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Like One Sundered Star - Shit, Let's Be Troll-Heroes

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===> Be Aradia Megido

There is a churail on the road to town.

Normally, the people of the village of Badanpura would deal with this on their own. Bhut in general tend to avoid cities, after all, but plague smaller villages like theirs with depressing frequency.  The dead are a common part of life, and the violent, restless dead only slightly less so. They are dangerous and unsettling but not, after thousands of years spent exorcizing such things, particularly mysterious.

But this one is different. Troll bhut are always troublesome; their souls cling and whisper, uninterested in nirvana or incarnation or any number of offered salvations. And churails are more taxing still. This one has proven indifferent to the usual methods of exorcism, oblivious to the touch of cold steel and the scent of burnt turmeric. Not even the atma-shanti rites have given it more than a moment's pause before it resumes its post by side of the dirt road, its feet twisted around to face backwards and its features hollow and skeletal on an upside down face. Its horns are two pikes that have gored four men and two trolls, and the people have become desperate.

Desperate enough that, when she arrives, they simply close their doors and look the other way. She is the Maid of Death, Mauta kī Naukarānī, and she has haunted this region for several hundred years now. But just because she is benevolent is no reason to become complacent around a ghost that commands other ghosts.

She would call herself a hero, if any of them dared venture out to ask. But as it is, they drag their children inside and shutter the windows. It does not do to speak to the dead, particularly not so strong a spirit as the Naukarānī. One never knows if drawing her attention could bring bad luck or a curse on one's family, or if she might simply smile and move on.

Best not to chance it.

-

She passes through the center of the village on her way to the bhut's road. Her pale grey toes sweep through the dirt, her cloth shoes reduced to tatters around her ankles by years of wandering. She trips along, always on her toes, the barest inch from floating along without skimming the earth at all. Her sari is shapeless and ragged, a rust red lined and embroidered with white, and the shredded strips of cloth tug here and there in the grip of winds that don't brush against anything else - the unseen hands of spirits she has called and bound to her side. Her thick, gnarled tangle of heavy rust-limned curls obscures her face and tumbles down her back, but the general consensus shared by most everyone who whispers about her is that hers would be the eyes of the dead, lidless and pale.

Not that they would know, of course!

The Naukarānī, less commonly known as Aradia Megido, tilts her head to one side and smiles. Adjusting her mask with a brush of her claw, her bone prayer beads clacking, she drifts through the village, drawing the souls of the deceased along with her in a heavy, wet fog. They can't take a more corporeal, visible form without her consent and extreme mental strain on her own part, and they tend to drift alongside her regardless of whether she intends to give that consent or not. There are few necromantic priestesses of her caliber in the world who aren't of a more villainous nature, and who would fling the dead about like cheap cannon fodder to serve their own ends. Aradia is more inclined to at least ask first. Death must always be respected; she of all people understands the power inherent in the act of dying.

She can't remember everything. But she remembers enough to realize that she has been born too early. The year is 1709 CE, and the last time she checked the queen regent Tarabai had just set up a court in Kolhapur. She doesn't hold much store with mortal politics at the moment, though; Aradia has it on quite good authority that more in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the Maratha Empire won't really serve her in the future, anyway. She keeps track of the Condesce, who has taken up residence in Mongolia of late, and she keeps her head down, emerging from her temple only to deal with incidents such as this one, when the locals can no longer defend themselves.

For years, she has created time for herself, coaxing out the span of her life with the implicit knowledge that she was born too soon. No one else is around yet, apart from enemies whose attention she would prefer not to draw down on her head. And, well...she has to pass the time somehow! Humming tunelessly, she floats out of town again, letting her sense of the dead guide her.

The bhut stands by the side of the road in the shade of a long-hanging tree, still and silent, with its arms hanging by its sides and head bowed. It does not look up when Aradia approaches, and in the tree's shadow it would be easy for an unwary passerby to miss the broken angle of the backwards feet. It would have had to have suffered a radically violent death and not received due justice or burial rites to be able to maintain a corporeal form without assistance from a necromancer like Aradia, and as Aradia comes to a halt before the ghostly apparition, the hero reaches out and cautiously tests the flow of time in the area. It is an ability she rarely uses because, like spatial anomalies, interference with time leaves behind...traces. Traces that could easily be tracked back to her, without the proper precaution of a void-ward. Alas, that Equius hasn't been born yet!

No use sighing over it, though; Aradia uses what little power she can afford to call up and investigates the churail's past, nodding every so often with a sympathetic grimace on her face. The ghost does not react, of course, oblivious to the scraps of time that only Aradia can see. If Aradia were male, the ghost would perhaps be more active in attempting to initiate a conversation. But the spirit's disinterest in females just means that Aradia can try to settle this with good old fashioned conversation! "Namastē," she says, blinking away the visions of a house burning among the trees, of a tiger-shaped lusus struggling and failing to drag its charge out of the flames. "Would you like to talk about it?"

The churail does not respond, but its eyes flicker open, a dull, flat white that stares through Aradia as though she isn't even present. "Really, I'm a very good listener," she adds, without a trace of modesty. "I have all the time in the world. I’m basically…made of time."

Alright, that was an awful pun. She chuckles gleefully anyway. The bhut perks up at the sound, its eyes flickering and rotating ten degrees counterclockwise around the edge of its blurred, grey face to stare at Aradia with avid interest. Well, at least it's paying attention, now! The spirits of the dead that accompany her begin to whisper warnings in her ears - as though she doesn't know to be wary of a bloodthirsty ghost like this, after all these years!

"I understand that you're quite upset," she continues, tugging down the drapes of her sari, thumbing at her mala beads with her right claw, and wriggling her bare toes in the dirt. Every tiny movement draws the unwavering focus of the bhut, and its facial features distort further, into a hollow, ghoulish mask. Faced with a male troll or human, it might have made more effort to conceal its murderous intent, the better to convince the unsuspecting victim to invite it into their home and so lay a curse on the residence itself; but Aradia is just provoking it, now, egging it on. "They killed your lusus afterward, didn't they? But you already took your revenge, and now you're just hanging around and rotting over here, long after you should have moved on. I can help with that, you know!" She grins brilliantly, under the jut of her ram's skull mask, and reaches out with her right hand, beckoning.

The churail's face finishes its grotesque transformation. The pale eyes glower up at Aradia from below, and a mouthful of jarring, serrated teeth opens up in the center of its forehead. It shrieks at her wordlessly, a chilling, high-pitched cry that pierces Aradia's ear drums. She flips her palm out, so that the three strings of her prayer beads swing and twine about her arm, each clack resonating with power. "But if you're just going to try to eat me, we can do this the hard way!" she says, shrugging, well aware that the grin on her face is not one that most would consider sane.

However, before she can begin to exorcise this ghost in earnest, Aradia blinks, and the world explodes.

"What in the world?" she says, riding out the blinding waves of light as her mind spirals in an attempt to reassert itself. Her physical body is unaffected, she notes absently, and when she can bear to open her eyes again and squint against the dying of the light overhead, she sees that the churail has been similarly unaffected by the shenanigans that have thrown Aradia's power into turmoil. She snaps her fingers over her prayer beads and stretches out the ghost in time, before it can leap upon her in her moment of distraction.

Time buzzes and crackles through her fingers in response, an unpleasant jolt that she accepts with grace. Pausing time is absolutely unconscionable, but even the act of stretching it out, so that seconds trickle along at a snail’s pace, strains the limits of what Aradia can achieve. But the bhut is effectively stopped, its motions sluggish and slow, and so Aradia can squint her eyes and survey the explosion that just took place smack dab in the middle of her nice, orderly timeline.

It's not centered on her. It may have felt as though time just blew up in her face, but when the fabric of paradox space stops twanging like an untuned piano wire, she can get a general look at the source of the vibrations. The epicenter is somewhere north, and west, and up, in the upper atmosphere if she's correct, but the concussive force of the explosion has spread outward in a circular radius.

"Mujhē kshamā kariyē," she apologizes to the bhut, shaking her head slowly as she stares at the shards of time that have rent through the fabric of paradox space around her. To her eyes, they resemble nothing so much as great, jagged cuts of quartz. The fact that the time energy itself has taken a solid, unyielding form is bad enough - time is meant to flow, like music, constantly in motion, and for such massive chunks of time to have stopped and crystallized like this can only mark a significant event occurring in the timeline. In fact, so much uncontrolled paradoxical disruption could only be caused by -

She slaps both hands to her face, and can't repress the burst of maniacal laughter that bursts forth from her lips. The ghost itself flinches back, twisting its face slowly back into a normal alignment in shock. It looks more like a confused young troll than a marauding spirit, now, utterly thrown by Aradia's actions. She pats it on the head, still laughing gustily. "I - oh my!" she says, her smile cracking all the wider as she focuses her attention north and west. "Someone else has arrived already? How fun!"

The bhut, belatedly, snarls. It probably wouldn't be fair for Aradia to just leave it here, suffering in a slowtime bubble while it still hasn't moved on to the proper next stage of its death, so she raps out a rapid atma-shanti and then snaps a finger again so that time for the bhut runs twice as quickly. The funeral rites slam through the ghost like a hāthī in a cloister, and leave it dazed. The distorted features of its face smooth even further, and when Aradia murmurs one of her more private necromantic chants under her breath, pressing three beads to the bhut's throat chakra. As usual for a marauding spirit, there is a distinct block in the flow of energy there, and Aradia chinks away at it until the energy starts flowing again. When the block dissolves at last, she opens her eyes and watches the bhut fade away, its corporeal form resolving into steam that melts into the air. The last remnants of the churail's spirit hangs around for a moment, drawn to the cluster of dead souls that accompany Aradia, but then it changes its mind and vanishes completely into the ether.

With that taken care of, Aradia glances in either direction down the dirt road, and after two seconds of thought decides 'oh, to Kali with it,' and lets her god-tier wings rip out through the back of her sari. The spirits of her convoy can't really hope to keep up as she hurtles up into the sky cackling, the symphony of the world crashing in her ears.

It's a risk, letting loose with god-tier level abilities this early in the game.

But if someone else has arrived, she has to know!

-

She makes a beeline over the Safavid Empire, past Kabul and ever northward, until she finds herself over the Kara Kum desert and is forced to fold her wings away. She's as close to the region of Mongolia as she has ever dared to come, and she doesn't want to attract certain eyes. That region has settled down a lot more than it should have by this time - Aradia can feel the influence of the Condesce even from here, little jolts rippling out as the timeline for this world accommodates the fuchsia-blooded troll's actions.

In a way, Aradia is grudgingly grateful for the arrival of Her Imperious Condescension. Before the Condesce gained ascendency, there'd been enough power-hungry fuchsia bloods vying for power that the world had seriously been on the verge of a premature world war. But Aradia has observed from the shadows over the years as the Condesce did what she does best: she claimed power for herself, cutting down all pretenders to the throne, until all those burgeoning troll empires were left to spoil in the sun like burst fruit. Now there is only one left, and for some reason she seems content to direct the khanates of Central Asia for her own gain, rather than expanding into the kind of world-wide empire she has always favored.

Maybe it's the presence of humans that gives her pause, or maybe the Condesce is just following her own personal check list before she tries to conquer everyone at once, a checklist Aradia is not privy to. Aradia doesn't question it. She knows what kind of power is backing the Condesce now, and she's steering clear of it for as long as she possibly can.

Grounded, Aradia hovers the rest of the way into the Kizil Kum under her own personal power, drawing up the spirits of the dead who haunt the sands and bearing herself along in a flood of fog that glistens under the morning sun. The temporal disruptions loom ever larger in her sight as she cautiously floats up the banks of the Syr Darya. She knows she is drawing near to the crash site when she at last spots the trail of smoke, dust, and debris rising up into the sky above an exposed rock formation, and she rushes over the rocky outcropping and peers over into the new crater a mile from the river's edge.

Her first thought is that the crater is far too large. The meteorite itself is completely out of scale, not suited for the simply (but important!) task of transporting a grub or a human child through time and space to their intended destination. Aradia lays a claw on the enormous spike of time crystal beside her, and guesses that the meteor may be as large as her own temple, back in India.

More significantly, when she flutters down to inspect it up close, she finds no sign of a fellow player perched atop the dull grey ridges of the meteorite. There are none of the usual safety precautions Skaia would generally take to ensure a fragile mortal being could survive the journey through the vacuum of space and the violent collision with the Earth; in fact, she doesn't think this is a player meteorite at all! Huffing, Aradia lands on top of the space rock and stamps her foot, trying to figure out just why such a useless non-player rock would have sent such damaging ripples through time. It has to be significant to paradox space, it has to, but she can't see how!

She tamps down with her foot again, tapping as she sucks on the inside of her cheek and scans the crater around her one last time. There's no sign of a wriggler or a human infant anywhere at all.

Then she pauses, and looks down at the rock beneath her. Raising her foot, she steps down deliberately.

The rock lets out a hollow noise, and when she dances a little, pounding her feet, the ringing thud of her feet echoes through a hollow space below. Laughing, Aradia kneels and dusts off the surface of the rock with her already filthy sari, until the symbol on the hidden door beneath her feet comes clear. She cocks her head to the side, confused, before realizing she is looking at the symbol upside down. Scooting over, she traces her claws over it. Two four-pointed crowns overlap each other, one black and one white.

Aradia has to sit back on her heels, and let that sink in, because what.

She had anticipated the arrival of her fellow players.

But nowhere in all of her travels and her struggle to piece together her own memories has she ever found evidence that the Queens would be arriving before the start of the session! They should have arrived within the incipisphere, not on the pre-game world, and used their head start to begin compiling the armies of Prospit and Derse. And stranger still...if this symbol is accurate, then -

A loud thump slams up against the door from within in the meteorite, and Aradia yelps, floating back from the sudden flurry of movement going on within the impossible rock. She hadn't realized she'd been kneeling right on top of the hinges for the door before the hatch itself swings open, and, of all people, the Black Queen straightens up and surveys the landscape around her from beneath the swathing folds of her pitch-black hood. The carapacian is slim and elegant, all clicking joints and etched limbs, and quite thoroughly unprototyped. When her white eyes land on Aradia at last, she arches a brow and starts signing immediately.

BQ: Oh for the love of horrors - no. It is far too early for this.

BQ: Why in the name of the Battlefield are you god-tiered? This is ridiculous. I don't have time to deal with this right now.

Even knowing that her fantastic investigative work on identifying that symbol was correct, Aradia is still...put out. Put out is the phrase she is looking for. "We scratched after I hit god-tier. It seems to have carried over."

The carapacian pinches her brow.

BQ: Oh, fantastic. First we get knocked off course, and now I have to deal with a pack of mewling gods who probably don't have half a clue what they're meant to be doing.

"Well, if it helps, I'm the only one who seems to have arrived yet!" Aradia throws in, chipper. She folds her legs in a lotus and tilts her head to the side, heart thumping but unafraid, even in the face of the game construct who technically wields the most power in all of Skaia. A few universes ago, she had never been able to meet the Black Queen in person, before the carapacian had been deposed by her team's antics. But she has gathered that in the session immediately before this - the human session that had gone so badly awry, and ultimately led to this joint scratch - that the Queens had been driven to be a little more helpful towards the players than they would in the progress of a normal game. Once the glitches and the mistakes and the horrors had begun to pile up, due to events beyond the players' control, certain failsafes had been activated that led the Black Queen in particular to assist the human session in the name of opposing her ex-Archagent.

With any luck, thanks to the cyclical nature of a Queen's existence, that inclination towards aiding and abetting the players may have carried over, just like Aradia's god-tiering!

BQ: Well, there's an unexpected blessing. Now, stand aside so that I may get this show on the road.

Bemused, Aradia moves to the side again, and the Black Queen swings the outer door of the meteor closed, and leaps off the meteorite to the scorched, glassy crater below. Taking one last look at the doubled crowns, and hearing the sound of machinery still echoing within the meteorite, Aradia frowns and hurries after the carapacian dame when it becomes clear that the Queen is walking toward the edge of the crater. "Where are you going? Isn't someone else in there?" she asks, glancing back and wondering if she should be worried. If the White Queen is in there, and the Black Queen set up some device to explode…

BQ: Her Wise, Woeful self is still down for the count. She took far more damage than I did, and she needs time to recover and to set up her own half of the ectobiological chamber before anything else can be accomplished. I've done my part.

"But...you're leaving her alone?" Aradia asks, frowning. "You're not even going to try to reach Prospit and Derse together, and get everything back in order?"

The Black Queen rounds on her, eyes narrowed dangerously. Aradia's eyes flicker toward the carapacian's ring hand on reflex, her whole body tense for a possible battle; even an unprototyped queen is still a Queen.

What she sees makes Aradia freeze up entirely. Time whines painfully in her ear, and she realizes, perhaps for the first time, just how very strange this game is going to be.

The Black Queen's ring claw is gone. That entirely segment of her hand has been lopped off, and when Aradia looks at the other hand, to see if that secondary ring claw has been lost as well, she sees the glove that has been drawn over the Queen's other hand and wrist, as though to obscure even more damage. "That should have been healed, shouldn't it?" she asks, her pulse pounding in her ears. "When you two transition between one game and the next, you're supposed to be reset. You two are continuous -" Her mouth snaps shut while she shakes her head. She is so very, very confused.

BQ: Well clearly, it didn't.

The Black Queen strokes at the half-hand with the gloved claws, almost absently, before her shoulders relax and she turns away from Aradia again. She gazes off across the flattened desert landscape, toward the east, but Aradia can't see anything but more sand in that direction.

BQ: It is not as though I have a ring to wear, anyway.

Aradia doesn't think she was meant to hear that. But now that she has - "We broke something, didn't we," she says quietly. It has not escaped her notice that the shards of broken time kicked up by the Queens' meteor form the four points of a crown in a circle around them. That's the thing one has to always, always remember when dealing with a game like this - everything is significant. Nothing can be left to chance. "When we scratched both sessions for this, we pushed the game mechanics too far." She can't remember everything, and that sucks, because she can tell that something has gone wrong but she can't tell what.

The Queen snorts, tossing a fold of her wrappings over a shoulder dismissively, and turns to walk off once more.

BQ: It was broken before it even began. I don't see the point of attempting to raise this hunk of useless rock back up and hurling it back through to the Medium, anyway. It landed here - let her build a Prospit here, if she so desires. I'm out.

"Where are you going to go?" Aradia asks. When the Black Queen pulls her hood up and stalks away, her thin feet leaving alien footprints in the dusty soil, the troll doesn't follow. It feels - wrong, and she doesn't know how long the Queen's patience will hold out. It would never do to forget that in any ordinary session, the Black Queen would unquestionably be an enemy. "What will the game do if all the carapacians are here and not on the Battlefield? How is this going to work?" Her mind is spinning, and she has the feeling that she's missed some critical piece in this puzzle. She remembers the games, she remembers scratching, but she can't remember why everything would be going so very wrong so early, or why the  -

The Black Queen just smirks, and walks away. The desert sun shines brilliantly overhead, washing out all the colors, and the carapacian is a dark line against the smoking ground. But when she reaches the edge of the crater, the carapacian turns and signs one last thing.

BQ: Oh, Maid. Haven't you realized? It's supposed to be broken. It's not going to work. That's the point.

Surprisingly enough, this clears up...everything.

No, really. That last piece of the puzzle slots into place, and Aradia can see where they're going with this, the path they need to take laid out before her like an uncovered fossil, the skeleton perfectly preserved in her mind's eye. All she'd needed was that final reminder, and a little push.

Aradia beams back, and waves goodbye to the Black Queen's back, wishing the carapacian luck on whatever journey she's set off on. She doubts the Queen would give a straight answer, even if Aradia asked her outright what she intended to do - it's not in the nature of the Dersites to be open with information, even when they are in a helpful mood. All she can do is hope that the Black Queen's actions truly are in their best interests, after all this time.

She considers waiting for the White Queen to finish setting up the Prospitian ectobiological cycle so she can greet her as well, but then she discards the idea and rises up to return to her usual haunting grounds.

She needs to make a few preparations. If they're throwing out the rule book, after all this time, she's going all out!

-

Three hundred or so years later, Aradia Megido is quite rudely awakened by the arrival of the Knight of Time. Her throat gurgles as she lurches upright, tearing the vines and thick, dark leaves of the plants that have overgrown her body in her latest sleep cycle, and glances around blearily with her sari lopsided and hanging off one shoulders.

She's taken to decades-long naps, of late. There are consequences to stretching one's lifespan out the way she has - she is no hero of Life, after all, and there is no way for her to rejuvenate herself once she is forced to let even a single second of her time slip away. But honestly, she thinks she might as well give this nap cycle up for good; she's been interrupted a good eleven times now in the past five years alone, as the arrival of each player sent jarring notes through the flow of time, and her friends slot themselves into place in their timeline. And now, this? If she'd known a fellow hero of Time would make landing today, she wouldn't have bothered hibernating at all!

Grumbling, Aradia peels the vines off her arms and legs, stripping lichen off her flesh. Her temple is overgrown and crumbling at the edges when she glances around, stretching her limbs with the pop and creak of bones that grind ever closer toward old age. No one but her has dwelled here for some time, let alone worshipped at the feet of the statue that rises up in center of the circle, its features worn smooth and grey by time, and the slanted light of dawn falls through the thick vines and illuminates the fragments of the floor mosaics that remain.

Aradia chose to rest this time on the section of the temple floor with design still intact, the sahasrara pattern in brilliant purple and black stones that forms the shape of a thousand-petal lotus. One would have to look very closely, and with a certain game in mind, to see the spirograph hidden in the mosaic piece. When she looks over at the entrance of the temple, she sees that the seedling banyan tree from only a century ago has grown to close off the entire entryway in a curtain of hanging branches and leaves. The morning air is heavy with the scent of her home, overgrown and ancient, and Aradia takes a moment to lay back on the floor and mourn the end of her slumber.

But if the Knight is here, the rest of the human players can't be far behind. It is long past time that she join the party!

There is also something new in the air, she senses - or to be more precise, in the fabric of time itself. The arrival of each player had kicked up more disruptions like that caused by the impact of the Queens and their equipment, but the Knight of Time would of course cause more than a wound in the timeline with his arrival - the very nature of time itself has altered. Aradia hums, her usual note, and hears how the echoes of her hum in time reverberate differently. Time still flows like a beautifully wound music box, but now she can feel brief pauses before time resumes at a slightly lower register.

Pauses are not normal. Pauses are the opposite of how time works, really. People may pause, but time should still continue on around them. But after each pause, Aradia cannot deny that this is how time flows now - with built-in hiccups that vibrate through her, jolting the crystallized shards and nudging them back into motion.

She cannot believe it. It is next to impossible for her to comprehend, mainly because it involves drawing on memories of her past life rather than this one. Aradia Megido of this iteration has never been exposed to modern music, but Aradia in another time and place knew the Alternian equivalent in the form of slam poetry.

For whatever reason, the  Knight of Time has decided...to drop the bass. On a cosmic level.

Knights. Always so conspicuous. Aradia just grins, sliding the mask back over her face as she flicks out her wings. Maids can create and manipulate time, but there's really nothing like a Knight for exploiting and weaponizing it. It'll be a few years yet, but she can already imagine what they'll be able to achieve with two time players in one gloriously broken session.

But she still has to wait. She's getting a bit tired of waiting, but everyone still has to grow up first! The oldest are Equius and Feferi, and even they aren't anywhere near ready for the game. Soooo...she might as well have some fun in the meantime! "I know you've been whispering to him, as well," she says, spreading out her arms and rising toward the wide, arching opening in the center of the roof. The spirits of the dead stream up and around her, a thousand thousand of them that have sunk into the rocks and foundations of the temple while the Naukarānī slept, all dead souls that she has collected over the centuries to compound her strength. With her time powers stymied by her need to be discreet, she has relied on necromancy more and more heavily over the years.

"Take me to him," she orders, sifting a hand through the spirits until she finds the one she's looking for, the voice of a dead troll who had been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when a meteorite had blasted through a spirographic portal and through the roof of a grub center in Ontario. The rest of the spirit is still attached to the one who rode that meteor - like Aradia, he has an in-born tendency to attract the dead and the soon-to-die. It's what always makes them such good friends!

With the assurance from one of her other tame spirits that the Condesce is somewhere in Spain, and that other parties are occupied with the new musical arrangement of time's flow, Aradia snaps her fingers, and flies east, following the curvature of the earth as she speeds herself up to hurtle towards Canada. She could conceivably speed herself up enough that she wouldn't experience the trip at all, but where's the fun in that? She has to make a pit stop in the center of the Pacific Ocean to meet with an old friend, but she's still in a hurry to get where she's going, so she cuts it short and moves on.

By the time she reaches Ontario, she wonders that her wings haven't grown tired. She crisscrosses the world quite often when she's awake, darting here and there setting key events into motion and visiting the crash sites of other players to ensure they get where they need to be, but the veined, dust-thin wings of her god-tier form never tire. The perks of being a second-hand god, no doubt. She flutters over the city until she reaches a cluster of apartment buildings, and the whispers of the dead troll in her ears rise to a scream. She lets it go at last, and the ghost's voice departs.

Then, settling on top of the towering apartment complex, unseen and unheard, Aradia watches as Sollux emerges from within the apartment, to the excited trumpeting of the lusus that lies chained to the center post. He is barely five years old, but already gangly and strung too tall for his age, worn thin with stress and a choleric temperament, and Aradia wonders just how much or how little Sollux has changed. That's the thing with a scratched universe - there's no telling how the players will turn out. They were lucky to be players at all, this time around.

When the first spirit drifts down and tries to whisper in his ear, Aradia unspools her mala beads and begins to chant under her breath until the soon-to-be ghost yanks away and floats up to join her foggy train. She can't ease all of Sollux's burdens as a Doom player. But she can at least grant him some peace while he's too young to understand. She draws her knees up to her chin, smiling warmly down at the troll below, and lets her mind wander, thinking of all the preparations she still has to make for the sake of the game.

Somewhere to the south, time adjusts to the new, percussive beat of a third drummer.

-

The people of Toronto, Ontario don't connect the sudden appearance of the masked hero called Naukarani with the Mauta kī Naukarānī legend of the Indian subcontinent - those who do think her costume, a clean new sari embroidered with clockwork and a ram's skull refitted as a gruesome mask, to be simply a homage to an ancient, obscure legend.

Aradia doesn't really mind, one way or another. She drops to the street below with her latest entourage of wayward spirits, behind a man who has yet to realize that his attempt at mugging a woman is about to go horribly wrong.

Baring her teeth in a feral grin, Aradia presses her fingers to her temples.

It starts slowly, with a single, quiet crack. Aradia tilts her head to the side, and lets a curl of fog brush against her cheek.

With a louder crack, the fog solidifies, and a skeletal hand is caressing her cheek. Aradia giggles, and with a shattering CRACK a pair of arms, bone and no more, wrap around her throat as the first spirit sags out of the fog, hollow-eyed and grinning the same smile as the hero who summoned it forth.

After that, they gain momentum, as the dead slowly recollect their old physical forms and Aradia patiently feeds them the raw necromantic power they need to become corporeal. Some are...meatier than others, strips of flesh solidifying out of the fog with wet slurps as her little army steps forward out of the mist.

The mugger's victim, naturally, sees them first. Her scream has enough volume that the mugger flinches back, and the man whirls with his knifekind still at the ready.

He drops it. Sensible of him.

"Boo," Aradia says sweetly. A dozen skinless, skeletal faces loom forward out of the fog, reaching out with claws and fingers to clutch at the mugger's clothing. He screams shrilly and kicks out. The first skeleton to form latches both arms around his foot, and drags him down. The dead pull the man into the fog, and Aradia smiles and smiles and smiles while the screams are swallowed in the muffling fog.

The mugging victim must call the police after she flees, because Aradia certainly doesn't. Aradia doesn't quite understand cellphones, yet - they're very new - and she's grateful when she hears sirens, because she doesn’t really know what she's going to do with the criminal currently occupied with the corpse party.

Long after the mugger stops screaming, the police arrive. Aradia withdraws her skeleton crew and her fog, leaving the man curled up in a ball on the ground as she flits off into the sky. She'll never understand why people find the dead so downright terrifying - all she'd given them permission to do was to scare him a little, and he's been reduced to a whimpering wreck.

Well. What works, works!

Shrugging, Aradia rises up into the air and grins at the next spirit that comes to whisper in her ear, with news of a fresh murder over by CN Tower. She brushes up the draping edges of her sari, and sets to work.

-

Several years later…

Aradia considers the wall before her.

She could use the door like a normal person. But he would be expecting that, and no doubt has shoved his mind-honey mainframes up against the door like the antisocial miscreant that he is.

So instead, she raises a hand, thumbing at her old beads, and runs through all possible timelines until she finds one where the wall has been knocked in by a wrecking ball.

She then quite neatly replaces the current wall with the demolished one, swapping the two time segments and cackling as she sets the new time graft into motion. The wall appears to blow inward, taking out a column of bee hives as the debris from another time crashes through the roof.

From within, she hears the crash of someone falling off their computer chair, and she laughs even harder.

"Thon of a fuck!"

"Get up, Sollux!" She grins, hands on her hips as she hovers over the wreckage of the wall and into the room beyond. "We're going crime-fighting!"

Chapter Text

===> Be Tavros Nitram

There are three things about which Tavros is certain.

First and foremost - that Pupa Pan is the greatest thing ever. He has fought numerous rounds of fisticuffs over this, and won. Do not even question the literary masterpiece that is Pupa Pan in his hearing, because he is quite willing to sternly lecture non-believers on the subject. It's one of the few subjects he can talk about at length with utter confidence, without even a hint of a stutter in both English and Spanish, and by God, will he talk.

Second, that the Toreador was and forever will be remembered as the world's best hero, and he died too soon. The day Tavros heard the news of the brownblooded hero's death, he had taken up his massive collection of comic books, driven as far east as he could, and tossed them into the sea. Tenga en su gloria, Toreador.

And third, that his new best friend is completely fidusflippin' banana milkshake levels of insane.

-

It starts as a normal day of achicalada, rolling the square-cut stone streets of Guanajuato.

Well, there aren't actually a lot of streets Tavros can roll on in Guanajuato. Two, maybe - Juarez Street is the only one that runs completely aboveground, and Tavros can't even use it half the time, not with the constant flow of people and traffic that he'd have to maneuver. All the other streets, if one could even call them that, lay underground, labyrinthine passages that echo the old drainage ditches and tunnels carved into the earth before the dam redirected the river. In some places, the riverbed hasn't been completely bricked over on the surface, and so the edges of houses above jut over the gaps, braced by ever-creaking props. There are rumors of ghosts there, and once a fortnight Tavros gathers his courage and braves the tunnels in the dead of night, with a backup flashlight slung in the sack across the back of his wheelchair in the event that his own eyes fail him. He has seen plenty of petty crime down below, especially where the tourists have parked their useless cars, but no sign of La Llorona. Not yet, anyway.

There's not much crime either, come to think of it. A city of barely two hundred thousand residents tends to be relatively...quiet. The worst is on the nights when the university students and the tourists rove the alleyways in callejoneadas - the students play instruments and sing, their voices rolling through the dry evening air, while the tourists get rowdy.

So it's Tavros's sworn duty to liven up the place. In addition to, uh, fighting crime.

This would be much easier if he could walk.

Terraced callejones crisscross the city, and they're really the only way of navigating the curving, knotted warren of houses pressed up tight against each other. From above, Guanajuato is a patchwork in bright turquoise and orange, pink and green, like a bowl of pastel gemstones and spires.

But Tavros grew up here, and he knows the tunnels and alleyways better than anyone - knows when he can plot a serpentine but navigable route to his destination and when he needs to get creative with his wings.

And his wheelchair is built like a tank.

"Abran cancha! Coming through!"

Tavros rattles down the center of the cobblestone alley, his secretive grin creasing his full-face mask when he narrowly avoids slamming into a passing musician. He takes full advantage of the slight incline of the street, coasting without having to jam the wheels over and over again, and it feels like flying. Someone swears at him in broken Spanish as he veers around the corner, leaning inward to keep from toppling over and nearly impaling a crate with his horns. But he's coming up hard on a steep hill, and he careens to a stop, throwing on the brakes and gritting his teeth against the resulting screech.

The brakes hold, and the wheelchair grates to a halt right where the incline of the alley swerves into a forty-five degree drop. He starts rolling down the switchbacks with more caution.

Overhead, the rooftop dogs proceed to lose it. If anyone else passed below their territory to navigate the switchbacks, they'd snarl and growl, ferociously defending what they see as their rooftops. But they recognize his scent, and when Tavros reaches out with his thoughts, the mutts flop down at the edge of the roofs and whine at him, scrabbling at the pastel sandstone with their paws to beg for attention and treats. Tavros reaches beneath his wheelchair to one of his many storage sacks and pulls out a clawful of scraps to toss up above. The dogs lose interest in him in favor of fighting the roosters for rights to the food, and he clatters off, laboriously navigating the switchbacks until he reaches the next alley below.

It's not really the most efficient mode of travel for a hero, he guesses, being confined to a wheelchair. But he can't exactly fly around everywhere - his wings would get way too tired, and he'd end up stranded halfway across the city from his house! No way is he dragging himself back on his hands and hips through the alleys, not after the last time he was nearly trampled by a roving band of elementary schoolers.

Seriously. Never again.

A half hour later, his opportunity arrives.

He's rolling along a blessed section of level cobblestone, past the entrance to a dance bar that is belting out a slow-tempo bolero to the click of castanets, and he can see the crowd up ahead where someone - expat, probably, they tend to do loco stuff like this - is trying to move a baby grand piano into their home. They've rigged a system of pulleys and ropes to the side of the apartment, and the chattering line of people is helping to lever the piano up to the next level of terraces. But even as he watches, wondering whether he should offer to help out, he sees why the work has ground to a halt.

"Mijo, ¡baja de ahí!" a woman bawls up at the piano, her hands on her hips as she glowers upward. The piano shifts, the ropes creaking out a warning, and a child maybe four years old - Tavros isn't good at human ages - peers over the edge and sticks out his tongue. The crowd that's swarming around the ropes seems torn, and as Tavros rolls closer he hears a heated argument going on in rapid-fire Spanish, as the two people at the head of the line try to decide whether to continue lifting the piano so they can grab the kid at the window, or to lower it and risk the rope breaking to get him safely on the ground, where his mother can deal with him.

Tavros checks his mask, and shrugs off his hoodie, tugging over one horn and then the other. Looks like a job for - for...agh.

By the time he emerges from the usual hassle of dealing with clothing, he can see that the human child is now standing and jumping up and down on the piano. Even his own mother seems to be at a loss for words at the breathtaking display of stupidity.

That's just...wow. He doesn't want to be mean, but…

Tavros shakes his head and unfolds his wings to become the Summoner. He grunts and levers himself up on his arms so he can shake them out to their full extent, and then swings forward to throw himself into the air. It took years to get that kind of takeoff right, and the flattened bridge of his nose can be traced directly back to early childhood mishaps with underdeveloped wings.

But once he's in the air, he's fine. Better than fine. There's maybe twenty thousand trolls with the unique genetic markers required for wing growth during their second pupation, and while most wouldn't have to deal with their legs acting like dead weight, the Summoner can imagine that they're just as comfortable in the air as he is, carried aloft by thin, chitinous membranes. They shed little, flaky scales of dust as he heaves himself up over the crowd and hovers beside the piano. "You should probably stop that," he says, grabbing the human child under the arms and hoisting him into the air.

"¡Bajarme!" the child shrieks, kicking at his chest with stubby legs; when he squirms around and tries to claw at Summoner's face, it doesn't leave much of a mark. Human nails are pretty sad.

At this point, though, gravity is mostly taking over. Between his useless legs and the extra weight, it's all he can do to control the descent and pass off the writhing human child to his mother. "Here you go, señora."

She grimaces at the child like Summoner is trying to hand her an armful of trash, but takes the kid nonetheless.  "Thank you," she says, the words pulled out of her only through visible effort.

He gets the feeling this kind of thing happens to her more often than any mother should have to deal with. He pats her sympathetically on the shoulder as the child throws back his head and screeches in outrage at having been foiled in his own self-destruction, and then floats off to retrieve his wheelchair.

All in a day's work!

-

By the time Tavros gets home, the sky overhead is dark with clouds, the prelude to a rainstorm, and the street lights shed a heavy yellow glow over everything. He rolls by a pair of trolls murmuring to each other in a tiny jardín, their faces close together and their horns hooked, and he has to look away when their eyes flick toward him and glitter like beetles in the half-light. "Just Tavros," the tealblood says, so low that Tavros can barely hear it, and the two dismiss him and go back to their gossiping. People tend to do that. The first drops of rain begin to fall as Tavros reaches his front door, and he smiles a little when he hears faint yelps from the garden as he rolls over the threshold.

"Tinkerbull? I'm home," he calls, and he hears the faint, squeaking bellow of the lusus come from the back room. Normally the lusus of a troll around Tavros's age would have found a new wriggler or retired long before now, but Tinkerbull is a service lusus, specially assigned to him when the caretakers at the grubcenter had realized that post-pupation Tavros would probably never be able to walk, and it could be with Tavros for his entire life. He just doesn't have the money for the kind of prosthetics that would let him walk, yet - that kind of surgery doesn't come cheap. Instead, he joins Tinkerbull in the kitchen behind the hanging curtain and together they whip up some quesadillas, with the lusus zooming up to retrieve ingredients from shelves Tavros can't reach. By the end both of them are sticky with melted cheese, which is absolutely disgusting, and so Tavros is coaxing the reluctant lusus into the sink for an impromptu scrubbing when he hears the knock on the door.

The sound startles him and he loses his focus on Tinkerbull's mind. Tavros looks up and frowns, but he doesn't hear anything. "You're not getting out of this one, mister!" he says when Tinkerbull motors up above the top shelf to escape him, but then he sighs and rolls to the front door, just to check and make sure.

There's no one there. Tavros glances around, squinting through the veil of drizzly rain as he scans up and down the terrace. He can't make anything out, though he peers into each shadow, and wonders if he just imagin-santa mierda are those eyes?

Tavros nearly screams, his bloodpusher ramming against the inside of his ribcage because someone is standing right in front of him. He's half outlined by the light from inside Tavros's house, but the rest of the tall, stick-thin form is concealed by darkness.

Cool. Breathe. Don't have a heart attack. Tavros swallows hard. "Uh - um - was that you? At the door just now?" His heart still feels like a drum in his chest, and the longer the troll stands there, motionless, the more his apprehension grows. He tries to reason with himself that the stranger hasn't even done anything, but it's not really all that effective. "I - can I help you? With something?"

The silence draws out like strings of gum pulled taut, but by some miracle the pause ends before Tavros can lose his nerve. With a broken sigh, the figure slides forward out of the corner he's wedged himself in, all sharp angles and long lines, eyes fixed on Tavros as though drinking in the sight of him. "Tavros," he croaks, his voice breaking from a low rumble to a flat, pained growl between syllables. It sounds like he scrubbed his throat raw with a metal threaded sponge. "Motherfuck, it's good to lay eyes at you, brother."

"I'm - I'm sorry, have we met?" Tavros scrambles through his memory trying to place the troll, but nothing about this guy rings any bells. His face is obscured with smears of grey and white paint and plastered with a mop of hair dripping with rainwater, and his eyes are purple like paste gemstones. Tavros is fairly certain he's never worked up the courage to speak to a coldblood before in his life - trolls in Guanajuato are generally lowbloods, because coldbloods tend to relocate to America or Europe. So really, he can't figure out how this guy knows his name, or why he'd consider them brothers...

The troll takes another jerking step forward. It would be pretty inconsiderate to roll backwards and slam the door in this guy's face, so Tavros steels himself, chin jutting out, and tries to ignore the little warning bells going off in his head. The guy is a little creepy, yeah, but he hasn't done anything, he hadn't done anything…

"N-nah, brother," he says, coughing out a laugh. "Nah, we ain't met before. Not here, anyway. Took me a long motherfucking time to track you down. I was all worried I'd be too late, and you'd go and get yourself culled before I found you."

"Thanks for the concern, I guess? Yup, totally not culled," Tavros says, looking down at himself and then nodding. "That is not a thing that happened."

"A motherfucker would be surprised," the troll mutters. The campaneros ring the eleven o'clock bells in their usual broken chorus and he flinches, creeping closer to the open door and casting wary, almost fearful looks at the sky, like the bells startled him. Tavros tightens his grip on the door, but says nothing. "Right. Name's Gamzee, motherfucker," he says, his grin sharp toothed in the dim light. "And I - ohhh, fuck." The stranger falls to his knees in a rush and Tavros yelps in surprise as Gamzee faceplants in his lap.

"S-sir? Mr, uh, Gamzee?" he stutters, feeling his face blaze with a dull brown flush. The strange weirdo angled his head at the last moment so his horns didn't accidentally gut Tavros, but what just happened and why does he suddenly have a lapful of coldblood?

Tavros is out of his depth here, clearly.

"Motherfuck, I missed you," Gamzee says against Tavros's knee, his growling voice muffled and quiet. When Tavros can think past his sudden, throbbing headache, he can feel a faint chill. His legs are basically nonfunctioning, but there's a cold pit opening up in his stomach. Are coldbloods supposed to be that cold? It feels like having ice cubes pressed against his belly. "I was being all worried 'n shit, but you're still here. You're okay."

Tavros raises a claw, considers it while gnawing on his lower lip, and then paps it down on the back of the strange troll's head. "Uh, yes. I'm okay. You're okay, too. Everything is okay."

This seems to be the right thing to say. "Of course it's okay," Gamzee says, digging his claws into the seat of Tavros's wheelchair. "I'd be motherfucking slaughtering the wicked motherfuckers who'd up and make it not okay."

That's. Uh. Wow, suddenly murder is on the table. Tavros thinks the cold in his stomach might be less the result of having a coldblood nuzzling his thigh, and more pure unadulterated terror.

-

He takes Gamzee out with him for hero work once.

Once.

Tavros has never really been a very hands-on fighter, mostly because it's hard to wield a lancekind in a city that has more tight corners than actual streets, a handicap he'd failed to realize when he chose to specialize in that particular specibus. As a hero, he tends more toward civic rescues and escort services, retrieving lost children and flying people out of the way of wayward traffic in the crowded streets. It helps him avoid some of the legal pitfalls that plague other heroes in larger cities. When Gamzee volunteers to walk with him, after a week of camping out on Tavros's sofa and chattering away about miracles and insane asylums in Spain with a dopey grin on his face, he stupidly assumes that Gamzee is on the same page as Tavros concerning things like violence and interpersonal relations.

So the first time Gamzee slouches away, all low-lidded eyes and a slowly spreading smile, Tavros doesn't think anything of it while he's tied up with hustling a fellow wheelchair rider across a marketplace. Why should he? Gamzee may be unnaturally creepy sometimes, but not once has he threatened Tavros. Like, ever. He thrashes around in nightmares at weird hours of the day, and he hallucinates voices regularly, muttering to himself up on the roof under the night sky where he thinks Tavros can't hear him, but it's nothing Tavros hasn't been able to soothe. He names all the constellations and Gamzee tells him all the weird Alternian names for the same stars, and somehow they get by.

Moirallegiance is a strange thing.

It's not until he rounds that particular corner and sees exactly how Gamzee fights that Tavros knows what a mistake he's made. Tavros wheels forward, screaming so loudly he can't even understand himself, but by the time he pulls Gamzee off the poor unsuspecting human being, there's blood everywhere.

Gamzee explains later, his eyes gleaming and distant, that he'd spotted the man snagging a wallet out of the back pocket of a tourist. Tavros does not know on what planet a minor crime like pickpocketing deserves a near death-sentence by juggling club. He also has no idea where said club originated from, because Gamzee has been living off his sofa for the past few weeks and Tavros has never even seen a clubkind specibus lying around.

He's also never committed a crime before. But here he is, aiding and abetting a troll who just committed an extreme case of battery. Tavros flags down someone to call for an ambulance and then drags Gamzee away through the alleyways, hyperventilating until they find a deserted jardín with a leaking faucet that helps get rid of some of the bright red blood. "Not really the right color, is it?" Gamzee wonders aloud, inspecting his fingers and licking at the blood until Tavros paps him so hard it's almost a slap.

"Where did you even get that thing?" he demands later, when he's vigorously scrubbing beneath the tips of Gamzee's claws to get every last speck of blood off them. Gamzee swings his heels off the counter, humming to himself, in one of the best moods Tavros has ever seen him. "You don't even have p-pockets!"

Tavros's claws are shaking, and he can't seem to make them stop, jittery and panicky as he darts another glance at the sticky red club soaking in hot water in the sink. A pair of cold hands clasp his own, and he nearly jumps out of his skin as Gamzee leans in close, smiling at Tavros with a single niggling tooth visible between his lips. "Pulled it outta my sylladex, my brother," he says, squeezing Tavros's hands just a little too hard, until the bones creak. "I got all sorts of motherfucking tricks left over."

"A sylladex?" Tavros repeats, but it's not any English or Alternian word he's familiar with. "You mean an índice? Like, for files? What does that have to do with anything?"

Gamzee reaches out to the side. Tavros doesn't see where he pulls the second club from; he just yelps and tugs the newly summoned specibus out of Gamzee's claws and tosses it in the sink, too. "How did you do that?" he says, his voice almost whiny with desperation. Not the most sensible reaction to magically appearing clubkind, probably, but Tavros isn't really in a sensible mood.

"Miracles, brother. It's a sylladex full of miracles," is all Gamzee says, gazing at Tavros with an expression that would almost be tolerably endearing if his face paint wasn't speckled with blood. "I just kind of reach over...and...poof!" The purpleblood throws back his head and laughs, crosses one long leg over the other, and lets go of Tavros, dunking both hands in the sink to pick up a clawful of dish soap bubbles. "I don't really understand how it still works, what with all the miracles involved, but I got all sortsa bitchin' goods I need to deliver to certain motherfucking personages, you feel me?"

He flicks bubbles at Tavros's face. Which is, um, so not endearing at the moment. At all.

"That's - that's - please just keep the clubs hidden," Tavros sighs. "Now that they've been, well, used in an actual crime. I guess it's actually convenient, you know, that you have a magic hiding place. For your burgeoning criminal career and all."

Gamzee beams at him, the guileless smile of the perpetually stoned.

...Wait. "Is that - do you keep drugs in there? Maybe?" Tavros says, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. Because he's never caught Gamzee smoking anything in the house, but he can't deny that either Gamzee is really that dazed when he's not a club-wielding ragemonster, or this mysterious sylladex is also doing double duty as a weapons smuggling device and a drug mule.

Gamzee smile vanishes. "Don't do drugs, bro," he says, his voice flat. "They motherfucking rot your thinkpan."

Tavros can feel claws running through his thoughts, leaving filmy filaments of terror behind, and hastily steers the conversation back to safer waters before Gamzee can really get mad. When Gamzee starts talking like that, his growled words even darker and harsher than usual, it tends to leave Tavros with an awful headache.

He doesn't think Gamzee does it on purpose, though. It must be hard, dealing with all that rage in one brain.

-

Weeks later, when Gamzee says they have to leave, Tavros doesn't argue.

It's not that he's afraid to say no, not after nearly weeks of scolding the troll whenever he crosses the line from mildly creepy to downright scary. But Gamzee gets more and more riled up over nothing, prowling around the apartment like a caged animal, and Tavros has to talk him down while Tinkerbull hovers up by the ceiling between stacks of canned food, the lusus's bovine eyes wide and limpid and wary if Gamzee strays too near. Animals and lusii don't really like Gamzee, and it takes all of Tavros's mental abilities to keep Tinkerbull from bugling an alarm.

"We need to go find the rest of them, Tav," Gamzee says, inspecting the cracks that riddle the ceiling like they contain the secrets to the universe. "I can't motherfucking handle all our friends being so far off, where I can't be keeping my eyes on them." The troll drags his claws along the seams of the couch cushions with an absent expression, probably unaware that he's shredding the cushions for the third time this week. Tavros sighs, and resigns himself to sewing them up again. "They'll die."

"How do you even know, well, that they're there to find?" Tavros asks, trying and failing to be delicate. He can't help it, really; he's tried to politely stammer around Gamzee's madness and coax some sanity into the troll, but now he's reduced to being blunt. Besides, Gamzee never snaps or loses patience with him, no matter how thin his chill façade is worn. The purpleblood rants at the ceiling, punches holes in the wall, but he never outright turns his rage on Tavros. He reserves that for voices and enemies that Tavros can't hear or see, but which are real enough to Gamzee.

Tavros feels more comfortable talking to Gamzee than he ever has with anyone else except Tinkerbull, and he thinks it's a shame that he'd feel most comfortable around someone who is so loco he's practically the poster child for coldblood dementia.

Gamzee twists his head around in Tavros's lap, his smile upside down like a crooked frown from this perspective. "I all up and found you, didn't I?" he rumbles, touching a claw to Tavros's jaw. "That's a motherfucking miracle, right there." He chuckles, shifting his body restlessly, a skeletal line that doesn't sit quite right in his own bones, unsettled in his skin. "I think we oughta meet up with Karkat first. Messiahs only know that poor brother could bust his own heart if we leave him alone too long."

(By now, Tavros isn't sure what he believes. Which parts of Gamzee's strange stories are real, and which are the products of a thoroughly deranged mind? He just knows the names are too familiar, and when he looks up some of the names on the junky computer at the biblioteca, the faces he sees in school records and on social networking sites throw him into such déjà vu he thinks he could drown in it, his wings weighted down and waterlogged.

The only one to respond to his Facebook request is Nepeta Leijon. But after that, he's too terrified to respond to her chipper messages with more than a few stuttering greetings. How does one bring up in casual online conversation that you've been introduced by insane juggalo proxy?)

"…I suppose you're right," Tavros says at last, and it's worth it for the chance to giggle at Gamzee's surprised, widened eyes. The other troll nearly rolls off the couch to look at Tavros's face. "It would be nice to meet our friends in person - uh, again, I guess, if you're right about all this."

"Knew you'd understand, Tavbro," Gamzee says, as close to happy as Tavros has ever seen him. For once, his smile matches the curve of the painted lines on his face, and his eyes shine. "You and me, we're always kicking it on the same level. We match."

"Yes, we do," Tavros agrees, inwardly pleased how quickly Gamzee flipped from edgy and borderline enraged to calm. Because, no, it's not that Tavros is being intimidated into this. It's that Tavros is pretty sure that if he doesn't take responsibility for Gamzee, people are going to die. He feels it like a weight on his chest, a foreboding that sinks into his lungs and stifles him until he feels like he can't breathe - unless he has his eyes on Gamzee. He has to be sure of where the other troll is at all times, or for all he knows he could round the corner and find the troll standing over a dead body. Gamzee is so, so dangerous.

It's probably not the best motivation for entering into an unspoken moirallegiance with someone as dangerous as a highblood. But being moirails isn't just about keeping someone safe from the world - it's about keeping the world safe from them.

And if that’s the case, Tavros thinks he has a big job ahead of him, one that’s more important than flying cats out of trees or dive-bombing muggers for the sake of one tiny city in the middle of an old mine shaft. Because if Gamzee ever really loses it, they are all – pardon his language – royally fucked.

-

On the road north, Gamzee has good days and bad days. There is no in-between, no cooling off period, no pattern. He's either chill, or he's - well.

It seems like no matter how hard Tavros tries, he can't nail down the exact formula for how to prevent the bad days altogether. The most he can do is put his head down, weather the fallout from the sporadic freak-outs, and try to clean up whatever is left afterwards. Gamzee is more than a little gung-ho about the whole crime fighting thing while they make their way north along the altiplano, but his execution leaves a lot to be desired. Blood is involved, not matter how much Tavros tries to convince him that the clubkind need to stay in the sylladex.

But Sunday is mostly a good day. Gamzee is his usual brittle self, all smiles and chuckling honks plastered over the gaunt bones of his face. His face paint is flawless, the corners of his mouth elongated in a sharp, crisp grin with diamonds boxing his lazy eyes. But even with his eyelids low and his speech drawled out, the strain is obvious. He juggles oranges in the mercado with a crooked grin, trying to draw a laugh out of Tavros, even as the shopkeeper shouts to be heard over the crowd and tries to slap the fruit from his claws. He takes a huge chomp out of an orange, skin and all, before it can be whisked away, juice dripping over his greyed out lips.

Tavros only catches the flicker of red in his eye when Gamzee passes him the orange and stares blandly back at the merchant, a silent challenge to call them out on the minor theft. Gamzee's head cocks to the side too quickly, warning signs in the sharp tooth that drags along his lip long after the juice has been licked away, in the unnatural stillness that seizes the troll, an otherwise innocuous stance that makes Tavros feel cold all over. He reaches out on autopilot to grip Gamzee's hand, applying all the pressure he can because otherwise the purpleblood might not even feel it.

Gamzee looks down after too long a beat, and the corners of his eyes gleam before he slumps out of that feral, stalking posture, horns tilting back in a gesture of peace as he squeezes Tavros back with a tired grin.

Tavros is reminded daily that back in prehistoric times, trolls were predators in every sense of the term. That Gamzee's lizard-stillness and keen stare, hovering on the cusp of sudden, sobering violence, harkens back to the earliest examples of troll battle and hunting instinct. That the law-abiding manner and ingrained social mores of civilized society can be stripped away quite easily by something as subtle and sneaking as madness. He's constantly on edge, mentally and emotionally, as though his impulses don't have an off-switch.

It doesn't matter if this is coldblood dementia or something else entirely, because the end result is the same - a highblood who has no natural qualms about acting like a predator about as high up the primal food chain as one could get, with only Tavros as a faltering moirail between the rest of the world and - no offense meant - the most psycho juggalo this side of the border.

Really, the only way this situation could possibly have turned out worse was if Gamzee had been born female, with all the extra armor and muscle that entailed. A powerhouse female-armored Gamzee would just be, in the troll's own words, uncannybrutal. There might not have even been a planet left when all was said and done! As it is, whatever strange diet Gamzee strings himself along on leaves him rail-thin and lanky, with wrists that Tavros can encircle with his claws too easily.

Tavros wonders sometimes why Gamzee bothers with the facade of chill happiness at all. It's not reassuring, and no one is fooled for long, but Gamzee keeps it up, as though constantly striving to live up to the strange stoner persona. He buries the distress even around Tavros, who has seen exactly what Gamzee is capable of, and should be the first one to know when Gamzee is near the breaking point.

The only conclusion Tavros can reach is that Gamzee does it because he wants to be that way; that Gamzee doesn't want to succumb to his rage 24/7, and is staving off the inevitable mental breaks the only way he knows how - with juggling, with wavering slam poetry, with a diet that leaves him constantly deprived of the nutrition that would make him even more of a threat on the bad days. Maybe it's a foolishly optimistic conclusion, relying heavily on Gamzee's questionable moral standing. But it's the one Tavros likes best. He wants to believe the best of Gamzee, because the glimpses he catches of the troll between the ragefits and the unnatural chill are glimpses that give him hope.

"Everything chill, my Tavbro?" he asks, wheeling Tavros out of the square and back into the main road.

"As chill as helado," Tavros hastens to assure him, swallowing the slight tremor in his throat so none of the fear wobbles its way into his voice - no more than usual, anyway. Gamzee always looks sad when Tavros can't quite trust in him. It's a work in progress. "Shall I cue up the ritmos más estrictas?" he asks, stammering the 'cue' but falling into an easy rhythm for the finale.

Gamzee perks up, "You know it, motherfucker!"

-

Crossing the border is a nightmare, not because either of them are too bothered about the legality of their actions (everything is kind of a legally grey area where Gamzee is concerned, and Tavros has been sucked along into it), but because the night before they do, Gamzee loses it.

Tavros has been wheeling himself for a while, trusting that Gamzee will never stray too far. They're asking around about where the easiest place to cross into the US might be, and Tavros has gulped and stuttered with a dry mouth through three conversations with no luck.

His wheelchair jolts and Tavros twists around to see that Gamzee has returned. "Anything?" he asks, hopeful.

"Maybe, bro, maybe," Gamzee says, his voice low. Tavros looks back at him sharply. Gamzee's painted face is shadowed and still, the corners of his mouth flat.

Uh oh.

"Need to take care of something first. Real motherfucking quick, I promise," Gamzee continues. But his face just darkens further as he stares off into the distance toward the west. When he rests a claw on Tavros's shoulder in reassurance, his motions are liquid and too-deliberate.

Something's up. And whatever it is, if it's got Gamzee on the verge of doing a backflip off the pinnacle of sanity, it can't be good. "Gamzee, ¿qué tal?" he demands under his breath, glancing around. They're walking by the wreckage of a building that recently collapsed - people keep chattering about giant robots falling from the sky, which is totally bizarre - but Tavros can't spot any threats. It's pretty late, almost morning by now, but they've been keeping the weirdest hours ever since Gamzee showed up and he's used to it. "What's wrong?"

"Ain't no thing, Tavbro." Gamzee maneuvers the wheelchair, and Tavros's heart sinks when Gamzee lifts him up and hooks the wheels over the edge of a pile of rubble. "You just need to stay put for a moment, while I help a señorita out."

"I, uh, think I should probably come with you." Gamzee avoids his eyes, and Tavros grits his teeth. "Gamzee, I'm serious! If you don't unhook this wheelchair -"

"Be right back, motherfucker," Gamzee says, his voice grating like knives on rock. Tavros spins the wheels for all he's worth, but he can't get any traction before Gamzee slinks off across the street and fades into the shadows like a sigh.

This officially qualifies as an emergency situation.

Tavros yanks off his hoodie and leans over to unbuckle his useless legs from the foot rest. His takeoff is as clumsy as ever, but once he's in the air he flutters forward with - well, not grace. Nothing can really be graceful about flying with one's legs hanging limply beneath them, like dead weight. But he fans his wings in heavy strokes, and they carry him in to the alleyway. He can already feel the sweat breaking out on his brow when he yanks the mask down over his face.

Gamzee is nowhere to be seen, but Tavros can see where this alley connects to yet another, branching off up ahead into a maze of dark, thin passages. Beyond that, everything is dark, and it doesn't feel natural. It feels like staring down into a tunnel, the edges of his vision narrowing, and he knows the sensation because he's felt it whenever Gamzee's madness gets out of hand. He pushes his wings as fast as they can go, choosing which passages to take on the fly as foreboding curdles in his stomach. Gamzee can lope along like a stalking predator, all quiet speed and bone-cold horror, and Tavros can only imagine what kind of lead the other troll has already, after all that time he wasted getting into the air.

At least he's trained Gamzee out of the whole unfortunate murderous club thing. Hopefully. Maybe.

Tavros speeds up, ignoring the way his vision continues to tunnel and distort. The worse it gets, the closer he is to Gamzee, probably. It's probably a terrible way of navigating, really, but it's the best he can do.

"You motherfuckers should know better than to be all up and scaring a hero-sis that way."

Tavros rams into a wall. It just...jumped out at him, in a manner of speaking, and he probably shouldn't have been flying that recklessly when he knows Gamzee is turning up the crazy in his immediate vicinity. He peels himself off the wall, moaning and rubbing his nose, and catches himself before he falls over backwards and crushes his wings between him and the pavement. But the distorted grate of Gamzee's voice sounds like it's whispering in Tavros's ear, a horrifying croon that makes Tavros want to flee in the opposite direction and hide under his bed for a week. If Tavros is that scared, Gamzee can't be too far away. Whimpering to himself, Tavros inches along the alley with a claw on the wall to keep from slamming into it again.

"It's downright motherfucking unconscionable," Gamzee goes on, his voice echoing through the crowded space like an evangelical priest hitting a high note in a sermon. Tavros almost flies right into the troll when his vision abruptly skews to the left; he plows into Gamzee from the side and clamps down his jaw before he can scream. "Hey, Tavbro," Gamzee says in a voice that's almost normal, and when Tavros misses a beat and starts to topple sideways, Gamzee shoots out an arm and grabs him by the collar. He somehow ends up sitting on Gamzee's shoulder, clinging to the troll's hair for dear life and wondering just how someone so skinny can hold up someone as dense as a brownblood without breaking a sweat.

Tavros also wonders when his eyes will stop threatening to spin out of their sockets. Which is actually a more pressing concern. He doesn't think Gamzee has ever turned up the so-called "harshwhimsies" this much before, because it's downright hard to even remember why Tavros should be so afraid. The more pressure Gamzee lays on, the more confused everything becomes.

"Gamzee, whatever you're doing, I uh, I think you need to stop," Tavros insists. He squints through bleary eyes, trying to get a look at the blurred figures Gamzee is holding out a claw towards. "I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that whatever you're doing is bad. Like, increíblemente mal."

"Just coverin' for a fellow hero-sis," Gamzee says, honking. "Shame she had to take off so motherfucking fast, or we could have all cracked open some ice cold Faygo and celebrated."

"I - I see." He really doesn't. But the tunnel-vision is starting to recede, and Tavros can finally see the group of black-suited individuals kneeling on the ground.

