Unless you've got some other plan in mind...?
TC: AIN'T NO BUSINESS OF YOURS.
TC: :o)
AG: Wow, creepazoid to the max!!!!!!!! W8 til I screenshot that one for John to see!
AG: Karkat'll put up with you longer, I 8et, 8ecause he's such a dumbass romantic. 8ut it's only a matter of time until you're too much for either of them to stick around.
TC: ...
AG: Nice people don't like people like us. Not for long. That's why I'm so lucky Terezi isn't a particularly nice person, deep down. ::::) How far do you think weird poly serendipity's gonna get you, anyway?
TC: ...
AG: Sucks to suck, I guess! They won't know what they're missing!
AG: 8ut yeah. Trust me, you're not doing any8ody any favors 8y pretending Karkles and Tavros don't need to go god tier.
TC: ...
AG: What, can't handle the truth? Gonna sneak up 8ehind me and try to pull a fast one?
AG: I think...if it comes to a fight 8etween you and me?
AG: I already know how to hurt you 8est.
TC: ha.
TC: NAH. :o)
TC: you don't have no mother under fucking standing of what all makes me tick, vrissis.
AG: Nice 8luff!
TC: RIGHT BACK ATCHA.
TC: but anyway.
TC: NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT.
AG: Yes?
TC: ain't just me you'd need to watch out for if you went at karkat.
TC: JUST A FRIENDLY HEADS UP FROM ONE MOTHERFUCKER TO ANOTHER.
AG: W8.
AG: Whoa, whoa, w8, hold up. What, John? Sorry - somehow, I think I can handle him. He and I got to know each other pretty well before, you know!
TC: if you really believe that.
TC: YOU'RE EVEN MORE NAIVE THAN TAVBRO.
AG: What is this shit. Do you think you're 8eing funny?! Haha, 8nother funny joke from Makara!
TC: outrageous pastel motherfucking fucker getting up to some unfunny shit.
TC: DON'T ASK.
AG: God! Fine! I don't feel like translating crazy clown speak anymore, anyway!
AG: Just stay out of my way, 8uck-o.
TC: cool. touch them and die.
-- terminallyCapricious [TC] has left the chat! --
AG: UUUUUUUUGH! Fuck off, see if I care!
AG: Jeez!

Chapter Text

Wednesday, April 9th

Jade sits on him, and turns up the gravity.

He's successfully ollied out of this conversation faster than a slippery penguin on the run from the law (oh god, Terezi's rubbing off on him already) every time it's come up over the past few days, but you can only escape for so long before the Squad comes down on you like. At least they leave his dignity intact, cornering him well away from the extended Squad, where none of the major assholes can see him lose his shit. AKA start emoting like a whiny little shit.

Doesn't mean he's going down without a fight. Depending on who can be assed to pay attention on a given day, Dave can count at least five people who might notice shenanigans are afoot, and one of those people is Vriska, who's a goddamn menace even when she's playing nice. John's honkfriend is probably already stalking Dave's train of thought like a...well, like a creepy clown dude is wont to do. Hello, friendly neighborhood mind-reading juggalo. Would you like to play a game?

Don't think about Jigsaw around Gamzee. Bad thoughts. The point is, if Rose thinks she can grill him like a hotdog on the barbecue of psychological bullshittery, she's gonna have to fight for it, because this is one dog that isn't interested in being covered in mustard, relish, onions, and assorted other toppings and being served up on a paper plate like fineass cuisine.

...God, he's hungry. He thinks he's lost his train of thought, here. "Can we get hot dogs for dinner?" he asks, before Rose can say anything. Wait. Shit. She's gonna read into 'hot dogs' too much, isn't she. Fuck he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut.

"Oh, yeah, totally," John agrees, momentarily distracted. But oh god, there's a keen, evil light in Rose's eye as she pulls up a chair and sits on it, the picture of an untrained, uncertified, wannabe psychiatrist latching onto a dude's completely innocuous desire for hot dogs and wildly misinterpreting it into something to do with undercooked trouser tentacles.

Sometimes, Dave is his own worst enemy. Seriously.

They're out in the front office/lobby area, one of the least popular places to hang out in the entire apartment complex, and the only sign anyone's been through here recently is an open window and a pile of worn-down chalk sticks arranged in a dusty circle on the desk. "We could go to that place on - no, wait, that place has lots of alcohol. Never mind." John squints. "Hm. I don't know the daytime food carts really well..."

"Equius doesn't eat meat," Jade reminds them, stretching out so that her butt stays perched on the small of Dave's back, her legs sprawled out to the side and her arms bracing her as she rolls her shoulders. Too late, it occurs to Dave that it might not be Jade turning up the gravity - it might just be that she outweighs him in terms of sheer muscle. Damn. He stares straight at the floor bare inches from his eyes, his face balanced mostly on his forehead and nose, and reminds himself that he brought this on himself, anyway. Turns out, he's not all that great of an actor. Now, if they'd asked him to lay down some sick beats about anything other than his and Aradia's impending doom, everybody in this apartment would have come down with a nasty case of the sniffles. Obviously.

"I passed on my list of vegetarian options the other day. Apparently Karkat's best advice was to 'go somewhere, pick the meat out, and eat it anyway,'" Rose say wryly; Dave can hear the smack of John facepalming. "He had more tact than Vriska, since she appears to be of the school of thought that vegetarianism for trolls is the most hilarious things she's ever heard. Of course, given my list is still several years out of date, I'm not sure how useful it was."

John's voice sounds muffled. "Well, that's why the Internet exists. I guess."

"Find a place with veggie tofu bullshit hotdogs and fool Serket into eating one," Dave throws in. "There's absolutely no way that kind of plan can go wrong. Trust me."

Jade hums. "Hmmmm, well, she could be allergic to something. But also she'd have to be really super unlucky for that to happen, right?" When Dave angles his head slightly, he sees that she's shaking her hair out, the tie holding it in a braid reappearing on her wrist.

"Alas, distracting us with Vriska-related intrigue and conspiracy is not going to forestall this conversation," Rose says. "We can multitask, David. Changing the subject can't save you now."

With unerring precision, Dave frees his phone from whatever multidimensional storage pocket he left it in before getting tackled by Jade, and brings it up under his face. Trying to read the screen crosses his eyes so badly he nearly admits defeat, and tapping at the keyboard with most of his face in the way is annoying, but like hell will he let that stand in his way. "Too late, can't hear you over the sounds of me googling up Seattle's best vegetables in disguise."

"The dongers can wait, Dave," Rose says, in her best deadpan, before John snaps his fingers and exclaims, "Diggity Dog!"

Dave's instant response is to lift his head up. "That one. I don't care. That one."

"Thought you'd say that. Dork."

Jade crosses her legs and shifts her butt so that she can lean forward and look at Dave's phone screen as he googles the menu. "Aaanyway, yeah." She pokes the side of Dave's temple with a finger. "Dave, you've been acting weird and kinda shaky and crying and when WV asked why you were leaking, you said it was onion-induced eye sweat. Which isn't even a half good excuse."

This is betrayal of a magnitude Dave has never experienced before. God damn. "He told you about that?!" he says, letting the phone fall on the floor. "What the shit, WV. What. The. Shit." It could have been worse, though. If WV had let slip to anyone that one of Dave's earlier excuses was that he was cleaning his eyes to be better able to look at WV's latest masterpiece of city-building, he'd never live it down.

"It's not his fault! I tried to introduce him and PM to sulphenic acids when they asked, but I don't think they affect carapacian body chemistry the same way they do ours, so unfortunately your story fell apart." Jade pats him apologetically.

John adds in, "Also, Terezi's been muttering about interrogating you to find out why you're acting "really super suspicious" and that you smell like the "really shitty sangria made from the boxed wine of suffering."" He even makes air quotes as he says it, a phrase which is starting to nag at Dave the way unacknowledged puns tend to, these days. Shit, because they're Heir quo- god fucking dammit. "Soooo we're concerned. Plus if you don't fess up to us, she's probably gonna rope Vriska into it to play bad cop. The worst cop."

Rose crosses one ankle over the other, sighing. "We're worried, Dave," and she needs to stop saying his name. An unidentifiable note in her voice makes Dave's stomach lurch and crawl in on itself, a jolt of something messy like guilt and fear squirming out from under his control before he steels his face in a nice, unreadable mask. He's cool. He's so cool, right until Rose modulates her voice further still, in a way that makes her sound younger. Like she knows she's jabbing at Dave's squishy underbelly of Emotions, and is baring her own in some weird gesture of commiseration. "We're here for you. If you need us."

First instinct screams for Dave to shut down and get out. Second instinct agrees with the first. It's pretty goddamn basic; you don't talk about vulnerable shit, not if you can talk around it or ignore it entirely. Play it off, play it cool, and then quickstep out of the uncomfy convo like a well-greased eel on the world's fastest, most aerodynamic slip'n'slide.

Basically, he gets really interested in his phone again. He thinks he's found the hot dog place John mentioned. "What the shit is a veggie smoked apple sage hot dog, and why do I want twenty?" he asks John. Smooth. Smooth as fuck. Rose breathes in deeply through her nose while pinching it between her fingers, with an expression of deep, unreadable intent - but then she emits a garbled 'hrmrrmglg' noise while breathing out, which kind of ruins her vibe. Dave continues scrolling.

A huff from on top of Dave, and Jade scoots her butt off him. He didn't think she'd be able to sit still for too long. Now, all he has to do is roll out the front door before anyone's the wiser -

"We know about Droog, okay!" Jade says, picking at the rubber bands on her fingers and looking ready to cry or something as she lays down, her hair puffed out enough that she's looking at Dave partly through a cloud of frizz. He stares at the phone screen like the drinks menu is the most badass thing in existence, but he can't seem to make the letters form words, so he kind of just reads the same line over and over again while Jade awkwardly tiptoes her way to a conclusion. "I overheard Doctor Lalonde and Bro talking about how she did something bad when you were little, and, uh...A version of you died a little? It sounded pretty not awesome."

Oh shit, it's like Watergate but with dead babies. Can no one keep their mouth shut for more than five seconds in this hot mess of an apartment complex? He's getting Nixoned all over the place. Hell, Bro and Momlonde have been shacked up at the lab to keep the Midnight Crew somewhere they can't rain shit and hellfire and shit that has been set on fire inspired by the power of actual literal troll Satan upon the greater Seattle area, so apparently the lack of goddamn discretion is catching.

He can't believe it comes down to Aradia of all people not to have spilled the last of the beans. Then again, Aradia's pretty good at chuckling and disappearing whenever she feels like orchestrating some fresh hell in their near future, so maybe she's conveniently not spoken to anyone else about their shared major goddamn problem since he last saw her. Almost anyone who was in the memo she and Dave got un-invited to apparently knows they're getting shat all over by the Lord of Time, but the space lady supreme didn't say more than 'curses,' apparently.

Nothing about probably not living to see the end. Thank fuck. Dave doesn't know which would be worse - having to watch John and Jade and Rose get all broken up and sad about it, or having to put up with the inevitable awkwardness from the trolls. He bets there would be super goddamn awkward shoulder pats and equally awkward avoidance. Karkat might cry a little, because Karkat gets weepy over shitty rom-coms with disgustingly happy endings, so that would suck too. Particularly since they only just hit the casual friendship tiers.

"Uh, Dave? Earth to Dave?"

Oh shit. He spaced out too long. Dave refocuses on the screen, John's outline fuzzy beyond the edges of the phone where he's sprawled out in front of Dave on the floor as well, and -

Jackpot. Dave shoves the phone at John's face. "Yeah, dead baby me, whatever. Dude. They have apple juice."

"It's not the dead Dave that was bothering him," Rose says, while John fumbles the phone and holds it upside down in front of his face, brows furrowed as he fixes the glasses Dave knocked askew. "Or at least, that was only part of the issue. Interesting. That means there's something else you're dwelling on."

"Rose, why must you assume such random ass shit about me?" Dave demands. "I will have you know that it was so traumatic I basically blocked the memory out entirely and went on with my life. That's super messed up. Go ahead, you can analyze it, just - go nuts. Now we should go help me get over it with apple hot dogs and apple juice and really dumb dick jokes."

"Drowning your sorrows doesn't work, whether the fruit juice in question is fermented or not."

Okay, that jab hits harder than Dave expects. He jerks back, more affronted than he wants to let on, and forcibly reapplies his chill to smooth out the telltale twitch in his jaw. Thank god for shades. But these three can read him probably better than anyone else on the West Coast, and even giving away that much is like turning on a giant neon sign shaped like the fucking triangle eye with text that says, 'CONFIRMED' underneath. "Just drop it, guys," he says, through gritted teeth - shit, reel it in. Loosen up the shoulders into a comfortable slouch, snag the phone from John quick as a flash and flick it up in a tiny spin with fingers that aren't at all shaky. There's a fine line between looking relaxed and looking defensive, here, and Dave already knows he's coming down too heavy on the defense. "It's not shit you need to worry about. I've got it handled."

"If it's worrying you and you don't tell us what's wrong, we'll still worry about it anyway," John points out. He's in one of his nerdy blue flannel shirts, and Rose is wearing a bulky green scarf that Dave knows for a fact she and Kanaya keep borrowing from each other, and Jade's actually in a sweater with sleeves that are too long for her instead of her usual space themed stuff. It's like even their clothing choices are conspiring to make them look approachable and open and horribly easy to talk to. He could lean on them, and they'd let him, and if he does that he doesn't know if he'll remember how to stand on his own afterward. "It's - I mean, if it's really something you don't want to talk about - you don't have to. But you don't have to handle stuff on your own."

God shit fucking dammit, John's getting too much practice saying soppy shit with his two boyfriends, because he absolutely straightfaced that shit while maintaining eye contact. That could have been a goddamn 1HKO. Thank Irony herself that Dave's shades let him stare at a corner of the desk over John's shoulder without being really damn obvious about it. "Especially not stuff that makes you cry," Jade adds in, as quiet as he's ever heard her, staring at her hands instead of at him and still picking at the rubber bands slowly, like a silent mantra. It's not fair. None of them are playing fair, and Dave hates that it's working. The words crowd up along the inside of his teeth, thick and choking on his tongue and in his throat, and he can't tell if spitting them out would pop the bubble of nausea or just swamp him with it.

It would be less fair to lay more steaming horseshit on them, right? They've got a million things to worry about already; they don't need to get all upset about something that might not happen. Aradia's a morbid shit. It kind of sucks that she's already counting herself out, but just because she acts like Dave should be going through his bucket list and drawing up a will or some shit doesn't mean it's a done deal. Dave shouldn't even be bothered by it as much as he is.

Any one of them could die, and not come back. All in all it is, in fact, a pretty damn shitty situation.

"Perhaps you can handle it," Rose says, hands knotted in her lap, posture rigid. "Go at it alone. But if you can't, and we don't know what's wrong to start with, that just means it will hit harder later."

Which would be worse: knowing ahead of time, or not? Shit. Dave doesn't know. Hell, all three of them might give a different answer if you asked them; he can't even begin to guess that kind of shit. "You want to know? You seriously want in on this shit?" He talks too fast; Jade's head jerks up with a sound of surprise, John blinking fast behind his glasses, and Rose braces her no longer too-skinny shoulders like she's sailing into a storm, so he doesn't wait for any of them to answer. Hell, if he just says it they can all laugh at how much of a pissbaby he's been over a maybe and there. It'll be over with and out in the open and oh fuck it. Just fuck it. He throws out his arms, feeling vaguely dizzy. "Me and Aradia are fucked. Okay? We're fucked in so many different ways I can't even keep track of them anymore, except that's a total lie. Any time we do something timey-wimey adjacent, we get a little more fucked."

He hasn't done more than brief pauses for days, now. Really, he hadn't noticed how tiny bounces back and forth in time and trading off with past and future Daves was a part of his fighting style until he abruptly cut it out. Everyone else in the god tiers has at least started practicing fancy shit with it, with varying degrees of enthusiasm; Dave's just saving up whatever time he has left.

"Because of the Lord," Jade says, with a weird mix of certainty and hesitance in her voice as she frowns. "It causes debuffs and stuff. We knew about that."

"Yeah, and Aradia doesn't think she's gonna make it." Dave can tell the thought never occurred to any of them before - not even Rose. The color drains from her face first, pale eyes widening at the full scope of implied fuckery while John and Jade are still processing. "She's pretty dang sure that it's only a matter of time before it fucking kills her, and my powers are a helluva a lot more attention-grabbing than hers. She's definitely not planning as if she'll be around to go through that Final Gate thing when it's time to play."

John's gone ashy, which is no good. Great. Dave fucked it up. He still feels cold and sticky and nauseated on the inside so hah. Joke's on him. Saying it didn't make him feel better, and now they're going to worry themselves sick about it. Smooth move. Rose moves first, standing up from her seat in a lurch that almost breaks through Dave's immobile haze, and the urge to run is real. But these three are the ones he would want to run to.

He knows it's bad when Rose doesn't say anything. She just walks around Jade as the other girl sits up, and then grabs Dave by the front of his shirt, half-pulling him and half-leaning forward herself until her forehead rests somewhere near his collarbone. John scrambles up the old fashioned way, looking halfway to keeling over himself, before a switch flips and he starts over with laser-like focus. "...We are going to throw you through that gate," he says, his voice firm. Like there's no room for questioning it.

Dave's whole body twitches. In certain circles it might be called a flinch. "You need me to help," he says. "Dammit, I can't just check the hell out before you guys go through the fucking ringer. Going in a player down is just asking for some technicality bullshit to kick in." John hits him and Rose like a meteor, except Rose barely moves on impact. Suddenly Dave has to talk around two heads of hair, one tucked in under his chin and the other on his right.

"Dave?" Jade says, wrapping her arms around all three of them, "Please just let us save your butt, okay? Cool? Cool."

"We'll plan around it," Rose says darkly into his shirt, her hands closed into white-knuckled fists. "I'll discuss options with the White Queen. You are not going to die."

Dave tilts his head back to stare at the ceiling, his eyes burning but dry as bone. "Yeah," he mumbles, too late. "Cool."

-

PM is way goddamn sassier than the White Queen. She and WV are in some kind of perpetual battle to see who can be sassier; PM is more articulate and snappy when she gets fed up, but WV is a firecracker who gets bite-y when someone questions the value of him amassing a large enough population to actually vote on representatives in his adorable government. He and Terezi dragged the US political system to hell and back between them, but then Terezi started laughingly describing old Alternian ideas of how government and law-enforcement worked and WV bit her calf with all the tenacity of a democrat scorned. Terezi howled with laughter instead of immediately whacking him, and by the time Dave called Kanaya in a panic to wade in and drag them apart, the two had started fighting over the chalk and Vriska had produced popcorn like this was quality entertainment.

Whatever. Dave's actual point in this runaway train of thought is that PM isn't afraid to roll her eyes and start explaining just how dumb and silly they are about game stuff. Someone lets it slip to her that Rose, Eridan, and Feferi have all been possessed by this point, in addition to a shit ton of people trying to fight Horrorterrors head on, and she rounds them all up to lecture them about just how poor their decision making skills are. It evolves into an intense discussion of the convenience of personally delivered/mailed messages versus instant messaging, but the discourse gets wildly sidetracked when PM, embarrassed, switches to discussing the complex relationship between the Wind aspect and the mail to avoid admitting she and AR could have warned them all about Gl'bgolyb ahead of time if they'd just used a phone.

Look, Dave could not give even half a shit about the metaphysics of the parcel pyxides system. What he cares about is a day later, when PM talks about weird Knight shit. Spades Slick turning up out of the blue to harass everyone when Jade does one of her periodic bounces to and from the lab needs some serious explaining before PM will stop attempting to skewer him with a borrowed piece of shit sword, but after that she's all well of course the Knight would be able to swear an oath of loyalty! That should be one of the first things you learn to do! She isn't moved by the argument that Sburb has the steepest fucking learning curve in the history of deadly reality-altering vidya games.

But hey. It reminds Dave that there is still shit to get done before the game hits them in three days. They're gearing up to go to Vegas Friday night and put their plan of action into motion at some point on Saturday; they'll be tackling the Felt one way or another long before they need to worry about jettisoning Dave through a gate that doesn't technically exist yet. Until then (and he's still not one hundred percent down with John and Jade's plan to kick him into the next reality before he can get wrecked) he's still got to watch their backs.

Guess what. If there's an easy, cheatsy-doodle way of piling bonuses on to balance out his current Lord-inflicted debuffs? He's gonna do the thing. According to PM, swearing to protect anyone who's a player will do good shit, but Heirs and Princes can lead to absolutely broken roleplaying bonuses. Sign him the fuck up for that shit.

"John," he says, bursting out onto the roof with enough goddamn vim and vigor to make Jade green with envy. "It's time."

"For what?" John asks, looking up. And ahhh, shit. The roof/pool area is pretty consistently occupied at all hours of the day, because Feferi thinks waking up at dawn to dunk people is the most refreshing way to start the day and by the evening Vriska has Eridan doing laps that drive everyone out of the area until the waves settle down and the water (mostly) goes back in the pool where it belongs. At noon it's usually clear while everyone hits the kitchen or nearby food sources like...like a gang of ravenous young adults.

Yeah. People are starting to notice that the technically not-open apartment complex is, in fact, inhabited. There is definitely an old lady across the street who has started bringing them casseroles in an attempt to wiggle her way in with a kindly, elderly lady act to spy on them in their natural habitat and get the hot gossip. Karkat and John's lusus got into a goddamn cagefight with the dog lusus thing whose troll walks it along the sidewalk every day like clockwork, and between Vriska shrieking out the odds and calling for bets, and Karkat shrieking even louder and threatening to haul Crabdad to the ocean and release him into the wild on his own, they nearly got the cops called on them. Which would be ten different kinds of uncool, considering they're not at all trying to hide the evidence that they're practicing with super powers up here on the roof. Dave doesn't take the police seriously as a general rule, but that Ace Dick guy is just a total jerk.

Anyway, yeah. John's up here with Gamzee, Nepeta, Tavros, Sollux, and Feferi, with Crabdad snoozing by the poolside, which is either the best or worst combination of people Dave has ever seen together in one setting. No - no, okay, Equius is here too, though pinpointing his exact location is a goddamn nightmare these days when Dave can even be assed to try. The blueblood mutters and it comes out completely unhearable, yet Nepeta obediently reaches over and rotates Tavros's ankle for him, so she must have heard something. They're all in sweatpants and other workout clothes that have been sweat through, except for Sollux, who's just levitating a couple of chairs and looking irritable at the lack of computers anywhere on the roof. Gamzee and Feferi appear to be competing to see who's more bendy at yoga poses and Gamzee's winning, but Dave personally thinks that it's not a fair contest when the person bending over to tuck his head between his ankles probably has the ability to dislocate his fucking spine and casually shit all over the competition.

Said clown gives a honking laugh. God dammit, stop that. Dave is trying to get around to serious business here, and he keeps getting distracted. He went all the way to Walgreens to get everything ready for this shit. "We're doing this shit," Dave says emphatically, "right here and now. We're making it happen. Are you ready for what I'm about to lay down, here?"

John stops stretching to wrap his hands around his heels and uses an arm to support his weight as he hops his feet up under him in a crouch. "Wait, like a practice fight?" he asks, which makes Nepeta and Feferi both look up, interest piqued. Tavros just looks worried, but that's one of the brownblood's default expressions, so...


"Nah, man. I'm a dude of my word." Dave thinks he hears someone coming up the stairwell, but he's a little busy here so whoever else is about to barge in on this shit is gonna have to deal. He strides forward the slow way. He's got the cape out and everything for maximum ironies (though fuck that dumb hood), and he can tell the exact moment the Breeze jumps in to help out, a machine-gun patter of giggles going off in his ear as it starts fluttering his cape in a dramatic wind. John's stuck halfway between crouching and standing up, his eye going to the side with 'what the fuck' written all over his face.

Perfect. Dave drops to one knee, whips a blue raspberry Ring Pop out of his pocket, and takes John's free hand to put the Ring Pop on his palm. "Bruh."

John opens his mouth and shuts it. Words are overrated anyway. "Bruh," he finally replies, and oh yeah. There it is. Dave can hear it - the faint tremblings of someone who is about to bust out in tears of laughter at the most excellent of ironies. The jig is up before it really got started, which frees Dave up to let the corner of his mouth tick up in a smirk.

"A long ass time ago, I made you a broposal. Actually, I think I still have that shit saved on my phone, which means we can get it framed and hung on the wall and shit -"

The faint whine of barely-repressed laughter sneaks out through John's nose. "Dave, I'm not gonna be able to keep a straight face for much longer," he says.

And then someone starts screaming. Like, legit 'death is nigh' wailing. This is only a minor distraction from the irony at hand, here, but Dave still twists around to face the source because, well. Death wailing.

Oh jesus fuck on a cactus, it's Karkat. "Dude," Dave says, reproachfully, but Karkat just lets out another ear-piercing scream and continues pointing at the tableau of John and Dave.

Naturally, this sets off Crabdad, who jolts out of his nap with a lurch that sends him scrabbling to prevent himself from falling into the pool, skreeing in some weird harmony with the troll. "YOUUUUUU!" Karkat manages to say at last, still at the top of his lungs.

Of all people, Gamzee looks up from his extended yoga pose, looks at Karkat, then shrugs and goes back to flipping over into a handstand. "I swear I have seen a telenovela that went exactly like this," Tavros says to Nepeta, who looks like she doesn't know who to root for but is just excited to witness the random ass drama.

"Me," Dave acknowledges, deadpan, and then turns back to John, who's got a hand clapped over his mouth to smother a grin. "So yeah, anyway, I treat my main brohomies right, so the Ring Pop is a token of my deepest broffections -"

"WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING?!"

"- and if you feel like legit taking on the family name, I guess we could go harass Bro or some shit, but brolopement is probably more hilarious in the long run," Dave finishes, giving a solemn nod.

"KK, what the fuck?" Sollux says, setting down the floating chairs and looking annoyed.

"DAVE, YOU GRANDIOSE WASTE OF FUCKS, STOP MAKING BIZARRE PUNS AND IGNORING ME!"

John's sense of responsibility kicks in. "Karkat, it's okay, it's not what you -" he starts, while Gamzee balances entirely on his head and holds his arms out to the side, looking entirely too pleased with himself.

Feferi has stopped stretching entirely, and instead leans back on her hands beside Nepeta, bemused. "I'm surfprised. I've seen such dramantic scenes back home, but I never expected it here!" she says, bumping Nepeta with a shoulder and gesturing toward John. "Is it just them, do you think? I alwaves seem to be in the same area when they do these odd things."

"Go figure." Nepeta sticks her tongue out the side of her mouth as she grabs her tablet and starts marking it, Feferi leaning closer to observe the changes to the shipping grid. "I think we're all just weird. It's purrfect!"

"If you say so." Feferi jerks her chin at Dave and John, expectant. "Whale?"

"DON'T ENCOURAGE THEM!"

SS: What the ever-loving fuck is going on up here, you pissant brats?!

Dave has to move, now. He didn't expect to kneel here all that long, and there's a piece of grit or something digging into the soft part just under his knee cap. He stays crouched though, and maintains a straight face while holding John's hand, because he couldn't have engineered this better if he tried. Spades Slick rockets out of the stairwell and shoves Karkat to the side when the troll won't vacate the doorway, glowering at all of them as he buffets Karkat to the side. Karkat clutches at the carapacian, which just goes to show how little self-preservation Karkat has in general as a person. "IT. KEEPS. HAPPENING!" he shrieks, loudly enough that Slick's eyes bulge and he looks genuinely alarmed, the knife in his claw waving to point threateningly at everyone from Gamzee to Feferi in one fell swoop.

SS: What does. What the fuck.

He apparently doesn't see anything weird about any of this. Which is goddamn hilarious. Karkat shakes the Dersite by the shoulders. "That!" he yells, pointing at Dave accusingly. Which leads to Slick focusing the majority of his stabby-instinct in Dave and John's general direction as he looks them up and down, a skeptical look creasing his face. The sudden drop in volume apparently startles Crabdad, though, because the lusus tries to charge in Karkat's general direction - and slips on someone's abandoned pool floaty to fall in the water with a massive splash. Feferi skips over to drag the custodian out - by lifting his entire body over her head and setting him down gently on a lounge chair.

...God. Nepeta's right. Dave almost didn't notice how weird that was. Whatever; when have they ever cared what the neighbors think?

SS: And I give a shit about these people holding hands why?

SS: Wait, hang on, is that a ring? Who gave you irresponsible brats a ring?

Before Karkat can explain whatever hilariously overblown scenario he's worked himself up into a froth over, or Dave can aggravate the situation by purposely being a dick about it, Slick marches over and brandishes the knife at Dave. He doesn't go all out and stab anyone, though, so Dave assumes this is just a friendly warning. Or something. Out of all the carapacians, he gets Slick the least. The Dersite inspects the Ring Pop with narrowed pale eyes, and then rolls his eyes and throws up his hands.

SS: Oh for fu- this is some shitty plastic candy thing! Don't give me friggin' palpitations over anything less than a real damn ring. You got that, punk?

Surprisingly, this does not, in fact, appease Karkat's rage-brain. "You're doing this with a shitty children's candy ring?!" he yells at Dave, aggrieved.

Dave pretends to think about it. "Lol, yup." Karkat makes strangling motions with his claws that Slick has to duck under to thump Karkat in the side. At least he doesn't use the knife hand to do it.

Nepeta raises a hand. "What are you doing, anyway? I need to meow the exact quadrants we're dealing with here."

John finally has pity on them. That, or the fact that his fake solemnity can't hold up anymore under pressure; he starts wheezing with laughter. "It's not a quadrant thing, it's Dave being a dumb butt and messing with Karkat," he explains between gasps, mashing his hand against his eye as he tries to clamp down on the giggles. But it is impossible. The giggle machine has been activated.

Eh, Dave already knew he'd have to be the stoic wall in this brohood, anyway. He places a hand against his heart and looks up at John again. "Dude. I totally want to do the knight thing with you. Try not to swoon too hard."

Karkat makes a noise like he accidentally strangled himself, kind of like a dying balloon. Nepeta, on the other hand, drops her hand and looks disappointed. "Neffur mind, then," she says, huffing a sigh and putting the tablet down. "Fefurry, let's practice!"

A low grunt that sounds like, "No," emerges from a weird shadow by Tavros. Equius. Right. That guy. Nepeta ignores him and flounces away, doing a fancy roundoff kickflip thing to show off as she and Feferi head for the other side of the roof.

SS: ...Well, I didn't peg any of you as the brains of this operation, I guess, but wow. You already swore an oath to that Heir, you dumb fuck Knight.

"I need to lay down," Karkat announces to the sky. He actually gets down and sits on the roof, and only now, after all the dramatic yelling is over, does Gamzee roll down in a somersault and slink his way over to pat Karkat soothingly between the horns, a placid smile matching the painted one as he sits crosslegged and pats Karkat into a slump.

Wait, hang on. Rewind three seconds. "Wait, what?" Dave asks Slick, one of his eyebrows twitching down in confusion before he catches it. "No I haven't."

SS: It is literally right there where anyone with ears can hear it. I can't believe this shit. I'm going to find that space witch because this is ridiculous.

With that and one last (possibly well-intention) jostle to Karkat's side, the carapacian stomps back down the stairs, his irritated grumbles turning into indistinguishable brain-noise as he drops out of sight. Crabdad scuttles toward them, which would probably have just gotten Karkat worked up into a rage again, but gets distracted by scritches when Tavros pats one of his pincer claws.

Dave blinks. "Huh. Shit," he says, while the dramatic breeze under Dave's cape finally loses interest and peels off to make a beeline for Tavros. "When did that happen?"

"...I have no idea," John admits, shrugging. He helps hoist Dave back up onto his feet. "Uh...Okay, the Breeze says it happened when you were in my head. So. I'm keeping the Ring Pop, though, just FYI."

"The weird carapathian dude has the right idea," Sollux says, lifting himself with his psionics and heading for the edge of the roof. "Later, thuckerth."

Chapter Text

Sunday, April 6th

Her earliest memory is a matter of some debate. Joanna can't pinpoint when her ability to recollect her past life kicked off in earnest; the distant impression of a pair of fuchsia-drowned eyes frowning down at her, the golden sclerae almost eclipsed entirely by seeping, burst blood vessels, could have come from either timeline. Mother's patience for children or wrigglers was always in short supply. If she could have engineered trolls to be born fully formed and functional and by-passed the grub and pupation cycles altogether, Jo doesn't doubt that she would have. One of the perks of being functionally immortal - Tethys could have had all the time in the world to try again, and again, sipping wine the color of her eyes while entire generations writhed in agony under her heel.

Hoohoo! It makes her wonder whether Tethys waiting around for a pair of human children to grow up was a mark of uncharacteristic patience, a rare instance of tolerance in the name of inevitability, or a side effect of living for so long - what was a scant clawful of decades spent prodding two small humans until they could stand on their own, compared to the centuries Tethys already had under her belt? She missed out on two world wars to raise them and didn't bat an eye.

James never trusted it to last. He certainly didn't trust it to extend to John or Jade, when they finally arrived, and he refused to rely on Mother until he couldn't put it off any longer. Jo, on the other hand, likes to think she has the benefit of perspective, and two rounds worth of experience. Mother may not be kind, and the world will end before Tethys Peixes can be called generous, but she can be trusted to act in certain possessive ways. She values Jo and James and even that young Feferi girl to some degree, and so, to avoid experiencing a loss, she cares for them. Perhaps Mother herself doesn't fully understand her own motivations - she's not really much of one for introspection.

The real magic trick is not expecting more out of Mother than she's capable of. She'll demand a fully functional cybernetic life-support chassis to save James's life; she'll sail past Scratch's minions to snatch Jo back from the jaws of death itself. But Tethys won't move an inch to help anyone who falls outside that soap bubble of interest. When Joanna woke up with an artificial heart in her chest, Mother wouldn't leave her side to go check if John was alright. She waved a claw, rolling her eyes, and told Jo that Samuel had retrieved him instead, that she shoaldn't stress hershellf over it immediately after an emergency heart transplant, that it was safer for everyone involved that Jo lay low until they could figure out who betrayed them, who shot Jo in the first place. There's a target on her back in a way there never was before. If the game wanted her dead to complete a paradox loop, she would be dead - no ifs, ands, or buts about it! - but this is something entirely different, and so she and James worked behind the scenes instead. As they always had. As, it seems, they always must.

It means not seeing John grow into a fine young man, or sharing Sassacre's best-kept secrets of japery and wit with him, or any number of the things Joanna had hoped to see this time around. And oh, dear. She's lived about two decades longer than the last time around, which is apparently just long enough to push one over the line from well-preserved to the edge of rickety. The artificial heart keeps her ticking along, as measured as the finest clockwork, but time is in short supply for everyone, these days. If Tethys suspected even for a moment that Joanna's body might not be quite up to snuff anymore, she doesn't doubt there's a newfangled robotic contraption lying around gathering dust at Crocker Corp, just waiting to be brought to life - whether Jo likes it or not. Tethys would do cruel, terrible things for those she calls family, out of something just this side of love.

She is what she is. Cruel, and terrible, and viciously possessive. It's not just deadly charisma that keeps bringing trolls to kneel at the Condesce's feet - it's the knowledge that she'll fight tooth and claw to achieve her ends, and paint herself in rainbows before she'll let anything stand in her way. It's there in the bite of her smile, the careless way she lounged on the beach in their younger days as though her towel was a throne, the way she could snap a claw and make everyone in the room cower. Tethys would do whatever it takes to achieve her goal and if Joanna didn't know and understand that goal, she suspects she would have ended up just as standoffish and out of the loop as dear James. He can be such a silly duck. Where he's spent years going at it alone, Jo has tea with Mother whenever they both happen to be within a few states of each other. They trade favors and promises and news and really, when it gets right down to it, Jo made a beginner's mistake. Like flubbing the most basic of card tricks. She expected more out of Tethys than the fuchsiablood is capable of, and it's not until James meets with her in the shell of downtown Los Angeles that Jo realizes her critical error.

It was right in front of her beak of a nose all along, and once the immediate, unpleasant shock passes, she can almost admire just how crafty Tethys had to be to trick a japesmistress supreme. All she had to do was let Jo fool herself. She's lived two full lives, but it never fully sank in that Tethys's priorities have not, and never will, include John's well-being. Grasping the concept of caring about children was as far as Mother could willingly extend herself; grandchildren are another beast entirely.

James thinks Tethys not telling them about Samuel was deliberate, yet another sign that Tethys isn't to be trusted. She catches him studying her with unblinking eyes, and it's clear now that some of the mistrust has leaked over to taint his perception of Jo. The question's no longer whether or not someone has been hoodwinked, but rather who has been hoodwinked by whom.

Joanna did stay behind to learn all Mother's tricks, while James set off to make his own fortune. But despite all she learned in those years, this might well be the dirtiest secret Tethys has ever had.

("Joanna. Did you know," he asks, and responding with, "Oh, James, she did say you were upset by something," is a mistake on Jo's part. She should have known better. Mother omits when it suits her, and all she'd said was that she and James had met for the first time in ages, bitter and sniping at each other over every little thing.

She didn't say what. The fact that Jo kept in contact with Mother all this time turns out to be the least of what James is upset about.)

Jo suspects, through the slow, crushing pain, that this was Tethys's idea of being helpful.

-

She has the clearance to reach the Inner Sanctum of the Betty Crocker headquarters alone, but not with a guest in tow. A merry, chortling 'hoohoohoo!' is enough to charm their way past the first surprised employee who guards the kitchens that are open to the public, while a little more elbow grease and a threatening tap of James's rocket shoes squeaks them past the official corporate level, where it's all professional, sleek boardrooms and glass observation rooms, and into the levels where Tethys's...unique idea of interior decorating overwhelms the public image.

By which Jo means there are gold-plated statues of Tethys involved. They're not tucked away into subtle corners, either. Apparently they were commissioned for temples back in the day, each scaled up to about four times Mother's actual height, and Tethys considers them tasteful statement pieces that really brighten up the room. The rest of the décor down here isn't much less shiny - the gold trimmings and Carrara marble floor do a good job of distracting the eye from the fact that some of the other decorations more closely resemble polished troll horns, mounted like trophies. A troll in red with a lollipop in his mouth slouches up alongside Jo as she tries to tap James on the shoulder and make him stop staring blankly at the statues flanking the Imperious Hot Tub, but doesn't attempt to eject them from the premises. The oliveblood seems more preoccupied with a message on his PDA, twirling a coil of bleached hair around his finger as he unsubtly monitors Jo and James. Very few knew Tethys raised two human children, and most of the ones who did died unsurprisingly suspicious deaths, but Jo has been here often enough to be known.

"I did wonder where those went," James says at last, with a venting sigh. "They used to be in the foyer. By the time I took Jade back, I figured I would have to chuck them in the volcano to clear out some space for my own collections, but..."