It's almost worse than if he'd found Gamzee standing over their bloody bodies. The group, a mix of humans and trolls, kneel slack-jawed before the purpleblood, their eyes rolled back and bleeding down the sides of their temples, some gurgling and choking on foamy spittle. One of them whines at such a high-pitch Tavros thinks a human wouldn't even be able to hear it, the whine of someone who can't even scream anymore because their voice is gone.

"Gamzee, you need to stop," Tavros repeats, clapping his claws over his ears. "I'm serious, cut it out!" There's no girl here, he wants to add, how do you even know she was real, he almost screams. But pointing that out won't help anything. And freaking out will only make the brain-slanting weirdness worse. Tavros has learned this through harsh experience.

"We'd probably be better off if these motherfuckers were dead, anyway," Gamzee says. He curls the claws of his hand, crooking the fingers inward, and someone else in the group starts bleeding from their nose. Dios, what is Gamzee doing to them?!

Wait - "Ack! No, no, no death! No dying!" Tavros scolds, batting a hand against Gamzee's cheek. Well, he aims for the cheek, but his aim is totally off and he ends up papping useless at Gamzee's nose. The face paint smears even more under his palm. "Killing is not a good thing, okay?"

The look Gamzee gives him is somewhere between wistful and irritable, but after a long pause that clutching hand lowers to the troll's side, and the group of traumatized people collapse as though the only thing that had been holding them upright had been the sickening, clawing grip of Gamzee's probing mind. "There. Because you asked, brother," Gamzee says, shrugging his shoulder. Tavros, who's feeling more than a little nauseous by this point, swallows hard so he doesn't throw up in horror all over Gamzee's hair. "They'll be a real motherfucking pain in the ass later, though."

"That's fine. That's fine," Tavros repeats, his bloodpusher slowly falling back into a normal rhythm, his lungs expanding fully so he isn't hyperventilating in a terrified rush anymore. "We can, uh, deal with them then. Without all the killing and stuff. Let's just go. We have to go meet Karkat, ¿te acuerdas?"

That works, when nothing else does. Gamzee straightens out of his slouch, blinking, and Tavros feels the last of the fear-fog clear out of his thoughts. "Too right, Tav," Gamzee says, turning away from the people huddled face down in their own spit and blood. "Let's go get your wheels, bro.

Tavros leans back and lets Gamzee haul him out of the alleyways. After the rush to get here, he doubts his wings could have carried him all the way back, anyway; stress like that strains them faster than even carrying someone else while flying would. Eyes closed, he rests his face against Gamzee's head to mutter more shooshs in the troll's ear, and starts processing the fact that none of the people Gamzee had focused his rage on are moving.

Great. Now he's pretty sure Gamzee can kill people with the power of his mind. What a way to end the evening...

-

Nevada is the game changer.

It's getting harder and harder to find people who speak Spanish, and they skirt around Las Vegas while Tavros practices his English on anyone they have to ask for directions. The closer they come to Washington, the quieter Gamzee gets; even though they both know his English is far better than Tavros's, the chainsaw growl of a feral troll constantly hums in Gamzee's throat, even at night when Tavros combs his claws through the taller troll's hair and sings lullabies. 

They're in a scrap of a town somewhere off US-95 with craggy hills jagged like teeth rising up in every direction, hunkered down outside a squat, bright-blue diner the color of the sky, when Gamzee falls to his knees and keens. The scream is wordless and horrible and full of rage, and Tavros feels his heart jump and shudder and do something that can't be healthy. He gasps for breath, clutching his chest with tears blurring his eyes, and just when he's caught his breath to demand Gamzee explain just what the heck is wrong, Gamzee wails again and Tavros's heart convulses.

He feels so helpless angry, he could die.

When he pants his way back into consciousness, wheezing and sweating with his claws shaky against his shirt, he realizes that his half-eaten burger has fallen to the ground. His ears hurt, but he hears Gamzee muttering low under his breath, and tries to shake it off. "'amzee," Tavros says hoarsely, and then he clears his throat. "Gamzee, ¿qué te molesta? Gamzee?!" He reaches out and shakes the purpleblood by the shoulder, coughing.

The shake barely moves Gamzee, of course, but it gets his attention. Well, kind of. "They're tellin' all these motherfucking lies," Gamzee says, still staring. Tavros tries to see what he's looking at, but the only thing in the dusty parking lot with them are a few stray dogs that won't come near, and the blank, cracked screen of the television sitting propped up against the dumpster before them. "Do they think I can't hear them?"

Tavros swallows. "Gamzee, no one is talking," he says, but he strains his ears nevertheless. There's the clatter of dishes and wordless, muffled shouts from within the diner they just left, someone stacking tires in the tire dealership next door, but nothing resembling words.

"They're motherfucking writing it, Tavbro." Gamzee chuckles, and the sound is frenzied and almost hysterical. "Tappin' away at their little screens, but I can still hear them."

This is bad. Tavros has never seen Gamzee this far gone. Raging and violent and blood-streaked, yes, mirthful and high on the crunch of bone, but never reduced to this kind of crazy distress. Gamzee is sweating hard enough that it gleams through the face paint, and when he claws at his face with another broken keen, the paint smears into a distorted, ghoulish mask. Whatever he's hearing, it's genuinely upsetting him. And an upset Gamzee is a violent Gamzee. Which is, well, something Tavros would like to avoid.

"They're motherfucking liars and they won't shut the fuck up."

"Of course they're liars," Tavros says, with strangled pauses between the words when his breath fails him. He tugs on Gamzee's shoulder, but only ends up rolling himself forward with the action, which works just as well. He wraps both arms around Gamzee's neck and buries his claws in the troll's hair, trying to pap him. "Sh-shoosh. Calladito, calladito, Gamzee. If they're liars, then it doesn't matter what they say. Just ignore them."

"But they're wrong," Gamzee says, distraught. "Saying all this panrotting bullshit. All of them are full of shit." He snarls and snaps his teeth together, and it takes everything in Tavros not to yank himself out of range. "Of course he's motherfucking pale for me, motherfuckers. John had better not have motherfucking anything to do with anything -"

"Yo entiendo," Tavros says, scritching his claws against Gamzee's scalp. John has come up in conversation before - he vaguely gets that he's one of the 'friends' Gamzee assures him they have to find. It sounds like whatever news his brainpan is thinking up, it's not good. "I get it. But they don't matter. You know the truth, so they don't mean anything. Calladito."

Gamzee appears to mull this over if the way he relaxes in Tavros's arms is any indication, his head rolling to the side as he contemplates the shattered television screen. At least he's moody and not out of his mind with panic. This is actually a vast improvement.

"I'm gonna kill them," Gamzee says offhandedly, and he raises a middle claw to the screen.

...Not so much an improvement, then. But at least he's (hopefully) talking about imaginary people and not threatening to murder an actual person, this time. Heck, Tavros will take it. "Well, you know what they say - antes se coge al embustero que al cojo."

Gamzee turns his head all the way and Tavros has to hurriedly tilt his own head so that the troll's twining horns don't accidentally stab into his cheek when Gamzee buries his face in Tavros's t-shirt. "Don't know that saying, Tavbro," he says, laughing humorlessly.

"Oh!" Tavros has to think of how to phrase it in Alternian. "Uh...Their lies will catch up to them, in the end. I guess it's a little dumb, because literally it means something like, 'the liar is caught before the lame person is.'"

Gamzee lets out a honk of amusement that sounds almost genuine, and Tavros lets himself think they're past the critical point. When Gamzee gets to his feet Tavros has to unlatch his arms from around the troll's neck. There's even more dirt ground into the knees of Gamzee's tattered pants, now, and one of them is so threadbare Tavros can see the jut of a bony grey kneecap through the gaps. "Yeah, they better hide under their beds," he chuckles. Then, at last, Gamzee turns away from the broken television screen, and smiles at Tavros. "Change in plans, motherfucker. We got some backtracking to do. Gonna have to put Washington off for a while." He strides off, without even waiting for Tavros to blink and process that announcement.

"Wait, what?" Tavros says, confused. They've been aiming for Washington since this whole messy, insane road trip began, Gamzee urging them forward with a quiet fervor. He's insistent that the first friend they locate is the mysterious 'Karkat,' the one fixed point in all the troll's ramblings. "Uh, then where are we going now?" Tavros asks, casting one last mournful glance at the pathetic burger left to stew in the sun, before he catches up with Gamzee's long strides and coasts along beside the troll.

Gamzee gazes down at him with eyes like stained glass, hard and gleaming and cold. "Motherfucking Los Angeles." His grin cracks too wide. "We got an old friend who's causing a downright harsh murderuckus down that way. Need to get him to chill out before he wrecks shit again."

Tavros doesn't know how Gamzee knows these things. He can only assume the troll learns it the same way he hears the voices, staring into the distance and reading the words of some insane script that Tavros wants no part of. "I - alright, then. I guess that's pretty important. We should probably stop that. Because, uh, a murderuckus sounds like some pretty bad news."

Gamzee hums agreement, his eyes lidded and his smile slow. "And when I get my claws on that motherfucker, he better pray to his motherfucking murdered angels I'm feeling all down with some motherfucking mercy."

And Tavros wonders, for the first time, if he's ever really soothed Gamzee at all.

Chapter Text

===> Be Sollux Captor

Sollux is surprisingly well-adjusted. No one is more surprised about this than he is.

His lusus died when he was maybe five or so years old, and he came this damn close to arguing his way into early emancipation. Some dick had then pointed out the logistics of emancipating a five year old and that had gone down the tubes despite his fucking flawless logic.

He'd been stuck in child services limbo for a few months, because honestly he was a little shithead back then and still at that weird pre-pupation stage where he solved most of his problems by biting things. He was a late-bloomer with a mouthful of swear words and extra bicuspids, skinny and scrawny and stretched too tall to match the image of a cute-ass wriggler for the nuclear family, and that had been enough to send most of the prospective human couples or human-troll pairs running in the other direction. Even with braces, that had cut down the number of potential adoptive parents considerably, to the fucked up troll couples who the blind prophets only knew why wanted to raise a wriggler when the troll race, on the whole, lacks any kind of parental instinct outside of the jade caste. So when Sollux got adopted not just by a troll custodian, but by a single-parent custodian who was shorter than he was at five, it had definitely been fucking bizarre and no one had really questioned his dad's criminal background.

Sollux made it to twenty five, anyway, so Dad must have been doing something right. He's never home, yeah, but he was an overbearing moron anyway and the only reason Sollux really puts up with this farce of a custodianship is because Dad keeps him comfortably supplied with quetiapine for the bipolar disorder (and is out of the country too often to really control the exact dosage of alternating Ambien and Adderall Sollux uses to supplement that).

His new apartment is a hole in the wall near Spadina Avenue, in a pretty much troll predominated area where his dealer doesn't give two shits about hooking him up in the middle of the day. Half of everyone is trilingual, stacking ambiguous Chinese on English on Alternian to cope with the way three different cultures mash together in one tiny segment of the city. The crime rate is for shit, but Sollux has yet to suffer the consequences. Something about having a semi-notorious mob boss as an adoptive custodian seems to scare off the plebian thugs, and he sometimes gets free coffee at the Tim Horton's down the block from a certain barista with white-ink prison tats all along his arms. The last time Dad had time to drop by in person, he'd scurried around Sollux's mind-honey hives tittering over the state of Sollux's floor, insisted on restocking Sollux's thermal hull with food he has yet to eat, and then slapped an obnoxious black trèfles symbol on the corner of his door and the outside of his boarded up window and called it a day, and since then Sollux hasn't had any problems with burglary despite his plethora of expensive computing equipment.

Clubs claims he's just busy with work. Sollux is pretty fucking sure he's still trying to pap on his latest, squishy palecrush into oblivion. This has literally been going on for years. It's fucking embarrassing to have a custodian who's still trying to fill his quadrants like someone who's only just finished secondary pupation, but Sollux also seriously couldn'tcare less about the state of his Dad's quadrants, so there's that.

Right now, though, he's aware that he's not exactly the picture of a well-rounded, functioning member of society. When Kanaya first called in this little problem, Sollux had sighed and Facetimed the tech support company he founded to shout at the board of directors until they were sufficiently cowed into not attempting a corporate takeover while he took the weekend off. He never goes into the office on anything other than the quetiapine for a reason - the Adderall always edges him a little closer to manic than he's allowed to act in public, and there's no need to tempt those raving douchebags with the option to shunt Sollux out for drug abuse.

But by the third day, he needs it just to keep his psionics functioning because holy shit, this cannot be happening.

He can't believe he's being outplayed at ~ATH, of all codes.

No point in downplaying his talents - Sollux is a fucking master at ~ATH, one of the maybe twelve people in the world who he'd willingly admit have mastered the fundamentals of such a pointlessly, obnoxiously arbitrary method of coding. But the fact is, he could program infinite loops around the other eleven without breaking a sweat; has done so, in fact, whenever one of those overseas assholes think they can challenge his right to the throne and get away with it. ~ATH is the language of dying stars and stellar graveyards, and Sollux has dedicated half his life to bifurcating codes that can sweet talk the reaper. His dad had taken one look at Sollux's respite block in the third grade, broke into a cold sweat and nearly cried over the complexity of the coding Sollux was churning out, and never questioned him about it again.

Now, unable to make heads or fucking tails of this asshole's interminable, convoluted loops, Sollux throws up a two-finger salute after he hits the 128 hour mark and falls back on DIS* coding. He hasn't moved from his beanbag of power in several hours, he's run out of ginger ale to settle his stomach, his nose burns something fierce like he snorted chili pepper instead of dextroamphetamines, and he reeks of day-old sweat and fried grubmods. He feels like a fucking hack as he strings together a shitty, bare bones chat server to replace his modified Pesterchum app after it becomes clear that whoever the fuck is contacting KN and her girlfriend has managed to plow through Sollux's security patches like they aren't even there. Kanaya's maggotbox computers wouldn't last more than a year without all the malware detectors and firewalls Sollux forcibly loads on them, and he beefed up her Pesterchum months ago after she somehow managed to land her chumhandle on a spam registry. Seriously, you really have to try to be as shitty at computers as Kanaya is.

Either his usual security measures are useless against this guy, or it's some kind of back door hidden in the coding of Pesterchum itself that's letting the white-text douche make himself at home. Sollux isn't risking either by using them anymore. DIS* may be a crawling horror, a kludgey logic system kept obstinately alive by forces beyond Sollux's comprehension, with slang codes that work for all the wrong reasons, but it's fan-fucking-tastic for brute force commands and it's not half as pretentious as ~ATH. If he wants to get ahead of this bastard, he can't waste time dicking around to make sure his ~ATH codes are perfectly looped and he hasn't boxed himself into a computer-exploding corner.

Essentially, if the required code quality is measured in the number of WTFs/minute, DIS* is more of a bored 'meh,' while ~ATH inspires a continuous stream of nonsense syllables that inevitably terminates in gross sobbing.

He keeps the base coding short and to the point - none of the nonsense with blocking and chumrolls and mood settings that would just clutter up the code - and strips it down to nothing more than a text box and an archive that will automatically scrub the messages after they've left the main window. Then he sets up a rolling cascade to encrypt everything that goes in and out of the program twice, and starts typing with his psionics while he divides his attention between talking to Kanaya and throwing up still more defenses to obscure the conversation.

--  twinArmageddons [TA] began pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 14:22:22 --
TA: je2u2 fuckiing murphey, kn, you really need two work on thii2 iinternet securiity thiing because FUCK.
GA: No Luck, Then?
TA: hell no, ii'm barely keepiing ahead of thii2 guy a2 we 2peak.
TA: thii2 ii2 2ome deep hackiing wiizardry, not a lot of people could pull thii2 off.
GA: I Guessed As Much From The Unusual Delay In Your Report.
GA: Should We Concede Defeat, Then? If You Can't Discover How This White-Text Individual Managed To Compromise My Computer So Thoroughly, I Can Only Assume No One Can.
TA: liie2.
TA: of cour2e ii can, ii'm iincrediible and thii2 a22hole iis nowhere near my level.
TA: but your computer iis probably ho2ed, no way ii can re2u2ciitate iit'2 defence2 from here, so to22 iit before thii2 fucker 2piie2 on your fa2hiion porno2 or 2omethiing.
GA: That Should Not Be A Problem. My Companion And I Have Vacated The Premises. It's Not As Though This Is The First Computer I've Lost, Though I Will Admit This Instance Seems More Ominous Than Most.
TA: you're telliing me. ii honestly have no iidea how one per2on could be 2o iincompetent wiith computer2
TA: liike fuckhiive maggot2 kn you two don't even code, what diid your giirlfriiend do two pi22 thii2 guy off?
GA: The Conversation Seemed To Be Premeditated On The Basis Of Rose's Alternative Alias, Offering Answers To Several Pending Questions, Rather Than Due To Any Particular Computing Deficiency On My Part.
TA: yeah, or maybe 2omeone who'2 even more of a fanta2tiic diick than me fiinally deciided two take you down.
TA: ii mean don't even get me 2tarted on the capiitaliizatiion thiing.
GA: You Are Being Facetious, Sollux.
GA: My Matesprit's Identity May Be On The Line, Not To Mention Her Sanity. I Would Appreciate Less Flippancy On The Matter.
TA: what, would you rather ii catapult my2elf off the motoriized handle of the 2cooter of 2aniity iin a maniic biitchfiit, or would you prefer dealiing wiith a functiioniing but fliippant diick? because WOW a2 fun a2 that 2ound2 ii'd liike two fuckiing pa22.
GA: Regardless.
TA: ugh yeah fiine.
TA: thank2 ii gue22.
TA: ii mean, at lea2t all your epiic faiilure2 a2 a functiioniing adult iin the diigiital age do keep me bu2y
TA: 2o yeah
TA: are we 2tiill friiend2?
GA: Apology Accepted, Sollux.
GA: And Yes, We Are Still Friends.
GA: Do Not Forget To Take Your Medication Today. I Know That In The Throes Of Such A Project You Will Most Likely Have Tried To Convince Yourself You Don't Need It.
TA: whatever.
TA: ii learned my le22on la2t time ii went off the meds liike a maniic loon.
GA: On A Related Note.
TA: oh here iit come2.
GA: Please Refrain From Taking Excessive Medication.

Sollux squints sideways at the last line of crushed white powder lined up along his fifth keyboard, and the spent capsule shells of a truly unfortunate amount of Adderall that march in neat double rows along the edge of his desk.

...Now would probably not be the best time to mention that.

TA: no problem kn.
GA: Sollux…
TA: oh fuckiing tiim horton2 ii have two go, ii thiink whiite-text guy ii2 back or 2omethiing got two go deal with thi2
GA: Sollux!
-- twinArmageddons [TA] ceased pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 14:50:04 --
GA: I Know That Tim Hortons Is Not A Canadian Expletive.
GA: Ass. 

-

Bifurcation is easy. Sollux catches himself dividing things in two without even thinking about it, splitting his ~ATH codes, color-coding his closet, even dreaming through two pairs of eyes on occasion. He suspects there's more than a little compulsive disorder involved, but like fuck is he's going to mess around with his medication any more than he already does. His old shrink was a total douchenozzle but she at least managed to get the voices to shut up with the right balance of antipsychotics, and for that minor miracle she received a mysterious internet security upgrade for her entire psychiatric practice before Sollux swore never to cross her threshold again.

So every so often, as the hours start racking up again and his frustration mounts, he flops into the recooperacoon and shuts down half his brain while the other half scribbles calculations on the walls and flings gaming grubs around in a fury whenever the white-text ghost user manages to slip his net once more. The last thing he needs is to add sleep deprivation to his laundry list of mental issues. He has rules, dammit, because he isn't a panaddled moron who can afford to let his vigilance slip - when he messes up, people die. Lusii die, to be specific. He doesn't like to remember how Bicyclops kicked the mortal coil.

So. No sleep deprivation. No going off the prescribed meds. No hitting up anything harder than the zolpidem or the Adderall, no matter how tempting coke sounds when his meds can't quite suppress an upswing in his mania. When he dicks around with his system too much, he convinces himself he can do stupid shit without consequences, that death is pretty fucking overrated when he can already hear the voices of the imminently deceased half the time, and that he's immune to gravity and stuff.  He forgets his limits.

It doesn't help when, hours later, he wakes up floating near the ceiling. Seriously. The floating needs to stop.

"Mthrfriikcer," he mumbles, drooling trickling down his cheek toward his ear. His face is mashed up against the ceiling and when he shoves himself away he can taste sour blood on his tongue from where he bit the inside of his cheek. He sighs and surveys the damage, wondering how long he was completely out of it. He must have been more exhausted than he thought if both sides of his brain called it quits despite the bifurcation. It looks like he floated out of the 'coon at some point during his nap and dripped sopor slime in red and blue splatters all across the floor. Not like it's the first time, but this is the first time in this new apartment, and it hardly ever happens without Ambien being involved.

Weird shit happens when he sleeps, okay? Freaky dreams are the least of it.

(Might want to duck,) some soon-to-be-dead guy's voice advises him, which is not supposed to be a thing.  When had Kanaya reminded him to take the quetiapine, again? He must have been asleep longer than he thought. Scratching at his horns with a grimace, Sollux floats over to the desk and digs through several unlabeled orange bottles until he finds his sanctioned prescription for the anti-psychotics and swallows the pills dry. He used to have to follow that with a lithium chaser, but that shit had gone straight to his fucked up brain and left him nauseous, plagued by even worse migraines than he'd had as a kid, and nearly cost him his left horns before the well-check revealed how brittle the keratin had become. He waits patiently for the psychosomatic effect to kick in so he can pretend the voices aren't muttering at him while he sets both feet on the ground like a normal fucking person.

It would be one thing if he was using his psionics to float. That's a legitimate, rational use of one's higher level telekinetic abilities when one is as deliriously fantastic at psionic manipulation as Sollux is. But half the damn time he floats without exerting any effort at all, like flying in a dream, and it pisses him off to no end because it's against the rules, dammit. He flops down in his beanbag throne of power to glower at the computer screens whirring around him, and tries to make out where he'd left off on his coding before he passed the fuck out.

That’s when the wall explodes.

Instincts born of years of being raised by a fucking pyromaniac in a midget's body are supposed to have prepared him for this. They don't really kick in until after Sollux flails and falls awkwardly off the side of his chair; then he stops panicking and flings off his glasses, rolling behind the chair and raising a psionic shield between him and the worst of the debris flying through the air. "Thon of a fuck!"

His ears ring loudly enough that he can't even hear the dead over the sound, screeching in his skull like whine of an overheated CPU frying in the sun. When the wall stops collapsing in on itself and one last chunk of plaster and wood rebound off his red and blue shield, he lets the psionics go and angrily pushes his glasses back onto his face. "Dad, I thwear to God, if this is your idea of father-thon bonding time, I will murder you," he hisses, heaving one of the overturned beehouse mainframes upright. Shit, now there are flecks of wall and internal plumbing in the silicomb. Forget explaining the sudden demolition of half his apartment to the landlord, that guy can go suck a bulge - how is he supposed to keep up with Kanaya's girlfriend's white-text stalker when his apiculture network is shot to hell? The worker bees dance distress messages in the air, which just pisses Sollux off even more because it reminds him that now there's mind honey slathered over the monitors of all his best machines.

"Heehee! Sollux, I am...not your father!" A distinctly female voice laughs at him through the smoke. Well, definitely not Dad, then, unless he suddenly decided to grow a pair. "Have you seen human Star Wars? It had a much more satisfying plot twist than the troll version, I think!"

"Oh hell no, no, fuck that. 'I am your Ancethtor' has way more impact. That line is claththic," Sollux snaps back, coughing. "Who the fuck are you, then?"

She floats forward out of the dust, serene and impassive in a rust red sari. Her horns curve back in tight spirals that speak to years of growth, with the faint marks of past filings in rings around them at intervals where they've been trimmed and outgrown the trimming again and again. When she tips back the bone-mask Sollux has to fight the urge to look down and away, because this is an adult at least past the fifth pupation, her eyes almost completely consumed by the burgundy of her blood and her tangled hair gleaming with a claret tint, no matter how youthful her face may seem as she grins up at him with a dimpled smile. He's only just past twenty five and coming up fast on the third pupation, but the difference between them feels incomprehensibly vast. She exudes agelessness, like time itself has ground to a halt before her inertia.

But she also likes human Star Wars, so fuck that.

"Aradia Megido," she chirps, folding her legs as she continues to hover in a cloud of pale mist. If Sollux focuses too much on the fog, he thinks he can hear voices of dead people muttering at him again, so he keeps his eyes up. "The Maid of Time. It's been a while, Sollux."

Nope. Nope nope nope. "No," he says, jabbing a finger at her. "Absolutely not."

She raises an eyebrow at him. "Pardon?"

"Whatever you want. The anthwer is no." Sollux retrieves a spare husktop from the desk drawer and boots it up. "This is thome kind of ridiculouth call to action, ithn't it. I am not getting mixed up in thome shady death spirit lady Bleach-thtyle adventure time. I've theen enough anime to know where thith is going. Not interethted."

"Really? Not even if I say the fate of multiple worlds depends on you?" she asks hopefully.

"Ethpecially not then."

She sighs. "We don't even have to get into all that heavy stuff world-saving stuff right now. I just want us to go fight crime together! Come on, it'll be an adventure!" She grins and pretends to fire two finger pistols at him. He is way too groggy to be amused.

"Not even once." He raises a hand and waves it at the destruction she's wrought on his hardware. "I'm kind of a busy guy, here, and you jutht rocket-punched the wall all over my proceththors!"

"Oh, right. Probably Doc Scratch, right? I've noticed him messing with people, lately," she says, floating further into the room. Like, WOW, Sollux didn't even need to give her permission, she's just making herself right the fuck at home. "White text that's obnoxiously hard to read, acts like a know it all, but is secretly just a total creeper?"

Sollux pauses, and straightens up. He still hasn't put his glasses on, so his creepy mutant eyes are probably all exposed, but he gets the feeling that that's the least of his problems. He has his priorities, and right now white-text guy is at the top of the list. Even if it means listening to the crazy person who just trashed his mainframes. "You know the white-text douche?" he asks, dubious.

"Know of him. I've never had the opportunity to fight him in person." The rustblood hums, tapping a claw against her lip. "But I don't see why I should tell you anything about him if you don’t want to hear the rest of the story. He's all mixed up in that world-saving, crime-fighting stuff. And you're not interested. You said so yourself!"

"WOW, low blow," Sollux snaps. Then he rubs his eyes and waves his hand, typing at the backup computer with the power of his mind to log in and start salvaging his work. "Fine, I'm listening. Give me your thpiel, but thkip to the part where you explain how this Doc guy is good at ~ATH, tho I know how to wreck his shit."

Aradia poofs out her cheeks, and taps her chin. "How to explain this...he's…"

"Yeth?" Sollux presses.

Aradia snaps her fingers. "A total dick! That's the word I'm looking for!"

...Well. No argument there.

"Tell me thomething I don't know." Sollux kicks his beanbag chair back upright and flops down onto it, husktop settled on his lap. He'd offer a chair to the other troll, but she seems content floating around in midair, and who is he to stop a woman from floating. "Thurprise me."

"He's also trying to bring about the end of the world," she says, and Sollux nearly chokes on his own spit, which would have been an unbelievably shitty way to go.

He recovers. Somehow. "Tho he's batshit inthane, too. That's nice," he says, clearing his throat. "One of those dumbathth Jameth Bond-type thupervillains who thinkth his doomsday device will actually work for once?" If it is, he's going to tease KN like there's no tomorrow.  Her crazy girlfriend would be the one to attract the attention of one of those dweebs.

"Oh, he's also going to succeed." Aradia shrugs. "It's basically inevitable. The world will end in a few weeks. If you'd been listening to the voices of the soon-to-be deceased instead of medicating them away, you'd already be aware of all this."

(It's true, man,) someone whispers. They probably think they're being helpful. They're not.

Sollux shakes his head. "Thorry, I like not being crazy. Thtill not buying it. You're gonna have to prove it."

She points to his husktop with a grey toe, and Sollux clutches the computer to his chest on reflex. "I know you have an ~ATH loop estimator on that," she says, her smile almost sad. "Just have it set something up to execute based on the remaining lifespan of the Earth. I think you'll find the loop estimator will terminate...earlier than expected."

It pings his interest. Sollux can't help it; his brain has always been wired to trust codes where humans and trolls would otherwise fail. Programming is trustworthy; mathematics are the closest mortals will ever get to the handwriting of paradox space. Before he's even aware of the switch, his psionics are traitorously accessing his ~ATH simulator, one of those little apps that put him ahead of the rest of the class. Other programmers have clunky databases cluttering up their RAM, self-coded countdowns that keep track of the lifespans of distant stars and the dying gasps of stellar bodies being swallowed by black holes, and they use them to guesstimate when an ~ATH code will execute. Sollux can work backward, plug in the number of minutes or hours he wants to program to base itself on, and from there identify a dying body out in the vast universe he can import as the base component.

But it also works the traditional way too, so he whips up a simple code while staring hard up at the floating troll. Aradia stares back, serene and sad but still smiling, and far, far too sure of herself.

Sollux imports Earth into the code, and spams the program with queries until it spits out an estimated time of execution, which should be in the mid-billions of years. He has to take his eyes off Aradia to do so, and -

It's too small.

Sollux doesn't move. There's a strange pit in his stomach, and when he licks his lips his whole mouth feels dry. He leans in, leans back, and it's still there. Swallowing, he reboots the computer itself to start over from scratch, and uses his psionics to seize the old Dell piece of shit from under the recooperacoon, where it's been used to balance the 'coon for half his adult life. Feeling defiled (fucking Dell), he starts that as well. Even if the ~ATH simulator on one computer got shit on, the Dell hasn't been connected to any form of Internet or outside server in years, so it can't have been tampered with. He runs both of them at the same time and waits with all his teeth grating together while they compile. The Dell naturally takes for-fucking-ever, but by the time both machines have finished encoding, they both spit out the same answer and it's not an answer he can accept but his mind isn't protesting nearly as much as it should.

import universe
import planet Earth;
~ATH(U)  {
           ~ATH(!E)   {
}              EXECUTE([SC.~ATH]);
THIS.DIE();
ESTIMATED TIME TO EXECUTION: 685:06:12/HR:MIN:SEC

"But thith ith ridiculouth!" Sollux is aware that his lisp is worsening and he may or may not be spluttering everywhere, but the numbers continue to trickle down before his eyes. 685 hours…that's 4 weeks, 13 hours, and an ever dwindling number of minutes and seconds from this moment.

The planet Earth as defined in this universe dies in 685 hours. A planet that should have had at least another 3 billion or so years capping off its timer - and it's down to mere hours -

"You haven't been keeping up with Los Angeles either, have you," she says sympathetically.

"Why the fucking fuck would I give two shitth about LA when the world ith ending?! What have the Americanth done now?" he demands, seizing the Dell with both hands and breaking it in two against his knee before flinging the remains of the abomination into the corner. "Oh my god, if thith ith their fault -" He then resettles the husktop in its rightful seat of power and begins typing rapidly with his hands rather than his psionics. He's on four windows at once, one formulating an entirely new simulator program from scratch, the other checking an online death-database on an ~ATH resource site, a third to demand answers from the deep depths of the web forums, and the fourth to look up Los Angeles. "I thwear to god, you motherfucking Yankees-"

"Sollux, it'll be okay," Aradia says, but nothing is going to be okay. According to every news site ever, there's a massive fucking dome over LA and Sollux is starting to think that just being in this crazy wall-exploding troll's presence is making the anti-psych meds move through his system faster, like time is speeding up in his general vicinity, and he can hear the dying as they sweep in closer to whisper and mutter in his ears, all of them going on and on about the same damn thing, the last thing they're seeing before they die -

(the angels are here the angels have come to usher in the end the angels IT BURNS)

"You're fucking kidding me. Angels?" he repeats, resisting the urge to plug his ears. Half the time he thinks the voices are the products of his fucked up mind, and so covering his ears wouldn't make them shut up anyway; the other half, he believes every word they say. It's not that he thinks he's actually psychotic, no matter what the doctors say, because he's heard people dying on the street moments before witnessing them be mown down in a hit and run. He only takes the medicine because it apparently works whether the voices are hallucinated or not. Bifurcation is not always his friend and sometimes he just likes the voices to shut the fuck up. Like right now. "They're hallucinating, right? What am I thaying, I'm halluthinating!" he says as convincingly as possible.

"The dead don't really hallucinate. They're dead." Aradia shrugs. "I'm afraid a tentacled abomination from the Furthest Ring managed to get ahold of our hero of Hope, and they've got him generating what could be considered angels. A technicality, yes, but it counts. A real shame."

"The Earth is apparently doomed and no one thought to tell me thith?! Thith ith the oppothite of okay!" he yells at last, flipping his husktop and falling backwards, clutching his claws at the ceiling. Sollux feels the breeze filtering in through the fucked remains of his wall as he stares at the ceiling, his head buzzing.

"I'm telling you right now. And you'd have known about the angels if you'd been paying attention to the sudden influx of soon-to-be-dead," Aradia says, completely unsympathetic. Sollux thinks this is completely unfair - the woman barges into his apartment and reveals the apocalypse is nigh and the angels of double death have arrived to herald the end-times, and she doesn't even have the decency to bring him harder drugs? Jesus FUCK, he doesn't have nearly enough weed to blaze this away.

Fabric rustles and the dead go quiet as Aradia crouches beside him. He ignores the fact that he's only just met this woman, and yet it feels like they've met before, because he cannot deal with that level of mindfuckery right now. She smells like grave dirt and spice, but he's trying to angst here, so he doesn't look her way. "So," she says, her voice low and absolute. "Would you like to spend the end times apartmentbound, or would you like to help me kick ass and take names so we can make the echeladder our little bitch?"

Sollux blinks up at the rustblood hovering over him, and meets her glinting, confident gaze. Seriously, her lasspluck is through the roof right now. She looks surprisingly determined for a woman with intimate knowledge of the apocalypse, and that is...surprisingly reassuring. His mind whirs, reordering itself in light of this new time limit on the planet, and he's vaguely worried about how easy it is to process and accept the end of the world as fact.

Earth is doomed. Why is he not surprised?

But still -

"I think I need a drink."

"A drink it is," Aradia agrees, putting out a hand. Against his better judgment, Sollux takes it, and lets her pull him upright so they're both floating.

-

CD: c3- Hello son!
TA: why the fuck are you 2tiil textiing me? are you even aware that ii don't need a cu2todiian anymore? ha2 that not 2unk iin yet?
CD: c3- You are indeed a grown troll now! I am so proud!
TA: oh god the exclamatiion poiint2 are back.
CD: c3- How have you been? Is everything alright? I have some room in my sc3edule, would you like me to c3ome visit? I'm sure my boss wouldn't mind!
TA: yeah how about no, dad. trust me, everythiing ii2 totally
TA: tiime.
TA: (-■_■)y
CD: c3- Haha, is that one of those jokes youngsters are making these days? How exc3iting! I'm glad you're having a good time!
TA: ii 2wear two god you have two be doiing thii2 on purpo2e no one i2 thii2 obliiviiou2 iit can't be natural.
CD: c3- Well, as long as you're okay, I won't bug you too much!
CD: c3- Try not to get into too much trouble!
TA: yeah yeah, you got iit.
TA: plea2e 2top contactiing me.
CD: c3- I'll stop by and see you for your wriggling day! Never forget that I c3are for you very much!
TA: thii2 ii2 why lusiiii retiire ii2n't it.
TA: how the hell do human 2pawn put up wiith thi2.
CD: c3- Now pardon me, I must go c3ut a bitch who is attempting to steal my prec3ious DD!
CD: c3- HB may be a c3omrade, but this still c3alls for retribution! Or a sternly worded letter, at the least!
TA: you know, 2ometiime2 ii forget you're actually a gang2ter.
TA: and then you 2end me 2hit liike that.
TA: 2eriiou2ly 2top talkiing to me ii beg of you.
CD: c3- I paternal-love you son!
TA: …
TA: …
TA: oh fuckiing fiine you iin2ane hobgobliin, ii fiiliial-tolerate you two now back the fuck off.
CD: c3- Exc3ellent! Have fun!
TA: you go cut tho2e bitche2, dad.

Dealing with a parent is hard.

(Sollux sets up a counter in his massive brain, ticking off the seconds until the end, and he doesn't text his dad anymore, because his wriggling-day is after the cut-off date and Clubs might be annoying, but not even Sollux is enough of a dick to break the news about the apocalypse to him. No one wants to see their dad cry, okay?)

-

They go for coffee, because Sollux learned several lessons about alcohol in his youth. Several memorable lessons. Lessons that no troll should have to learn, and which still haunt him to this day. Alcohol can suck a bulge.

Sollux staggers up to the counter, seizes his double-double, and dumps yet more cream and sugar into it until he can drink it without tasting coffee at all. He's tempted to pop an Ambien to balance out the caffeine and the impending end of the world - he self-medicates on the fly like that - but decides against it when he sees the two cups that the female troll carries over to the table, breezing along with that faint smile still on her face with her mask still pushed up in her hair between her horns. He has a feeling he'll need the sugar rush to keep up with this crazy woman, and Ambien always overcompensates. Fucking sedatives.

It doesn't help that while she's ordering at the counter, he looks her up on his Android. He's never been much of one for the hero fandom - he's more into video games and grubmods, himself - but he is in possession of half a functioning brain at least half the time, so he can plug in 'crazy death ram skull Indian hero' and magically find himself in the Naukarani fan forums. Apparently she's been in the province for years, but it's not like Sollux has ever paid much attention to current events, and there's not exactly a convenient article detailing how this random hero would be in the know about the end of the world.

"Not quite masala chai, but it will do," Aradia sighs, breathing in deeply as she sips her drink. It smells like cardamom tea, but she added a heaping scoop of whipped cream on top of that so who the fuck even knows what she's drinking. "So. Now that you have your drink. Have you given any further thought to joining me on patrol?"

"Woman, I don't know why you think I'd be interested in fighting crime." Sollux swirls a mouthful of hot coffee, his expression souring when he detects a note of coffee between the sugary rush. He swallows fast so that as little as possible touches his split tongue, and seizes another sugar packet. "I run tech thupport. I like kicking back and handling things from behind the comfort and thecurity of my firewallth. I get enough exposure to hero work through KN and it thoundth like way too much physical activity, thankth very much. The world ith doomed and I need to capitalize on that shit."

"You're already a psionic genius." Aradia settles forward in her chair, staring into his eyes imploringly. He just frowns back, unmoved. "You'd be a great hero! And that way you could get some practice in before the game starts!"

"Game?" Shit. He has a weakness for games. "What happened to the world ending? What the fuck do gameth have to do with anything?"

"Oh, that. Right." She switches cups and chugs the large caramel swirl latte before opening her mouth with an intake of breath. "Where to start...well, aren't you curious about how the world ends?"

"I aththume you know," he says, rubbing his eyes.

"Of course I do!" Aradia taps her claws on the side of the cup. "Well, you see, the good Doc Scratch has his own agenda, but he has to tie it into the game we are destined - doomed, you'd say - to play. I'm a little hazy on the details, but that part is unchangeable. We can't try to stop the end, or we'll just get shunted off into a doomed timeline."

It is then that Sollux realizes he has unleashed the floodgates of exposition hell, and he regrets all of his life choices. "How convenient. Get to the part where thith all maketh sense."

"This game will cause the end of the world. It's just how the cycle of paradox space works. You've already seen the evidence for yourself in ~ATH." Aradia sighs. "We're trying to change that, obviously, but for now - we just have to deal with what time has handed to us. If we want to survive, we're going to need to leave Earth, play the game, and win it once and for all. Scratch is going to ensure that we fail, though, unless we play our cards right. We're automatically at a massive disadvantage because it's going to be so hard to coordinate everyone…" She scratches the side of her nose absently, shaking her head. "Blah!"

"How do you even know all thith? The dead told you everything?" Sollux looks out the window, at the street corner beyond and all the people waiting to cross, oblivious to the fact that in a few weeks there's not going to be a street to cross. He can't tell if he should mock or envy them for their blissful ignorance.

God, should he text KN? Should he inform her that at a very specific point in time the world is going to end by very unspecific means? Would she even believe him, or would she just dismiss it as a manic relapse? Sollux has never disclosed exactly how much of his crazy is legitimate crazy and how much is just his weird mutant powers, because most of the time not even he can tell the difference. She'd be justified in not believing him.

Aradia shrugs. "In the simplest terms - we players are all the reincarnated souls of trolls and humans who previously played this cosmic game of apocalyptic proportions. We've done all this before, literally. I know a lot of the details because I died a god-tier, and that tends to carry some weight, but I've also had a lot of time to burn waiting for you all to catch up. More than a few of the others don't remember anything at all."

"Greeeat."

She goes on, smiling at him ruefully. "There are sixteen of us - four humans, twelve trolls. Unfortunately, our previous universes had to be scratched when things went horribly wrong, and now we are sharing one joint game session in this new, reset universe. Not everyone remembers everything, but at least everyone is alive again!"

"And thith Thcratch guy wath the one who fucked it up before?" he asks, squinting skeptically.

"It's what he does. That's his role," Aradia says simply. "I'm more concerned about what comes after. But we'll deal with that later. You already have a lot to take in, just knowing about the game again. I don't want to overwhelm you."

"Are you kidding? I feel like I already knew all this," Sollux mutters. He sticks a claw into his coffee, which is rapidly going cold while he processes all this fresh bullshit. "But then I forgot? Does that make sense? Becauthe all of thith maketh too much sense."

Aradia beams at him. "No, that's good!" she says, encouragingly. "Perks of being a Doom player - all the rules of the game will probably make a lot of sense to you, regardless of how dumb they seem! If we're lucky, you'll be able to remember everything half the time! Everyone else seems to be doing hero work in their spare time before the game begins, so I've been doing the same. And then, before the end, we can all get together and pool our resources so the world can end in a nice, controlled fashion and we can fuck Scratch's shit up at the same time!"

Sollux stares. Then he looks down at his coffee. "...I think I need a real drink," he says at last.

"Absolutely not," Aradia says, sipping primly. "I'm doing my best to speed up your circulatory system, but your liver won't thank you if you add alcohol on top of everything else, and we really do need your prophecies of doom working without all the drugs."

...He fucking called it. (Don't argue with crazy, lad,) a dying Scottish woman advises him. For once, some good advice.

"You know what?" Sollux pushes back from the table and telekinetically ollies the half-finished coffee into the trashcan. He's crackling with red and blue all over, and people are taking videos, but fuck 'em. "I'm in."

Aradia's smile brightens. "Crime fighting?"

"I need to blast the thtupid out of thomeone while I think about how to track down this Thcratch aththhat and figure out how to own thith thupid game of yourth," he replies, and that's all the consent Aradia really needs. "Bring on the criminal thcum, I'm sure my dad will be tho proud."

But he swears to god, if she makes one more time pun that she thinks he won't notice, he will wreck her shit.

-

Elsewhere -

"Oh, good! You're still awake!"

Sollux doesn't look up from his work as Aradia flutters down out of the sky. "Thup, AA."

Half the time he is aware that he only just met her a few days ago; the other half, it feels like they've known each other forever. His memories fade in and out like that, and it's annoying as fuck. The enormous blue world that burgeons over his head does nothing to help that; Skaia is a fucking joke, alright?

No one else has been here in a long time. He's lost track of how long he's been awake, because with the way his mind has split in three his bifurcation theme has been shot to hell. Whatever happened that drove out the intended inhabitants of this piss-colored planet, they don't seem to have any plans to return to Prospit any time soon.

So he's been making...renovations. It's not like any of the other players' dream selves seem to be around to object, either. There are nine spires in the sky, crowning the golden moon on its interstellar chain, and not a single one appears to be occupied, not even by sleepers. Sollux would know; he's searched this place from top to bottom while replacing the golden walls and strata with photodiodes and fiber optic cables, and there aren't even carapacians around to tend to the dusty floors of the empty bedchambers. The golden sheets and pale yellow pillows look as though they were plumped up once in anticipation of nine slumbering heads, but were metaphorically cockblocked on a cosmic level when said heads never materialized.

Except for Sollux, of course. He's got the kernel spires laced with quantum-level magnetic switchers that will hopefully push his processing speed into the terahertz, and his respite block atop the ninth golden tower on the moon was the first room to be repurposed. Without all those bitches around to throw temper tantrums and argue with him and plague him with endless hacking requests, he dares to think he might actually get shit done.

Aradia touches down beside him with that eternal, mildly disturbing smile lingering in the corners of her rust-rouged lips. Her wings twitch, dumping twin clouds of sparkly manic asshole pixie dream dust literally everywhere. Sollux snarls wordlessly and blows it all away with a wave of blue light, but even his best efforts do no more than singe the tips of Aradia's hair. The dusty wing powder somehow doesn't clog up the silicombs he's slathering with beeswax semiconductors, but it's a near thing. God fucking dammit, Aradia knows she's not supposed to whip the fucking troll moth wings out around all this sensitive equipment, but his requests haven't stopped her yet.

He'd be infuriated at her, if he weren't so utterly indifferent about her. Somewhere in his bloodpusher, that apathy hurts, a hollow ache that he suspects shouldn't be there. He vaguely remembers a time when he cared, cared far too much, and Aradia had felt nothing in return. She'd been a fucking robot at the time, however - he doesn't even have that as an excuse for why, two universes later, he can't work up even a scrap of romantic interest in her, conciliatory or concupiscent. Turnabout is not fair play, not when they're both alive and (apparently) functioning on all emotional cylinders.

The only conclusion he can reach is that he has finally reached self-sustaining levels of both self-hatred and self-aggrandizement, and transcended the quadrants entirely to become a Douchebag Ascendant. Two cheers for the bipolar crowd.

"Sorry," Aradia says blithely, when she's clearly not. "I just went and visited waking-you for the first time today! He's totally oblivious! Except when he's not."

He gives up any hope of finishing his latest apiary masterpiece during this eclipse cycle, and levitates a jar of mind honey to his lips to chug it down. "Yeah, well, it's not like I ever know what I'm doing half the time, anyway," he mutters, feeling the bubbles of euphoria begin to gurgle and pop in his brain. While his waking self has been pissing around, this dream body has been building up a tolerance to the honey and using it to fuel some of Aradia's more...questionable endeavors. He doesn't ask, as long as he can continue converting Prospit into his own personal supercomputer. "We jutht have to make sure it's me who knowth most of the time, and not the me on Earth. Like fuck do I want dream-me wandering around here without all the critical detailth and waking-me freaking the fuck out in the middle of downtown Toronto."

"You and your division quirks." Aradia shakes her head, looking out over the planet beneath them. "You're so silly. Twice as silly as anyone else I know!" She laughs, teeth flashing. "You have no idea how well you've inverted your aspect."

Not for the first time, Sollux wonders what her endgame is. There are a lot of questions Sollux doesn't ask out loud - how long she's been alive in this iteration of the universe, how she slips from the Incipisphere to Earth without a portal, why she's so encouraging when he makes plans to meddle with coding on a cosmic level. For all he knows, it's just a god tier thing; he doesn't remember her being quite this hyper before. "Here we go again, with the not making sense," he says. His eyes are starting to ache, the mind honey effervescing in his thinkpan so that everywhere he looks Prospit gleams like it's ablaze in the light of Skaia. Aradia fluoresces like a garnet, the folds of her transformed god-jamas dark and crimson like spilled wine.

"Doom players are supposed to be highly aware of restrictions, limitations, and laws," Aradia says, kicking her heels over the edge of the mainframe she's getting her pixie dust all over. Sollux is too busy slamming through the mind honey kickback to protest properly. He's seeing eighteen spires, now, but he's pretty sure that's just the hallucination stage. "They work through sacrifices and penalties. But you flout the rules all the time. I don't think any other Doom hero has ever had the audacity to have two dream-selves before, not just once but twice!"

"Tho, what? Just another way my fucked up brain manages to thcrew with the thythtem on a univerthal level?" Sollux raises a middle finger at Skaia on impulse. He tends to do this once an hour or so, more if he feels the need. It makes him feel good about his poor life choices. "Metal. Ath. Fuck."

"Your bifurcation forces itself on the fabric of paradox space. It is indeed metal as fuck," Aradia agrees. "Your role as a Mage means you're all the better at understanding and predicting how to strategically break the rules a Doom player should work within, and exploit them to your advantage. I appreciate you letting me bounce ideas off you - you're great at subversion!"

"I'm fucking awethome." Sollux starts mentally stinging the box full of queen bees to hustle one of them into the mainframe so he can get back to work. The mind honey is really starting to kick in, now, and he's pretty sure he's seeing in infrared and ultraviolet through either eye. Kickass. He doesn't pause while he asks his next question. "So, when is that asshole going to show up, anyway?"

She knows exactly who he's referring to. He's not in on all of the irons that Aradia has in the fire, but she hadn't been able to avoid letting this one slip. "He has promised to deliver them when he can," she sighs. "But he's unpredictable, and if he thinks they're safer hidden with him, he might not bring them at all. Within the next few weeks, hopefully."

"What a dick." Sollux cracks his neck, and reaches out to break a golden tower in two. He tosses the upper half of the tower into orbit around Prospit to deal with later while he starts a new column of silicomb. "You're sure we can trust that fucker to pull this off?" he asks. "I mean, I'm crazy and apparently inverted, but the last time I checked he was crazy and oh yeah, crazy."

"We don't have any other choice." Aradia is solemn for all of two seconds, staring up at Skaia as though she wasn't originally a Derse dreamer. "He has them hidden somewhere I can't reach. His methods may be questionable, but they are effective."

"Crazy," Sollux repeats, but Aradia isn't paying attention anymore, and he's too wired on mind honey to look back and see what exactly Skaia's cloud-per-view in the sky is showing her now. Aradia listens to the dead and to the Horrorterrors and to Skaia itself, along with who even knows how many other whispering sources of information, and somehow she's either crazy or imperturbably sane enough that she's pieced it all together into this little party. Sollux doesn't have the will or inclination to sort through all her time shit; he has to go go go and get this all set up, because time runs differently here and he's not getting shafted just because he's not the time guy. He's not going to be doomed. Not this time.

Overhead, Skaia rotates on its axis to the tune of the heavenly spheres, wrapped around a Battlefield that's blank and unoccupied. Sollux doesn't know exactly how aware the governing force of the Incipisphere may be, but it doesn't seem inclined to protest the way he's reconstructing one of the staple planets of its sick game to suit his own purposes, or the fact that the carapacian armies that are supposed to be gestating in the Furthest Ring have yet to materialize.

If they're lucky, Skaia will stay quiet, and let them do as they please without getting all huffy about the modifications to the game. The last thing they need is yet another cosmically overpowered dick out to kill them all.

After all, it's almost showtime.

Chapter Text

==> Be Nepeta Leijon

Two months ago…

Three thousand miles to the north and west, there's snow on the ground. But in Jacksonville, it's a muggy 70 degrees, and Nepeta wakes up with her hair stuck in her mouth. She's probably been gnawing on it in her sleep again! She yawns and paws it out of her mouth, skritching Pounce de Leon behind the ears. The lusus purrs, stretching languorously, but doesn't wake up. They had a long night, and Pounce does like its naps!

But as much as Nepeta would love to cuddle all day long, she has school. She pouts, poofing out one cheek and resting her chin on a hand as she reaches up from their floor-nest to grab her tablet computer. She slides off the alarm that's been chanting the Nyancat theme for the past five minutes, and sees that Equius has already been pestering her. That guy! She sends him a quick message so he knows that yessss, she is awake and getting ready for school, so he doesn't need to get his horns in a knot. He's so fussy!

Nuzzling the pillow one more time, Nepeta stretches and then stands up, scratching her hair as she digs through the wardrobe for something clean to wear. All of the furniture is plain and functional, because Equius had been the one who insisted she live in an actual house instead of a nice, cozy cave and that had somehow given him the right to pick all her furniture for her, but Nepeta stuck cat stickers on all the boring, monotone wood surfaces, to liven up the place! Between that and the immense, ever-shifting collage of shipping diagrams and fan art that covers the walls, the house is always bright and colorful.

She wriggles into her black uniform for the day, after she manages to pounce on some clothing that isn't grubby with mud from football practice yesterday. At the Academy of the Worthy Villein, they mark alternating days with either black or white uniforms, and today is a derseday! She leaves the hood and mouth-obscuring collar of the jacket folded down - carapacians have weird ideas of how clothing works, but dress code isn't that strict about it! - and wrinkles her nose at the crumpled pile of neck ties.

Before she leaves, she cooks some of the alligator Pounce managed to kill yesterday. Most of them are dormant right now, but this one had come out to bask in the sun by the water, and it had been a nice, gory hunt! She'd eat it raw, but Equius would go about nutrition and germs and other boring things for days and days if he caught her falling back into old habits. When Equius gets his claws into something, he can be a real stubborn sourpuss.

While the 'gator fries on the stovetop, crisping in its own juices, Nepeta scrolls down the forums on her tablet, scribbling out replies to several of her ongoing role-plays with her stylus. All the latest gossip is about another furrrrrocious battle between the Indigo Scourge and Blind Justice up in Chicago, but Nepeta sticks out her tongue without comment. A lot of people want those two to go black, but she just can't ship it! She doesn't ship much of anything in the darker quadrants; she'd rather everyone just got along! Equius has a strict lecture lined up on the cultural and biological role kismewsissitude plays in the 'rich and variegated history of troll civilization' and how the world would have been a different place, for example, if the troll Stratega Artemisa of Rome had not played auspice to the bitter rivalry between Hannibal of Carthage and Scipio on the battlefields at Zama and blah blah blah, but Nepeta tunes it out every time because she gets enough of history in class. Give her the grand flushed passions and the star-crossed moirails over crummy rivalries any day - she aced her European history class last year with an essay on the potent and yet doomed three-way human moirallegiance between Percy and Mary Shelley and the Lord Byron.

And if she flunked out of maths that same year...so what?!

"Pounce, I'm going to school now," she calls, tossing the lusus a scrap of raw meat as she holds the front door open. Pounce stretches and yawns with both mouths, and then follows her outside. They leave early enough that none of the neighbors see them go, and Pounce bounds off down the street toward the swamps. It always stays there when Nepeta has to go to school, probably hanging out at their old cave and doing whatever it is feral lusii do when their charge has unexpectedly entered civilized society. Nepeta chews on her lip, debating - as usual - if she could just this once skip out on school and hang out with Pounce for the day. The weather is pawsitively purrfect! She could tear off her nice derse uniform and leave her tablet safe in its bag hanging on a branch above the still water. Equius would never have to know...

But that's the thing with Equius. He always knows. The last time she tried that, he'd banned her from cosplaying at MegaCon with her online friends. Nepeta huffs, and starts unpinning the cat tail as she leaps onto the fence along the side of the road and races off to reach school before the late bells ring.

-

Nepeta kicks off her shoes as discreetly as she can midway through the hour and a half long block of maths, wiggling her toes with glee. Her tights aren't school regulation, though they're close enough that none of the teachers have noticed yet. She smiles down at the little kitty ears that dot each toe, and purrs to herself as the sun shines on her corner of the classroom.

She promised Equius, without the pun, that she would pay more attention in this repeat of maths. But it's just an extra-long period of the same old boring stuff as last time, and she's just not feline it today. At the Academy students can learn at their own pace for the most part, and ten of the other students are off in their own corner working example problems related to the lesson the professor taught earlier in the period. Nepeta and another troll are sitting in their own corners. In theory, they've told the professor that they're studying by themselves, but while Nepeta has spent the better part of an hour doodling mini Seers and Heirs and Cascades along the margins of her notes, the other troll, Julienne, is hunched over and working on the homework for his next class. The professor herself, one of the few true carapacians at the academy, sits with the other three in the center of the room, enthroned on bean bag chairs as she signs and gestures more directions for how to solve polynomial equations. She's a Prospitian carapacian, with the special grey hooded wrappings that all the Villein professors wear instead of black or white, and when she catches Nepeta staring at their circle of learning she gestures Nepeta over with laughter in her eyes.

...She promised. Clawing at the enticing little scraggly shreds at the edge of the paper she tore out of her notebook, Nepeta sighs and goes to join the learning pile. She forgets to put her shoes back on, but the professor continues her lesson without comment.

The professor is still a meanie mean face, though, because she doesn't sign a word about their test grades until she passes them out when the bells ring for passing period. Nepeta folds over the polite but totally gross '65' at the top of the first page, and crushes up the packet so she has a nice ball of paper to bat around with her foot until it's time for creativity block. In her opinion, paper is only good for schoolwork and trash - she hates the bland feel of paper grain under her claws, and much prefers the smooth tablet surface or the rough of cave walls.

At least it's impossible to flunk out of creativity block. Nepeta spends the next hour and a half using her tablet with the internet turned off at Madame Claudel's request to work on one of her latest creative writing projects. At the end of the period those who want to can share their latest art project with the class, and Nepeta bounces on her heels until it's her turn to go to the front and recite her poem. Her poems aren't as good as her fanfiction, but she's figured out after two years of unrepentant, unfiltered sharing, that fanfiction is probably not appropriate classroom material. Back at dumb public school people had made fun of her writing and one guy had even torn a page out of her notebook to wave at her face.

He'd nearly lost his hand for that, and Nepeta's old clawkind had been confiscated by the hypurrcritical principal. Equius had called it 'a foolish incident,' snapped his latest prosthetics project in half, and enrolled her at the Academy soon after. Madame Claudel and the other kids in this creativity block are much nicer! But Nepeta saves her wonderfurl fanworks for the internet these days.

But even better for getting her mind off that maths grade is when school lets out and Nepeta can bound through the halls until she reaches the locker rooms, because they have football practice today! No matter how much Equius whines at her and sulks (he likes to pretend he doesn't sulk, but he totally does), football is the closest thing to live action role-playing hunting and battle scenes that Nepeta can get to during the day. Her lips a meowoe of frustration, Nepeta deals with Equius's latest kerfuffle while yanking on her practice gear. The other team members shuffle around her, none offering to help her out with the straps of her shoulder pads. Last time someone tried that, Nepeta had nearly clawed their nose off. She appreciates that Mina was only trying to help, but the oooonly one who gets to fuss about Nepeta's clothes is Nepeta! And Equius. But mostly only Nepeta! When other people touch her clothes or bump into her without warning, Nepeta can't help the instinct to puff herself up.

She just wishes Equius were as comfortable with himself as Nepeta is with herself. It's one of those depurressingly sad things that makes Nepeta want to wrap her best friend up in a hug that lasts for days and days.

-- centaursTesticle [CT] began pestering arsenicCatnip [AC] at 15:12:11 --
CT: D --> Hi
AC: :33 < *ac cr33ps up on the unsuspecting ct and bats at his ankles*
AC: :33 < *she is just about to saunter out to claim fresh kills on the field of battle, but she is distracted by the laces of ct's shoes!*
CT: D --> I have told you repeatedly that I will not be party to this f001ishness
AC: :33 < *ac meows and rolls over so that ct can pet her belly*
AC: :33 < *which is actually a sn33ky tactic to use her cuteness to lure in her prey!*
CT: D --> Sneaky is not spelled with two e's that way
AC: :33 < oh, like you dont do the same thing so you can use 100 and % signs effurywhere
AC: :33 < i can s33 right through you, mister!
CT: D --> Enough
CT: D --> When are you coming home
AC: :33 < neffurrr!
AC: :33 < youre in a meanie mood today, i can smell it from here!
AC: :33 < *ac sniffs m33ningfully and saunters away to hunt the coveted pigskin*
CT: D --> It is not seemly that you spend your afternoons fr001icking about with stinkb100ds and grubby human wrigglers in the muck
CT: D --> Come here at once
AC: :33 < no!
CT: D --> Yes
AC: :33 < nu uh!
CT: D --> Yes
AC: :33 < nuh UH!
CT: D --> You will do as I say
CT: D --> There is something that we must di%uss
AC: :33 < you cant make me, and i n33d to stay and practice with my friends
AC: :33 < were going to start playing actual games again soon!
CT: D --> The outcomes of your e%essively childish, violent games do not concern me
CT: D --> Football is the product of a primitive culture rising up from their lowb100ded h001iganism to demonstrate their STRONGNESS, and in that sense it is an admirable endeavor
CT: D --> But your further participation is unnecessary. Your STRENGTH is unquestioned and they should respect your evident superiority by now
AC: :33 < thats not the point of the game, silly!
AC: :33 < you and your dumb hemoist historical theories are wrong wrong wrong!
AC: :33 < im staying for practice and you dont have mind control so you cant make me leave :PP
CT: D --> Do not make me retrieve you myself
CT: D --> You know that e%cursions to that school make me
CT: D --> Sweat
AC: :33 < so gross!
AC: :33 < *ac highly doubts ct would ever go through with it, and wriggles her butt in his general direction*
CT: D --> Cease that wretched behavior
CT: D --> I can
CT: D --> And I will
AC: :33 < nooope, i dont believe you!
CT: D --> E%pect me shortly
AC: :33 < hissssss!
-- arsenicCatnip [AC] ceased pestering centaursTesticle [CT] at 15:25:45 --

He's totally not going to follow through. Equius acts all tough and intimidating, but he's also really purrsnickity about going outdoors unless he absolootely has to. Whatever he wants to talk about, it can probably wait, so he'll just prowl around his basement until Nepeta arrives on her own time. Nepeta knows this, because she is the best moirail and it's her job to know exactly how Equius reacts to things. She shoves her tablet into the locker and follows the last of her teammates out the door, chewing on the edges of her faceguard until they reach the field and the coach starts warm-up exercises.