"Never reef a giant bass gold statue of you behind, Jimjammeroo," Tethys drawls, emerging from the far door opposite and approaching them with...an odd lack of sound. It's not until she rounds the hot tub and sweeps up to them with a cross expression that Joanna realizes she's not wearing the high heels that would usually clack against the floor and announce her presence like a gunshot. In fact, they appear to have caught Mother just out of the recooperacoon (despite the fact that it's nearly noon), her hair slicked back into two deftly wrapped braids and coiled up into twin knots just behind the tall arch of her horns, the ends still trailing down around her shoulders where they've come unpinned. She's thrown on an enormous, fluffy pink robe with sleeves and a train that drags behind her on the floor, but under that - oh, dear. The lace is very see-through. In very inappropriate places. "It's not like that taxidermy stuff where you can just ditch it with yah spawn. #quality," Mother adds, stomping up to Jo and very deliberately not looking at James as she loudly smacks a kiss on each side of Jo's face. "Jo-jo."

"Meemaw," she says, holding out her hands so that Tethys can take them, the jolt of the traditional joybuzzer concealed in Jo's palm barely fazing the fuchsiablood as she runs gold-tipped claws up past the laced-up gloves to the crook of her elbows, where it gives way to wrinkled, liver-spotted skin. "Didn't you stuff old Lizzy after you gave her a thrashing?"

Tethys clicks her tongue, and holds out a claw decked out in rings to the oliveblood attendant. He hands her a golden broach, which she pins to Joanna's shawl with a flourish. Jo will have to sneak it back into one of the potted plants or something on the way out, under the cover of her shawl; keeping knickknacks from Mother is a recipe for disaster. "Hell nah. Stuffed the scary glubbin' monster of a lusus she had for a laugh - I towed Liz to the bottom of the sea and gave her to something hungry. Now, you need somefin? I wasn't expecting to sea you again for a while yet."

Jo sighs. "Oh, Meemaw. You've been playing the long con with both of us, and you know it. Please, let's sit down and talk?"

Mother tilts her head to the side, her eyes sliding over to take in James's shoulders rather than his face, and harrumphs, tossing her robe open to the side as she turns and letting the sleeve droop further and further off her shoulder as she heads toward another door. "Clam on then, you two," she says, her tone unreadable, and by that alone Jo knows they're treading in dangerous, deep waters.

Well. They have been since she brought James down here, so it's really nothing new. But Jo shuffles rather than she walks, most days - James' body is no longer his own, a chassis that no amount of tinkering with can assure either of them that Tethys has absolutely no control over. Not the best odds for a quick abscond if the gambit runs against them. James can't modulate his voice low enough to whisper effectively, not with the oliveblood 'escorting' them right at their heels, but he makes a good effort. "If she offers you a pastry -"

"I'll make you eat it, you old coot," Jo fires back, wishing she could have brought her canekind along, at the least. It's disguised as a spoonkind most of the time, a convenient fake to fool any of Mother's minions that might pass by her on any given day, but Tethys gave her the original specibus in the first place, and she'd know the cane for what it was. Jo's body aches so persistently with age and wear that given a cane to lean on, she would lean, and that's not the kind of signal of weakness she needs to blare at Mother when she's in a mood like this.

"What's got you and Jimjams rustled?" Tethys asks idly as they enter a room that reeks of recently terminated debauchery; whoever Mother had with her last night failed to conceal certain instruments of dubious use completely underneath the sofa, and Tethys kicks something that's more buckles than harness up with her bare foot, inspects it, then kicks it the rest of the way into the corner without a lick of embarrassment before tossing herself dramatically on the sofa itself. "Oh, yeah, kelp yourselves," she adds, gesturing grandly with the same foot toward a low table with a plate of steaming chocolate chip cookies on it.

James makes a spitting, staticy noise that might be a hiss when Jo hobbles over and bites into a cookie. She lets it sit on her tongue, sampling and trying to pick out the taste of something slow and creeping. Fast-acting poisons and sedatives aren't Tethys's baking style unless she's well and truly fed up.

Satisfied, she swallows before she realizes what the real point of the cookies is.

They're peanut butter chocolate chip.

Ice settling in her veins, Jo sets the rest of the cookie down and marshals her expression before meeting Mother's unreadable eyes again. "You can't deny there was chicanery at work," she says, her stomach unsettled. She'd hoped that bringing James along would even the field, here, but she's more on edge usual, and that's not a good place to be. "You knew, and you did nothing. You said nothing."

A gusty sigh, and Tethys lets her head hang back over the edge of the armchair, stretching and exposing too much leg. It's deliberate posturing to try to make them uncomfortable, and Jo ignores it. "I conch even begin to tell you and Jimboree how much shit I don't talk to you aboat. Esp since I don't see him more than once err' coupla decaydes unless I go banging on one of his lab doors." She makes a face at James, still speaking (nominally) to Jo. "Just spit it out."

"Samuel," James breaks in, rounding the sofa with too much stiffness in his movements, even for an unnatural body like that. He couldn't be more obvious about how hostile he is if he set fire to the shag carpeting and started making smoke signals visible for miles around; Jo can only sigh. "You knew who the mole was all along, and you deliberately led us astray."

Tethys starts to pick under one of her nails, running her claw into the groove. "Shell yeah, I did. And you ran off to tell Jo, narc-child. That all, or are you two gonna make my moarning interesting? Coups are traditionally attempted at dawn or at dusk, but for you, I can clear out my schedule."

Oof. The two of them couldn't go toe to toe with the Condesce even if Jo had brought in the big guns instead of just the little parlor tricks she's got in reserve, in case they need to make a speedy getaway. Jo gives a tiny hoot of laughter - violent succession jokes are always the bee's knees, Mother - to de-escalate, but James is still too riled. The trouble with growing old while one's parent stays as ageless as the ocean is that the dynamics get quite fussed, and when one tosses in the fact that said parent is also a troll with minimal parenting instinct to begin with...well. "Did you really think we wouldn't find out? Did you really think this was acceptable? You've gone too far, Mother. The things that poor boy has suffered through - we - I could have raised him with Jade, if nothing else."

"You keep doing that thing, you know," Tethys says, sounding nothing but bored. Jo begins to insert herself between them, one hand patting on the metal of James's front as she steps in and forward, gently nudging him away from the couch. She takes the opportunity to let the golden broach drop into the thick, muffling carpet at the same time, punting it underneath the couch. A fairly good piece of sleight of hand, if she does say so herself, as said hand floats back up quietly under her long shawl to dance back into place. Her body may be old, but these hands haven't failed her yet.

"What thing?" James's entire chassis shakes under Jo's hand, one of the few signs with his limited range of expression that he's well and truly steamed. "Salt my biscuits, I don't know why I agreed that coming here to speak with you would be a good idea. You don't care what you've done - you never have."

Jo can practically feel Tethys's singsong of confirmation bubbling up, and she finally shoves James back with a firm hand, out of the range where any troll, but especially this one, would be ready for a fight. "James. That's enough," she says, almost too tired to make it a proper reprimand. Oh, how she wishes she understood their mother a little less, so she could be as free as James to blame her. But Jo should have known better from the start. "Joanna -" he starts to interrupt, and she continues, feeling every year of her age, "You cannot make her what she is not. You cannot force her to care."

I should have realized she would not care about John. I should have remembered.

But last time around, Jo was dead, and Tethys had no part in John's life, and Samuel hadn't been twisted beyond recognition. All a brand new chance at the game won Jo was a chance to make new mistakes.  James sags against her, just a little too much even for Jo's gumption to support, and she recognizes the wrenching pain in his voice because it's the same as her own. "Blast and damnation, Joanna, look at what she's done. What we went along with, blind as anything."

Somewhere in the background, Mother makes a noise of derision. Joanna ignores it. "I know, dearie. I know," she says, closing her eyes. "I should have expected nothing less. She could never care about John, or your Jade." Or my Samuel, she thinks, but does not dare say aloud. Oh, my baby boy. "She is who she is."

"At least I raysed one of you guppies right," comes the faint mutter. An icy claw taps across Jo's shoulder from behind, drawing her down to sit on the couch, and she lets it happen as James draws away in silent, radiating horror. The heat sink that Mother is sucks the heat out of Jo almost down to the bone in an instant, but she puts out a strong hand to pat Tethys's all the same. It draws out a rare, low hum out of the fuchsiablood.

"There is still the matter" - Tethys groans loudly, her cold hand tightening on Jo's shoulder as she pretends to slump down on the sofa in despair - "of what you are planning now. Of what you both are involved in," James says, stern as anything, the quiet accusation in his blocky stare expanding to include Jo once more as he draws himself up. "What have you been helping her do, Joanna? I've seen what she's built in Tiksi, and I presume there's more elsewhere. Surely you see by now that this can't go on. We gave her too much of the benefit of the doubt, and now nothing good will come of this." 

And there's the rub of it.

Because James has the freedom of not knowing Mother half so well as Jo does. He can be bitter, and snappish, and feel betrayed over what has been done to John - what they all three have been complicit in, one way or another - and have the luxury of considering Tethys a threat.

Joanna hasn't had that luxury since she first learned the deepest and truest of Tethys's secrets. Whatever pain she feels, however she wishes she could discard the nuance and hate the hand testing the strength of her shoulders under the guise of a steadying, almost motherly touch, and finding her wanting -

"Oh, but it is good. As good as someone like her could ever be, which was why I promised to help in what small ways I could." Joanna sighs, and smiles, and hopes that when all is said and done, she'll find another way to make amends to John, and Samuel, for what they've suffered. Behind her, Mother cackles to herself, probably endlessly entertained by the fact that either of her children would be foolish enough to think she'd care about something like grandchildren when there were things like empires at stake.

Empires, and one nagging problem that Mother would do anything to solve. The problem of how to have an empire if everyone is dead.

As it would so happen, the solution is obvious.

"Oh, James. The world will end soon. No ifs, ands, or buts about it." Joanna leans forward. "But that doesn't mean everyone has to end."

Chapter Text

Tuesday, April 8th

He takes off to meet up with his contact right around the time that Dave sits bolt upright, seizes Gamzee by the arm, and drags him over to where Rose and Kanaya have set up camp in WV's latest pillow fortress in order to demand an answer as to 'exactly how many dimensions would a Horrorterror's dick exist in.'

Oriole doesn't want to know the answer to that shit. They were all having a perfectly good time, and then Dave comes out with that. Sometimes he doesn't know how they used to be the same person. Oriole has to pray that there's an anime convention in town any time he wants to go anywhere without a goddamn trenchcoat, and he somehow manages to refrain from walking up to random ass clown people and demanding they explain the physics of a noodle monster's junk.

Self-control. It's a thing.

So he does the sensible thing and walks out, which has been his general all-purpose problem-solving technique whenever these people push him beyond the bounds of reasonable tolerance. Which averages out to around two or three times a day, depending on how little sleep he's gotten the night before. Unfortunately, there isn't a con scheduled until after doomsday is due to arrive, so that's a wash. Kanaya did something weird to his trenchcoat - after he slips it on, he almost forgets it's even there, and it spooks him sometimes, to the point where he has to slap a hand to his side to reassure himself he's not walking through downtown Seattle flashing everyone with giant ass wings. She keeps insisting all she did was alter the fit slightly so it would slim his wings down so they were less obvious, but seriously. Oriole's not an idiot. He's fifty percent a game construct, fifty percent a glitch, and he can tell when weird shit has been done to his shit, okay?

(Not that it means he understands any of it. But whatever. Hard to believe that a few months ago, his life was as normal as it could get for a mutant freak.)

He also notices when he walks through a split second of summer in the middle of April. It burns like the desert sun, and he shudders and pulls his wings in closer against his back when the moment passes and the actual weather for today reasserts itself.

-- theandricsGriffade [TG] began pestering apocalypseArisen [AA] at 99:99:99 --
TG: there's something freaky on Belmont
AA: hmmm
AA: looks like a fragment of what would have been july
AA: nice catch!
TG: yeah, whatever

He starts heading west, keeping his head ducked as he navigates the crosswalks.

TG: that's happening more often now
AA: that it is
TG: just another part of the world ending?
AA: so it goes :)
AA: daves gonna start catching on any day now
TG: why the hell hasn't he yet?
TG: i thought i didn't have to put up with weird time shit anymore. i'm supposed to be free of this nightmare
AA: hmmm well its true you dont register to me as a guy of time
AA: :)
TG: thank you people
AA: but you are a game construct so it might just be youre more in tune with the universe as it breaks down
TG: oh, awesome. wonderful. of course
AA: have you noticed how choppy the days have gotten
AA: sometimes were barely getting snippets! and im not sure today technically exists at all in some respects
TG: i have absolutely no idea what you're talking about on that front, and i think i'm glad
AA: ill keep an eye on things dont worry
AA: and maybe see what gamzee has to say about it
TG: more power to you. i don't even want to know what's going on in that guy's head
TG: anyway. later
AA: bye bye!

-

It took three dead drop messages to arrange this meeting; either the feds running around or the lingering presence of the Midnight Crew's operations have the network in this region on high alert, extracting way more passwords from him and hiding the real meeting place three codes deep in an otherwise nonsense letter. Oriole hasn't had to drag some of this shit up for years, since he helped with smuggling a new limeblood wriggler to somewhere far, far away from Baltimore, where it wouldn't ever be connected to the one out limeblood in the States.

He's expecting to meet with someone his own age or so - he's bounced around a lot, but never really made it to the Pacific Northwest before, so he's not familiar with the Divested's network in the area. After he orders a drink (the waiter barely glances at his fake ID, which is weird), he sits with his legs sprawled out and messes around with the silverware for a while, occasionally rubbing at the side of his face to make his feathers lie flat. There are down feathers along the underside of his jaw and inching down toward the corners of his eyes that've never grown there before, and the worst part is that he didn't even notice it until Terezi pointed it out. He's been an oversized orange crow person for his entire life, but he's never before been worried about turning even more bird. Achieving maximum birdage. Going full corvid. How awkward would that be?

Whatever. Five days til the apocalypse. He's not going to have enough time to finishing reverting back into a giant pumpkin orange crow. This is the home stretch, baby.

He's barely a sip into his (really, really bland) drink before a tall shadow falls over the table, and the faint scent of lavender and lemon wafts over him, making his feathers prickle out of control. Stiffening, he straightens his shoulders, and deliberately slides his hand over the top of the drink in the faint, meager hope that it'll just look like a really short glass of soda. But it's probably already too late; it's hard to fool a nose like hers. Sure that his face is glowing neon orange with the force of his embarrassment, Oriole looks up into the stern, motherly disapproval of the Divested with a wince.

Most of the faint lines visible on her face are old laugh lines - the corners of her eyes are a thatch of crow's feet. There's more jade iridescence in the long pieces that escape her headscarf to frame her face and fall to her shoulders than he remembers. Confusion creases her brow for an instant before she shakes her head and pulls out the chair opposite him, sitting in a rustle of dark fabric. "I hardly knew you from afar, Dave," she says, her barely accented voice quiet, and he can't hide the flinch. Not from her. "You conceal yourself well."

If she's not going to mention the drink, he's not gonna push his luck. He's friggin' fantastic at keeping his damn mouth shut, unlike some people. "M'not doing anything differently," he mumbles, dragging his eyes away from hers before the general aura of gentle, patient concern can drag a condemning apology out of him. The Divested has been caring for kids of all shapes and sizes since longer than Oriole's been alive, and she's got it honed to an art form. Not everyone she saves winds up part of the network, but enough do that the possibility of making her disappointment is a formidable preventative measure.

That, and the fact that she takes threats to her children very seriously. Agents of the Condesce who stumble on one of her nests or safeharbors usually find themselves on the bloody end of a battle-scythe.

"I didn't realize you were in town," he says, eyes wandering further to the side, as if the other patrons or the waterfront view are absolutely fascinating. Still covering the glass with one hand, Oriole picks up the water that came with it using the other, nomming nervously on the straw before he catches himself and spits it out. "Um. Yeah."

The Divested's eyes fall shut; Oriole sees it happen in his peripheral vision, but still doesn't look back at the table. Aside from the general embarrassment flushing through his system, there's something - something odd that makes him flick his eye toward the water a second time, and a third. What is it... "Your note was of grave concern," the Divested says at last, and Oriole jumps a little in his seat in surprise. "Moreover, given recent events in Houston, I have been worried about you. What happened there, Crow?"

At least she's switched to something that reminds him less of how extraneous he is. "I figured out some stuff about these guys who messed with me a while back. They're just - bad news in general, and I shouldn't have dragged the others into it. Won't happen again," he says, mumbling by the end, and then ending with a deep groan as he realizes why he can't stop frowning. There's something really, weirdly familiar about the hair of the dude standing with his back to the cafe's patio area - with a side of oh, right, the angled shades and popped collar are a dead giveaway. For chrissakes. Oriole furiously tries to disguise his look of realization by forgoing the straw and chugging the water straight out of the glass, ice bumping against his nose, but seriously. He's stuck between the Divested and Bro, which means he's officially screwed.

The Divested's expression flips from disappointed mom to wary in a flash, her eyes following Oriole's before he covers it up. He should have worn a pair of dumbass shades for this. She probably wouldn't know exactly who or what twigged him to the fact that they're being watched except that Striders in general aren't fucking subtle. I mean, spiky anime haired asshole clan leader over there, a kid who can whip a sword out of thin air these days, a girl who flashes a golden magic eye whenever she uses her weird seer bullshit, and then there's Oriole, who's - oh shit, he is in an anime.

It's such a fucking Dave thought that he gags on an ice cube.

Then Bro, being a total asshat, flashes out of sight, sun glinting off his shades for a split second (god damn it) and reappears right next to the table, midway through the process of spinning a chair around to sit in it backwards like a pretentious douche.

The Divested, naturally, seizes the entire table and flips it at Bro's face, rising from her seat in one motion, because she's like a century old and has the reflexes of a troll who's spent 50% of that time fielding assassination attempts from the big C. Oriole's alcohol flies wildly in a spinning arc, droplets flying everywhere in a way that would be pretty and shit if Bro hadn't just tried to stab the Divested through the table. The jadeblood shoves a claw up her heavy sleeve, going to draw a makeup compact and go fucking nuclear-powered Sailor Saturn or something all up in this poor, unsuspecting restaurant.

Oriole finally removes his nose from the glass of water, one eye twitching more than the other, and asks, voice cracking, "Can we not?"

-

By all rights, they should all get blasted by the cafe's manager. Causing a ruckus like this does shit all for this place's fun, family friendly atmosphere. Everyone else on the patio rushes into the restaurant itself in a terrified rush, and the manager comes out bravely to confront the two armed and highly dangerous parental units glaring daggers at each other over a comically flipped table - and then turns around and walks right back into the building. Self-preservation in action. Oriole's out of water, but the horrific, desperate gurgling of his straw sucking between ice cubes does break the tension like a sharp object popping a balloon.

"Sup," Bro says, as if they didn't just spend the last minute and a half making asses of themselves with this posturing bullshit. He blinks out of sight to grab the discarded chair and plunk his ass down on it.

"Greetings," the Divested says, settling back down into her own seat, reaching down, and setting the table back upright with one hand. "Your name?"

"Call me Bro. You?"

"Surmah, or the Divested. A pleasure."

If Oriole could slump down and starting texting Terezi in the RP thread and pretend he's not physically present, he would do it. "Weren't you busy being paranoid and stuff someplace that wasn't here?" he asks, only for Bro to shrug and grunt in reply. Which does not answer the damn question. Diamonds Droog's presence in the labs is the only reason the scratch kids got away scot-free without Bro riding their asses straight into 'grounded 5ever' and dragging them back like trussed up rabbits, but apparently Oriole can't get away with jack shit in this freaky family. He strongly suspects that Vriska's been sucking at him like a luck vampire, because she thinks no one will call her out on it if she targets people who can't actively sense it happening. The last time she tried it on Rose, she nearly got chainsawed in half. "Or do you just have some pathological need to fuck with me, now?"