-

The ball snaps back into Nepeta's claws, and she digs her fingernails into the lacing. She clutches the football to her side and darts around the line of skirmishing defense plays in bounding leaps. There's some mud churned up on the field because of their cleats, and because this is Florida and mud never really goes away this close to swampland.

Sometimes the coach has them run plays where Nepeta is supposed to pass the ball off to the running back or throw it to the receiver so they can take the ball to the end zone instead. These plays are stupid and Nepeta hates them. A true huntress never hands off her prey to potential challengers! But it's all part of the game, so she tells herself that Marxene and John are her fellow lionesses in the pack. Hunting is a team effort anyway.

This time, Nepeta gets to run the ball all by herself, and she resists the urge to race along on all fours, because that is a no-no in football. So is pouncing, unless you're in defense. Some of the rules are really dumb and arbitrary, but role-play can be restrictive that way, too. Nepeta still enjoys it! She digs her toes into the mud, sprinting as fast as she can, and yowls good naturedly when Kel tackles her from behind. They tackleskid all the way into the end zone, which doesn't count but is still lots of fun, and Nepeta laughs when they get to their feet slathered in muck and grass stains from neck to knee. Kel tugs on his uniform shirt with a grimace, but when Nepeta goes to pat him on the back in sympathy, the human stiffens and turns a really interesting shade of puce, staring at something over Nepeta's shoulder.

Nepeta turns to look.

Equius shoves a fist through the fence that encloses the practice field. The entire section of the fence warps and the metal gives a dismal shriek as he rips it out of the earth. The blueblood looks down at the fence now hanging off his wrist, his teeth bared, and shakes it off so that it clatters to the ground. "Nepeta," he says, marching across the field toward them with his hands shoved in his pockets, six foot three of pure muscle that leaves extra-deep footprints in the mud. "I have come to retrieve you."

Nepeta throws the football down against the ground and plants her hands on her hips. "You actually came all the way here?!" she yells. Pat of her is obligated to be proud of Equius for leaving the house at all - but mostly she's just pissed. "Urrrgh! You're such a busybody! We're in the middle of practice still!"

"I'm so sorry," Kel adds, backing away from Nepeta with a look of sheer terror. "Oh shit oh shit I didn't mean to, it was an accident, she's not hurt - you're not hurt, right, Nep? Oh, shit -"

That's when Nepeta gets it. She swells up with fury, puffing herself up as best she can without the benefit of a coat of fur like Pounce has to properly express her ire. "Did you threaten my football team?!"

"I had...STRONG words with them," Equius says, pushing his sunglasses up on the bridge of his nose. The plastic cracks a little at the corner of his eye, but they both ignore it, because Equius can go through ten pairs of sunglasses in a single week. "As was my duty as your moirail to see you safe. They have now been informed that if they were to stray beyond certain boundaries, I would have...STRONGER words with them."

"Meddler! Meddling meddler!" Nepeta shouts, scandalized. She stamps her foot, her face hot with an olive green blush. "They're my friends, and you purrromised!"

"I promised not to interfere with rival teams," he says. "And thus far I have remained aloof in such matters, despite the fact that it would be for your own good. But I would be remiss in my duties to you if I did not assure that you would be training in a secure environment." Nepeta catches a flicker of heavy blue shadows under cobalt limned eyes as Equius glances back at the fence he tore through like a bulldozer through tissue paper. "It is clear that the defenses at this academy leave much to be desired."

"Oi! Do we have a problem over here, Leijon? Who do you think you are, bothering my team during practice?" The coach strides toward them, and levels a stern frown at Equius. "Do you even have permission to be on school grounds, ma'am?"

Uh ohhh. Nepeta hears the porcelain crunch as Equius cracks his front incisor, her stomach lurching in response. Equius swallows the tooth fragment without a word, along with a clot of blood that leaves dark blue stains in the cracks between his gritted front teeth, but Nepeta flinches and winces for him, all her fury draining away as she reaches out a hand to grip his sleeve. He's armored in multiple layers of dark sweaters despite the heat of the sun overhead, which means he was in bad shape when he left the house to start with. And now this...

"I do not require permission to enter these school grounds. I am on official record as Nepeta's formal custodian," Equius says, his voice icy and closed off in that way he gets when he's shutting down. Oh nooo… "In addition, you will find that as a patron of this establishment I have made several generous contributions to the continuation of the sports and arts programs at this facility. You would be wise to remember your place, fool."

The coach bristles as he taps his whistle against his leg. "I don't appreciate that kind of language on the field, ma'am. And if there's something you need to discuss with Leijon, it didn't have to involve vandalizing school property." He gestures to the crumpled up section of fence lying in a broken heap on the sidelines.

Another strike. Nepeta eyeballs Equius. He looks pawsitively livid, now, one of his hands closed in a fist within his pocket.

Siiigh! What a sourpuss! Now she's going to have to go with him for this mystery talk, or Equius could throw a tantrum in the middle of the football field. "Just go home, Equius," she hisses, yanking on his sleeve and worrying the yarn with her claw until he looks down at her. There's a sheen of blue-tinted sweat sluicing down his face, and Nepeta can only imagine how uncomfortable he must be in all those layers if they're soaked through from the stress of the walk to school. "Practice is only an hour and half long! You can wait another hour!"

"This cannot wait, Nepeta," he replies, removing his hands from  his pockets. "It is a matter of some urgency, and I am disappointed that I had to come all of this way in order to gain your attention."

"I'm contacting the headmaster," the coach warns. He crosses his arms. "I really think you should leave the premises, ma'am."

Nepeta covers her head with her hands. "Please stop calling him that," she says, feeling cross at Coach now. Equius is so obviously in distress that she can smell it, but she forgets that other people can't read his body language as well as she can. Sometimes it's like people don't even see Equius at all, don't register all the little warning signs that scream to Nepeta that he's about to bust someone's face. Because Equius is ameowzingly strong, and he likes to solve problems by punching things, but busting faces isn't a good way to solve problems at all!

"You will refer to me," he says, his voice flat, "as sir, you grossly incompetent excuse for a -"

"Bllllraaaaaawwwwwlllllrrrrghgghghgh!" Nepeta smacks both fists on her helmet and then rips it off her head, snarling and slicing the chinstrap in two when it slows her down. She throws it at the ground as well, and then grabs Equius by the arm. "Calm down, you big lame dumb!"

"Nepeta, you are acting like a joovenile," Equius says, prim and proper. As though he's not totally about to lose it! A vein stands out and throbs in his temple, and Nepeta hisses at him angrily as she reaches up to pap it away, pressing the pads of her claws against it until it smooths out. "You will come home and we will discuss this in a pile, as is proper for such a feelings jam."

Nepeta reaches for her uniform jersey, fully intending to tear that off as well. It's a habit she has mostly broken, except for how she totally hasn't, and the more agitated she gets the more she wants to strip down to her underwear and tear apart some unsuspecting prey beast. But this is also one of those tactics that Equius sees coming from a mile away, and he seizes her around the waist before she can follow through. Instead of batting her claws away from her uniform, though, he picks her up bodily and tucks her under his arm.

It's sweaty.

"Agggghhhhh!" Nepeta yowls, kicking her feet and clawing at Equius's arm. It doesn't have much effect, because she had to leave her clawkind at home. "Putmedown!"

"Absolootely not," he says emphatically. He's holding her as gently as he can, but his arm still feels like a too-tight metal bar against her stomach, and she squirms until she can breathe better. "I have retrieved your belongings from your locker already. We will depart now."

"You broke into my locker?!"

"Your combination is always 33-39-99. It is not secure."

"Leijon!" the coach calls after them. "Do you need help?"

Nepeta hangs her head, and regrets it, because all the blood rushes to her head and the motion of Equius's steps makes her dizzy. "I'm fine! I'll be at purractice tomorrow, coach, I swear!" The rest of the football team, upside down and receding rapidly as Equius makes for the road, cluster around Coach as Nepeta is carried away. She pouts and folds her arms again, hanging limp so that Equius has to lug her around like a dead weight.

Okay, so she intended to go with him, regardless. But there's no need to make it easy for him when he's being a stubborn meowscreant like this.

-

The walk home becomes progressively more miserable for both of them. Equius doesn't have trouble carting Nepeta long distances because he's totes creepy strong that way, but both of them suffer as the sweat accumulates. Nepeta wants to claw her nose off her face, and when they arrive at Equius's dungeon-castle-mansion-house she begins to writhe and squirm with increasing desperation until he releases her in the middle of the kitchen floor. "I think," he says, sounding faint, "I need a shower."

"You need like - five showers!" Nepeta can't resist it anymore - she tears her football jersey over her head and horns with hasty claws and flings the sweat-soaked article of clothing at the kitchen sink. "Now I'm all stinky too! You've gotta be kitten me!"

"First we must discuss -"

Nopenopenope. Nepeta grabs Equius by the collar of his sweaters and drags him along toward the stairs. "Nooooooo! Not nyooow! Shower first!"

"You are attempting to avoid a necessary conversation," Equius says, but he lets himself be lead upstairs when he could have just planted in his heels and kept them in the kitchen with his superior strength. Nepeta hears the weary note in his voice and knows she has successfully heckled him into distraction. Equius hates the sweat too, which helps make her case.

"No, we just don't need to be all gross while we have it! You made me leave practice early, so if we don't have a shower first I'll be even more furious at you."

"Nepeta," he sighs, but Nepeta kicks open the door to his messy bedroom and tromps across all the crumpled robot parts without giving him time to make one last protest. She carefully doesn't look at the walls, because Equius is her meowrail and she loves him dearly, but his thing about hoof beasts is...yeah. He can claim the majesty of the extensive pastoral art tradition dedicated to horses is his only motivation, but Nepeta is pretty sure that's all bs! One of these days she's going to sniff out his My Little Pony collection and have feelings jam blackmail material for years.

Nepeta vastly prefers tongue baths with Pounce, yeah, but showers are pawsitively kickass. Much better than regular baths, which are way too damp for her liking. Besides, Equius has an awesome shower!  It has five different showerheads and an endless assortment of different shampoos and conditions because when Equius tries a new hair product to try and tame his greasy hair, he never bothers to throw out the old ones. Addiction is a powerful thing. Nepeta's current favorite is one that smells like purrfectly delicious cucumber and lime, mild enough that it doesn't make her nose itch or her hair flake with dandruff.

By the time Equius stops fidgeting in the center of the bathroom, probably talking himself into undressing, Nepeta has already got the water running and sticks her head underneath to test it. The key with Equius, she's found, is to let him take his time. She loses her patience a lot, but he's really suuuper secretly insecure and it doesn't help when she pesters him, so she tries to be better about it. "Shower," she repeats insistently, and Equius flinches out of his stupor. Nepeta kicks off her cleats and pants and dives under the water, twitching her head and batting at one of the streams for the simple pleasure of watching the droplets fly everywhere. She keeps her back deliberately turned on Equius because it's the only way he's going to get with the program, and starts squirting a massive dollop of cucumber-scented shampoo into her palms.

She has her hair sticking up in a magnificent foamy mohawk by the time Equius shuffles into the shower. She seizes him by the broken horn and shoves his head under the shower; he lets out a squawk of indignation, all of his hair hanging over his face. "Nepeta," he says through gritted teeth.

"Yeeesss?" she sings, summoning her best innocent pout without moving her hand.

"Unhand my personage."

"Neffur~! Not until you're squeaky clean!"

"I am perfectly capable of washing my own hair."

"Yeah, but I want to do it!" Nepeta takes a deep whiff, sorting through the notes of hot water and gross sweat, and snatches up the bottle of shampoo that smells the newest. It smells like harsh chemicals that make Nepeta scrunch up her nose with distaste. Equius stands with his head bent over at that awkward angle, his underwear getting soaked by the shower; Nepeta yanks him down further so she can reach his scalp and massage the shampoo in. He's stiff and tense at first, but eventually Nepeta kneads her way from his scalp to the ends of his hair, and he loses the pompous posture, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the shower while she scrubs around the bed of his horns. This shampoo is purretty efficient, stripping away all the grease and dried sweat that always seems to collect in Equius's hair, and by the time Nepeta combs her claws through his hair and purrs at the squeaky cleanness, she's even gotten used to the smell!

He shifts in a way that means he's going to try to get up, and Nepeta paps his cheeks until that stops. She gets three different kinds of soap and drags the basket of washcloths and loofahs over where she can reach it. Shampooing Equius is fun; soap is a chore and a half, because he can and will break out into a sweat mid-shower.

"This is ludicrous. I am not a wriggler," he mutters, but he says that literally every time. Such a dummy!

"You totally are," Nepeta retorts, scrubbing his wide back and reveling in the scent of cinnamon and almond. "A blue blooded wriggler who tries to purrtend he doesn't like games and things!"

"Ludicrous."

"Yeah, yeah." Nepeta's mohawk begins to wilt and fall in her face, so she tilts her head back and lets the shampoo stream out of it before starting on soap, round two. "This would be easier if you didn't wear underwear while you showered, y'know."

Equius's shoulders hunch up, and Nepeta sighs and spends the next five minutes papping out the tension she caused. It's just frustrating, sometimes, knowing that even when it's just the two of them together Equius still has his guard up. They're moirails - they're supposed to trust each other. Maybe Equius doesn't mean for it to come off that way, but sometimes Nepeta feels like he doesn't trust her to just accept him for what he is. Which she does. All sweaty, STRONG six feet plus horn of him.

Well, the only thing she can do is keep trying! Because Equius is an idiot, but he's her idiot. Besides, the more she pampurrs him right now, the less inclined he might be to get on her case for whatever it is he needs to discuss! A foolpurroof plan!

When she's done Nepeta dumps the used loofah onto his head and messes up his hair so she has to comb it again, in spite of Equius's muttered 'fiddlesticks' and his attempt to gently swipe her hand away. By the time they emerge from the shower, Nepeta's claw pads look like prunes, and Equius is not-sweaty. It's a meowricle. He drags her back into the bathroom when she tries to bound out naked into the bedroom for the pile, and towel dries her hair himself. It's sneaky retaliation, Nepeta admits, when she sees the afro of curls that pops up around her horns when Equius lifts the towel away. But a good one.

"Nepeta, please clothe yourself," he says when she makes another beeline for the robot part pile.

"Noooo! My football stuff is all sweaty now, it needs to be cleaned!" she complains, flopping down on the pile. A mechanized elbow joint digs into her ribs a little too hard, and she squirms until she's comfortable.

Equius carefully tries to open the bag he carried with him back from the school, but he rips the handle off nonetheless. Grimacing, he sets it aside and withdraws Nepeta's folded derse uniform from earlier. "Here, please put on your -" he stops, and Nepeta cranes her neck to look, nostrils flaring. She can smell the sweat from here. That's another uniform jacket that will never smell the same again. "Horsefeathers," he finishes, with a distinct note of resigned despair.

Nepeta rests her head back against a broken half of a bowkind. "Ohhh nooo," she says, rolling her eyes so hard they could probably just roll right out of their sockets. She holds out both arms and bats at the air. "We have no other choice! Naked cuddles!"

Equius pauses, looks at her, and then opens the chest of drawers with such force that the metal frame buckles. He then stomps over and dumps a mini-pile of clothing on her face. Nepeta sputters and kicks out, her mouth opening on reflex so she can nibble on the cloth inquisitively. "Wear it, do not eat it, Nepeta," Equius commands imperiously, drawing a muscle shirt over his head.

"Don't wanna," Nepeta says, feeling mutinous. But Equius already has pinstripy leggings and shorts on by the time she wrestles free of the clothing, so she huffs and gives in. Equius's shirt hangs on her like a baggy dress, so she kicks the rest of the pile at the far wall and crosses her arms when Equius frowns at her. "Cuddles!" she insists, making grabby claws at him.

He sidesteps her feet. "You are attempting to dissuade me from the subject I wish to confer about. Your efforts are obvious and in vain. My self-control is imperturbable in this matter." Equius reaches into another pocket of his bag. "And now I have only further evidence to support my discovery. Nepeta. Explain this."

Nepeta's stomach does rumbly flips when she sees that he's holding up her (slightly dampened) maths test, the grade clearly visible at the top of the crumpled packet. "Nothing to explain," she mumbles, hugging herself. "Maths is dumb."

"I have received intelligence that you have reached a similar low in science. The only classes that you excel in as you rightfully should are creativity and physical education. Even your history grade has slipped. You enjoy history, Nepeta." Equius crunches the test in his fist so hard it rips in half. "Explain."

Nepeta wishes she had a tail that she could lash in earnest to express how little she likes this conversation. She'd known Equius would find out about school sooner or later - she just always kept hoping it would be later, and then later still, and purrhaps never at all. She folds her arms tight over her borrowed shirt and averts her eyes from Equius's blank, sunglasses-obscured stare of expectation and quiet disappointment. She hates disappointing him! "Didn't want to do homework," she says, speaking mostly to her chest rather than looking up. "Didn't have enough time."

"What. Nepeta, you informed me that you were capable of finishing your assignments outside of class. Great galloping geldings, what else have you been doing instead?" 

Nepeta winces, tapping her claws together. "Homework is stupid! I'd rather spend time with you and Pounce!" She realizes her mistake, and tries to backtrack. "Who cares about school!"

But she shouldn't have mentioned Pounce. She can visibly see Equius put two and two together, the gears in his head cranking smoothly to the inevitable conclusion, the one she wanted to avoid. "You have been neglecting schoolwork so that we could fight crime," he says flatly. "This is unacceptable. If you cannot effectively balance the two -"

Nepeta growls, baring her teeth at him. "It's fine! My teachers just assign a stupid amount of busy work -"

"Then we will not fight crime," Equius finishes.

Nepeta rockets upright, her mouth agape. "No!" she yells. "You can't do that!"

Equius sets his jaw. Teeth creak, and sweat starts to bead at his temples. He is still a yard from the pile where Nepeta sits, just out of reach, and she knows now that it's because he always intended to make this little power play. He just didn't want her to shoosh him out of it. "I can, and I will. I forbid you from participating in hero work until you are able to rectify these unacceptable slips. This is for your own good."

"No it isn't! It's dumb!" Nepeta stamps her foot. She feels hot and miserable and she hates it. "You're not the boss of me!"

"You will do as I say. I will not allow you access to your equipment until your grades improve sufficiently," Equius says, quietly. He folds his arms over his chest. "You are lucky to have me to look out for you."

"I don't feel lucky!" Nepeta fires back, sinking into the pile. She buries her face against her knees, feeling the bones dig into her cheeks, and doesn't look up for a long time.

Equius is too quiet though, and she looks up through her eyelashes to squint at him.  He should definitely be reprimanding her more…

Equius stands with his head bowed, both hands knotted behind his back. She can just see the glint of his eyes beneath his widow's peak, and the way he's visibly holding himself back from some reaction. "That's fine, too," he says.

He doesn't sound angry or disappointed anymore. Just tired and sad.

...Stupid homework. Stupid school. Stupid Equius, for being mean for her own good and acting as though in a moirallegiance it's his duty as the colder blood to absorb Nepeta's thoughtless insults without showing how much it hurts when she goes too far.

And she did go too far. Nepeta's bloodpusher squeezes with pain, and she stands up to close the distance between them and hug Equius around the neck. She has to jump a little on her toes to do it, and dangles there with her feet barely skimming the floor as she kisses his ear. "You're mean," she says, muffling her voice against his greasy, sweaty hair. "You're mean and gross and mean."

Equius tilts his head to the side, away from her. "Yes," is all he says.

Nepeta bonks their heads together. "Fine. I'll get my grades up. Watch me," she says, with boundless conviction. "I'll make you proud."

"I am always proud of you, Nepeta," he says. He is still trying for that meowdy angst look, but she catches the faint crease of a smile at the corner of his mouth. "Even when you are ridiculous."

"And you're not gross," she says. She nuzzles the side of his face, sweat and all. "Not really. You're mine."

"As you are mine," he replies. "Now take out your homework. We will salvage it. There will be no further feelings jam tonight until it is complete."

...So mean.

-

Now...

Nepeta is in a catsuit.

…It's purrfect!

"Look at me, look at me!" she sings, spinning in a circle in front of the mirror. "Back in costume! So magmewwwwficent! Equius!"

Equius grunts non-committally. Exhilarated, Nepeta pounces on one of the wires connected to his armor and fiddles with it until he finishes clamping a heavy chunk of metal onto his arm and moves her to the side with a hand. "You still need to put on the rest of your armor, Nepeta. You are too exposed like this."

"Am not! I can take care of myself like this just fine." Nepeta flicks out her clawkind specibus and admires the sharp edge of the four pale blue blades latched to her hands. Equius doesn't let her disembowel criminals the way she and Pounce take care of their prey, but they're still lots of fun for slicing up other strife weaponry and clothing. Criminals are much less likely to successfully abscond if they suddenly find themselves naked in the middle of the street, because regular people are dumb about nudity.

"Nepeta." Equius's voice rumbles like thunder, and Nepeta rolls her eyes as she goes to dig through the closet full of extra armor and stuff that she doesn't actually need. She straps on the eared helmet and tail after she shrugs on the bullet-proof vest and arm guards, because it makes her feel better to save the best for last. Equius is paranoid, but he's also secretly a sweetie who makes her armor cat themed. He claims it's to obscure the shape of her horns from the casual observer; Nepeta thinks he's just as sweet as sugar cubes. Her helmet is basically indestructible and the tail is made up of glass fibers that are brittle but also cut through the skin of anyone stupid enough to try to grab her tail mid-battle. Finally, she loops her utility belt around her waist, and taps her foot until Equius is ready.

The blueblood closes the visor of his all-concealing costume, his fists clenching and testing the flex of the armored joints with a faint tremor of anticipation. Because the Cobalt Crusher can protest all he wants, but he likes getting to use his fists of furrrry in a socially acceptable outlet, and beating the crap out of the whole kitten kaboodle of lowlifes who prowl around the city at night totally counts. Grinning, Nepeta leaps up and scales his back lightly, scampering up until she can sit on his shoulder, her legs swinging. "Let's go get Pounce!" she announces, resting her claws on his helmet.

The Pawsitively Magmewficent Pounceavenger is ready for business!

-

The main event of the night is a break in at the art museum. Crusher overhears the alert on his police radio scanner app before Pounce de Leon sniffs it out, which gives the Pounceavenger all the more incentive to beat him there and prove she's still in fighting shape. They split up on the approach, with Crusher descending to ground level to punch his way in through the wall. Her lusus stays behind to patrol the outside purrimeter of the building and ensure none of the villains escape their claws.

Pounceavenger - she refuses to think of herself as the Huntress, no matter how secretly catchy that alias is, because Equius is a butt - drops onto the museum roof, landing in a crouch on all fours and scampering across the roof toward the rooftop entrance, which has been yanked off its hinges. She breathes in deeply as she sticks her nose into the stairwell, and catches the scent and sound of a troll pacing a floor below. The lookout! Stepping lightly on the metal stairs, Avenger creeps around the landing until the scuffling sound of the lookout's footsteps come from directly beneath her. She bares her teeth in a silent grin, seizes the stairwell railing with both claws, and whoops as she kicks over the railing. She swings through the air and lets go, tackling the lookout from behind. He's a total lightweight, and the collision sends him slamming up against the wall with a holler. When he reaches up to grab at her she hisses and scratches the back of his hand. "Where is the rest of your purrsnickety crew!" she demands, lowering her voice to a hoarse growl that would make Equius himself proud.

"D-down in the new exhibit, on the second floor!" he says, whimpering when Pounceavenger grips his arm in a wristlock and twists just so. "We just wanted the projection equipment to sell, that's it! We weren't going to take any of the art, it's all this modern shit!"

"That's not an excuse!" she hisses. "This is still a feliney!"

"You mean a felon-"

She knocks him upside the head before he can dare to try and correct one of her puns. She draws the line there! Sniffing, Avenger wraps a cord of reinforced yarn around his wrists and leaves him tied up in a cat's cradle attached to the stairwell railing. It's her specialty knot!

The left side of her helmet crackles. "Huntress. I have located the miscreants. They are on the second floor."

"I knooow!" she replies, darting down the stairs as fast as her legs can take her. "I took down the lookout on the stairs, I'll be right there! Don't start without me!"

"Oh no. I have been spotted," Crusher deadpans, his flat sarcasm obvious despite the feedback. "I have no choice but to engage the enemy."

Pounceavenger blows a raspberry at him, before the radio cuts off. If Crusher had his way, he would remove Nepeta from the equation altogether - but since she's the one who actually talked him into hero work in the first place, he does the next best thing by trying to beat up all the criminals before she can get involved. If this were proper hunting and not just a massive multiplayer roleplay in Nepeta's mind, he'd be such a kill stealer! She bangs through the door to the second floor and races through the thin columns displaying black and white photographs. The overhead lights are off, but the space is lit by the still-running video projectors for some reason, one displaying a monochrome tree with a windmill in the background while Pounceavenger rushes by.

Crusher looms up between a projector and a blank wall, holding two humans in his hands and gently tapping them together. Even that slight touch is enough to make a crack as their skulls knock against each other, and the blueblood lowers them to the ground with the utmost care. He could move much faster, she knows, but then he'd risk doing serious injury. That gives her all the time she needs to vault off a display case and bare her clawkind in midair, pouncing from above on a human female trying to escape.

Human females, unlike trolls, have chest armor that is not actually armor, but instead serves some purpose in their weird childcare rituals that she ignored in health class. But Pounceavenger is a troll, and she is stacked. She flattens the human with a growl of victory, and preens a little with her clawkind while the woman tries to knee her in the groin. "You are under citizen's arrest," Avenger informs her, her tail lashing behind her. "Silly kitty!"

"Cat puns?" the woman says, sounding ill. "Oh, shit. You two are back. We only planned this because we thought you two quit!"

"Happy to disappoint!" Pounceavenger removes her yawn from her utility belt with glee.

"Huntress, move!" Crusher yells from behind her.

She ducks. She never questions an order like that, not when they're out in the field. The whistle of something thin and metal swings over her head, scraping the back of her helmet, and Avenger rolls off the woman to get lower to the ground. She hisses at the tealblood who has stepped out from behind the column, a crowbarkind in her claws.

Crusher reaches the troll first, but Avenger is only as second behind. They move in perfect concert, Crusher seizing the tealblood by the arm and yanking it from its socket with a single jerk, and Avenger bounding over the fallen human in a jump kick, planting her heel square in the middle of the troll's stomach. But there is something more urgent than making sure that the human woman she failed to handcuff in time doesn't escape; Avenger whirls on Crusher and claps both hands to the sides of his cheeks exposed by his helmet, huddling close. "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay," she purrs soothingly. She can't read his expression behind the visor, but his teeth vanish back into a close-lipped grimace as he relaxes his bruising grip and lets the tealblood fall to the ground.

Equius has sent people to the hospital for less than the close call they just had. Avenger kisses him on the mouth and then the nose, tilting their foreheads together and shooshing him until they hear the sirens arrive outside the building.

Moirallegiance doesn't stop just because they're on the job. It's a round the clock gig.

-

After Equius begins the long and booorrring process of extracting himself from his armor, Nepeta says good bye and swaggers home with a victorious saunter, Pounce de Leon sleek and pale by her side. What a good first night back out on the job!

When they get within a few miles of the house Nepeta vaults onto the lusus's back and lets it carry her the rest of the way, like it used to when she was younger and smaller and lighter. She tumbles off again with a wide, stretching yawn to unlock the door and let them in; she smiles as Pounce flops over in their nest, curled up in a happy circle. Before she can join the lusus, however, she dumps out her bag on the desk, tossing her freshly washed uniform and jersey into the messy pile at the bottom of her wardrobe, and retrieves her tablet computer. It had been saved from the sweatpocalypse only by being swaddled in all that clothing. Nepeta changes into her sleep clothes while it boots up and starts sizing up her wall art. She picks up her paints and dabs at the nose of the face that takes up most of the space to the right of the window. She just can't get the eyes right! Hemogoblin is sooo purretty, she can't even handle it! She uses her thumbs to add more dark eyelashes, and bemeowns the fact that no red paint she has mixed so far matches the exact shade of the new hero's hemotype.

Hemogoblin is a new addition to the wall, and Nepeta spent days while furbidden from hero work constructing a massive meta shipping chart on potential relationships for America's newest hero. Most prominent (and likely to go canon) are the competing flushed and pale squares with Heir - she just can't figure out how the two relate to each other from the sparse reports her mewsfeed brings her.

But the secret new focal point of her wall is the extra tiny box with an olive green Pounceavenger and a bright red Hemogoblin under a heart, partially hidden behind the corner of her desk. She can't help it - she is such a massive fanpurrl and Hemogoblin is so dashing! Nepeta presses her hands to her cheeks, squeeing, and accidentally smears pale grey all over her nose.

She wipes it off on a rag before scrolling through her mewsfeed with a keen eye for the latest updates on all of her shipping communities. The kerfuffle over Hemogoblin and rumors of a potential arrest has died down, which is a relief after a few days and nights in which Nepeta couldn't sleep from the anxiety as she furrociously combatted wank building up in the Hemogoblin tag. She'll probably go through and delete some of her more heated posts, because she thinks she got kind of mean in her protective rampage, and that's not how she wants her online friends to see her! There's a grudging, caps-locked message from carcinoGeneticist that she decides to deal with tomorrow; he'd been helping her tear through the forums on a defensive streak with five times his usual vitriol and unmitigated scorn throughout the debacle. Carcino is actually kind of mean sometimes, but he also writes fanfiction like a boss and Nepeta makes it a point to stay on relatively good terms with him.

Indigo Scourge and Blind Justice are apparently a confirmed black item. Nepeta sighs, digging through her box of paints for the tube of unused black so she can add the new quadrant to her hero shipping wall. It's just a quick scribble, enough to get across the impression of a sneaky blue spirate and a stern legislacerator having angry, sloppy makeouts, and then she boxes them off with a little spades sign above their heads. Nibbling on the ashen grey paint tube, Nepeta deliberates before adding to the potential ship chart. Spades and clubs aren't really her area, but with this recent development she's has a strong intuition about possible dove grey intervention from the Malachite Sylph. A heroic auspice of that caliber would naturally be drawn in by such a high profile black flare-up!

Or maybe Nepeta is just letting her shipper brain get the best of her. That happens sometimes. Equius occasionally has to remind her that life is not the same as fanfiction.

But oh, she wants to belieeeve.

Chapter Text

===> Be Kanaya Maryam

Kanaya Maryam

Appt. 216

413 Locust Street

Philadelphia, PA

Untitled Maryam,

It has come to our attention that you have yet to register a formal title with a recognized Center for the Care and Keeping of Grubs! As such, we here at the Appalachian Grub Center would like to extend a hearty welcome and invitation to you, in the event that you may be interested in seeking certified employment. Your impeccable school record, fostering under one of the virgin Mother Grubs, and reassuringly conciliatory scores on the TQPA place you among the most promising candidates for Caretaking in the greater Northeastern region, and we are quite willing to overlook the six year gap in your resume - no doubt the result of extenuating circumstances!

If you are agreeable, the cloister of the Maternum at Appalachia would welcome your presence in the direct service of the Mother Grub. This is a rare opportunity to be exalted straight from the care of wrigglers to the coveted position of Maternum, one that we have extended to no other jadeblood in nearly fifty years. We have enclosed the required documentation needed to confirm your enrollment in the cloisters, and look forward to serving with you by the time of the summer hatching!

We look forward to your favorable reply!

Yours,

Sacerdos Demetria

-

Most of the mail Kanaya receives on a daily basis runs in such a vein.

Narrowing her eyes, she discards the letter. Though her sensibilities would normally lead her to respond, at least with a politely-worded refusal, she has learned that replying to correspondence like this only encourages the centers to persist in courting her. She has no interest in caretaking or nurturing or any other number of the titled job positions considered socially acceptable for jadebloods. It is the rest of the world that seems convinced that what she has chosen to make of herself is somehow wrong. They think that if they only throw enough offers her way, they can lure her into the kind of service they are used to receiving from jade trolls. And, of course, they persist in ignoring the fact that Kanaya's three years in the Marine's Medicull unit is a matter of public record. If she were ever so chose to title herself (as a troll generally has by this point in their life) their refusal to acknowledge her as a worthy Veterana would be an even graver insult.

Well. They shall have to live with the disappointment.

She shuffles through the rest of the mail, and soothes herself with the knowledge that this was the only job offer of the day. Normally she must cull a good three-quarters of her mail before she reaches the bills and tailoring orders that make up the true meat of her correspondence. All the rest leaves nothing but ash in her mouth.

Slitting open the thin envelope addressed from the water company with the tip of her claw, Kanaya scans it, nods to herself, and sets it aside on the couch beside her in a pile of bills to be taken care of later in the month. Orders - in particular those scheduling a fitting or calling for a unique design - she lays in her lap. Her mental checklist for the day rapidly fills up, and soon she must open up her schedule planner and begin to ink in the appointments that need to be completed throughout the week.

Over on the foldout bed by the recooperacoon that Kanaya keeps only for show, Rose sleeps on. Her blond hair falls over her face, illuminated by a single panel of sunlight that slips in through a gap in the blinds. She looks unfathomably vulnerable, lying in a muddle of blankets with her wrists crossed where the metallic bracers clasp around slim forearms. Rose is a quiet sleeper, but restless, and more than once since she arrived Kanaya has lain awake, feeling Rose slowly but steadily extricate herself from the sheets and coverlet until the bed is a tangled wreck. Sometimes the human jolts awake, suddenly enough that Kanaya can sense the pulse in her throat hitch, but Rose merely flinches once and then holds herself very still, silent, until her pulse settles again. If she wakes due to nightmares or something perhaps more sinister, she does not share that information with Kanaya; all Kanaya knows is that Rose has not slept through the night since she began meditating to the Horrorterrors as a child, and that any sleep at all was a rare indulgence throughout her earlier years.

So when Rose sleeps through Kanaya's morning routine, through the whistle of the tea kettle boiling on the stove top, through the sun's rising arc as the day whiles away, Kanaya sees no need to stir her. She cannot meet with the building contractors until one, anyway. Instead, Kanaya removes one of her sloper patterns and an inexpensive bolt of muslin fabric, with which to begin work on sewing a prototype. Madam Fartree is one of her usual patrons, and so Kanaya has taken the time to customize the sloper to her body type so that the socialite no longer need come in for a private fitting whenever she requests a new design.

It is one of the hazards of owning a boutique that ends up, more often than not, in some state of vandalism whenever potential patrons walk by; Kanaya has shifted much of her work to a mail-order basis, and she has labored hard to keep her technological skills up to date primarily because younger clients prefer email. The loss of her personal computer to Sollux's ministrations means that she recently had to seek out a public library and send out notices to her online orders warning them of communications delays for the foreseeable future.

Sollux had estimated he would be able to backtrack the mysterious white text glitch within a few hours. His lack of progress over the ensuing days has reduced him to a mess of alternating furious swearing and existential despair whenever Kanaya receives an update via text, and he recently hacked Rose's phone to bypass Kanaya as an intermediary and begin assailing Rose with furious demands for more details on any potential magic she might have sensed during her sweep of the neighborhood. He has seized upon the idea that Rose and Kanaya both missed something when searching the apartment for bugs, technological or otherwise.

(On the shelf of oddities and trinkets that Kanaya keeps in the corner, a smooth, perfectly round cue ball glints in the sunlight, innocuous and unremarkable, even to the sight of a Seer. Kanaya thinks nothing of it.)

Rose yawns, flexing her left foot as she stirs, and Kanaya finds herself distracted beyond words by the arch of Rose's instep. Setting aside her needle, she puts down the sloper pattern and walks to the bedside to wake her lover properly.

Other than that, it is a quiet morning.

-

Unfortunately, the quiet trend of the morning proves to be misleading; in the middle of lunch, Kanaya hears the buzzing jingle of her phone, and excuses herself from the table to answer it in the living room. Rose's keen eyes follow her until Kanaya steps into the corner and braces herself. She reads the chumhandle of the one contacting her with a sinking feeling, and even before she opens the message she knows that it brings ill tidings. She has been expecting this since last night, when Blind Justice informed her that she intended to settle the rivalry between the Scourge Sisters of Chicago one way or another.

The fact that the Indigo Scourge is alive to pester the Sylph can only mean the encounter ended most...caliginously.


-- arachnidsGrip [AG] began pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 12:34:08 --
AG: Well, well, well.
AG: Guess whose shitty luck just turned around. >:::;)
GA: I See. Then Your Play For Justice's Black Quadrant Has Been A Success?
AG: Of course it was! How could it 8e anything 8ut a success! She pl8yed right into my w8ting claws, as always!
GA: I Seem To Recall At Least A Two Year Interval In Which Your Best Efforts To Win Her Into Caliginous Commitment Failed So Spectacularly That She Exiled You From Her Quadrants Entirely.
AG: So whaaaaaaaat!
AG: You're such a party-pooper, Sylph! I was o8viously playing the long g8me, and you missed it!
GA: I Still Wish To State For The Record That I Advise Against This Kismesissitude.
GA: A Torrid Affair Of This Nature Between Two Already Violent Heroes Could Quickly Lead To Disaster.
AG: Ahahahahahahahaha! Nice try, you meddley meddler!
AG: Anyway, I already know that you were trying to sa8otage me earlier, trying to get in ashen cahoots with Justice so you could horn in on my 8ction!
AG: 8ut it's too l8te now. So you'll have to try auspisticing someone else! ::::P
GA: I Understand That Right Now Your Mutual Animosity May Be Too Alluring To Deny.
GA: But I Fear That This Relationship Will Only Lead To Chaos For Everyone Around You.
GA: If You Persist In Pursuing This, I Will Have No Choice But To Intervene.
AG: Yeah, right! As though you could take either one of us!
AG: And I knoooooooow you, Sylph! You'd never let anything drag you away from playing village two-wheeled device for all of Philad8lphia.
GA: Before That Might Have Been The Case, If Your Rivalry Had Remained Platonic. But As The Only Superpowered Party With A Vested Interest In Mediating Between The Two Of You, It Is My Responsibility To Minimize Your Destructive Impact On The City Around You When You Are Blinded By Unbridled Detestation.
GA: Even If It Means Temporarily Relocating In Order To Confront The Two Of You With The Folly Of Your Hatred In Person.
AG: You have goooooooot to 8e kidding me! Just let it go!
GA: I Cannot. I Must Try To Help The Two Of You See Reason.
AG: You know wh8t? 8ring. It. On.
AG: Justice m8ght be an infuri8ting 8itch about only fighting criminals, but if you want a piece of this, I will shut you down.
GA: You Underestimate Me To Your Own Detriment, Scourge. Please Understand That I Only Want What Is Best For You And Justice, In Addition To Chicago At Large. I Am Not Your Enemy.
AG: Wellllllll, if you're coming anyway…
AG: I wonder - how 8ad can I 8e?
GA: Scourge. Do Not.
AG: 8ut seeing me flaunt the law g8ts Justice all hot and 8othered! How can I resist that?! :::;D
AG: See you around, Sylph!
--  arachnidsGrip [AG] ceased pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 12:50:20 --

Kanaya presses two fingers to her forehead, the phone clutched in her other hand while she rests an elbow on the other arm. She leans back against the wall and tries to will away the headache of an auspicism gone horrible wrong.

She has been trying (and failing) to balance Blind Justice and the Indigo Scourge for years now, ever since the ever-darkening rivalry between the two heroes began to make national headlines. She had only newly returned from service in the Novaya Ukraine, and started work as the Malachite Sylph to try and work out the aggressive tendencies that came with her...unique new skills. The thought of reaching out to other heroes, especially two in such dire need of mediation, had appealed to her, and she reached out to them with purely platonic interest in helping them resolve whatever differences had led to such a violent break between the two heroes in the country most famed for their partnership.

It had only developed into true ashen leanings when they had proven so infuriatingly stubborn about resolving their rivalry. Perhaps, if the Sylph had been able to broker peace between the two within the first few weeks, she might have been able to maintain the same emotional distance she uses to enforce justice and peace in Philadelphia on a nightly basis. Instead, the affair prolonged itself, and she grew greyer and greyer about the affair with each passing day that she spent pestering the ex-Scourge Sisters. The seed of mild, disinterested curiosity had bloomed into a truly magnificent irritation, complete with the desire to reach through the computer screen and smack both Justice and Scourge silly until they agreed to a peace settlement.

Shooshing is for moirails. An auspistice prefers a more...slaphappy mindset.

She is aware that not many trolls find the ashen quadrant as emotionally fulfilling as she does. While society may place great significance upon matespritship, kismesissitude, and moirallegiance, there are no great epics or plays revolving around arbitration, with the exception of more obscure literature like the Серая Трефовая Дама. Kanaya would know - she has always had a passion for rather dramatic romance novels, particularly gothic fantasies, and when she had at last realized that her conciliatory inclinations shaded grey rather than pale more often than not, she had sought out relevant literature with a fervor. The realization that a few psychological journals and a rather substandard selection of mediocre prose works were all that troll civilization had managed to produce since the Burnings of the old Empire had been...difficult to accept.

So she forges her own path. Unfortunately, it would seem that just because her ashen irascibility is firmly directed at Justice and Scourge does not mean that they will respond to mediation via text. There is a pinch of annoyance in her bloodpusher, and more than a little heartbreak.

But she will not lose hope now. This grey irritation in her breast is not the sort of fleeting exasperation that can go down in a day. Now more than ever, she can see with clarity just what kind of fresh havoc a black pairing of rivals like the Scourge Sisters could wreak upon Chicago - and that path ends with them queens over a wasteland, or imprisoned - or worse. Locked in a blinding obsidian tango, it is only a matter of time before Justice makes the misstep that brings the Legislacerators to her door, and Kanaya doubts that the Indigo Scourge would let the Lacerators take her kismesis into custody without a brutal fight. The Scourge lives convinced of her own immortality, reckless like a teenager and throwing her whole heart behind whatever cause catches her attention at any given moment. She would go down in a hail of bullets, and laugh at the thought of her own demise.

Kanaya thinks of the elegant calligraphy in her schedule planner, and sighs. It seems she will need to rearrange her schedule for this weekend, and make plans to complete Madam Fartree's evening gown sooner rather than later.

She wonders how she will explain this rather spontaneous trip to Rose. Perhaps she will hold off until tomorrow, Kanaya thinks, stepping away from the wall. Rose may present a smooth, confident demeanor, but Kanaya can tell she is still shaken from her confrontation with her mother earlier in the week.

She also wonders whether Rose would be interested in accompanying her. Tucking a curl of hair behind her ear, Kanaya straightens her lilac gown and returns to the kitchen, where Rose looks up at her in askance. The smooth curve of her jaw and the sharp knowing in her angular, very human eyes draw Kanaya in for another kiss, with a magnetic force that she has never experienced before.

Yes, if she must travel to Chicago, she must entreat Rose to join her. After all, who would be more useful in foreseeing a path to a favorable outcome in this endeavor between heroes than a Seer of Rose's caliber?

-

She must rush to the shop in record time to meet the insurance and repair contractors. Rose follows her to the door of the apartment building in bare feet, wrapped in a green shawl that contrasts sharply with her coloring, her lips curled in a smirk as she tips Kanaya's head down for kiss after kiss. Sometimes, Kanaya thinks, the Seer is a deliberate tease.

At least it is better than the Seer who had appeared on her doorstep in ill-fitting clothes, her face pale with exhaustion and her eyes shadowed with a desperate, aching inner turmoil. Rose would not have survived much longer in her mother's domain without breaking, and Kanaya thanks the gods every day that when she offered her home to Rose, the woman had accepted. Their more flushed flirtations via Pesterchum had been quite promising, and Rose had visited Philadelphia once before, but her sudden spiral into alcoholism - and, Kanaya now knows, the madness of the grimdark throes - had left Kanaya uncertain where exactly they stood. The red quadrant, after all, is not exactly her usual area of expertise.

But given time to recover, away from the constant reminder her mother serves of years spent alone in a dark house, Rose is flourishing. Not even Rue Lalonde's ill-judged attempt to talk Rose into returning to the lab seems to have done much harm to Rose's healing. And Kanaya is quite happy with the current course their relationship has taken.

Drawing a head scarf over her hair and horns, Kanaya steps out onto the street and begins to jog the short distance to her boutique. She tends to wear long skirts and sleeves simply to save on the grey makeup and sealant she needs to imitate a normal troll skin hue, and chic sunglasses to protect herself from the mild light sensitivity she has gained, but the scarf to obscure her horns and the faint, deep emerald tint of her hair is a relatively new addition to her day clothes. She rues the day she hit twenty and her hair had begun to expose the tint of her blood color as well; when the sun catches it the correct way, it's more green than black, and shines like a beacon to any troll in a hundred foot radius.

And it would seem that no matter where Kanaya sets up shop, there will always be trolls who see a jadeblood on the streets and become inexplicably offended. Only a week before Rose arrived, in addition to the wanton vandalism perpetrated upon her shop, someone had tripped her in the street in an attempt to send her crashing into a puddle of rainwater - coincidentally in front of oncoming traffic. Only her preternatural grace had let her regain her footing; any other jadeblood might not have been so lucky. They had sniggered and spewed something about her 'uncloistered bileblood.' She hadn't caught the rest, too focused on repressing the urge to yank the offender down with her and tear his throat out with her extra teeth to even look up and memorize the troll's face.

Something is wrong when she must abscond to her own workshop in a disguise for fear of retaliation from otherwise law-abiding trolls. But the unspoken rule is that a troll with jadeblood should never be seen - they are meant for the cloisters and the grubcenters, for the titles of Sacerdos and Maternum, and the idea of any troll with blood from mint on up could be seen walking the streets is somehow unreasonable.

Her Medicull unit had been blissfully free from such prejudices. Half had been humans who could care less about the hemospectrum and its discrimination, and the other had been battle-hardened midbloods who only cared that Kanaya had the fastest chainsawkind in the Marines. If the war to reclaim the Ukraine hadn't been the supernatural hell it became, when they realized just what horrors they were up against, Kanaya might have remained with them all her life.

But. Well. The Novaya Ukraine was what it was. The fact that Kanaya had somehow risen up from the dead while the rest of her unit melted away into the iridescence of the corrupted rivers leaves her cold to this day. All she could do for those lost Medicullers was destroy their mutated, twisted corpses, and live to mourn them. And when she obeyed the recall order and realized that she would never again pass muster for a Marine-standard medical examination (deathly white skin and a predilection for partaking in troll blood straight out of gothic bodice rippers just don't quite help a troll make the cut for a clean bill of health), she had been forced to settle for hero work at home. She hadn't realized then just how badly off the perception of jadebloods would leave her in terms of status; her hemotype had meant nothing all throughout her schooling, right up until she refused all caretaker job offers and enlisted in the force.

She reaches the row of small, independently-owned boutiques where she has set up shop, breathes in steadily, and strides up to the shattered windows of her poor, vandalized storefront. She'd had three orders in here before the break-in, stored overnight to be picked up by the patrons in the morning; she had been forced to call in those patrons and explain exactly why their tailored outfits had been left as scraps on the floor. She pushes open the door, which barely sits on its hinges despite her efforts to reattach it, and feels the broken glass crunch beneath the thick soles of her shoes. For a moment, she feels nearly as broken, looking around the small room at the torn fabric samples and caved-in mannequins.

Then she recalls that she is a possibly-undead blood-drinking female troll who can saw a redwood tree (or a man) in two with a single swing of her chainsaw, and that her self-worth does not depend upon the status of a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop or the respect of a neighborhood of foul-mouthed trolls who don't even have the courage to attack her head-on. They are cowards, every one, and she will outlast them all.

 And she will repair her store as many times as necessary to make the living that she has chosen. Sewing makes her happy; hero work makes her happy. Caring for a mother grub would not make her happy.

It really is as simple as that.

Sniffing, Kanaya feels the heartbeats of three people (one female troll, two humans) approaching the store, and she draws back the folds of her head scarf to nod a greeting with a smooth, implacable expression. Now, to negotiate for insurance money.

Again.

-

By the evening, Kanaya's throat aches, and she can feel the tips of her hollow, secondary teeth pricking at her tongue as she finishes settling the terms of the repair work with the contractors.  A shame that her own blood does nothing to satiate that burning, latent thirst. As it is, she hurries home. With the matter of obtaining the funds to reestablish her tailoring business assured (after some judicious persuading of the insurance assessor on her part) and a speedy reconstruction set to be complete inside of two weeks (she and these contractors are old friends, by now), her mind is free to fantasize about the mug of blood tea and the human waiting for her at home.

Kanaya would be lying if she said she didn't enjoy Rose's company. While the circumstances that led to Rose's arrival were unfortunate, and Kanaya mourns for the losses New York City suffered, she is quite, quite happy to have the Seer here with her now. Hopefully, her proposal that they temporarily vacation in Chicago will not upset the tenuous balance they have achieved concerning Rose's mental health. She has shown few signs of struggling with her cravings for intoxicating beverages, but Rose is nothing if not a master of concealing her worries behind a knowing smirk. She has rarely ventured out these past few days except in the Sylph's company for hero work at night, but Kanaya is not her keeper during the day - she simply must trust that Rose would not purchase alcohol while Kanaya is out, or that she would come to Kanaya to talk it out before the craving overwhelmed her.

After all, Kanaya more than perhaps anyone else understands what it is to feel that dry burn that aches in the throat and cries out for satiation. If it were as simple as abstaining from blood as Rose must from drink, Kanaya would have tried it already. But blood has become a fundamental part of her diet - she keeps food around the apartment for show and for Rose's sake, but if blood were not so hard to come by legally and morally, Kanaya suspects she could live off that alone. Whatever strange transformation raised her up as a rainbow-drinker in the depths of the Ukrainian forests, it has made it so that she can (must) live on blood and blood alone. The one time she tried to quit, she had collapsed in her kitchen after only a week.

She twists her key in the lock, making a mental note to pick up the copy she has ordered for Rose's use from the locksmith, and steps into the front hallway. She passes one of her neighbors on the stairs, a little boy who slips on his hasty scramble down to the first floor. Without missing a beat, Kanaya plucks him up by the collar and sets him on his feet again before he can tumble down. "You are well?" she asks.

"Yep! Thanks Ms Kanaya!" he yells, and resumes his hazardous descent. Children will be children, Kanaya thinks. She and Daniel are old hats at that particular routine - his fathers never seem to be around to watch him when he makes for the stairs, and so it has become his favorite game to charge out when Kanaya is around and repeat the incident as a sort of game. It does no harm, so long as he never tries it in her absence, and so she indulges him.

Some have accused her hating children or wrigglers for her refusal to care for them as her life's work. That is not the case in the slightest, but Kanaya silences that old longing and buries within her chest. She forges her way up the rest of the stairs and strides to the door of her apartment proper, opening the door with a relieved sigh. The scent of cooking pasta and a lit candle - lavender and chamomile - greets her in the breath of air that wafts through the open doorway. "Rose?" she calls, smiling a little as she turns straight into the kitchen area beside the door. One benefit of cohabitation with another being that Kanaya has never considered is that she no longer comes home to an empty, still apartment - as tasteless as the pun is, Rose's presence lights up the apartment. Kanaya had not realized how she craved the company of another being until the longing was so fortuitously assuaged.

Rose, however, is not at the stove, and when Kanaya frowns at the pot, she sees that the pasta and water are bubbling with enough frenetic energy that the stovetop is splattered with droplets that sizzle in the excess heat. "Rose, I believe that the requisite time for boiling the water has passed," she calls, turning the heat down. Her brow furrows with confusion - Rose would not normally leave something unattended while cooking; she is a perfectionist that way -

"Kanaya. Kanaya, you need to come here."

Kanaya's chest seizes because something is wrong. Rose sounds - she sounds urgent in a way Kanaya has not heard before, not in person. Kanaya shoves the pot of water and noodles off the burner, careless of the bright flash of pain that burns across her palm (she heals quickly), and then she hastens to the living room. She does not know what she expects to see, though her mind provides several heart-wrenching possibilities in quick succession - Rose bleeding, Rose in pain, Rose drinking - before she rounds the counter and sees Rose sitting on the floor, her legs folded in a perfect lotus position. Kanaya recognizes the posture as one Rose uses in meditation. There is no blood, though she can feel the drum of Rose's heart as a pulse in her own ears.

The small, years-old television set is on - a strange occurrence, as neither Rose nor Kanaya have much inclination for televised media. Kanaya sometimes leaves the news on in the morning, as it is easier for her personally to keep up with world events by listening while she sews than by ponderously scrolling through the news sites on the computer, but to see Rose so enraptured by the screen at this time of day is unusual.

"A dome has formed over the city of Los Angeles," Rose says simply. So simply, in fact, that Kanaya is momentarily at a loss, wondering why such a short statement would have such an impact on Rose at all -

Then her mind kicks into gear. "Around the entire city? What kind of dome?" she inquires, stooping to get a look at the television. The local news station has been subsumed by the countrywide broadcast, and the live video feed shows exactly what Rose has described - a smooth dome, like an upside down bowl, with the light of the setting sun glancing off it in strange, unnatural refractions. Something about that prickles at Kanaya's memories unpleasantly, but she can't quite place it. On the tiny screen, though, the structure looks far too innocuous to encapsulate an entire metropolis like Los Angeles. "The work of some new villain?"

"No one seems quite certain," Rose says, staring at the screen with unblinking eyes, as though she could somehow stare through to the real Los Angeles. "It appeared in the space of seconds, and all communication with the city within appears to have been shut down." The human shifts, and Kanaya's gaze flickers toward Rose's face again. There is a unique despair etched in Rose's features, and she looks almost as tired as she had the day she arrived. "Unsurprising, of course. If what I suspect generated that dome is what I think it is...there may well be no one left to communicate with at all, soon enough."

Kanaya sinks down, her legs giving up before she hits the floor. The breath whooshes out of her as she sits, transfixed, at the grainy video on the screen. "Rose. Rose, what does that mean?" she asks quietly. That old, familiar horror curdles in her gut, and she doesn't want to remember it. Doesn't want to find that dome so familiar. But then the camera - a helicopter's eye view - zooms in, and she must gulp back the urge to vomit at the close-up image of the dome. It is not perfectly smooth, not at all; though the overall structure is a dome, long, sticky strings and gloops of pale slime ooze down the curvature, like condensation collecting on a cold glass on a hot summer afternoon. Neither is it pure white - the surface glistens with sickly films of rainbow luster, a phenomenon that, even through the buffer of the television screen, makes Kanaya's eyes ache when she tries to focus on it for too long, as though the substance itself is incomprehensible.

And Kanaya knows what Rose is going to say. She knows.

"Because, that is not a man-made barrier, Kanaya, nor is it magic of this earth." Rose reaches out and presses her hand to the television screen, tracing the curve of the image of the dome with a light fight. "It is grimlight."

Kanaya stills, but oh, the inevitability of it all hits her like a moving train. She shudders, swallowing hard, and her hand on Rose's back clenches reflexively. "You are certain?"

"I would know that sheen anywhere. It is too distant for me to See it properly, but I have no doubt that looking at an aura like that in person would be...mind-rending."

Kanaya cannot help it. She pulls back and moves to look Rose in the eye. After a brief, worrying pause, Rose meets her gaze, and smiles reassuringly. "It's nothing to me, Kanaya," she murmurs, reaching up to clasp Kanaya's wrist. "My mind has always had this unfortunate inclination toward the grimdark - but grimlight is another matter entirely. I didn't even sense this dome's formation, though it surely caused massive reverberations for those who are attuned to such things."

"Clarify the difference between the two. You explained once that they were simply different breeds of the same horror." Kanaya struggles to keep herself calm. Rose may be fine, seemingly shaken not by personal exposure to some grimlight backlash in her mind but to the news itself, but then, Rose only has personal experience with the darkness.

Kanaya has seen the light.

And when she looks at Los Angeles, at the sticky iridescence of that oozing white dome, she sees a second Ukraine.

"Both are species of hiveminds, of the kind anathema to rational human and troll thought," Rose says, closing her eyes and tilting her head to the side. Her voice falls into a lilting cadence, the rhythm of someone explaining someone to a pupil. "But they are - diametrically aligned. Rivals, you could say. They mingle freely in the Furthest Ring, but there is more quantum entanglement between grimdark and grimdark, grimlight and grimlight, than between dark and light."

Kanaya doesn't understand. She rubs the brow of her forehead, trying to think past the flood of memories. "What does that mean physically? In practice?"

Thankfully, Rose understands her somewhat vague wording. "If I were to generalize, as much as one can generalize about infinitely variable, immortal eldritch abominations, at least, I would say the grimdark prefers outright destruction. Chaos. They want the freedom to colonize an area en masse, and they prefer to purge and cleanse the land of...prior inhabitants. They assimilate the minds only of those who can augment their knowledge repositories or increase their majjyks."

"And the grimlight?" But oh, Kanaya knows. She knows already what answer Rose has to give, the worst possible answer.

Rose's hand grabs Kanaya's, tugging it from her forehead, and squeezes too tight. "They take everything and everyone. And they...mold them." She grits her teeth so hard behind her stalwart mask that Kanaya hears her molars creak. "They don't annihilate; they cultivate. And they'll assimilate absolutely anything they come across. All Horrorterrors are voracious and without satiation. We need not fear that whatever has created this dome will attempt a summoning spirograph, but only because it intends to gorge itself upon Los Angeles, first."

"Not a desirable state of affairs, then." Kanaya reaches to her thigh and scratches a claw along the lipstick container hidden there. She never goes unarmed in public these days, and her chainsawkind is discreet enough that no one notices it. But the reflex to trace the comforting shape of the violent weapon in its dormant state is too strong to ignore when flashbacks to the war for the Ukraine continue to bombard her.

Yes, she has seen what occurs when a grimlight elder god seeks to cultivate the land, with salt water and acid and blood.

"No." Rose unfolds her legs and sits back on her heels, leaning forward to turn off the television. "I know you saw what happened in the Ukraine. Whether the world ever put a name to what they were fighting, we've discussed this before."

"But I never thought to see it spread. They pulled us out of there for a reason, Rose." Eventually, the armies attempting to reclaim the Staraya Ukraine had realized all they were doing was throwing new bodies to the grimlight sea, and had retreated. Somehow, Kanaya had always assumed that coming back to America, putting an entire ocean between herself and that hellhole, would prevent the war from following her home. But it was a foolish thought; from what little she has garnered from Rose, arbitrary political boundaries mean nothing to creatures beyond space and time. "Grimlight is not your specialty, but - can you tell if this is -"

"The same tangle?" Rose shakes her head. When Kanaya looks over, she sees the tug on Rose's lower lip, where the woman is gnawing on the inside of her cheek in thought. "Difficult to say. Most of my contact with the Furthest Ring was dictated by one tangle in particular - a grimdark one. I never interacted with those of the light, and the last thing I wished was to draw even more eldritch attention to my mind by investigating them." Rose rubs a hand along the bracer on her wrist. "I would need to draw the memory of the Ukrainian tangle from your mind, and then go to California in person so that I had a sample to compare it to, before I could make such a judgment."

"Your best guess?" Kanaya can't let this go. She takes Rose by the shoulder and tries not to think about the pulse point of the human's vulnerable throat. She really should drink something; getting so emotionally compromised by the sight of the grimlight on the news is aggravating her thirst.

Rose hesitates, then sighs. "I think not. A dome is a very different mental construct from the kind of active incursion documented in the Ukraine. The dome is defensive, passive defense even, while the tangle those fools summoned in Europe actively roamed until it reached its limits. That alone should be enough to prove a distinction between separable hiveminds."

It is ridiculous how relieved Kanaya is. She slumps slightly, then straightens her shoulders. Relief is no excuse for poor posture. "A moment," she murmurs, and rises to her feet again. The sight of the dome shook her, but she is by no means paralyzed with that old fear. Anyway, she has a more pressing concern right now. She strides to the kitchen, unlatches the refrigerator cabinet, and pours a shot of straight blue blood into a mug. The first, near-desperate gulp slides down like chilled syrup, a sensation both revolting and enticing. There is a reason Kanaya prefers to spike regular drinks rather than drinking pure blood - the rainbow drinker instincts may encourage it, but her more ordinary sensibilities, including a natural distaste for having blood in her mouth, make the whole thing a truly sordid ordeal.