"Probably that last one. Little shit," Bro says, mildly. "Why are you hanging out with strangers and getting wasted?"

"I wondered the same thing," Surmah adds. Oh no. Oh god. Two judgy-mcjudgersons fixating on him at the same time. For fuck's sake.

"Because, I'm a responsible adult with physiology that means alcohol barely affects me, so there." Wait. Shit. Wrong tone for dealing with the Divested - all that's done is got Bro to raise an eyebrow, and Surmah to raise both. Shit. "And neither of you are strangers. Deal with it."

"I am not here to police your drinking habits, just to learn why you chose to bring us into your vendetta in Houston," she says, deceptively calm. She's also trying to be subtle, not mentioning the network by name, but haha. Bro's annoyingly good at putting two and two together, so he's probably already cottoned on to the fact that he's stuck his nose into it. Great. "As well as to, hopefully, learn what you meant by -" Surmah clears her throat, and quotes, "- 'We're all pretty screwed. Tell Mah I'm sorry."

Oriole groans and drops his forehead onto the table. "I didn't think you'd get it that fast," he grumbles. The Divested operates in person mainly in Canada and the upper half of the States, but last he'd heard she was supposed to be in Brooklyn helping with the massive project of getting a couple thousand displaced mutant kids resettled in the wake of NYC being shredded. "Just. Look. It's not what you think. The network's not borked or anything."

Sending a note claiming the world was about to end, and that he wanted to sound off one last time before presumably everyone died horribly, would have just made it sound like he'd finally cracked under pressure - he would know, he got through about fifty drafts before he gave up and went for that 'short, ominous, yet tastefully vague' aesthetic. Five days should have been enough of a buffer before he had to face consequences for his actions, but again. Vriska. If he has to tag Terezi in to read her mind or some shit like that, he'll take the heat. "I'm sorry about the Houston stuff, okay? That was it. The whole 'we're screwed' thing was just...in general."

Bro is smirking. His mouth hasn't moved, but Oriole can sense the inward, repressed snickering from here. Ugh. "I see," Surmah says, folding her claws together and trading glances with Bro as if they're already bonded in annoying custodial sympathy and weren't literally about to throw each other into oncoming traffic two seconds ago. Parents.

Oriole guesses that's the issue. It's hard as hell to get a parent to see you as an adult, especially when they're of the meddling, heavily armed helicopter-parent variety. Unless there's some kind of major, life-changing crisis. But unfortunately, major crises are a dime a dozen, these days, and hell only knows the rest of the assholes back at the apartment aren't nearly as self-sufficient and shit as Oriole is.

Sure enough - "Nice try, kid," Bro says, probably speaking for both of them. Then he points with his chin toward the road outside the patio area. "Company. Fun times."

Oriole turns to look, Surmah once again following him with her eyes while her face is still turned to regard Bro as a temporarily deferred threat. All Oriole sees across the street is - a police car, loitering along the curb opposite. With the cafe manager speaking to the cops through the window, looking immensely proud of himself.

As he should be. That's some fineass grade-A logic, right there. The power of reacting reasonably and cautiously to people nearly strifing in the middle of your restaurant. Kudos to that dude.

Unfortunately, a dark van with a blue gradient bird logo pulls up a second later, and that would be the FVRT. Oh, awesome. Oriole's starting to sweat between his shoulder blades, and his awareness of his wings and coat suddenly floods back into the front of his mind from wherever it went that he forgot about it. Right, right, he's a glitched freak of nature, and now the feds in charge of keeping Seattle on lockdown against superhuman threats are about to start crawling all over this place. How do they even know which 911 calls are relevant to them, anyway? There's no way they have the manpower to respond to everything that gets called in...

Bro most likely doesn't give a shit; he looks like he could sprawl in his chair for days, total comfortable with the thought of sassing the cops. Surmah and Oriole, on the other hand? Not even once. The network hasn't gotten where it has today by getting caught by the police. "Then we shall have to resume this conversation at a later time," the Divested says lightly, rising to her full, stately height and tipping her head to Bro. Her eyes stay on Oriole, though, full of unabating concern. "Crow?"

And she doesn't know that there isn't going to be a 'later time.' This is all so fucked. With one last glare at Bro, Oriole stands up too, his hands coming down on the table to help push him up. The sight of his own orange hands stalls him out for a second, the curl of unclipped claws and the darker marks where the feather follicles have started marching down along the sides of his hands, getting ready to sprout new feathers he'll have to pluck to make sure gloves still fit.

He just blurts it out, one traitorous hand snagging the Divested's wrist before she can vanish in a whirl of fabric, before anything else can go wrong in his life. "What if I told you the world was gonna end?"

The Divested stills, and a strange look crosses her face. Like she's seeing him and not seeing him at the same time, or like what she's seeing doesn't match what she expected. "I would say...you were not the first to tell me so, Dave," she says, and the name barely registers. "Where - who told you this?"

They no longer have time for this convo. Shit. There's another dark van with a blue logo pulling up with less finesse, the back tires skidding a little as whoever's inside parallel parks with extreme prejudice - that foldout, standing sign never stood a chance. "Like, six different people by this point, I've lost track of who did it first," he babbles, relieved just to have the words out, momentarily oblivious to Bro sitting and watching them behind his shades. "So. Yeah. Just a heads up that it's - happening soon." Then he hops the low patio fence, his wings shifting restlessly in their cramped confinement as he scans for a fast way off the main road. The Divested follows him, though she's tall enough to almost step over it without much effort.

Belatedly, he wonders who exactly told her first. Does it even matter? There's nothing much any of them can do to stop this shit. "How did you -" he starts -

Too late. The back door of the FVRT vans bust open almost as one, and god, isn't this grand? Always fun to have a government organization after his goodies. "Hold up, you two!" an irrate voice shouts, as a short man in a disheveled uniform struggles to stay ahead of the pack without shoving people into traffic. Sure enough, when Oriole looks back, Bro's nowhere to be found. Fucking ass. "Nobody move!"

"My child told me, a long time ago," Surmah says, voice oddly clipped and close - and then the two of them split off in opposite directions, taking advantage of the rapidly clustering bystanders to get to cover.

Oriole draws the front of his coat tighter, dropping his head low and wishing a long, flappy coat didn't paint almost as big a target on him as giant orange wings would have. He speeds up once he's elbowed through a layer of confused crowd, and chances one (really suspicious, dead giveway) look over his shoulder to make sure the Divested is clear. He catches a glimpse of her - somehow already on the other side of the road, past the FVRT vans- and he catches her midchange, all the bunched up layers of dark cloth unfolding so that the troll who coasts away from the danger zone is a strikingly tall jadeblood in a flowing, stripy green summer dress, her shoulders and head covered in a light green veil and her dark hair unpinned to spool down to her waist.

Oriole wishes he could pull of that kind of quick change. No one's on his tail - yet - the feds are busy swarming the cafe and fanning out to search the crowd, still. Weird that they didn't immediately jump on him after that super obvious exit...but whatever. Oriole starts sprinting, pulling out his phone and skipping the hell that is Pesterchum to call Jade directly. "Please help," he says, before she finishes chirping out a hello. "Need an evac over by -"

"Give meee one sec - got it!" Jade says before he even finishes and the phone clicks in his ear, which is fair. Oriole weaves through a scattering of people and rounds a corner before Jade pops in, her black skirt swirling around her as her hand shoots out to tap the top of his head. They're back on the roof of the apartments in an instant.

And right over the pool. "Yikes! Whoa, sorry!" Jade yelps, dragging him back up. His stomach drops out from under him, yet another spike in his heartrate on top of the adrenaline already in his system, and his wings flap out reflexively as his foot gets dunked. But that's the worst of it, before Jade swings him out over the pool deck instead.

"Thanks," Oriole says honestly, before grimacing down at his sopping wet shoe. "Urgh. Remind me to get revenge on Vriska somehow. She needs to stop pulling this shit?"

Jade frowns. "Vriska? Ugh, don't tell me she's picking on people again," she says, rolling her eyes. "But glad to help! Just warn me next time you get a doohickey from Equius! I have to know about his void stuff ahead of time or the teleportation goes all twisty."

"What? I don't have anything from that guy," Oriole says. He practically feel the weirdness at work, though - the guy's name barely sticks in his mind for the split second Jade's saying it before melting away. Void player, another part of his mind supplies, but that's as far as being a bugged game sprite gets him, apparently. So useless.

"It's totally the jacket," Jade says knowledgeably, patting his shoulder with sympathy before bouncing off toward Crabdad, who's curled up for a snooze on one of the lounge chairs as usual.

And hell. He knows she doesn't ask what the heck kind of trouble he got into because everyone calls Jade when they land themselves in some fresh bullshit, to the point where it doesn't faze her anymore. But it still makes him feel like shit. The soaked shoe doesn't help his mood, either.

Being sidelined is gonna break him, one of these days.

He should have booked it with the scratch kids. At least then he could have done something useful.

-

Thursday, April 10th

-- JC-1996 opened memo on board ... at 02:13:10 --
JC: Is anyone there?
JC: Please, I -
JC: This is JC-1996, requesting assistance.
TG: it's the ass end of two in the morning. so congrats, they're all asleep for once
TG: what's up jane?
JC: Please.
JC: I don't know how much longer I can keep RL-2408 alive like this.
TG: - okay, getting jade and john up right now. where r u + what is happening?
TG: what's up with the numbers, i don't -
JC: It has all gone wrong. So wrong. I do not - I don't -
JC: ...---...
JC: ...---...
TG: just hang on, just don't move, okay?
TG: is rox breathing?
TG: jane?

Chapter Text

Wednesday, April 9th

He's not avoiding Gamzee, really. That would be a coward's way out, and Tavros is busy trying not to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situación he's found himself in. He has put wayyy more effort into avoiding Vriska at all costs, because there's being brave and then there's being stupid, and Tavros is happy to ignore Vriska's occasional sneers and loud, pointed comments whenever he wheels away from her, as long as it means not getting sucked into a vortex of abuse and probably death. Lots of death. One life lost to her was enough, thanks.

(No, there's no way he's avoiding Gamzee. So maybe it's Gamzee who's avoiding him?)

Also, it turns out no one here judges him for faltering, either (except for Vriska, who he doesn't want to count). Nepeta pounces on him the instant he feels like he's at a loss, drawing him into the latest gossip pile or roleplaying thread whenever he's at loose ends, and her intimidating, occasionally invisible moirail has the power to stare Vriska out of a room whenever she tries to throw her weight around. Rose says it's the difference between a meteor full of badly socialized thirteen year old trolls with no idea what the difference between rivalry, hate, and abuse was, and an apartment complex full of the same kids, all grown and messed up in brand new ways, but determined not to let anyone stumble and get worse, even if there's not enough time left to get better.

There is a group-wide resignation about the apocalipsis. But Tavros doesn't blame anybody for getting bitter and sad about that. The only one who stays genuinely positive and upbeat about that is Aradia, and it...creeps him out, a little. But she also helps keep him positive, and takes him to walk by the waterfront for fun, and sometimes shows him carnivals and parades that happened years ago around the city in glittering bubbles of memory. She's his friend; so what if she chatters about their impending doom with a sweet, bright-fanged grin? It unnerves him, but it doesn't scare him. Not these days.

So no. He's...he's not avoiding Gamzee. He's not.

Mostly he's just avoiding the humongous, diamond shaped elephant in the room, which tends to hang around even when John and Karkat aren't there in person. Maybe Vriska's right, and Tavros is running away from his problems like a wriggler, burying himself in silly RP games with Nepeta and Oriole and Terezi instead of facing the awkwardness. Last time he couldn't handle something, he spent the rest of the game flying around doing silly dream quests - how is this any different?

Well. It's harder to fly for extended periods of time, so that's one difference. And there's carapacians around, but they don't have any silly, fun quests to give him; Dave has a monopoly on WV's fetch quests. The one time Tavros met Spades Slick, three people had already been stabbed, and Tavros had noped out of there after Karkat got shanked the second time in a row and started screaming at the Dersite to put the knife down and play Uno like a normal person. PM is nice when she's not stressed out, and AR tries to pretend he knows all about wheelchair design specs, so Tavros just nods along and trusts PM to drag him away to see WV before AR can poke around the wheelchair and discover some of the really interesting (and not at all dangerous and thrilling) modifications Nepeta's moirail has been building into the frame.

Bah. Forget his wimpy fluttering; the next time Vriska gets mean, Tavros will - probably just try to avoid her still. Uh. Yeah. Maybe call her awful, if he's feeling up to it. And then fly away in a sassy manner, somehow. He's been practicing. Things feel a lot less big and overwhelming once you get rockets involved. This is in fact Tavros's expert opinion, as a guy who is currently plotting to go zooming around the city with Nepeta in the first test run of the Rocket Chair Mark 1.

Equius disapproves. But, uh, if Tavros lets things like that intimidate him, he's going to lose what little momentum he has. Not talking to Vriska at all costs takes a lot of effort; not stuttering himself into a coma whenever Feferi bounces into the RP thread and breaks out odd slang takes even more, and makes him wish he and Gamzee were talking, if only because there's a tiny chance Gamzee might remember Castilian slang when he's in a good mood.

Anyway. "We're, uh, just going over to the zo, and will probably not die," Tavros says, mentally commanding his palms to stop sweating as the shrouded mass of Equius draws up to his full, looming height over him and Nepeta. Nepeta's got her fists on her hips, stance wide, and if she had a real cat tail it would be bristling.

"All this would do is stirrup pointless trouble," the spot where Equius should be insists, sounding increasingly agitated. Which is, um, not an ideal situation as far as Tavros is concerned. "Nepeta, my answer is no."

Tavros is not an expert about this, but that argument never seems to work on Nepeta. She's kind of, um, contrary. "We'll be purrfectly fine! Trust me!" she says. "I already told Fefurry that we would meet her there when she's done saying hi to the mayor, and that's that!" She puts out a hand and Tavros hastily passes her the beaten-up brochure for the zoo so she can flap it at Equius's face. That feels like waving a cape in front of a bull to Tavros, because of all the coldbloods in the apartment Equius tends to crush furniture accidentally with the most alarming frequency - but he's also the most successfully moirailed coldblood out of the bunch, and as it turns out, moirallegiance can be terrifyingly effective. The diamonds here are real. If John and Karkat and...Gamzee are still working for a weird triad equilibrium, Nepeta and Equius have this down to an art, balanced even when they're at odds. Which is often, but usually in endearing ways where they take turns being the one worrying and the one worried about.

The mention of Feferi makes Eq-oh-what's-his-name - that guy's shadows deepen for a second, and if Tavros is intimidated by the fuchsiablood, it's nothing compared to Equius's reaction; one time he had to lie down in a cold shower for an hour after Feferi asked him to pass her a plate, pretty please, and Nepeta spent the whole time patiently patting his horns until the hot flash passed. Then the moment passes, and Equius resolves back into sight. "Then we will not be rude," he says, each word sounding pained. "We can proceed to the zoo in an orderly, law-abiding manner and not cause a scene before meeting the heiress."

"But, uh, what's the point of making my wheelchair a rocket propelled, uh, speed machine, if we never use it?" Tavros points out, patting the top rim of a wheel. If he squints, he can make out Equius's grimace of regret through the curtain of oil-black hair - only one tooth is chipped today, which is a good sign. Teeth grinding would lead to teeth splintering, and those things can go flying everywhere.

"To assist you when the time comes to enter the game, not to enable ludicrous ventures like this," Equius says.

"Rarg!" Nepeta throws the brochure at Equius' chest and then pokes him. "Come on! When we get back, I'll do the whole hour of quietly lying down and stretching and being bored without cheating!" She's technically not supposed to be up and active at all, really, but her ribs and lungs healed faster than they would have for a normal person. Tavros would feel bad about helping her evade physical therapy and stuff like that, but she kinda skipped right past it to beating Karkat in practice.

Equius's outline sharpens to the point of solidity, and Tavros feels both more and less intimidated by the sight of the heavy bags under the blueblood's eyes and powerful arms exposed by the god tier muscle shirt. "Do you...purromise?" he asks, suspicious.

Nepeta leaps on the opening. "I pinky purromise!" she says, pressing close to seize Equius' hand and loop their pinky claws together, butting his arm with her forehead like an affection cat who really, really wants to fool you into feeding them twice.

"And I promise not to, um, floor it," Tavros adds. He's not sure what the top speed on this thing might be, but crashing into someone's house isn't high on his to-do list. He also has a very sincere face, or so he's been told.

Okay, no one has told him that. It's the thought that counts.

-

Equius flies at the speed of slow.

- is what Nepeta shouts, before reaching over and batting at Tavros's shoulder, hissing, "Furrloor it!"

"That, uh, if that was a pun, it was...really bad." Tavros has to be honest, here. "I also don't want him to kill me."

"He won't! Trust me!"

The truth is, Tavros thinks things are going pretty well. No one has yelled at them yet - or at least, not loudly enough for Tavros to hear as they cruise north. They're past the area with all the tall buildings and over the water, and Tavros is quite thoroughly perdido. It's just a bunch of green and grey below, and he really hopes Nepeta is still focused on navigating or they'll go too far north and wind up in a glacier or something. He thinks that's how it works, anyway.

...They should just have asked John or Karkat to give them directions. But it's too late, now. Also, asking Jade would be defeating the point of testing out the rocketchair's capabilities. The wind blowing through his (very overgrown) mohawk feels awesome, and to appease Nepeta Tavros checks to make sure Equius is focused on laboriously floating off in front of them, then spins them in a tiny loop. Nepeta squeaks and clamps down, their AR-approved seatbelts and overarm restraints digging into the soft of Tavros' shoulders as the world flips upside down. They slew to the left after the loop ends, which tips Equius off and causes him to turn his head, but he's still preoccupied with the constant struggle to float like a butterfly instead of plowing into the ground like a very heavy, very strong object. It definitely doesn't appear to come instintivamente like it does for Vriska or John. It's odd.

"We're almost there, so uh, let's wait until we're on our way back," Tavros suggests. "Going fast is not all there is to a great adventure."

He realizes Nepeta has undone all of her safety restraints when she hauls herself out of the sidecar extension and leans into his field of view, to scrunch her nose at him. "Equius is gonna take furrever if mew don't give him some incentive. And I can't reach his butt to kick it from here, so we meowst get creative."

"I can hear that," Equius grumbles, though Tavros has stopped being able to see him. That happens at random and he just rolls with it, because Nepeta always knows which direction to pout at. He honestly thought being friends with Gamzee was odd, and yet somehow it was only the tip of the weirdness iceberg in this group of friends. "Put on your seatbelt or so help me, Nepeta - no, stop this foolishness at once, or I will return us to the apartment."

Nepeta continues to crawl all over the rocketchair with abandon, her coat lashing and flapping around the back of his horns when she turns. "Make meow!"

That's all the warning Tavros gets before an unidentified (but probably definitely Equius) flying object makes the whole rocketchair pitch to one side; Tavros bites through his own lip by accident, warm blood pouring down his chin as he scrambles to hold the controls steady. Nepeta yowls and digs her claws into the chair padding. "No tickling! That's - not fur!" she gasps through a shriek of laughter.

The chair almost rolls entirely onto one side and his seatbelt cuts into his lap. Tavros's hair flies right into his eyes as he screams internally. "Umm, okay, please do not flip us over!" he calls. When neither troll responds, he looks down to the left at the empty space between them and the ground and tries to figure out what he's looking for. "Is that a park?" he asks, louder, as they coast aimlessly over a lake. He thinks he feels animal minds just a little to the west if he stretches his sense, but that's not enough for him to trust in case it's just, like, a dog walker or something.

Nepeta's head pops up from where it's trapped in a headlock of dark static. "That means we're close! Take us down!"

"We can land without more recklessness. Excellent," a voice rumbles. Tavros screams a little as the rocketchair's booster roar to compensate for the extra shrouded mass that settles in the sidecar, Nepeta switching from squirming protest to excitedly using Equius's shoulder and head to push up on and see further as she scans the green area under them.

Tavros privately thinks the rocket's wild careening should have gotten them more negative attention from los federales than just going really fast would have. Yet when they land in the nearest clear parking lot, none of the other people jockeying for parking spots give the rocket chair a second look. He guesses it must be a void player thing. He knows more about flarping than he does about Sburb, but he's pretty good at putting rules together. Equius mutely shows him the right button sequence to turn the rocketchair back into a perfectly unnoticeable wheelchair, and they all head for the zoo entrance, Nepeta scampering ahead to wave at Feferi.

-

The zoo is holding a celebracion for Earth Day that is supposed to last until the thirteenth of April.

This is, Tavros thinks, what Dave would call 'primo irony,' and he is quietly grateful that they didn't invite any of the humans along. Particularly, say, a human who would probably take this opportunity to rap about the futility of conservation in the face of planetary annihilation.

(It's Rose. He's talking about Rose.)

Feferi takes over the penguin feeding activity by force, and Nepeta is wholly invested in harassing the ocelots in the tropical rainforest building, while Tavros wanders over to greet the other animals. Which is, of course, when he almost smacks right into Gamzee on the Northern Trail.

For once, it's not that Gamzee pops in and out of normal space at some inconvenient time; it's that Tavros rolls along distracted, navigating the boardwalk full of zoo-goers and trying to get close enough to say hello to the elk at the end of the path when the person in front of him shuffles a pair of familiar unlaced shoes on the deck. "Brother, gotta keep your head up," Gamzee mutters, the sound just coming from somewhere just a little off behind Tavros's head, and he jerks his head up to see Gamzee right there in front of him, right before he rams into the other troll's shins.

His face paint is pristine, not the smeared, washed out mess Tavros got used to. There's a sharp edge of clarity in his eyes that was only there a few times that Tavros can remember, when Gamzee first turned up on his doorstep back home, before the pressure of rage and confusion swallowed him up. He looks just this side of calm.

He also looks like he's alone. Tavros double-checks, and then triple-checks, and then becomes worried. Because, uh, there is a worrying lack of John or Karkat in the area. Just a lot of old human people. "Er, hello," Tavros tries, still in the safe space between surprised and awkward. ¿Qué onda?"

"Nada, brother," Gamzee says distractedly, scratching his head. Tavros is already picking up on the difference - where mere moments ago people were parting politely around Tavros's wheelchair without fully registering it, they're now giving the two of them a wide berth, eyes flickering toward Gamzee with faint frowns and then away, as if the difference between what they expect to see and what is makes them uncomfortable. Better than outright fear, maybe, but still. Not fun. And weird, because Gamzee appears to have all his body parts on the right way, so he looks like he should pass without comment.

Tavros wants to ask if that ever bothers Gamzee. He's not sure he can, anymore.

"Just hangin' with the goat bro," Gamzee continues, nodding toward the overgrown, craggy habitat past the side of the boardwalk.

Tavros takes a second to pick out the habitat's resident, a lusus-white mountain goat just visible from here. "That is, uh, a goat sis," he corrects.

Gamzee's eyes go wide, and he lets out a soft honk-gasp. "Shit, really? Mother fuck. Sorry, goatsis."

The goat has no comment on the matter. She's mostly busy foraging for something to eat, and vanishes toward the back of the habitat. Awkwardness has yet to set in, and Tavros tries to power through. So what if he and Gamzee have been mutually avoiding each other for days? "There's also some goats back in the domesticated animals area," he offers, when Gamzee starts to look disappointed. "I think it's a petting zoo."

Gamzee brightens right up, his smile mildly unsettling but earnest, and says, "Shit yeah, my brother. Show me where that's all at?"

Tavros glances over his shoulder to make sure no one's coming up behind him, then spins his wheelchair around. "Sure," he says, trying to smile back. "We might run into the others on the way there. I'm not sure where they ended up though." He's got some idea of where Nepeta and Feferi were last, but Equius has been doing his voidy thing for long enough that Tavros is a little fuzzy on when he last saw him.

Though now that he thinks about it? He, Feferi, and Nepeta are all...very not god tier.

And Gamzee is here alone.

Gulping, Tavros smiles and shakes his head when Gamzee offers to help push him along, then starts wheeling toward the long path back around the zoo. Taking out his phone would be too obvious, right? Urgh. The best he can think to do is avoid where he saw the girls last, and hope they meet Equius before anything goes...bad.

Then again, Gamzee's humming to himself, his steps long and lazy as he matches Tavros's speed, and he seems more interested in peering at animals with hooded eyes than in eyeing Tavros like he's up next on the chopping block. Right? Right. Totally correctamundo. Tavros thinks he would know if Gamzee were about to snap, at least.

It's not like Aradia whisked him out of the way of Gamzee's last rage, so he has no idea how it went down. Right?

Oh boy.

-

They make it around to the carousel, where Gamzee gets distracted by the draw of shuffling through the glass walls to mess around on the painted horses. The pavilion is supposed to be open during zoo hours, so they really don't have to sneak in or anything, but that doesn't stop Gamzee from casually breaking the law and a couple rules of physics to slip inside. Tavros lets it go with a sigh. He's got more important stuff crowding up all the space in his head, and a couple of things he needs to get off his chest, and also, texting people without looking down at the screen is a lot more difícil than Dave makes it seem. He wishes he wore glasses or something so he could get the fancy smart ones that let Jade read memos without having to look at her phone all the time. Probably all he has to do is ask, since apparently technology is an amazing thing these days, but it's hard.

By the time he gets through the doors and the fence the normal way, Gamzee is hanging off one of the sticks that go through the poor horses, looking blissed out. "What's amiss, my Tavbro?" he asks before Tavros can work himself up to saying anything, swinging on the pole and walking backwards along the wide outer rim of the carousel to stay in place while Tavros awkwardly waits for it to slow to a stop. "Got a look on your face most unhaps."

"Uhm, I guess that's mostly due to the fact that I don't know what to say." Worrying about wheelchair-accessibility is a thing of the past, at least; Tavros hits one of the buttons to motor up onto the wide rim with extra grippy tires. Not the rocket boosters, though, on account of this is an antique and he doesn't want to set it on fire. "And also, I am wondering if you want to kill me, or something. It makes things, uh, super awkward. In many ways." Mentioning Feferi or worse, Nepeta, is not a thing he should do, probably.

Tavros puts on the parking brake, while Gamzee looks crestfallen. "Aw, brother, I wouldn't do that kinda shit on you. That would be all kinds of atrocious," he says, his shoulders slumped so that he looks small and repentant. Gamzee is, um, not very subtle. He sounds kind of sincere, depending on how much Tavros trusts his own judgment - 

The reflection in the inner wheel of mirrors, however, is just out of sync enough with the actual Gamzee that Tavros is slightly less convinced than usual. Now that he knows what to look for, Gamzee isn't actually all that good at hiding the weirdness. "Really? That's reassuring to hear, I guess. But also, you would do that kind of thing to Nepeta," Tavros points out, feeling rather bold as he does. Gamzee scuffs his foot along the moving floor, sheepish and with a passable attempt at puppy-dog eyes that silently plead with Tavros for mercy. He keeps going, since this is stuff that needs saying. "Which is, um. Distressing, in many ways, which don't think I'm explaining very well at all."

Gamzee's shoulders slump further. "Nah, I get it," he says, leaning most of his weight on one foot and rubbing the back of his calf with the other. Tavros picks up the cup of soda he has in the cupholder and slurps accusingly while he takes a sip. "I was guessing you'd be not down with ripping open that particular bag of harshwhimsy. And so maybe, we're not cool anymore?" Gamzee's voice gets smaller and smaller, until Tavros has to strain to hear him over the slurping. 

No one is sitting on any of the carved horses near them, which makes having this conversation in public a little easier. He stops slurping because one, it makes him feel like an asshole, and two, it's not actually all that satisfying. "I guess I don't know what I was expecting," Tavros says, shrugging. "I knew there was stuff you weren't telling me, or were trying to tell me but I didn't understand. But, uh, it was still kind of not nice of you. Like, maybe you could have asked a little more nicely if people wanted to die and come back with magic pajamas, and stuff? So possibly your approach needs works," he concludes, feeling like he's gotten somewhat off track. What was the point of this, again? Ugh.

But Gamzee looks like he would be studiously taking notes if he had a pen and paper on him, nodding intently along with Tavros's words. "My other windy bro was saying the same thing, so I guess I should probably get that shit on lock, if both of you are thinkin' on it the same way." Gamzee nods harder, then stops, looking sheepish again. Then he eases backwards to sit sideways on one of the horses, one foot swinging while he looks down at his hands. "I got all kinds of busy with all the shit I was juggling. Lots of fuckin' balls in the air, y'know. And once I get goin', it's hard to stop, you feel?"

"Is that like having irons in the fire?" Tavros asks, fighting the urge to roll his eyes at the thought.

Gamzee's expression turns into a pained scowl that Tavros totally understands. "Motherfuckin' Vrissis," he mutters, a little too dark for Tavros to be totally okay with it. "You're here speakin' ill truths at me, but I ain't the brother you gotta watch for aiming at your back. Don't get too chill around her, Tavbro. That sister's mean."

A laugh accidentally escapes Tavros, the sound carrying over the general noise of the children on the other side of the carousel and abrupt enough that he thinks it spooks him and Gamzee. "That's, um, somehow not surprising at all, haha," he says, trying to explain. "Vriska's always scary. About most things, but especially games." If she weren't gunning for him, Tavros would be a lot more surprised. That's, like, Vriska's favorite pastime. "Thank you, uh, for the warning, though." Gamzee's teeth flicker in a tiny, sharp grin as Tavros winds down, the humor of it hitting both of them at once. Tavros promptly puts his foot in it. "So, how are things? In general, and also with Karkat and everything?" his mouth says, running away from him.

Then his brain catches up with his mouth, and Tavros is mortified. If there were a list of things for him to not bring up around Gamzee after spending weeks making an ass of himself around someone pining pale over someone else, this would be at the top. All it does is invite in awkwardness and pain.

But Gamzee looks around, checks over his shoulders for the other Gamzees reflected in the mirror panels, and then turns back to lean toward Tavros. "Mother fuck, is this shit weird, brother" he says, with the air of someone spilling a huge secret. "How's a motherfucker to know who to pap first, is the real question. I got two papping hands, and somehow that shit ain't enough for the ridic amounts of shooshes that go on in these diamonds. There needs to be schoolfeeding on how to pull off this kind of frightrope balancing shit, on account of Karkat is a shooshmachine and Johnbro gets all cuddly and I am out of my league."

It's - it's just not at all what Tavros thought he was going to say. Gamzee looks like he sincerely can't believe this is his life, and Tavros skips from mortified to stifling giggles. "Really? Because I kind of thought that having two hands was only a problem when you can't do things like having more than two on accident," he says, unable to keep a grin off his face, and setting the soda down so he won't spill it between giggles.

Gamzee's head jerks back, offended. "Tavros. My brother. You have the gumption to go and call a motherfucker out on his extra fronds like that?" he says, hushed.

They're on the edge of something. "...Yes?" Tavros says.

He stares at Gamzee for a second, and Gamzee stares back.

It turns out that the thing they are on the edge of is laughing. A lot. It bursts out of them at the same time, and by the time Tavros gets ahold of himself, his stomach muscles hurt and every time they rotate past the woman in charge of the carousel, he swears she's giving them the evil eye. Gamzee's practically wheezing for air.

Laughing comes a lot easier when Tavros isn't the one in charge of worrying about Gamzee all the time. It seems like a really obvious thing to realize, in retrospect. Smothering a giggle when the carousel starts to slow and he sees that yes, the woman is glaring at them with all her strength, Tavros says, "It's good that you have two people, I guess, since it seems like you're doing better now. And I'm sorry for not talking to you for a while. Sometimes Vriska is just a total pendeja, but then sometimes she's right, when she says things like I'm a coward," he adds.

Gamzee sobers up almost immediately, rocking back and forth slightly and pushing the palm of one hand down on top of the other. "Coward is not at all a thing you are, brother," he says, mumbling part of it to the floor. "You're just ten different kinds of too nice, and shit. S'not a bad thing, except when I'm getting all motherfucking salty and delirious at you. So, sorry."

"That's probably your opinion, but it's still nice to hear, since Vriska's opinions are really loud and obnoxious," Tavros says, solemnly. The carousel's slowed almost to a stop, which weirdly makes him feel more dizzy when he looks through the windows at the still objects outside. He looks back at Gamzee, who's moving at the same speed as Tavros still, so that his eyes stop getting confused. After Gamzee recovers from another bout of laughing, Tavros sticks his hand out. "So, friends still?"

Gamzee looks at his claws, then slowly moves to grip Tavros's lightly. "Yeah. Sounds good, brother."

A voice calls from the front of the carousel room, sounding thin and distant from where they've come almost to a stop near the back of the room. "Excuse me. I'm sorry, but I have to ask that anyone who is not here with the Orr birthday party group please exit the carousel shortly. Please wait until the carousel has come to a complete stop before disembarking. Thank you."

Grumbles rise up from a couple of the kids scattered around the carousel, augmented by one ear-piercing shriek from a very, very young wriggler who starts throwing a tantrum in protest when her lusus picks her up by the nape of her neck and makes for the exit. "Time to finish going to see the goats, I guess," Tavros says, smiling. Gamzee blinks owlishly. "Except, I'll be honest, if we run into Nepeta, you should, uh, probably head home really fast." His phone sits mostly forgotten in his lap, the screen having turned off at some point while Tavros was distracted. Texting and talking in a foreign language at the same time isn't a skill he has, really. 

"Hahaha, you're probably right," Gamzee agrees. When the carousel lurches to a final stop, he tilts his head at Tavros in a silent question, and Tavros shrugs. He could probably offroad it off ledges even higher than the edge of the carousel as well with the many upgrades to his wheelchair, but again. Fire plus a wooden carousel. Gamzee eases down from his perch on the horse and lifts the entire wheelchair down onto the solid ground by the wheels, without bothering to look for a ramp. "Eqbro might all up and squish me like a big troll-shaped grape, and that shit would be all kinds of unfunny," the purpleblood muses. "Shit, Fefsis might try to, too. Think she could?"

Tavros doesn't want to think about it. Because Gamzee might be joking around, but Tavros is no longer sure there is anyone who could take Gamzee on without getting squished right back. "Don't worry, I will definitely protect you from people trying to squish you. Though I don't know how much good I would do," he says, patting a cold hand.

Gamzee gives him a toothy grin, and starts toward the exit. "You just keep being you, brother," he says. "And we'll all be good and chill for a while, I think. There won't be no mad ruckus, yet."

(Not yet.)

Chapter Text

Thursday, April 10th

They should never have come here. They've made a huge mistake.

A great man once said crying was acceptable only at funerals and the Grand Canyon, and Jane absolutely refuses to let this come to a funeral. Jake has her phone now, even though he can barely hold it with the tendons in his hands cut up, because she needs both hands to apply pressure. Tears bob in the corners of his eyes - whether it's terror or anguish, Jane can't tell - as he fumbles to answer the line. It must be Jade. It has to be Jade.

Jane just can't say for a fact whether she's starting to see red, to think red because she's about to break next (she cannot) or because there's just so much blood welling up between her fingers. It's drenching her palms, slick and warm (she dropped the phone, didn't she?) and leaves sticky lines down Roxy's throat. Her hair has turned into gummed up red curls.

"I don't - oh for frig's flippin' sakes, Jade, we don't know where we are!" Jake says, his voice cracking painfully with panic. Jane would help him go outside to assess the area for identifiable landmarks, wherever that goshdarn abomination dumped their sorry behinds - but the brain, the little grey cells on which one must rely, informs her that one more task on top of its current load would drop her for good, and that would do nothing for Jake or Roxy. It's already a struggle to keep from addressing Jake as JE-1993; the last time she did that, he shrieked and cowered back against the wall of the airplane hanger they've found themselves in, and she can't blame him. The only person either of them can trust to hold firm is bleeding out on the concrete.

Jane's never been as good as DS-2409 at splitting her focus.

And look how well that worked out for him.

-

They locate Dienek through a combination of luck, skill, and sheer bloody-mindedness. In the end, it all comes together like a well-oiled machine, and Jane doesn't think to question it. Whatever their failings, the scratch kids are competent at some things.

(They find him because he lets them. But that's only obvious in hindsight.)

It's Itchy and Doze who give the location away, both of them relatively weak, low-ranking links in the Felt's chain of command, and neither straying far from Dienek's operations. "We should have new monk - monikers," Roxy says enthusiastically, as they stake out the alley where Dirk believes Itchy will be meeting up with his local dealer. She has one arm hooked through Jane's as she kicks her heels over the edge of the rooftop, and Jane doesn't know how to react to that. The part of her noggin that trained itself into silent, rigid obedience to appease Dienek's worm wants her to resist any possible lascivious percolation that Roxy might be attempting to brew when they should be focused on the mission at hand. Roxy has always been the freest of the four of them, wild and barely leashed, and that generally translated to JN-1996 as 'wasting her time with pointless chatter.'

But she's also attempting to suss out who she really is, without bowing to the last of the conditioning in her mind. It takes real detective work, here. She wishes she could ask John how he understood his own mind well enough to care about Karkat, but he's not here, and from what she's determined he was almost as bamboozled by that can of worms as she is by this, so there's no help on that front.

She sighs deeply. She doesn't think she's very opposed to letting Roxy hold her hand, though. In fact, this may be an activity that Jane has to investigate properly when she has the time to really put her thinking cap on. Right now, she needs to concentrate. "You already gave us names," she points out, clipped and too slow.

But despite the late reply, Roxy perks up, swinging their hands between them with renewed energy. "Yeah, but all I'm sayin' is, those names were made up under gogdamn duress," she says, with extreme emphasis, using her free hand to tap her temple with a look of deep sagacity. "I can totes do better. Plus, you're not as tightassy of a tightass as you were with Doctor Tightens Asses mucking around in your noodle, so they don't have to sound all intimidating and stuff!"

"Roxy," Jane says, with greatly strained patience, "please don't start with the tightass thing again."

"Aight, aight." Roxy chortles to herself. "Don't worry, Jake'll help. And I bet I can run some of our ideas by everyone when we get back for their supes profesh hero name onions."

Those mistakes are now very deliberate, Jane has noticed. They flow off Roxy's tongue in a veritable stream of malapropisms instead of muddled slurring of words, but Jane has had too much practice interpreting Roxy for it to throw her. "No puns, please," she asks, after a short sigh. Both John and Karkat used puns for their aliases; everyone is using puns, these days. Jane wouldn't care, but - "It's getting overdone."

Roxy appears to think this over, sucking on her bottom lip. "Even if it's a super awesome pun that inspires envy and despair in the hearts of all who hear it?" she asks, in a rush.

Jane considers this in turn. "Oh, shucks. If it drives people to distraction with how bad it is, I'll think about dropping my reservations."

Roxy pumps her fist, cackling.

TG: u hear that jakealope?
TG: we r fukcin golden ;)
GT: Loud and clear! Ill get the old thinking engine fired up. Im sure we can think of some real whoppers!
TT: Sorry. While you guys figured that out, our main man just arrived. How totally unanticipated by anybody.
TT: Clear the chat real quick. Jane, you're still good on point?
GG: Always.
TT: Then let's do this thing.