After that sip, she clears her throat and checks the teapot on the burner not currently occupied with pasta. The water is heated already, and she fixes herself and Rose each a cup. Perhaps the small bribe will help her next suggestion go over better. "You are free to remain here," she begins, because it is important to settle that for the record. "You are always welcome to my home, Rose. But I must go to California, and if you would escort me, I would...not be averse to the heroic assistance."

Rose looks up sharply, and accepts the cup of unadulterated tea with hands that move on automatic to curl around the mug. "You would stray so far from Philadelphia as Sylph?" she asks. "What brings this on?"

"I made a vow." Kanaya looks down at the swirls of blood as the cool blood diffuses with the tea. "I swore in the Ukraine that I would avenge my Medicull unit. And I failed." All she had been able to do was put them down. Inexperienced in her new rainbow drinking physiology, she had been forced back to the Novaya Ukraine long before she reached the epicenter of the war by her need for untainted blood. "But if it is safer for the sanctity of your mind to remain on the opposite side of the continent from such an otherworldly abomination, then do not feel obligated to accompany me on what may well be a fool's errand."

Rose remains quiet for several minutes, while Kanaya closes her eyes and waits. "As though I could stand by and watch anything so grim ravage the world unchecked," Rose whispers, old pain in her voice. "Grimdark, grimlight - you have my eyes, Sylph. Always."

Kanaya opens her eyes, and can only hope her gratitude shines through. If anyone can sense the soul-deep gratitude she feels at hearing such words, it is the Seer of Light. Rose meets her eyes and does not falter or look aside.

"Besides, it would seem that the dome is impenetrable to physical attempts on its structure." Rose rests her chin on a palm after the moment passes. "Given our prior experience with such things, we would, perhaps, be the two most qualified to investigate methods of destroying the dome, thaumaturgic or otherwise."

"But you do think we can manage it?" Kanaya feels the last of her concern slip away when Rose nods.

Rose purses her lips. "There is one dilemma, however. They do have two heroes there in Los Angeles, do they not?"

Kanaya draws on her memory of other heroes in the United States; she isn't always up on the times, but she tries to keep track. "Cold Tide and the Lady Cascade," she says, at the same time as Rose, their voices overlapping.

Rose's smile twitches, and she goes on. "The question is, would they welcome interference from outside heroes?"

Kanaya just snorts. "I cannot see how they could argue against it. It would be ungrateful and unseemly of them. A grimlight creature is no game. If such a thing were to occur here, I would welcome any and all offers of aid."

"Yes, and if it were any hero but me, you would turn territorial before you accepted it. Don't deny it, Kanaya." Rose grimaces. "But there's simply no way for us to know. I can't imagine they would begrudge our help, anyway, even if they drove us off soon afterward."

"Whether they like it or not, we will be there. This is a fact, which I am stating for the record," Kanaya says, waving a claw flippantly. They exchange grins that Kanaya suspects are the exact same expressions of private, smirking glee. They are a terrible influence on each other, sometimes. She can't regret it.

However, speaking of potentially unwanted assistance… Kanaya clears her throat. "There is also a small matter brewing in Chicago. I had hoped to delay mentioning it until after a proper dinner, but if we intend to travel to investigate this dome in person, a stop there would not be ill-advised."

Rose frowns. "What do you mean?" Her eyes go distant. "I don't recall sensing anything there, either, but -"

"It would not have caused a thaumaturgic disturbance," Kanaya hastens to reassure her, and she does not miss the way Rose's shoulders relax a little. The grimlight has disturbed her more than she is letting on. "No, I am afraid that two of our colleagues - the Indigo Scourge and Blind Justice - have recently graduated from caliginous courting to a full-blown kismeffair."

Rose raises her eyebrows in surprise, and then rolls her eyes. "Ha!" she lets out, and at Kanaya's incredulous look she covers her mouth with averted eyes, still smiling faintly. "Nothing. Just a bet with John, in which I have been proven the victor. The boy is mad for heroes, but hopeless at predicting such obvious developments. Do carry on."

"All bets notwithstanding, I am afraid that there is a good reason I have been working to avert just such a black romance," Kanaya continues, deciding to ignore that little revelation. "The two were destructive enough when their rivalry was platonic. Now that their hatred has been acknowledged, they will only feed each other's violent tendencies, each trying to outdo the other. And when two heroes go black, cities burn."

Rose sobers, the smile dropping from her lips. "Ah. That would be…unfortunate. Alas that the canonization of my foreseen black pairing should be accompanied by such detrimental tidings."

"Such is the way of the obsidian quadrant," Kanaya replies, with mock gravity.

Rose drums her fingers on the counter, her nails clicking. "And you wish to auspicize them," she says.

"Yes. I know it is much to ask of you to pander to this whim, and that given the circumstances in Los Angeles, the timing could not be worse, but I feel it is just as significant a threat -"

"No. No, I agree," Rose says slowly, tilting her head to the side to smile at Kanaya. "And I can see that perhaps you have more invested in such an auspicism than you're letting on."

Kanaya flushes, hard enough that she is sure it is visible even through the makeup. "They are simply infuriating, the both of them," she says, prim and proper, shifting her hand on Rose's shoulder.

"Good. Then we are in accord." They both smile again, and Kanaya lets the warm flare of heat in her stomach soothe more of the tension that sings in her veins, the conflicting urges to race to Chicago and Los Angeles at the same time.

Rose sets her elbows on the counter, and says evenly, "We have more than one crises to attend to, then. Hmm. Let me see."

She taps a knuckle against her chin, and Kanaya watches as a faint gleam of golden light sparks in Rose's eyes. A third eye, one traced in thin lines of light, opens up on the woman's forehead. Kanaya has never asked if that third eye is a deliberate affectation, or simply a mark of Rose's power. Normally, in her old costume design, the magical eye would be concealed by the folds of her hood; with the new three-quarters face mask Kanaya has in the works, it will be more exposed.

"You said the Scourge and Blind Justice need to be arbitrated?" Rose murmurs, eyes brightening. "I - hm. Yes, I see that path. It would delay our arrival at Los Angeles, but..."

She trails off, and then her expression darkens like a thundercloud. The third eye snaps shut with a crackle of power. Kanaya twitches to attention. "Something unfortuitous?"

"That depends on your definition of fortune," Rose mutters. She sounds almost sullen. "When I look ahead, yes, I concur - it would be wise to stop off in Chicago first. I can't see details, but my instincts say yes, it's necessary. But there is also a void."

Kanaya frowns, sipping her bloody tea before setting the mug on the counter. "A void?"

Rose raises an arched eyebrow, and flexes her wrist for emphasis. Kanaya's eyes are drawn down to the arm bracers there, but she can't think of - oh. "Your mother."

Rose's lip curls, more a snarl than a smirk, and the flash of anger that creases her face has not lessened since Rue Lalonde's last appearance. Kanaya thinks Rose may never stop being so enraged by the thought of her mother - and she is not certain such a persistence of rage can be healthy in the heart and mind of someone like Rose, whose powers and stability fluctuate so easily with her mood. Kanaya will have to press for a feelings jam of some kind, as confusing as the thought seems. She had never thought that she would be one of those trolls who ended up in a flushed diamond, mixing elements of both redrom quadrants, but she tries not to let it faze her. After all, she has already extended her ashen quadrant to cover an entire city's criminal element - she is no stranger to more alternative lifestyles. She loves Rose enough that mixing the therapeutic techniques of moirallegiance with the more...carnal aspects of matespritship feels almost natural.

It helps that humans tend to blur the line in their interpretation of flushed relationships, anyway. When Kanaya rubs her hand on Rose's shoulder, trying to soothe her own horror as well as Rose's raw hate, Rose leans into it, accepting the soothing pap without comment. "I can never sense her when trying to look ahead, but the absence where she should be is nearly as obvious." Rose's lips twist with disgust. "No matter what path we take, I can tell that she will appear. It would seem that our last confrontation was not enough to persuade her to let this go."

"Would remaining here prevent the encounter?" Kanaya hates to suggest it - the thought of going up against the grimlight Horrorterror alone twinges fear in her heart that she had forgotten she knew how to feel, but she could manage it if it meant sparing Rose more pain.

"No. If anything, she'll only show up at your door again. I doubt your neighbors would welcome a second shouting match." Rose sighs, and Kanaya smooths a claw over the woman's shoulder, digging into a knot of muscle there until Rose relaxes more. "Let her come. I refuse to let her dictate my movements. And she will not interfere in such important matters as these."

"If she tries, she will have me to deal with, anyway," Kanaya points out. "I have had quite enough of the way she inflicts herself upon you. My patience is not without end."

"Mmmm. My hero." Rose rolls her head back to look at Kanaya, smiling crookedly. Her lips are now...alarmingly close.

Kanaya quirks an eyebrow, letting her eyes wander where they may. "Of course," she replies. "And now -"

"I think," Rose says, drawing out her phone, "that I need to inform John of what exactly is going on. He's in Seattle, after all - I can't imagine he's unaware of what's going on so near to his territory. I think we'll need his help for this." She slips out of Kanaya's arms as quick as anything, sailing away from the counter with a flick of her bob of hair.

Seer. Tease. Kanaya sees no difference here. The two words are, essentially, synonyms in the English language. This is an irrefutable linguistic fact.

"I am not opposed to further assistance. But why?" Kanaya asks.

Rose just smiles, mysteriously. "Because he and I are stronger together than we are apart. I intend to capitalize on that, whether I understand it fully or not," she says, as cryptic as Kanaya has ever seen her, and then she strides away, tapping away on the phone more rapidly than Kanaya can ever imagine typing.

Kanaya shakes her head. Rose may deny it all she likes, but she has a flare for the melodramatic that cannot be denied. Rinsing out her mug in the sink, Kanaya runs a claw one last time to touch the lipstick container on her leg, and goes to fetch the Seer costume from the changing area. If they are to tour the country this next week, she will have to perform a rush job on the final details. It would never do to have Rose running about with her costume still a rough draft.

First stop, Chicago. And then, Los Angeles. Whatever may remain of the City of Angels beneath that all-consuming dome, Kanaya cannot sit back and watch another Staraya Ukraine overwhelm the earth and sea of Los Angeles.

Not again.

-

Kanaya remembers -

She wakes up to the grit of sand beneath her back, the sharp, pungent scent of flesh and cloth burning in the night air. When she sits up, gasping and breathless with the pain, she feels the humid air on the exposed, raw skin of her back. Everything seems blurred and indistinct, and she cannot recall how she came to fall on the ground. It is a lesson everyone in the unit quickly learned - do not fall. The ground itself may once have been forest loam, but the white pools of poison that ooze everywhere in this hellish swamp have soaked the earth and turned everything to a slop of sand and acid.

Tears stream from her eyes as Kanaya presses the palm of her heel to her face, trying not to let the pain overwhelm her. Almost as though her silent chant has physical force, the pain that burns up and down her exposed spine, where the acid ate through the material of her uniform, seems to ease off and fade into a dull throb. It is infinitely more manageable, and she does not question it.

(Later, when she reaches the safety of the barracks and sees the scarless, perfectly healed plane of her dead-white back, she realizes that her healing factor has been invigorated by whatever triggered her vampirization, and that even as she lay there, dead and then risen again, on the sand, her new metabolism had been busily counteracting the acid before it could eat through to her internal organs.

That is when she stops seeing her transformation as a curse, and accepts it as the strange biological blessing that it is.)

"Corporal? Corporal Bennett?" she coughs hoarsely, her throat dry as a bone and twice as rough. Her tongue feels utterly parched. When the corporal fails to respond, she glances around uneasily while rising to her feet. Her boots have not yet burned through, so she cannot have been unconscious too long, but when she looks around no one from the unit is in sight. Instinct has her lipstick in hand, even as her horns begin to prickle with apprehension. It is not normal for a unit to just leave, and it would have been the work of moments to check Kanaya for a pulse, regardless of whatever had left her unconscious by the side of the path.

As inadvisable as the act would normally be, in a land where the drooping forests conceal such twisted, swift-striking monstrosities, Kanaya cannot help calling for the others. "Abascal? Şahin? Kurnia?" She waits, whole body wired with tension, trembling on her toes within her boots. Never fall down, and always be ready to run like hell itself is bearing down upon you.

She receives no reply.

Her stomach drops out, and she spins in a circle, the receding pain in her back fully forgotten. "Corporal! Anyone?" Her claw drops to her belt, to where the walkie-talkie hooks onto her belt. The communications devices had gone haywire within hours of entering the grimlight zone (they have yet to name it the Staraya Ukraine), but perhaps, just this once, she will be lucky enough that the strange interference breaking up the signal will lessen -

Her claw pauses inches from the walkie-talkie.

She looks down.

She sees the four-inch wide hole in her stomach, a ragged tear through the front of her uniform and out through the back, passing just to the left of her spine.

"Oh," she says. "Oh."

Well.

No wonder the unit had left her.

"How on earth am I standing?" she asks, after a long moment of waiting patiently for her body to remember it should be quite dead. No one is there to answer the question.

(No one ever does. Though her symptoms match those of a rainbow-drinker, it is not as though that is a legitimate medical condition or anything. They are supposed to be fictional.)

As she watches, the jade green of her blood, darkened slightly by contact with the air, drips down the ragged front of her uniform jacket and pants. It should be bleeding far more than this; Kanaya is a professional Medicull, both soldier and field-doctor, and such a gaping hole should have spilled blood and intestines everywhere. Her skin - all of it, from the broken flesh around the wound to the claws that hesitate over the bloody opening - is pale, paler almost than the sickening pallor of the ground below.

With that thought, she looks down at the ground behind her, where she rose up seemingly from the dead. She only sighs, though, seeing the grimlight pool of white acid that lies off the edge of the path. She can discern a faint, familiar green tint at the very rim of the puddle, but no more; the rivers and pools in this damned forest suck in blood like a sponge, the same way they do bodies.

Regardless. Why isn't she dead? She certainly feels quite alive, and when she presses a claw to her chest, above the gaping hole, she feels a steady heartbeat from her bloodpusher. So that is still functional, at least.

Curiouser and curiouser.

She does not know what she notices first, whether it is her unfamiliar new sensitivity to blood or her old battle-honed instinct. All she knows, when she jerks her head up, heart thumping in panic, is that there is an abomination creeping out from between the trees. It appears splintered at first, and she can barely distinguish between the weeping, cracked tree branches and the thing's long, spindly limbs. Then it steps out, jaws chittering and creaking as it champs at the air, watching her with staring, dead eyes. This one has been more transformed than most; both arms have migrated to the left shoulder, the bones fused together in a long pike that ends with a sharp splinter of bone, like a scythe - she thinks it may have once been shoulder blades and ribs. Both legs have thinned into mere strips of muscle and bone, and each foot has been warped into a clawed paw, with an extra-large, serrated bone tipping each claw. Yes, it may have once been human, but no more.

For a moment her brain shudders, rejecting the possibility of such a warped, perverse creature with all the rationality left to her. But one gets over such things quickly in a war of attrition against an endless tide of mutations. Her shouts no doubt attracted it, and she grips the lipstick specibus in her hand, settling back into a fighting stance. She feels no pain at all from the hole in her belly, or the acid burns on her back, and so she discards them. If they do not impede her ability to fight, then she cannot afford to worry about them, no matter how inexplicable her continued existence may be.

The thing throws its head back and screeches at the air. Then it lunges for her, all lean muscle and unnatural speed.

With a twist and a hoarse shout of her own, Kanaya releases her strife specibus. The lipstick swaps out for a chainsaw, the gears and motor snapping into position with a growl. Ease of old practice, unaffected by her temporary spurt of death, brings her hand to the chain and she revs the engine. She ducks under the swinging scythe arm and brings the chainsaw up, letting the creature run itself into her. The chainsaw cuts into the monster's side, carving through ribs and tough flesh drained of all but the last trickle of blood, and the mutation screams again, kicking back with the sharp claws of one foot.

Kanaya can't move in time, so she rolls with the kick, breathing out hard so the air isn't forced from her lungs while she flies back. She crashes against a tree, reminded of her uncovered back when the oozing bark scrapes at her, but keeps her eyes fixed on the grimlight monster while she lets the tree take some of her weight. She watches its face, trying to judge how it will strike next -

Then, and only then, does she realize. It makes her pause, a new horror gnawing through her fighting instincts to paralyze her, because she recognizes that face.

Corporal Bennett rips his own twisted, gnarled jaw apart with a splatter of brackish-blood, and swings the single bludgeon of his melted arms at her, the scythe of bleached-white bone aimed to cleave through her side.

Oh, gods. Kanaya brings her chainsawkind up on pure reflex, because her mind is so far gone by now, so lost because Corporal Bennett. The thing that used to be the corporal merely adjusts its own swing, teeth bared to tear at her face if the scythe doesn't meet its mark.

Then the anger hits. And she shrieks. She lets go of the chainsaw, though she knows she needs both hands to control the swing properly, and seizes the monster's long arm instead, arresting it mid-strike. With strength she did not know she possessed, she clenches down, still shrieking in ragged gasps. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" she pleads, and then, with just one hand, she spins the chainsaw around and brings it down on the joint of the thing's shoulder.

The arm-scythe comes off. Kanaya stares, not quite believing it.

She should not have been able to do that. Not with only one hand.

But there is some strange new balance in her arm, and she marvels as the grimlight monster hops back, whimpering to itself in no language she knows. She feels...tempered. When she hefts the chainsaw again, it feels almost too light when she places both hands on the handle.

Dying, it would seem, does wonders for one's chainsawkind, no matter how pallid it leaves the complexion.

But this is still the corporal, and he still will not stop. Recovering from the shock of losing its primary weapon, the walking corpse lunges again and raises a clawed foot in a sloppy, kicking slice. Sobbing, Kanaya spins around, hair flying in her eyes as she brings the saw down again, taking another limb off at the knee. When Bennett's body collapses forward, its weaponized body unable to balance itself on the spindly leg left to it, she does not fall for the old trick. Many a monster has feigned weakness, and yet torn out throats of those who go too close even after total dismemberment. The chainsaw growls out its harsh battle song as she slices through the last leg. Limbless and yet still desperate to kill, the corporal screeches again, flailing and rocking its torso with snapping teeth.

It is worse than ever before. Kanaya has seen a hundred of her fellow soldiers twisted and deformed like this, but never someone from her unit. This is not just death for Corporal Bennett. It is a humiliation, a desecration of his body and all he used to be, and he just won't stop moving. "Just - stay down, Corporal!" She already knows what needs to be done, however. Her throat screams, and tears blur her eyes, but she raises the chainsaw regardless. "It will be alright, Corporal," she says, her voice a wrenching, ragged sob. "I will make it all stop."

She brings the chainsaw down, and the chain whirs and screams as she holds it down. It is the work of seconds for the weapon to carve through the writhing, limbless abomination's boney skull - Kanaya has a very strong swing. She holds it there until the mutation stops moving, until the dark, stagnant blood stops pooling out beneath the ex-Corporal's head, and only then does she switch the specibus off. She staggers back, gasping and hiccupping in a way she has not since childhood, trying to keep a grip on herself while the grief and panic wash over her like a merciless tide.

She knows, now. She knows exactly what happened to the unit. Bennett was corporal for a reason - the Medicull division follows a hierarchy of fighting strength and experience, and Bennett was the most experienced fighter on the team.

If he has fallen, so have the rest. Whatever had stabbed Kanaya and then, for whatever reason, spared her to rise again, it had assimilated the rest without issue, without mercy, without restraint.

Kanaya sobs again, and it takes a moment for her to register that what she feels is not despair. She sobs one last time, and then she recognizes the bleak emotion in her chest for what it is.

Fury.

She looks out into the pale, dying forest, eyes scanning the endless rows of concealing, lustrous white pools.

She looks down at Bennett's dismembered, smashed in corpse, and sees again, clearly what kind of an abomination this place is. This entire forest, its rivers and lakes and ponds, takes bodies and mangles them, puppets them, and tosses them aside.

And she...cannot condone it.

Resting her hand on her chainsaw, she twists it back into a lipstick container, and, without hesitation, steps off the path. Her boots hiss and burn in the sharp acid that collects in the ditch, but she thinks, from the lack of pain from her back and stomach, that such little things as injury mean little to her now. She may have a pulse, and a mind, but she's already died once today, and the threat of another death no longer seems like such a compelling reason to return to base.

She is going to find her unit, and save them from such similar defilement. She does not know if their minds remain to them after their bodies are so mutated and pressganged into horrific service, but if they do, she will set them free.

And she is going to find the thing that caused this, and tear it apart.

Chapter Text

Terezi Pyrope was born blind. However, as she prowls down the corridor of the Chicago Legislacerative Task Force building, she walks with easy familiarity, despite having left her cane at home. No one here can ever know she is blind, that she religiously wears the red-tinted sunglasses of a neophyte legislacerator not out of a fierce devotion to her calling – though that is certainly a strong factor – but because her blindness, combined the color of her blood and her judicial leanings, would be more than enough evidence for someone to realize that Neophyte Pyrope, loyal agent-in-training of the Bureau, in fact moonlights as the vigilante Blind Justice.

This would obviously put a crimp in her style.

Nodding in response to the greeting of a colleague, Terezi sails the rest of the way to her cubicle, ducking and weaving between the morning bustle of bodies with ease. The same applied synesthesia her lusus has trained her in using all her life enables her to hide the fact that she senses the world primarily through smells and tastes. Having never known sight, she can’t say she’s really missing out on anything: the world is such a beautiful bouquet of scent even on its gloomiest days, and if she’d never been forced to learn synesthesia, she would never have known how delicious the blue cotton candy sky tastes!

She reaches her shared cubicle and prods her partner in the back with a well groomed claw, baring her teeth in a wide grin at the pearly grey, early morning grumpiness clouding Neophyte Starling’s pale face. “Good morning, my peachy partner,” Terezi cackles, gripping the back of her chair firmly before attempting to sit down, as nonchalant as you please. She’s been at this charade long enough to have mastered the little tricks for masking her shaky depth perception.

“Morning, Pyrope,” Starling says in return, stolid and drab as always. And Terezi does get it – Clarice Starling is the first human to ever join the Bureau of Legislaceration, and she takes a lot of shit not just from fellow neophytes but from instructors and Lacerators themselves for her status. She just doesn’t understand why Starling feels the need to close herself off so much because of the scrutiny; it’s not like Terezi will bite her partner’s head off for wearing a nice bright red blouse or something instead of all these dismal grey monotones! Just lick her a little, maybe, to get a better look at it. As long as Starling can handle herself and doesn’t hold Terezi back, she can be as human as she wants to be.

“Any exciting news from last night?” Terezi asks, booting up her computer and fighting the instinct to lick the screen to clear up the details of the login screen. She does that on her home laptop all the time but it would be downright inappropriate in the workplace!

Of course, she already knows what happened last night that might have caught the Bureau’s attention. But she needs to hear the news from someone else at work so that she has a legitimate reason to know about Blind Justice’s movements, one that isn’t ‘I am the masked vigilante. It is me.”

As usual, Starling’s eyes light up with barely concealed excitement. “Lacerator Crawford said he was going to make an announcement in an hour, once everyone’s arrived. Apparently the Scourge Sisters tore up the financial district pretty bad last night in their latest free-for-all.”

Ex-Scourge Sisters,” Terezi corrects automatically, with too much of an edge in her tone. She’s sharp enough that Starling gives her a quizzical look. Damn. “Even if they were a team once, they’ve been arch-enemies for three years now. Don’t you think we should start treating them as separate cases?”

“I may not be a troll, Pyrope, but I think I can recognize a black courtship when it starts leveling entire city blocks and disturbing the peace,” Starling says icily. “Blind Justice and the Indigo Scourge may be at odds, but the whole thing reeks of rivalry. You called them arch-enemies yourself. But I think they’ll destroy this city before they can see that.”

Terezi’s digestive sac twists at that, reminding her of the strawberries and pancakes she’d consumed earlier, and she has to turn to face her computer screen in case something in her expression reflects the turmoil in her gut. “You see blackrom, I see purely platonic hate,” she says lightly, forcing a cackle. “But you have to admit, the Scourge is the greater threat. She’s gone full villain, here; three-quarters of the damage we see comes from her latest insane new device. Blind Justice at least tries to hunt down petty criminals in her spare time instead of plotting how to plunder the bank.”

“And she should leave that to the actual law enforcement of this city, not take it into her own claws,” Starling says, opening a file folder loud enough that Terezi can hear a page flutter off the desk. “You know that. Her costume alone is an insult to the honor of the Bureau of Legislaceration. She’s mocking us. No, the Scourge might be a straightforward villain, but the so-called Blind Justice is just as much an affront to the law.”

Terezi just smiles, leaning back in her chair to catch the barest whiff of red-hot rage simmering beneath Starling’s grey ice. Mmm. Jalapeños. “No, you’re right,” she assures her partner. “I’m not arguing with you there, Starling, don’t get your adorable human rage globes in a twist. We’ll bring them both to justice someday.”

“I just don’t understand how. How do they do it? How do they always manage to avoid our sting operations?” Starling murmurs, flipping through the files, with the slight muffling of her voice that means she’s gnawing on her lip with the typical frustration engendered in every Legislacerator on the force when Justice and the Scourge are mentioned. “I’m telling you, Pyrope, they must have someone on the inside. They might even be in law enforcement themselves.”

Damn. Terezi’s spine tenses and she feels her claws tighten instinctively as though clutching the cane of her other persona. She has used her connections and place within the Bureau’s training program since she was 15 years old to protect herself from the usual investigative techniques of the law. But no one has ever voiced the potential of the Justice being in law enforcement before – at least, not in front of a mere Neophyte like Terezi.

As though she isn’t already so far ahead of them. As though she hasn’t worked so damn hard over the years to do what the Lacerators themselves could not - to reduce crime in this damn city to the point where potential criminals wet themselves and turn their lives around at the mere mention of Blind Justice. She damn well earned the right to wear the redesigned Legislacerator costume by night, whether any one of these fools recognizes that or not.

All she had seen during her early years in training had been the many ways the Legislacerators fell short, the way their true potential had been crippled by byzantine laws and regulations throughout the centuries. Trainees like Starling who had true potential were treated with condescension over little things like blood color or species until they simply packed up and left, broken. When she had taken up her ex-partner on that offer of heroic partnership all those years ago, she had done so not to dishonor the Bureau, but to reclaim the old tradition of true, unrelenting, unbound justice.

She and Vriska had understood each other perfectly. Until, suddenly, they hadn’t.

“Maybe, maybe not,” she replies once she has herself back under control, yanking open her side drawer and removing a cherry-flavored lollipop from the package lying on top of her old briefcase. The taste of bright red candy instantly brightens her mood. Starling can suspect all she wants; as long as Terezi is her partner, Starling will continue to tell her everything she knows, and Terezi can adjust her actions accordingly. It is how she has operated for all these years, using her intimate knowledge of the people around her to deduce their potential actions and minimize the threat of her exposure.

Crunching down on the lollipop, she tilts her head to grin back at Starling. “Either way, justice will be served, Starling. Don’t you worry. Remember: Balance and Law.”

“Balance and Law and Sharp Claws,” Starling adds, her small, dry smile finally overcoming her grim morning slump. It feels like a pleasant prickle of slate blue that Terezi vastly prefers to the monotone façade. “Now finish up your report on the Wellspont robberies, Pyrope, I won’t catch flak from Crawford just because you like to color code all the different sections.”

“Yes, Lady Legislacerator,” Terezi says, laughing wildly, scraping her claws together and cracking her knuckles.

-

They leave the bullpen before any of the other Neophyte training pairs, Starling as eager as ever to get a front row seat, as though her show of intense attention would balance out her humanity. The human fusses at her hair for a moment before Terezi takes pity on her, helping her tuck her voluminous brown hair into a neat bun. It’s not the action of a troll, whose hair as a species is wiry and rough enough that generally the effort of hair gel and styling is left to the cooler bloods, but it does lend Starling an air of purely human sophistication when they’re through.

Helping her human partner groom is neither a pale nor flushed action, Terezi decides internally. It is merely a human act of friendship. This is a fact that she is stating for the record.

The tired old joke reassures her greatly, just in time for her to flash a wicked, confident grin at the Lacerator standing at the front of the conference room. Starling is more obvious about it, but pretty much every single Neophyte in the force is a giant fan girl for the head of the Chicago Legislaceration office. Lacerator Crawford is an olive-blood with more closed cases to his name than most of the bigwigs over in DC, and Terezi thoroughly respects him for his skillful ability to manipulate those under his command until they are in a position to succeed to their maximum potential, coolly breaking those too fragile to handle the flighty nature of his regard.

Starling worries that he looks at her and sees only a fragile human upstart one wrong move away from being culled from the force and shuffled off into paperwork. But as a manipulator of minds herself, Terezi recognizes the way Crawford drops casual hints about upper-level cases around Starling, and how he has never scrimped on the quality or number of cases he sends to the two of them for investigation compared to other neophyte pairs. Starling may not see it yet, but Crawford definitely notices her potential, and sees no reason to waste it just because colder-blooded trolls might sneer at having a human join the ranks of what has always been a traditionally troll institution.

Terezi is sure he sees her own potential as well. What she doesn’t want him to see is that she has already acted upon it in her own way. So when Starling goes up to salute the Lacerator, Terezi remains in the background, lounging in a chair in the front row but careful to regulate her expression in its usual mask of wicked amusement when Crawford nods at her with probing green eyes that could, if she wasn’t wary, see right through her to the Blind Justice within. It takes a few more minutes for the rest of the trainees to file in, while full-fledged Legislacerators stalk in one by one to hover silently in the corners of the room, their teal-and-red uniforms utterly delectable to the well-trained nose of a connoisseur.

“By now most of you are aware that last night, the Indigo Scourge and Blind Justice fought again in and around LaSalle Street in the Loop,” Crawford begins abruptly, and the last few whispers from the neophytes cut off as the meeting starts in earnest. “The Scourge managed to take out a good chunk of the Federal Reserve Bank with yet another of her explosive devices, and by the time our forces reached the scene Blind Justice had driven the Scourge as far as city hall. Most of the stolen money was returned by Justice, as far as the bank can tell, but both of our resident vigilantes escaped again. When Lacerators Arabella, Leighton, and Johanya pursued, they were only able to track Blind Justice to the edge of the commercial district before she somehow managed to evade them and disappear into the city. The Indigo Scourge vanished into the harbor, as usual.”

Crawford pauses for breath, gesturing at the whiteboard covered in pictures of the destruction and mayhem that had gone down last night. Terezi would be the first to admit that she hadn’t done  her best at trying to contain the Scourge and her rampage’s collateral damage, having been focused more on stopping the Scourge from using her limited mind control to have a vulnerable rust-blood detonate a second bomb in the bank. But as always, in the light of day, the sheer amount of damage her battle with the Scourge had done to the downtown area looked harsher and more real, triggering a curdle of guilt in her stomach.

In the next moment she sets that guilt aside and sits up straighter. Blind Justice had done what was necessary to stop a dangerous criminal from unleashing further chaos upon the city, done what the Legislacerators would have been too late and too tame to prevent. If she hadn’t been there to counter the Scourge, there wouldn’t have been anything left in the bank worth stealing. She had stopped the crime, rescued the rust-blood from the mind control, and driven the Scourge back into hiding to lick at her new wounds. Everything else pales in comparison to the duty she has to uphold the standards of true Legislaceration.

And, of course, to try to take down the monster of her own creation, with her own claws.

“The fact is, if this kind of mass destruction keeps escalating, soon there won’t just be structural damage or accidental injuries. These two are going to start getting people killed in the crossfire of their little two-troll war.” Crawford closes his eyes, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “Everyone in this branch has done the absolute utmost they can to catch and stop these two. But we…need help.” He practically spits the last word, and everyone in the room bristles as one. The implication that they are anything but completely capable of handling their own cases rankles them. “That’s why I’ve called in a specialist from retirement. He used to be one of us, so don’t think this case is going to be taken out of our claws. He’s an old friend of mine, and there is no one I think more capable of hunting these two down in their daily lives and stopping this cycle of vengeance.

“Please welcome Profiler William Graham back to the field.”

No way.

"Is that actually him?" Starling whispers, awe in her voice as Terezi fights to keep her composure and fully analyze the scent of the newcomer limping to the front of the room. She smells an old, weary pain, the clinging scent of forest and lake water, and the frayed stripes of a plaid shirt that stands out in stark contrast to the uniform teal-and-red of the force. But it's not until the weary troll turns to face the room that she tastes the electric, sharp lime green of his eyes and realizes that yes, this is in fact the actual Will Graham. The first lime blood born in centuries, the single best Profiler ever to serve in the Bureau of Legislaceration, the troll who had completely vanished from the public eye after his highly publicized capture of notorious cannibal Hannibal Lector nearly ten years ago.

Terezi would be falling to her knees to beg this troll to grant her even a single scrap of his vast reserves of knowledge, if it weren't for the fact that she may well be completely and irrevocably screwed.

She may be able to run circles around Crawford, but Will Graham is a legend for a fucking reason. He had tracked down Hannibal only a few months after being put on the case that had stumped the Bureau for years, and, when almost murdered by the serial killer, had moirailled him so hard that the troll psychiatrist had been unconscious all the way to the hospital for the criminally insane.

His talent stems from a completely different technique from that which manipulators like Crawford and Terezi use - just like the tales of lime bloods of old, Will Graham feels so much empathy, so much pure pity for those around him that he can imagine himself into the mindset of the criminal he chases. When he finally tracks them down, by the time he's through with them, they want to turn themselves in. Unlike most trolls who have only one serendipitous moirail in their lifetime, Will Graham can substitute himself as a palemate for literally any troll he sees.

This is a nightmare. Terezi might well be sitting a mere yard from her doom, and there is nothing she can do.

Gritting her teeth, she turns the action into a wild grin, even as her claws dig into her thighs.

Things just got interesting.

-

Profiler Graham stands in Crawford's shadow after that, without saying a single word of greeting to the force. He is shielded by the Lacerator's implacable wall of bedrock, but that doesn't prevent Terezi from catches whiffs of lime periodically while Crawford details exactly what kind of damage Blind Justice and Indigo Scourge dealt last night. Is it her imagination, or do his lime eyes flicker toward her more than is strictly necessary? Terezi keeps her face as blank as possible after that initial grin, and makes sure her useless eyes appear to be fixed upon Lacerator Crawford. Surely not even Graham can intuit any guilt from that! She's simply paying verrry close attention to the briefing!

She intends to avoid contact with Graham as much as possible. If she doesn't let him within cane-length, surely he can't try to shoosh the truth out of her!

She blames her temporary lack of foresight on the shock of it all. Normally she would have been able to maneuver Starling out of the room before the human could do anything incredibly reckless. Unfortunately, what ensues after the briefing is Crawford's work - it reeks of his manipulation, his uncanny talent for startling even Terezi with his decisions.

"Do you think we'll be able to work with him?" Starling murmurs, her excitement brightening her considerably so that she burns in Terezi's nose. "I mean, obviously he'll be busy working the case, but it's always possible one of our cases could prove relevant. What do you think, Pyrope, could we -"

"Starling. Pyrope. Up here."

Starling clams up and her body language, animated by her earlier intensity, flattens back into two-dimensionality as she tucks all her personality away. How blah! But she always gets this way when she and Terezi are called out by Lacerator Crawford. Wondering what he could want, Terezi rolls her shoulders and shrugs at Starling, grinning toothily as she nudges the human into a stiff walk up to the front of the room. They're going the opposite direction of everyone else, the teal-and-red smears of Lacerators and Neophytes in motion walking toward the door.

Terezi tenses inwardly when she realizes that the pine-and-plaid of Profiler William Graham remained in Crawford's shadow. The last thing she wants to do is go near the guy, but ignoring an order would only be more suspicious! "Yes, sir?" she calls, halting at parade rest before the Lacerator. She breaks that almost immediately to jolt Starling in the side with a pointy elbow, but the silly woman only stiffens further, wound so tightly she feels like a coiled spring at Terezi's side. "Anything you need from the best Neophytes in town?"

"Sir," Starling croaks, elbowing Terezi back in a way she probably thinks is subtle. She hates when Terezi brags in front of Lacerators, even when Terezi is only half-serious.

"Cocky as ever, Pyrope," Crawford sighs, but Terezi can hear the edge of weary amusement he tries to stifle. Ahhh, she and Crawford get each other. He'll just never admit it, because he's as much of a stiff-necked bastard as Starling! "Will, these are Neophyte Clarice Starling and Neophyte Terezi Pyrope. As obnoxious as Pyrope may act, they are, in fact, two of our most promising recruits."

"S-sir, I don't think we're really -" Starling stammers, her hands locked behind her back, but she can't finish contradicting a superior. Terezi just rolls her eyes behind the privacy of her red glasses. Like this is even news to her! They're obviously way ahead of their class; between Terezi's natural instinct for justice and Starling's inquisitive, insightful mind, the other Neophytes can't hope to compete.

"Trying to keep an eye on me, Jack?" Profiler Graham mutters, and oh -

Oh, damn it all to the Blind Prophets.

So, that's what a universal moirail sounds like, Terezi thinks, her mind reeling and dazed. How is Lacerator Crawford even able to focus around this troll?! Maybe she's getting hit over the head with it a little more than the average troll because she relies so much on her other senses to make up for her lack of sight, but he just sounds so soothing. She drops her head and swallows hard, trying to collect herself. Focus, she chides herself forcefully, reaching into her own mind and cranking up the focus until the soothing haze of Graham's presence clears away in the face of her own mental fortitude.

But it's going to be a constant mental effort to prevent herself from letting Graham's calming influence sink into her thoughts like a cool, dense fog. For a moment there, she almost couldn't remember why lying to Graham could possibly be a bad idea - he would never judge her, after all, would never betray her confidence -

She slaps herself mentally. Great, he doesn't even have to say anything. This close up, she's totally exposed to the smell of pine-and-plaid and that's just as soothing as his voice at close range. This troll has made himself into a moirailing machine, dammit!

This is...definitely going to be a challenge.

"No. Just offering you the two best assistants you could ask for while you're working this case," Crawford replies, totally at ease as he turns toward the whiteboard. How is he doing that? Terezi can barely breathe without another piercing ache in her chest that urges her to confess her darkest secrets to the limeblood! "You've been out of the loop, Will. If nothing else, they can fetch you coffee. That wouldn't be a problem, would it, Starling? Pyrope?"

"No, sir!" Starling says immediately, almost breathless with excitement. Damn - Starling is letting herself out of her shell, and Terezi can't even appreciate it properly because the same troll Starling has idolized all through their Neophytehood is the one driving Terezi to distraction.

"Not a problem at all," Terezi agrees, and then she snaps her mouth shut, shifting to a pinched grin. She can't smell Crawford's face well enough to get a look at his expression - she's trying to breathe as little as possible without blinding herself - but hopefully he doesn't notice how reluctant she is to respond to what would be, to any other Neophyte on the force, an enormous honor.

Graham snorts. It sounds like how Terezi imagines shooshpapping must feel. Focus! "Fine. You can keep your two minions tailing me, Jack. But if they interrupt my work, I want them gone. I need to be able to concentrate if you want me to do what you brought me here to do."

"It won't be a problem. Starling is human, and Pyrope here - well, I trust her to control herself." Crawford angles back toward them. "Pyrope, let me be very clear: bother Graham with pale advances of any kind, and you'll both be back in the bullpen before you can say 'moirallegiance.' Profiler Graham is uninterested in distractions."

Crawford's stare has enough force that Terezi can feel it, and of course Starling is clearly glaring daggers at her, even with the shallow breaths she's taking. "You got it, Lacerator!" she says, saluting. When Crawford looks away, she sags, still determinedly not looking in the Profiler's direction.

She just agreed to work as an assistant under the one troll in the city who might be able to out both Blind Justice and the Indigo Scourge.

She needs help.

-

Terezi does not return to her apartment at the end of the day. She and Starling spent the entire afternoon chasing down obscure files for Profiler Graham in the records room, and of course reading had been involved. As such, Terezi has a piercing headache, the inevitable result of sniffing fine print and chicken scratch handwritten forms without the clarity licking the paper would have provided. It's rather like asking a near-sighted human to read 5 point font without corrective lenses - that is to say, painful and ineffective. But she had faked it well enough that Starling had been fooled, and now Terezi has perfectly legal copies of the files she was assigned in her briefcase, to savor and study later so she can memorize the information and present it to William Graham tomorrow. She has no idea how she's going to manage that without babbling all her secrets in a rush midway through the report, but she has to do it somehow, or risk both her heroic and Laceration career coming to an abrupt, screeching end.

But before she can return home and do that, however, she intends to pay a visit to her lusus. Now of all times, Terezi needs the guidance. Ducking into a shadowed space between one building and the next, she strips off the more obvious elements of her Neophyte uniform and proceeds to her preferred sewer entrance, the one behind the art store where she purchases her best chalk on the weekend. She lifts up the sewer cover, lowers herself down, and hoists the round plate back over the round entrance, cutting off her last dull grey whiff of the cloudy sky and enclosing herself in the dark, sickly-sweet smells of the pipes.

Yes, the scents in the sewer are strong, but Terezi has never quite seen why humans and trolls seem to find them so putrid! It is simply another spectrum of the endless bouquet available for her scenting pleasure. But it's to her advantage, at least - only city workers bother to venture down here, and so no one can accidentally stumble upon the damaged pipeline that provides Terezi with a convenient entrance to the cave that appears on no map of the city. She heaves open the valve, which has been unlocked against regulation for as long as Terezi has lived in Chicago, and slips into the dark of what used to be a secondary service tunnel.

Strangely, this tunnel no longer appears on city plans - at least, not for people who use their eyes to see. Terezi has access to most of the city's oldest utilities system maps, and when she scents the page the service tunnel is quite obvious. However, she had tested it one time by presenting the map to Starling, who had given Terezi a strange look that tasted of kiwis and asked what service tunnel Terezi was pointing at.

The secret is, of course, that the lusus who resides within the cavern is a master of mental manipulation and sensory distortion; she defends her territory the only way she can, by automatically blurring the eyes of any who look upon the map or the broken sewer valve, and turns them away. Terezi knows all this from personal experience; Dragonmom taught Terezi everything she knows!

Oh, yes. All the fools at the wriggling center had assumed no lusus wished to care for a blind troll - lusii tend to avoid the sickly and the weak - and Terezi had been adopted out to a human couple who for whatever reason wanted all the health hazards and pitfalls of raising a pre-pupation wriggler with a penchant for sentencing her scalemates to imaginary rounds of courtroom dramas using historically accurate punishments pulled straight from brutal Alternian Empire law records.

She still visits them on holidays, of course. But it had been hard to grow attached to them as parents when she always, always had Dragonmom crooning to her, a mental bond that linked them across the continent until Terezi was old enough to strike out on her own and retrieve the egg of her true, unhatched lusus. It had been fantastic quest! And when Terezi located Dragonmom, using the synesthesia she had been taught over the mental link, she had settled down in the city above the lusus's sacred cavern, and applied to the Legislaceration division office as a Neophyte.

Dragonmom is not quite yet ready to hatch, of course. But Terezi is certain it will be soon! Dragonmom has assured her the day is rapidly approaching!

One claw on the damp, dripping wall of the untended service tunnel, Terezi hums to herself as the scent of the sewer fades and her nose fills with impressions of cool stone and loamy fungi. The faint plink of water dripping from the ceiling echoes off the smooth walls, right up until the walls give way to the cavern beyond. Terezi doesn't know who extended the service tunnel so it connected to the rough, naturally-created cave that contains Dragonmom's egg. Dragonmom has confessed she has no idea how it came to pass, and that she has never sensed anyone in all of her long years of waiting for Terezi who would have the tools and equipment to burrow through the stone to connect the two.

But it sure is convenient! Terezi can let one mystery slide - for now.

The ground transitions from the smooth floor of the tunnel to the bumpy, hollowed dips and pools of the cavern proper, and the wall runs out. Terezi steps forward confidently with a deep inhale of breath, and scents the smooth, wide oval of the egg at the center of the room. It smells teal blue, of course - just like Terezi! As she approaches, leaping over several wide pitfalls eroded into the ground by the constant drip of water from above, the giant set of scales comes into focus as well. They smell like black pepper and fire, with the smooth planes and sharp fractures of black volcanic glass. Dragonmom's egg balances one half of the scales, but neither she nor Terezi knows how to describe what rests upon the other scale, a strange shape of shifting colors. It is an investigation that used to occupy much of Terezi's spare time, but she's slacked off about it in recent years, since her break with Vriska.

Mom, I need your help, Terezi says. She sits cross-legged on an outcropping of rock that peaks just before the right side of the scales, tilting her nose up toward Dragonmom's egg with her briefcase situated on her lap where it won't tip over into a puddle of water. She never goes any closer to the scales; Dragonmom has warned her against it. Anything that could potentially shift the balance of the scales is a big no-no! Absolutely forbidden! Neither of them have any idea what would happen if the scales ever went out of alignment, but Dragonmom can sense that the results would be...catastrophic.

It's one reason Terezi never shared this place with Vriska, even in the summer of their sisterhood. Vriska has always had that tendency towards chaos, an irrepressible curiosity combined with a verve for casual destruction. If there is a big cherry-red button labeled 'no,' she pushes it; hand her a priceless vase and she will smash it, just to see what will happen.

Sometimes, Terezi thinks it isn't that Vriska is a bad person - she just has no self-control. She has to do things, and then has the audacity to claim she didn't mean it. It's maddening.

Dragonmom's voice stirs in her mind, as chipper as ever. Terezi! You came to visit me! What do you need help with?

Talking with Dragonmom feels like coming home. Terezi sighs and relaxes a little, losing some of the tension she's felt since William Graham walked into the room and upset the balance of the precinct. I need you to help me predict what to do next, she admits. I need to see farther ahead than just a few weeks. There is a new troll in town, and he could ruin everything if I don't plan this properly.

Dragonmom's words are a sparkling rainbow to Terezi's sentence. Of course I'll help, Terezi! I am always here to guide you if you need help! Are you ready?

Terezi nods assent, and lets Dragonmom plunge fully into her mind. Mentally, she clings to the stream of rainbows and light that represents the lusus's mind as it delves into her own. Terezi sees her mind as a network of sparking bluish-green neurons, linked by axons that intertwine and branch outward into a million potential paths and outcomes. All are related to key people in her life and the life choices any of them could make, a mental recreation of Terezi's life and all the paths it could take, depending on those choices. No one exists in a vacuum, after all; Terezi's choices must always take the actions and reactions of those around her into consideration, or she could ruin everything!

These, she says to Dragonmom when they reach the newest growth of neurons. She also gestures to the gnarled, twisted thicket that stands in for Vriska's life of collectively awful life choices, and adds, and that one, too.

Dragonmom huffs reprovingly. I really think you should just let that one go, she advises. But Terezi has never taken that advice before. It's one of the few things she and Dragonmom simply butt heads about; Dragonmom believes Vriska should be left to her own devices, to burn herself out like a dying sun, while Terezi knows she has to be the one to deal with the monster she let Vriska become. The Indigo Scourge has only grown as violent and bold as she has because Terezi failed, and too many people would be hurt if she is allowed to run amok - it's that simple.

Include her.

Alright, alright. While Dragonmom gathers together the relevant neurons, those related to Crawford and Starling and Graham and Vriska, all into one place, Terezi floats backward to gain perspective. There is a certain mindset she has found that lets her predict how the minds of others come together and produce consequences in the real world; Dragonmom's help only allows her to perceive more options.

Terezi snaps a claw, and the neurons spin into motion. Previously unconnected dendrites link to tendrils from the other neurons, linking Crawford's choices to Starling's to Graham's to Vriska's, and finally, while Dragonmom whirls about them and coats the axons with silver, Terezi twists them all together and watches how the neurons overlap and merge. She waves aside the more unlikely paths, the ones that are faint and murky, and will never come to pass without some extremely out of character actions on the part of one or more of her problematic targets.

By the time she has finished mentally sorting through them all, three major choices are available to Terezi. The other potential actions she could take would be either unpalatable or would go against her code of honor, and that wouldn't do at all! So these are the three she can stomach, and which might lead to the best outcomes. She peers forward and scans each of the threefold paths to their hypothetical conclusions, Dragonmom's quicksilver mind lighting the way.

Option the first: Blind Justice can resign. Retire her cane. Become simply Terezi Pyrope, and bend her neck in exchange for a life of meting out slow, ineffectual justice at Starling's side.

This is immediately discarded as unacceptable. She took an oath long ago - to faithfully discharge the duties of a Legislacerator and a counselor at law, to the best of her abilities. And as controversial as it is, Blind Justice is the best way Terezi has found to uphold the spirit of her oath. Everyone else on the force simply needs to catch up with her unassailable logic!

It would be the quickest and surest way to ensure her personal security, though. After all, Profiler Graham has no reason to remain on Blind Justice's case if Blind Justice ceases to exist.

But no. Terezi simply can't accept that as an option. Dragonmom grumbles at her, but darkens the path so Terezi can focus on others. 

Option the second: continue on as she always has, a path that has always seemed perfectly acceptable, until now. Terezi has the utmost confidence in her ability to one day subdue Vriska and bring her to the justice she so rightfully deserves. However, with the arrival of Will Graham and his disturbing ability to lower Terezi's guard, she must accept that this stalemate between her and the Indigo Scourge has to end, one way or another. If Indigo Scourge's mayhem and destruction end, Blind Justice can go back to simply being a common vigilante, one who isn't viewed as more than a casual annoyance by the regular police force rather than a potential terrorist. The Legislacerators will never like her, of course, but after a few months of peace, they would have to drop the case. It is the conflict with Indigo Scourge that brought Will Graham here, and nothing else.

And so, option the third: end this charade with the Indigo Scourge, once and for all. No more mercy in battle; no more holding back.

One of the reason's Vriska section in her mind has grown so thorny is because Terezi knows - has always known - that she could have defeated the Scourge long ago. She's not as strong as Vriska, but she is smarter, with more ability to plan and think ahead. If Blind Justice had just -

No, as much as she hates to admit it, Terezi has failed to carry out justice, out of some misguided remnants of affection for her old Scourge Sister.

The time has come, it would seem, for her to set aside that affection. It is stupid, anyway! She is Blind Justice – objective and unswayed by such petty emotions in her quest to uphold the law!

One way or another, she and Vriska will settle this.

Tonight.

Dragonmom just sighs and unwinds herself from the neurons when Terezi releases her perception of all those minds, drawing back into her unhatched body. I hope you know what you are doing, my child, she says, her mental presence fading as Terezi stands up, stretching legs that have fallen asleep in the short period of time spent sifting through her futures.

Always, Terezi says, smirking, and she wishes Dragonmom farewell before turning to clamber back up to the surface.

She has some reading to do, and then - then, she has a Scourge to hunt.

-

Terezi is already mostly in uniform by the time she remembers there is one other person whose advice she might as well seek. The Malachite Sylph's ashen overtures have always come across a little strong, but hey, Terezi can see how a third opinion might help, here! The testimony of an expert witness, let us say, before the jury reaches its final verdict.

(Of course, in Imperial Alternia, all those thousands of years ago, the jury meant nothing. The word of His Honorable Tyranny was absolute. But Terezi has of course updated that view of justice, seeing as the tradition of Tyranny ended with the Empire itself. Now there is simply Blind Justice, judge, jury, and prosecutor.)

She finishes buttoning up the black buttons that line her tightly fitted red jacket, and adjusts the cravat around her neck. It resembles a blood-stained noose, the old fate of criminal scum in the old Empire; she thinks it adds a nice intimidation factor to her revamped Legislacerator costume. After that, Terezi takes out her phone, licks the screen so it's thoroughly coated with saliva, and opens Pesterchum. She still has no idea who gave the Sylph her chumhandle, because someone has to have been the culprit - the Sylph is too technologically illiterate to have ever hacked Terezi's Pesterchum on her own!

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] begun pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 09:42:21 --
GC: H3YYYY
GC: SO 1'M TH1NK1NG OF F1N1SH1NG 1ND1GO SCOURG3 OFF ONC3 4ND FOR 4LL, 1N TRU3 4NC13NT 4LT3RN14N F4SH1ON!
GC: THOUGHTS? >:?
GA: Blind Justice. It Has Been A While.
GA: What Has Brought This On, I Had Thought Your Potential Rivalry With The Scourge Suitably Equalized.
GC: C1RCUMST4NC3S H4V3 CH4NG3D. SCOURG3 1S GO1NG DOWN.
GC: TH1S 1S MOSTLY JUST TO 1NFORM YOU TH4T TH1S 1S H4PP3N1NG. YOUR OP1N1ON C4NNOT ST4ND 1N TH3 W4Y OF TRU3 JUST1C3.
GA: Blind Justice, I Ask That You Listen To Me. We Both Know That If You Confront Scourge It Will Not End Well. Your Black Tendencies Are Simply Dangerous For Both of You. Can You Not Postpone This Until Perhaps Your Caliginous Compatibility Has Declined?
GC: HMMMM. W3LL, 4S 1NTR1GU1NG 4S TH4T SOUNDS, 1'M GO1NG TO H4V3 TO P4SS. NO MOR3 W4ST1NG T1M3 W41T1NG FOR SCOURG3 TO TURN H3R L1F3 4ROUND. 1T'S T1M3 FOR M3 TO D34L W1TH H3R ONC3 4ND FOR 4LL. >:]
GA: I Really Must Ask That You Wait Until I Am Able To Discuss This With You Further. I Am Afraid You Are Making A Hasty Decision.
GA: If We Could Open A Memo With Scourge, Perhaps I Could Assist You Two In Reaching An Equitable Compromise Without Undue Violence. You Are Both Powerful Enough That A Full Blown Black Affair Could Tear Your City Apart.
GC: 4H, TRY1NG TO M3D14TE 4G41N, 1 S33. BUT 1T W1LL NOT WORK, FOR SCOURG3 4ND 1 H4VE 4 R3L4T1ONSH1P TH4T 1S COMPL3T3LY PL4TON1C 4ND NOT 4T 4LL TH3 W4Y YOU 4R3 1MPLY1NG.
GC: 4S FL4TT3R1NG 4S YOUR 4SHEN 4DV4NC3S M4Y B3, 1 4M 4FR41D 1 MUST D3CL1N3!
GC: MY ONLY QU4DR4NT 1S W1TH JUST1C3!!!
GA: Please Reconsider.

GC: MMMM.
GC: N4H! SORRY! 1'M OFF! W1SH M3 LUCK W1TH BR1NG1NG TH1S L4WL3SS RUFF14N TO JUST1C3 4T L4ST! >;]
-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] ceased pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 09:53:11 --
GA: Blind Justice, Please, I Must Ask That You -
GA: You Have Already Ceased Pestering Me, Haven't You.

Smirking, she ties the strip of red cloth over her eyes, and pulls up the teal greed hood, hooking it over her horns. There's no need to fake sight as Blind Justice; she can smell and taste at her leisure, without worrying about maintaining the charade of sight. And her horns are a generic enough shape that she has never bothered to conceal them. Setting the cell phone on her desk, Blind Justice exits her apartment via the window, using her dragon-headed cane to pole vault to the roof opposite. She has a lot of practice with that sort of maneuver.

Once she's on the roof, she knows exactly where to go. She knows Vriska, knows her better than maybe anyone else in the world but Dragonmom.

That knowing inspires nothing but disgust and hatred now, of course. Blind Justice breathes in the night air, and shivers with anticipation. This trial has been a long time coming.

The Scourge has no idea what's coming for her.

Blind Justice is on a pirate hunt, tonight.

Chapter Text

===> Be Vriska Serket

Working the morning shift at a coffee joint sucks ass. Everything smells like delicious, delicious ground beans mixed with the sweaty pits of despair, the air in the front of the shop is hot as balls, and the steam that rises up from each fresh cuppa fogs up Vriska's glasses like a son of a bitch her half-blind while she mans the register. Vriska surveys the ungodly crowd of trolls and humans, desperate businessmen and the usual hipster crowd mingling in an uneasy truce for the sake of that first shot of caffeine, and grimaces. She's been told off five times in the past month for that - some stupid shit about not sneering at the customers while working the register, but fuck that. God, they're like herdbeasts rushing to the slaughter, she thinks, plucking a fiver from the shaky fingers of the latest supplicant, tapping the side of the register eight times before ringing the order up. "Café au l8!" she announces, passing off the mug to Myra. "Next!"

The girl working the first set of percolators sniffs, her smug lips twisting down. "It's café au lait," Myra says, dropping the 't' at the end and earning the title of 'huge bitch of the day' for her efforts. Well, just goes to show how much she knows! My god, it's like the friggin' queen of coffee just descended from on high to impart this wisdom in person! Vriska rolls her eyes so hard. So. Hard. How do people like this even get hired if they can't get with the program!

But apparently, telling one's darling coworkers exactly how far up their nooks they can shove their attitude is a firing offence, so she swallows the automatic response. Even if Myra feels like wasting time like the chatty bitch she is, Vriska has a line of thirsty petitioners craving their fix. And she is a magnanimous host, so she's going to enable them like the altruistic, thoughtful caffeine-dealer she is. "Welcome to Café Cappuccinoir, what'll it be?" she asks, her voice a little chiller than it probably should be. She shoves her thick-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose and arches an eyebrow at the greenblood across the register. If even one of these customers tries to give her lip, she's gonna tear them a new one.

"Green tea latte," he says, surprisingly calm in the face of Vriska's impeccable bitch-face. "And love the tattoo, by the way," the troll adds, winking a brilliant emerald green eye as he tilts a chin toward her arm.

Vriska melts a little. How can she resist such charm! Such good taste! Anyone who appreciates her tats rises automatically up the echeladder from the level of mere coffee-suckler to valued customer. It draws a genuine grin out of Vriska, wiping Myra's snooty attitude from her mind, and she lets the smile split her face as she twists her arm to show off the rest of the pale white spider web that wraps all the way up from her claws to her shoulder, stark against the grey of her skin. "Seamless," she brags, splaying the claws of her other hand for emphasis. "Go on, tell me if you can see where he started. I dare you!"

"I believe you!" the troll laughs, holding out a crumpled five dollar bill that Vriska snaps up with a flourish of her claws. She still has to tap the register eight times before she can bring herself to open the till, but she manages to pass it off with her usual rapid tap. "The eye is incredible work, too."

"Pah, that old thing?" Vriska winks so that the black, sketchy sun inked around her left eye falls into place. "That's some tribal bullshit. I've grown since then. You should see what I've got elsewhere!"

"Vriska," Myra hisses, reaching out and shifting her hand at the last moment to grab the cup out of Vriska's claws rather than smack her on the arm, like Myra's clearly itching to do. Good thing, too; the last time someone tapped Vriska on the shoulder, she broke their wrist and plead self-defense. Old habits die hard! It would be a shame if Myra assaulted her like that and got her butt kicked in return...

"Sorry, I'm holding up the line, aren't I?" The greenblood laughs, a note of self-deprecation in his tone that makes Vriska's hand itch to slap him. Such a cool dude needs to have more conviction! She cannot abide people with low self-esteem - it makes her want to whip them into shape! "You'll have to show me some other time."

She tosses her hair, wishing it weren't in the shaggy pony tail the bossman made her tie it up into for working behind the counter. Bluh! She makes do with the messy bangs that still frame her face. "Maybe, maybe, maybe," she singsongs, passing back his change with a grin. "Green tea latte. Better hurry it up, Myyyyyyyyra!"

As he turns to shuffle to the end of the counter, his shoulders awkwardly hunched beneath his plaid jacket, Vriska catches his eye one last time, and frowns when she sees - something. Her eyes are fantastic, of course, so she would swear up and down that the troll is wearing contact lenses. Weird. Vriska's own single contact lens itches in response behind her glasses and she blinks irritably until the sensation dies away. As totally badass as her vision eightfold is come night time, it's also a rare, easily identifiable mutation, so she can't go around with her eight pupils plain for just anyone to stare at.

She wonders if the greenblood just needs them for vision correction, or if he's actually a mucky goldblood or something like that. The dark greenish tint to his hair had looked genuine, and there'd been none of that gross stain effect around the base of his shell-shaped horns of the kind that always gives away a piss-poor dye job when a lowblood tries to fake his blood type. Shrugging, Vriska puts the greenblood out of mind and starts dealing with the hipster chick who approaches the register next, rolling her eyes at the laundry list of syrups and extra flavoring the girl rattles off.

Incidents like that always remind her that it could be worse. The asshats over at the Starbucks closer to the waterfront had taken one look at her web sleeve and the 'FUCK THAT' inked in white across her knuckles and shown her the door. They might have just spontaneously combusted if they got peek at the enormous, intricate white-ink octopus that swarms up her torso and tangles across her collarbones, or the scorpion with the Scorpio zodiac symbol along its carapace at the base of her spine. Heck, she should have stripped off and flashed them just for kicks! Discriminatory dicks - as if Vriska actually wanted to work at a dinky little carbon copy place like that, anyway! She'd just been applying at any place that would take her those days, seeing as she'd been in a liiiiiiiittle bit of a sucky place financially. Now that she's got, you know, a steady paycheck, she can afford to be a little more choosy about which irons she keeps in the fire. So choosy. She has standards!