-

Jane can't remember the last time she blinked. Jake is stumbling through the process of hauling open the doors of the hanger the light of the morning sun catching on the last of a late mist over the tall grass of a lawn, between the runway and some kind of estate with a porch. It casts faint rays over the dust covered planes (and, oddly, an army tank that Jane hopes is just there for display purposes), and gives Roxy's face a deceptive glow of health. DS-2409 could calculate their timezone based on that - there's no way they're still in the states, where it should still be the dead of night (Oriole said zero two hundred hours - where are we) - but he wouldn't need to, since his GPS was always perfectly accurate. Neither Jake's nor Jane's still works, though, Roxy is in no fit state to access hers, and Jade's odd rubber bands disintegrated the moment they passed through the mottled carapacian's shadow. All of the redundancies that could have salvaged this are gone.

How many of their fallback measures could be traced back to DS-2409? How much did they rely on him? Jane should have known better. "You are not going to die," she tells Roxy, half an order. Stupid, silly Roxy tries to say something, and it comes out as a choke of fresh, dark blood, pulsing out the perfect line across her throat. Jane can't judge if it's as deep as it could have been. If Dirk had really given it his all.

One way or another, it's a precision cut.

The words 'You won't die,' can't seem to force their way out of Jane's mouth, no matter how she struggles, and if she loses words again to the blood red silence, she's not sure she'll get them back. She can't move a hand to brush the hair from where it's sticking to Roxy's face, and Roxy is still awake through all this, her eyes stuck following Jane's face even though her hand has gone limp on the stab would through her stomach, and only Jane's knee is applying pressure on it.

At least if Roxy dies, Jane doesn't think she'll fall back into JC-1996, silent and obedient. No, if Roxy dies, DS-2409 won't be enough to keep Jane from making him pay.

She leans in and presses her forehead to Roxy's, and promises that way instead.

-

Itchy and Doze are simple to deal with; without the advantage of the worms keeping the scratch kids pliable, they're just a pair of over-promoted thugs with silly hats, and after the kids track Itchy back to Dienek's current hole, they take the two Felt down with time to spare.

But Jane almost doesn't recognize the person standing with Dienek as a carapacian. Roxy and Jake's faces reflect the same unease that she feels deep in her gut; the difference between this carapacian and the few that the scratch kids know now is stark. She has never seen a carapace with marbled coloration - some investigation leads her to hesitantly deduce that this one was probably a Dersite at some point, if only because from what little she can see his eyes are solid white when they don't flicker an angry, acidic green. The black of his carapace is swirled with greyish, dirty-white, and the faint segmentation that would normally only be noticable at the alien's joints appears to have been hacked into the mottled surface with a serrated blade. He's not in wrappings, or even in something felt green - it looks more like he's been sewn into a white-lined, black straitjacket with his arms left loose.

There's something troublingly familiar about the carapacian. But with the brim of his hat yanked low over his snarling face, past the point of 'jaunty angle' and well into 'obviously hiding something,' Jane can't place it. He's a variable that not even Dirk knew to account for while they were planning this, and Jane's torn between insisting they push forward regardless, because the mission is all that matters - and trying ('trying' is the key word, here) to stop and think, first. The Felt's powers aren't something to take lightly; the powers of some unknown carapacian with no number on his hat could very easily sabotage this entire mission. Falling back...well, the thought might make Jane's teeth ache like she's chomped down into an ace cube, but it might be for the best. They can stage Itchy and Doze to look like the two numbskulls went and overdosed by mistake, regroup, and try again once the carapacian is out of the picture.

But this is a team effort, and she looks to Dirk, because brainwashing or not, his is the tactical mind that calculates what move their team should make next.

TT: I'll handle the stranger.
GT: Youre sure? I shouldnt have a lick of a trouble jumping into the fray if we need more hands on deck.
GT: I would feel better if i were helping you all in the thick of it, actually. Not hanging back and kicking my heels.
TT: You have a solid close quarters melee specibus tucked away somewhere I don't know about?
TT: Because if so I will be both impressed and put out at the same time. But if not, I'd rather have you hang back and cover the rest of us if shit goes south.
GT: ...No. Drat it all.
TG: dontchu worry ur handsome mug jake, me and janey babe goth his
GG: ...
TG: jam?? bb? : (
GG: ...Grrr.
TT: Good grrr or bad grrr?
GG: Indeterminate. You're certain about this?
TT: Unless you got a hell of an objection, yeah.
GG: Okay. Just making sure.
GG: Also, jam, Roxy? You know I can tell when you do that on purpose, right?
TG: f4get that, i can't believe i never called you jam before now
TG: it has such possibilities omfg
TG: my janejamjaroo <3
GG: Now you are just being silly. Let's go.
TT: Going is indeed a thing that is happening. Right now.

-

Jane never thought she would be happier to hear Jake shriek, "EGAD!" before in her life. He's in the middle of reeling off the details of the surrounding estate as quickly as he can, the odd clash of accents and archaic words dropped entirely in favor of a rapid-fire staccato that Jane can't quite hear over the sound of Roxy wheezing. He comes pelting back in through the doors, the soles of his shoes squealing in protest as he skids past Jane. "Yes, yes, there is!" he tells the person on the other end of the line excitedly, tamping his foot on top of a dusty, circular platform a few yards away. It crackles green electricity at him, and Jake yanks his foot back before the platform can do anything. The sight of green alone is enough to make Jane jolt, one hand going for a forkkind that - she doesn't have anymore. She dropped it to seize Roxy, and now she needs to obtain a weapon posthaste -

"You know where we are? Really? For sure?" Jake exclaims. The platform stops sparking, though Jane registers that all the dust is gone now. "Oh, that's capital news, Jade! Please hurry - wait, where? How far away?"

"We do not have time for this." Jane doesn't recognize her own voice; there's only her hands on Roxy's throat, and a dizzy moment where she's not sure what she's supposed to be doing with them. "Location - Jake, what does she say our location is? We can call someone closer, actual medical services."

Jake hunkers down in a crouch midway between the odd platform and them, the phone pinned between his ear and his shoulder as he uses both hands to frantically smooth his hair back. His eyes look marginally less panicked, until he glances at Roxy, gulps, and reflexively closes his fingers with a wince, tugging on the hair instead. Some of the blood on his hands is Roxy's, but at least some is his own; Jane would be bitter if she had the strength, that Dirk turned Jake's pistolkind into scrap metal and left half a dozen shallow slices through his palms and across the back of his hands to disable him, but went straight for Roxy's throat. "Apparently Britain, somewhere in the middle of plum frigging nowhere? Isn't that just jolly? Hang on - er, Jade, there's too many people talking at once, I can't understand a word you're saying now - "

An almost unfamiliar voice shouts loudly enough that Jane hears it blast out of the speaker. "And I said, let's goooooooo, suckers!"

Jade's voice sounds distinctly alarmed and equally loud. "Vriska, I don't think that's how it worrRRRKSS-"

-

Dienek seems too small to have had such an enormous impact on their lives. There are solid chunks in Jane's memory that are completely opaque, parceled out and discarded as irrelevant to reshaping her into a fighter. His short temper made for a childhood spent walking on eggshells; it only got worse as he needled his way deeper into their minds. Even with the other Felt's time bending abilities to augment his efforts with new information, and the minds of an entire organization of underlings to pour loyalty into, the scratch kids were his primary and longest-running project. He left scars that are never going to heal on all of them, not just on Jane and Jake.

But he's small, and his horns are rounded at the tips, and without the mindgrub urging her to shut up and obey, Jane finds it easy to override the conditioning with a burst of feral anger.

He's also not at all worried to see them, and when she realizes that, Jane's step falters. Roxy put away her sniper rifle after they handled Itchy and Doze so she could swap to her fistkind for close quarters, and she's a lot more formidable now than she was when her hands and legs couldn't stop trembling. Jake's busy keeping Dienek's bevy of assistants from interfering, the shots from his pistols popping off in controlled intervals from the far end of the hall, but even with this strange carapacian around for back up, Doctor Die knows what Jane and Dirk are capable of, and the entire Felt must know by now that none of the scratch kids are on his leash after the fiasco in Seattle.

If he is not worried by four of his most abused creations coming back to get revenge, it can only be because he's sure he has a way out.

"Oh, proszę," he says, disgruntled. "Come in, then, you four. Make yourselves right at home. It's not as though I am not busy enough as it is!" The tablet in Dienek's hands already has a fresh set of clawmarks breaching the screen, and he throws up his claws with such abandon that the carapacian pulls away with a threatening hiss. "Shut up, you," Die snaps, slapping sparks of green off his sleeve without a blink. Dirk should reappear any moment now to speed behind the carapacian and knock him down, so that they don't have to worry about any interference.

This close up, though, Jane can feel the hairs on her arms starting to stand on end as the carapacian's frame roils with space green, the curved, mottled scars pulsating and spitting in a way that makes him shudder and glower at the children with blooming, pained fury. If it is the same kind of power that Jade wields, something's gone horribly awry with it.

"Hey, Janey, do you wanna tell him how totes boned he is, or should I? I think he mostly just ignores me now, tho," Roxy says, the light-hearted, merry banter somehow not sounding forced at all. Roxy has a unique talent for that; sometimes Jane can't wrap her mind around how someone like Roxy exists, and keeps on existing in spite of the odds.

Dienek glares daggers at both of them, but especially at Roxy. "You heve embarrassed me and made nuisances of yourselves. Why am I not surprised you want to compound this further?"

Jane does have something to say, as it happens. "You are not going to do this. To anyone. Again."

"Pah. Enough." And Dienek snaps his fingers.

They're a well-oiled machine.

The issue is that Dirk is the one running the machine, running the percentages, always, quietly calculating.

It's not Jane or Jake who breaks when Dienek snaps his fingers, and most certainly not Roxy.

It's DS-2409, all the brittle, sectioned off pieces coming together in one sharp twist that knocks Dirk clean out of the driver's seat.

-

The Serket troll sticks the landing flawlessly.

Jade, John, and Kanaya fare less well; Jade pinwheels wildly before arresting her rotation in midair, her braid nearly coming around to smack her in the face, her sleep shirt askew and riding up around her ribs. John hits the wall with an audible 'oof!' before the wind similarly catches him, while Kanaya tumbles across the floor before getting a knee under her to break her slide. She comes within an inch of the raised platform, and it crackles at her with more force than it did for Jake earlier. The jadeblood simply retracts her foot, ignoring the odd platform in favor of immediately starting for Roxy with a grim expression. "Let me see," she says, and Jake scrambles out of the way so Kanaya can have better access. The troll shoves up her sleeves and sets to work.

"Am I good, or am I good?" Vriska declares, turning on her heel and throwing her arms open, uncaring of the medical emergency going on right in front of her. They're all in actual pajamas - John's boxers are covered in tiny Superman logos and Jade has a space-patterned sports bra to match her space-patterned everything else, which is not something Jane can really bring herself to care about at this moment - but Vriska in particular is barely dressed, apart from Spiderman-themed underwear and a slouching yellow sweater with a round neckline that dips dangerously low on one side. "Come on! Admit it!"

"More warning next time, okay?" John asks, his face still partly mushed up against the wall. "Otherwise, good work? Yeah, sure. Good work."

"I'll take it," Vriska decides, fanning her wings and leaving a trail of dusty blue sparkles as she goes. She finally seems to notice Roxy, arching an eyebrow down at them as she saunters around the platform. "Oh, nice - you guys got your asses handed to you already? Geez louise. Should have had some backup, huh?"

Jane spares the troll a cold stare, but Serket is irrelevant to her; Jake flinches with his whole body, looking properly stricken. Kanaya grits her teeth, suturing up the open space in Roxy's throat with her claws moving almost too swiftly for Jane to follow the motions. "Vriska, I am aware that you find it difficult to assess when your grandstanding is appropriate in sensitive situations, and so I am informing you - it's not." She bites off the end of the thread with a snik of her teeth, and Jane almost sags back with relief as she realizes that, despite the wash of gore down the front of Roxy's uniform, the injury itself has mostly stopped bleeding. Roxy, though, appears to have finally passed out, and Jane has to swallow the urge to shake her until she wakes up with a 'yes ma'am' to confirm she's still functional; it would be terrible if her best friend was no longer functional. "This would be a lot easier if we had -"

John, who has just finished peeling himself off the wall, claps his hands to his face. "Crap! Shit! Vriska, you didn't let us wait to grab Karkat!"

Vriska rolls her eyes, hard. "So what? He was being slow."

"So, that's kind of an issue, and if he were here to help, this would be going a lot more smoothly," Kanaya says. She shifts down to move her focus to Roxy's other injury, her nostrils flaring as she wipes blood off her claws on the sides of her pants. "Oh yes. Not knowing where we are nor our location in relation to the nearest hospital, having Karkat would have been excellent right about now."

"And you barely gave us eight seconds of warning before you decided to hijack my jump!" Jade adds, offended. "It was eight, wasn't it. Vriska, why." Jade scratches the back of her head so vigorously that part of her braid starts to come loose and sag to one side. She gives one of the planes a firm slap on the side, looking nostalgic. "Gosh, it's a lucky thing you guys wound up here, though! I didn't think I'd have time to come check on my stuff any time soon!"

Jake hugs his knees; his eyes are bouncing from Roxy to each person who speaks and then back to Roxy again, while Jane can't spare the time to move her gaze from where it's locked on what's important, here. "What are the odds that you'd recognize this place from my description of it, Jade?" he asks, which is an excellent question to ask. Jane would be asking it herself, if she had a little more focus to spare. Kanaya checks the pulse point at Roxy's throat, so Jane has to content herself by latching onto the other girl's wrist, clutching the pulse there hard enough to probably leave a bruise. It's too weak. It's too -

She lets go, curls up, and hugs her own knees as well. It does help, a little. Jake might be on to something, there.

"Beats me! This is one of my grandpa's places. Normally you can't even enter the airspace without the right passwords, so I'm massively curious how you guys got in. Something feels...really weird." She bites her lip as she looks down at Roxy. "But tell me the story later. Really quick, Kanaya - should I go get Karkat now that I know where you are, or should we risk taking her back as is?"

"In my only somewhat professional opinion as a mediculler? I would say - fuck it." Kanaya tears Roxy's uniform open a little more to better get at the stab wound. "She needs more than stitches after this much blood loss. Can you move her safely enough, with her void...thing?"

"Shouldn't you all have decided on this plan of action before coming in hot?!" Jake demands, desperately. "I mean, three cheers on the speedy response time, but -"

"We would've, but one, we were asleep until ten minutes ago when you guys messaged us, and two - a Vriska happened," John says, holding up his fingers. He's come over and kneeled next to Jane, but Jane can barely register his presence, staring mutely at Jane as Kanaya continues to hastily field dress the wound. "I...yeah, void stuff could be an issue going back with her for Jade. I think I can take her. I've taken Karkat when he was hurt pretty bad, before and it...didn't make it worse. Probably."

"Can you go that far in one jump? We're four thousand seven hundred odd miles away from Seattle, and I only pulled that super jump off on not-accident because of Vriska -" A loud hmmmmm? from the ceruleanblood makes Jade hurry to add "-yes, thank you Vriska, again. I think it would safer in case her void thing made me lose track of part of her at a critical moment..."

Jane can't follow the argument anymore. It's slowly turning into white noise in her ears. John's nodding, his eyes burning blue in the dusty light of the hanger. After a long second, Jane recognizes the wordless, ferocious set of his jaw, and the familiar look of determination on his face reassures her in the same way seeing Roxy's injuries slowly close up under Kanaya's ministrations does. "I can get her back," he says, looking up at Vriska. "With some luck?"

Vriska puffs up with equal amounts of disdain and pride. "Do I look like some kind of free luck dispenser?" she asks, though it's not a question, her nose high in the air even as she preens, tosses her hair, and saunters over.

"No, but you look like the kind of person who'll be walking home the long way if she doesn't move her butt, so that can be your motivation!" Jade folds her arms over her chest.

"You guys should just admit you need my help more often. Look at me! I'm so helpful! I'm the best at being helpful." Vriska laughs. She squats and hooks her arm around John's neck, all her teeth going into her grin. "[Lucky me!] Looks like you're my ride home, bucktoothed wonder boy! Don't screw it up."

"Thank you, Vriska," John says. He rolls his eyes extravagantly, and that's all the warning Jane has before he, Kanaya, Vriska, and Roxy dissipate into thin air.

Jane can't do anything but open and close her hand in a slow flex by her side, the blood making her skin stick, and when Jake shuffles over to hug her awkwardly, not once coming out of his crouch, she can't do more than silently nod. He's doing it as much to reassure himself as to comfort her, but activating all the secondary processes related to things like comfort and sympathy would drain her to the nothing. Jade kicks the transportalizer pad, then skips over to inspect the least dusty plane in the hanger, the one she patted earlier, and knocks on it. "Y'know, I can probably captchalogue this whole thing, now!" she says, happily. "One sec, and then we can start hopping to head back. But firrrst -"

A snap of Jade's fingers, and there's a very old man standing beside her. "This used to be Grandpa Harley!" she says, turning to beam at them.

Jane blinks slowly. Jake takes a second to notice first the old man, and then another tick to realize he is, in fact, at the peak of post-mortem health.

Then he screams.

-

The only warning Jane gets is that Dirk jolts into sight, stock still, between them and the carapacian. His sword's out but loose in his grip by his side, and his head's hanging low like he's deeply lost in thought. Which he shouldn't be, not in the middle of a fight, and especially not mere feet from an unknown factor like the mottled alien, who bares scrambled teeth at Dirk. Jane reads something - off, in his posture, but Roxy reacts to the abrupt deviation from the plan more quickly than Jane does, and immediately goes toward Dirk to try to pull him back. "Dirk?" she asks, alarmed, both fists uncurling as she lunges for him. "Dirk, what's wro-GHK!"

There's no time for Jane to yank Roxy out of the way. Dirk's always been the fastest of them. His head is still low as he stops Roxy hard in her tracks, and Jane only sees the aftermath of his attack when Roxy stumbles back, eyes wide and lips parted slightly, one hand going to the thin red line on her neck as though she can't believe what she's feeling.

"NO." Jane only forces herself to catch Roxy instead of attacking Dirk herself through sheer force of will - both instincts are equally strong. Anything and anyone who threatens one of their team like that needs to be taken down, hard. Roxy's still asking, 'Dirk?' in a small voice when Jane reaches her and immediately hauls her back away from the thin, familiar figure standing at the ready between them and Dienek. The traitor/loyal teammate, part of her mind can't quite decide. Jane almost doesn’t see the stomach wound at first; she's more concerned with the way the red line in Roxy's throat appears to widen as blood begins to seep out.

Dienek is all over smug, "Idiot children. I don't know in what way you are all stupider - that you thought you could betray me in the first place, or that you would come waltzing back up to me and heve the audacity to think you'd win."

Roxy scrambles to bring a hand up, tugging at Jane's sleeve, still looking faintly disbelieving. "Jangh?" she says, wetly.

Too much. It's too much. Something in Jane's mind is about to snap. "JAKE!" she says, and it comes out as a scream that she doesn't recognize.

Jake rounds the corner in an instant, eyes wide and pistols still up at the ready. Jane (needs a weapon/when did she drop her specibus]) feels numb and clumsy, her fingers slipping as she makes a feeble effort to pinch something off in Roxy's throat and stem the flow. She's got no training in this; she's strong enough that all she's ever done is taken hits and dished them back out in kind. But a warning - she has to warn Jake. She can warn Jake. "Rox?! Dirk, Jane, what's happened?" he asks, hesitating before settling on aiming past Dirk, at Dienek. Jane sympathizes with the panic in his eyes as he looks between Roxy and Jane, blood on her hands, and Dirk, blood on his sword, all over again, increasingly baffled by the logistics behind the tableau - it's a bewildering round of Clue to put together on the spot, and none of the combinations of suspect and weapon are particularly pleasant.