Anyway, that Starbucks had mysteriously burned down in the middle of the night a couple of months later. No one works there anymore.

What a freaky coincidence!

:::;)

-

After emerging from Cappuccinoir reeking of chai, her favorite dark blue tank top splattered with coffee after discovering that Myra 'accidentally' appropriated Vriska's personal apron when they switched off on the register, Vriska walks to the waterfront from Logan Square. She tugs at her shirt every so often, silently vowing revenge on Myra. Vriska can't stand people who get all uppity and bitchy like that, and she's put up with little miss café au fucking layyyyyyyy for nearly a week now. Her patience is officially at an end, and she wonders how Myra would like it if she came into work and discovered someone had stuffed her precious apron in the percolator. Time for Myra to learn to take a fucking joke!

Thoughts of sweet, sweet vengeance dancing in her mind's eyes, Vriska smiles dreamily to herself as she stuffs her hands into the pockets of her long grey jacket and kicks a dented, empty pop can along in front of her as she crosses under the Interstate 90. She kicks it a round total of 6,400 times as she angles northward toward Belmont Harbor, counting silently to herself as she paces alongside the water to finish out the eight-count. It clatters and echoes in the still air, and Vriska starts to shiver as the evening cools around her. It always gets colder more quickly near the water; she bares her teeth in a suitably threatening snarl at the few dog-walkers who look at her sideways, and chafes at her arms until the twitches of her skin die down. Humans get those freaky goosebump things because they're weird mammal creatures; trolls just shiver like any sensible species. By the time she finishes kicking the pop can, though, the sky is darkening fast, and her decision earlier to skip out on a thicker jacket seems stupid. So stupid. Ugh! Why does she never think these things through! Wrapping the jacket around herself tighter, Vriska grits her teeth and kicks the can so hard it ricochets off a tree and into the harbor water, narrowly missing a docked boat.

Compulsion is a terrible thing.

Careful to avoid kicking anything else, knowing she might not be able to resist the urge to pick up the pattern again, Vriska hurries around the curve of the dinky little harbor and into the park to the north. There's a baseball park just through the trees, but it's way too late for anyone to bring their shitty little brats around, so she strolls right up to the false trap door of carefully crafted leaves and grass and branches that conceals the . She lifts the first lid to reveal the passcode entry pad, a precaution against some rando just stumbling over the doorway, and she dials the password in (it's a seeeeeeeecret, obviously!) and heaves up the heavier entry hatch with a grunt. She used to have to walk all the way to a deserted stretch of coast where her lusus had created its own massive exit, the better to venture out on occasion and hunt for prey, but that had been seriously cramping her style! So she'd had this neat trap door installed ages ago for easier access to her badass secret lair, and collapsed the old trap in on itself so no one could wander in that way, either.

It's not like Spidermom is around to use it, anymore.

Lowering herself into the entry hatch, Vriska pounds the down button and fidgets impatiently, bouncing back on her heels sixty four times when she gets a beat going. On the way down she rips off her glasses and pops the contact lens out of her left eye with a satisfied sigh, flicking it onto the ground. She can't reuse them, so what's the point? She can just throw them away anywhere, to the point that the floor of the cave when she steps out of the elevator is crunchy with old, desiccated shells of bygone lenses.

Some would call that unsanitary. Vriska would call it shut the fuck up and eat pavement, you ass. Stripping off her jacket, she pauses at the thermostat to crank up the heat, and then stomps her way to the nest she has carved out for herself by the massive projector screen that covers the northern wall of the immense cave. Just a few feet to the right, and this whole place would have just been another flooded underwater cave, no use to anyone but the fishfaces and their glubby bullshit. As it is, the amount of time and effort she had put into sealing this place in and making it watertight enough for all her electronics had been time well spent! She is quite proud of her lair! She'd like to see anyone else who has pimped out their secret hero cave as well as she has! Sure, it's a little cluttered, with one corner stacked with all of her doomsday devices-in-progress and the assorted other weaponry she has in the works, but she has a sweet little recooperacoon and a sofa in the corner opposite. Her dresser is overflowing with discarded clothing that strews itself over the floor in various, ever-shifting layers of washed and unwashed civilian clothing, a kind of makeshift rug that she tromps over to toss her jacket on top of, but there's nothing she can do about that right now, not when she has so many irons to attend to! She removes her tank top as well and sniffs at the stains, irritation flaring up again, before she dumps it on the 'urgent' corner of the living area for immediate cleaning.

And by immediate, she means sometime in the next few weeks. Laundry is a hassle since she never bothered to drag a laundry machine down into the lair before collapsing the tunnel, and nothing really fits through the elevator without extreeeeeeeeme maneuvering. Her struggle is real, it really is. Maybe some people can afford to shell out for a nice apartment, but Vriska's been living out of her hero lair for years, and she likes it just fine! Mostly. Usually.

Getting the electricity and Internet company to connect to an underground cave had been a real bitch, though. She siphons off the marina, usually.

Stretching her claws over her head, arching her back, Vriska waits until her neck pops and then sighs, digging absently through the drawer until she finds a sweater that hasn't been worn in...a while. It hits her at her hips, and the sleeves drag a couple inches over her hands, but she darkly chuckles in victory as the warmth wraps around her like a fucking blanket. Perfect. Simply glorious. Yet another successful life choice. She doesn't see the point of changing into hero clothes yet; she's got at least another hour before tonight's target with be in position.

And she still has to check in on another of her irons!

Grinning widely, Vriska kicks back in her spinny chair and whoops, the sound echoing hollowly in the space above. As she rolls up to the giant computer screen, rolling her shoulders, she remembers a time when the cave would once have rumbled with the clicks and grunts of a super-massive lusus, a pale behemoth sated only by the flesh of the people above.

She remembers the splortch all the blood had made, pouring out across the stone floor after Vriska cut that ever-voracious, swallowing throat.

She growls and shoves the memory out of her mind. She doesn't like remembering Spidermom. More like Spider8itch, seriously! Good riddance! More than a little pissed now, Vriska starts typing. She closes out of an online shopping window and the pizza delivery site for Dominos (she still has the leftovers lying around here...somewhere) and loads Pesterchum so she can get down to some serious business!

-- arachnidsGrip [AG] began pestering centaursTesticle [CT] at 07:21:11 --
AG: Heeeeeeeey, Crusher!
AG: Don't ignore me! I can see you're online!
AG: Haven't heard from you in a few weeks. M8king any progress yet?
AG: Come on, I just want to talk! How rude!
AG: ….
AG: ….
AG: Your chumhandle is so gross, you know that?
AG: Like wow how about no.
AG: You could have picked any com8in8tion of adjective and noun and you went with that one?
AG: A+ life choices, 8uddy
CT: D --> Please desist
AG: Gotcha! >::::)

The Cobalt Crusher is pretty easy to manipul8, really. Textbook anxiety and insecurity issues! Guy is a friggin' tank, and he can barely string two words together on a text-based interface!

Also, the weird horse thing. But Vriska only uses that as a last resort, when the Florida hero gets all finicky and boring and not even needling at his many complexes will get him to focus.

AG: 8ut no, really! Where have you and Huntress even 8een?! Haven't heard from you in weeks!
CT: D --> We are in the middle of a hiatus. It is none of your concern
AG: Wow, lame! That explains nothing at all!
CT: D --> I don't need to e%plain myself to you
CT: D --> In addition, you may e%pect no further assistance from my quarter in the future
AG: W8, what?!
AG: Where is this coming from all of a sudden?
CT: D --> This is not sudden - it's the culmination of a s100w and thorough analysis on my part, over the course of the past few months
CT: D --> I have realized that you are
CT: D --> Dangerous
CT: D --> This accord is at an end
AG: ……..You're kidding, right?!
AG: Oh, 8oo fucking hoo! Dang8rous?! So are you! So is every other 8oring ass hero in the world!
AG: I can't 8elieve you're 8ackstabbing me like this, you - you 8ackstabber!

Vriska needs to break something. "Such! A! Jerk!" she yells, kicking down on the leg of her rolling chair twice. Then she has to finish the eight count, and that just infuriates her more because at this rate her stuuuuuuuupid compulsive streak is going to break her favorite chair! It's her only chair, but that's not the point! "Urrrrrrrrgh!" she screams, and the yell echoes in the silence.

AG: Give me a 8r8k!
AG: I g8t shit done, and this is the thanks I g8t!
CT: D --> I don't deny that in a certain context you continue to clean up the criminals who pol100te the streets of Chicago
CT: D --> However, the amount of damage you and Blind Justice cause in the ensuing strife is simply 100dicrous, and I will enable it no longer
AG: Oh, of course it's about HER!
AG: If she would just 8ack off and l8t me work, I wouldn't have to 8low shit up to distract her all the time!
AG: T8ke it out on her!
CT: D --> Both of you are problematic, really
CT: D --> Still. I am uncomfortable supplying you any further
CT: D --> You have assured me that the requested parts were to be used to e%pedite anti-criminal activity
CT: D --> Did you think I wouldn't keep track of goings-on in Chicago after assisting you in constructing a working full-arm gauntlet
AG: Hey, that gauntlet is 8adass, 8tw. Tooooooootes 8adass. I already thanked you, like, eight times! Do I need to do it again?
CT: D --> That would be unnecessary. Further expressions of gratitude will not appease me
CT: D --> They call you a villain in your own right, now, and I will not be seen supplying someone who perpetuates criminal acts
AG: This is such 8ullshit!
AG: I'm sorry, alright! Sorry sorry sorrrrrrrry!
AG: Look at how sorry I am!
CT: D --> Regardless of your dubious sincerity, your e%cuses have little merit with me
AG: What, th8r8's nothing I can do to convinc8 you I m8n it? That's not f8ir!
CT: D --> That depends on whether you can be trusted to keep your word
CT: D --> Which I doubt
CT: D --> Will you focus on criminal enterprises
CT: D --> Or if you will f001ishly persist in e%acerbating your conflict with your cohort
AG: Why is everyone on my case about that huge 8itch today, anyway! Is it National Gang-up on Scourge Day, and I missed the friggin' m8mo?!
CT: D --> Answer the question
CT: D --> Are you even planning to fight crime tonight, or are you going to b100nder in and fight Justice again instead
AG: Hey! I'm a8out to meddle with so many criminals right now!
CT: D --> How many
AG: So many! All the criminals! All of them. So many more than Blind Justice will, ever!
CT: D --> Good
CT: D --> Use your cunning and venom for good and not evil
AG: 8luh! Such a cheesy line! Did you have to practice typing that one in front of a mirror?
CT: D --> Don't be absurd
CT: D --> Just don't forget who built that gauntlet for you
CT: D --> It would be unfortunate if it were to malfunction when you attempt to e%ecute a command with it
AG: You wouldn't d8re!
CT: D --> I would
CT: D --> Rehabilitate yourself or suffer the consequences of your actions
AG: This isn't ov8r!
CT: D --> Do not contact me again
-- centaursTesticle [CT] ceased pestering arachnidsGrip [AG] at 07:50:31 --

God, she wishes he were in range! Vriska slams her fists down on either side of the keyboard eight times and then shoves back from the desk, tearing at her hair as her mind reaches out and finds no other to connect to, no matter how she strains to reach south and east. She has trouble manipul8ting trolls higher up the spectrum than her, but with the irritation she's got boiling in her stomach, she could take down such a weak-minded, insecure little dweeb, easy - if he weren't located halfway across the country! He's just hiding behind the computer screen like the coward he is, and he even hung up before she could get the last word in!

Seriously, of all the times for the creepy horse cuddler to grow a friggin' backbone!

"He wants me to fight crime?" she mutters, pulling her sweater off and stalking towards the standing closet. "Fine! Watch me fight crime, you sanctimonious horse prick!"

-

The warehouse is located in Hyde Park. She's decked out in full costume for the night, the brim of her tricorne adorned with a ridiculously ostentatious plume that pleases her to no end. She'd pulled most of her inspiration from a famous pirate back in the 1800s, right down to the streamlined integration of a Scorpio symbol into the lines of her neoprene suit. She really wishes she could extend a personal 'suck my bulge' to whoever patented Spiderman and totally stole her original idea for a theme, but she toned down the spider influences until all that remained was the pattern on her mask and the tracery on her gloves. But her own friggin' mental issues demand a theme of eights, and so she had grudgingly redesigned the whole thing with help from a certain meddley meddler from Philadelphia. Now her boots lace up to her midthigh, crossing eight times, there are sixteen buttons total in two rows of eight down the front of her buccaneer coat, and the Kevlar vest has an enormous spider in blue thread that stretches across the back, hidden by her coat but there nonetheless.

All in all, she thinks she looks quite dashing! Not everyone can pull this kind of swashbuckling look off without looking like a total moron! But the Indigo Scourge strikes fear into the hearts of criminals throughout the city - and alright, maybe a few law-abiding citizens, too…

It's not like Vriska set out to be the bad guy! It just kind of...happened!

And of course, Terezi is tooooooootally being unreasonable about the whole thing. They used to be the unstoppable Scourge Sisters, with none of this waffling over 'deserving targets' and 'following the law.' Well. Terezi always had her weird justice kink, but she never interfered when Vriska took some lowlife rapist or murderer home to stave off the more ravenous hunger pangs of her lusus. She'd understood - or at least pretended to understand - what Vriska went through as a wriggler, trying to handle a lusus of that stature and cruel nature. Normally the grub centers caught such lusii before they became a problem, and a custodian as large as Spidermom had grown to be should have been culled and relocated to a sealed retirement facility. But the lusus had been young and still in the early stages of its own growth when it selected Vriska, and apparently no one had anticipated just how swollen and frankly colossal it would grow.

Vriska just had to live with the consequences. And she'd tried her best, and look where it's gotten her. Everyone hates her, absolutely everyone -

And half the time she can't even blame them.

Narrowing her eyes, Vriska pulls down the mask and lets the Scourge come forward, thumbing the detonator with relish.

A certain building in Jefferson Park explodes. She's too far away to feel the concussive force of it, but in the distance, when she focuses with her vision eightfold, she can clearly make out the burst of fire and smoke that pours out toward the sky, billowing in the wind. That building's empty, has been for quite some time - Vriska checked during the day, of course, because she's not so stupid as to bomb an occupied building unless there are extenuating circumstances, or if it would do more good than harm. In this case, it would have done more harm than good, so everyone got a free pass from her today!

Except, Scourge thinks, glaring straight through the roof to the building beneath her, these asshats.

Contrary to popular belief, Scourge has been doing the hero thing. You know. Occasionally. She has a lot of irons in the fire! Give her some credit, she's still a hero, whether Blind Justice thinks so or not! She just takes a more...direct approach to apprehending the bad guys! Doesn't bother pandering to stuuuuuuuupid things like 'morals' or 'laws' or phrases like 'it's called a citizen's arrest, not a citizen's turning the bad guy into a corpse!'

Blah, blah, blah! Seriously, if she needs to blow up public buildings to get the friggin' cops off her case while she works, then fine! No bone-scrapings off her nubs! The weight people put on stupid material shit like fountains and monuments and criminal lives is just ridiculous, in her opinion. They should just be grateful when she steals back money from pyramid scheming douchebags and drops it off at local soup kitchens in her spare time. She's like pirate Robin Hood and no one ever thanks her! Ugh!

But anyway. She'll just keep pressing on, like the ever-suffering, unappreciated martyr that she is. She's been scoping out these bulgesuckers for a while now, tracking their movements with GPS markers and paying more attention to the feral lusii reports in the news than she normally would. They've set themselves up a tidy little betting pool on a lusii fighting ring, but the dicks in charge have gotten sloppy enough that Scourge was able to track them back here a few nights ago.

And alright, maaaaaaaaybe Crusher has a point - maybe she has been letting her little misunderstanding with Blind Justice slow her down in terms of fighting actual crime; just because her personal tiff with Terezi got a little out of hand is no reason to let the bad guys get away with this shit!

Well, she's here to make it all better now! So there!

Crushing the detonator in the gauntlet, Scourge jumps off the edge of the roof and lands silently on the ground below. This warehouse has been abandoned for a few months now, lost in the real estate shuffle, with the front door boarded up in a half-assed attempt to keep out squatters. That didn't stop the bored men and trolls who had decided to round up a good ten (a number that makes Vriska's hindbrain whine) rogue lusii and pit them against each other in cage matches. She'd watched them bring in two or three pit bulls a few nights ago, but of course dogs would never last long in a cage match against an oversized ox with three eyes and the intelligence necessary to rear a small child. Hopefully they haven't captured another lusus to add to the fray between today and her last recon trip. It would be even better if a few rogue custodians had been too injured to fight and thus 'retired' in the past few days - she chants 'eight, eight, eight' to herself under her breath, because in cage matches like these the lusii don't exactly last long, so there's a real chance she might get a nice round eight-count out of this mess.

Sashaying to the side of the building, where they have cracked open a fire exit and left it propped open, Scourge draws a Magic 8 ball out of her pouch and lets out a sharp, tuneless whistle.

Even as she ducks to the side and presses back to lean jauntily against the wall, a male troll sentry sticks his neck out, his horns angled forward as he peers around. He looks left first, and then right - and then he does a double take, and looks left again at the hero winking at his bewilderment.

Scourge smiles at him, and wiggles her fingers. "Heyyyyyyyy."

Then she pulls her fist back and punches him in the nose. He can't be more than a brownblood, which is lame, so it only takes Scourge a moment to touch the side of her temple, seize control of the troll's mind, and send him right off to dreamland. He sprawls out, remaining deep in the throes of REM sleep even after his head connects with the pavement. "Sucker!" she laughs, tossing the Magic 8 ball into the air and catching it a few times effortlessly as she steps over his legs and into the warehouse itself.

Inside, the air is much hotter and more humid than without, and Scourge's hair weighs heavily on her while spots of blue-tinged sweat bead up on her forehead. She can't even imagine the power bill for this place; lusii originated in the tropics, and fight best in similar temperatures, but damn! It's like a friggin' sauna! Sticking to the shadows, Scourge steps behind a convenient stack of empty crates - convenient because she took the time to stack them there during the day, when the place was unoccupied, over a week ago.

A rough pit covered by a rusty metal cage fills the center of the room. They've scattered dirt and gravel and straw across the concrete flooring to give the lusii better footing, and the whole place reeks of sweat and beer and animal and blood. Across the room from Scourge, she can make out the smaller cages that hold the restless creatures. All but the two in the ring have muzzles and the like strapped over their mouths, to minimize the amount of extra sound that could tip someone off. They can still throw themselves up against the sides of the cages and rattle the bars, though, and so they do, all riled up and whining with pain and confusion. None are in the best shape - there are only nine now, so close but no cigar for Scourge - their flanks and carapaces streaked with old scars and fresh newer wounds in blood every color of the spectrum below indigo.

Ha! She'd like to see any one of these skinny mongrels take on a fighter like Spidermom. Vriska's lusus would have cleaned up in a ring like this!

And then devoured her opponents' corpses.

And then the bettors.

And anyone who happened to walk by.

...Probably for the best that Spidermom died early. Yeah.

Anyway! Back to work. Having scoped out the joint one last time, Scourge tallies up the trainers and bettors who ring around the center arena, urging on their chosen lusii with hoarse shouts and muttered insults. Seventeen showed up tonight - eighteen, counting the troll she dropped outside - so as long as no one has gone to take a leak or something, she can handle this, no problem! Tucking the Magic 8 ball into her elbow, Scourge unloads all the rest of the 8 balls from her storage pouches, and her hips feel much lighter for it. She depresses the triggers on the first two, and rolls them out with quick flicks of her wrist so that they spin across the room, rolling to a halt between the crowd of feet. She launches them all, counting back from eight a total of eight times in her head, so that by the time all sixteen balls are deployed, she's reaching zero for the first count, and she grins.

One of the last 8 balls goes too far, and thumps down in the arena itself. "What the hell-?" someone begins to say, when the first pair explode in a flash of light and white smoke. Shouts rise up from the startled bettors, and Scourge laughs, deliberately projecting her voice so that it fills the whole warehouse. Scrunching her eyes up, she touches both sides of her head and starts reaching out, one by one, to take care of the trolls before they can become a problem. A good half of these dumbasses are fleshy, weak little humans, which means that sadly she can't control them, not without exerting more time and effort than she has right now. Their minds are just strange! Scourge can't be bothered trying to deal with the massive headache that would ensue if she tried to meddle with them.

But the trolls are all low to midbloods, and though normally Scourge can't control midbloods well, and highbloods hardly at all, the flashbombs constantly going off with bangs and bright lights upset the minds of even her fellow ceruleanblood, whom she'd thought would give her the most trouble when she ran recon trips. Each takes no more than eight seconds precisely for her to knock unconscious - all without having to break a sweat! Well, more of a sweat, anyway.

She steps out from behind the crates with a swagger, much more confident now that the odds have been tipped thoroughly in her favor. "Hi guys! Helloooooooo, ladies!" she calls, bowing to the two human women who scramble toward the exit. So dumb - they try to run right by her, and she trips one with ease, grabbing the other by the back of her silky, expensive jacket and clotheslining her so she falls down gasping for air. "Sorry, but you all have been busted! Surrender now, and I won't blow your friggin' heads off!"

"Shit! It's Scourge!" one of the men yells, and Scourge rolls her eyes because, obviously, who else were they expecting? Who else would have the endless patience to wait, spinning her web patiently, until the flies gathered and landed before her waiting claws? Blind Justice can go running around the alleys all she likes - Scourge is one for the long game, and these lusii-fighters just ran out of luck.

She kicks the woman she tripped upside the chin so the human lies unconscious, and Scourge sighs with relief as the number of conscious enemies in the room drops to a perfect, flawless eight.

Time to kick ass and take names.

She takes care of the male runners first, because like hell are any of these criminal asshats getting away on her watch. There are two - cowards, both of them, and Scourge sneers as she dumps one flat on his ass, and draws some of her weighted dice in her free arm to clock the other in the temple. One of the men in the middle, a trainer by the rough scabs around his wrists and face from handling the lusii, shouts and pulls a pistolkind specibus, but Scourge leaps nimbly and side-swipes him with the longer reach of the gauntlet, snatching up the pistol and crushing it with machine piston-enhanced strength. She punches him square in the jaw, and when he stumbles she tugs him down by the beard to introduce his face to her knee.

"Too slow, too slow!" she taunts, facing the remaining five. One is occupied trying to calm down one of the lusii (come on, even running would be smarter than that!), so she focuses on the four others, ducking a wild punch and head-butting the offender in the face. She can feel her perfect hat crumple a little, which is just infuriating, and she takes down the next guy with more force than necessary, grabbing him around the neck with the gauntlet until he chokes before tossing him to the side. Another man changes his mind and tries to abort the missions, racing off in the opposite direction, but there's no open door over there - Vriska had sealed off any sneaky nooks and crannies ages ago while setting this whole thing up. When the last fighter charges her, she flips him over her hip and holds him by the arm while she plants her heel on his face eight flawless times.

The one idiot is still with the lusii, a new wound bleeding bright human candy red all down his pants, and she shoves his head against the bars of the cage from behind when he doesn't pay any attention to her, until he crumples. And finally, ticking off 'eight' in her mind, Scourge steps between the last runner and the real exit, pretending to inspect her claws for chips until he realizes he's trapped. When he pulls a knifekind, she rolls her eyes and flexes all the claws of the gauntlet. "My advice? Don't."

The man hesitates, and then drops the knife. Score one for striking fear in the hearts of one's enemies. She still knocks him unconscious, of course, whistling merrily as she clocks him in the forehead with the gauntlet. That thing is so convenient!

With that taken care of, Scourge scrubs her claw through her hair, lifting up her hat and fixing the brim before settling it down in its rightful place. "Now, what to do about you guys," she singsongs, swaggering over to the cages. She uses the gauntlet to tear off the door of the central arena while she walks by, and the pale ox and a battered, stumbling centaur lusii let out chattering queries in their unique speeches. Scourge can't understand a word, of course - no troll can understand any lusus but their own - but if the two hyped-up, aggressive lusii decide to trample on some criminals, she can't be bothered to stop them. They'd be doing a public service, just like her! She does the same to each of the smaller cages, and stops at the last one to survey her work with a wide grin.

While she turns, the snake-type lusus in the last cage gets ideas. Teeth clamp down on her arm - the gauntlet, thankfully - and Scourge yelps, shaking it off with some effort. "Ugh!" She flicks the obnoxious snake between its eyes with the gauntlet, and grimaces at it when it flinches away, hissing, and slithers away into a dark corner. "So not in the mood for ungrateful bitches," she mutters, some of her good mood trickling away. She still has to zip-tie all these dumb criminals and call the cops to deal with them, which never goes over well because the cops in this city are soooooooo dumb. So dumb. The dumbest. She could just leave them here and skip the zip-ties entirely, because that whole process is time-consuming and dull, but then one of them might get away, which is so not an option. Sighing, Scourge kicks away the hollow remains of one of her flash bombs and starts to dig into her pockets.

Without warning, the doors burst inward. The ones that were boarded up earlier, at the front of the building. Scourge reacts without pause, snarling when she falls into a crouch and turns, the familiar, uncoordinated teal-and-red mob of the Legislacerator Task Force burning like neon in her eyes. Not really a mob, she thinks, doing a mental head count. Only seven have shown up - the rest hopefully still occupied by her Jefferson Park distraction - but her head instantly begins to throb, aching for an eighth member of the force to show up just so she can stop straining her eyes and recounting every time she comes up short.

Then she loses the count entirely because holy shit is that Terezi?

Caught completely off guard, Scourge stares a little too obviously, missing the shouted warning for her to 'surrender' or some shit. Yes, that is Terezi - in a regular Neophyte uniform, two paces behind the row of full-fledged Lacerators, her eyes focused on Scourge's face with the unnerving accuracy of her practiced charade of sight. Even as Scourge watches, fascinated, Terezi's gloved hands flex, as though reaching for a canekind she can't use, not in front of all these witnesses - she's stuck with a Neophyte's baton, instead, and oh -

Oh. Oh, this is too good. Terezi looks absolutely furious, and that can only mean one thing - she intended to be out as Blind Justice tonight, and the fact that she's stuck as plain old Neophyte Pyrope, with the Indigo Scourge standing not ten yards away, must be burning her so bad. Scourge laughs, throwing her head back, because she knows it will infuriate Terezi all the more. This is just hilarious!

"Indigo Scourge! This is your only warning! Stand down and come quietly!" one of the true Lacerators calls in a gruff voice, his red goggles obscuring his blood color. All three Lacerators are advancing slowly, totally ignoring all the actual criminals and rogue lusii in the room in favor of homing in on Scourge. As though she's the problem here! They should really focus on apprehending criminals, and not well-intentioned vigilantes! But Scourge has tried that argument before, and it just doesn't persuade them. Some people are just stubborn that way.

"Yeah, I think no. Nice try, losers!" Scourge replies, rolling her eyes hard behind her mask. She quickly spins, scanning the entire outside of the building with her vision eightfold to make sure they haven't left any surprise Lacerators outside, but no one is outside that she can see.

She turns back just in time to see the absolutely hilarious sight of a giant ass serpent lusus coiling up off in the shadows, and launching itself at the newest prey in the room. One of the Lacerators actually shrieks like a little human child when the snake flings its entire bulk at him, and the other two are obviously baffled by the lusus as it coils again, hissing a threat.

"Ahahaha! Yes! You go, Snakemom!" Scourge yells. She takes full advantage of this wonderfully lucky turn of events, and runs for the side entrance. Time to make an unbelievable awesome exit, before the Lacerators shrug off the assault of a giant snake and try to ruin her night.

She hears the familiar, quick pound of feet on pavement behind her, even over the shouts and yells of the Lacerators dealing with the giant serpent, and she'd know that tread anywhere - the slight hesitation, the pause needed for the mind behind it to translate scents and sounds into images. Naturally, of all those little wimpy Neophytes who had tamely hung back behind their superiors, Terezi would be the one to spring into action. Terezi may be a lot of things, but she is good. Even Scourge has some grudging respect for that.

"Catch me if you can!" she calls over her shoulder, looking back to see Terezi duck her head. She only does that when she's forgotten to pretend she needs eyes to see, and Scourge just laughs again, at the little ways Terezi's façade cracks when she's in the thrill of the chase. Scourge holds out the gauntlet and shoves the boards out of the way of the side entrance, trampling the brownblood from earlier as she deliberately clears the path for Terezi to follow. What fun would it be if the blind kid got left behind and knocked herself out on a low-hanging board, or something else incredibly stupid?

But anyway. As much as she'd love to toy with Terezi some more, Scourge had really come out tonight expecting to play with Blind Justice alone - the addition of an entire unit of Legislacerators and their apprentices is not on the agenda. She peels away down the alley and across the street beyond, rolling over the hood of a Lacerator truck that made a valiant effort at blocking the alley. She hears a muffle grunt behind her, but she knows Terezi will have stuck the landing. Still, while Terezi has to take those precious extra seconds to adjust herself, Scourge raises her gauntlet in the air - and presses the trigger. Without a sound - Crusher is very good at his work - the mechanical claw at the end shoots out and up, opening out into a grappling hook that buries itself just below the edge of the roof across from her. A cable connects the rest of the gauntlet to the hook, and Scourge gleefully mashes the button to retract the cable, so that the pull tugs her off her feet and into the air.

She should have known that even stuck as Terezi, Blind Justice would stick her nose in it. Metal creaks below her, and Scourge looks down, brushing her hair out of her face impatiently, to see Terezi take a flying leap off the hood of the teal truck and tackle Scourge before she can get more than a few yards off the ground. "Ugh! Let go!" Scourge yells, the extra weight yanking her down dangerously as they spin in midair and slam up against the side of the building. She lets out an 'oof,' and hates herself for it. "Dammit, you bitch, we'll both fall!"

That's not strictly true. In fact, the grappling hook adjusts to the new mass a moment later, and resumes their ascent. But now Scourge has a snarling, obnoxious, writhing Terezi Pyrope digging into her legs with sharp nails, trying to claw her way up Scourge the hard way. "Then drop!" Terezi orders, her teeth gritted as she hooks a hand on Scourge's thigh and clings there.

God, she's infuriating! She knows perfectly well that Scourge will never do any such thing! Looks like Scourge has no choice - if Terezi won't let go, she'll have to make her do it. This is neither the time nor the place for them to have their confrontation, not with the Lacerators flooding out the door below them. Lifting up a boot, Scourge scrapes it down the side of her leg, trying to shake the Neophyte off. "Leggo!"

"No!"

"Off off off off off off off off!"

"Turn yourself in!"

"Agh!" Scourge lifts her boot. No more playing nice! Terezi must sense that Scourge has lost her patience, because she ducks her head and Scourge's kick comes down on the troll's head, on the thickest part of the skull between the hornbeds. Terezi's hands slip and she scrambles to catch herself, but Scourge can see that she's dazed. "You can't take me now," she hisses, raising her foot and grinding it sideways against the one claw that still clings determinedly to her pants. At this rate, she's going to start flashing people if Terezi doesn't let go. "And you know it. So let go."

Terezi looks up, her expression grim now. "...No," she says, her voice flat.

...Eheh. Scourge grins, her heart thrumming fast, because if Terezi had just given up, that would have been even worse! Totally unacceptable! God, no wonder she hates this girl - she just doesn't know when to give up! "Well then, soooooooorry!" she crows, and, with all the gleeful triumph of a rival triumphant, shoves her foot down into Terezi's face.

Blind Justice would have been able to hold on, to withstand such a pain and force herself to hold on. But in front of an audience like this, surrounded by all these witnesses, Terezi is trapped. She knows it and Scourge knows it and oh Scourge delights in it, cackling as the tealblood snarls and lets go.

It's a short drop, anyway. The human in teal-and-red - and since when do they let pathetic little fleshlings like that join the force? Standards must really be slipping! - yells hoarsely, a "Pyrope!" that is frankly vomit-inducing in its pale, pathetic whine, and somehow jumps in between Terezi and the ground, breaking her fall. They both collapse to the pavement anyway of course, and Scourge smirks while the gauntlet finishes winching her up to the top of the building. Once there, she can't hang around, not even to enjoy the frustrated fury no doubt brewing in Terezi's face right now. Regretting that a little, Scourge allows herself to raise a metallic middle finger at the Lacerators gathering below, tips her tricorne with more decorum in their direction, and takes off into the night.

It's a shame, really. The Legislacerators are pretty good, good enough that Scourge would rather pick and choose her battles, and run when confronted by three at a time like that. If only they would work with her agenda and not against her -

Well fine. That's all fine. She doesn't need their good opinions or the Cobalt Crusher's help or Blind Justice's holier-than-thou approval. It doesn't matter, as long as their eyes are all on her. As long as Blind Justice can't turn away in apathy. As long as that dark, glittering hate stares up at Scourge from eyes she knows can't see a damn thing, setting something low in Scourge's belly ablaze.

So all she can do...is 8e the 8ad girl this city needs.

Because after tonight's performance, there's no way Terezi can stay away. Not after Scourge manipul8ted her little farce of a performance as a Legislacerator so neatly that the other hero couldn't counter her, for fear of tipping off her quaint, adorable fellow justice boners. The frustration of being so thoroughly outmaneuvered will be eating Terezi alive.

Throwing back her head, Scourge laughs and laughs, her chest tight and full to bursting, and it feels like the anticipation will bubble up and lift her off into the sky.

-

Terezi keeps her waiting.

After the first hour, Vriska is mildly irritated. But that's pretty much her default state where Terezi is concerned, so she heaves a long-suffering sigh and flops over in her chair, kicking one leg in the air as she waits.

After two hours, she walks to the couch, picks up a cushion, and muffles her scream of outrage against it. She throws a temper tantrum, changes her outfit twice in a blaze of fury, and stomps back to the computer to pester the Crusher, who ignores her. Honestly, how does he expect her to prove herself if he doesn't pay any attention to her! Seriously, has it ever occurred to any of these friggin' idiots that if they just paid more attention to her and kept her entertained, she wouldn't have to do stupid shit to pass the time?

By the third hour, she's plotting how to level the Sears Tower. That's some terrorist level shit, the kind of thing that gets a DOA order put out on a hero gone bad, and a small part of Vriska whispers that it might be going too far. She doesn't listen to that part very often.

Thankfully, she never has to find out if she'd follow through on such a stupid dumb plan or not, anyway. Part of their stalemate over the past few years has hinged on the fact that they both know perfectly well where each other's civilian identity lives and works, and never once has Terezi capitalized on that advantage, because Vriska could respond in kind. It leaves them perfectly matched, forever balanced on the edge of a knife, and for all of Terezi's high-minded blathering about justice and doing the right thing, she certainly wasn't willing to do the 'right thing' and turn them both in, was she?

So when the elevator pings, and starts to descend without Vriska hitting the call button, she sits upright with a start, nearly overturning the chair, and has to scramble to arrange herself in a suitably careless position. She can't look as though she's been waiting on Terezi, after all - no way! She has so many other irons she could have been dealing with these past three hours, and by the time the elevator stops, Vriska has half convinced herself that she did something other than mope and play Spider Solitaire while waiting for Terezi to get her head in the game. Vriska's even left the password the same, for the hell of it. She doesn't want to make this easy for Terezi, of course, but she's too impatient to make her rival really work for it, either.

She lounges back, claws steepled together before her glasses in a suitably 'plotting' gesture, and when the elevator door opens, she spins in the chair to face the troll in the doorway. "Blind Justice. I've been expecting you," she says grandly, then she stops. Blind Justice is out of uniform, and that's enough to jolt her right back from Scourge to Vriska.

Terezi stands there, visibly panting, her Legislacerator uniform still in disarray. Someone pinned up the tear in the back of her jacket for her, but that's all, as far as Vriska can see. "Vriska," she says, and okay. Vriska can get with this program. She was expecting one last showdown with Blind Justice before she managed to force Terezi into a corner, but if the tealblood is already seething with enough fury to use that kind of tone with Vriska, well - she'll just move up her timetable for the night. She's flexible that way!

"Moi," Vriska agrees, enjoying herself immensely as she stands up from her chair and kicks it out of the way.

Terezi strides forward, not even using the cane to tap at the floor, which makes Vriska's brain ache with the missed opportunity for a count of eight, or even sixteen. Trust Terezi to use her old knowledge of the cave's layout to deny Vriska the satisfaction of her patterns. Truly, she's a most infuriating bitch! "Do you even realize what you've done? Do you even care?"

The first swing comes in the middle of Vriska's reply, which is unbelievably rude. But she laughs it off, ducking and rolling to the side with her superior reflexes. "I do soooooooo much, Terezi! You know you have to be more specific than that!"

"Shut up, Vriska. I cannot handle one more comment about your fucking irons in the fucking fire!" Terezi snaps. She's still been trying to act like her emotionless, detached lawyer self, but the emotions can't be restrained anymore. When Vriska returns her blow for blow, the tealblood sucks in a breath of air and cartwheels backward, the canekind clattering against the ground as she uses both hands to roll out of the way of Vriska's kick. "You've finally done it. You finally pushed it too far, and now you need to stop."

"Well, if you want me to stop so bad, you should stop me!" Vriska retorts, holding both hands out to either side, flipping her claws in a silent 'bring it on' that she only half knows, in her wild excitement, if Terezi will be able to sense or not. "I'm waiting! I was waiting all night, but then you disappointed me - like always! You need to do so much better than that if you want to hold your own with someone as clever as me!"

Because what's the point of all this if Terezi keeps backing off? No, it's time to settle this once and for all. Vriska knows Terezi has it in her - weren't they once the inseparable Scourge Sisters? No, she just needs to draw it out of Terezi, inspire her to reach Vriska's level again.

Would any other troll have been so tolerating and patient in waiting for their kismesis to get with the program? Vriska thinks not! She's been going easy on Terezi with all this patience - but no more! Tonight, it's all or nothing!

"I was out! I was ready to take you down, you inconsiderate bitch!" Terezi snarls, swinging her cane in a tight arc at Vriska's legs. "In costume and everything! And then out of nowhere I get a call on my personal cell from the office, telling me they need to speak with me -"

"Ooooooooh, trouble at work? Maybe you're slipping, Terezi!" Vriska says, dancing out of the way. Her lips and cheeks ache from smiling so hard. This is so much fun! "Maybe they're onto you!"

Terezi lets out a wordless shout and brings the cane down so quickly it nearly cracks down against Vriska's left horn, and she takes the blow on her shoulder despite her dodge. The pain breaks her concentration, and that's all the opportunity someone as skilled as Terezi needs. "They're onto you!" she yells, her claw catching Vriska by the throat and shoving her backward and yes yes yes THIS. "Crawford pulled me in for a late shift, and of course I couldn't tell him I was out being a vigilante! I get there and they tell me they have a lead on you!"

Vriska scoffs, letting the accusatory tone of Terezi's voice roll over her like water, because she knows that'll bother Terezi more than if she lets even a glimmer of worry through. That's what this is all about, isn't it - riling Terezi up until she can't deny this anymore. Vriska already there; she's just waiting on Terezi to catch on. Normally the other troll isn't this slow on the uptake! "They always have a lead on me," she says airily, waving both claws. She doesn't try to break out of Terezi's grip. She doesn't need to, she's more than tough enough to take what Terezi can dish out. "They've never caught me, and they never will."

"You blind, self-absorbed ass," Terezi hisses. Her eyes are sightless and staring behind her red shades, but she's breathing so hard through her nose that Vriska can feel the air wheezing in and out and brushing against her collarbone. She wonders how long it'll take Terezi to catch on to what she's smelling. "You think you can never do wrong, don't you?"

"Well, I am pretty gr8," Vriska says, preening inwardly. The claw on her throat clamps down, and it suddenly becomes much more a pain in the neck to breathe around it. Terezi raises her canekind, but the fact that she hasn't struck yet - keeps letting Vriska goad her - is pretttttttty significant, in Vriska's humble opinion! "We're too good for them," she adds, voice strained. "You 'n me, Terezi - you know there's no one better. No one is as good as us."

Terezi coughs out a laugh, harsh and cold, and then slams her up against the wall. Vriska's back stings and she arches into it, adrenaline singing through her veins. "Well, apparently there is someone better, because Will Graham knows who you are!"

The words hang in the air between them, while Vriska blinks. She'd been expecting...something else! She wriggles a little, but Terezi just grips her by the collar and holds her still, not even leaning in close to give Vriska any friction.

The silence stretches out for a minute or so.

"...Who?"

Terezi slaps her palm against her face. "How do you not know Profiler Will Graham?" she demands, exasperated.

The tone makes Vriska bristle and hunch over a little, because wow. Great. Now she feels all inferior and shit. "Well, we're not all fancy, law-obsessed academy-educated nerds, are we?" she shoots back, but it's not the best comeback she could have thought of. She doesn't react well to being talked down to, okay? Like, fuck that. "I can only assume it's some cranky old geeeeeeeezer from the stone age who invented ad quod dammit!"

"Ad quod damnum," Terezi corrects, because she is such a nerd. Well, Vriska knew the right word, too - she's too clever not to have picked up some of Terezi's abominable legalese after years of fighting together. "And no, he's only the first limeblood born in centuries, the best profiler the Bureau's ever turned out, and when I walked in tonight he announced to the whole fucking room that Vriska Serket at the Café Cappuccinoir served him a green tea latte and he's pretty sure she has the same quote unquote seamless spider web tattoo you can see in pictures of the Indigo Scourge dating back five years, so don't you dare try to laugh this off, Vriska! You are fucked, do you not get it?! If you didn't live in this damn cave off the grid, they'd have sent us all out with a warrant to bring you in!"

Whoa.

Whoa, wait, what? This was not in Vriska's script, okay. "Is this some kind of joke?" she demands, caught wrong-footed. "You're kidding, right? I would remember some guy with limey eyes coming in, I'm not a complete dumbass! The only guy who got a green tea latte today had totally normal green -"

Wait.

No.

...That little bitch. He'd been wearing contact lenses. No wonder his hair had still been naturally tinted, you can't differentiate exact hemotype just from trace hair color. All greens have basically the same tint, so all he'd have to do was cover the eyes and -

He'd brought up her tattoos on purpose.

And she'd walked right into it, lapped up the flattery like cream.

"Shit. Shit shit shit." Vriska feels her stomach drop out under her, her fabulous momentum screeching to a sickening halt. "Can't you throw him off the scent? Come on, how many other girls have spider tattoos, that's such bullshit!"

"You think I can save you?" Terezi snorts, condescending and proud. She lets go of Vriska, which is the opposite of what's supposed to be going on right now. "You're on your own. Stay and get caught, leave town, it's nothing to me. But your cover is blown, and Will Graham doesn't give up." Shaking her head and sniffing deeply to get her bearings, Terezi turns away and starts walking toward the elevator. "I shouldn't even have warned you - I should have let you walk right into the café tomorrow and be arrested like the criminal you are."

Vriska can feel her hands shaking, shaking, shaking, and Terezi won't stop walking away. "Agh!" she yells, and she slams her palms back against the wall eight times, until the stone leaves welts on her palms and she clenches them into fists.

But it works. She lets Terezi get eight steps away, because she has control, dammit. The cool confidence fills her again, as she readjusts to this new situation. Fine. Scourge has been outed. But that doesn't change the fact that - "You can't walk away."

Terezi halts. Her shoulders are up and her canekind is still gripped in one hand, but even with her whole body tensed and aimed for the exit, she turns her head back toward Vriska, nostrils flaring. "And why not, Vriska?"

She plays her ace. This isn't even a gamble anymore, it's a certainty, and Vriska marvels that Terezi would leave herself wide open to such an obvious attack. "Because if I go down, I out you too. The first words out of my mouth will be how sorry I am, and say Mister Graham, have you heard that Blind Justice goes by Pyrope during the day -"

Terezi whips around and faces her head-on, the tremor that runs through the cane backing up the downward curl of her lip on her blind, contorted face. "You. Wouldn't. You would never -" Terezi snarls, but she can't finish the sentence, choking on her own rage as she glowers at Vriska. The hate on her face is downright beautiful.

Vriska laughs gaily. "Oh yes I can. You and me, Terezi. We go down together."

"You bitch. You sneaky, spider-loving bitch. After everything I've done for you, every damn time I've let you off with a warning shot and covered your ass when the Bureau got too close to your trail, this is how you repay me?" Terezi strides back toward her, clutching at her hair with both hands, and throwing them down to bellow, "What happened to being Sisters?!"

"You walked away from that, not me! You got all prissy, and you walked out on me, so don't you dare lay all the blame on me, don't you dare!" Vriska's chest is heaving, and she circles around to back Terezi up against the wall, eight thunderous steps that rumble in her ears. "You're right, though. I'm fucked, but don't you dare for one second forget that we're stuck in this together," she hisses, matching Terezi's grip on her collar when the tealblood brings up her elbow in a guard.

"You went off the reservation! I can't justify - even half the stunts you've pulled, this past year alone!" Terezi brings the elbow sideways and cracks Vriska across the nose.

It hurts, it hurts like fuck, but Vriska doesn't let go because the pain means Terezi is still fighting, and Vriska is too wired to stop this now. She can't seem to stare at anything but Terezi's mouth, even while she babbles, lost in a daze of black fury. They're at the precipice now, and she just needs to find the right place to shove Terezi over the edge - "I tried to make you happy - I killed my lusus for you. You didn't even appreciate it, you bitch -"

And, finally, at last, everything goes according to plan. Because if Vriska had given in first, ceded any more ground in this ridiculously long courtship, Terezi would never have respected it. They wouldn't be equals - Vriska's idea of equal, anyway.

No, when Terezi gnashes her teeth and lunges forward, biting down on Vriska's lip like a bitch in heat, that's when serendipity finally rears its ugly mug. Cruel laughter still burbling in her chest, all this shitty news forgotten for the moment, Vriska kisses back, scraping her teeth down the front of Terezi's pointy canines with a growl.

Terezi pulls away first, and Vriska is treated to the sight of realization dawning on that smug face. "Oh, no," Terezi says. Her horrified expression is everything Vriska ever imagined.

"Oh, yes," Vriska replies, still grinning as she yanks Terezi's mouth back on hers. Terezi growls and nips and some of the blood trickles down Vriska's chin, and it's all so despicably arousing.

When the cane falls the ground at last, clattering, and those red gloved claws come up to yank at Vriska's hair and claw at her back, she knows she's won. She wraps both arms around Terezi and finds that tear from earlier with her claws, tugging and ripping until Terezi's precious jacket splits apart at the back, and the wounded, outraged sound that emerges from Terezi's throat gets swallowed down in a kiss like the precious gift it is. In retaliation, Terezi unlatches a claw from its death grip on Vriska's skull and rips a gash down the front of Vriska's shirt. "I hate you, so much," Terezi pants.

"God, you're slow on the uptake!" Vriska laughs in Terezi's face, and she receives a howl of outrage in return. A sharp boot kicks her in the back of the knees, and like the magnanimous kismesis she is, she obviously lets Terezi have a free move as a condescending reward for finally catching on. Vriska pulls Terezi down with her and pins her down with a laugh. When Terezi flips them and digs a knee hard in Vriska's ribs, ripping the rest of Vriska's jacket off to claw at that damnable tattoo, Vriska struggles just as hard, because what's the point of a rival if you aren't equals, each hating just as hard as the other.

Terezi may have all that fancy-ass Legislacerator training, but Vriska's learned soooooooo many cheap tricks for fighting dirty, and when she clamps down on Terezi's wrist and nibbles a trail down her exposed neck, she doesn't let go. Terezi knees her in the groin, but then the tealblood grinds upward at the same time, so by that point the sloppy, bitey makeouts are inevitable.

Just like Vriska always knew they'd be.

What a time to be alive!

-

Terezi's pointy elbows and knees and friggin' horns wake her up, digging into Vriska's side until she has to wake up and shove back. Seriously, those things could cut someone - have cut someone, Vriska realizes, wrinkling her nose and feeling the jagged scrape where Terezi's elbow jab had landed. She considers waking Terezi up with a matching cut, but she thinks she knows what would irritate Terezi more at this point; stretching, Vriska yawns - and shoves Terezi off the couch.

"What the hell?" Terezi demands, but Vriska kicks her legs elegantly over the back of the couch rather than stepping over Terezi, so the other troll is left frustrated when she claws for Vriska's leg to retaliate.

"Gotta send a text," she shoots back, glancing back over the couch to raise a taunting eyebrow, but she only receives an enraged groan in response as Terezi drags the blanket down on the ground with her. "Don't you have work today, you lameass?" Vriska does too, of course, but it's noon already, so she guesses she's taking a sick day.

Wait. That’s right – she can’t go to work anymore, because the fakey fake greenblood somehow put four and four together and got Scourge. It unsettles her more than she’ll ever admit to Terezi, ever, but hey, it’s not like she actually cares. This actually simplifies things! She’ll just have to call in and quit!

A middle finger emerges from behind the couch to salute her. The nail of the claw has been split in half, ruining Terezi's perfectly pointy symmetry, and Vriska bares her teeth in a smile that is more than half snarl. Her jacket is still in two pieces on the floor, and this tank top has been rent down the front so that there's a strip of exposed flesh all the way from her neck to her groin. Scratches and dark blue bruises break up the convoluted white-ink tentacles of the octopus at intervals, marring the plane of her stomach. Pressing a thumb to one of the bruises just gets her mad, wondering if she managed to finish that eight count of hickeys on Terezi's hip before they passed out. Mad, and horny.

But that can wait until she's rubbed this one in Sylph's meddling face.

-- arachnidsGrip [AG] began pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 12:34:08 --
AG: Well, well, well.
AG: Guess whose shitty luck just turned around. >:::;)

Chapter Text

===> Be Equius Zahhak

He has learned to get creative with the warning labels, to the point where he no longer really thinks he can stop. Addiction is a powerful thing. Currently, the killbots possess three settings - Absurdestructive, Devastatehood, and Killusive. He divides them up into three groups, chooses a different setting for each, and steps back, cracking his knuckles and feeling the reinforced leather of his gloves creak and threaten to snap almost immediately.

(He used to fantasize of mastering the bowkind. Then the nightmares had begun, and he had snapped and burned every bow and arrowkind specibus in his home.)

Unfortunately, when he snaps his fingers to begin the cage match, the absurdestructive group self-destruct en masse immediately. He had programmed them to attack in the most absurd and ludicrous way possible - apparently, this is the method which their AI programming interpreted as the most bizarre. Clearly, he will need to rework that so that they at least have more concussive force; as it is, he raises an arm and withstands the multiple explosions by simply planting his feet.

Then the devastators descend upon him, all of them sporting neon yellow camera-lenses for eyes that light up the gloomy lighting of the lower basement.

(It is not a secret lair, no matter what Nepeta claims. This is not some unfathomably foolish hero comic, like the ones he knows Nepeta insists on reading in her spare time, despite his admonishments. This is real life and he has a training arena in a perfectly normal, cavernous basement that is in no way, shape, or form a secret lair. That is final.)

His fistkind collides with the first killbot in a most satisfying crunch. His fist shoves all the way through its featureless grey face and through the back of the cranial target as it runs itself on autopilot and swipes at him with sharpened screws fashioned into claws. He dispassionately shakes it off with a jerk of his arm that flings the shattered cranium casing against the bars of the cage. He does not pause to see the robotic husk shut down; he snarls wordlessly and seizes the next robot in a headlock, bringing the other fist up into the chin of a third. They swarm him, scratching at his sides and stabbing his legs with a single-minded purpose - to bring him down at any cost. Something heavy and solid crashes down from above - one of the robots had the presence of mind to clamber up the side of the cage - and Equius allows himself to crumple so that he can reach more of them and punch through their eye sockets. Oblivious to the danger, the robots dogpile him, rushing to their demise.

Again, not the most intelligent of AI protocols. He will have to tune them all to be slightly more of a challenge, it seems. Bringing up a leg, he kicks out and grits his teeth hard enough to crack them, and his smile is broken and jagged. Against real foes, he finds it a good method of intimidation to show just how very pleased he is while putting criminal scum in their place. Alas that the robots are not real enough to feel fear. Stomping down repeatedly on wayward knives and joints, he snatches up two killbots and slams their heads together between his palms until they stop kicking.

The killusive strand last the longest, darting in and out between the mad rush of the devastatehood class mob. One even manages to jab him in the side with its sword-arm, and Equius bellows, discarding a half-crushed killbot to free his hand and rip the weapon out of the killusive's shoulder socket. He then flips the sword around and buries the blade through the offender's eye.

He can only grin though, after the initial shock of rage and displeasure runs through him, and he basks in the renewed adrenalin as he turns to deal with the much more effective batch of fighters that he now faces. He curbstomps the face of the last devastator, and falls into a horse stance, bracing for whatever the killusives will try now that they have no more lesser robots to cover their movements.

They are still no match for him, of course. But all in all, when every robot is accounted for, their internal circuitry spilled across the floor of the arena, he thinks it a good work out.

He presses a button on the side of his sunglasses, and they shatter, the tumultuous practice round too much for their fragile lenses. He sighs, pulls a new, identical pair out of the pocket of his baggy shorts, and presses the button more gently until it connects to the house's mainframe. "Release the second wave," he commands, rolling his wrists and kicking a robotic carcass out of his path as he moves once more to the center of the cage arena.

It is four in the morning, and Equius still has ten practice rounds to go before he can move on to the rest of his morning routine.

-

After his morning training session, Equius absconds to his work room. It is in a rather deplorable state, littered with the dented, crooked remnants of the tools he used to put the finishing touches on his fightbots. He tends to cycle through three tool sets before he has constructed a suitable fighting force to challenge him in the arena, and Aurthour has already removed a new set from the storage closet, to be used at Equius's discretion. Truly, his lusus thinks of everything; in fact, Equius can hear the clop of his custodian's hooves on the stairs even now, no doubt bearing his usual post-work out glass of milk.

Seizing a fresh towel that has been folded over the back of his work chair, he wipes at his face and hands, trying to will the sweat away so he can settle down at the desk and finish his commission piece. As wonderfully STRONG as he is, he pays the price with...an unfortunate predilection for perspiration. While the fighting robots are crude and unsophisticated, built more to withstand his crushing blows than for higher-order functionality, this commission requires...finesse. He has spread the work out over the course of several days in order to ensure he had enough copies of the miniature tools required. Even now, as he tosses the towel aside and sits down to carefully remove the unfinished item from its pillowed drawer, taking up a fine-pointed pair of tweezers to coax the wiring out of the metal casing, the tweezers creak ominously and begin to slowly bend beneath his grip. They splinter in his claws even more quickly than his special-ordered, reinforced sets, but they are necessary due to the delicate, tiny circuitry required for a piece with this much exquisite detail.

And thankfully, Equius muses, the work is essentially complete. All that is left is to tuck the ends of the wires into place, and to seal the casing so that it can be transported without incident. This is mere busy work by now, made complex and time-consuming by his constant need to check his overwhelming STRENGTH. The commissioner of the piece will hopefully be pleased. They are someone he is quite interested in impressing.

Aurthour arrives and sets a mug with tiny cat ear appendages attached to the brim upon the desk with an inquiring whuffle. Equius grimaces at the wholly foolish attachments, but nonetheless sets the second pair of tweezers down to lift the mug gently, so very gently, between his thumb and index claw. The porcelain cracks despite his care, and he lifts the mug of delicious, foamy milk to his lips with his eyes squinted in concentration. Aurthour clutches its serving tray to its chest, looking on with awed, desperate anticipation.

He swallows twice before his grip twitches spastically, and the mug's handle shatters. He catches the mug itself, but the mere impact from landing in the palm of his hand shatters the rest of it, so that he is left with a clawful of porcelain shards and spilled milk. Aurthour slumps, and removes two fresh towels from the drawer instead of just one, passing the second to Equius.

It is a shame. The mug had been a gift from Nepeta. All of his mugs are gifts from Nepeta.

All of his mugs are therefore cat-themed.

He does not like to discuss the mugs.

"Thank you, Aurthour. I apologize for the mess," Equius grits through his teeth, feeling a canine crack in two as he sets a hand on the lusus's pale flank in gratitude and apology. Aurthour bears through it like the truly majestic specimen of lususkind that it is, while Equius removes his hand and watches the dark bruise of a handprint rise up against the lusus's flesh with a resigned sigh. He has been called in more than once by his neighbors for lusus abuse, and been forced to demonstrate for the absolute plebeians who tried to investigate him just how very fragile the lusus was in the face of his irrepressible STRENGTH.

It is not as though he wants to hurt Aurthour, after all. The lusus has remained with him long past the point where a lusus would usually begin to grow restless and seek a new wriggler, turning away multiple escorts from the retirement reserves as well with polite but firm courtesy unusual in a lusus. Aurthour has a refined sense of taste, and so it works quietly and efficiently to keep Equius's inadvertent, constant destruction from piling up into total chaos. When the custodian sweeps up the shards of the unfortunate mug and trots out to dispose of them, Equius turns back to the commission work and puts the finishing touches on the design.

He is left with half of a circular band, a half-finished collar by the design. He has been assured that the commissioner is completing the second half in his own lab. Satisfied, Equius slowly places it within a cushioned container, and only allows himself a victorious grin when the box is closed and the item within made safe from his destructive abilities. He boots up his rugged, reinforced Toughbook husktop (a police standard model, of which he goes through five keyboards and two monitor screens a week on average), and starts the Pesterchum app that the commissioner always contacts him through. He knows nothing about the person's identity but the chumhandle, the P.O. box number associated with his orders, and the fact that he possesses a unique genius for robotics that Equius admires. Not even the color of his text has proven useful in Equius's struggles to reconcile his admiration with his lack of knowledge of where the one called temperedTitan stands in the hierarchy - if he is even a troll at all.

-- centaursTesticle [CT] began pestering temperedTitan [TT] at 06:01:00 --
CT: D --> The requested item has been completed
CT: D --> I believe you will find the circuitry style mimics the sample b100prints provided without e%ception
TT: thanks for the assist
TT: the second half of the payment should transfer right the fuck now
CT: D --> E%cuse my impertinence
CT: D --> May I ask a question?
TT: fire away man
CT: D --> 100k
CT: D --> Why you sought my e%pertise at all?
CT: D --> You have the technical skill needed to have crafted this device on your own - your workmanship is impeccable
TT: just needed a rush job
TT: faster to have two people working on this kind of thing
CT: D --> I see
CT: D --> Thank you for indulging my curiosity
CT: D --> The piece shall be overnighted to your location shortly
TT: much appreciated
CT: D --> There's one last thing
CT: D --> You are abso100tely certain that you would not be interested in participating in such a group project in person?
TT: no
TT: not even once
-- temperedTitan [TT] has blocked centaursTesticle [CT]! --
-- temperedTitan [TT] ceased pestering centaursTesticle [CT] at 06:11:33 --

Most of their dealings end in a similar fashion. It is unfortunate. There is much that Equius could learn from the genius behind such a fascinating design as the collar they just finished and several major advancements in the robots and prosthetics field in the past few years. He shall simply have to content himself with the knowledge that of all the roboticists active at the forefront of their field in the country, temperedTitan has commissioned Equius personally.

...He is sweating again.

He fetches a new towel from the cupboard.

-

Nepeta arrives shortly after four. She is still in high school, and even with her early work-release - obtained through judicious paperwork and forgery on Equius's part - it takes her a while to race from the rather distant Academy of the Worthy Villein to his home. It used to be worse, though; when they first met, Nepeta had been attending a middle school - a festering, lowblood-infested pit of a public middle school. She had protested him making use of his extensive inheritance to pay the enrollment and tuition fees for the Academy, but it is for her own good, and there is precious little in this world Equius would not do to ensure Nepeta receives the kind of quality education she deserves. The Creed of the Villein may be a strange, foreign pseudo-religious philosophy that Equius understands little about, swathed in the usual aura of mystery the entire carapacian race possesses, but the Academy itself has an impressive record for providing a world-class education and maintaining an excellent athletics program, the one requirement Nepeta insisted upon herself. Nepeta has assured him that the teachers have never attempted to indoctrinate her in any strange alien religions, so he is willing to let such things slide so that she can enjoy participating in her football antics with a team almost as capable as she is.

There are advantages to having a known Ancestor, after all, one who has spent his lifespan slowly accumulating a vast horde through work behind the scenes. Equius still has little idea of what exactly the E%ībimus does for a living, as their communication has been restricted to short notes from the elder troll himself, with no way for Equius to respond. The funds are deposited into his account, a more than comfortable monthly sum that supplements his own income, with which he is able to maintain his machine supplies, purchase vegetarian food options, and still put Nepeta through private school. She is his moirail; the expense, therefore, means nothing at all.

She bursts in with a crash, her mouth moving before he even properly registers that she has arrived. He swivels in his chair, and braces himself for impact.

"E!"

Nepeta runs forward, hair flying, grinning with all her teeth bared.