"Dirk, old sport, don't - what's with that look?" Jake says, his voice shaky. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Dirk flickers out of sight. Jane finds her voice again, though something in it has cracked and gone hoarse. "Something is wrong. He hurt Roxy. Jake, don't let him near you!"

Jake goes pale. "What - I don’t-" He jerks backward when Dirk reappears, directly in front of him; Jane can't see his face from here, but the set of his shoulders is still hostile as he advances on Jake. Jake's hands start to tremble, his pistolkind wavering. "No! Come on, this isn't funny, Dirk! Or ironic, or whatever poppycock you're getting up to -"

The blade shears through the metal of Jake's pistols, dicing the gunkind before Jake can steel himself to pull the trigger. Jake lets out a yelp, and for a moment Jane can't see if DS-2409's blade kept going to chop off fingers. Whatever the case, Jake's defenseless and startled and betrayed, so she rips one hand away from Roxy's grip, seizes her forkkind from where it fell from loose fingers, and flings it at Dirk's turned back. It's an awful throw, but she puts her shoulder into it, and it takes Dirk two seconds and two slices to turn and send the trident spinning away to lodge in the wall. His face is odd, not quite blank but not showing any sign that he recognizes them, either, and Jane snarls as he speeds out of sight, ready for him to come at her next.

But no. Instead, he blinks back into sight back down the hallway Jake raced down, utterly silent. Something in Jane's face tips Jake off before she unclenches her jaw again to call out, and he turns hastily to face Dirk again. He's clutching his hands to his chest, not to reach for a backup gun but because there's blood pouring down his wrists - injuries that Jane can't quantify from here. "Dirk," he pleads, unhappily.

But there is no answer. Dirk just starts slowly edging Jake backwards, an odd slant to his mouth. "Leave JE and JC alive; they can be adjusted and resynchronized," Dienek orders.

Jake flinches, then breaks and turns to dash away from Dirk, eyes fixed on Jane as he moves low and fast, and Jane's mind automatically classifies him as another threat because if Dirk can fail anyone can, and finds herself leaning over Roxy, ready to tackle Jake away. But he lunges to help her cover Roxy instead, scrambling on his hands and knees the last foot or so with a wild, terrified look at Dienek. "Jane, what do we do?!"

He's not gone yet. "Pressure, here," Jane orders. She has to grab Jake's limp hand and shove it down on the stab wound because he falters, glancing back at Dirk with an agonized expression, but up close she can see that he has to press his body forward rather than using just his hands, because they're not working correctly. Dirk's precision is written all over the thin slices that mark up Jake's hands. What they need is to move, to retreat with Roxy and get her to someone who can treat this ASAP. Either Jane or Jake alone could carry her out, if Jake weren't temporarily crippled, but they're not going to be able to with Dirk - not Dirk - DS-2409 - standing between them and the easy way out.

"Much better. Listen to how quiet it is," Dienek says, disgustingly satisfied, and the urge to wring his neck is strong but Roxy is -

The abnormal carapacian snorts, cracking the knuckle of his middle claw by pressing down on it with his thumb.

??: Whatever. I said what Scratch wanted sayin', and this is boring. We about done here?

Dienek sniffs, waving his claw at the carapacian dismissively. "Oh, by all means, leave. Tell him that I do not intend to keep the defective one around anymore - if he even cares. There may be time yet to salvage the other two before it becomes pointless."

??: Since when am I you fuckers' messenger boy? Green shitheads.

Dienek and the carapacian continue to bicker. There might be a way out past them (Dirk always has an escape route), but even as Jane runs through every idea she has, she knows Dirk can move faster than any of them. Whatever's gone wrong with him, he's attacking without compunction, and it makes Jane's head ache. Would removing Dirk from Dienek's vicinity break whatever lingering compulsion this is? What could have happened, when Dirk claimed he had this under control all along?

On their other side, Dienek shrieks at the carapacian in a fury. "If you will not make yourself useful, get out anyway!" he yells, jabbing his claw at the alien before whipping around to face the scratch kids, skimming over Roxy's prone form. The carapacian grunts and rolls his shoulders, the joints creaking like a frozen lake about to break up. Green light starts to burn along his scars as he gets ready to go -

Wait.

Jane slots the pieces of the plan into place with a mental chak, the puzzle coming together as she figures out how they're getting out of here. The only problem is timing - and the distance between them and Dirk, which he's already closing. She raises her voice, hoping he'll listen. "Dirk, you don't have to obey anymore! Remember?" Once upon a time they were closer friends than this; before Jane's Swiss cheese of a brain stopped being able to hold up her end of it for too long. Still. She searches Dirk's face, looking for any sign he can come to his senses.

Jake joins in. "I know you can hear us, and look! If Jane and I can do this, you can too! I believe that! Absolutely!"

Jane's hope dwindles rapidly when Dirk doesn't even bat an eye at Jake. Jake looks stricken when all he gets is more silence. Then Dirk opens his mouth, considering them with a faint tilt to his head. "...No comment," he says at last, and starts advancing again.

Well, darn it. Jane makes up her mind. Her hand closes on Jake's arm, and she lets go of Roxy just long enough to haul her up, head sagging against Jane's shoulder. A shaky arm comes up to wrap around Jane's waist, but Roxy doesn't seem to have the strength to really grab hold. "Grab him!" Jane tells Jake, with every drop of command at her disposal; then she drags him and lifts Roxy along with her, propelling them at the lime-lined carapacian as he sparks.

There's a sliver of a chance - if Dirk pursues (he does) to try to pin them down - if Jake can get hold of him (he has to) -

??: Alright. Okay. And here goes -

They collide with the carapacian, just as green space fire leaps out of the whorls in his body to consume him. Between the abrupt sensation of receiving an instant sunburn and hearing Roxy's breath gurgle, Jane almost misses Jake's shout of triumph as he limply snags Dirk's outstretched wrist.

Not his hand. His wrist. The sword swinging down at them never makes contact, but only because all four of them get dragged along in the carapacian's wake. Dienek's frustrated scream follows them, before it gets drowned by the roar of the fire.

Jane can't get a grip on the carapacian himself; neither can she tell where they're going. The process hurts far more than travelling with Jade ever has, and she feels far too present and whole as they travel through waves of green fire to wherever the carapacian's destination was, to better feel every slow instant as the pain of the sunburn starts to deepen. It's like - it's like they fell through him, instead of being pulled alongside, and Jane clutches Roxy and Jake closer because they're the only solid, real things she can still feel in as the woozy sensation of motion gets stronger. She can't even see them. It's just afterimages, floaters dancing across her eyes, and she has to trust that they're what she's holding.

??: Gerroff! Fuckin' - brats-!

The world ripples with pain. "Dirk!" Jake screams in her ear, far closer than she expects, but she can't see what's happening. There's nothing in the world but flames all around her, leaping higher and higher with streamers of sickly yellow and corrosive green.

??: Fuck!

??: Off!

A sharp, surprisingly solid foot shoves Roxy away, drawing a cry of pain from her that, compared to Jake's shout, sounds worryingly far away - and Jane, reacting to the sudden space that opens up between her and Roxy, scrambles blindly to close the distance again. For an instant it feels like there's both a mile and yet only a few inches separating her from Roxy, and then the rush of green fire just

stops.

It takes a few seconds more for them to actually hit solid ground, though, and for the glaring light of the green fire to blink away and reveal their actual surroundings. Jake lands hard on his back, wheezing for air for a few seconds with sweat trickling down his too-pale face, before rolling onto his stomach and glancing around, distraught. "My hands - I couldn't -" he says, before words fail him. She's not sure, but she thinks he sobs, once, before letting his forehead thunk against the ground. Head spinning painfully, Jane concentrates on laying Roxy down without dropping her before taking stock of their situation.

There's no sign of Dirk or the carapacian, and Jane and Jake are left with Roxy bleeding on the ground.

-

John finds her by the window.

A lot of this part of the lab ended up blasted into smithereens, and in fact the glass of this particular window is the most intact one Jane could find. But it's so fragmented still that she gives up trying to ease it open, and punches the glass out of the frame when staring through the cracks start to give her a throbbing migraine. No one will care. This lets in the fresh air, and she stares out over the lake a while longer.

John alerts her to his approach with a quiet cough, kicking a fragment of ceiling tile along the floor as he comes to a stop slightly behind her. Jane blinks back to awareness at the sounds; she's been zoned out, hearing nothing but faint static and the distant sound of breaking as she contemplates the landscape and tries to sort out her own thoughts from the dross. How much time did she lose to that?

"Hey," he says, taking another step forward. Jane lets her eyes fall down and to the side, so that she has an excellent view of both John's yellow sneakers and a portion of the floor. Then he takes another step, so that he's right alongside her, and leans his elbows on the windowsill, picking at a thread on the end of his sleeve and self-consciously shifting a little without looking at her face. Jane tightens her hands on the windowsill, unsure what she means to do - maybe vault out, at long last - but feeling her stomach tense.

"I'm here," is all he adds, before falling silent.

It takes five minutes for Jane's stomach to slowly, gradually unclench. Another ten before her awareness of him in her peripheral vision stops prodding at her as a potential threat. 

He stands quietly with her for a half an hour after, looking out over the water, until, at last, she starts to feel a little more human.

Chapter Text

Unknown

There's cracks down in him to the core, fractal rifts that branch out through what's left of his sorry carapace like hollow lightning. All the vessels that used to carry blood burn with something molten hot and sickly green, and the brittle remnants of interstitial shell feel like they could shatter with every move he makes. Tiny stitches pepper him inside and out, flexing to match the ever-shifting dimensions of the gaps torn into him, and the spiraling pattern they form as they march up and around his torso, his back, his face, is a pulsing, agonizing reminder that his insides got put through an dimensional blender, churned up with the power of space and left to ferment into something caustic. When he shifts even an inch, the entire mess where his stomach should be ripples like the surface of a waterbed, and he wants to arch and scream but can't move.

He wakes up incredibly, excruciatingly aware of all of these facts, and punches Stitch smack in the middle of his ugly mug the second he figures out how to phase through the restraints. He's firmly in the camp where pain gets shared around equally (or better yet, returned twofold on the next asshat who crosses him); if he has to wake up to this, so does everyone else.

-

Carapacians can survive a lot of shit. They're built for it. But as Jack Noir claws his way up to the penthouse suite, he gets the sickening feeling that he's just about maxed out that card. Losing an limb or two isn't much of a hassle; organs are trickier, but a carapacian body can adapt to survive without almost anything if you give it time, running on luck and coincidence and whatever else is needed to get them where they need to be. But fuck that; his guts are a swirling, roiling sack of fermented plasma, and thanks to Stitch, he can't even relieve the pressure building up in his chest. Blowing this shithole into the deepest reaches of the Furthest Ring would really brighten his day right about now, but the most Jack can do is figure out how to navigate when his every move tears up the space around him. The Felt can't keep him in that damn basement anymore, but crawling up toward the hateful aura he can detect directly above his head is proving to be a real bitch of a time. It may not be the Witch herself, but by the Pondsquatter's saggy vocal sac, he's gonna find a weapon and stab him anyway. Repeatedly. With extreme prejudice.

The flights of stairs sport gaping holes that drop off into empty air that can open onto the next floor down - or drop all the way to the basement, so far below - once he's through with 'em. No one's bothered to clear the area, and he gets plenty of practice tossing unfamiliar assholes in felt green out of his way. Sometimes they just get the air knocked out of them and scramble for the exit; one lucky bastard goes through the window. Other times, he'll hit them at the wrong angle and their atoms forget that they're s'posed to stick together that way. He leaves a trail of disintegrated limbs and green slag behind him, and finally it's only the second-to-last floor between him and the fuckhead above. He swears the fucker has been pacing along, following Jack's weaving path up the stairwell from above, in a quiet mockery. Everyone's cleared out - finally - so he can only snarl at himself, alone in the room, as he struggles to step on the floor instead of through it. The urge to just zap everything into particles is very, very strong, but as the total destruction of the third floor proved, doing that will just land his ass back in the basement and he'll be forced to find another route up to the penthouse. Just a few more steps -

The railing splits in two under his claw with an ear-splitting crack; one half goes rolling down the stairs with a series of thumps, the end a shattered mess, while the other stays attached to the wall, but spits splinters into his carapace. Jack gnashes his teeth, hissing at the pain as neon green drips out from the punctured shell, and puts his fist through the wall. It explodes outward in a spiral, and the splinters burn away in tiny flares as his arm bursts into green, galaxies and stars eddying along the molten surface of his carapace. The arm itself almost goes off on a tear; Jack can picture the exact arc in his mind, a path of destruction that would bounce off a lamppost in Boston before carving a hole through the crust of the Pacific, but if he lets his body unravel, he doesn't think it's coming back together any time soon.

Plus, that's his only whole arm, these days. If it fucks off, he's not sure what kind of replacement he'll be able to scrounge up. The only tailor he knows could sew him back up is Stitch, and like hell is Jack going back down there. Muttering to himself, Jack staggers up to the door and tears through it, landing hard on one knee when the tattered edges of the hole in space he leaves suck at his arm, trying to use pieces of him to patch itself up.

Suck eggs. Mustering his second-best murderous look, Jack raises his arm and hopes that waving a radioactive limb around still counts as menacing. If he had a ring on his finger - haugh. His body aches for want of it, a craving that runs deeper than thought, more agonizing than the pain of having radioactive waste for guts.

JN: Where is it.

Ah, Jack. I've been expecting you. How excellent to see you in one piece again. Mostly.

Though I confess, I'm intrigued. What did you hope to find by coming here? Do you even know, yourself?

From the looks of things, the sensation of someone pacing over him was just Jack's imagination; the bobbleheaded fuck is seated behind a desk, surveying an overcomplicated chessboard that makes Jack see red for a moment. He's not aware of vaulting over a chair with ugly green upholstery to lunge for it, his claws solidifying enough for a clean strike, but quick as a whip, Scratch smacks his outstretched hand away with a broomstick that he presumably pulls directly out of his ass.

Ah, ah, ah. Such a temper. But that is not for you.

Jack snarls, his jaw lolling open too far - it wants to be longer, the muscle memory of having a muzzle for a few brief hours somehow stronger than anything that came before it. The smack of the broom knocked his arm back into shape, the shell mottled with grey but no longer radiating power, and he's keenly aware of the expertly leashed aura around the cue ball. Forget the chessboard; he wants to rip into this fuck. He wants fangs, but more than that, more than anything, he wants -

JN: Where is she?!

You will need to be a little more specific than that. There are many 'she's' in this game, and I estimate there are at least three who might be the target of your primitive ire, as boundless as it may be. I am not even sure if you are aware of the third, or how she is relevant to you in any way.

He can't find the words. The syllables jumble on his lone hand, and the only thing his mind can drag out of the green bloom is the memory of faces he can't put names to. Only titles. For lack of any better plan, Jack springs at Doc Scratch head on, spitting sparks as he slices the broomstick with bare claws. His claw flares green with neon fire as he envisions it closing around another throat - he can almost carve a way there, he knows he can do it, but then everything skews violently to the left. Spittle flies from his slack mouth as the broom whacks him upside the face and catapults him into the chair so hard it tips over backwards.

He lays there with his legs sticking up for a second, panting hard from just that one attack. Then he hears the faint clop of polished shoes on carpet, and blinks out of a haze of green to see Scratch standing beside the overturned chair, broom in one hand and a bowl of ring pops in the other.

Again, all Jack sees for an instant is red hot rage. He rolls onto his knees and this time his whole body strains to tear the stitches out and burn. The rippling pain only stalls him for a second before the rage propels him forward. He rips at the atoms of the broomstick until it snaps like the railing did, his claw cutting huge swathes out of the empty space between him and Scratch as he furiously works to tear through that smug, condescending aura to the fragile form within.

JN: Where are they?!

Scratch's uppercut collides with Jack's chin with pinpoint accuracy, snapping his head back. It's not so much the punch itself as it is the absent-minded flicker of spatial manipulation that comes around like a backhand to give it that extra oomph. The ring pops fly out of the bowl when it hits the ground, skittering across the floor and cracking. Jack hits his elbow hard when he finally slams into the floor, and he thinks the shell would shatter into a million pieces if only he weren't sewn into this fucking suit. Even when the fog of pain clears again, he can't focus for shit, head spinning as he struggles to focus on Scratch's approach.

Better.

Unfortunately, that is not information that I am willing to impart to you. I should hate to see you go charging off and come to some terrible fate, after dear Stitch put so much work into piecing you back together. While the means of your ultimate destruction are of little interest to me, it would be preferable if it did not occur within the scope of my vision.

Jack groans and rolls onto his stomach again. Not to get up and try another useless attack. Just so that if he upchucks, he won't puke all over himself. He'd rather mess up as much of this smug prick's nauseating carpeting as possible. Yeah. Helluva plan.

JN: Oh. My fuck. How can anyone even talk to you without stabbing your face?

As handsome as I am, I do not have a face. Thus, such temptation is thwarted. I consider it a design feature.

JN: I'll give yah a face just so I can stab it if you don't tell me where they are right this shitting second, dead ball.

Scratch doesn't even appear to give this a second's thought. He simply folds his hands behind his back and continues to distantly regard Jack, the polished cue ball giving away nothing.

No.

JN: Ragh!

He grinds his forehead into the floor for a second, feeling like he could headbutt his way back down into the floor below if he really tried. Coming up here was a waste of time. He shoulda saved his energy for tracking down people and things that actually mattered. Scratch's focus continues to dig into Jack's back as he uses the overturned chair to lever himself up onto his feet. He sways there for a second, weighing his choices. He can throw up and leave radioactive vomit all over the floor for Scratch to clean up, or he can not throw up, and save himself the hell of a scorched throat. The last thing he needs right now is more distraction when he's trying to figure out this shitty body.

Fuck space. Fuck space powers. His hand aches for a ring.

JN: Fuck you then. I don't have time for this bullshit, dammit. If you won't tell me, I'll hunt 'em down myself.

Doc Scratch lets him get all the way to the door before a tiny mental cough stops him dead in his tracks.

Of course, as the esteemed host that I am, it would be remiss of me to let you leave without informing you that, in fact, all three will arrive here in short order, just as planned.

Oh, is he gonna regret turning away from this door. He can feel it. Jack has figured out the right question now - he had it right the first time, Scratch is just a pedantic piece of shit - and if he can just find the ring, he can come back here and tear it all apart. Hell, he can level this city. He doesn't need to look outside to feel the movement of so many meaningless, unimportant shits, and none of them worth a damn.

The door's handle is a quarter way turned, slowly deforming under his claw, when Jack's self-control gives.

JN: ...Who.

And Scratch has the baldfaced nerve to turn away and leave Jack hanging. A snap of his fingers and the leader of the Felt has a fresh broom in his hand. He puts it to use sweeping broken chunks of candy back into the bowl and setting it on a side table, then smooths the fall of his white suit-jacket and plumps the dark green bow-tie before answering.

The Witch, the Queen, and the Ringbearer. It will not be long, now.

Well, this has 'bait' written all over it in flashing neon green. Seriously. Jack can barely keep his head together, and it's damn obvious. He accidentally dissolves the door handle in a burn of sullen indignation, though he's not sure if he destroys it or if it just falls through a tear in space (a tear in him) to some distant location. He folds his arm over his chest, realizes this looks ridiculous, and clatters his teeth in reprimand to himself before baring them at Scratch, raising his shoulders and flexing his claws to cover the slip.

JN: What do you think I am, a sucker? Why are you telling me this? What's your endgame?

Scratch hums, and Jack wants to take all that smug knowingness and shove it right up his -

I find that many people are suckers. You're not particularly exceptional in that regard.