"Qui!"

"Nepeta, please desist," he implores. It is useless.

"US!"

With a yowl, Nepeta springs forward in a pounce, and Equius stands up from the chair with his arms out to break her fall because Nepeta is a reckless fool.

The ensuing tackleslide sends them both flying until they hit the wall opposite. Nepeta giggles madly the entire time, while Equius just grabs her around the waist and doesn't let go until they have careened through a wayward pile of robotic weaponry. He really should clear this room more often, he thinks.

"Nepeta," he replies, resignedly waiting while Nepeta purrs with triumph. "Did you have a good day at school?"

"Of course I did! I got a purrfect score for my English essay~!" Nepeta butts her head up against his and shoves a crumpled fistful of paper in his face so he can see said score. "Which means you don't have an excuse anymore! We fight crime tonight!"

He pats her, with the utmost care, on the head. She does not even flinch, and that is soothing in and of itself. Meeting Nepeta had been a blessing beyond any Equius had ever known, or ever will know, because despite the rather middling hue of her blood, she possesses an uncanny resilience that allows her to withstand his strength. He still becomes quite perturbed when attending her football games, watching her dart between heavy-set humans and trolls all determined to tackle her to the ground while all of his instincts scream against it, but at least he is assured that if she can withstand him, there is probably very little on this earth that can damage her.

Of course, this same resilience is part of the reason she is so overly confident about their hero work. Nepeta is foolhardy and filled with boundless conviction, and while she may feel personally responsible for keeping Equius from losing his temper, he is in turn bound to keep her from rushing to her untimely demise.

Case in point - Equius sighs and tugs on her hair, drawing a yelp of complaint from his moirail. "And all of this?" he asks, raising an eyebrow.

Nepeta squirms. As well she should. In the month since Equius demanded she improve her grades as a prerequisite to their resuming hero work, her hair has - well, there is no better term than erupted. She has not yet reached the final steps of adult pupation, so there is no olive green tint to her hair yet, but the coarse black waves and ringlets that she has explode around her face and down her back like a lion's mane. He knows she has deliberately cultivated that image; Nepeta's faint green blush is more than enough of a tell, as is the way she giggles nervously and avoids his eyes.

Which means she's going to fight him about this. Again.

"But Equius -" she starts, pouting as she pats at her own hair and smoothes it down. It does not help. There is no helping such a preposterous mane.

He does let her finish. "Absolutely not. It is a safety hazard. You will allow me to cut it."

"Come onnnn! Let me keep it, please, Equius!" Nepeta claps her hands together, widening her eyes in a manner which she no doubt believes to be endearing. Fortunately, Equius is made of sterner stuff than that. "It won't get in the way, I purromise! Without the cat pun, even, I promise! Please please please!"

"If you insist on us going out at night to wallow about fighting criminal scum, I insist that you keep your hair well-groomed so as to not provide them with a handhold during a fight." He grips her firmly by the shoulders and lifts her up bodily. She hisses and spits at him, an armful of irate oliveblood, but he endures it. Nepeta is a spitfire. He is bedrock. "Now remove yourself from me so that I may groom you."

She sticks her tongue out at him then, settling back on her haunches when he releases her. "They don't care about my hair at football games!" she complains, following close on his heels as Equius stands and makes his way back to the desk to fetch a pair of scissors. They will need the gardening shears this time, he thinks bleakly, surveying the utterly tangled wreck Nepeta has cultivated. "Not as long as I can still fit my helmet on! The coach gave me purrmission and everything."

"Well, I don't." Equius removes the drawer from the desk entirely. No need to risk his STRENGTH breaking the pair of scissors within before he needs to. "As your moirail, it is my duty to protect you and -"

"- And to keep me safe from myself and my foolishness, blah, blah, blah!" Nepeta rolls her eyes at him. "Can we do this outside, at least?" Nepeta darts in close, papping at his face with both hands and squeezing his cheeks, pursing her lips. "You need to get outside every once in a while, dummy, you're all pale and clammy and gross! And it's a nice day today, fur real!" She cocks her head to the side, her smile wavering a little. Equius knows what she is going to ask before she even finishes working herself up to it, and his stomach clenches up. "And you can let me braid your hair and effurything!" She peers at him, eyes worried and searching. "Is that okay? Today?"

He doesn't know. Mentally, he runs through his checklist: binder in place, snug around his chest; an arena full of broken and smashed killer robots down below, crushed with his own two hands; his sunglasses in place, though they once again are on the verge of cracking into a hundred pieces simply from the force of his frowns. His outfit is the same as always, his daily uniform of a muscle shirt that exposes his arms, emphasizing his strength and not necessarily the rest of him.

But these are all superficial details. The real question is, how comfortable is he with himself today?

After a moment, and with one last glimpse of Nepeta's pleading pout, he sighs and nods. "Fine. Fine. You may engage in such excessive frivolity with my hair, if you will allow me to cut your hair in peace."

"Hurray!" Nepeta leaps in the air, pumping both fists, her uniform skirt flaring. She slings her satchel off her shoulder at last and tosses it haphazardly on Equius's work desk. From within, she pulls a hair brush, a pair of cat ears attached to a hood, and, most importantly of all, a false cat tail. She hands the tail to Equius imperiously, her nose in the air as she leaves the cat ear hood on the desk, and he helps her buckle the false tail around her waist on autopilot. It is just another one of Nepeta's frivolities that she will not discard. She had cried when the Academy had ordered her not to wear it and her cat-eared helm during the school day, but she seems to have adjusted at last, knowing that the moment she leaves the school grounds she can switch back into her preferred accessories.

Equius cannot recall crying. Ever. He's always just gotten angry. But then, he is the sort of person who prefers punching things to solve his problems.

-

"Outside, outside, outside!" Nepeta sings, tearing up grass as she cartwheels down the slight incline of his front lawn. She lands in a crouch and kicks off on all fours, and Equius waits wearily for her to sniff out a preferred corner of the lawn to set up. Sometimes, his moirail's feline obsession borders on the unreal. When she lets out a yodel of success and yanks him over underneath a tree with a manically wide grin, he kneels down behind her and keeps one hand pressed to her scalp until she flops back and allows him to work.

His home is located in a relatively up-class suburban area, a neighborhood that is populated mostly by trolls of superior blood hue. As such, unlike crass human-dominated neighborhoods, each lawn spread out wide and spacious, with plenty of room between each dwelling. Of course, Equius has little patience for tending his lawn, so in comparison to some of the other rings this one is overgrown with patches of weeds and uneven grass, a derelict park. But it discourages people from attempting to approach the house and speak with him, so he allows it to grow unchecked.

Nepeta squirms and kicks her legs out, huffing and sighing loudly as Equius awkwardly wields the scissors and begins to clip her hair with precise strokes. He is no hairdresser, but if she would settle down for two minutes, he thinks he can at least manage to bring this mass of hair into some kind of order. "Nepeta, be still," he orders, and she whines at him, rolling her eyes. It is an uncouth habit of hers, picked up from some ingrate at school no doubt. He wishes Nepeta would at least try for some kind of decorum, but the most he can do is try to curb some of her more vulgar outbursts and hope that by the time she must enter the working world after school, she has picked up some of the qualities of a refined young greenblood of her stature. She is headstrong, a trait that proves both endearing and infuriating in turns, and this makes it difficult. But he already despairs enough over his own life that he can only afford to hope for better for Nepeta.

Eventually, he tames the near-living tangle that Nepeta has made of herself, and Equius can comb his claws delicately through the curling strands until the knots either unravel or are ripped out at the root. Three-quarters of her hair now lie in a muddle on the ground, and Equius brushes them off his lap with distaste. Nepeta shakes her head the moment he removes his hands, the bob of messy black hair whipping around her face. "It's so light!" she marvels, laughing, her earlier disdain for the haircut lost in her burst of enthusiastic, childish delight. "Thank youuuu!"

In the face of that laughter, Equius can't even work up the will to say 'I told you so.' He crunches the battered remnants of the garden sheers into a ball of plastic and warped metal, and then sets it aside. "You may proceed with your ministrations," he sighs, and Nepeta squeals with happiness again. She rolls in the grass a few times, her newly-combed hair snarling up almost instantly with burrs and stray flecks of grass, and he sighs again, inwardly.

"Here, turn around, turn around," she says, shuffling up onto her knees and brandishing her hairbrush. He knows for sure that she hadn't been grooming that ridiculous mane, now; if she had the brush would be a mangled mat of hair as well, yet the bristles are as clean as ever. Ridiculous. He can practically feel her nose crinkle as she plucks at his hair and pulls the brush through it, graceless and harsh. "You need to shower more, mister!"

"I do not see the point. Showering more often won't make the perspiration stop," he says, kneading at the dirt with his claws absently.

"Yeah, but you could try putting it in ponies or braids more often if it were cleaner! Maybe it wouldn't get so lank and gross that way!" She pats him on the side of the face, and then vigorously combs through the hair until she has it separated into three sections. "Think of it! Ponies! It's a horse pun, so you have to admit it would be coooool, right?"

"I highly doubt it. And your attempts to win me over with such tempting equine wordplay will not sway me." He considers it, though. His hair is certainly long enough. Would the association with slightly miniaturized hoofbeasts be worth it?

Nepeta pulls back the thick strands of lank, blue-black hair that usually frame his face, and he feels unreasonably exposed. He ducks his head and tries to relax. The air in Florida has already turned humid and warm, and even as he watches a mosquitoes dips down and lands upon his arm. He flexes a muscle slightly, and the insect darts away. Behind him, Nepeta hums to herself, the theme song of some animated foreign cartoon she has taken up in her spare time, and finally the soothing notes and clicks start to sink into Equius's hindbrain.

Even when Nepeta starts ripping out the flowers of the patch of weeds nearby and sticks them at odd angles into the single sticky braid she has arranged down the back of his neck, he feels equable and calm. It is an equilibrium he only achieves in her company, and he thinks absently that he might venture outside more often. Perhaps. On occasion. He shreds the leaves and roots from another flowering weed and passes it back to her, just to hear her pleased exclamation, and she sticks it right up next to his unbroken horn, tucked against the hornbed.

It is nice.

The perimeter alerts buzz in Equius's ear, from the relay earbud he designed several years ago so that he can keep up with the house's security even when not huddled by his computer. He stiffens immediately; before he even says a word, Nepeta shifts at his back, sniffing loud enough for him to hear the breath whooshing in. "Oooh! Company!" she exclaims, delighted, but he can hear the note of warning that might otherwise go unnoticed by those who haven't spent years of study on learning the moods of Nepeta Leijon. "Hello there, mister! What brings you here!"

Equius presses his lips together to cover his fractured, gritted teeth in some semblance of calm. He never has to control his expressions like this around Nepeta - he doesn't need to - but even the arrival of one otherwise innocuous troll, strolling along the sidewalk, is enough to make him shut down. Worse, he thinks he recognizes this as one of his more...obnoxious neighbors, a ceruleanblood with all the snotty insubordination that implies. "Oh! Hello there, ladies!" the troll says, his voice cheery, as he waves a hand.

Equius ducks his head and closes his eyes while his hands clench into matching fists. Nepeta's warm palms squeeze over his a moment later, helping him press them down into the dirt where they can't break anything. Punching this troll will do nothing, will only draw attention that Equius never wants. He breathes out smoothly through his nose, nostrils flaring, and tries to keep his face from snarling any more than it does naturally.

He vaguely entertains the notion that if he keeps hitting things, whether they be robots or the fiendish, lowly criminals who prowl the streets of Jacksonville, he will eventually reach the point where he fits into his skin, and is no longer plagued by this strange vacillation, between being alright with Nepeta braiding his hair and wearing a flower crown in public, and not being able to venture forth from the house for weeks, unable to handle the mere thought of others looking upon him.

"I've never seen you around before. Are you new in the neighborhood?" the troll goes on, oblivious to his mistake.

"I have lived here my whole life," Equius says shortly. If he just doesn't mention it, perhaps they can avoid unnecessary conversation entirely and -

"And he's not a laaady! He's a guy! Isn't it obvious?" Nepeta gesticulates at the troll with the brush, her tone snippy.

The ceruleanblood stammers, his whole face flushing a pale blue, and all Equius wants to do is walk back inside and pretend this interaction never happened. But when he goes to walk away and put all of this pointless nonsense behind him, Nepeta tugs him back down. This is unfair, because of all the people in the world Nepeta is the one he cannot use his STRENGTH against in order to continue on his way. Instead he hovers there, awkward, while Nepeta remains sitting cross-legged on the ground, scowling up at the neighbor as though daring him to say a word.

Thankfully, he chooses to not comment on the issue of Equius's gender. Most people wouldn't - it is only Equius's own intractable brain that insists on making this an ordeal, he tells himself, and he struggles to remember that most people are comfortable in their own skin. That no one will press him on the subject, because in the case of so many trolls the biological sexual dimorphism is so small as to be non-existent, and gender becomes a matter of self-identification regardless. "I swear, no one has lived in that house for as long as I've been here! I would remember -"

"Well, Equius has been here for years and years," Nepeta retorts, planting fists on her hips. "It's pretty rude of you to not remember him!"

Equius places a hand on her arm and feels the strain of her own muscles contracting beneath her uniform's sleeve. Nepeta may not have reached the same ludicrous levels of strength that Equius has - but then, Equius is in fact freakish that way, even in comparison to other bluebloods - but her own strength and agility are formidable enough that she would be able to take on even a violetblood with ease, as impolitic and disrespectful as such a hypothetical fight might be. This cerulean wouldn't stand a chance. "Nepeta. This is pointless. Let it go."

"No!"

The cerulean must have some sense of just how outclassed he is by Equius on the hemospectrum, and looks absolutely miserable, even as he continues to argue with Nepeta. "I mean, the lawn is a wreck," he chatters, digging his own grave. "And no cars go in and out, ever! I'm right across the street, I can see -"

Nepeta bristles. "Just go away, you asshole!"

"Nepeta, language," Equius says, horrified. He can feel sweat breaking out all down his back now, in addition to the sweat basically everywhere else. He crosses his arms over his chest, but of course that never helps. Even when he digs his claws into his biceps, molars cracking and leaving bloody chips in his mouth, he still feels seen. He despises social interaction, would comfortably disappear into the void if he could, and Nepeta's insistence on such confrontational antics never helps. "It is not an issue, Nepeta." When he speaks, he feels little splatters of blood dapple his lower lip and chin. A lisp begins to develop, and he thinks he spies broken pieces of tooth flying out to land in the grass. "He is leaving anyway."

"I - I think I'll just go. Yeah, I'm leaving now," the cerulean says, stepping back with spooked eyes. He has both hands up in a gesture of surrender, his head tilted back so his horns point away from both Nepeta and Equius, his throat bared. Good. It is a posture that is suitably demeaning for Equius's tastes. "I'm sorry, fuck I'm sorry, I'll just go and - never talk to you again. Ever."

"That would be acceptable." Equius closes a hand around Nepeta's and lifts her to her feet. She swings there at the end of his reach, yelping, before getting both feet on the ground. She pulls down her lower eyelid and makes a most vulgar expression at the ceruleanblood, who is still backing up so as to not turn his back on them and therefore witnesses her crass gestures. Equius quakes, but his mouth throbs and so he keeps it shut for now, walking back to the house with the full expectation that Nepeta will follow in his wake.

He cannot remain out here. Too many other neighbors might have witnessed that confrontation. They might come and attempt to...interact with him.

He would prefer to avoid that. Interaction never goes well.

Sometimes, he wishes he could just disappear.

-

"That's so weeeird, Equius," Nepeta says, slamming the door shut with her usual lack of care. She darts into the house, her newly shorn hair bouncing with every springy step, and she leads the way downstairs. Equius allows it; she is angling for the basement below, and that is quite alright with him. He has never improved the lighting down there, and he would prefer the obscuring darkness of the void right now. "How did that guy not even know who you were? You've been here for ages, he has to have run into you before now!"

"I do not get out much." Equius finds the hair tie Nepeta used to knot off the end of the braid, and removes it. It snaps in his hand, of course, and he shakes his head vigorously until the braid is quite gone, leaving a trail of flowers in the hall at the top of the stairwell. "Most of them are not worth speaking to, really."

"Ugh, you would think that way, you dumb asshole. I just don't like how people forget you exist, sometimes!" Nepeta folds her arms, pouting. "It makes me so mad!" She tromps down the stairs, sure-footed even with the light bulbs overhead burnt out.

He hurries after her, ready to catch her from behind if in her hasty burst of fiery anger she trips and loses her footing on the steep stairwell. He could pay lip-service to her, and make some comment commiserating about the forgetfulness of others, but they would both know it for falsehood. He welcomes his anonymity, the way the eyes of others in the neighborhood generally tend to slide away from him, unseeing, on the rare occasions he does venture forth into the outside world. He loves Nepeta, naturally, and there are a few others he might be willing to meet in person when his admiration of their skill overwhelms his better judgment, but on the whole he thinks he would be happiest if they all forgot him, if his home slowly faded into the background, and even the mail carrier stopped delivering.

But he is a blueblood, a high ranking member of society, and so he remains constantly aware that he must contribute in some way to that society, to uphold the standards of his blood type as a whole. His robotics work was enough for quite some time; with the hero work he does with Nepeta, safe behind the additional anonymity of a mask, he is nearly content. He can never go away though, can never disappear.

That is not an ambition many people subscribe to, but he thinks it is highly underrated.

When he remains silent however, it is a mistake. Nepeta abruptly lets out a "URRRRGH!" and kicks her shoes off in a flurry of movement, so that they clatter down the stairs. She stops halfway down the stairs, and he nearly slams into her from behind, which would have potentially been...catastrophic. "So mad!" she repeats, and he has to jump the next three steps to seize her by the shoulders and restrain her before she rips off her school shirt. Nepeta tends to strip down when she's angry, the better to free up her movements and (he suspects) to terrify everyone in the vicinity with her sheer absurdity. She claims the clothing only gets blood-stains all over it when she goes 'hunting,' and the conversation he had had with her about the fact that she could not fight crime in only a skin-tight cat suit had been a long and arduous one.

"Calm yourself, Nepeta. The outing was in error, that was all." He can feel the last of the sweat dying down at last, his black tank and binder soaked through, but it is over now. "Next time, perhaps, we will remain in the back yard. Or in the kitchen."

That is a fool's hope, of course. Nepeta is a creature of the outdoors, full of boundless energy. They are opposites that way. He will never be able to talk her into remaining inside, where it is safe and dark and hidden, where she would be truly safe - though it plagues him, he accepts this.

Her head falls slightly, and her shoulders slump. "I know, you know," Nepeta says quietly, and she eyes him sideways in that piercing way she gets when she thinks she's onto something. "I can always tell when you're feeling blue, and I thought going outside would help. But it just made it worse, didn't it? Because that huge dumb -"

"Langua -"

"-butt," Nepeta finishes, sticking out her tongue. "Because that huge dumb butt called you a girl."

When Nepeta states it outright, like that, Equius thinks it sounds all the more like the nonsense it is. Such a preposterous thing to become worked up about. He tenses anyway, bristling at the mere reminder of such an off-hand comment. "It is not an issue. I am fine," he says stiffly, but he is transparent to Nepeta, as always.

"It's because you're beautyifful, that's all." Nepeta nudges him, and he can't move away from her. She is too soothing, her vibrancy jostling him out of his motionless inertia, and words that from another would only stoke his rage actually help him to regain his sense of perspective. "Look at you, you could punch a tank through a wall! It's a very STRONG beauty! I'm jealous!"

Nepeta is wrong of course, and she knows it. In all aspects, Equius is neither handsome nor beautiful, and he is quite comfortable with it, on the whole. His features are blocky, his teeth a jagged wreckage from regrowing so many times, and a combination of sleepless nights and unnatural quantities of perspiration have left him rather sour and sickly, with a faded tint to his skin before his time. Even with his sunglasses, the heavy, cobalt blue shadows under his eyes peek out, and when the shades break entirely (as they often do) his gaze has been compared to that of a dead man.

But even with the binder on, it is quite obvious that he possesses a female troll's armor padding. It is endlessly frustrating. The STRONGER he becomes, the more prominent his musculature. In a bygone time, it might not have been an issue for him - in old Alternian, the language of the great empires, the word for 'feminine' translates more closely to 'one who rends the flesh of lesser warriors with their bare claws and feasts upon the entrails mid-battle.' The association with gender and sexuality is one picked up from human secondary sexual characteristics, partially subsumed into pure troll culture over thousands of years of interaction between the two species, and is just one more reason on a long list for Equius to sneer at humans for being the blithering, culture-polluting morons that they are.

"Regardless, I would rather let it go." He removes Nepeta's claws from where they are digging into his wrist, and squeezes before letting her go. "It is irrelevant. I shall add him to the primary defense system's 'non-grata' list. He will not approach the lawn again."

"Hmph. Fiiine. I'll stop being mad," Nepeta says, jumping over a pile of debris at the foot of the stairs and wandering into the center of the basement. She perks up, and turns to Equius with a grin. "Come on! Let's go get started right now! We can go kick some bad guy butt and announce our magmewficent return to action!" She feigns a few punches and slices, laughing as she dances toward the far end of the basement, where Equius keeps their equipment and uniforms. He wonders how she can swing so quickly back to her usual good mood. He doesn't have that ability.

"We most certainly will not," he says, and Nepeta nearly falls over herself with a loud groan.

"Why? Come on, party-pooper!" She rights herself and stamps a foot. "My grades are good and my hair is short and we aren't getting any younger, here!" She yanks open the door of one of the vaults to reveal an entire wall of upgraded clawkind strife specibi.

He folds his arms, shaking his head. "There is nearly an hour left before sunset. We are not gallivanting about the city until the sun is down. No doubt the criminal underbelly of the city has forgotten us already, and will be rowdy. I will not risk our identities being revealed in daylight."

"Fiiiiine!" Nepeta sighs, slumping over and shutting the door on her clawkind with a pout. Equius counts it a victory in the never-ending cause of preventing Nepeta's brash insanity from either murdering or outing them both. His duty as moirail done, he pats her on the head and moves off. While they pass the time, he may be able to look into recalibrating the programming on those absurdestructor models -

A pair of arms wrap around his neck from behind, and Equius lets out a dull 'oof' as Nepeta yanks him into a hug that runs more along the lines of a chokehold. "Don't worry. I'll never forget you. And I won't let you forget you either, you big gross dummy." She paps him and plants a kiss on his forehead.

He allows himself a small smile. She does not understand that the forgetting is the point. If he could somehow cease to exist entirely, so that no one could ever look at him again, that would be ideal.

But then he would be unable to protect Nepeta at all, and that possibility is abhorrent enough that he resigns himself being real.

(There is an old guilt there that he does not discuss, not with himself, not with Nepeta. It stems from flickers of old nightmares, from evenings spent swallowing around a throat swollen with bruises that for some reason he can't quite recollect obtaining, from the despairing surety that he has already failed her once.

So he continues to exist, despite the beckoning call of the void. He shall endure.)

Of course, Nepeta then proceeds to spend the next hour babbling about her latest shipping grid, showing him charts of her speculation on her phone, and trying to convince him that Hemogoblin and Flashstep would be a dark-horse 'kismewsissitude,' only slightly more antagonistic than her old pitchtp of Lady Cascade♠Blind Justice. Nepeta has a habit of rooting for the underdog pairings - and it doesn't get more daringly speculative than shipping two heroes who have not and likely will never meet, ever.

When Equius admits defeat and lets them suit up fifteen minutes early, worn ragged by the utter nonsense Nepeta spews about the Heir of Breath going clubs for Cold Tide (as though a human would ever be able to handle such a subtle, mysterious quadrant!), the oliveblood grins like a cat with a bowl of cream, and Equius can only curse himself for a fool, having played once again into her claws.

If she were anyone but his moirail, he would have been irate. Instead, he sighs, and goes to fetch Nepeta's Kevlar and armor before she can attempt to run out the door wearing only her outrageous cat suit.

-

Later, they wander the streets in a grid formation. Nepeta sniffs the air and zigzags off in pursuit of some new scent, and he crashes after her, each STRONG jump carrying him effortlessly from building to building while Nepeta scampers along with her superior agility. He leaves some dents in the roofs when he misjudges the landing, which is often, thanks to the extra weight of the black and blue plated armor that encases his body, but he reassures himself with the knowledge that he'd have to truly apply himself to punch all the way through to the ground floor.

Nepeta would have him think of her as the Pawsitively Magmewficent Pounceavenger. This will obviously never happen in a million years. He thinks of her as Nepeta, because that is who she is and he has no use for that sort of identity nonsense, and when he needs to speak with her, in order to preserve their anonymity, he calls her Huntress. It is the name the rest of Jacksonville has taken up as well, much to the Pawsitively Magmewficent Pounceavenger's chagrin. Equius just sees it as evidence of his good sense and taste. Huntress can announce herself as...that other name as often as she likes; the papers and the Internet know her as Huntress, and so Equius is appeased.

In retaliation, she had campaigned all through the weeks immediately before their month-long hiatus to have him dubbed the Cobalt Crusher. Truly, he should have known better than to get in a nicknaming war with the troll who coined the term 'Juggling Chainsaws' for the Malachite Sylph♠Juggaloco pairing.

To his right, white fur catches the moonlight, and he tenses before realizing that the swift shape is Pounce de Leon, Nepeta's lusus, catching up with them at last. How a cat with all the weight and proportions of a large albino lion-tiger hybrid reached the rooftop at all is beyond his comprehension, but it bounds alongside Nepeta in wide strides, and Nepeta yowls at it in greeting, her deep green catsuit and the dark blue of all the additional armor Equius foisted upon her outlined by the streetlights below. The lusus lives outside the city, but somehow seems to have a sixth sense for when Nepeta is on the prowl, and tends to show up to serve as a sort of feline sidekick while they patrol.

The only reason he permits the lusus to accompany them is because Nepeta has assured him (and he himself has checked the online records) that Pounce de Leon is as feral as they come, a rogue lusus who kidnapped her from the grub center and raised her in the woods away from normal troll and humankind for years before enrolling her in kindergarten as though said strange upbringing never occurred. Many times over the years feral lusii teams have attempted to corral the giant white cat, to no avail. Fortunately, this also means that the lusus has never been officially assigned to Nepeta, and thus cannot be connected to her as a hero or as a civilian.

Equius just wishes the great cat had not taught Nepeta that hunting prey naked in the woods was a viable method of dealing with one's enemies. It just did not transfer well to her years in public school, or real life in general. The football coach at her third middle school had finally strapped her into the uniform and told her to go nuts on the field, and the rest was history, but aside from that Equius has garnered that she was an unbelievable problem child before he entered her life as a stabilizing influence.

The solution, obviously, is to never leave her side. He has the unmistakable premonition that without each other, they would both stumble and fall apart. Such is the nature of moirallegiance: perhaps if they had never met, they would have learned to compensate for their own failings, but now that they do know each other, know the sensation of mutual stability and support, losing one would kill the other - whether slowly, or in a bloody, headlong rush, remains to be seen.

He puts these thoughts aside. They unsettle him, and make him think of nightmares best forgotten.

They run through the humid night air over Jacksonville, and set to work.

Chapter Text

He starts remembering the day he gets to paint, and after that it doesn't take long at all.

-

It's been a long motherfuckin' time since he last got his paint on - years, he thinks vaguely, or maybe just months. Time is hard. He runs a claw through the dried cobalt blue encrusted around the rim of the paint jar. Everything is a nice woozy blur today, so he must have gotten some of the good shit, but when he dips a filed-down claw into the blue and draws it out, the paint glistens with startling clarity in the artificial lighting, like he's dipped his hand in liquid blue miracles. He hums slightly and draws a line down the fresh, clean sheet of paper on the table.

At least, he intends it to be a line; his claws are all wobbly and he can't make them cooperate at all, the little motherfuckers.

He blinks once, and the blue is everywhere. He blinks again, and it's gone, and all that's left is his nice little line on the page.

-

Sometimes he thinks there is two of him.

He shuts the other one in a box in a box in a dim, quiet place, and he submerges it in drugs.

It doesn't help.

-

He likes the line better when it's all orderly and not getting all over the place. He misses the paint jar the second time he tries to dip a claw in, stabbing at the table instead, and he chuckles unsteadily to himself at the mistake.

It's a shame he doesn't get the really happy-making drugs anymore, but the docs had said something about 'mania' and switched him to thi new shit. As though there was something wrong with a troll being MOTHERFUCKING ECSTATIC about the little miracles of life. But sometimes he can still muster up enough amusement to break through the lazy, dreamy slur of everyday life, and crack a smile.

He doesn't use too many teeth though. They don't like that.

-

(He smiles and smiles and sMILES until they soak him in acid, cauterize his thinkpan, bleach away the colors in his brain

(and everything is quiet for a while and

he hates it.)

-

He manages a second line, at an angle with the first, and smiles genuinely at his handiwork. Art is the bitchtits. He hasn't gotten to do art in a while, but he can't remember why he lost the privileges for art therapy in the first place. Memories are slippery like that, especially since Gamzee's claws are

-

slick with blood and everything is so hard to hold onto -

-

He twists open the olive green next. It helps take his mind off his aching claws. There's less of the green left than there was of the blue - someone else has been using these paints before him, and he wonders what they painted, what MASTERPIECES they created that he'll never get to see - and he messes up and uses the same blue-slathered claw to get at the green, lacing the entire jar with blue as he shakes. His claws are always shaky these days. Oopsy daisy!

He hopes he doesn't piss off any of the other poor motherfuckers locked up in this place by doing that. There are some pretty angry guys around here. They all need a big motherfuckin' group hug to work some of that aggression out, but the last time Gamzee tried to hug a brother who needed it, they shot him up with the not-good drugs, the ones that make his pan SHUT THE FUCK UP but also shut him down, too, and he'd been stuck in the isolation room in the straightjacket for a week until he promised not to go givin' out hugs to poor motherfuckers all willy-nilly.

-

Ain't no recooperacoons here, just nice white square of beds with the little restraints attached and everything.

The last thing you need, they tell him, is access to sopor.

He agrees. He expresses this by digging his claws into his temples until they pin him to the floor and he is gone gone gone -

(He lies there when they let him out of isolation and memorizes the grey scuff marks scraped into the tile by some other poor bastard thrashing on the bed, stroking the marks with a claw. Days like that, even the faint, echoing screeches of metal on tile are too much for him, and he has to curl up in a ball until they peel him apart from the inside to take him to dinner.)

-

He adds two lines of green, and chirrups happily to himself at the sight of the finished product. It's a diamond, all wobbly and messy, with little splatters of paint and tear marks speckling the sides. The blue runs into the green and staring at it is like swallowing nails like tearing his horns out by the root like looking into the sun -

It's not a sun though, it's a world

-

and he can't remember why that's important. can't even tell why he up and thought that thought at all.))

-

Sometimes his thinkpan just does that, trickling away like slime down a drain and floating back up with something profound, a piece of flotsam on the tide that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the pieces in his nicely shattered brain. He tries to ignore it when the narrative gets too wonky. All them dashes and italics and mismatched parentheses ain't got no business messing with a brother's brain that way. But he doesn't really know how to turn it off, either.

Better to just focus on what's in front of him. He ignores the rest.

But he thinks he wants to paint that, too. It would be easiest if he could just reach into his skull and lovingly carve out his thinkpan, to lay his throbbing, dizzy brainmeat upon the page like an offering

but the artsy way is so much more FUN!

(and he doesn't like offerings anymore. they make his jaw hurt from clenching and the rage claw at his eyes like swords and he doesn't think he'll ever serve again)

He smiles wide, tears running down his cheeks and gettin' all whimsical on the page, and he cracks open the indigo and the purple to smear the two colors together on the paper. He uses more than he needs to, dumping the purple out of the jar entirely until the entire page is soaked through. The page warps and wrinkles when he gets too much paint in one place, but he works around the wrinkles, using both hands to smoosh the paint around. Sometimes the jingly bracelets on his wrists clack together while he works, and a snarl of something dark and ugly curls in his throat until he swallows it back down.

The blue and green diamond is all gone now, where he doesn't have to look at it anymore.

He wonders if it will survive if he just doesn't look upon it.

He inspires destruction, after all.

-

There's something he shouldn't forget about. Obviously, he's forgotten it again. He looks up and fixes his best smile on his face, adjusting the corners of his mouth with his fingers until he thinks he's got the shape right. Then he wipes at his face to get rid of them silly indigo tears and straightens up the desk, closing all the paint cans with careful twists, deliberate and slow. He has to do that, even with the nice buzz, because sometimes he just reaches out and things break.

He inspires destruction, but that's a thought for another time, a screaming time.

"Hey, nurse-sis? I gotta go soon," Gamzee tells the troll sitting primly in a chair by the wall. Her ganderbulbs are all wide and luminescent and jade green, but it's not the right shade of jade. He would know the right jade if he saw it, and this isn't it. Those eyes are wrong wrong wrong.

He reaches out and smashes her face into the edge of the table. The wrong blood gets all over his bitchin' white smock, and they burst into the room with their needles and knives

-

Wait, no. That's not a thing that happened. Gamzee shudders, feeling it rock his whole body like a distant tremor. It's hard to tell what's real and what's a fuzzy dream and what's a

memory

particularly when he gets his consideration on, and suspects that the dashes and the section breaks are out of order again. He's in the wrong section, that's all!

-

But that's no reason to get all nasty and disre-fucking-spectful toward a sister just tryin' to do her job. So he very nicely retracts his claws, letting them hang loose by his sides, instead of scrambling over the table to pop her MOTHERFUCKING OFFENSIVE eyeballs in their sockets like a grape.

It wouldn’t be a nice shade of green, anyway, so what would be the point of making art out of her?

Nurse-sis - her name is Zilana, right? He thinks it used to be a Tilmyr until that one incident with the hot stew and the rubber duck - blinks at him, her eyes all huge and wide and dewy like a hoofbeast's. "You still have twenty minutes of art therapy left, Gamzee," she says gently, softly, and her voice is too soft, not nearly ashen enough. (it infuriates him when they think they have the GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKIN' RIGHT to pacify him -

He has his palebro. Hishishis. Even if he can't recollect exactly where he's at, right now. It sure as shit ain't one of these nurse-sisters he'll be getting his feeling jams on with, not ever.)

"Do you have to use the restroom?" she asks, still pale as ice, and just as cutting. It stabs right into his thinkpan like an icicle, slicing away the haze of the drugs, and he despises it because it doesn't pacify at all. It wakes something up.

But he can't let her know that. He's supposed to be tellin' someone when the drugs feel like they're wearing off; he never does.

If she doesn't notice, well - ain't no thing.

Not a thing at all.

-

The thing in the box stirs, and he lets it be. It's hard to care what's going on with all these drugs in the way!

:o)

:o(

-

"Nope. Just done with art for now," he says, all reasonable and shit. They like reasonable. Reasonable gets him art therapy and lighter drug regimens and less of the dark quiet time they PRETEND is supposed to help him get his thinkpan straightened out.

"Well, I'm afraid your session with Therapist Warren is not for another twenty minutes." She smiles with teeth. So many teeth.

Another curl of rage, and Gamzee is starting to forget why he's restraining it at all. Forgetting and remembering and forgetting again. "I have to go. My friends. I need to go see my friends," he insists. This is important.

Nurse Tilmyr hadn't understood how important.

She's not around anymore.

Nurse-sis sighs. "You don't have common room privileges yet, Gamzee," she says, patient and serene. "Not after last time."

"What happened last time?" he asks.

-

She never does answer.

But maybe if she had told him what happened, filled up his thinkpan with all the guilt that usually comes when Gamzee remembers real life things, the thing in the box might not have had room to crawl out and stretch itself, languid and slow, with a hum that reverberates through his teeth and down to the curl of his toes.

More and more, as Gamzee smears purple, gloopy paint across the table, absently trying to clean it up, he can feel the memories bubbling up.

This time, he thinks, they're not going to stand in his way.

After all, he has to go see his friends!

-

"Nurse Zilana tells me you've been relatively lucid today, Gamzee."

Gamzee looks at his toes and wiggles them, not answering. They're tiny little grubs with the claws clipped short. He doesn't get shoes here, either, but he's alright with that. Means he gets to walk barefoot everywhere, feeling the tile floor that's the same temperature of the sluggish blood carting all those drugs into his veins.

(The rage is still there though, and he thinks he hears chuckles echoing up from below as the drugs begin to burn away, faster than they've ever cleared his system before.)

Grumpy-man has shoes. Gamzee feels sorry for him. All those laces 'n buttons 'n suits 'n things - he likes his smock. Smocks are comfy. "Do you remember why you are here, Gamzee?"

That's a question, which means Gamzee has to answer. He twists his mouth and tries to remember something he would have said only an hour ago, when the meds were still doing their job. "Gotta talk with my main therapist brother?" he says. "Get our chill on?"

"No, what I meant to ask was - do you recall why you were brought to this hospital in the first place?"

-

He first loses it in Madrid.

The Grand Highblood is just another coldblood here, and Gamzee can't imagine why he'd be anything more in another time and place. But it makes some bitchtits waves when some motherfucker notices Gamzee's face free of paint and rumors spread. It's only a matter of time until he gets nabbed off the street and dragged to Spain, where the Condesce has her court at the time. Colder bloods are the only trolls who tend to live long enough to locate their genetic descendants, but Gamzee would have rather stayed a face-painter on the streets, mirthful and wild, because antes só do que mal acompanhado, and it's only after Gamzee looks at Saturn Makara's face that the chucklevoodoos begin to scream in his ears and demand to be used.

Does he know Spanish? Or was it Portuguese? He can't remember sometimes. He mostly just uses Alternian after Grand-Dad picks him up off the streets in Lisbon - apparently, human languages ain't down with the clown, with a highblood in the public eye who sits at the Condescension's right hand.

[one language is never enough, Tavros tells him later. Uma só língua nunca basta, Gamzee repeats, trying to get back into practice, and Tavros loses the stutter to sing the Spanish version for him, with the Mexican accent that lends itself more to song than prose.]

When he wakes up, the court of the Condesce is on its knees before him, spittle trickling from slack mouths, those with weaker minds clawing their eyes from their sockets.

Not exactly his best moment. He didn't know what he was doing, back then. He knows better now.

The only reason he ends up in a mental institution, he thinks, is because her Imperial Capriciousness wasn't there to be exposed herself - she was in Italy, taunting her heiress. As it is, his ancestor hushes the incident up and Gamzee is relegated to this backwater psychiatric motherfucking HOLE.

They call him crazy.

-

But it's only ever been the drugs talking.

-

Gamzee laughs and that's a mistake. The therapist's eyes narrow to mean-ass slits, and Gamzee has to backpedal. "Cause I'm all drugged out in the thinkpan, man," he says, slowing his words and swallowing down all the swears. Breathe calm breathe calm breathe RAGE breathe calm. "Need to get my sleep on all the time 'n shit."

"No. You are here because you have proven dangerous to yourself and others." The therapist sighs, and his disappointment tastes like provocation on Gamzee's tongue. But then, Gamzee can spin anything into rage, into the faroff beat of war drums. "Do you remember your diagnosis, Gamzee? Anything? I don't know that we can make any progress with your treatment when your long term memory remains this impaired by the dementia. How far back can you remember?"

Therapist-man is eyeing the cup of pills on his desk; Gamzee isn't trusted to take his own chill-pills, of course, and these sessions usually end when they stop 'making some GODDAMN progress.'

But he's so close. So close to remembering it all. So close to -

So. He lets the shrink in on some of his latest revelations, those tiny miracles, dark and light, that are scraped up from under the drugs as he pieces the crazy and the sanity together again. "Went and used the chucklevoodoos too much," Gamzee says, whispering like he's confiding in this motherfucker, digging through this new fount of memory he's got spewing everywhere in his thinkpan. The drugs burn away, scoured from his system as he pulls out each new memory to savor it and inspect it, turning it in the darklight of his building rage.

He doesn't know how the therapist misses it, but then, when has this MOTHERFUCKER ever really seen what there is to see?

"Chucklevoodoos are not real, Gamzee," the therapist replies earnestly, as though he's repeated this several times before. Gamzee's not surprised; if the motherfucker doesn't believe in the chucklevoodoos after all this time with Gamzee wandering the halls, he must be pretty motherfuckin' slow on the uptake.

-

(Because when Gamzee walks the halls at night, when he's supposed to be all tucked in snug as a bug in his not-a-coon, the other patients scream.

He's gotten better about that. It's not like he likes hurting them. It just happens.)

But the therapist leans forward, eager, away from the cup-o-pills, and that buys Gamzee all the time he needs to

-

wreck

their

shit

-

start cranking up the harshwhimsy in here. Let a little bit of the chucklevoodoos leak out of his brain and into the air.

It is still difficult to remember why he needs to find his friends. But he's certainly not letting this fucker keep him in this hospital anymore. A Bard like Gamzee walks where he wills, and he has been pent up here for far too long. Closed in spaces do things to his thinkpan.

"The chucklevoodoos are a product of your psychosis. Do you realize that?" Therapist Warren blathers on, oblivious. "You have responded very well to the medication, particularly in comparison to some of our other patients. If you can work through that first mental break with me, I think it will help you even more."

And the therapist chuckles.

Him bein' a dumb motherfucker, he doesn't realize why he's chuckling.

Gamzee chuckles with him, and smiles, and smiles, and smiles.

-

There's a psychiatric hospital outside of Aracena, in the province of Huelva, somewhere in southwest Spain. They specialize in trolls, and the nurses speak Alternian exclusively, and it is called the Hospital de San Vito.

(Gamzee thinks São Vito in his head, and grins. Patron saint of comedians, dancers, and epileptics. It's a good name.)

When Gamzee walks free that day, the people report blackouts and seizures for miles around, and no one seems to remember what happens. But cameras capture humans and trolls alike falling to their knees, and when they rise from the cobblestone streets, they dance with tears in their eyes until their feet bleed and the roads are slick with red and rainbows.

Of course they do. Their Bard walks the streets.

:o)

-

Maybe Grand-Dad looks for him, or maybe he doesn't. Gamzee wouldn't know.

He takes his secrets and his lyre and his rage, and he vanishes into the night.

If they call him a hero or a villain or something in between, he doesn't hear.

-

When he and Tavbro cross into the United States, Gamzee is relying entirely on the other troll's sense of geography. Most of the time, the only places Gamzee can think of are from a planet that doesn't exist anymore, and he can't do the navigating thing on this tiny little world.

"Gamzee? Gamzee, ¿a dónde vamos?" his Tavbro asks, twisting around in his wheelchair. It breaks Gamzee's motherfucking bloodpusher to see that one of his best friends is still all broken this way. "S-seriously, where are we going?"

If Tavbro were the moirail he has it all up and stuck in his thinkpan that he is for Gamzee, Gamzee would never think to hide anything from him. But he's not, and Gamzee knows who is, but Gamzee's always been a sucker for motherfuckers with mohawks. (Well. Just the one, really.) So he keeps it vague, just like their quadrants. "Nós temoslugares para ir, Tavbro. Ele não é uma coisa," he says, and he grins slow and toothily, the way that sends most brothers running because they know their end is here.

Tavbro is worth ten of them, and just rolls his eyes. It's a far cry from the stuttering, uncertain troll who had opened his door on one creepy motherfucking indigoblood, but he still had the nerve to invite Gamzee in while Gamzee bawled all over his lap like a sobbing wriggler, so to be honest Tavbro's always had some nerve. "Lo que en Estados Unidos es tan importante que tenemos que viajar hasta aquí?" he asks wryly, rearranging their supplies in the basket under his 'chair.

Gamzee puts his claws to Tavbro's wheelchair, and starts trundling him down the abandoned stretch of road. Well, the guard station they sail by is manned, but Tavbro would be all disapprovin' and make all kind of sad faces if he realized Gamzee was using chucklevoodoos again. "Amigos, Tavbro. Nossos melhores amigos," he says simply, and he drops his head against that poofy mohawk before he continues down the road.

"O-one day, I'm going to get some s-straight answers out of you," Tavbro sighs, sitting upright. "I could still go home, you know!"

When Gamzee hugs Tavbro from behind, he holds too tight, and his claws dig into the skin of the other troll's arms. "Don't leave me again." His voice is flat out of miracles. But that isn't the kind of thing Tavbro should be joking about. Very unmiraculous of him.

"I won't." Tavbro is nice enough not to mention that there was never a first time for him. He doesn't remember. Not yet. "Pero sólo porque creo que le estrellarse y arder sin mí," he adds, giving his hesitant laugh and papping Gamzee on the arm.

Everything about it is wrong (because they're not pale, they're not, no matter how strange this world is), but Gamzee endures. There's not a lot he wouldn't do for one of his best motherfucking friends, including invertibrothers he feels more than a little red for. That Tavbro was willing to go on this little trip at all is a miracle all on its own.

"You know, I probably motherfucking would!" He laughs, because

(he already did)

They head north, exchanging some alternative slam poetry as unfamiliar galaxies shine overhead, and Gamzee lets the rage go when the border guards are out of sight. It's easier to channel it everyday, no longer overwhelming and panmelting in its intensity. It's a lot of power, but he just has to know that he's not meant to hold onto it.

He inspires it, he conducts it, and lets others feel the rage for him.

He is the Bard, and this is his dark carnival now, motherfuckers.

-

(Ele cresce ao longo do rio Tejo, e ele está feliz.)

Chapter Text

===> Be Eridan Ampora

Fef leaves, and that's when it all goes to shit.

At least before that, he's copin'. He has his moirail, he has his hero gig (even if he does suck at it), and he has a nice house right by Fef's mini-palace out at sea.

And a nice little tray of pills that he takes every morning, the ones that keep the voices down and let him ignore some of the more questionable impulses that whisper in his thinkpan. If he were anyone else's moirail, Eridan is resigned to the fact that he'da been locked up in one of those crappy mental retreats glubbin' ages ago. But he'n Fef have been together since they were twelve years old, when she swam in on her world tour from Italy, and she chose him. She relocated her entire compound, all her staff and belongings, and set up her own hero gig here in Los Angeles.

For him.

And because of that - because certain people have been assured that Fef is here to keep Eridan in line, to shooshpap him down away from the breaking point - he's allowed to medicate himself, instead of being quietly shuffled off into a hospital like most trolls with borderline coldblood dementia. And when the mutters get too loud, he can ride over to Fef's place and listen to her talk about her latest herd of cuttlefish rescues until it all goes quiet and numb.

Some days are easier than others.

(Some days, the voices hiss and laugh at him and egg him on, and not even Fef can drown them out. Those are the days he locks himself in and closes all the blinds and when Fef pouts at him over Pesterchum about sulking, he shreds the curtains and overturns bookshelves and claws at himself until the white-hot rage goes away. It feels like acid boiling in his thinkpan, iridescent rage that eats away at his foundations, until there's no ground left to stand on.

The last time that happened, Fef had to kick down the door in a wave of sea water and drag him down into the ocean, where he could scream and writhe in a cloud of bubbles while his gills screamed at him for the sudden pressure shift. Fef has command of the water of the sea, and when he claws he can't hurt anybody, and he works himself out of his fury until he can barely tread water, exhausted. Fef pulls him into her arms, her eyes sad and mournful and tired behind her goggles. She's always so tired when he gets like this.

Those are the bad days.)

On the good days, he's fuckin' fine, alright? He is the glubbin' epitome of stability. Those other days are just flukes and when they're gone they're gone. He doesn't even think about the voices. He's got better things to do.

Like right now, in the middle of a fight with a whale-hunters. He's too busy listening to Fef tear these murderous assholes a new one, like the badass she is, while he sits astride his lusus with his harpoon slung across his back, just waiting for these punks to give him a reason. Just one. He's not the best swimmer (he's awful, honestly, probably the worst violetblood out there, but he'd shoot down anyone who called him out on it) but on the other hand with Fef here he's never in danger of sinking. It’s too early for the sun to have risen, but the costume sticks to him uncomfortably anyway with a layer of sweat. He’s decked out in a recreation of an imperial naval captain’s garb from the days of the old Alternian Empire, right down to the epaulettes and passants on the shoulders, and they weigh him down despite the fact that he really did make an effort to cut back on the ornamentation. Fef had gone on and on about practicality in a hero costume, so he really simplified the thing. With his harpoon launcher repainted a nice navy blue to complement his purple color scheme, he thinks he still manages to look rather dashing, despite the absolute travesty he had to reduce the costume to.

Fef, meanwhile, has raised herself up to the level of the boat's deck, her arms folded over the pinkish-purple and black of her suit, standing on a pillar of water that froths and roils around her feet. She tends to take the lead in these endeavors, because Eridan has a sense of class; he's violet and Fef is tyrian. One day, she's gonna to rule the whole damn world, if she ever sets her mind to it, and people need to respect that. Even him.

It's not hard to imagine, either. From this angle, Fef is glorious. She's like a goddess, sprung forth fully formed from the sea. Her horns curve back and up in an elegant curve, her earfins stick outward in frothy, feathered frills, and her bod is bangin' in the skintight embrace of her suit. Seriously, if Eridan hadn't helped her zip that costume up in the back like a glubbin' hundred times by now, he woulda sworn up and down the thing was painted on.

...Scratch that last part. These are unprofessional thoughts. Fef would scold him for thinking of her as Fef at all - she's supposed to be Lady Cascade when they're doin' the hero thing, and Eridan is generally good about respecting her wishes. Like, if he went to get her attention, he'd say the right name. But he can't even think of himself as Cold Tide half the damn time, so he just tries to remember not to go flinging 'Fef's around in front of the scum they deal with on a daily basis.

So Eridan listens while Fef chews these guys out. "I don't care if this is your livelihood! Find a new one!" she orders, her teeth bared in an elegant snarl. If these were trolls with some sense o' decorum, they wouldn't have dared deny Fef any request - Lady Cascade's blood color is a poorly concealed secret. But most of these dicks hanging over the side of the whaling boat are human, and they have no respect for blood royalty like Fef. "This is not only an abominable, criminal, gillegal act, it is murder! And I, as the Lady Cascade, will not allow such flagrant disregard for the sanctity of the sea. You will turn this boat around and turn yourselves in, or you won't have a ship anymore!"

One man snorts, and just walks away from the railing. Another, the one Fef has been trying to deal with the most, rolls his mucky human eyes. "Little lady? Take my advice and step off. Go home and yell at tourists for littering, sweetheart." He turns, too, his whole back a wide open target. Eridan's claws itch on the trigger, but shooting people in the back is apparently a no-no.

Yeah, it's a relatively new thing, this Lady Cascade and Cold Tide gig - they only really started up about a year ago - but these guys must not be local to Los Angeles if they haven't learned by now how incredibly stupid it is to say no to Fef. Especially when she's already pissed enough to have the water carry her up into the air like that.

Fef's nostrils and gills flare, and she bares her teeth at the man's back. "Fine! Don't say I didn't warn you!" she adds, sinking back down on her fount of water until she's down with Eridan at sea level. "What a bunch of meanies! Reely! These guys have no respect for a pair of heroes!" she complains, arms still folded over her chest.

"Downright outraygeous," Eridan agrees, sniffing. Fef's stern frown twitches a little at the corner, and he knows she caught the pun. Fef has a sixth sense for nautical puns, and after so many years of moirallegiance, Eridan has plenty of material to use when she needs to lighten up. See? He's not useless.

"Get ready to move, Cold Tide," Fef says, raising her hand. Her smile widens a little as her eyes gleam, and the water responds to her call. "These guys like viciously hunting down poor, innocent whales? Let's see how they like being beached!"

With a gurgling whinny, Seahorsedad responds to Eridan's tapped heels and the yank of the reins, and they bob out of Fef's way. At a distance, Eridan watches while Fef stands on the surface of the water and shoves both palms forward. Instantly, the water slams backward and up under the ship, cradling it even as the vessel sloshes up higher in the air than it was ever designed to ride. The chorus of surprised screaming brings a cruel smile to Eridan's lips. Then, with a cry, Fef flings the ship forward on the violent tide she's stirred up, and chases after the ship as the water rushes it towards shore. They're several miles off the coast, but the water carries Fef almost faster than she could swim herself. Eridan kicks his lusus with a 'yah!' and they spring after her, cutting through the waves that ripple out in the wake of the whaling ship's speedy, unplanned return to shore.

Some might have said bringing his custodian along to be a hero is a little glubbin' childish. But Eridan knows he can't keep up with Fef in the water. Regardless of her superior blood, her unique (as far as they know) power to manipulate the water of the sea gives her even more of a speed boost. Seahorsedad is a mount who can almost keep up with her; it's just a matter of expediency.

After a few quick minutes, they reach the beach. Fef aims for the nearest empty patch - it's five o'clock in the morning, so she only has to toss a few wayward surfers out of the way before the boat crashes up against the beach in a cloud of sand and saltwater. She could have used way more force to toss the damn thing, but Fef has rules about not killin' people. So many rules. So the whaling vessel sets down almost gently, compared to how it could have played out, and Eridan catches up a few moments later, bobbing in the surf while Fef considers the beached vessel with a claw pressed to a thick lower lip.

Eridan wonders what she'll decide to do. Glubbin' humans deserve exactly what's coming for them. His fingers spasm on the trigger, but he waits for Fef to make the next move, so he can follow her lead.

...He's not a glubbin' sidekick, okay?! He's just more of in a supportin' role, on accounta Fef is basically the hottest hero since the Torch and she gets shit done. But if she ever needs help, he is right here. Helpin'. Like right now. He is providin' all kinds of moral support. He is the fuckin' prince of moral support.

Instead of tearing them all new load gapers, Fef rides the crest of a wave, the seafoam crashing around her before neatly depositing her on the damp sand of the beach. She strides forward effortlessly across the sand and approaches the overturned ship. When she reaches the first man slumped over the railing, she seizes him by the heavy jacket and tosses him to the ground facefirst. She straddles him, yanks his hands behind his back, and zip-ties them together.

Great. So they don't even get to rough these fuckers up a bit before they arrest them? Eridan sighs bodily, and then nudges Seahorsedad a little closer to shore so that when he dismounts he's barely in three feet of water. His boots are going to need careful care when they get home so they don't lose all shape and shrivel up, but he likes them too much the way they are to waterproof them.

"You got him, F- Cascade?" he asks, tripping over the name.

His eyes linger on Fef's back too long, until she looks up, her wet hair whipping around as she grins at him. "I got it! You can start in on the rest, right?"

"Of course," he says, tossing his cape. He stumbles on the sand in the next second, but he keeps walking like it didn't even happen. Not like Fef would ever do more than giggle at his temporary failure to maintain a perfect, noble grace on land, but anyone could be watching now that they've brought this spectacle to shore. He is a creature of grace and dignity, okay?

The first man he comes across isn't a problem. The human barely moans in protest, and curls up in a ball when Eridan, his face a mask of distaste, uses his boot to rolls the slob over and cuff him. The man could at least try to maintain some decorum, but then, how could Eridan expect anything else from a fuckin' whaler?

What happens next ruins everything. Eridan steps on the ziptied man's hands with more force than is really necessary - a little bit of payback that Fef would disapprove of - and looks around for the next piece of shit whaler to arrest.

He finds one, all right. But this guy isn't down for the count like the rest of the crew. He's burly and staggering across the sand with heavy steps, an absolutely trollish specimen of humanity.

And when he raises a knifekind, three feet from Fef's exposed back, Eridan sees white. The sand isn't a problem when Eridan sprints forward and tackles the man around the waist, bringing him to the ground. Close range combat isn't Eridan's specialty, but he lands on top and reaches out with grasping claws to grip the man's knife hand. The knife goes spinning across the sand out of the man's grasp, but Eridan squeezes anyway, breathing hard, until he hears a most satisfying crack.

"Oh god! My arm, you broke my arm!" the man shrieks.

"It's your wrist, you dumb fuck!" Eridan yells back, and then he brings back his free fist and punches the whaler across the face. He hits the man's eye rather than the nose, so obviously he has to try again until he crushes the cartilage inward and leaves a wreck of this fucker's face. "How dare you. How dare youtry ta pull a knife on her?! Filthy landdweller!" he spits down at the man's swollen face.

White-hot hate churns in his collapsing and expanding bladder based aquatic vascular system, and he swings his harpoon free from the launcher strapped across his back to level it at the man's throat. At this distance, the point of the hook digs into his Adam's apple and the man gulps hard enough to accidentally prick himself and draw blood, eyes round with horror. "Unbelievable. I can't believe we actually let filth like you live," Eridan says, snarling with disgust.

No one threatens Fef. No one.

"Please don't kill me!" the whaler pleads, but Eridan keeps talking right over him. These pathetic appeals mean nothing.

"How dare you raise a weapon against her? God, you glubbin' humans are all the same, dumping your shit in the oceans an' murderin' creatures left and right. Why am I even surprised that you would try to pull something like this? No better than the fucking sludgebloods you share the land with -" He leans further forward with every word, careless of the harpoon, lost in all the pent-up rage he can never show around Fef -

"Cold Tide, water you doing?!"

He snaps out of it. He looks up, and meets Fef's horrified eyes. Somewhere in his blind rage, he'd somehow forgotten she was barely five feet away.

But it's not until he looks down again, and sees the harpoon lodged in the side of the human's throat, blood gurgling around the edges of the sharp metal, that he realizes just how badly he's fucked up.

Uh-oh.

Uh.

...Play it cool.

"How long've you been standin' there?" he asks weakly.

"Get off of him!" Fef yells, and Eridan obeys without thinking, scrambling backward with his hands gracelessly to get some distance between him and the landdweller. Fef falls to her knees beside the human opposite Eridan, her eyes wide behind her mask as she fumbles with her mask and reaches out, balancing the harpoon with a hand so it doesn't shift and cut more. "Oh glub, oh glub," she chants, putting pressure on the small hole Eridan accidentally cut in the man's throat. Seriously, it's tiny! Fef is clearly overreacting.

So why can't Eridan's hands stop shaking?

The rage is gone as quickly as it came, and his stomach starts to curdle with the cold left in its wake.

-

Fef makes him wait outside. It's fuckin' humiliating, being left behind in her personal limousine while the other troll, out of costume, hurries into the hospital to check up on that scumbag human. The driver throws him speculative looks in the rear view mirror until Eridan snarls at the woman and slams his whole fist down on the button to slide the privacy screen down between the cab and the back of the vehicle. Fef likes to 'talk' with the servants of her retinue (she refers to them as her family, because Fef is a sentimentalist), but Eridan has no such inclination to fraternize with the commoners. People can claim the hemohierarchy is dead all they like; he knows his place in society.

Fef hurries back out. It's a little brisk today, so she changed into a high-low fuchsia skirt and a light sweater, with a scarf looped around her neck, between the whaling ship and the hospital. The skirt rests high on her hips, and the sweater is artfully paneled so that her gills are exposed on each side of her ribs, a delicate flutter of tyrian-hued ruffles on either side of her waist. It's daring and avant-garde in all the best ways, because exposing ones gills in public, outside of competitive forums like sports and swimming tournaments, is rather...risqué. But now that Fef is out in public sporting this look, Eridan highly suspects that by next week the newest fashion trend sweeping coldbloods nationwide will imitate her. Fef is a powerful cultural force, that way.

When the paparazzi who dare to sneak this close to a tyrianblood begin their usual insufferable ministrations, their cameras flashing at a safe distance, Fef pushes her goggles up her nose and smiles genuinely, waving at them but ignoring a timid, shouted question entirely. This is LA and the media is obnoxious, but they've learned to respect Feferi Peixes the hard way. Fef gave Eridan a blanket command ages ago not to try to tear out their eyeballs anymore ('you can't just mutilate anyone who looks at me sideways, Eridan!' or some shit like that) but Fef can more than take care of herself. The last cameraman who tried to photograph her in the privacy of her hive had his arm broken in three places, and found himself mysteriously unable to find a market for his pictures ever again. The perks of royalty.

Fef tosses her waves of salt-curled hair and winks at the cameras one last time before opening the limousine door and sliding in, the one strip of hair that they dyed completely purple-pink a banner in the breeze. Eridan takes that mental image and files it away, not just because Fef is beautiful but because it reminds him of the night they had both dyed their hair, for once. Fef had groused and laughed but finally let him experiment with the dye until that tyrian stripe outlined one half of her face. Happier times.

The smile drops from Fef's warm face the next moment; Eridan slumps in his seat reflexively, trying to minimize the target he makes and look as downright pitiful as possible.

"Not here," she sighs at last, shaking her head and rubbing her temples with her claws. "This needs to wait until we get home."

Eridan perks up a little. Because she can't be that mad if she's still willing to talk to him. Silent treatments from Fef are the devil. He allows himself an inward sigh of relief; on the outside, he turns up his nose and sniffs, affected disinterest. The more controlled he acts, the less likely it is Fef will feel the need to lecture him over losing it a little earlier. Maybe. Hopefully. Eridan has never fucked up this badly before.