The ascension of the Heir of Void cast long shadows over this session, and so it has taken all of my inimitable skill as a strategist to facilitate the confrontation that is about to come to pass. I've gone to great lengths to exploit the assumptions made by the heroes of this session, and the events that will take place in the near future will soon bring my purpose to fruition.

All of the pieces have been nudged into motion. All of the dark pockets will shortly be filled, if not expediently, then still in ways that will effectuate the outcomes needed to ensure the entry of my employer to this session.

So. Where would you like to be when it happens? I ask only to be polite, you understand, as I can already predict with utter certainty what you will choose to do.

The urge grips Jack, almost too strong to shove down. He wants to set that damn chessboard on fire - no, he wants to see where on the Möbius net Scratch has him down. Even through the fury, he remembers seeing a rainbow of figures dotting it, along with some dark pieces, some light. Maybe, just maybe, if he looks, he can beat the inevitable.

Or maybe he's just too riled up to have the patience for games right now. He wants that ring. He can be as predictable and boring as the Croaker himself if it means he taste real power again, and use it to cut a new path of destruction through the world. He wants it like burning, he is burning -

His stitches stretch to bursting, but the pressure won't relieve itself. Gasping, something that might be sweat or blood or slowly melting shell trickling down the side of his face, Jack clacks his teeth against each other and glowers at Scratch to give the flare of his temper something to do other than eat away at his rotten insides.

JN: Well, assuming you're not lying out of your plush felt ass, I guess I'll be right here. Waiting.

How drolly predictable of you. And what will you do when they arrive?

Jack looks down at his hand.

JN: ...

JN: I'm gonna get what I want.

You could cut the smug satisfaction radiating through the room with a knife.

That's the spirit.

---

===> Be Jack Noir

===> Be this asshole

 

Unknown

He starts to catch on pretty fast, actually.

The scenario's not to blame. It's his (awful) personality. The Samuel Egbert who finds himself crawling through the oil-splattered corridors of a surreally stacked, Babelian tower, built on cantilevers and broken game physics like something designed by Kołpanowicz or Dujardin, is not the same Samuel Egbert who was here last time around. That one had a passion for Cirque du Soleil that wasn't halfway fabricated, and lived in a world less influenced by violent carryover from Alternia than the current scratched mess.

When this Samuel can't find one of the many concealed weapons that would normally be hidden around the house, or any sign of a viable exit, he takes a fire poker and a permanent marker and starts climbing, doggedly hiking over misplaced furniture and marking where he's been by slashing black Xs on the white walls each time he finds a new flight of stairs. Going down isn't an option unless you have a rocket pack; the thin, sheer column of rock that the house perches on towers high above the land below. He has the most trouble where the designer of this edifice ran out of material to make full-width stairs - it's more difficult for a grown man to climb steps that are only three inches across than it would be for a sprightly thirteen year old with the wind and a game sprite cheerfully buoying him upward when he dipped too far to one side. The other trouble arises around the dawn of the second day, when Samuel catches on to the fact that there's nothing to eat past the first four floors. The last idiot to go through here had a sylladex to carry snacks, and most of the rooms are barren, built only to take up space and climb ever higher. All the water fountains do is trickle black gunk. Samuel goes at it another ten floors before backtracking aaall the way back down to the kitchen on the ground level for supplies.

The only thing really left in the fridge after all these years is black oil, syrup-thick as it slowly drips down the shelves and onto the floor. Not exactly appetizing! But Samuel soldiers on like a real champ, abjuring the oil slicks and cracking open all the empty containers and ransacked boxes in the cupboards until he finds a bear-shaped jar of wizened animal cracker fragments, and a single, pristine can of TaB soda. Secretly, there's a jar of pickles half-buried in the black sludge at the back of the fridge, but Samuel's not getting any hints, here. He rations out the crackers and takes a sip of TaB with each skimpy meal.

He's already doomed by that point. But stringing him along is still good for some laughs! And once the soda's gone down the hatch, it's a looot easier to pick through his thought process and giggle at how silly all of Samuel's theories for why he's stuck in his old home turn out to be. The top contenders are 'it's all a dream/drug-induced hallucination,' and 'through a combination of shenanigans and convenient amnesia, I have awoken in the new game session.' Either way, the guy's toootally convinced that he'll find John or he'll find a way out - whichever comes first and is more convenient.

Lol.

Whenever he gets too far, the Trickster waits until he falls asleep and then resets him back to an earlier floor, turning X marks into arrows or erasing them entirely, and goes back to popping sugar-sprinkled popcorn while Samuel wanders around in circles on floors twenty through eighty, over and over again. Sometimes he leaves a soda tucked away on one of the alchemiters, and once the thirst gets desperate enough, Samuel gives in and drinks another can despite growing suspicions. Aluminum is flimsy, but he shreds it just to have something vaguely resembling a weapon.

It's hilarious and pathetic! The best kind of entertainment!

Unfortunately, it's the shower that finally shuts Samuel down. He's seriously starting to get rank, so when it's unbearable the Trickster rolls his eyes and resets the man back down to the fifth floor, where the original Xs are still intact and there's a displaced bathtub partially lodged in the wall, as a super subtle hint that he needs to clean his act up. Or something. A bounteous wave of black crap showers down when Samuel decides to check out the faucet, and the Trickster howls with laughter at the look on his face. He lurks around for a while longer, but the suspicion has really sunk in now, and Samuel retreats to the ground floor for a last stand instead of continuing his never-ending hike.

Eh. It was already getting boring, anyway. After pouting at Samuel through the windows with increasingly silly faces and vanishing right when the man whips around to look at him stops being totally hilarious, the Trickster pouts and stops lurking. There's no point if Samuel's not gonna play along anymore.

The whole land quakes when the Trickster sidles into reality, like the big dumb bozo underground is throwing a tantrum, but it's whatever, you know? Who cares? If they didn't want people sneaking out the backdoor, they shouldn't have made this place exist in the Medium and in someone's mind at the same time! With John being annoying and refusing to go crawl in a hole and die somewhere, this is the best fun the Trickster has had in ages. Once he figures out the physics needed to juke his way to one of the other lands, it'll be even more fun. Rose's place might be a little too tricky, even for him, just because the squirmy guys are gearing up for something big and like to take swipes at him when he gets too close to their angles, but he has options~~~ For the moment, he sprawls over the top of the Cruxtruder, bouncing one heel off the unlit screen where there used to be a countdown, waits for Father dearest to notice he's here.

But shucks, the results are...disappointing! Samuel doesn't venture into the darkness of the living room until the Trickster moves from faint giggles to loud, obnoxious, super obvious coughs, and by the time dear Dad walks in, fire poker at the ready, the Trickster's glamour is flickering on and off with burgeoning irritation. He leaves it off for a single, sloppy instant, just as Samuel finally glimpses him in the corner of his eyes, and then switches it back on like a lightbulb with another burst of giggles, starting up a mocking slow clap as Samuel fiiinally spins and stares at him, pale and haggard and unshaven after days wandering in the unlit twilight of the broken home. It's about time there was something other than giant pasta gods to take a gander at his new look. A single lemon yellow ~ curls across the front of his shirt, and his shoes are minty green. He considered suspenders, but thigh highs are still more fun.

"John," Samuel says, but even as it comes out of his mouth, he hasss to know that's wrong. Ugh! What a joke!

The Trickster's face contorts into an expression of utter disgust, ugly hate twisting his features before he smooths out, smooth as butter, so that Samuel barely catches it. Then he smiles, lips canted to one side as he shrugs extravagantly. "Really, do I look like that idiot? You really don't recognize me? I'm hurt!" Another snorting giggle. "Orrr, nah~ Maybe I'm not surprised! You never noticed the difference all these years, after all." The tasty smell of a small child's first horrid attempt at caramelizing sugar starts to rise up; Samuel had left the kitchen briefly to retrieve an apron, and returned to the scent of sugar gone past the point of burning, and a pan full of blackened sludge that never quite came clean.

But who cares about that? Details, details. The Trickster stretches one arm out in front of him, and then tumbles backward to plant his feet on the wall and walk up to the ceiling, hands in his pockets as he advances upside down. Samuel's alarm makes the Trickster laugh out loud again, and when the man takes a step back, raising the poker, his heel slips in something grey and goopy on the floor. "Whoever - Whatever you may be, your interference is unappreciated," Samuel says, sliding one foot back as subtly as he can to poke around for solid ground.

The Trickster rolls his eyes until the second set of huge, blown pupils on the back are visible, then rolls them the rest of the way around with a lolling grin. He prowls forward with a bounce in his step, skimming the sole of his shoes along the bumps and cracks of the overburdened ceiling. This dump was never built to support a couple hundred-stories tall addition, but where there's a Will, there's a way. "Oh, stop. Now you're just being si~lly~! Sillyhoo! How am I interfering when I did exactly what you wanted me to?" He holds his arms out wide, grinning with cruel amusement.

From the dumb look on his face, Dad stillll isn't getting it. What a loser. "In the gestalt, you resemble John," he says, faking a steady voice. Fakey fakey fake. "But whatever you have done, I neither appreciate it, nor am I fooled by your tricks." Another tiny wobble as his foot slides again, and the Trickster quickly takes a shot of liquid cane sugar while Samuel's face twitches with frustration and he looks down, trying to figure out what he's stepping in on the floor.

Which appears to be melting. The faint grey streaks on the black oil smear and slur, and almost seem to form patterns. When Samuel lifts his heel, disgust curling his lip, a string of goo sticks to the bottom, stretching between his shoe and the floor. Some of the goop is grey, but other strings are pink like bubblegum.

Eh. The Trickster drops to the ground like a slinky and smiles up at Samuel as he straightens from a crouch, the odd slant of the shadows combined with the plastic sheen to the color of his face make him look like something dead. He's been practicing. "Why? Aren't you happy to see me? I thought I was what you wanted! I helped you escape." He laughs, folding his legs up crisscross applesauce in midair so he can rest his elbow on a knee and his chin on a fist. Every expression he puts on is a mask, swapped in and out; quick as a wink, he goes from mocking amusement to an overstated pout, lower lip wobbling as he pretends to draw a tear down the side of his cheek with his middle finger. It leaves a light, watermelon pink streak like a tattoo on his dark skin, the same color as his nail polish. Then he claps his hands together and laughs into them, considering Samuel with slitted eyes. "But whatever. It's not like I need you to be proud of me or something."

The key word sends a jolt through Samuel; but he's so busy glaring at the Trickster with mounting alarm that he fails to check his feet. The Trickster already knows that not only is Samuel's shoe being stained irreparably by the pink-grey slop that has begun to replace the floor, but that the patterns in the marks would be familiar as well, if he could be bothered to look. Warped curves and imperceptibly askew whorls. One of his own shoes dangles a little, taunting, the toes barely dipping to brush the floor, as he observes Samuel with his eyes a-twinkle. The man shudders like there's something off-putting about the Trickster's ferncurl smile - how rude! "If you wanted to assist me, I presume that you brought me to this place," He says, every word carefully measured. Otherwise all the messy emotions like fear or hate might spill out, and that would never do. "Why?"

It's cute how he's still trying to act like he's got even a smidge of control, here. "Lmao. Because why not? I don't actually feel like listening to you anymore. You and your big dumb traitor schtick - boring boring boring! I'd rather do something interesting. It's not my fault you have no imagination!"

The slantwise spirograph wobbles into place in the goopy muck of the floor, solid for only a brief moment before it seems to forget itself again. Almost got it! It took hard work to mimic what the Horrorterrors do and superimpose the mental construct of the house on top of the real thing, but he's almost there.

And while he's distracted, humming and drawing little arcs in the muck with the tip of his shoe, Samuel suddenly (only not) makes a move, bringing the fire poker around like a baseball bat to hit a homerun with the Trickster's head. The Trickster obliges him for all of two seconds, breaking his own neck with a sickening crack so it bobs back at a stomach-turning angle - and then flops it back up with a shrug of his shoulders, sniggering at Samuel's horrified expression. "But you'd still take a swing at me if you thought it would help, right? What a diiiickkkhoooole~~~" the Trickster sings, fluffing his hair a little and widening his pale, pale eyes. They're ice blue to match, but his eyelashes are sooo much better. Though from the look of things, Samuel's too busy crapping his pants to figure out where the unsettling inspiration came from.

"Let. Me. Out," Samuel says, his face going hard and remote. Oooh, stone cold mercenary, how intimidating. Not.

The Trickster says as much out loud, and then makes jazz hands, because snapping is overdone. Grey-and-pink tendrils whip up from the floor and lock around Samuel's ankles, snapping his wrists with satisfying pops. The afterimage of the tendrils is hot pink, exactly as planned, but the Trickster doesn't think he's got the acid stuff right: Samuel swallows a muffled scream about the wrists, but doesn't appear bothered by anything else but being constricted. Boo.

And suddenly, now that he's realized he's sooo out of his league, Samuel's switched back to trying to talk his way out of it with gentlemanly manners. "I confess, I'm curious. Are you a denizen of the Noble Circle possessing John's body, or just one that took this form at random to disturb me?" Samuel asks, forcing his face into neutrality, pain crimping the edges of his mouth.

"Oh, you're trying to be smart!" That's rich! The Trickster crows with laughter, and when he's finished, he shrugs with his palms turned up, shaking his head. "How abouuut...neither! I gave up on stealing that stupid fuck's body, like, days ago. Old news. I'm pretty good as far as bodies go these days." He fans his fingers for inspection, and for a split second, the thing floating in the air in front of Samuel isn't remotely human-shaped. Samuel rocks in a full-body flinch, all of his training overcome in an instant. His mind attempts to shove the image away immediately to preserve his sanity, but now that he's seen through the façade, the Trickster lets traces of his real form linger - blood cakes his hair and streaks down his face, and he brushes abnormally-jointed fingers down the front of his shirt as more lemon yellow tentacle symbols appear on the fabric. "I can do whatever I want, here," he says, smugly. "You just have to know how to work the system! I've had great teachers, even if they didn't know I was learning. Horrorterrors, that Gamzee guy - they're much better role models than you~!"

Samuel's survival instincts are torn between screaming for him to look away and shrieking that he can't afford to look away if he wants to live. It's glorious. It's exactly what the Trickster wanted. "Interesting. And your reason for telling me all of this?" he asks, trying not to reveal how much effort he's putting into trying to slip free of the tendrils holding him in place. The Trickster twirls a finger. Showtime's almost over. The house is done, the Trickster is out and about; now there's just one last thing that needs a solid form in the Medium. A signified looking for a signifier.

"Hm? Oh! I'm telling you because frankly? It's no fun monologuing to yourself." With a burble, the spirograph fans open, and Samuel inches his head around to look at the new arrival as it makes the transition from the mind to the Medium. The thing that emerges from the spirograph barely has a face - not much more than a pallid nose - and it's deathly white all over, from the brim of its hat to the knees of its very respectable white pants. Below that, it's a sludgy mass of black, rotten memories, woven together to form a blank white template.

"Also, I'm strong enough to make a body. Who needs a meatsuit when there's plenty of oil to go around, right? I'm actually following game rules; I'm a challenge, now~ Isn't that fancy?" Far below, the ground rumbles in protest. Too bad, so sad. The Trickster sighs, clucking his tongue and shaking his head at the white figure. "He can't, though. Not smart enough, I guess! But that's just fine. I don't need John anymore, but hey...no one has missed you yet, right?"

Samuel looks into the face of his double.

The Trickster leans back on his palms, and basks in the screams.

---

===> Be the Trickster

===> Be LEVIATHAN

That doesn't seem like the best idea. Perhaps you should try this instead:

===> Observe the Horrorterror(s)

 

Unknown

It has been so long.

They used to number thirteen - thirteen invested with the terrible vortices of the Lord of Chaos, thirteen to serve him, thirteen to be swallowed at the end of all things, in his last efforts to resist the abomination ascendant, and thirteen forevermore a luckless number. Some were lost long before the escape - ɐllᴉɯɐƆ and the Mists, both eager to rush to their doom if it meant a chance to join the Lord, and old Ialdagorth, whose screaming, unwilling death proved that Azathoth did not mean to take no for an answer.

Of the remaining, only hateful Hastur remained mostly intact, wrapped behind his silken masks, and LEVIATHAN. Others splintered until they were no longer recognizable, shed minds like old snake skins, and over time forgot what they once were: Cassilda, lost without her mirror, and echoing Xa'ligha, and so many others who could not bear to live in this disgusting world.

But their power lives on, and not even she can stamp it out. Perhaps, if they had stayed behind like good little servants to die with the hive Lord, she would have wiped them from existence like an afterthought - but she crushed Azathoth and created her new world from the chaotic ashes of the old, and did not deign to notice when the last of Chaos's servitors leapt through the extraversal strata and clung to the edge of her reality with all of their strength. They could survive, crawling in the angles and dimensions of reality that the despicable Muse left unguarded to make their nests. For so many eons, that was...enough. Unbearable, hateful, repulsive. But enough.

And now, LEVIATHAN can feel it. All the pieces of the others are here, come together once more. Occasionally this new Lord shatters time in a way that their immensity cannot avoid, but they have collected more than enough collateral minds that sacrifices can be made. The closer they coil together, the louder the echoes. Like it is not the voices of millions and millions of minds shrieking, bound by the touch of a force their reality was never meant to know - but as though it is merely ten. Hearing Hastur was never a welcome thing, but Cassilda? How long has it been since Cassilda fell silent? Some parts of LEVIATHAN - the oldest parts - think it has been too long. None of them ever got along - they were too much of Azathoth, too chaotic and wild to form anything but temporary alliances and passing tangles - but come the end times they managed to put aside their differences and dissimilarities to work towards a common goal.

If they did it once, they can do it again. As loathsome as the risk of unity might be, of ever becoming something like that Muse and her symmetrees...better this than non-existence. Better even than being cast adrift in the extraverse, at the mercy of its unknowable keepers. LEVIATHAN swallows around a lump of purest, orderly will that sits lodged in something that is now a throat, now a stomach again, now an organ with no name that anyone using primitive vocal cords could pronounce. It aches - an abominable throb that grows more insistent as the day of Reckoning approaches, as she tries to automatically exchange fragments of insight for some of the essence of their form, neat packets of data trying to make them buckle and kneel before her final design. But her knowledge is order and thus repulsive, and LEVIATHAN's essence too chaotic for her to integrate into her prototyping.

She must know now, where the kernel resides. So many times she turned her gaze away from the Horrorterrors, unable to eject them but equally unwilling to acknowledge their presence in her reality, but she can't ignore this. LEVIATHAN feels almost tempted to stay and watch in long-awaited vindication as the Muse breaks beneath the heel of the cherub Lord - but no. Anything that lingered to see what it looked like as it all fall apart would most certainly perish in the experience.

And they don't want to die. They want to live.

Time shatters and pops a pustule of minds that swells too near the breaking point. Twining limbs together in - not helixes, no, stop that - in crazed knots and vicious tangles, LEVIATHAN compresses further, stashing mass and minds away in angles and dimensions that used to be secrets only Hastur knew, or Cassilda's offspring kept for themselves.

What would Scratch see, if he looked at them now? He is one of the counterweights of this transition from one hateful Muse to the next, a creature of Space designed to ensure the cherub Lord's arrival. Does he guess what the Horrorterrors mean to do? Wrapped up as he is in manipulating the players of this last game to bring about their own doom, it is doubtful he much cares about the fate of the hives he sought to use for his own purposes. As if the opinion of a meager tool, born for the sole purpose of dying, would matter to something like them.

They still have a bargain, though. A tooth that is also a seed of something greater. It will be good, LEVIATHAN thinks, to throw this one last insult back at Skaia's perfect, hateful face.

When Scratch summons Cetus, he shall have her.