He gets it. Fef has some bleedin'-heart ideals, and so he caters to them, whether he buys into any of the blood equality shit or not. Because she's his glubbin' moray-eel and he's supportive as fuck. So ranting like that in front of her - however much she might have heard - was stupid of him. But he can still fix this. He knows he can, smoothing that veneer of cool confidence over any ripples in his mind that whisper he might have gone too far.

-

Fef doesn't dick around. Not with anything. She always, always speaks her mind. When he trails after her, closing the door of his hive behind them, she turns and says, without embellishment or pause, "Eridan, I think this is over."

Something hits him in the stomach like a rock. Eridan flinches bodily, and lowers his eyes when the force of that tired, stern fuchsia gaze overwhelms him. Nothing is worse than Fef's disappointment, not even those times when she drags him out to volunteer at soup kitchens and shit. "I don't know what you're talkin' about, Fef," he says, forcing his voice to sound steady even when his heart is revving. "The hero gig? Fuck, I said I was sorry like fifty glubbin' times. You know I don't handle people threatenin' you well."

"No. No, Eridan, that's not…" Fef trails off, and Eridan takes the opportunity to step closer. When she backs up, and then outright turns her back on him, striding away into the foyer, he knows it's worse than he thought. "It's not just the hero thing, though I'll be honest, that's a big part of it," she continues, her voice echoing in the high reaches of Eridan's hive. "It's - it's everything! God, I just can't do this anymore!" She grips her hair and tugs it, a restless action she's been making more and more lately.

"Fef, what are you even talking about?" he asks, following her into the kitchen. "What's wrong with anything?"

Fef shakes her head, and he flinches at the bitter look in her eye. "You're more of a threat than half the people we arrest, because you don’t care, do you? You - you called him a landdweller, you used that - that awful blood slur - Eridan, do you even realize how glubbin' hemoist that was?" Feferi asks, and her desperation makes his heart ache.

"Of course I do!" he yells. His head is a muddle of frustration and the knowledge that he is blowing it, blowing it, blowing it. This isn't what he should be saying. This isn't what he needs to say if he wants Fef to stay, but he can't stop. "I fucked up! I get it, Fef, thanks for rubbin' it in! I'm sorry you had to hear that, now why can't we move on!"

Because it should be good enough that he's apologized, right? He said he was sorry, for fuck's sake, will continue to say it until he's purple in the face if that's what Fef wants. But for some reason, Fef isn't fuckin' listening to him. She promised she would always listen -

"Because you're not trying anymore, Eridan!" Fef yells back, eyes flashing. "You could have killed that poor man, but you don't care, do you? You claim you do, but then you roll your eyes like it doesn't even matter that you just lied to my glubbin' face!" She throws up her claws. "Are you even taking your pills anymore?!"

Eridan jerks back, because that yell had bite to it, an undertone that zings through his brain like a shock.

Fef claps a claw over her mouth, looking just as startled as Eridan feels. But then she drops it, closing her eyes while her fuchsia lips twist in a grimace. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Eridan. But I just can't do this. I can't be the only one holding up this relationship. It - it's exhausting. And I can't be with someone who doesn't even try to understand my ideals. You know how important hemo-equality is to me, but you've never really cared about that. Not even enough to consider changing your mind, or compromising with me like a real moirail would -"

"What I do or think about other people has nothin' to do with this, Fef!" Eridan says, a little louder than he should. The medication starts to press in on his mind; it does that whenever he starts to well and truly lose his shit, but he of all people knows how flimsy that safeguard is. "I don't see why you would think one murderous little human could possibly break this diamond! We're happy, so why are you doin' this -"

"But you're not happy, Eridan. You're never happy, even when we're together," she replies. She has the fuckin' nerve to sound sorrowful, like she's not the one cracking their fuckin' diamond apart with a culling fork. She leans back against the counter, supporting herself with both hands, and she's so beautiful Eridan wants to fuckin' cry. "You're just - so angry, all the time, and I don't help. I don't that I ever really helped. You deserve better than a moray-eel that can't help you. We both deserve better. I'm not happy, and you're not happy, and it can't go on like this."

"We are fine," Eridan says. He forces his voice to be steady, to be firm, because clearly Fef needs something steady to hold onto right now. She's havin' some kinda crisis of moirallegience, and he's been a glubbin' idiot not to have seen this earlier. How long has she been letting this build up, hiding this bitterness when she obviously shoulda been telling him about it in one of their jams. He needs to show that she can still rely on him, just as much as he has to rely on her because of his stupid, stupid dementia. "Fef, please don't do this. You help, you help so much, and whatever is wrong right now, I swear I can stow my glubbin' drama and just listen to you. I mean it, we can break out the pile right now and you can talk this out."

Just don't walk out. Just keep talkin' to me, he thinks. Because he knows, with a sick knot in his stomach, that if Fef walks out the door, she won't come back. Fef doesn't do anything by halves. And somehow, without him realizing it, she's reached the point where walking out the door is very clearly an option.

When did they become so disconnected?

"We're not fine, Eridan! We've never been fine!" Fef shudders all over and closes her eyes, rubbing at her face. "I spend all my energy worrying about you, wondering if you're just going to hurt someone if I let up for even a second. I just - I don't think I have anything left."

"You don't have to worry about that. I'm fine. Look, I won't do the hero gig anymore," he says, even as the promise stabs and twists at him like a knife in the gut. The only real reason he went out there was to protect Fef, but apparently that's been doing more harm than good anyway. Fine. Whatever. He has zero attachment to being Cold Tide; he's a shitty hero. And if he's stressing Fef out by forcing it, then fuck everything about being a hero for a shitty city full of shitty, unappreciative landdwellers. "There! See! You don't have to even think about that anymore, I have so many other things I could be doin' while you're busy -"

"Like reading books on old genocides, the ones you cover up because you think I don't know about them," Fef says. Her voice doesn't even sound disappointed anymore, just flat. She pushes off the counter and walks right by him, ignoring the hand he reaches out to touch her shoulder. "I should never have encouraged you to help me do something like hero work - I drove you to be more violent, not less, and that's the opposite of being a good moirail. I don't know that I'm cut out to be one at all." She sails out into the front hall again, her stride as steady and unstoppable as the sea itself as she makes for the front door.

Eridan panics. She can't look like that. She can't stop caring like that, like it's as easy for her as flipping a switch and then boom, their years of friendship and moirallegiance don't mean a fuckin' thing. "Fef, stop it. Don't walk away from me!" he says, following hard on her footsteps, but not daring to reach out and pull her to a halt.

Fef stops with one claw on the door, one foot already over the threshold, and turns to stare at him. Her expression is flat, but her eyes gleam and for a brief, delusional moment, Eridan pretends he still has hope. "Eridan. I'm sorry. But if we force this, it'll all rot anyway," she says, gentle and soft and so placating he nearly lets himself be lulled. "I don't want either of us to suffer like that. We both need to be out, so we can try to find people who really love us. We both deserve that. So this is me. Getting out." She smiles, sad and grand and beautiful. "I hope you find someone who can make you really, truly happy, Eridan. I mean it."

Eridan lunges forward. "Fef! Fef, don't -"

“I’m going away, Eridan,” she says. But she’s stopped looking him in the eye, her gaze fixed in the distance over his shoulder. “I just can’t stay in Los Angeles anymore. There’s – I need to be somewhere else. I can feel it. I need to do what’s right for me, and you need to do what’s right for you. So please, please, don’t follow me.”

She shuts the door behind her gently, rather than slamming it, and somehow that just makes the whole thing worse.

And then he's alone.

(But he's never really been alone, has he.)

-

He doesn't see her off. Doesn’t even peel himself off the floor to send a text. When the third news bulletin about 'the heiress Feferi Peixes, descendent of Her Imperious Condescension' relocating to Washington DC hits the air, he shoves the remote through the television screen.

-

The only fuckin' ice cream he has in the freezer is Fish Food.

He wants to scream, but he doesn't have much of a voice left after the first few hours.

-

He has to send Seahorsedad around the end of the fourth day. The lusus is kicking up a fuss in the water outside the hive, shrieking loud enough that if Eridan had been plebian enough to have any neighbors they would have been kicking in his door to demand he control his custodian. But he refuses to venture down to the waterlogged room where the ocean laps up into the hive proper, that entrance that Fef used so many times to swim over, and so the lusus bugles desperately for nothing.

He’s old enough by now that the lusii handlers don’t question his request that they emancipate him early, and he buries his head against the side of the bed while he listens to Seahorsedad squeal with outrage and try to fight like the fuckin’ majestic sea lusus it is to break free when they come to pick it up.

It was a good and faithful lusus, and he’ll miss it. But it’s still spry and strong enough that it will probably be assigned a new wriggler before the week is out.

He’s crying over nothing.

-

The toilet flushes again. It's one of those water-saving ones, that are better for the environment or some shit.

Eridan doesn't really care right now. His claws jitter as he twists open the cap of the bottle with a grating click, and turns it upside down. The large, dusty yellow pills fall into the toilet with a rattle, and he tosses the empty bottle into the trash with the rest of his supply.

If he's goin' down, he's goin' down in a tempest, in a hurricane, in a blaze of white hot crazy.

-

He makes it a week and a half without medication before the voices become coherent.

Ȇ̅ͩ̓rͤ̑̓̐ͧ̓̊I̓ͤͦ̍͗̒̚d̈ͥͣ̑A̾n?

They sound like crystal scraping on wet rock, like an orchestra of knives, and the words carve through his mind like lightning. Eridan wraps his cloak around him like a security blanket and tries to fixate on the suddenly-difficult task of making himself  sandwich. Generally when he's in a huff like this, he doesn't eat until Fef harasses him into it -

But he's trying not to think about Fef anymore. She's not coming back, and he respects that. The fact that he's chosen the path of total mental implosion isn't a pathetic cry for help.

He's just...done.

Fuckin' shame a troll can't make a sandwich in peace, though. He's in his pajamas and his old roleplaying cloak and footie slippers, and is not anywhere near decent for dealin' with company at the moment. If he'd known he was going to be dealing with hallucinated voices, he would have at least done his hair, he thinks irritably.

Ô̇h̓̌ ͗̊E̒̑rͣ̔R͛ͬ̑d̿͛̈̍̿̿A͂ͥ̚n̔ͭ̒,ͪ ̎̈͊ͦ̚Ṡ̄͆̇̎͌̚w̓̇̒̾̆E͑ͣë́T͒͆̓ͧ̈ͣ͆ pRi̚N͌ͯ̿͂͆͌̑cͦͯ͌ͦͨEͣͧͧ͛ͮ͋.͊̆ͬ̑ͤ

Maybe, he thinks, he can stave this off if he just ignores it. Assert himself, dammit. He is not the madness, not yet. Sure, they diagnosed him at fourteen, but maybe he can fight this off with his own power. All these years of medicating must have made some kind of a dent. He is a strong, independent highblood, dammit, and dementia is an imperfection reserved for lesser trolls. He's better than this. Above it.

i͑̔̏ͬ̑ͤTͨ̓̆̂̚ ̌ͨ͛̈̉̂͆h́̌ͩÄ́͋̌͗͒̍s͒ ̊BͨėE̾̾ͬͣ̂̐̑n̈́ͣ̏ Sö́ͬ̅ ̉͛͒ͫ̔L̐ͭ̈̉̊o͑͂͛͗N̾̏̽̽͆ͦ̈́gͯ͐̃̑̽͆.͗͒̉̍ͪ̓̃ DḯDn̊̈́ͩ͋'ͤ̄ͨͭ̽T̊ͨ̇̑ͨͥ ̀̀͒ͨͦ̀y̓̈́̋ͪ̋͆̀Oͯ̑͑ͧu̽ ͯMͯ̚iS̓sͥ̑ ͯ̈Ü̆s?̆

"The glubbin' hell do you want?" he demands, and then he winces. Wow, that resolution lasted all of five damn seconds. Worse yet, the glub had just...slipped out.

No more fish puns.

From the abyss at the back of his mind, that unfathomable trench, the voices hum. Yǒͬ͗U͌̎ͤ ̅aŘéͣͪ ͌̅ͫ̂ A̐͗lͧ̏̓̒̈̓Oͨ͑̓ͩ̆nȄ̾̔͗̐̄̐ aͫ̎ͤG͆̌̇̈aÌ̈̄̚n͛.̓ͦ͑

Oh.

My.

Glubbin'.

Fuck.

Great. Now even Eridan's crazy fuckin' voices are all aboard with this one-troll pity party. Eridan puts down the knife he was using to slice the sandwiches, because if he keeps it in his hand he knows he's gonna start stabbin' shit. "I seriously do not need this from you right now," he snaps, gritting his teeth. "I am goin' through a really shitty emotional breakdown and the last thing I need is you all helping to rub salt water in the bleedin' wounds, all right?"

 ͧͣ͗̓Yo͛ͧ̂Ü̅ͭ ̾̏̐͒a̽Rͦ͒e͂͑̈̆ ̋̈́Aͬ͊̐lŴa̓Ys̔ͬ͑̇̚ ͐S͐͋̄o ͂͑͌̊̚Ȃl͒ͮ̋O̒ͥͮͭ͊̈́̅nE͆. ͮ͋t͒͐̑̽Ḧeͩ̒ͥYͬ͒ ̈́̈͆̍n̅̓̔Ev̑Erͯ Co̅̇̌M̈è̽̅ͥ͊ ̐̈́Fö́R̾̈́̄ ̚ẙ͒ͣͦO͆͋̋ͭͮu̍,̆͂͌̍ ͯTͪͩ̇̈́h̎̒͌̎͐̎̅OsE s̍Oͫ͐ͨ cA̓l̈́̅ͤL͒ͩe̾̅D͒͐ͦ̄͐̄̓ ̆͑fRiͯE̋ͦnD͒s̄̾.̒ ͛͒ͮhͫͬOw̿ W͛̐eͪ͗ P̏i͌͐̿T̾ͥ͗͒ͨyͩ͊ͩͬͧ̓ ̉̚ ͂y͂ͭ̾ͧ̈Oͣͮū̓͐ͫ͋̅~

"I don't have friends, you inconsiderate dicks. I just had -" Eridan cuts himself off.

a̔H!̂ ̎̊̍b͒Uͫ͌ͥ̇͒t Ÿͤ̍̋õͨUͭͦ̾͋̾̂ s͆ͩT̄i͐ͬ̎Ll ̊ͦHa̾V̆͛̓̏ͩ͂̌ė ͥ̌Uͪ̓s!͛̎̄

"I don't have anyone." With that suitably dramatic one-liner, Eridan picks up his sandwich and stalks off out of the kitchen. Mentally, he tries to picture himself leaving the voices behind to buzz in the kitchen. Let them talk to themselves for a while; he's gonna eat this sandwich and clean his harpoon and pretend his mind isn't slipping away into the abyss, one grain of sand at a time, through that crack that Fef isn’t around to patch up anymore.

-

When he wakes up in the morning, they're there. As he stumbles through some semblance of his former routine, the mutters surge and ebb at the shore of his mind, humming tunelessly all the while. Still, somehow, he pulls himself together enough to stumble to the boudoir and try to piece together his life. More than one bottle of hair product still lies on the floor, the contents smashed across the wall in one of his earlier tantrums, but there's enough left intact that he can shove the unruly bangs out of his face and up into a black and purple coiffe. Fef hasn't been around to help him redye the roots, and when he tears through the cupboard under the sink, he can't find any new dye.

Strange, how not being able to fix his hair properly suddenly matters again.When Fef first left, Eridan had been so determined to flush his life away in a royal hissy fit, to send his lusus off to the nearest grub center to find a new troll to raise so he could wallow in peace, without a hovering custodian to try to shake him out of his proper sulk. In hindsight, he was being a whiny little bitch about it, and he thinks it really was some kind of pathetic cry for help.

But what's the point of crying for help when no one is there to listen? Fef hasn't responded to a single one of his messages, and he can't even scroll through some of the more recent ones from his end without wincing and cringing at his total desperation. Still ignoring the brush of feathery voices that send shocks through his mind, he pesters her again. To, you know. Set the record straight. To establish that he is not still hung up on her. Obviously.

-- caligulasAquarium [CA] began pestering cuttlefishCuller [CC] at 09:42:30 --
CA: wwell
CA: can wwe just strike all that blubberin from the record
CA: like wwhat a glubbin mess thats dowwnright embarrassin to read
CA: if you havvent read that dont just dont
CA: but
CA: i am done wwith all that
CA: all i wwant is to havve a wword wwith you
CA: just bein all reasonable an civvilized here
CA: i just wwant to knoww that i havvent managed to totally bloww it
CA: that wwe can still be friends
CA: because i get it youre not down for anythin else anymore
CA: im a fuckin wreck i dont blame you for gettin out while you still could
CA: probably a smart movve
CA: anywway
CA: think im gonna head out today an do the hero gig
CA: cant let the landdwwellers think just because you relocated they get a free pass to dump shit evverywwhere
CA: dont worry im all over that shit you dont evven knoww
CA: gonna make you proud
CA: in such an unbelievvably platonic wway
CA: yeah im not makin sense anymore im outta here
-- caligulasAquarium [CA] ceased pestering cuttlefishCuller [CC] at 10:03:11 --

The voices are right there to pick up where they left off, filling that silence where Fef's lack of response leaves a void. Eridan rubs his forehead and lets the chatter run unimpeded. It's not like listenin' to the damn voices is gonna do any harm, right? As long as he doesn't do any of the stupid shit they tell him to do, he's got this in the fuckin' bag. He's practically a functional, sane troll.

Ȇ̅rI̓ͤͦ̍͗̒̚d̈ͥͣ̑A̾n.

Well. Aside from the shitty voices that insist on interrupting his brooding thoughts. "What?" He kicks a fallen pedestal out of his path as he tromps through the wreckage of his room. It took the brunt of his initial tantrum, so a lot of his favorite military history texts lie across the floor with the pages shredded. He used to keep this room in impeccable order, with all the books organized by last name of the historical conqueror or emperor they focused on, but even now that he has some of his spirit back, he can't bring himself to go through the motions of reshelving everything. Just crawling out of bed and putting on clothes has been a fuckin' struggle.

But he's thought about what Fef said. About trying to keep living without her. And how it's downright sad that a troll as fucking flawless as himself has wasted a good week or so wallowing in his own filth like he's no better than a landdweller.

"What even are you, this time?" he asks when the voices start humming again. He can't recall much from that first time he lost it - he just knows he's still got the scars over his gills where the paramedics had apparently decided to be total dicks with no knowledge of seadweller anatomy and apply the defibrillators. Whatever happened, it was too much for his brain and his heart to handle, all at once.

At least part of that pill regimen had been blood-thinners. He wonders if he'll even be able to tell the difference between the lightning shocks of the grimlight voices and a second stroke.

Maybe he's having one right now.

Ẅ̾eͨ̒̿̉̑̒ A͗͒ͪͧrͮ̈́E̒̆͒̊ ̓ͤ͗ͩͤ͋a̓N̈̾ͬg͛̓ͮͮ͊El̍ͮ̚S͑.ͮ yͨ̑̉ͪ͗̍ͦÖ́ͧ̂̔̇̚u̔ͮͣR ̋aͭͪN̓̾g̒E̐lͮ̑̇͌S?̊̈́̍̚ ͣdͤ̑Oͨnͬͣͥ'T ̊̔y̽ͭ̂ͭ̈́̄ͯOu Reͬͦ̌Mͪ̂̔eͤ̚Mb̀̂̊̀Éͭͩͯ͌r?ͬͣ̽͑ͤ͌ The voices sound almost hurt, like of course Eridan is totally on top of what form his hallucinations take after years of being nice and sane.

And wow, angels? What the fuckin' hell are these hallucinations drawing on? "There's no such thing as angels, you stupid shits," he says, stomping down the stairs. "This is the twenty first century, at least try to be fuckin' current on scientific advancements. My subconscious should know better than to be all superstitious 'n shit."

There is a legitimate pause. Like the voices don't know quite what to say when confronted with such flawless fuckin' logic. Yes. Do. Quail in the face of rationality like the fakey fakes you are, he thinks viciously.

Of course, they return with a vengeance a few moments later. B̚u̿̀̾͑ͮT ͐òͭ͗͌́F cͤO̽͆ͦ͋uR̓ͤ̑šE ̉̓̊̍̊̄w̉ͨͥ̋E̓͆ͪ̈̓̈́ ̄åȒ̅̿ͭ́ͣe͌͋! W̉͐ͪ̃̚e̒̿͋ ̑W͛̐̎i̓͋Ll ̿̃̅Al̔̇̒ͥWȁYs͋̾ͪ͌ B̉̍è̋ ̾ͭỸ͑͛̋ȏUr̽́͒͑ ͗̒A̋̌̃ͭn̐̇͌Ge͌ͯ͊Lsͤͧ͆̓, Ȧs͗̉ͧ L͐̋̈͐̌oͣ̈́̏̈́̒̌N̊̋ͬ̽̉̍g ̏ͥAͧs͂ YͭoÙ̈́ ́̾̀̚ḂͭE͆LͧȊ͐̈́̓͐EV̅͒ͧͮ̓E͂̐͂̏̓ iNͤ̉̈̓́ u̾͐ͭ̄ͥ̓S!

He can't even have smart hallucinations. Glubbin' hell, he needs a drink. "Piss off again, it is too early for this shit."

B̚u̿̀̾͑ͮT -

Eridan kicks over a pedestal that's somehow still standing at the top of the stairs. The ancient wizard statue, kept mainly for nostalgia, rolls all the way to the bottom floor before shattering. "Come back with scientifically plausible hallucinations, an' then maybe we'll talk," he says.

Surprisingly enough, the voices obey. Eridan works up his fortitude, pulls his mask down over his face, and goes out to do the hero gig.

-

In hindsight, going out to fight crime is an incredibly dumb idea when you're in the process of descending into full-blown dementia. Eridan wants to find whoever claimed that coldblood insanity automatically leads to a boost in unrestrained strength and remove their internal organs with his bare claws, because when he finds a pair of disgusting humans dumping their trash bags into the ocean, off the back of a small dinner cruise ship, he is just as pathetic as always. No rush of unnatural strength, no blind berserker rage, despite the fact that he's been off the pills for fuckin' ages, long enough for the dulling effect to have worn off completely, leaving him raw and exposed like a flensed nerve. He confronts them, and gets the shit kicked out of him for trespassin'. When he retreats into the water again, nose bleeding profusely in the waves, the humans yell at his back while he treads water.

Mocking him.

At least the voices hold out until he's dragged himself back home. He curses himself for sending Seahorsedad away, because the swim back is a nightmare.

Y̅o̿͋̊̅Ù̔̄ͤ̚̚ a̓ͭ̓͐͌Reͬ͌ R̓ͤi̽̌̂͊̈̔̑G̑̓ͨ̾̈́̑h̔T. ̔̿̿aN̋̆̇̈g̈́El̑̈S ̍̂̿̈́a̒Reͭͯ N̅ͮõ̓T̄͊ͯ̈̈́̋ sͥ̑͒ͬ̓C͋ͩ̋iͮ̄̿̍ͪĖ͐̈͛n̒̒̇̂ͧͭT̓͑ͥiF̌iͫ͂C͋͂ͨͦ̐̄aL̓̇͆l͑Y̐̌ͦ p̓̄Os̅̂Sͪ̂i͊̒͋̇B̿l̓Ĕͥ̇ͦͭ.

"Do you mind? I'm nursing my wounds, here," Eridan snarls, dabbing at his nose with a scrap of fabric. There are no tissues in the house anymore - he used them all up sobbing into crunchy popcorn while rewatching the entire Troll Harry Potter series. He tosses another ruined handkerchief into the laundry chute and stuffs a third up his nose. He's getting kind of lightheaded now. "And of course they're not. I told you that. 'M glad my words of wisdom got through to my insane subconscious."

 ͫ͌̑̋̈́̚dŐn̈́͒'T͐ͩ͌̐̔̿͗ ͭyOͩ͆ͩͫu͛ ͛R͌e͌̾ͦ͆M̌̊̚eͨMb̈́ͨͣͥEr̆̾?ͯ they ask reprovingly.

"Remember what?"

Y̐̄̆̓Ó͋ͧͣ̄U̐ͨ M̈͗͐U̒͊Ř̄ͮDEͭ̔R̾͗͋ͦ̂EDͯ̎ͪ Tͬͯ̓̽ͥHͫ̐̈EM̈́ ̒̅̒̋̓͂A̾L͛Lͯ̇̈̚.̽̈́̈́

He freezes up. Not because the answer is unexpected but because it's exactly what he expected. And he has no idea where that certainty comes from, because he doesn't think that he's ever thought about the potential mortality of imaginary angels before in his life.

That's new.

"I think I would remember doin' somethin' like that," he says at last, trying to ignore the fact that he's talking to an empty room. That he's arguing with his subconscious. He's really stretchin' to find the good in all this, though without Fef to guide him through it good thoughts are few and far between. But he know that arguing is good, because it means he's still sane enough to think about something other than flipping the fuck out.

The voices bulldoze right over his little crisis of sanity, triumphant in their new burst of illogical logic. ̐Iẗͬ ̏W̿ͯaS̏̊̈́ ͣ͂gL̇oͯͥͩR̚ĩ̍ͫO͗ͯ̎̂͒͌ǘ͗̽̈́̏͑͒S. Ẏ̿͛O̾̐̋U͑ͥͬ ͥẘ̋ͭEr͐̽E ̔g͌L͐ͮ̒̑ͩ͗͑o̅Rͪͣ̊iOͪ͊̐̏̐uͥ͂̆ͦSͥ̓, eRi͂̍D̂͂ȧ̂ͪN̎!

"Nothing about me is glorious. I'm as fuckin' high on the hemospectrum as you can get without being royalty, and I'm a fuckin' joke!" he says. He yells it to an empty ablutions block, and the knowledge that no one is really listening - that no one cares other than his own sick mind - makes him punch the mirror. He's done this a few times over the past few weeks, so there's not much mirror left that's uncracked, and this time the grey skin of his knuckles slices off entirely on the exposed edge of a shard of glass. He whips the hand back, whining to himself, and wishes he wasn't so damn fragile.

Maybe if he were strong, Fef would have stayed. It's a stupid thought, but it's one he can't stop thinking. If he'd been capable enough - strong enough - to support himself, to do the hero gig without playing second fiddle to Fef, maybe she wouldn't have felt so fuckin' put-upon by the care and keeping of the most useless, desperate violetblood in the seas.

͗w̑E̿̋͂ͯ̇ ̍c̾̍͊̾̊̈́A͆̓̇̔ń͑͗ͧ̍̈́̋ ̔̒̐H͋eL͐̋̎ͣp͋̈́ ͮYoU, the voices say, coaxingly. a̓Ľl̎ͤ̓̿̓̚ ͯY͐͋̚o̓̇͊U͊ h̔̐̔̒̚AͯvE͗ ͐̿̿̔tO͌͗ͯ̓ͦ̏ ̈́͂d̂O̍ͯ̚.̆̓̔̒..̍iͨ̇̽S̎ fRͯeĒ̂ ̾y̓ͥ̂̓Oͦͮuͮ̈́̔̍ͪR ͑ͣ̈̊̓m̿I͂̂ͦnͤͭ͑͗D͑.ͬ̊͌̽ͯ̏ ̒bE͋ a̅̓͆ͣLl ̍̄Ṫ̆͌͗͋hÄͥ̂t̿ͬ ̎Yͯ̌̔oͭ̈ͩ͒ͭ̑Ü̊̚ w̆̎̈̓͌̓Eͪ̂̔̆͋̂r̊̽̾Ĕ b̏̈͛̊O͋̅r̋ͫͩ͌̐ͩN ͭͫͭ̌t̏O b͗E.ͨ

Eridan leans against the wall, and sinks to the floor. He shoves a claw into his hair, threading through the gelled strands in a fret until strands fall into his eyes. "Will you just be quiet?" he asks. "That's all bullshit, and you know it. I can't even go properly crazy like every other defective highblood. At least they can tear cars apart with their bare claws; I just get to listen to you."

Ô̇h̓̌, ͗̊E̒̑rͣ̔R͛ͬ̑d̿͛̈̍̿̿A͂ͥ̚n̔ͭ̒. y̋̒̔Ȍͩuͥ̃̅ J͆u̎̓ͩ͒̒S̾ͥ͋̉ͭ͋t͛ ͦN͂̓͌̅eE̎ͩ̈̆d Tͮ̓̉̅̔o͌̇ ͦ̒HȃV̈̊̍̎e͛ͫ.̃..͆͐HOP͊͋͑͛E!ͯ̔ And that's the worst part - that the voices sound so...sincere. So sympathetic. Sometimes, he thinks they sound like Fef, but they don't, not at all. Fef never sounded like the universe cracking in two.

He barely sees it in the corner of his eye. A slim white claw trails down his cheek in a caress. It burns like acid, and he yanks away. The noise that emerges from his mouth is not high-pitched and squeaky. It isn't and he will fight anyone who claims otherwise.

When he looks, there's nothing there, and his cheek is unmarked when he touches at it. But it feels like a strip of flesh has sizzled away, and he can't shake the hallucinated pain.

He's starting to regret flushing the pills. But going out to replace them with his prescription slips will only draw attention to the fact that Fef has left him. All it'll take is one wrong move, and the right person high in the government noticing that a highblood with a dementia citation is wandering around without a minder, and he'll be in the brig faster than he could blink. People don't dick around with coldblood-type dementia, not with how physically superior higher bloods are compared to the rest of the troll population.

He huddles over, covering his head with his hands, and pressed his forehead to his knees until the voices fade away, and he can pretend that they were never there at all. They seem to have been satisfied in driving him to another rung on the crazy ladder - he's leveled up from auditory crazy to physical hallucinations.

-

He gives up that Wednesday. Fef has been gone for a while now - actually, he's still carving tally marks into the wall of his respite block with a harpoon tip, and he knows the exact count, which is just embarrassing at this point. She hasn't responded to anything - not the crazy, not the begging, not the threats, not the reasonable peace offerings.

Nothing.

They are done. And so when that realization settles itself in Eridan's mind with a deafening thud and the voices start talking again, he lets them.

Not like there's anyone else for him to talk to.

tHͮ̎̚ä́̄͛T̈'sͥͪ Wh͛̂Y͆ ͥ̈́ͣ̾̽W͂̈̊ͥȆ̓̊ ̍͗̏̒aR̿̓̚e ̋Hͭ̿e̓ͬ̓Ṙe̔̾. B̋ͤe͑̔C͌a̅̿̐U̎͐ͨ̚s̎͌E͌ yO̊̑ũͨ̏ A͋r̂̿̿̽E̊ O͆ͨ̐̽U̅͛͑R͐͗S̎̂ͣ͗,̎ e͑̿ͧ̿ͤ̓R͆ͤiͬ͊D̅aͮN̿ͤ̿̂ͥ̽, the voices promise encouragingly. He's started to think of them as angels, in the most morbid and sarcastic way possible, because they seem to waver between agreeing with him that angels are impossible and trying to convince him that they are the only angels left. Somehow, that waffling matters less and less, now that Eridan has stopped trying. If they wanna be angels, then fuck, they can be the angels.  ͯ̽̽ͤͫͧ̍a̅Ndͯ̏ W̌e̋͒ͩ ͑ͭ̓͑͛̆Wͩi̒L̾͋̓l S̈́ͪͣ̒̋hOw͋ͭ ̑Y͆͌oU̓͐͋̒ ̾̾̽tH͑̿e P̋͐ͦ̽̚aͭ͂T̄h Tö́͑ͤ̒̋͛ T͑ͪ͆r̈́ͮͪUͪͩ̔e ͥPͣȎ͒W͂ͪ͐ͬ̅ͪEͨ̈R̍̔ͥ.

Their offer is sounding better and better every time they make it. But Eridan lets his head roll to the side, resting it on the open page of the textbook he stopped reading halfway through when his hope ran out. He's curled up in a balls on his torn-up reclining lounge, wishing he had the energy to drag himself to the 'coon and try to drown himself in it. "Why do you do that fuckin' annoyin' thing with your voices, anyway, you shitty angels?

Their response is hesitant, almost coquettish.̚ WͮhAt ̇Dͬͫ̓̈́͂̿͐o ͪYͥ̂o̓̿U̇ͩ ͋ͯm̔͐E̽͑̓ͨ͛͂ͣåͥͥN͐?̓͌̄ they ask, like they aren't doing the fuckin' thing right now.

"That." He waves a hand in a lazy flap, trying to indicate what he means. "The weird pitch changes. Half the time you sound like you're whisperin' all creepy-like, and the other you're yellin' at the top of your lungs. It's making me fuckin' queasy, you dicks."

If disembodied voices could shift uncomfortably, these do. Their presence feels more and more physical with every passing day, and Eridan has grown used to flickers of skeletal white bodies that round corners just before he can see them full on, the way he catches glimpses of a hollow face behind him when he bends over the water, the faint brush of unfamiliar claws down his spine when he's tryin' to take a bath in peace. It's creepy as fuck, but it's all in his head, anyway, so he tries to shrug it off. ̂ͭ̂̈́͐͐̚t̆̔He̎̊Ȑe͒̾͌ Wͥ̏̾̿̍̂aS͌ͩ̌͑͋ a̋N͛...̽uͮ̏Nf̈̿O̓͗ͪ̽r̓T̈ͧ̓ͣ͒ͤù̑ͯ̎Na̓̄T̾ͫ̽é O̊͐̑̚c̅C̾u̾̓ͪ̒Re̅ͩN͛͊cE̓̐.̏ d͛ͥ̿Eͭͧ̐͆̚tAi̎̓Ĺ̓s ̓͂D̄̎̓̅o No̿̔̄̆̂Tͭ mͪ̇͊ͮ̓Aͭt̊T͒͋̋ͤ̂ͦͥeR̿̿̄. t̋ͨHͧe͊ ͥͥObͥ̚Je̋͊ͦĆt Le̐̌ͯ͆Ss̎̂O͂͆n̽ ̏ͮẆã̍̔̏S̅̽͊̋ ̌̆- d͌̄͆̍͌O̾̆ͮ̚ ͬnO̔͋ť̋̇ A̍tTe̾̏Mp̿Tͯͭ͑ t̋͌̎O͋̓ͮͧ ̈aͯ̎S͗s̔I̒mI̅l̍̂Ǎt̚E c̽L̇o̒ͪ̍̈́ͥWṅ̂S.̄ͥ̚

Well, that makes no sense at all. "You tried to eat a clown?" he asks, skeptically. "Fuck, who?"

W̄͊Ĕ̐͐̊ ̾͊̊͛̿DÓͯ̿̓̇ ̾N̈́̓̆OͥͥT̔̎ ̈ͥ̈́S̔̏PͨËAK̔̍ HI̅̿͐͆͐̾S ̋NͦAͫ͒MË̚.͂̽̽ͣ̎ Something brushes against Eridan's face like feathers, and he squeezes his eyes shut, because if he were to open them now, he thinks the hallucinations would be too real to deny. ͧ̽ͫSŎ ̐̍ͮ̐̌͑M͊ͨ̿ͭͦU̇ͩ̈́͊Cͥͮ̇ͮ̒H̍ͭ F͗ͨ̄͆͊A͑̍Y͂̑̆̽̔͑G͋̏Oͨ.̋͂ ͧSͧ̔̂O M̾Ů̽C̑̊͆ͬͮĤ̐̔̓̓, they mutter, as though haunted by some past trauma. If hallucinations can even be traumatized, anyway. Figures Eridan would have some hidden clown-phobia on top of all his other issues.

Glubbin' hell, he wishes Fef were here.

The angels laugh. Eridan claps his hands to his ears and sits up, scooting back up against the wall with his knees curled up on the recliner. The laughter is the worst.

͆̌̔s̈̂ͮHȅ͒̑͌̾ ̒̍̓Ha͛ͨ͊S ̈́a͆̋̚L͐̓̏ͧwAyͪ̒̎S͋ lĖdͬ̈ Y͆̏oͯ̾̈̈́U̿̾̾ âS̈͆̄t̄͌̓͂̓ͩRa̾Y͆.̋͒ ̽̽pͨ̾A̽cI̔̅̐̿fI̓̈́̊e͑̇D yͫ̎͌̒ͥ̊O̿̋ͧŭ A̓ͤs͐ ͥT̏̾ͤͮḧ́̒͂Ő̑͌̒̏̔uͫͪ̊̍G͗ͨͫh͌ Y͗ͨ̑̓ͣo̔Ŭ ̐̏wE͌rEͮ a̒͐͑̎̄͆̚ CͪhÏl̈͗Dͪ͊̋. ̓cͯA͂̏nͩ̈̇̐ ̍Y̊̓ͨoͪ͒ͫU̓̄ͬ̔ nͯ͊͐̋ͫ̈͛O͑t S͛̍͛e̊͂̍̑̈ͫË́͋ t̏̄̈̑̎Hâ͐̍T͂̌ s͐͌̑̿Hͦe ͭ̾̈́H̔͋̒̍aŚ ͨͤkEpͬ͌ͫT ÿ̇O͋ͧ̊ͫu͒̊ FrͭOm Ýoͨ͋͆̾U̓ͩr̎̊͗ ̊Ṫr̔͂̆Ue̿ P͒ű̏͗̿Ř̏͑͒̓̔pOsEͩ̈͒?̊

"I have no fuckin' purpose. I'm a shitty highblood, a crappy moirail, and a terrible sidekick. Just leave me in peace." He flings a claw over his face like a proper Byronic hero and tries to brood properly. The fact that some tiny part of him agrees (because what right did Fef have to pacify him all those years if she was just ready to up and leave at any fuckin' moment?) does not deter him from his slump.

But the angels don't seem to have received the memo that today is 'dramatic sulking day' for the fourth day running. ̒p͂Ah̒͆ͤͬͮ.͑ͮ ̑̏ThͣE͛r̊ͭ̽̈̚E ̈̒c͆Ań B͛͊̆ēͪͧ̅ N̑͂o̔͒̓̎̔ͣ P̏ȇ͒ͬAcÊͣ̈̆. ̆̓̎̄n͌͗͗Ȯt͒̆ ͭW͛ͨhͯE͛̐͋ͥn̎͒̋̚ Ṫ͊̈́̚hEͥͪͧy̐̋̚ A͂l̑̽ͩ͂͑ͨ̇L̎̎ hȀv̊Ĕ t̊͆̈U̾̐̆r͌̏͒̌N̑e͐͋͋̈D͗̇͒ ͧaͯͭͧGa͐Īn̅̄̏̇ͯ͊S̑̆t̍̐͊ͮ ̄̔Yͦ͊͗ͣo̓Û͋.̽̄̑ͨ

"Who, the doctors? They're not going to fuckin' bother me. I'm not important enough," he argues. Without Fef, he's nothing, that much is clear - no one has come to check on him since she left, the phone lies in pieces on the floor of the kitchen, and the hive is still as a grave, the dust stirred only by Eridan's desperate pacing. "No one is against me, you paranoid dicks."

Thud.

He stills, and listens, earfins twitching, for the sound. For a moment, he thinks he's imagined it.

And then it comes again.

Thud thud thud.

Someone is knocking on the door. And the kicker is, he can't tell if it's real or not, if it's paramedics or the police banging on the door, or just the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. "Stop that," he snaps.

Thud thud thud thud thump!

More and more feet pound as they run up the stairs, and the sound of countless fists drumming against the door builds to a rousing crescendo. They're all trying to get in here, aren't they, every last one of those miserable, insufferable peons who don't know when to leave well enough alone! "Make it stop!" He hefts the textbook he was reading and flings it at the door. It slams into the door with a crack before thumping to the ground, but the thudding. Won't. Stop. "Fuckin' landdwellers and their fuckin' noise! Shut up!"  he shouts at the door. His voice cracks halfway through. "I fuckin' mean it!"

y͑ͦ̈́ͥ͋Ỏ̐̉̈́̑u S̅̄ͥͭèÉ?͑ w̆̚E͐̓̅ ̎uͫͥ͋ͣN͐̊͐̃͂d̽Ěr̐S͐̿̓͂̽͂tAͣn̉͌D̈̋̀̾ͨ̽ e͌̓ͧA͋̈ͯ͆̀ͯͫcH̃͋ o͆̐T̉h̉̅̌̅͗Er̔͒͑,̋ͣ Ē͛rͦIdẢn, the angels sing over the ceaseless thudding. ̑͊̉͂W̽ͭ͋ͦe̊, To̐̎ͫ̿̍ͬO,̑͗̑ ͥ̇d͆ͪ͌̑Eͪ̋sP̊̒̅̏̄̍ìS̒̈̍e T͑̽̓hE͋́̍s͂̍E ī̈̃̏͛N͐͋ͤ̉sͩI̽̐pIͧd̚ Ľͨa͐ͥ̎͋N͐dͭͩ̑Dw͂̊Elͬ̍̎LeRͯͪ͊̋s̿͊. ̏̀̃̅H̑̒ȯ͐̽W͑̒ t̾Hͣ́ͤͦ̈eY ̓ṡ͊͊̓̇̌L̈̏o͊̍ͨ̀G ̔ă͛͛Boͥͩ̂Uͪt̋ I̔̽nͣ Tͩ̇͒ͣ̾hEi̅R͒̈̽ͥ f̃I͒͂lTh ̂̚A͊ͦͥnͭ̽͊͂̽D̽ dE̊̈gͮ̾̈ͯEn̽̋͌͑ErA̓̍̏̀̂cY̾̄͆̚.ͨͨ̓

"Then make them shut up!" he demands, clawing at his ears. He can't tell which is louder, the thump of seeking, invasive hands pounding on the door of his room - or the roll of an endless thunderclap rumbling in his skull, the sound of an absolute sea breaking against the shore again and again and again, until his mind quakes beneath it. He can't think, and maybe this is what madness feels like - all he can do is babble and react with no filter, unable to think through what the hell is happening because it keeps happening all at once."Make it stop make it stop make it stop!"

wͯ͗̿͌͐E͗ͯ ̒c̒ͩ̏A̒n̿ͮ͋No͂Tͩ.̅

"Then what good are you?!"

(Some part of him thinks it is the height of folly to demand imaginary voices stop imaginary thudding. But it is a very small part, by now.)

Ý̎͒ō͋U mͯ̏U̇̚sT̊ ̓ͬ̑͑ͮfIͤḡH̓̊̅͒͊t ̑F̈́o͆ͨ͂̌ͯ̋R ̈y̔O̓u͐ͩ̏̽Rs͋ͦ̎Ë́͛ͥͣ̍l͐͒̔͌͋F̆, ̈́̍̅e͋̌̔R̓̾͐̌iDa͌N͊̊ͩ. s̽͆ͣͣ͗Eͣ̍̚iZ͗e͗ͩ Wh̿Ătͬͧ̂ Iš R̓iG̔h͗Tf͗̅ͭ͒Ǔͬ̐̑ͮlL̈̎͑̒̑y ̒Yͧ̐̅ͬȏU̍r͛͊̔̈́̒S.ͮ̍̋̒͑̽

"I don't know how."

ŵ͊̓̇ͤ́Ë̔̽͐ ͐̂́̒͑ͬ̚cȦ̍ͧň͋ ̇̍Sh̒̈́O̐̇̆̆̾͒ͩw Y̏̔ǒͤ̿̌U ͂h̓ͬ̍̿Ow͂ͣͯͣ.̀̔̽͐̔̌ Th̒E͛̓͐̎ pͧO͋ͧ̀̾w͐́ͩͯEͥ̌r̄̾ ͧ́Iͯs Âl̒L̏̽͌ h̋EͭrE͊͒̐̔͆̑̉, i͌̆̄̑N͂s͑͐̚I͆̄́̋dͦ̈E̊̌̂̀̇ ̈y̽Oͨ̏̔ͩ̂u. J̾̽̇̐̃ù̅́̚S̏ͭ͋ͭ͑ͣ̃t̒̚ L͐̐͐̎eT͂̅̓̾̚ ͤuS i͛ͦ̀Ń͆͌̇, aN̑̂͑̄͋̀d̽͐͒̾ ̏Wͥ͐ͮe ̅Sͮ̅hͯ̍Aͭ̿̓̉l̔́L̆ uͫN̐̋̔̿͊lOͭċK͛ ̅̇̒̊í̈͒Tͨ̾ a̿Ll̄͒.̒ Ẅ́ë̏̔ ̎Sͦ͑h̏͐AlL̅ ͗ͯ͒s̄ͫ͗Et̾͛͆ Yo̍̅̒U̍ͤ́͊̾̓ fRͧ̋̂̄̈́̑êE̅͌͐́͋̉.

"And then they'll shut up," he says. It sounds so simple when the angels put it like that. Like he should have been able to reach this obvious conclusion before.

He should listen to their voices more often. They certainly understand his concerns better than Fef ever could.

T͗hE̓͛͗y̓ W̓ͣͬì̽͋̅̊Ll̂͋͂̈ͣ, the angels confirm, wrapping wings of light around his shoulder. It isn't creepy anymore, though he still doesn't open his eyes. It feels soothing, like being wrapped in a warm blanket, and there is such strength in those acidic wings that he can almost imagine he's safe. The angels wouldn't let them drag him off to some hole-in-the-ground hospital, right? 

He clenches a fist, and lower his head, leaning into their wings. When he speaks, it comes out a vicious whisper. "I want to be strong."

o̾̍͂F cO͊̌̋u͊ͧ̅ͦR͑͌͛sE̓,̆͑̀ ṡ̅͛̃ͯͫ̂W̽̃ͣ͛̉eͫͮEt̿͑ ErÌd̉͆ͦ͊ͤAnͣ, the angels reply, and the sheer sincerity of their words burns itself into his mind. He couldn't disbelieve them even if he wanted to. ͋̓ͭA̚nͦ͆D̏͌̒ tḦe̿N̎ ẗ́ͫ͊O͐ͬ̓ͣgÉ̾̏ͥt̊He͛ͣ͐R̾, wE͗͗̎ ̈́s̍H̆̂̅aLl͂ͯͦ̈́̑ B̓̏ͥ͋̚u̓I͋lD̚ a ̐SȟInIͣ̒ͩͨn̑G̑ ̊nͧͨ̚̚Ew Ẇͧ̊ͭo͆̾͌Rl̑D̚. ͒o̊̿̾̓ͣ͆̚Ne ̄Öf̌ U̿̄ͬ͐̂nͣͬR̅͐e͂L͋̍eNͦtI͒̂̌nG͂͆͐ͫ ̓l̾̆̂I͑̑͌gH͋t͊ͤ̐.͗̐ͦ Ǒň͛ͫͭE dEs̽E͐͑̓̆ͮrV̌i͛Ng͑͛̓͛ O̅͒ͧf̒͋̚̚ Y̓͒̒̅oͥUͤ̂̐r͛ ̊W̒rAtͫ͊̍H̒.͒

"Yes," he says. It all seems very clear now. The thudding on the door fades to a dim, buzzing drone as long as he listens to the soothing, lilting screech of the angels' symphony, and he even lowers his hands from his ears.

Then he thinks, why not?

He opens his eyes.

And he can see them. Before, it has always been a spindly white shape in the corner of his eye, a black eyed, hollow face that flickers in behind him in his reflection in the broken mirrors, there one moment and gone the next. Now, he looks the angels head on. Their head is shaped like a skull, all crisp, bony lines, and their eyes are hollow pits of pitch, oozing black, tarry tears. When they part thin lips and open their mouth, thick black fire drizzles like syrup from a gaping maw.

̒a̅N̍d ̔̒̌̅Wͥ̍ͪ̚h͛̎͂ͮͬEn ͛ͨͫͤ͊Tͤͭh͂͆Eͧ̌̄̌ͥ̐y͊̈̂ Á̊ͬͮͫrE ͮf̾I͒ͦͬnI̍s̋̌͛̈Ḧ́̽ͮ̄e͆ͦ̋̎̐D wͦ̿ͮ̾͊ͥE͗̍̆e͛ͤ̓P͌ͪ̄iN̂g̿,̅ Th͋̾E͐̍ͥ͛y ShAlL̍ b̏͋O̊ͩẇ̈ Bͧ̏ěF͂o̾̆ͤȐe ͋T͌h̋̋ͩ͌EͥiR͑ P̒ͫRÎ̚NC̓̈́E̓, they promise, stroking at the sides of his face and the edges of his earfins with claws that burn like fire, talons that could rend him with a single well-aimed slash. But they never would. They're his angels.

If Fef were here, he thinks dizzily, she'd tell him to say no. To consider the lives of others, to repress this instinct to become stronger because it's somehow bad, somehow wrong to want to be the superior specimen of trollkind he was always born to be.

It's not dementia, that tired old made-up excuse for a diagnosis the sludgebloods would use to lock him up so they could take what rightfully belonged to him. It's just him and the angels, now, though, and he can see the truth.

Fef really has always held him back, hasn't she?

Eridan breathes out, "Yes." His voice echoes through the abyss like the chime of a bell, the last clear note he hears before the light rushes in.

Y͛ͪ͛ͭeͬͬ̐ͫͣ̎Ŝ̑͋͛,͛ the angels repeat, like a prayer. They close their obsidian eyes and kiss Eridan. The tongue that dips into his mouth burns cold as ice, and doesn't stop until it drips down his throat and into his lungs, licking at his insides with frost and fire. ͯͮ͛ͧ͗Y͛E͒͊ͭSͦ̿̈̄͋͐̍Y̊E̊SYEͫ̇ͬ̆̿̚S.ͦ̇ͫ̽͐̿̌

It's fuckin' disgusting, actually. But as the black tar coats him from the inside out, he feels it.

The power. Like a sharp, stabbing diamond of light, it jabs at the inside of his chest, waiting to be set loose. So when the voices reach out, their wings feathering over his mind and curling around his body with light, he seizes it with both claws and repeats his answer.

Yes.

The angels of death pull back and grin at him with teeth that don't quite fit in their jaw.

ͥͪ̐͛̈́̈́T͂̍̍̈́̾̚̚HͫEͤͫ̄͛͌̑ ͭ̈C̓̈́̍̏ͦOŃ͛ͤTͧ̓Rͮͫ̊ͥͬĀ̎̋ͤ̚C̓ͣT̓͋̏ ̔I̓͋ͧ̔͑ͣͪS̾̇ ̈ͬ͆S̽È̍Aͪ̌̾LͩͭE̐͊Dͬ.̈̊̌

And Eridan explodes into perfect, perfect light.

-

At approximately 14:04:13 on a Wednesday afternoon, a massive explosion occurs just off the coast near the Los Angeles area. It is, reportedly, visible from orbit. Though the area is mostly known as the former residence of the heiress, there is at least one troll hive at those coordinates that is utterly decimated by the blast.

At the epicenter of the blast, a slim figure rises from the resulting crater, and turns eyes that smolder black with power to the east. He bares sharp teeth in a vicious grin.

And he remains self-aware.

Eridan Ampora holds up his claws and observes the transformation he has undergone with satisfaction. The angels cradle him, and their wings spread out in sheets of crystal behind his back as they raise him up. His claws have been painted an iridescent white, the pale of lusii, of angels, and when he raises an arm, he sees the grimwhite covers him all over, smearing over his clothes and his cloak until everything but his eyes and mouth gleam.

ͪͣ̒͂ś͊E̊͛̊èͥ̿̑? IsN̐̓ͣ̒'t T͆ͭ̓hIs̔̊ ̓Sͩͫõ̋ Mͣu̅̔Ch Ea̋Sȉ͐Ėr? the angels sing. They don't grate and shriek to his ears, anymore; he is immersed in their brilliance, and now he can hear the warm, buttery tones of their songs. After all, he is singing with them, one voice among many.  ͨA͋͆ ẘ̆̄IlL̐̔̓̄iNg Bͮ̓ͪͮú͒Dͭͤ͒dÝ iͪ̎ͪŠ aͮ̔L̇wͦA͋̎̓̋y͂ͩS̿ sOͪ̒ͭ̅ͥ m͑U̅̊cH̅ ̇m̎͐ͨͯ̔OͯrE̿ ̒̍p̑̎̎L̊e̒Aͣ͑ͣ͑sAn͐̓T̈́̽͒ tO̔ ̇ŵ̓ͤ̆͑Or͐Kͯ  ẘ̅̽̑Î̾̿̓tH͒! they trill with satisfaction, pressing burning kisses on his temples to sooth the last of the haze from his brain.

There is so much to know, to absorb. The angels are endless, mighty and sublime, and Eridan would be dizzy in the face of their multitudes, the endless expanse of their thoughts, if he weren't so thoroughly part of it all. He is all of that, enmeshed in the tangles and the folds of wings that beat like thunderclaps. Their perspective is his perspective; their power is his, a rapturous shared flow of light that is shared and shared alike. The pitch black tar that fills his mouth and burns through his eyes is nothing, just a side effect of all that power purifying him. Making him clean from the inside out.

Something inside him twists and crunches. When his own wings burst forth, ripping through muscle and blood and bone in a shower of all the internal organs that get in the way, he shrugs it off, the pain numb and meaningless to a mind that encompasses all the space between the heavens and the firmament of the earth. It all seals back up anyway, even though with the raw power he has now, organs are relatively meaningless. A body is just a body after all, a meatsuit necessary for interacting with the rest of the scummy world, and no more.

In his mind, he is free.

͊̇ͣw͂̅ͫͫ̂ͩ̚Ē̐lͦC͛oͮ̍͗͌ͯ̓Me͒ ̾͛̾̍To͒ͥ̑ ̂Mͩ̌aL͑ā̈́’ͭͧ̒̉Ǐ̑kA̒h,̚ Ẽ̅̽rͥ̽͋ͮͩĪ͒͆̏ḋͪAn.̇͒̾ͧ͋ W̅̿ë̈̊ͯͧͧLͩͥc̿͊̿ͮͤͩOͦm͌ͨ͛E t̑̋̇O̎͊ͭ t͒H̒̀̄ȇ̃ͦ̈ͪ H͊̿ͫ̋̓́ͬo̒͒̃R̄͌̍͆̋͐̓d͗̓̚E̊̌͒.

-

The most dramatic effect is achieved by appearing in the air over city hall. Malā’ikah screams with triumph, announcing itself to the world, and the effort shreds Eridan's throat. It heals in the next instant, and he barely feels it anyway. Beneath him, the commoners and the sludgebloods fall to their knees, clutching their ears. When the white of Eridan's wings drips blanched white acid onto the streets, he only smiles when they scream.

This is his power now.

And if no one will listen to his pain, he will make them listen.

His throat works and adjusts as Malā’ikah lends him its scream, to twist into words the filth below will understand. "B̂̐ò̓̄wͩ d̏oͩ̂̑̊̾̌͆wͨ̿̈͛̾̚n̔̔͑̂͊,͌͛ͣ m͂̅͊̒̒ȍ̅͑tͣ̄ͯhë́rf͊̽ͤuͭcͥ͐ͫ̿̋ͯk̅e͒rs̓̈́̌ͬ̅. Kͭͬ̈́̍n̂̆̊̐͋eͫͦ͋͆̚e̾̾l̈́̾̈ ͛̓͛b̅̾͌̇̓̋ef͐o̐͑̎ͬͪ͒͒rë̾ y̍ͫ̊ͧͮo̒̆̂̿̓̾̚u͂̈͛̈́ͬ̋͌r̊͋͆͐̄ Pr̿inͨ̿cͬe̒͆ͨͪ."

Almost before he finishes, he draws the power out from that bleeding, white-hot diamond in his chest and funnels it through his finger. He points, and a hole carves itself out of the city hall building. When people in the building get in his way, he carves through them too.

No more holding back. No more pretending to care about these maggots that deserve to kneel before someone of his blood. He's so far beyond them, beyond everyone, beyond even Feferi.

None of them matter anymore, and he doesn't think he's ever felt so free before. After all, he'll never be lonely again. The angels are all here, in his head.

There is a ripple in the hivemind, and then the angels usher a new tidbit of information into Eridan's mind. Not new, really - he has access to everything at once, after all, everything the hivemind has to offer - but they help him focus in on this. He turns the memory over in his mind, absently holding out a hand to draw a new gash down the front of City Hall.

It's one of his memories, limned with the unearthly, silvery white gleam of Malā’ikah's additional insight. When he plays it back in his mind's eye, he sees the news report on an incident in New York nearly two weeks ago. Back then, Eridan had been a fool, and dismissed the entire report as bogus, on the grounds that the 'dark magical umbrage' everyone claimed to witness Dark Star wielding was clearly hogwash. Even now, he wants to snort and dismiss the whole incident. Three landdwelling heroes had taken the villain down; clearly she hadn't been all that, and he has no doubt her 'dark majjyks' were little more than cheap tricks managed with science of some sort.

But Malā’ikah turns his perception like a glass refracting light, and he sees it from the view point of the horde. He sees the creatures, similar to but opposite of the angels, who had channeled their power through Dark Star. He hears the name of the Horrorterror - Leviathan, the angels hiss dismissively - and sees how Malā’ikah had looked on, watching as Leviathan-in-Dark Star totally fuckin' blew it. It had been overconfident, ignoring the fact that unlike the sweet, totally consensual setup Malā’ikah has with Eridan, Dark Star's host had been fighting back all the while. It let other heroes draw near because it didn't consider them a threat, and it had paid the price when it was driven back into the abyss, torn and drifting. Malā’ikah had laughed and laughed, because angels are far superior to such a pathetic tanglemonster.

But they can still learn from Leviathan's mistakes.

Eridan raises a claw that burns from within like a beacon, and glowers at the gloomy sky above. That won't do at all. He requests the power and the angels oblige, streaming rainbows of crystalline light through the abyss and into his waiting claws. He can do as he wills, because their wills are one and the same.

He rips a hole in the fabric of the universe, and light shines through. Directing it like a conductor, Eridan unspools the power until it drapes across the sky, and then he brings the edges crashing down. It forms a gleaming dome that stretches for miles and miles in each direction, blocking out the polluted clouds of smog and dusty rain with a swirling veneer of white.

"̓̆ͫ̐T̿̏hê̇̎r̽̊ͥͧ̾ͧ̌e. ̈̌͊ͯĀn͊͋͐ͬdͩ̅̽͐͐ nͮō̈̈́̌̾ͧ̇w̽̑̓͛ n̅̽ͤ̽ͪ̿o o͒ͧͬ̍͋̅n̈́ͥ̇e ̇̆͂̎i͛s̏̄ ̓g̓ͫ͊o̊n͊na̍ i̎nͨ͊̓t̍̓̈͂ͯerfeͯre͑ wͬ͆ͨ̏ͬ̅iẗ́h̾̇̂̾ ̄my ṙͥ̌e͗îͬͧ̈g͗̋̊n̍̂̊͌."̾ He looks down at the filth that scurry beneath him, their screams echoing up into the sky as the dome sinks tendrils of light into the ground and latches itself into place. "Nͬͫ̑o̾̋ ͬoͯ̓ͤ͐̎ně.ͨͯ̌ "

With a clang like a bell, the dome locks down. It flares with light, constant and too-bright even for Eridan's new and improved eyesight. When he squints down, he sees that all of the buildings below cast long shadows, all the colors of Los Angeles washed out by the intensity of the light that surrounds them in all directions. It's a latticework of brilliant, gleaming white light and deep shadow, and it stirs something primal within him that croons with the delight of minds older than time itself.

But the filth is still there, rankling on his noble sensibilities, the people staggering through the streets blind to the new pools of acid the angels have begun to slather over the streets. At this rate, they'll all melt away, and the pools will swallow the putrid remains until not even their minds remain.

He would almost be fine with that. But Malā’ikah, surprisingly, is not, and Eridan reluctantly lets the angels' thoughts chant into his ears again. He's the one in charge here, he thinks privately; they can't do anything without his body and his consent. But the angels are the ones who raised him up and showed him how to access the power within him, and hell, he wouldn't be the incredible holy wizard he is right now without their help. They're a part of him, and he's a part of them, and when they whisper more, he thinks he can oblige.

After all, they think as one, a͆͌ͣ̾ͪͪ͑Ll ̾M͊uͫ̀͂S̎ͤ̌̀t ̎Bͬe̔ ̉̍ͤP̄u͆̅Rg͐̉͐́̽̒Ed͌͂̓. ̈̔Ȁ̾̓ͮlL ̇mͩ͊ͣ̌U͌̓ͣŝ̈Tͮ͑ bE͊̈́ ̌w̾ͯ͋Ip͂̂E͐̌͗ͭd̑ CͯlE̔a͆͒ͣ͋Nͮ.̽́̎ͬͭ̏

So he leaves off tearing new chunks out of city hall and reaches down for the first body he can see. It's a troll, a brownblood, he thinks, and he yanks it up into the sky with a tendril of power. This one has already lost a leg to the grimwhite pools seeping into the streets below; the limb ends abruptly in a ragged, melted stump that drips flesh from the softened remnants of its knee. It whines and screams, blathering on and on about the pain and being let go.

"Ḋͬ̓̑o͆͑͒ͫ̈́͆n̿ͬͫ'ͤt̃͆̄̃ͩ ͪͥͪ̍̔w̐̽̅͂ͯ͂ͨoͩ̋͗ͩ̓̒r̋̃͛̐͒͛̿r͆̿͐̆ͮ̊̚y̅̆̉̽́̾," he says, all soothing an' shit. "Y͋͗̓͗̿ouͨ'ͯ̀ȓ͛͊ͫe͛ fi͒ͫltͬh̆̚ riͧ̑gͬͭh͆ͧ͐ͤ̀t ̋n͛̑̃o̐̈́̋͊w̒̍. Bu̿ͩͦt̃ we͂ͬ̃͛'r̆̾e g̑͌ͮ̅ͭ̽̽ȏḯng̅̄ t̂̃͒̓o m̓a̋͊ͤ̚ǩͤ̉̓e y̏͒͛̈̆͐o̔̈͌̑u̅ ̐͛iͮ͛n̐to̓͊ͯ a͆̃̔͑̚n ä́͐ͦ́̔̚n̔̔͊͌ͪͫg͆e͗̓ͦl. W̾e'̔͊̾rͪ̓̒e g͊ͩ̿͒͆̈́ỏ̀̌̿̇i̓͛nͦ̑͂͆̆ͧg̀̈͊̓ ̏̐ẗ́oͣ̅̔ͮ̏ ̉r̾̀ip̀ ͮtͯ̋h͗͋e s͂̆̌lȗ̈̾̆ͪ̍d͐gͥͦ̇ͦ͊̌͗ë́̃̏b̿ͬ̀̐̋l͒͌̈́͒̚oo̓̊̊̎d ͊ri̒̑gḧ̽̆ͪ̽t o̚u͒̊̂̋tͩͦ ̒͑̑̾̀̆͌of y̐ͪou͌.̎̉̆̅ͨ͑"

It's a better fate than any of these landdwellers deserve. But Malā’ikah paints the design in Eridan's mind, and there's a moment where he wants to say no, but can't. The will of the angels is all-consuming. And the angels want to assimilate.

(He thinks, later, that he should have realized then that he was no longer the one in control of this. He never was.)

As he sets to work, severing the troll's other leg at the knee for the sake of symmetry, he makes one last announcement, almost an afterthought at this point.

"̌͑͛̄L͒̈ͬ̚o͒̄s Ǎ̎̑ͤ͐̈ň͛̂gê̒͑ͬ̄̌l̈́ͥ̿͐̍ͣés̊ i͛ͧ͂̓ͬ̿s̅ͮ űͣ̇̿̋n̍̑dė͐̎r ͑̆̈̆ͣ͆̈nͬ̎e̋̆̊w̒̅̎̓͊͛ m̿ân̏̇ağ͑eͦ̅̏̏̌͊m͗̐e̋͋͂ͫͩ͒ṅͧt̋̅̑͊̇̈. ͌M̌͂͛ͥͯͫ̊Y m̅̂̊aͤ͐na̋ͧ͒͒ge͋ͧ͋̅͒̑̾mͣ̂̔ͤé̑̎̍̊n͋t̅̏̏.̐̇"

When he closes his fist, an angel tears into reality and crunches the brownblood's skull between its jaws, chewing straight through to the brain below with teeth black as pitch. The troll never really stops screaming, but Eridan unleashes a beam of burning light that burns and burns until the pain stops. The angel swallows whatever is in its mouth, then folds its wings around the body and sinks into the bones that remain. Malā’ikah begins to twist the sagging, blackened flesh into a shape more suited to be a secondary vessel. An angel that will serve as a second pair of wings for Eridan's cause. Quiet as a sigh, the troll's mind joins the chorus of the angels, and the screaming becomes more...orchestral.

Yes. This is a better fate. Eridan surveys the many, many bodies running around below, oblivious to their fate - and smiles.

This is going to be so much fun.

-

-- caligulasAquarium [CA] began pestering cuttlefishCuller [CC] at 14:46:11 --
CA: fef
CA: fef
CA: fef
CA: fefÈͮŘͫ̌I͑̈̂̎
CA: tell gl'bgolyb
CA: we say
CA: hͮi̍
CA: O:D
-- caligulasAquarium [CA] ceased pestering cuttlefishCuller [CC] at 14:47:09 --

Chapter Text

===> Be Feferi Peixes

One of the Founding Ancestors of America, Ophelian Rutledge had been a violet blooded troll of some esteem, who might well have sided with the Loyalists in the war for independence had it not been for her excessive love of privateering. This was no doubt augmented by her personal distaste for the Empressa Unending, Elizabet I, a fuchsiablood who sat the Rainbow Throne in Britain long enough to go quite senile with coldblooded dementia. Unlike the child Gamblignant Arækni, who preyed equally upon both sides, as a corsara backed by the Americans Rutledge utilized all of her resources to sever British supply lines, and still had the wealth and prestige afterward to earn a representative place in the Constitutional Convention.

As the first troll Presider of the United States, successor to President John Adams, her memorial is naturally a grand affair, situated in close proximity to the Lincoln Memorial itself. More relevant to Nymph's purposes, it is located right along the bank of il fiume Potomac, a nod to the seadwellers who tour it regularly.

Nymph visited this place once before, as Feferi, but doesn't remember it very well. She strides beneath the jutting curve of one of the alabaster statue's horns, a sharp backward hook from above flared ear fins that then crooks down in a straight line long enough to reach the statue's carved hips. Both horns taken together bear a striking resemblance to Vela, the constellation laid out in a mosaic in the center of the reflecting pool. The eyes of the statue are translucent opals that flash dark blues and pale lavenders when the light hits them - not the most historically accurate of choices, but stunning nonetheless. The Americani might be an arrogant bunch, but they do have good taste in their political monuments.

Nymph wades out to where the reflecting pool gives way to the Potomac itself, and stands with her claws on her hips, sucking her lower lip into her mouth. She catches herself and stops it, before she can suck off her own waterproof red-violet lip gloss.

Nothing she wears is fuchsia. Not quite. She's changed it up considerably since Los Angeles: she has dark, flirt purple thigh-highs, mulberry accents on her skintight grey wetsuit, and a wine-colored mask that splits her face horizontally around her tinted goggles. One would have to squint to make out the sideway shape of the Pisces symbol hidden in the shape of the mask. All of her hair has been tightly wound into thousands of microbraids, slim enough that from a distance it appears as though she has naturally straight hair. She's always had her hair loose in loose, flyaway, salt-roughened curls that could flow around her under the water like an inky trails; now all of her hair lies coiled down her back, dotted with gold, cyan blue, and mint green beads, with only the bangs that frame her face loose and curly.

She's shore she'll get used to it!

Nymph taps her foot and the water buoys her up so that she can walk across the surface of the river, out into the center, where anyone passing by in the late afternoon heat can see her.

And people will see her. This is a publicity stunt, after all!

Beneath her feet she can feel the sludge that clogs the river, the plastic litter that has sunk to the bottom and entrenched itself in the mud, along with every other rifiuto that contaminates the watershed. The water is slick with pesticides and bright green cyanobacteria that suck the oxygen out of the river, negatively affecting the lifespans of the rest of the river's marine life. Plumes of sediment rise up on a current when Nymph crooks her claw upward.

It's all this urban development and street runoff: no river that flows through a major city comes out unscathed. It would never do for a city with a hero like Nymph around to have a river so gross that it's technically illegal to swim in it, so this is quite the opperchtunity for her to make a good first impression as a hero.

She closes her eyes, falls to one knee to press her palms to the water, and begins. She lets her coscienza sink beneath the waves, rippling outward until she reaches the opposite shore. Water purification is her specialty! She pours through like a swift-moving current, drawing the heavy metals and excess sediments through the sieve of her power until they vanish from the water completely. In their place she pumps vigor and vitality, and she seeks out fish and plant life that have most suffered from the presence of pollutants in the river to give them an extra burst of energy.

Some are malformed and crippled, with partially-developed fins and gills that struggle to filter oxygen from the water even after Nymph purifies it. But with her careful guidance she is able to cull out those who need assistance and send out a mental request - not an order! - that others in the same species take care of them. Fish are kind of stupid, though, so she'll probably need to remind them pretty often!

When she blinks open her eyes and plunges just her head into the water, Nymph peers around. The river is clear and lush with life, all the marine life for miles swarming toward her vicinity for a taste of clean water. She blows out a glub at a nearby, bulge-eyed muskellunge and burbles a laugh when the fish flinches away in surprise. In the sea one could generally spot a sea troll or a rogue lusus or two floating around, and the absence of either in the Potomac is a testament to just how bad the pollution has gotten!

But as fun as it would be to swim and get to know all her new aquatic charges, Nymph is setting a lure for landdwellers today. If she doesn't make it reeeeelly obvious what she's doing, humans and terrestrial trolls might not even notice the cleaned-up river for days and days! She stands up and flips her hair back. The braids swing with extra weight and thump against the small of her back, dripping riverwater all down her legs. Still standing on top of the water, Nymph strides further down, past the clean edge of the volume of water she purified around the Rutledge Memorial, and kneels to distill another patch of the river.

She wonders idly what happens to all that pollution and sediment that she has to scrape and filter out of the water in order to revitalize it. But most of the time she doesn't question it, just as she accepts her ability to press a claw to a feeble cuttlefish and bring it back to life without qualification. Powers are powers - who glubbing cares how they work! A caval donato non si guarda in bocca, as they say! As long as she can heal and purify and enrich water this way, she sees no need to worry about minor details like how she does it.

It takes her a few hours. After she's acclimated herself to the water content, Nymph stops kneeling and allows the power to roll through the soles of her feet, so that with every step a new bubble of clean, clear water appears. The river, which appears dark and murky brown before her touch, runs pure by the time she reaches the end of her route, and tiny fish nibble at her heels. She dips the toe of her boot under the surface and kicks up an arc of water droplets that glitters in the early evening sun, laughing. Così bella!

Tossing her hair back over her shoulder, Nymph glances at the river bank through the corner of her goggles. She's ended up by a monument she doesn't recognize, the more modern buildings of the city's center rising up beyond the trees on either side, but what she focuses on is the crowd of landdwellers who have gathered at the river's edge. She waves at them all, and dances inwardly with pleasure when they surge forward like the tide to wave back, calling out unintelligibly and gesturing at her to come closer. She can pick out the glint of video cameras and the satellite dishes atop news vans just beyond the main crowd of tourists and locals alike who have gathered to witness her latest act of public service. 

Looks like she's hooked 'em! "No need to be koi!" she calls, tossing loose braids with a clack over her shoulder as she grins, not allowing any sign of her momentary exhaustion to show. When she spies a camera, she holds up two hang-ten signs, giggling. "The water's fine!"

It's offishal - Nymph has taken up hero work in Washington, DC!

-

In Italia she had been the Piccola Ninfa. It had been a good name, the kind of alias she now associates with the simplicity of her childhood, and in a fit of nostalgia she chose the English variant as her new persona. She had rescued sailors at sea and scoured the canals of Venice until the waters ran clear and clean, thronging with aquatic life. It had been her pet project to raise up a marine crime fighting force, actually! When the Condesce began to harry her in public and press her to leave Europe or face undesirabubble consequences, Feferi realized that to continue her public service work she would have to rebrand herself or risk the entire world connecting the movements of the Ninfa to the grand tour mondiale of Feferi Peixes, the new tyrian heiress. She had settled on Lady Cascade when it became clear that her stay in Los Angeles would be prolonged indefinitely.

But of course, she no longer has reason to worry about that.

The newscasters swarmed her from the moment she stepped out of the gate at Reagan National, and now the whole world seems to be tittering over the fact that Her Imperious Condescension and the Kindly Ereditiera, the Condesce and her Heiress, will be within a hundred miles of each other for the first time in a decade. After fielding street interviews as Nymph by the Potomac, Feferi returns to her new home in St Mary's County, has Lanietta undo all of those thousands of braids, and floats through a more private interview with a keen-eyed turquoise blooded journalist from CNN International. PR is vital for a hero of her power and notoriety, but twice as vital for a tyrianblood. Feferi folds her hands in her lap, tilts her horns back, and flutters her lashes at the cameraman rather than the camera itself to give it that edge of realism as she talks her way into the public's good graces.

Despite that, when Feferi sinks into the saltwater pool to relax that night with her waterproof tablet in hand, the Internet is flooded with negative press. One busybody in particular, a consultant supposedly from the Bureau of Legislaceration, seems certain that having Feferi and the Condesce in the same city is an overture to world war. What a load of carp!

It's not a usual state of affairs, to be sure. Off the top of her head, Feferi can think of maybe two times in history that a pair of fuchsiabloods managed to coexist near each other without clashing outright. Those of her hemotype are long-lived but rare, one born maybe every few hundred years, and her predecessors always accumulated empires and a taste for tyriannical rule by the time another of the blood wriggled forth. Cleopatra of Egypt gave shelter to Alexandra Maccabeus and the two had parted on amicable terms - but who knows if the friendship would have lasted if Alexandra had not shortly afterward been imprisoned and executed. The brief but terrifying matespritship between Vishpala the Glorious and Golden Regent Hoelun, meanwhile, had led to the Third Great Tyrian Onslaughtering of recorded history, and the ensuing massacre cleared the Eurasian steppes for the Condesce herself to master.

But just because history says fuchsiabloods can't stand each other doesn't mean she and the Condesce are going to try to cull each other on sight! That would be terribubble! They are both rational adult trolls, and they can settle their problems like civilized beings - as long as they can maintain their exact balance of power, Feferi is certain they'll be fine.

So if Feferi is to reside in the capital as she desires, she can give the Condesce no quarter. Tethys Peixes nominally resides at a lavish villa in Minnesota but her involvement both overt and clandestine in DC is legendary among certain circles. Feferi refuses to get entangled in political shenanigans - her predecessor may net herself a school of lackeys and sycophants for a pseudo-army, but Feferi will not. The old days of war-mongering and imperialism are over. Hopefully the Condesce will respect that as the gesture of neutrality it is intended to be, and not stir up trouble for the sake of her outdated imperialist bias.

(F̿͊͒͋eͥ̾̆ͮ̌̈́̏fͬ̿̒̚e̚rḯ̓̅.)

Feferi winces, and pinches the brow of her nose. The migraine hits her like a bright pinch, right in the space behind her eyes, and her whole forehead begins to ache. They've been happening a lot lately, since before she left Los Angeles, but none of the pain medication prescribed by her physicians have been able to make a dent in the mysterious headaches.

Her tablet lets out three pings in quick succession, to the tune of 'Under the Sea,' and Feferi groans when she spies the violet text that tries to fill her screen in the Pesterchum app. She jabs her claw at the screen while averting her eyes, determined not to get sucked into Eridan's latest attempt at dragging her back into his negativity spiral. It's not like she just broke up with him for the halibut! It was just so discouraging, throwing so much of her love and time into helping someone who couldn't be bothered to try and deal with his issues. Eridan could be a real sweetheart, but only in the rare moments when he wasn't moody and angry with his lusus, or with criminals, or with warmbloods, or with the entire carping world. It really said something about the state of their morayeellegiance that even after all those years together, Feferi still couldn't say exactly what Eridan's glubbing problem was! Nothing seemed to make him happy.

(ͮ̎ͮͤFͨĕͥf̓̾ͤ̑erïͯ̎ͭ͒͌, ͌̓m̎yͪ͑ͨ d͛͋ͮͮaȑ͛ͬͤ͋̾l̆͆inͤ͆͐̊ͣ̒̾g͂̓̿. ͆̒ͨC̈ͦͦo̒me̽̏ͤ͑ to̿̑̎̏ͯ̅ ͊͌G͆̽ͨ͗͛̂ͯlͪu̽ͮb͗̓͋̊̈b̆̚y.)

Maybe it’s about time she paid a visit to the one who had called her here. Feferi sets her tablet on silent and shoves it under a pile of towels. Not bothering to dry off, Feferi walks to the rocky beach at the edge of her new apartment's complex, and into the brisk chill of bay water. She immerses herself and makes a beeline for the open water of the Atlantic. Something in her mind directs her, a quiet homing certainty that guides her from the shallows to the deep sea without the need for landmarks. She's one of the fastest swimmers on the planet, a benefit of her hemotype, and she makes it to the deeps of the Atlantic in only an hour or so.

Perhaps she should have left a message for Ed, though, so at least he'd know she hadn't been krillnapped or anything. Too late now! She reaches the meeting place, and her ears pop with the pressure as she waits for Glubby to rise up.

The sea floor beneath her shifts, and a thin layer of silt falls off in a cloud that makes the water murky for a long moment. When it clears, the pale white flesh of Gl'bgolyb, Emissary of the Deep, can be clearly made out.

She's huge. So much larger than any other aquatic lusus Feferi has ever seen. Not even the rogue mutations of Japan could match this. Feferi experiences a moment of vertigo, as though she is looking down at a sky's eye view of a city in motion, a city of tentacles and mouths. The voice that speaks in her mind is more clear than ever before, and she relaxes at the bloom of sharp, ascorbic white that fills her vision. Her headache recedes almost instantly.

̒I͛̅ͣ͐͂t̒̐ͯ̄̚ h̿̊ͩ̂̿̂a͋ͧ̌s ̽ͤb͋̏e͂e͆͋ñ͌ t̊oͯo ͂̊l͌̋̇ͫͤ̾̚o̿̋̽͂͋ng.ͩ̄͗͋ͬ̚ ͭͥͮI͐ͣ ̏̈͗̌͐ͯ͌aͥͨͭm ̓̎s̍̂̅̈́ͨ̑͐o̒ ḡ͒ͮla͌d̍̍ tͥ̔o̍ ͨ̔̾̑h̾aͩ̔̓v̍ͣ̄e̒͑ ͂͐͊m͗e̅̽̇t ̐y̅ͬ̍͊ͦou ͊̒̒ͨ͛̓̚at l̓a̾͋̇ͣsͦt̋̈́.

One of the smallest tentacles, barely the wide and length of a school bus, reaches out toward Feferi, leaving a filmy trail in the water behind it. Feferi feels a moment of concern at the weird oil that spreads out through the water, but then the tentacle reaches her and she can't fight the urge to set a hand against it, stroking the side of the lusus she never had. It doesn't even sting, and her usual sense for contaminants in water isn't alerting her to anything amiss, so she ignores the spreading cloud of film.

"Glubby," she says, happiness burbling up in her heart. "I'm so happy to meet you, too! Where have you been all this time?"

It's been a constant mystery throughout Feferi's life, the fact that she never had a lusus. Others of tyrian descent had their own magnificent custodians - Elizabet I's enormous frill shark had been the stuff of nightmares, a terror to both her enemies and her own infamous navy. But Feferi had never known the influence of a lusus in her life, having been raised by self-appointed retainers who sought to hide her in Venice until it was too late for the Condesce to strike at her without international consequences. But from what little Glubby has been able to communicate over the distance between them, this gorgeous, unidentifiable squid-like creature should have been there to raise her all along.

̆Tͣ̈ͦh͑e͗ͥͦ ͭ͑ͣ̎ͭ̔ͧw̐̇ͥ̿ȏ̈́̋͗r͒̈́k͌ ̔ͥ̄̌͋͊of ̑̎͂̋̂yoͮ̔ͯ͊u͛̍ͦr̅̏̄͑̆̈ pͥ͑r͋̓̂̎è̾ͭͦ̅̓de͊ͦ͆̈́̽̆̅c̐é͌ͪͣͥͮ͊sśor̂. ͛̈́̈̂S̽̈́̋̅̅ͨͧh͌͂ͦͥ̚ȇ̚ h̔̔a͒sͯͬ grown̿͋̇̊͂̒ ͥͮso ̓ͤ̎̽̊̎dͪĭst͛͐ͥ̔ä́̓n̒̐ͭͬt̔̔͌̍̐͆ f͋r̔òͬ̋m ̈ͤͥͫ̽̄̿m͐̒͌̋ͬͩ̿eͣ͐̿̂̍̋̎ òf lͥä́ͯt͑e̓͋.̏̎͛ͦ͊ ͤS͆̇̈̆̍ͩh̓̍e hͥ͐̊ͩas͂̑̌ ̓ͮt͛͊̒͐̇̍̚h̑e tͬͦ̏̈́̑̚emͦe͆ri̒ͧͤ̽̇t̔̊y ͑̽t͑ͮo ̓͗͋ͭor̔̋̄̇̓̽d̿er mͭ̐̎ͮ̽e͋.̂ ̽̚M̈̊͑̾̅̄̇E͗̾͗̓ͣ.ͫͬ͆̿ͪ͌͊ ͋

Feferi's mood sours. "Urgh! What a total beach!" She sighs, patting the lusus side in an unconsciously soothing motion. "I just wish Eridan could have gotten better before I left. I think you would have liked him."

She regrets the way they broke up, more than a little. But between Eridan's latest freakout and Glubby's urgent siren call in her mind, Feferi had just hit her breaking point. Aside from the fact that she had to cross the country to reach Glubby's hiding place, it's probably good to give Eridan his space. He can be so clingy!

Glubby's next words only cement that certainty in her mind.

T͆ͣh̎a͊̐t b̐̇͌ͤoͬͧ̂ͦy w̒̈̏̏oͯ̒̑̊̈̅̍u̐̇̽̚̚lͥd ͂ͮó̽̇͊nl̄͒̌y͊ͦ̍ ḧ́̄ͭ̚ave lĕ̓͛̑͆̑̊d ̎̎y̒̌͒ó͒ͩu ̓̈̑ͧ̓i͗ͥ̚nẗ́o de̽̔ͯsp̋͐̿̎͊a͐̊͗͊̓̊ìr̍̔.̎͂ͩ̚ ̊He ͩd͆͋̂ͥ̎̈e̓ͨ̍̓ͭs͒̍̂troȳs ho̓ͫp̓̒e.ͬͯ Yͯo̐ͦ̽u ̆de̽ͦ̒̎seͥͬr̎̽ͭ̄̊̓vͬ͊ͭe ̇̍̾ͩ̈́ͫbe͐̔tt̔͒ͬeͧr̒ ͑̒͊ͧͥth̎̎̌ͯ̓̋̍a͌ͦ̍ͤn͌̍ aͪ͂n̓ ͮa͛n̓g͛͌͌eͬ̚l'sͥ ̓ͤ̽̚pläͦͨ̏̂ͨ͊ythi̿ͮͣn̅g̎̍ͧ͐ͫ̊.̿̇͛ͭͫͬͣ ̓͛̑̓͑He͋ͣ̾̄ͩ͑ i̅̊s ̂n̋͆ͣ͐̂ͮͨo ̎̏loͥͪͩn͗ͧg̔erͯ y̆̈́ő͛ͮ̇u̍͛̆ͯͬͮr ͐̓̾͐̽̒̚c̊o͋n̍̔ce̔͛̓̔͑̇̎r̓͐͋nͦ̓.

The tentacle scoops Feferi up and pulls her closer, but she's not afraid. She nods along with the lusus's words, closing her eyes. The water this deep down should be a little chilly but she just feels warm. Is this what being around a custodian feels like? "Now what, Glubby?" she asks, curling up against cool white flesh. "I'm too old to need to be raised anymore. What now?"

̂Yͮͫo̓͆̓͗͊̄̍u ̄̔a̍rͦeͮͮ̆̏̆̊ ͐h̆ͨe͒͂͂͌̌͋re̍ to̓͂ cͦͬ̇̓ͭ̈ȯuͩn̋t̂ͥ̓̓er̄ͯͤ̂ ̒Tet̓̿ḣy͌̄sͧͤͪ̏,̂ o̓̓̐f ̿͛ͩcͤou̐ͬr͊̔s͋eͯ̒͂͒.̓̽, the lusus says, its entire body shrugging. S̅ͣ̈̎he ͨͣ̽ͬ͛͗͛hå̏ͯͮ̒s ̓͆̂̅̑f͆ar ̈́ô̄͂u͛͋̋ͯ̍̌t͂l͌̿̊iͭͯveͥ̈͊d̈͛ h̄ͫeȑ ͐ͭ̒u̿se̍ͭͨfͥ͗̊ul̋ͫ̇̚n͑͂ͣeͣs̔̍̐s̊͋ͤ͋, ̄ͧ͊i̇f̾ sͭ̈̚h̿e̒ͫ̿̽ ins̔̾iͪͯͣst͌̈ͮs̎ ̓ő̐̓̊̅ͯn̂ͣ ȏ̑̑̅pͣ̅p̂̐ͦͮͦ̂o͒siͬ̌̆n͆̾̓ͮ̽gͥͯ̈́͆͌ ͌̅̈́ͩ̍ͤ̓mͣͭͧy̅ͧ̿̍̊ͮ͛ ͑͐wͬil̑l͆. Bͩ̊üt͑ͤ̑ y̑̋̏͐̓ou ̇ͬ̑ͨwͫ̄̾ͪͧȍul̑̓̍d ňͥ̿e̾̈͑̑ͭ̐v̒e̔͗͒̏ͪͧrͥ ͛ͨ͑̇̍ͭo̒pͥ̏͆ͫp̌̽ͧͨ̒̇ͩose ̇ͫ̓̏͗mê͆, ͨ͊̓wȯͩu͌lͮ̈́̚d ͮͫͤ̅͋̄̚yͪ͗̒̾̑ou ͮmͯ͋̅yͩ̔̔̔ͪ dͤͫͯ̓̌̚e͗aͬ̔͗̆ͪͦ̿r?͆̍͐̏̅͛ I w͂͐͊oͧ̄͌̊uͪ̚ld̋ͣ͛ͧ̍ ̓ͨͤh̓aͤͬ̐͊̆ẗe̿̈́͂ ͭ̓t̆̒̊͒ͣ̽͊oͣ ̐̽͊ͨ̈́͊gͯe̒͗̑̚t ̒̋̽͗ͪͦ͆u̚ps͆et̋̾ wi̿̈ͪ̋̿t͒̑̿h ̊͋͑ͩ͂̈̔yͮ̂ȍͥ̓ͭuͯ.

Feferi's stomach turns over; she hugs the tentacle around her impulsively, papping Glubby to reassure her. "Of course not! You've been nothing but kind to me!"

It would be awful if Glubby ever got mad. She can feel it.

ͬͤ͑̊͛ͮͣTh̊͊̅a͒ͤ̒t ̈̄̿iͭ̿̊͌ͩͪ͆ṡͦ̒͊ g͒̏o̾ͭ͐o̓d̄.ͦ̍ ͂̒My̽ͪ̒͒̊̆ ̐͊ͯ̈͆̋̌pͣ̈́ȓe͋ci̓̂̓̽ou̽͋͂̾̄ͯ̇sͦͬ̎͋͆͐̚ Fef̋̾e̽r̔ͭͭiͪ̈́ͤ̓ͮͮͬ. The tentacle rocks her back and forth, like an affectionate cuttlefish. For Feferi, who has spent the past few weeks weaning herself off pile cuddles with Eridan - and then, abruptly, finding herself without a morayeel at all - it is remarkably soothing.

̒͊͊͒̅Ĭ̐̎̔ ̽̌̿̓ͩwo͑̓͒̇ͨu̿̍̿͛̏l̆d̍ n̈e͒ve͐̈́r ̅ā̅̇ŝ̒k ͯ̇yo̚ű̊̎ t̑ͪͬͣ̌̈́̄o ͛d͛̇̆̾̓őͤͦ͋̂̋ anẙ̓̍̽t͑͂ͪ̈̏̽͒h̐̔̿i͗̐͂̓̇n̏͐̊g̓ͣ̅̓ ÿ́o̓ȕ d̆͒̂̋ïͧd̍͋n̔̿ͭ̿ͥ͑'̽̈́t͗ ̓͋ͬwͨ̈́ͩaͤ͋̈́͗ͪn͛̅͊̑ṫ̈́̊ t͋̐ͬőͦ̆͊.͆͛̋̓ ̽Oͩ̓ͦ̓͒t͐̂͗͗͗̐ȟ̈e̋͋r̓sͭ͐ͫ͑̇ͦͩ ͒w͛̓̍oul̆d ͌ͭmͥͣ͗a̓kͪ͐̍͊e͐̓ͪ uš̈̾̓͂̈ͬeͬ͑͋̋̄̚ ̚of̊̓̑ͧ̈ ̓͑ͩ̅͂ͧy͒͋ͦō͋ͧu̇ f̓̒̐o͐̾̇͂̄̓̅r̂̇̎̒ͧ̽̍ thͮȅir͐͑̆ ̅͊͛̈́̽õͨ̾̇͗̇w̓̔̈́̚n̔ͮ͂̓ ̒͂̽cͯo͋ͪ͛̆ͥͫ͋nͬͤ̓q͋̇̈́̽ͦ̊͗uͥ̄̽ͣes̆̿̚t̊ͤ a͋ͧ̎̚̚nd̏̊ͥ͊͑ͦ s͑̎̈́̍̂̑̄c̎̆ͬhͨemͪe͛͐s̓̚,̍ͮ b̓͆̆ͧͮu͑t I ͂̾͆a͊͛͒̚m ̓̔y̍ͤo͛̍̽uͮr ̊̾l̓ͤͩ͗̊̎̈́u̓͑̅ͣ̓su͊̇s. Jü͗͛ŝ̎ͭ̄ͪ͗̚t ̿oͮͨ̿ͣ̔͋̚p̑p͛os̏ͮ̓ē ͭy͗ͧ̔̒̅o͊͋u̿r ͂̏ͪ̇̅̐A͗͋̋nͧ͐cesṫõ̾͆r,̓̾̆ a͐nd I͑ ͗am ̋̔cͬ̄ǒ̅̎͛ntͬ̐̾ͩe̓͊̅͆͑̚nͬṫ.͛̅

Feferi doesn't know quite what to make of that. Her head feels kind of fuzzy. "Well, I don't know about opposing her, but generally her policies are the opposite of mine. So I definitely won't be interacting with her any more than I have to," she hedges, trying to piece her thoughts together. She frowns, something niggling at the back of her mind. "Do you need me to bring you anything," she ventures to ask, hesitant. "You said I had to come to you...If it's that difficult for you to move, should I try to bring you giant lusus snacks? I'm sure I can get something from the local reservation…"

For a crazed moment, she contemplates exactly how difficult it would be to fetch Glubby a whale lusus from the reservation. But she startles out of the thought a second later, horrified with herself for even contemplating the thought of feeding a lusus to another lusus. That would be the height of depravity! She tries to shake it off.

ͩN̅oͯ̐͛̇͂̈̚t toͭ ̈́w͒̍͆̔͊͋ő̈́̋ͤrͥ͆͂͒͗ͦ͒rý.ͥͦ I h͆̑͑ä́v̅̇̈́̍̐̇̚e ̾͂ͬͧ̑fe̋̈́̈́a̿ŝte͊̓̈̄d̅ ̎̌̍̂̿̔lͬon͋̐̑ͬg͗̐͑ͥͮ͒ ͑̆i̓n̈́̑̅̏̇̆ ͋̌̔̈́͗öt̔̐ḣ̄̆erͭ pͦͭͧͤl̐àc͂͛͋̅͑̚es̏ ͊̑t̑̆̈̑͆h͗a̐ͩ̿̒ͫͧ͆n ͯthi͑͑ͩ͆s̍. ͆͂͆̈Nȯ̈́w̏͐ͪ̚ g͒o.̎ͩ̾

The tentacle releases her and Feferi finds herself adrift. She shakes off her daze and waves goodbye to the lusus, who ripples a tentacle in farewell before delving back down against the sea floor. Feferi lingers for a moment, then angles for the surface. Her gills feel sticky and tired for some reason, and she thinks she'll give them a break before she makes the endurance swim back to shore.

(S͂͆ŭc̓̄hͮͭͤ̒̚ ä́͋ͪ ̌̐̽̆g͊̊̈̄ͬͣ̾o͛od ̇̽girl̍̍͒̐̂̍ͣ.͑͗̇ͮ ̑M̐ͣ̄͑y̓̎͑ͧͯ̚ ͣͤͦFef̽eri͒̎ͮ.)

-

The next day, Feferi meets with the Secretary of State.

"Presider Chalzana and Vice President Burns are occupied with negotiations in the House, today," Daniel Clay explains as he extends an arm to Feferi with a slight bow. "They regret that they could not meet you in person today, but send their regards."

"Quite alright, Mr Secretary," Feferi replies, accepting the arm with a polite smile. "I wouldn't make unreasonable demands upon their time - they do have a country to run, after all! I don't want to take up too much of your time, either."

"Nonsense," the human says, waving a hand dismissively. "It is a delight to meet you at last. How has life on our West Coast been treating you?"

"Quite well!" Feferi follows the man down the western steps of the Capitol building, toward the mall. The reflecting pool glimmers at the westernmost edge of the grounds, and here and there tourists dot the green lawn, taking photos of the building itself. Both of them have an entourage, but the suits hang back far enough to give the two some semblance of privacy. "It's not quite Venezia, of course, but that's just my personal opinion."

Clay laughs, fake and booming. "No, I can see how California and Venice would be hard to compare. But I understand there was a certain boy...a little romance in the air, perhaps…?" He wags an eyebrow at her.

Feferi simpers, adjusting her glasses on her nose. "Pale romance," she corrects, her smile brittle. "But I'm afraid it would never have worked out. I have faith I'll find a morayeel, eventually."

"Ah yes, of course." The man cocks his head to the side. He clearly doesn't understand. Humans can be so stupid about such simple concepts! "But what brings you to our fair capital, then?" He starts them down one of the drives that outline the lawn. "Trouble with certain other candidates residing here under diplomatic immunity?"

But maybe Feferi is just being a little crabby this morning, because that query was...quite on point, if roundabout. She keeps her expression smooth and congenial, but her claws tighten a little on the man's arm. "Non capisco, Mr Secretary. Perhaps you could restate your question?"

"You understand, I must ask such questions," Clay murmurs, his gaze darting toward a passing school of children. When they pass, the sharp, probing glint returns to his eyes as he focuses on Feferi. "If there is some impending conflict between the Condescension and yourself, it is my business to know about it so we - the United States government - can respond appropriately."

Ah. Feferi expected this. As fuchsiabloods, both she and the Condesce exist in political limbo; Feferi nominally claims Italian citizenship, but it is understood that no one nation could ever truly claim someone with tyrian in their veins.They are treated in most nations with the wariness and respect due to anyone with the intimate ability to sway the loyalty of entire troll populations to their cause.

She just hadn't expected the secretary to be so upfront about it. Politicking in Italy had always been a dance. This is straightforward, in comparison. "I have not been in contact with my Ancestor in some time," she says smoothly, adjusting the fall of her cardigan. "There have been no overtures of violence between us, no. But I understand your concern," she interrupts, when the man opens his mouth. "The situation is irregular. But Her Imperious Condescension and I have been in close quarters before with no ill effect."

"No other potential fuchsiablood has survived to adulthood in recent years," Clay says, angling them toward the reflecting pool. "Those of your hemotype have a worrying tendency to...disappear before they gain the kind of celebrity and following that you have."

"I visited her court on occasion when I was still a child, and yet here I stand. If she meant to initiate outright conflict, trust me, signore - you would already minnow about it." Feferi plants her feet, and the secretary has to stop or risk falling over. She's strong enough that he has to follow her lead. She wheels so that she can look him directly in the eye. "I am interested only in public service and my charity work while here in the capital. I am no empress," she says.

"So you say," the man says. "Other fuchsiabloods have made similar promises in the past, though, only to lose their resolve when a rival appears. And Herself is not as open with her motives as you. We need more than just your word that you will not attempt to engage in that kind of turf war here on American soil."

"I am afraid that my word is all that I can provide, signore," Feferi replies, her jaw tightening. She unwinds her arm from his and steps closer to the reflecting pool, trying for serenity. It's hard to act so calm and professional, but being her usual bubbly self here wouldn't help things. A breeze picks up, and she wraps her cardigan around herself more firmly, brushing stray curls out of her face. "If you require more reassurances, I would suggest you try to fish out the Condesce's motives for yourself. If any tyrian here is going to initiate things, it will be her."

"I'm trying, believe me," Clay sighs. "Getting an audience with that troll is harder than meeting with the Presider himself."

The grass crunches under heavy boots, and Feferi angles herself to look up as her head bodyguard peels himself away from the pack of suits and approaches her. "Miss Feferi," he says, for her ears only.

Feferi perks her fins up. "Yes, Ed?"

The bodyguard tilts his head to the drive they just left, at an oliveblood in bright red standing off to the side. "A messenger." He raises both eyebrows, and that's more than enough to tell Feferi exactly who the oliveblood is a messenger from.

The Condesce, as usual, has absolutely uncanny timing. "I'll handle it," she murmurs, and Ed nods, stepping back. Feferi flashes a brilliant grin at the Secretary of State, who eyeballs the messenger with healthy suspicion. "I'm afraid I have to take this message," Feferi says genially, folding her claws together. "Perhaps we could reconvene this meeting after lunch?"

"Of course," the secretary says, drawing out the last word with obvious reluctance. "Do keep me posted on the situation we've discussed, Lady Peixes."

"Just Miss, thank you," Feferi says. She cuts off the lingering instinct to bid him farewell as she would in Italy - old habits die hard - and clasps his hand in a brisk handshake when he offers it. "Have a good day, Mr Secretary."

When the human politician has moved off far enough, taking his share of the bodyguards with him, Feferi sighs and strides over to the oliveblood. The outfit truly is a horrendous shade of scarlet, garish against the stocky troll's sallow coloring, and his hair has been bleached blond. "I understand you have a message for me," Feferi says, folding her arms self-consciously when it becomes clear the troll doesn't intend to offer it of his own volition.

He gives an indolent half-shrug, and pulls a cherry-red lollipop out of his mouth with a pop. "Her Imperious Condescension would like to invite you for shots tonight," he says. "Her place at eight. Be there, or be a buzzkrill."

The pun is truly marvelous. Feferi waits until the oliveblood has slunk away before letting out a groan.

Shots fired.

-

Feferi has researched Her Imperious Condescension's lengthy and varied history as a matter of survival. She could recite the empires that have fallen beneath the fuchsiablood's war machines without hesitation.

But the fact is that, at some unspecified point in the mid-1800s, the Condesce had...settled. She was conspicuously absent in any significant capacity in either of the World Wars, reputedly taking an extended vacation in the Great Barrier Reef, surfacing only to give a vague thumbs up at the peace accords before vanishing again from public life. She either acquired or founded Crocker Corp in America around then - again, the records are uncertain - and then left overseas to set up her court in Europe.

But she never again claimed her own territory to form an independent empire. After an incident in which some poor demented purpleblood attacked the informal court at Spain, the Condesce had sought asylum in France, and from there began to pester Feferi in Italy. She personally sponsored Eurovision and other concerts in Europe, but her internationally-renowned obsession with rap and pop music didn't really begin to define her in the public eye until her move to America. Since then, no one has taken the Condesce seriously as a threat.

Sometimes, Feferi feels like she's the only one in the world who does. Her Ancestor makes the news for outraygeous parties and sensationalist connections to pop stars and drugs lords alike. The general population would like to think the Condesce has progressed with the times, viewing her as an eccentric cultural troll figurehead who is just enlightened enough not to worry about. A relic with a Twitter account and the majority shares in a cake mix company. They'd prefer to forget the semi-mythical figure of the empress that was, the tyrian who strove time and again to rule the entire world.

To be fair, Feferi isn't entirely sure what to make of her Ancestor, either. The Condesce is…weird. But as long as they can stay on good terms, Feferi isn't going to be the one to porpoisefully screw that up!

She wears a white top with her shoulders bared and arm slits that cut low enough to expose the red-violet frill of her gills along the sides of her ribs, but the mint green skirt falls around her ankles to make up for the risqué cut. Her heels are taupe grey, a few shades off from troll-nude, giving her just enough height that she won't trip all over her skirt. She wears the lemon zest yellow glasses, and only when she is certain that her emergency 2x3dentkind is well concealed by the voluminous folds of her skirt does she nod to her driver and let him start the engine to drive them back up the peninsula to the Condesce's beach house. "If I am not back in three hours," she tells him through the divider window, "try not to hurt her servants on the way to kelp out. It would be nobody's fault but hers, trust me. No one else could take me."

"Of course, Miss Feferi," he replies, drumming his fingers along the curve of the steering wheel with a nervous beat. Ed is a guardia del corpo first and a driver second, and Feferi bites her lip, knowing that her insistence on going in solo must be grating on him.

She brings a proper guest gift, naturally. A bottle of 1954 Barolo Monfortino of Conterno origin, one that Feferi has kept in her stock for just such an occasion. She has a weakness for rich wines, and she leaves an opened bottle of 1951 on the counter back at her apartment. It tasted like dark plums, cherries, and smoke, with notes of licorice to set it off, but she has no idea what the 1954 tastes like - the only true factor in her decision to give it to the Condesce had been the hefty price tag. The bottle remains sealed for the sake of courtesy between two of the tyrian hemotype. No need to make a perfectly cordial meeting awkward by handing over a potentially poisoned bottle of wine and expecting the Condesce to drink it, after all. When a servant in a crimson red frock answers the door, Feferi hands the bottle and an armful of white comet orchids and bright magenta asters to the troll with a warm smile. Unlike the oliveblood earlier, this troll nods briskly and leads Feferi through the hallways at a nautical clip, handing the bottle off to another servant as they sail past the empty dining room. Feferi keeps her claws to herself, though she can't help glancing around curiously at the interior of the spacious mansion, keeping an eye out for potential exits.

"Herself has been expecting you," the servant says, halting beside a frosted glass door. The glass is rattling in time with a thumping bass line that has grown steadily louder as they neared the back of the house, and Feferi eyes the opaque windows with growing apprehension. "Good luck." The servant opens the door for her, and Feferi is blasted with a wave of sound. Reeling, she steps into what she expects to be the foyer.

She should have known better.

There are crunched up beer cans scattered across the rough stone tile floor, a beer pong table decorated with neon paint and Christmas lights, and the stereo speakers are blasting Lady Sovereign with such force that the glasses lined up along the bar rattle in their racks. There's a 50 inch flatscreen TV mounted in the space between two pillars that frame an outdoor patio, blocking out a good part of the bay view. Her Imperious Condescension sits in a hot tub that is roaring full blast, with three scantily clad trolls in bathing suits clustered around her.

All of them are holding Wii controllers.

"Bitchez ain't shiiiiit!" the Condesce crows, kicking up her feet and flinging her head back to laugh at the ceiling while King Boo on a bright pink motorcycle flies across the finish line. The cigar clamped between her teeth is deftly caught by the blueblood to her right and extinguished in a makeshift ashtray by the poolside.

Feferi is fairly certain she has just walked in on a Mario Kart party. She stands in the center of the room, debaiting inwardly if she dares walk closer to the bar and ask for a drink. She did not drink enough wine to deal with this, clearly.

"Eyyyyyy, my girl is here!" The Condesce rises up in the hot tub, tossing the controller to the side and holding her claws out to either side as she steps up onto the edge of the pool and strides toward Feferi. "Ladies, it's my girl! Fef, boo, gimme some sugar!" She taps her cheek with an elegant claw, calling attention to the glittery gold heart sticker at the corner of her deep fuchsia eye. Everything about the Condesce is so...loud.

"Buonasera, ma'am," Feferi says, leaning down to kiss the air above the Condesce's left cheek, and then the right. It is as unsettling as ever to have to look down to meet her Ancestor's glittering eyes and wide smirk - something in the slurry must have granted Feferi more impressive genes for height - but the magnificent arc of the Condesce's horns is a grim reminder that this is a troll who has survived centuries of rivals and imperial warfare without flagging. She has watched empires rise and fall and lived to - somehow, impossibly, inexplicably - become obsessed with rap music and Instagram. Overhead, Nicki Minaj and Cassie blare through the speakers, harsh and electric. "Thank you for inviting me over this evening -"

"Nah, baby girl. #noproblem." The Condesce whirls away and shrugs into a sheer, pastel blue kimono top that matches her thick lipstick. She leaves it hanging open over her bikini, indifferent to Feferi's presence as she saunters to the bar, leaving puddles of water in her wake. Feferi glances at the three trolls still lounging in the hot tub, but they ignore her, one violetblood swinging her feet up on another's lap to wiggle her toes contemplatively. "We gotta stick together, you feel me? Wanna drink?"

"I - I think I'll be fine with a glass of water, thank you," Feferi says hastily, trying not to stare as the blueblood leans over and sticks her tongue down the ceruleanblood's throat. Good cod, what has she walked in on?

Unfortunately, she stares too long. When she tears her eyes away from the impending hot tub orgy playing out right next to her, Tethys has bared all her teeth in a predatory grin. "Wanna girl?" she asks, her smile lewd.

"I'm fine!" Feferi's voice cracks, and she flounders her way to the bar, ignoring any and all noises emanating from the hot tub. "Really, I'm alright. Fintastic, even."

The Condesce cackles, holding out an expectant claw. The bartender has a clear glass of alcohol to meet her with instantaneously, and the fuchsiablood offers it to Feferi, holding it around the tiny rim. "Eh, whatever. Just chill wherever. Come on, one shot won't krill yah." She tosses her head back to laugh at her own pun and nearly impales the bartender.

As it is entirely possible that what is in the shot glass could kill her, if the Condesce got it in her head to poison Feferi at last, she shakes her head. "What is it?" she asks, to be polite. Most vodkas taste the same to her, and of course she couldn't tell from looking as she could with a good wine.

Her Ancestor chuckles and tosses the shot back in one smooth gulp, slamming the glass down with enough force that it shatters. The bartender sweeps the pieces away and sets a new glass in its place. "Birthday cake vodka," the Condesce says with relish, drumming her claws on the counter. "Humans are mothaglubbin' geniuses. Tell yah what, I'll get you a liter or five for yo wrigglin' day."

"That would be very generous of you." Feferi takes a seat at last, making sure there's two spaces between her and her Ancestor. No need to tempt fate. The bartender slides her a glass of what smells like water to her discerning nose, but she merely holds the glass and doesn't drink anything. It's really just safer.

The Condesce fingers one of her hornrings absently, spinning the bangle with a twist of her wrist while she tosses back another shot of vodka. "No needta be so formal," she drawls. "I am so down with your bling, btw - work that thigh holster, girlfrond."

Feferi's ear fins flare, and she clamps down on the glass of water, fighting the instinct to reach down and rearrange the folds of her skirt. She feigns ignorance while shifting in her seat, trying to determine how the Condesce could possibly have noticed the concealed 2x3dentkind. "I'm sorry?"

Tethys drums her claws on the bar, her smile diminishing. "Two of the top tier in the same glubbin' room? You'd hafta be clambaked not to come armed. #nbd."

The water is suddenly much more tempting. Feferi swallows, her mouth dry, but when she starts to reply a musical jingle breaks out from the beer pong table. The Condesce rockets to her feet with terrifying speed and Feferi has a hand to her skirt before she realizes the other troll has bypassed her completely, a rush of hair and glitter as she seizes a phone from the wreckage of crushed solo cups. The jingle gets through 'You and I, we're like diamonds in the sky -' before the Condesce flips it open. "Gotta take this," she calls at Feferi, and then she whirls, muttering something like, "Whaddya want, yah sparky asshoal?" before the music and the noises from the hot tub - with awkward convenience - become too loud for Feferi to make out Tethys's impromptu conversation.

Feferi looks down at the glass of water, makes the executive decision that her poison resistance regimen (and other, more life-related talents) can probably handle whatever the Condesce chose to throw at her this time, and starts sipping. A more cutthroat individual might have made more effort to listen in on her Ancestor's conversation, but Feferi is trying not to be that kind of person. She's the nice, sweet, bubbly Heiress, and she has no intention of starting anything.

Especially not in the heart of the Condesce's lair. That would be lunasea!

The water tastes like water, and her eyes don't start bleeding immediately, but Feferi lets a tendril of power filter through her lips and clear all foreign materials from the water anyway. The music swaps over to something distinctly Ke$ha. After another song, the Condesce snaps something and closes her phone, setting it down on the table with a clack before sashaying back to the bar. "Urgh. That boi."

"Trouble?" Feferi asks, trying for polite but coming out snarky, her lips pouting against her will. Whoops.

"Just a mothafucker whose pale game too strong," the Condesce wrinkling her nose and snatching another shot from the bartender. "He's gonna catch hull from me if he don't watch himself."

Feferi coughs into her water as her eyebrows shoot up. Her Imperious Condescension has had numerous well-publicized flushed and black flings, of course; the kismefishes in particular never lasted long, but she also tended to vacillate violently and without warning in the red quadrant. Napoleon may have been the Condesce's equal in height and in power madness, but he'd also been so in over his head, it hadn't even been funny to read about years later. 

But...pale game? Could it possibly be that someone out there is mad enough - and saintly enough - to try and morayeel this hot mess of a world leader? "...That must be amazing pale game," Feferi agrees, feeling faint with awe.

"You have no glubbin' idea," the fuchsiablood sighs. "Just. Look. Let's geddown to business. I know about the Glub-bitch."

Feferi chokes, and the water goes down the wrong pipe. Her gills leak a little and she presses her arms tight to her sides in embarrassed horror. "I don't know what you're talking about, mia ava," she says, setting the glass down with a faint tremor in her claws.

How could she know about Glubby?

"Don't play wit' me, Feffy," the Condesce snaps. She's still not glaring, though, just lounging back and staring at Feferi with a keen eye. "Course I know. Fish dyin' in the deep and aquatic lusii hauling tail outta the reservations along the coast? Moment I heard you were up and dumping yo paleboy to come here, I knew."

Feferi folds her hands in her lap and stares at them, feeling irritated and unsettled. She knows the Condesce has kept an eye on her; Feferi has tried to do the same in turn, but she's not willing to manipulate people into spying for her with the kind of reckless lack of care for free will that her counterpart is. But that Tethys would already know about Gl'bgolyb's presence - worse, that she could so carelessly throw down that tidbit about Eridan - is disconcerting. "I fail to see," she says primly, "how it's any business of yours. I understand that depriving a potential rival of a lusus during her childhood would be in your best interests, but my current dealings with Gl'bgolyb have nothing to do with you."

"That what she toldyah?" The other troll shakes her head. "Listena me, girlie. You don't wanna mess wit' any of that. Word of advice, from one bad beach to anther - Glubs is bad news." The Condesce reaches over the counter and pours herself something dark from an unlabeled glass bottle, while the bartender flings himself back against the far wall out of self-defense. She sips it far more slowly than she did the vodka. "You think she's got your best interests at heart? She ain't yo frond, Fef. Glub'll chew you up and spit you out. #tentabitch."

"Perdonami if I don't necessarily believe you would have my best interests at heart, either." Feferi sucks down the last of the water, feeling a headache rise up behind her eyes. It must be the hullabeluga the music is making.

"Believe whatever you want," the Condesce replies. She stands and leans close to Feferi, her breath cool and tangy with whiskey as she pecks Feferi's cheek. "And I believe that trusting that monster was the biggest mistake I ever made." Her voice is strangely flat, and it takes Feferi a heart-pounding moment to realize that Tethys has dropped the quirk. She thinks she might vibrate out of her seat with the tension. "Don't let her get in your head, kid. They mess with you. Make you craysea."

Feferi very carefully lays one claw on the Condesce's shoulder to push her away, and lays another on her own lap. "I can take care of myself," she hisses.

The music cuts off. The hot tub has been turned off, and when Feferi glances in that direction she sees that whatever near-orgy the three trolls had going has ended in favor of the three swiveling to stare at Feferi, all with flat, murderous expressions. There is a quiet clink, and she becomes very aware that in order to confront Tethys, she has turned her back on the bartender.

But she keeps her eyes on the Condesce. No one else in this room is a threat, not really. Her Ancestor stares at her with eyes that have been fully dyed with her blood color, even the yellow sclera stained with red-violet from burst capillaries, and the weight of that gaze makes Feferi feel like she's drowning for the first time in her life.

"Ask her about the Ukraine, and then tell me you can handle this," is all the Condesce says. She reaches out and draws a claw along the sharp line of Feferi's chin. Her pulse jumps, but the Condesce does no more than smile crookedly and sink back into her own seat. When Feferi touches her jaw with the pad of her claw, it comes away with a single drop of blood, barely a pinprick. The Condesce frowns and glares at the speakers. "Oi, who turned off my tunas?!"

The bartender reaches under the counter and the music blares once more. Tethys bobs her head to the beat, turning away from Feferi with a wave of her claw. "Good visit, boo. Nice and productive. Now piss off 'afore I need to call that asshoal again to keep dealin' wit' yo shit. Pour some sugar on me."

That's her cue to go, and Feferi is so terrified she almost misses it. She sits frozen for a long second, and then stiffly rises to her feet, brushing off her skirt. It does nothing to hide the damp water spots under her gills, but she kisses the cheek that is presented to her, as good manners dictate. 'You want me down on Earth, but I am up in space,' the speakers wail, and the Condesce flicks Feferi on the horn before shoving her away toward the door. Feferi walks backward all the way, unwilling to turn her back on the troll. "Thank you for having me," she says, bowing her head politely. But the Condesce is lost in another shot glass, and Feferi wants to leave the patio before anything else can go wrong.

The red-frocked servant is still waiting outside the frosted doors. But she ignores Feferi's no doubt mussed up, haggard appearance, and steps into the patio to call over the speakers, "The lord E%ībimus has arrived for your ten o'clock, my Condescension."

The Condesce lets out a wolf-whistle, shucking her cover up and folding her legs into the hot tub again. "What, that old coot? He hasn't kicked it yet? A'ight, let him in. Been wonderin' what he was up to." The three trolls surround her again, and Feferi averts her eyes before she sees something she reelly doesn't need to. She hurries along before the servant and out to her car. She passes an absolutely mammoth adult troll in the entrance hall on her way out, cloaked and hooded so that she can't make out his hemotype, but he doesn't even glance up from his feet as she strides by. She doesn't let herself rest until she has reached the car and flung herself into the backseat.

Her vascular system doesn't calm down until they have put ten miles between them and the Condescension.

Oh, she can already tell staying in DC is going to be a whole new tin of sardines.

-

Feferi dreams -

It's last summer. She knows because when she looks down at the longboard beneath her feet, she catches the eggshell white of her halter top and pale blue of her favorite board shorts, a favored outfit that she wore often enough that year that the tabloids accused her of losing her sense of style. The longboard rattling along on sand-jammed wheels is plain and serviceable, but the surf board hooked under her arm is patterned with bright neon polka dots.

She leans her weight to the right and bends her knees, jumping lightly off her board and kicking it so she stops right before the hot concrete transitions into sand. Eridan, like an afterthought in the corner of her eye, rolls to a halt on his moped - he never got the hang of skateboarding, not even after they spent the spring dedicated to mastering it, which infuriated him to no end and caused him to declare the whole exercise pointless. Feferi whoops and leaves him behind so she can race across the hot sand, toeing off her sandals when she reaches the water line and leaving her longboard in the pile as she flings herself into the mare.

She lets go of the surf board to duck beneath the cool waves, taking a deep breath to feel the sweet, clear rush of water filtering through her aquatic vascular system. The bubbles that froth up around her gills tickle, and she paddles through the sea with her hair streaming out behind her.

Eridan is still up on the spiaggia when she resurfaces. Feferi laughs, treading water, light-headed and giddy with the contrast between the bright sun and the crisp scent of brine. "Water you waiting for? Hurry up, Eridan!"

"Don't glubbin' rush me!" he yells back; he shuffles forward and dips his toe into the water with his nostrils flaring. Feferi rolls her eyes hard, gathers a mouthful of seawater, and spits it with great effect in his direction. The arc catches him across the cheek and up in a line through his hair, and he yelps, cussing her out as she giggles and paddles in a backstroke to reach her surf board. She swings a leg over the deck and straddles it, wringing her hair out and tying it back in a sloppy ponytail while Eridan inches his way into the surf. He flops down on his board and paddles out like a clumsy puppy rather than the coldblood he is, but Feferi doesn't comment. Eridan's weird inability to really swim is one of those things she doesn't mention because it sets him off. He's even wearing some weird human style surf shirt that covers up his gills, which is soooo dumb!

But in that way dreams have, Feferi loses track of Eridan in the haze of motion and light. She paddles along on the board until she can drop into the curl of the next wave, popping up on her feet with unnatural ease and riding the wave out perfectly. She gets lost for a few seconds, zoned out on the details of a neon pink spot on the board with the kind of intensity born of dreams. She traces the pixelated edge of the pattern with a claw, and when she looks up Eridan is gone.

"Eridan, you doofish, where'd you go?" she calls. He doesn't answer, not even a spluttering yelp. She frowns and paddles out of the main line of waves, standing up on her board to look around at the greying sea. The light seems to be sucked downward beneath the waves, so that the clouds overhead are monotonous and heavy like a dim night. She cups her hands around her mouth and shouts again. "Eeeeeeridan! This isn't funny, you mackeral! We need to head back soon!"

This isn't what happened. Nothing like this ever happened last summer. But even as she thinks that, a quiet whisper in the back of her mind, Feferi can't fight the sinking sensation of foreboding that lodges itself in her gut. Dream-her is tidally convinced that something is wrong. Her board nudges against something heavy, and she looks down to see Eridan's deep violet surf board butting up against hers like a buoy. The leash, the one part of the surf board Feferi has never bothered with (because she's a proper seadweller, duh) drifts out to one side, the Velcro strap ripped open.

There is no sign of Eridan, and Feferi casts a wild glance back at the beach. But no one is on the dull grey sand, and Eridan's moped is still tied up against the fence where he left it. More tellingly, his ridiculous cape is still slung over the seat, the one thing Eridan would never go anywhere without.

Feferi's stomach drops out from under her, because Eridan can't swim worth a carp, and if he's not on his board -

"Eridan!" she yells, her voice cracking. She dives into the water and kicks with all her strength. She shoots down like a stone. All the brilliant blue-green clarity of the water is gone, and the light that filters through the clouds above is barely enough even for Feferi's deep-sea adapted eyes to work with. She swims down in a spiral, eyes squinting behind her goggles as she searches desperately for anything purple against the dark water. He can't drown, he can't drown, she chants to herself, trying to stop panicking like a dumbass prawn. Even Eridan wouldn't be stupid enough to leave that shirt on if he ended up sinking; he'll have taken it off and he'll be breathing through his gills, waiting for her to tow him back up to the surface like a sulky little wriggler. Then they can both laugh it off over shaved ice, and it'll be like this never happened.

So why does it feel like the ocean beneath her has opened up? It seems like she's been swimming down forever. She knows every inch of this coastline, has memorized the deepest nooks and crannies where the octopi and crabs cluster, and it's never been this deep before. She's swimming into a pit of water so dark blue it might as well be black. The thought that she's been surfing carefree and oblivious above this impossible trench unsettles her stomach.

How far could Eridan have sunk? Surely she noticed his absence soon enough that she'd have met him by now. Maybe she swam by him in the dying light?

And where is all the sea life? She's alone, and the water feels cold, sinking into her gills like shafts of ice. She's never really felt cold in the water before.

"Eridan?" she glubs. "Eridan?"

She stops swimming down and rights herself, her hair floating up above her head as she treads water, maintaining her depth and looking around. Her goggles suction to her eyes with the pressure, and when she kicks her legs they dip into a level of water so cold she yanks them back up into a tuck, shuddering. Bubbles from her gills crawl up along the exposed skin of her back, and for half a moment she is convinced something touched her.

"Eridan?" she whispers, and the bubble of his name drifts up into the dark water above.

...Is that up? She's so disoriented, she's no longer sure.

It's so quiet.

"Fef?"

"Eridan!" Feferi whirls around, glubbing with relief as she kicks herself around in a circle. "Eridan, you scared the carp out of me -"

Eridan floats behind her, his shirt yanked up and his legs moving in slow kicks as he sinks a little more into the dark. She can barely make out his outline in this crappy lighting, but she shoots toward him eagerly, ignoring the new temperature dip as she reaches out to grab his outstretched claw.

Something enormous and white wraps around Eridan's waist. He looks down, and then up at her, eyes wide. "Fef -"

The tentacle yanks him down into the dark. There's a jerk somewhere behind Feferi's stomach, and then he's gone.

-

She wakes up in a cold sweat, the sopor slime sloshing around her as she digs a claw into the interior lining of the recooperacoon, still reaching out for - something. She can't remember what.

Feferi doesn't know why she'd remember surfing with Eridan right now. She's doing her best to put him out of her mind entirely, as Glubby advised, but it's hard to just forget someone you spent years trying to pacify out of the deepest pity in your heart.

Hard, but not impossible.

(F̿͊͒͋eͥ̾̆ͮ̌̈́̏fͬ̿̒̚e̚rḯ̓̅~)

She knuckles at her forehead, grimacing at the new headache. When the pain doesn't subside, Feferi pulls herself up out of the 'coon and wraps herself in a robe. She walks out to the darkened kitchen and opens the refrigerator to pull out a jug of orange juice. Her physician's latest theory is that she's suffering from some form of vitamin C deficiency.

Maybe she'll go visit Glubby. That always makes her feel better.